Friday, September 22, 2006

Bring me the head of ...

First off, profound apologies are due to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer. He is not responsible for the horrendous mucking around and obstruction and sheer bastardy that Zoe Brain has had to endure from the Australian Passport Office. I'm glad I was wrong.

It appears that the main culprit is the Acting Director of the APO, Bob Nash. He is guilty of everything nasty that I suspected Downer of and worse. Some other high ups in the APO might be involved as well but I don't know yet. At most it looks like a few scumbags at the top. The case officer and the counter staff have all done the right thing in difficult circumstances.

Zoe has put up a summary of what has happened on her blog.

Briefly the Australian Passport Office has been looking for ways to prevent Zoe from obtaining an Australian Passport rather than looking for ways around unintended and unanticipated effects of regulations. The regulations were designed to handle more normal cases of transsexuality. Her case is unusual in two major ways.

One is the gender change was not being due to surgery. Although she is on hormone treatment now most of the changes have been spontaneous. This is an extremely rare condition. We can only guess about the cause. It's probably a rare combination of factors.

The other is her marriage surviving this ordeal. Marriage has several functions. Not everyone will place a high importance on all of them and a marriage can still be important and valuable if some of them are absent or handled another way.

One of its traditional functions was to provide a situation in which sexual activity was socially condoned. There have been religious prohibitions on sexual activity other than heterosexual activity within a marriage.

Another function is do act as a public affirmation of commitment by the partners. Another is to act a financial and social partnership.

And of course it is supposed to act as a framework for bringing up children.

One does not necessarily dissolve an existing marriage if the sexual side of it disappears but the other aspects are still functional. Especially if there are children involved.

Zoe and Carmel intend to stay together to raise Andrew. And while the sexual side of their relationship is now no longer functional the rest is. Their marriage still means something to them and they wish to preserve it despite the changes it has been through.

The legal situation is clear. The people contracting a marriage have to be of different genders at the time of the wedding. A subsequent change of gender is irrelevant

But there are people trying to make a point about their opposition to homosexual marriage. To make their point they are freaking out about any same sex marriage even such an unusual one as this. This appears to be what is behind the actions of the APO. We had the Acting Director of the APO saying “Under the Marriage Act, we can't have married people changing their gender”. What business is it of his? How dare he try to break up a marriage? His job is to administer the Passports Act. Not to use his office to enforce his idea of what marriage should be. He is supposed to help people get passports not look for ways to stop them from obtaining passports.

The APO have deliberately violated the intent of the Law and ended up violating its letter as well. They have asked for irrelevant and intrusive documentation on the pretext of proof of identity. When asked to give reasons for their action they missed the legally required deadline. Their reply was evasive and did not answer the questions. In short they have shown a complete lack of good faith.

Fortunately Zoe was able to work around them. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs was much more helpful. They were appalled by the APO's treatment of Zoe. They did the unusual step of issuing a visa on Zoe's UK Passport. In other words they exploited rarely used technicalities to help an Australian citizen.

Zoe should never have been put through this ordeal. The Head of the APO at least has shown his complete unfitness for his office. They must be prevented from doing this to anyone else. Their next victim might not survive.

I have written the following letter to the Foreign Minister.

The Hon Alexander MP
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
Parliament House

Mr. Lloyd Kilworth Flack
18th September 2006

Re: Passport application by Zoe Ellen Brain and actions of the Australian Passport Office

Dear Mr Downer,

I am writing to complain about the reprehensible treatment of a friend of mine by certain staff members of the Australian Passport Office. Some staff members including the Acting Director Bob Nash are trying to make it difficult or impossible for her to obtain a usable Australian Passport.

They appear to be doing so because of bigotry against transsexuals. They have intentionally violated the spirit of the Law. In their presumption and arrogance they have carelessly ran the risk of violating the letter of the Law and have ended up doing so.

Alan Brain has been a friend for over thirty years. About sixteen months ago I heard from him that he was undergoing a spontaneous sex change. We can still only speculate about the cause. Whatever it was it is extremely rare. This aggravated a repressed sexual dysphoria. I knew Alan very well for a long time. If he claimed that there was a mismatch between the gender of his brain and that of his body then I have no doubt that the claim was correct. He was not the type of person that would imagine such a thing.

Alan is now Zoe and much more comfortable as a woman than she ever was as a man. From what I now know it is obvious that there always was a degree of intersex. She is now living as a woman and recognized as such by Medicare. Her Citizenship Certificate has been changed to reflect the reality of her current gender. She is now receiving hormone treatments to regularize her status and will require gender affirmation surgery for this purpose and to minimize the risk of cancer. Her appearance now is female and she would have difficulty passing as a male.

Her marriage has survived these events and she and her partner Carmel are determined to stay together to bring up their son Andrew now five years old.

To have this surgery she will have to travel overseas as the required surgery for her particular case is not available in Australia. She will also have to travel overseas for conferences related to the PhD that she is currently working towards. To do so she requires and is entitled to a usable Australian passport. That would be either a female passport or one with an indeterminate gender. Since a male passport would be at variance with her appearance it would be embarrassing, inconvenient and in some circumstances actually dangerous.

As an Australian citizen she is entitled to an Australian passport if the required forms are filled in, fees paid and proof of identity and citizenship given. There are exceptions related to crimes and security and so on but they do not apply in this case. As someone who has undergone a gender change other than as a result of an operation and whose marriage has survived this harrowing ordeal she does not fit into the normal categories that the regulations are based around.

In a case such as hers the Australian Passport Office should be seeking ways they can give her a passport without breaking the regulations rather than seeking reasons to deny her a passport. If they could not do so they should have referred the case to you so you could make a Ministerial Determination to cover these exceptional circumstances.

They have not done so. They have been deliberately obstructive.

Much more proof of identity and citizenship was given than your website asks for. There cannot be an reasonable actual doubt about her citizenship and identity. They have asked for things such as proof of surgery when the sex change was a result of a medical condition rather than surgery. They have sought private and superfluous medical information. This a gratuitous invasion of privacy.

