Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Obviously wrong philosophies

Various political, philosophical and moral theories have struck me as bunk. People advocating them seem to know this, too. We can pretend to believe them for the sake of argument, but we all know that they're not true.

So I thought I'd collect them together here.


Conservatism: there's not much to it. See my previous post. Not so much wrong as incomplete and ineffective.

Natural-rights libertarianism

Nonsense on stilts. Rights-based theories of morality are as wrong as other theories of morality (see below).

Freedom as the highest political goal

"Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end." Lord Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877).


The Social Contract

It's not a contract, because no one ever agreed to it. It's not a contract because it isn't fixed; no one knows what it is (because it isn't written down) and it seems to change over time. (Some people call it a "social compact" to distinguish it from a contract.)

In fact, it's bunk. There is no social contract. It doesn't exist. It's a myth required to justify various ideologies.

Objective morality

I have no problem with the idea that some things can just be true. Why does the gravitational constant have the value it does? It just does.

But the idea that morality exists, that things can be right or wrong, good and bad, is bunk.

My claim is not moral relativism; I am not claiming that different people's moral beliefs are all equally true. I am claiming that they are all equally false.

Moral facts could exist in various different ways. The universe could be dualistic, with moral facts existing as Platonic forms. The universe could be monistic, with moral facts existing out there as atoms or patterns. They could be in the mind of God, in which case to know moral facts would be to know the mind of God. There is no reason to suppose that moral facts could not change over time.

We have as much reason to believe in the existence of moral facts as we have to believe in the existence of God.

If moral facts existed, we have no way whatsoever of discovering what they are. There is no way to measure them. We might presume that a list of moral facts could not contain a contradiction, so we could reject a given person's list of moral facts if it contained a contradiction. But we would have no reason whatever to accept a list of moral facts as true just because it did not contain contradictions.

Because we could no more know moral facts if they existed than we could know the mind of God if he existed, there is no way they could affect our daily lives.

Often, when trying to argue against the view that there is no objective morality, people talk about the consequences of such a view. "Surely it would be terrible if everyone thought so?" "How can you live with such a view?" But the supposed consequences of a view have nothing to do with whether it is true or not. People want it to be true, but that does not make it true.

People talking about morality sound to me like people discussing whether animals go to heaven. "I believe that animals have souls and go to heaven." "Do you really? I believe that only pets have souls and go to heaven". No one can possibly have anything more to say on the subject than anyone else.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

The emptiness of conservatism

Conservatives have always been a movement crying out for a philosophy.

Conservatism is a party before it is a philosophy. Just as the Right contains many different people (including conservatives) with conflicting opinions, so does conservatism (a subset of the Right) also contain many different people with conflicting opinions.

The Conservative Party in the UK (and its predecessors) is regarded as a very successful political party, which has survived for so long by not having any principles.

However, the since the Conservative Party has occupied the niche of the right-wing party in the UK for many years, it has required a political philosophy to attempt to justify its existence and actions.

So what is conservatism? It is a political philosophy that thinks some things should be conserved. Which things? It is a political philosophy that thinks that change should be slow. Yet it does not oppose all change. So which changes are good, and which bad?

The reasoning behind conservatism is the law of unintended consequences. This should guard against being too convinced of your own rationality. ("The essential idea of leftism is that the world should be governed by scholars." C.f. the Cult of Reason.) A policy which appears to be good, on rational inspection, may turn out to have bad consequences on balance, because of bad consequences which were not foreseen by rationality. This has earned conservatism something of a reputation for disparaging rationality.

But how are we to judge policies except with the power of reason? Conservatism still cannot answer our question of what should be conserved; which changes are good? The law of unintended consequences should influence policy, but it is not a political philosophy.

Conservatism provides no long-term political direction.

In practice, conservatives are limited to trying only to reverse recent changes, or more usually to trying to prevent further change. They tend to accept changes as "inevitable" soon after they happen, and have a limited memory so tend to become happy with the change before last: they only want to turn back the clock a little bit.

Their mistake is to believe that they can stop the growth of state expenditure in a democracy, or that they can reverse social change without dominating the universities. With no long-term political direction, they cannot win.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Build more prisons! The paradox of continual moral decline

The Economist points out that people have been bemoaning moral decline for a long time. Therefore they must be imagining it, right?