The rejection was made by Policy Section and was done so immediately and continued despite all additional information that they were given. They claimed that she had not provided sufficient documentation to prove her identity and citizenship. This claim is preposterous since far more documentary evidence than is usually asked for was given.

A demand was made for the reasons for the decision. The Department was given 28 days to reply in writing as was required by law. They did not do so within the required time. The reply did not answer the questions asked and could only be regarded as an evasion. The excuse for the delay was the absence of necessary personnel. The deadline given made plenty of allowance for this possibility. When I consider the rest of the APO's actions the only conclusion that I can come to is that they deliberately tried to reply as close to the deadline as possible and unanticipated absences then led to them missing the deadline. In other words they deliberately violated the spirit of the Law and as a result violated its letter as well.

The Acting Director of the APO Bob Nash has claimed that in order to gain a female passport Zoe would have to divorce Carmel. According to written advice from the Attorney General, the Hon Phillip Ruddock a change of gender does not invalidate an existing marriage, that only the genders at the time of the marriage are relevant. Mr. Nash has ignored this advice, which was in his possession. Asking someone to divorce because it is administratively easier or because it fits in with one's ideology is an obscene and insolent act. It is gross abuse of power.

I do not know which other APO staff are behind this fiasco. It appears to be only a few individuals high up in the department. The case officer involved and the counter staff acted with courtesy, propriety, decency and efficiency in a difficult situation.

Mr. Downer I request that you promptly make a Ministerial Determination overriding Mr. Nash's decision and grant Zoe the Passport to which she is entitled as an Australian citizen. I request that an apology be issued and reasonable compensation for inconvenience and suffering be paid. I request that procedures be modified to reduce the risk of something like this happening in future. At present the Australian Passport Determination 2005 Explanatory Notes allow the APO to treat transsexuals as if they were criminals.

Further I request that Bob Nash be removed from his office and placed somewhere where he can do no further harm. And that the same be done to anyone else involved in deliberately making things difficult for Zoe. Usually I find stuff-ups more believable than malice. In this case only malice fits. (Rather like the Lebanese ambulance case. Normally I would prefer collateral damage as an explanation, but only a hoax fits.) Anyone with with an adequate supply of common decency would have tried to help, to find a way to give Zoe her passport. The opposite happened. Their job is to serve the Australian public, not to use their office to pursue private agendas and prejudices.

If they claim that they believed that what they were doing was right I will only be angered more. Self-righteousness is one of my pet hates. By self-righteousness I mean trying to feel or appear virtuous and avoiding looking at the cost to others of doing so. It adds insult to injury. In this case it appears to have a solid foundation of moral cowardice.

This is not a case of political correctness. This is a case of Right Wing Death Beasts seeking retribution for a wrong against one of their own. Deliver the heads on pikes or on platters, doesn't matter.

Yours Sincerely,
Lloyd Kilworth Flack MStats BSc

I urge others to write letters of complaint to the Minister. I want the culprits put where they can do no further harm. In a couple of places I suggested that they be sent to count parasites on penguins in Antarctica. If he receives enough complaints he might look at this seriously.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

We still have a problem

Last year I posted an essay on Global warming. Since then I've been finding out more about the subject. Nothing that I have seen gives me any reason to change my belief that the problem is real.

In my earlier post I covered the evidence that human activity has led to increases in CO2 and the evidence that Global temperatures are increasing. I did not cover in detail the reasons for believing that the current temperature increases are caused by increases in CO2.

There are three main lines of argument.

The first is the claim that the pattern in space and time of the temperature changes is the one which would be expected from greenhouse gas forcing rather than from solar forcing.

The second is the claim that models taking into account human activity are consistent with the observations. Models which do not take into account human generated greenhouse gases and aerosols are not consistent with the observations.

The third is the claim that the current warming is unprecedented in the past few hundred years and probably in the past thousand years. That is the current changes are too great to be entirely due to the natural variability of the climate system.

I do not regard these arguments as equally strong. The first argument is quite strong, strong enough to carry the case by itself. The third is to my mind only supporting evidence and not conclusive by itself. The second is in between. I regard it as fairly strong but can understand how others might find it less convincing.

Solar variability is often proposed as an alternative explanation for Global warming. Solar forcing would act through an increased energy input and greenhouse forcing would act by reducing energy re-radiation. One would expect the patterns of temperature changes to be different for solar and greenhouse forcing.

The observed pattern for current warming matches that for greenhouse gas forcing not the one for solar forcing. Temperatures have risen more at night than during the day. They have risen more in Winter than in Summer. They have risen more in Polar regions than in the Tropics. The Stratosphere has cooled while the Troposphere, the surface and the oceans have warmed. These are all what would be expected from greenhouse gas forcing, not from solar forcing. I would say that the fingerprint of temperature changes is sufficient reason to believe that greenhouse gas forcing is the cause of Global warming.

It has taken a long time to create models of the climate that reproduce the temperature changes over the past century reasonably well. Models that successfully do this are all sensitive to greenhouse gas forcing and human generated aerosols. They also have to take into account solar variation an volcanic activity. These models attribute about half of the temperature increase in the first half of the Twentieth Century to solar variation and the rest to greenhouse gases. They attribute the temperature increase in the second half of the Twentieth Century to greenhouse gases. There isn't any current increase in solar output.

The General Circulation Models used to model climate are very complicated and it would require more time and resources than I have available to check them properly. However they are capable of making predictions. They correctly predicted temperature trends in the Troposphere. Measurements that disagreed with the predicted trends were found to be biased. When the biases were corrected the data was consistent with the predicted trends.

Models like these are an area where one just has to trust the expertise and integrity of the people doing the modeling at least as far as the details of implementation go. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a feel for the details. The basic concepts behind the models are more accessible. The models that can be created are constrained by the laws of physics. The models are available for criticism. People who think they are basically flawed can create their own. Yes it requires a lot of time and effort and resources. The thing is the General Circulation Models are the creation of scientists who have put the effort into trying to understand climate in detail. I trust them before I trust people doing hand waving and skipping over the details – which means most greenhouse skeptics. (Sorry but too many greenhouse skeptics are just looking for reasons to disbelieve Global warming rather than seeking the truth. This irritates me.) I do understand the dangers of a small group thinking the same way but I think the self-correcting aspect of science is working in this case.

There is a danger of the modeling assumptions being chosen to make model work out even when it is invalid and hence useless as a predictor. However the models used appear to be relatively insensitive to physically plausible starting assumptions. They can be checked out to some extent against palaeoclimatology data. In particular the Last Glacial Maximum has been used to put limits on the sensitivity of climate to CO2 changes. This produces results that are in rough agreement with the models. These are that a doubling of CO2 should bring an increase of average temperature of 2.9 ° C with a 95% confidence interval of 1.5 to 4.5 ° C. I need to look into how they get their confidence interval before I can comment on it. However the palaeoclimate data does seem to rule out very low (<1°>6° C) sensitivities.

Several different kinds of data were combined to give reconstructions of temperatures over the past several centuries. There was a reconstruction of the past 400 years showing a rapid increase over the past 100 years after about 300 years of relatively little variation in temperature. There was also a reconstruction over about 1000 years again showing the past 100 years as being a quite different pattern from the rest. This is the infamous hockey stick graph so called because the rapid 20th Century temperature rise looks like the blade of a hockey stick.

There have been criticisms of some of the statistical methods used to create this graph. It has been claimed that a particular statistical technique Principal Components Analysis was misapplied. It was further claimed that this misapplication could lead to the creation of a hockey stick form even when there was only random variation. Defenders of the reconstruction claimed that even if the PCA was performed in the way that critics suggested the results were only marginally different and that the critics had made an error of their own in extracting too few principal components. I've looked at the methods used and the PCA was definitely performed incorrectly and there was a risk of creating a spurious pattern. However they extracted enough principal components to minimize the effects of their mistake. The critics probably did extract too few principal components. Thus I can see how the mistake in the analysis might not have greatly affected the conclusions. Later analyses using different methods also show anomalous 20th Century warming. Here I think that the pattern extracted is probably real but some of the methods are less rigorous than they should have been.

The real problem has been that none of the hockey stick's originators said that they made a mistake. They at least publicly say that it was a valid choice. It wasn't. This is almost certainly ego speaking. You had applied mathematicians, physicists and other scientists doing their own statistics and making mistakes. They misapplied some methods and were unaware of newer statistical techniques. And they still think they can get away with doing palaeoclimate analysis without one of us helping. (One of us meaning statisticians.) Skill in creating deterministic models does not necessarily help when randomness comes in as it does with palaeoclimate data. But all this is beside the point. The hockey stick was never proof that that that human activity had caused something unprecedented. It was only evidence that something different from the previous pattern had happened in the 20th Century. That something could have been previously undisplayed natural variation. And without a better time series analysis they couldn't even be certain that the blade of the hockey stick did represent something new.

The greenhouse skeptics don't realize that the onus of proof is on them. Increases in CO2 should lead to Global warming unless some feedback mechanism stops or reduces it. We know this from Physics and the properties of CO2 . The main feedbacks should be changes in water vapor and in cloud cover. Increasing temperature should lead to increases in water vapor which would amplify the greenhouse effect. The biggest uncertainties in current models concern changes in cloud cover. This could be either a positive or a negative feedback. The skeptics need to come up with and demonstrate the existence of a negative feedback nearly as strong as the greenhouse gas forcing mechanisms. This has not happened.

I think the evidence for anthropogenic Global warming is strong enough to prove it beyond reasonable doubt. Some of the evidence has not been publicized enough. In particular the CO2 concentrations and carbon isotope ratios from ice cores are not well enough known. These conclusively prove that human activity has led to large increases in CO2 concentration. The temperature trend data is well known. The reasons for attributing Global warming to greenhouse gas increases are not well enough known in particular the fingerprint of the greenhouse forcing is not well enough known. This is easy to understand and very strong evidence.

Some greenhouse skeptics simply don't want to believe in anthropogenic Global warming either because they don't like the changes they would have to make or because they are hostile to environmentalists. I can understand these viewpoints but this sort of skepticism is simply wishful thinking. They end up arguing dishonestly, clutching at straws and cherry-picking evidence. And some skeptics have been misled by myths spread by the first group. For example the claim of Global warming on Mars. (There isn't. It's only a local effect and not driven by solar forcing.) Or the claim that a major volcanic eruption produces more CO2 than years of human activity. (It doesn't. Total human CO2 output dwarfs that of volcanoes.)

And people who are concerned about greenhouse warming should not come across as feeling morally superior. If you do people are likely not to listen.

We are in a mess and have to do something about it. And the people trying to resist this conclusion should realize that they are letting their opponents set the agenda. If this happens the measures taken will be worse than they need to have been.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bastardy pure and simple

Nearly a year ago I put up a post about the spontaneous sex change that a close friend Zoe Brain was undergoing. Since then she has become much more comfortable with the changes that are happening. She feels much more comfortable as a woman than she ever did as a man. Her appearance has changed. A lot!

Some oddities now make more sense. There is still a lot of medical stuff that doesn't so far.

There has been a lot of support from friends. Most people who know about the situation have in one way or another tried to make things easier for her.

But there have been exceptions.

She will be needing gender reassignment surgery. The operation will be done in Thailand because that is where the best surgeon for her case is.

She is now doing a PhD at ANU. She will need to travel overseas during this.

To do this she needs a new Australian passport showing her current gender. Someone at the Australian Passport Office or more likely above them is being difficult. Her application for a new passport has been knocked back.

They claim she has provided insufficient proof of identity. She has supplied them with all the documentation that their website asks for and more. Before they will issue a passport with a sex different from that on the birth certificate they want want letters from medical practitioners detailing examinations including results of surgery. (Which of course hasn't happened yet.) Simply she doesn't fit into the usual categories and so she is being denied a passport.

It looks as if the culprit is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. The appeal was rejected by “Policy” very quickly. He has changed the policies in ways which make it harder for transsexuals and the intersexed to get passports.

Why? He is rather socially conservative and presumably the idea of transsexuality and intersex makes him uncomfortable. The discomfort is not an evil. What he does because of it is. Presumably he looks down on such things and does not regard transsexuals and the intersexed as persons deserving any respect or support.