Things have gotten worse and we have the stats to prove it:
2011: "Britain: Prison Population Hits Record"
Reported crime increased 37 times between 1900 and 1997. We have more police than ever before. It is the sentencing that is too lenient.

Jose Harris: Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914:
"A very high proportion of Edwardian convicts were in prison for offences that would have been much more lightly treated or wholly disregarded by law enforcers in the late twentieth century. In 1912-13, for example, one quarter of males aged 16 to 21 who were imprisoned in the metropolitan area of London were serving seven-day sentences for offences which included drunkenness, 'playing games in the street,' riding a bicycle without lights, gaming, obscene language and sleeping rough. If late twentieth-century standards of policing and sentencing had been applied in Edwardian Britain, the prisons would have been virtually empty; conversely, if Edwardian standards were applied in the 1990s then most of the youth of Britain would be in gaol."

Friday, 12 August 2011

Arts funding multiplier nonsense

"'Money lost to the arts since 30.03.2011: £20,392,023.
Money lost to the economy since 30.03.2011: £40,784,046.'

The latter figure is exactly twice the former. I suppose this is a reference to the claim made by John Smith, President of the FEU, in the comments that 'Every £1 invested in the Arts generates £2 for the wider economy'."

"Polly Toynbee in the Guardian back in July:

'The return from a tiny government investment is probably greater in the cultural industries than any other – every £1 the Arts Council England puts in generates another £2 from commercial sources.'

The UK Film Council, quoted in the Independent in August:

'But the UKFC doesn't waste money, it makes it. For every pound it invests, the country gets £5 back.'

Ivan Lewis in the Guardian yesterday:

'The National Campaign for the Arts estimates that every £1 of grant given to the arts brings a fifteen-fold return in investment into the county [Somerset].'"

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Leftist contradictions and double-standards

"You don't have to believe that alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, is a card-carrying Tea Party member (he evidently is not) to see some kind of connection between that violent rhetoric and what happened in Arizona on Saturday."


"We have much more to learn about Hasan before we can jump to any conclusions... We should assume until it's proven otherwise that Hasan was an American and a loyal one, who just snapped"

"We are told, endlessly, that only the rapist is to blame for rape. Nothing that the victim does, has done, where they go, how they’re dressed, nothing at all changes the fact that the rapist is solely and completely responsible, in and of themselves, for the crime.

So why isn’t this true for rioters?"

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Peer review part 2: Medical Hypotheses

The journal "Medical Hypotheses" was founded with the explicit intention of not having peer review.

"As he instructed me, this type of journal can only in practice be run by the editor choosing papers himself (not by delegating decisions), and by his taking responsibility for these choices." ( Committees are cancer. (
"Horrobin argued that peer review intrinsically tended to exclude radical and revolLinkutionary ideas, and that alternatives were needed. He chose me as his editorial successor because I shared these views.

Both Horrobin and I agreed that the only correct scientific way to deal with dissent was to publish it so that it could be debated, confirmed or refuted in an open and scientific forum. The alternative - suppressing scientific dissent by preventing publication using behind-the-scenes and anonymous procedures - we would both regard as extremely dangerous because it is wide open to serious abuse and manipulation by powerful interest groups.


It is hard to measure exactly the influence of a journal, but some recent papers stand out as having had an impact. A report by Lola Cuddy and Jacalyn Duffin discussed the fascinating implications of an old lady with severe Alzheimer's disease who could still recognise tunes such as Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'. This paper, which was discussed by Oliver Sacks in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, seems to have helped spark a renewed interest in music in relation to brain disease.

The paper "A tale of two cannabinoids" by E. Russo and G.W. Guy suggested that a combination of marijuana products tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) would be valuable painkillers. This idea has since been widely discussed in the scientific literature.

And in 2005, Eric Altschuler published in Medical Hypotheses a letter outlining his idea that survivors of the 1918 flu epidemic might even now retain immunity to the old virus. A few 1918 flu survivors were found who still had antibodies, and cells from those people were cloned to create an antiserum that protected experimental mice against the flu virus. The work was eventually published in Nature and received wide coverage in the US media."
"Genuine conceptual originality is by definition outside the accepted way of looking at things. It often has rough edges that can be easily refuted, thereby making its core seem suspect. And, indeed, most conceptual deviants are justifiably discarded.

Originality at the conceptual level can come from empirical discoveries. However, it can also come from looking at the world in a different way.