He has betrayed his office. His job is to look after the interests of all Australians traveling abroad. The discrimination against Zoe is oppression. As an Australian citizen she is entitled to a passport unless there are very substantial reasons to deny her one. None exist.

He obviously thinks he is right. So does any bigot! It is no excuse. Why he believes he is right is probably moral cowardice, intellectual laziness and lack of empathy for people like Zoe. He is making no effort to put himself in the position of people who don't fit into his neat categories. Like many social conservatives he is seeing choice where there is none.

He definitely deserves a good kicking. If what Zoe is trying to do doesn't work out I think bloggers should put on bother boots and join to deliver said kicking. (Don't do it yet. We're not certain he is guilty and even if he is he should be given the opportunity to change his mind without loosing face too much. The aim is for Zoe to get her passport, not for us to vent our anger.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


For a classic piece of underestimation of a likely enemy here is an article from a US aviation magazine in early 1941. More than a little bit of wishful thinking here.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Terminology update

An update to my previous posts on political categories.

There is a term which describes utopian authoritarianism in Western societies. It is populism. I think fascism, extreme nationalism and law and order extremism could all be described as populist movements. Non Western utopian authoritarian movements such as Islamism and Confucianism while they have some similarities (especially Islamism) could not be described as populist.

Monday, May 15, 2006

On the nature of fear and courage

Fear is an emotion that tends to override all other others and to control our actions. Not surprising, its function is to protect our safety, our very existence. Those among our potential ancestors who did not react strongly to fear tended not to leave descendants.

But evolution is a short sighted mechanism and what has evolved in one environment can be quite dysfunctional in another. And it does not take account of an organism's needs other than leaving descendants of itself or its kin. It cares nothing about happiness or morality.

We evolved as tribal hunter-gatherers and this has had much more influence on our psychological nature than the comparatively short period since the start of agriculture and then civilization. And before that our ancestors were simply animals. Some aspects of our nature that evolved in the palaeolithic and earlier are dangers or hindrances now. Many of the dangers that we face are different and the best responses are different but parts of our brains don't know that.

Fear causes one or other of three reactions – flee, freeze or fight. The trouble is it can be so overwhelming that it can prevent us planning and hence we make an inappropriately simple response that can actually increase the danger. Panic, acting at random might be a good strategy sometimes for an animal. For an entity with a human beings reasoning powers it is a poor strategy which throws away its greatest strength. An example would be fleeing in a straight line when someone is shooting at you or fleeing at all when fighting is the better response. For dangers that we are actually likely to face freezing (“Please don't notice me Mr. Predator.”) almost always makes things worse.

Fear can also be out of proportion to the actual danger. Phobias are habitual disproportionate fear responses to certain stimuli. Again in these cases the response to fear can and usually does make a situation worse.

And of course we can face situations where danger should be accepted and we should act despite it. As the complexity of a society increases then the variety of possible goals for its members increases. Some of these goals will have dangers attached. Sometimes we know that accomplishing a goal is worth the risk involved but fear overrides our better judgment.

But fear is still necessary. Without it we are far too likely to do something that is tempting but stupidly dangerous. The consequences of this can be seen in adolescent risk-taking. This appears to be more due to faulty risk assessment than to any difference in fear reaction between adolescents and older or younger people. But it still makes the point of where we would be without fear.

Courage could be described as the ability to act when one might expect fear to interfere with the ability to act. It could be because one is not afraid when others might be or it could be because the fear is felt but overridden. Some might only describe overriding fear as courage and call not feeling inappropriate fears presence of mind or something else.

I can think of four kinds of courage according to the type of threat that one is facing. Three are physical, moral and intellectual courage. The fouth there is no phrase for.

Physical courage is the ability to act despite the risk of pain or injury or death.

Moral courage is the ability to act according to one's conscience despite the risk of disapproval from those whose approval one wants or the fear of bearing the moral responsibility for an action.

Intellectual courage is the ability to accept unpleasant truths and to act on them. It is the courage to admit that you might be wrong.

I can't think of any phrase that encapsulates the ability to deal with personal and social anxieties.

Physical courage is called on most when one is trying to protect others. Sometimes it is called on when one is carrying out a personal goal that one has set oneself.

It requires defeating what are probably the most intense fears (not necessarily the same thing as the worst fears). It often required in emergencies with little or no time to mentally prepare oneself. Fortunately in the nature of emergencies it is often only required for a brief period.

I can think of two methods by which in emergencies people can sideline physical fear which are not available for dealing with other longer term fears. The first is to transform the fear into thrill or excitement (or perhaps more accurately to have these feelings in conjunction with the fear). This can allow one to plan and act effectively. The drawback is that it can lead to seeking out danger and taking unnecessary risks. The other is to enter what is best described as a hyper-rational state. The fear seems to be happening to someone else, time seems to slow down and one's mind at least feels very clear. This is probably the most effective method for handling short-term intense physical fear. And no one wants to repeat it. It is not a pleasant feeling.

There is no good way of dealing with long-term physical fear. One can suppress the fear for a while but eventually it gets to people. The result is things like battle fatigue and the behavior of some victims of abusive relationships. We did not evolve subject to such long-term intense dangers. No one in a hunter-gatherer culture is subjected to anything as harrowing as combat lasting months or oppression lasting a lifetime.

Physical courage can be the result of moral or intellectual cowardice. One can be more afraid of others disapproval or of uncertainty than of dieing. Someone who takes a stupid risk on a dare is displaying moral cowardice. A suicide bomber is likely to be either acting under pressure from others or from fanaticism. The first is likely to be an example of moral cowardice and the second is certainly an example of intellectual cowardice.

In societies or groups that encourage violence or risk-taking showing fear can be the result of intense disapproval. When a culture places a very high value on courage (at least in men) it tends to try to turn danger into excitement. They encourage compulsive risk taking. Such cultures tend to try to make physical courage part of the definition of masculinity. But this social pressure works by undermining moral courage especially in men.

Moral courage is the courage to act according to one's own conscience rather than the judgment of others. If can mean words or deeds that tell others that they are wrong. It can mean incurring the disapproval of those whose approval matters to oneself. It can mean accepting that one does not have any good options and the right thing may leave a bad taste in the mouth. It may mean accepting responsibility for a judgment call rather than acting according to a set of rules.

It is not taking a rebel pose. Those taking such poses are offending only those whose approval they don't care about. They are usually seeking to impress an in-group of like-minded people.

Moral courage can come from intellectual cowardice. A zealot can have moral courage. They don't have intellectual courage.

Duty can be a mask for moral cowardice. Especially duty to the law or duty in war. Seeking a wickedly excessive sentence because the law demands it or it is what is usually done by prosecutors is often an act of moral cowardice. Currently this is especially common for drug offenses in South-East Asia or in the United States. Moral cowardice is involved in many, perhaps most atrocities in wartime. One's comrades are involved and one is unwilling to let them down or there are orders and one does not question orders.

Intellectual courage is the ability to resist the temptation to believe what one wants to believe if the evidence and reason say otherwise. It includes the willingness to admit to oneself that one might have been wrong. And it includes the willingness to admit to oneself that one doesn't know the answer, that uncertainty and doubt might be appropriate.

Fanatics and zealots all have the combination of intellectual cowardice and obsession. Almost by definition.

But intellectual cowardice does not have to lead to fanaticism. It can simply lead to prejudice. To refusing to admit that homosexuality is not a choice. To refusing to admit that transsexuality is real or that chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome are real. I'm not talking about ignorance. I'm talking about willful blindness about other people stemming from religious or ideological motives.

The difficulty in fighting fear of disapproval and fear of doubt is in recognizing these fears in oneself especially the latter. I think doing one's best to be aware of one's motives is the most important step in fighting these fears.

The same thing applies to dealing with personal and social fears. I'm talking of such things as fear of rejection or failure or any of the anxieties that can plague us. These are the anxieties that disrupt our social life and our private activities. The difficulty here is that often we can't pin down just what we are afraid of.

In summary fear is a necessary emotion that in humans often defeats its own function. When we have the required understanding of consciousness and of genetics it is a prime candidate for some retuning. The freeze reaction needs eliminating or being made voluntary. In general we need to stop fear being able to interfere with our judgment but leave it capable of carrying out its danger avoidance function. Dealing with personal and social anxieties is one reason that our powers of introspection need to be upgraded. I don't see us doing this for at least a hundred years, more likely a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty. A few fundamental breakthroughs required and the timing of these is always unpredictable.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Of mice, apes and fetuses

OK, this is my take on consciousness, life, animals, abortions and euthanasia.

One issue is what is it that we mean when we talk about human life? Why do we place an especially high value on it? Is what we value human life itself or something associated with it? Are there other life forms that we should value in the same way and to the same degree that we value human life?

The other issue is autonomy. What rights do we have to control our own bodies and our own lives? Can we end them whenever we wish? Do we have the right to control our own bodies to the extent that we can expel another life form no matter what the consequences to that life form?


I'll deal with autonomy in matters of life and death first. The general principle is that one should have control over one's life and one's body. Exceptions have to have strong justifications.

For the sake of arguments concerning autonomy I will concede the pro-life position and regard a fetus as a person. (In fact I disagree with this position.) Bearing a child is still a major intrusion on the mother's autonomy. Usually it is a sought and accepted one. Sometimes it is an unsought and resented one.

Most of us would agree that we have an obligation to preserve a human life unless there are other factors involved. Some would say that we have no such obligation to a stranger. I think this belief is dangerous to a society, undermining the empathy that is at least part of the basis of the parts of morality concerned with relations with others.

Most of us would also agree that there are limits to this obligation. One is not obliged to impoverish oneself, or accept maiming or significant risk to one's life to preserve the life of someone that one feels no bond with other than that of our common humanity.

I think that allowing such an intimate use of one's body as is required by pregnancy is beyond one's obligations to another. There needs to be something else involved to create such an obligation.

In the case of a pregnancy due to rape there is clearly no such extra source of obligation. A pregnancy due to rape is a continuation of the rape. There is no consent that could be used as a basis for any claim of assumed commitments. An abortion in this case is a form of self-defense. The fetus is the means by which the rapist continues his attack. Most people would agree with this position. The closest analogy I can think of is a human shield used by someone who is firing at you. If you kill the human shield in the process of defending yourself you are not morally responsible for the death of the shield – the hostage taker is.

Many claim that consent to sexual intercourse implies consent to any pregnancy that results from it. While this is a defensible position I do not agree with it. It is not obvious enough to use as a basis for any laws. A law should not command an act that a reasonable person could see as immoral. A reasonable person could see preventing a woman from obtaining an abortion as an immoral act and I would see it that way. I might agree with this argument if I saw the fetus as a person but I would not support any laws banning abortion. They have the potential to tear society apart.

The claim of autonomy implies that one has the right to choose the time and manner of the end of one's life. In other words one has the right to commit suicide and the right to ask another to help in carrying out a suicide. One does not have the right to demand such help from others.

However there are complicating factors surrounding suicide. The most important of these is the fact that many, probably most suicide attempts happen when someone is in an abnormal state of mind. The other is the effect that suicide has on other people especially those close to oneself.

Most suicide attempts are made by someone suffering from despair. Usually this is because of of something that can be remedied by help or by time. If they are stopped from killing themselves they will usually eventually be glad that they were stopped. And their suicide usually causes grief to family and friends.

One reason why people commit suicide is mental illness. Another is temporary despair and lack of sense of proportion in adolescents. Another is an exaggerated sense of responsibility – men committing suicide after business failures for example. None of these are good reasons for committing suicide. Allowing someone to kill themselves for such reasons is to make a fetish of autonomy and the idea of rights rather than valuing actual individual people. It is allowing people to die because they made a momentary error, because they were down. They certainly should not be helped to kill themselves the way some euthanasia advocate suggest. Adolescents and the mentally ill do not have the full rights of an adult in their right mind and someone or other has a duty of care towards them. Thus I believe that any argument based on rights for allowing such people to commit suicide fails.

But sometimes there are good reasons to commit suicide. The principal ones are unendurable pain and suffering. Palliative care can do a lot but it has limits. Sometimes the only way to die with dignity and a minimum of suffering is to commit suicide – to believe otherwise is wishful thinking. If one has a right to kill oneself under such circumstances then one has a right to ask others to help with such a suicide. Thus in principle I support euthanasia.

I believe the case for euthanasia is clearest when someone is dying in pain, is in their normal state of mind and asks to be helped to die. They have a right to try to hang on to life as long as it is worthwhile. This can quite reasonably lead to them delaying their suicide until they are no longer able to kill themselves without assistance. They should have this option. They also should have the option of dying peacefully surrounded by their loved ones rather than having to kill themselves alone.

I believe that the case for euthanasia is also clear when illness or injury puts someone in incurable pain and strips them of their dignity and their mind is clear and they want to die.

I believe that people have the right to make living wills asking that they be killed if they enter certain states and can no longer communicate with anyone. For example they might be in a persistent vegetative state or they might be in obvious suffering but because of brain damage are unable to communicate.

There are obvious dangers with euthanasia but so long as it is restricted to cases where the subject has clearly given consent when they were in their right mind I do not think the dangers are overwhelming.

Many of the opponents of euthanasia seem to value the idea of human life more than they value individual human beings. I believe that our values should be the other way around.


Most people do not make clear distinctions between humans and persons and between life and consciousness. A human being is a member of our species. A person is a self-aware conscious entity. Life is a physical autopoetic process. We do not know the physical nature of consciousness but we can identify such manifestations of it as awareness, emotion and self-awareness.

The only known persons are human beings and probably great apes. These are the only entities that we know are self-aware. As far as we know mammals, birds and reptiles have emotions. I am unaware of any strong evidence of emotions in other animals. We do not know how widespread awareness as distinct from reaction to stimuli is among animals.

All known cases of consciousness occur in living beings but consciousness is not life. Life supports consciousness and gives consciousness a means to act.

The trouble is that when people refer to human life they are usually actually referring to human consciousness. Human life can exist when human consciousness does not. For example when someone is in a persistent vegetative state or when the brain has not yet developed enough to support consciousness.

The the particularly high value that we place on the life of a person has to depend on something that a person has but other life forms do not. Some would say that that thing is a soul. But we do not have proof that a soul exists and if it does exist when it becomes associated with the body. If a soul exists it has to be associated with consciousness not with life itself. There is no reason to believe that any unknown processes or entities are involved with life. Human life is no different from the life of any other organism. It is what that life supports that is different.

So I think the idea that the soul enters the body at conception is implausible. It reduces the soul to being merely a marker. If there is no nervous system to support consciousness then that is it doing? A soul might be necessary for consciousness but only in conjunction with a developed nervous system. It certainly is not conscious by itself.

The existence of the soul is a speculation. The existence of consciousness is a fact. Our ethics and laws should as far as possible be based on facts rather than speculations.

The value that we place on human life depends on the ability of human consciousness to act as a moral agent. And this depends on self-awareness. I do not see a human being as a person until consciousness develops. When does this happen? It's difficult to say because our long term memory of events seems to only start a bit before we are three years old. I would say that self-awareness develops some time after birth but I don't know just when. The best test might be when does a baby or a toddler recognize that the reflection in a mirror is themselves or when it starts to speak. I do not believe that it can possibly happen before four months after birth as this is the earliest time that spindle cells appear and they are probably essential for self-awareness. I suspect that it is several months later.

The great apes seem to be self-aware. There is a strong case for treating them as if they were human infants.

The other mammals, birds and reptiles appear to have at least some of the same emotions as human beings. Since they seem capable of joy and suffering this should be taken into account in our dealings with them. This creates an obligation to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. It does not give them rights. I see rights as a social concept. Since they cannot act ethically and do not interact with us as part of our society rights are an inapplicable concept for them. They cannot recognize or respect the rights of others so it is difficult to claim that they have rights. I do not think that they can be said to have rights if there is no way that they can be said to have obligations. We may kill a mouse whenever we wish to. We should not torture it.

There is no such restriction on what we can do with animals which merely have awareness but not emotions. Pain is not the same thing as suffering. We can treat an animal that is capable of feeling pain but not of suffering in the same way we would treat a plant. This means ants, worms and probably fish.

Just being genetically human does not necessarily make it a person. An early stage fetus with no nervous system is certainly not a person. A toddler who can speak certainly is a person. At some stages in between it is an animal that we may kill if necessary but should avoid causing pain and suffering to. At some earlier stages it is an animal which is aware but has no emotions. The problem is where do we draw the lines? We should err on the side of caution. While birth occurs before a baby becomes a person it is the end of the period in which there can be a good reason to kill it. After birth the greatest intrusion on the mother's autonomy has ended and if the infant is not wanted it can be adopted.

Injury or illness can destroy consciousness partially or totally. If it is totally destroyed this is what is described as brain dead. The person is not actually dead but the things that make that life of value are gone. There is no point to keeping the body alive.

If both self-awareness and the ability to feel emotions are gone but the ability to feel sensations is still there then I believe that morally this is a similar case to brain death. Self-awareness and emotions are the morally significant aspects of consciousness. Sensation and awareness by themselves are not. From the accounts that I have read the Terry Schiavo case appears to be an example of this situation.

The really heart-wrenching situation is when self-awareness and recognition of others are gone but emotions are still there. While theoretically one could treat them simply as animals we really can't or shouldn't. We are confronted with the remnants of a person and inevitably we are seeing the person that was there. I'm thinking of late-stage dementia and similar examples. Our normal compassion leads us to protect what is remaining as long as we can.

If there is some damage but self-awareness is still there then of course they still have a right to live. Damage to mental faculties may however reduce a persons rights to those of a child.
Children while self-aware have less awareness of the consequences of their actions than adults and hence less rights and responsibilities.

Great apes appear to have a subset of the human self-awareness and language abilities. Enough perhaps to put them in the same moral category as a toddler or at most a very young infant.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

IEATAPETA day observed

Most days I try to make meat a fairly small part of my diet. Partly this is for health reasons and partly it is because I do not enjoy having large amounts of meat frequently.

But I like doing so occasionally. And the 15th March is an occasion to do so. It is IEATAPETA Day (International Eat A Tasty Animal for PETA Day). On this day one consumes animal products at at least one meal and preferably at all of them.

This holiday was started by Meryl Yourish as a protest against a PETA campaign comparing the slaughter of chickens to the Holocaust.

I decided that such a worthy enjoyable feast should be observed. Thus meat pies for lunch and grilled Spanish Mackerel for dinner. I will do better next year. (Probably a slow cooked casserole or braise of some ruminant.)

Second Thought: When the time comes would anyone be interested in a Bollito Misto (Northern Italian mixed boiled meats)? I can't think of more suitably and deliciously carnivorous celebratory dish.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Enough is enough

To those Muslims who are throwing tantrums about the Mohamed cartoons, grow up! You want the rest of us to respect you. Earn that respect.!

Respect is something that you pay for in kind. You are not footing that bill.

Is your complaint that the cartoons depict Mohamed when most of your co-religionists believe that to do so is forbidden? Are you complaining that depictions of pigs are around in public spaces and at work? If you wish to abide by your religion's prohibitions do so. That is your business. Do not try to impose your religion's prohibitions on the rest of us. Representational art is part of our culture. Pigs are part of our culture. We are not giving them up.

Most of us will never convert to Islam. We have good reasons for not doing so, usually better than your reasons for being a Muslim. Most of you are only Muslims because you were brought up as one. (To be fair the same applies to most members of other religions.) Be honest with yourselves and admit that you would probably follow another religion if you had been brought up in it.

If you wish to impose Sharia law on me and the rest of my country then you are my enemy. If you condone the acts of terrorists then you are my enemy. There are enough of us who will fight your attempts to impose your ways on us to stop you from succeeding. Believe that!

Is your complaint a claim that your prophet was insulted by the cartoons? Violence is not an appropriate response to a verbal or visual insult. Find another way to respond. If you want our respect then either ignore the insult, treat it with disdain or turn it back on the originator. Treating an insult as something not worth responding to and hence treating the insulter as a person of no consequence will gain you respect. Using wit and turning the insult back on the originator will also gain respect. Frothing at the mouth with rage and avenging the insult will not gain respect. You think that you might create fear. Fear is not respect. Don't deceive yourselves into thinking that it is. You will be sneered at behind your backs. We can see the insecurity behind the rage.

Being so easily offended is seen by us as a type of immaturity. You say that an insult hurts terribly. That hurt is in part self imposed. Grow a thicker skin! We believe in robust debate. Feelings get hurt in this. But it is necessary. The means of finding out the truth and correcting error must be protected. If we don't do so then tyranny and error will be the result. We are all fallible and it is more important that we seek the truth than that we be right. Learn to live without the certainty of being right or at least accept that others will not and should not treat you as if you were right. They cannot do so without giving up their own integrity. (This does not apply just to you.)

To those Muslims who just want to live at peace with others in a state of mutual respect, you aren't my targets. You do have a responsibility to oppose evil promoted in the name of your religion if you can do so without running unreasonable risks. This may not always be possible. Still the ratbags are dragging the name of your religion through the mud.

To the people who are oh so sympathetic to the rioter's sense of grievance and so concerned about not hurting the feelings of Muslims, you are wankers and cowards! The rest of us know narcissism when we see it. We know that you are trying to feel oh so virtuous. You need to see Muslims as underdogs that you can support even when they are attacking our culture's basic principles. This society despite its flaws is worth defending. Your sensitivity does not make you better than the rest of us. Your conceit and self-righteousness makes you worse.

You belive that your sensitivity and consideration for others feelings and willingness to see the other's side and to reason with them will lead to them behaving towards you in a decent manner. These things should certainly be tried. It is willfull blindness to think that they will always work. Some people are not reasonable and decent. Violence is not always avoidable and it is irresoponsible conceit to think that you can always deal with others by reasoning with them.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some further thoughts on political categories

In a previous post I discussed the effect that one's moral viewpoint had on one's political viewpoint and on one's perception of others. For that discussion I classified political viewpoints by their attitude to institutions that could be seen as sources of authority or embodiments of society. I used a two- way classification rather than a left-right axis.

One of the axes was Utopianism. To what extent can institutions that are seen as embodiments of society and invested with authority be used to radically improve society? (The state can be seen as invested with authority without its being seen as a source of authority.)

The other axis was the degree to which authoritative institutions were seen as sources of part of one's identity or whether they were seen as merely instruments serving certain social purposes. There isn't a one word label for this axis. This is not exactly the degree of authoritarianism but is often associated with it. If one identifies strongly with nation or state then one isn't necessarily authoritarian but one is more likely to be so.

This set of categories usually classifies viewpoints the same way that they would be if you classified on the degree of social liberality and on the degree of economic liberality. The one that I created just focuses on motives rather than on policies.

Briefly conservatives identify strongly with authority wielding institutions but regard them as primarily protective and have little faith in the ability of such institutions to create Utopia. Fascists and related movements identify strongly with authority wielding institutions and believe that they can be used to create a Utopia. Pragmatists, classical liberals or libertarians (whatever you want to call them) regard authority wielding institutions more as protective instruments than as sources of their identities and they do not believe in the ability of the state or the like to create a Utopia. Progressives (Here I include social democrats, socialists, communists and what are usually called liberals nowadays.) tend to regard authority wielding institutions as instruments rather than as sources of identity but they see such institutions as a means to build a better world.

I want to explore the nature of authority wielding institutions a bit and identify a few more of the Utopian groups.

The authority wielding or normative groups that people might identify with fall into two categories. Some are corporate bodies and some are not. Corporate bodies are formal hierarchial institutions that are treated as being persons distinct from their members. Examples are states, professional associations and Christian churches. (A business corporation is a corporate body but is not a source of norms.) Examples of non corporate groups seen as sources of authority that are major parts of many people's identities are nations and the Muslim Ummah. (A nation is a people who consider themselves to be bonded together as a nation. A state is an institution ruling a region. States and nations tend to coincide but do not always do so. When they don't there is usually some trouble.)

The progressive camp is quite a grab bag of groups. They vary widely on the acceptability of violence, the degree of private ownership, the amount of involvement of the state in private morality and attitude towards Nature.

The communists tend to be callous and quite unscrupulous in their dealings with opponents. Fanaticism is common. They want all or nearly all of the productive capacity to be in state hands. They vary widely in how much they want the state to be involved in private morality. Most of them have a very exploitative approach towards Nature. (They are Utopians who focus on economic matters and have a perhaps exaggerated faith in the efficacy of human effort.)

Social democrats tend to be over optimistic about the possibility of avoiding violence. They support highly regulated mixed economies. They generally want the state to stay out of some aspects of private morality and involve itself in others. (I know this sounds cynical but it looks as if they want the state to stay out of their bedrooms and the bedrooms of those that they can feel good by championing but they want it to give them plenty of opportunities for feel-good interference e.g. much of the attempts to suppress smoking and other health related meddling and looking for things that they can interpret as racism and oppose. It's not completely true but I fear that it is too near the truth in many cases. Wish I was wrong.) Nowadays they tend to seek a rather over-idealized relationship with Nature.

Socialists are similar except for wanting a larger proportion of the economy to be publicly owned.

The Greens are mostly an exaggerated form of social democrat.

Most progressives regard political parties as instruments rather than as sources of norms. The communists, at least when in power, can turn the party into a pseudo-religious organization and treat it as a source of norms and sense of identity. Yes this does make them in many respects more like the fascists than like socialists or social democrats.

I can't think of any single word label for the authoritarian Utopians. They are even more of a grab bag than the progressives. They include fascists, extreme nationalists, Islamists, some nominally communist regimes, some Eastern Asian Confucian style regimes and some law-and-order zealots.

The fascists identify to an extreme degree with the nation and/or race. They tend to see violence as a means of self-affirmation. They tend to seek scapegoats to vilify and blame for their problems. They idealize their leaders, turning them into fetishes. The state and or party intrudes into many aspects of private life. (Not so much through prohibiting activities as through having the state or party involved in almost all community activities.) They tend to support extreme versions of traditional sex roles. They support highly regulated mixed economies.

More common nowadays are extreme nationalists. Like fascists they over-identify with nation or race and usually have some but not all of the fascist traits identified above. Examples would be some of the groups which gained power in Serbia and Croatia after the break up of Yugoslavia, Spain under Franco and Peronist Argentina.

I would suggest that some Eastern and South-Eastern Asian regimes such as Singapore could be described as an authoritarian Utopian regime. Confucianism supplies much of the Utopian ideal for Singapore. It is a very authoritarian system with by Western standards a lot of government intrusion into private life and involvement in business and a degree of deference to authority that we would regard as wrong. Even so it is not as brutal or corrupt as fascism and lacks the aggressiveness.

The Chinese Communist Party is not very communist any more. Nationalism and Confucian ideals are stronger now and China is now a mixed economy. While brutal, callous and xenophobic it does not have the bloodlust or scapegoating of fascism. It could well develop into something like Singapore.

In Islam authority is supposed to come directly from God. It is revealed through the Koran and the Hadith and interpreted by the religious legal scholars the Ulema. Islam encourages Muslims to identify with the worldwide Islamic community, the Ummah. It encourages Muslims to identify with the Ummah the way that most of the rest of the World identifies with their nations. In practice nationalism is widespread in Islamic countries. But national loyalties still tend to be weaker than family or tribal loyalties.

Islamism is a caricature of many Muslim tendencies mixed with elements taken from Western totalitarian movements. Loyalty is supposed to be totally focused on God, the Koran and the Ummah. Other loyalties for example to states and other corporate bodies and to nations are seen as somewhat idolatrous. The problem is that it is precisely these loyalties to states, to corporations, to unions, to clubs, to other non-family, non-tribal groups that underlies our ability to deal fairly with those outside our own family by creating a network of bonds across a whole society It is of course a Utopian movement but its Utopia is supposedly a recreation of what they believe existed in the first few generation of Islam. Islamism tries to control most aspects of life. The Koran and Hadiths and custom underlie Sharia Law. It claims that this law comes from God and that humans have no right to create their own laws. The Sharia is of course to be interpreted by the Ulema. Islamism is also highly into scapegoating and religious chauvinism. And it is obsessed with violence and with sex roles.

Some law-and-order types especially drug war fanatics could be best described as authoritarian Utopians. This obsession only affects this single aspect of their belief system but when it comes to drugs they can be very fascist-like. They are often seen as conservatives but in fact they are not. Their authoritarianism and identification with their cause are obvious. Their utopianism shows up in their promises to create a drug-free America or wherever by a certain time. They lack a sense of proportion and blind themselves to the harm that they do. They are obsessed with their cause and will undermine traditional liberties when they clash with their crusade. This seems to be worse in the United States than in other Western countries but there are elements here that would like to take us down that path. They are scapegoaters with drug users and drug suppliers blamed for far too much of what is wrong with their country.

You want proof that they are not really conservatives? One sign of a totalitarian regime is when they laud children who inform on their parents. It happened under the Nazis. It happened under the Soviets. I think it has happened in Iran. And it has happened in the U.S.. Children have been encouraged to dob in their parents for growing marijuana. This is an attack on the family. It is not a conservative's action. While drug war zealots are not totalitarians they behave like totalitarians whenever their obsession is activated.

Friday, January 13, 2006

My weird habits

Since Zoe has tagged me with the five weird habits meme I have to reveal some of my dark secrets.

All right, here are some.

1. I use hand gestures when talking quite a lot, especially when I get excited.

2. Without my realizing it my voice can get quite loud if I get excited. At other times I can be almost inaudible.

3. For some reason people find me or my face memorable. As a result people that I haven't seen for a while or even a long time address me by name when I have forgotten their name. To hide this I get into the habit of not addressing people by name.

4. When going out I often come back just to make absolutely sure that I have locked the doors etc. even when I think I remember doing so.

5. I talk to myself when daydreaming.