It's commonly recognized in the metascientific literature that conceptual originality is inversely related to publishability. As someone who has made some conceptually original contributions, I've noticed the same phenomenon myself.

More specifically, there are indeed occasional gems in Medical Hypotheses that would be difficult to publish elsewhere."

"What prompted Elsevier to set about a rethink of its journal was Charlton’s intention to publish two papers which, so Elsevier claim, undermine the current understanding of AIDS. One of them, by the Stanford virologist Peter Duesberg, certainly tries to do this. He uses the instance of South Africa to argue against the HIV virus as the cause of the disease. One might suggest that Duesberg is a tiresome man and that Charlton’s intention to give him more space in which to argue his already familiar case was ill conceived. But is this sufficient reason to revamp the entire basis of the journal’s editorial selection procedure?

Even odder is the case of the other banned paper. Submitted by a group based in Florence it seems not to deny the viral origin of HIV, but to tease the Italian health authorities for the incompetence of their bureaucracy and procedures by suggesting that those authorities themselves behave as if they are "AIDS deniers." Whoever made the decision at Elsevier either hasn’t read it or didn’t understand it." (

Eventually, the journal published a paper which the establishment demanded be retracted. The editor was sacked and the journal became peer-reviewed. Why?

The problem is state involvement in science. People insist that quacks are prevented from being able to claim that they are scientific because they a published. Therefore quacks must not be allowed to publish. Otherwise the public might be mislead that they are true.

Why does it matter whether the public consider quackery science? Because they can vote.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Peer review part 1

Is peer review over-rated?

"Referees are supposedly anonymous. However, the author, the editor, and the referees often work in small fields where everybody knows one another, and people's beliefs, foibles and writing styles are often well known, so this anonymity is often more theoretical than real. The theoretical reason for anonymity - that the referee can say what he pleases without consequences - is not always entirely true. The anonymity is one sided: the referee receives a paper with the name of the author at the top. The name of a famous and influential scientist at the top has an impact. The editor is very powerful, as he gets to select the referees and by choosing referees carefully clearly has influence whether a paper will be published or not. A good editor will choose referees of mixed levels of seniority (referees include everybody from graduate students to senior professors), and (in areas of some dispute) of mixed positions in any argument."
Peer review is inadequate to the task of assessing scientific findings for policymakers

"8 Academic studies on peer review to identify fraud and error have not painted a good picture of its ability to detect fraud and error. In the words of Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, "We have little evidence on the effectiveness of peer review, but we have considerable evidence of its defects. In addition to being poor at detecting gross defects and almost useless for detecting fraud, it is slow, expensive, profligate of academic time, highly subjective, something of a lottery, prone to bias and easily abused."

9 The CRU disclosures demonstrate that the peer review process can be subverted by a small but influential group of scientists. In the emails we see that there were at least four attempts to subvert journals[*] by putting pressure on editors to reject or delay submissions that were critical of mainstream climatology or to otherwise hinder sceptics. Editors who stood in the way of this group appear to have been forced from their posts. Articles by activist scientists were sent to sympathetic reviewers. Articles by sceptics were sent to hostile reviewers.

10 Policymakers need to be clear that peer review does not normally involve obtaining the scientific data and code used in a study and reproducing the findings. It is normally simply a read-through of a paper. This is adequate for finding glaring errors or non-original work. It is an absurdly inadequate process for justifying multi-billion pound decisions. As McCullough and McKitrick put it, "some government staff are surprised to find out that peer review does not involve checking data and calculations, while some academics are surprised that anyone thought it did".[3]

11 With scientists assessed on their productivity, in terms of numbers of papers published and citations achieved, there is little time for replication of the work of others. However, with peer review being such a weak check on scientific correctness, replication is the only way to ensure that decisions are taken on a sound scientific basis. Policymakers need to consider how they will ensure that scientific findings on which they base their decisions have been adequately replicated."
This Samizdata article mentions "peer-to-peer review" (with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow). One problem is that scientists are not publishing enough data for their work to be properly evaluated or replicated. Though "
with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow" relies on enough people devoting their eyeballs, which didn't happen with Wikileaks. Commenters at mention problems with "open peer review". All data should still be published though. All papers too (ArXiv).
"Lecturer plagiarised student's work
17 September 2004

A senior lecturer at Cardiff University has been suspended after an investigation panel found that he had plagiarised a former student's PhD thesis for articles published in two international journals.

Cardiff confirmed this week that an allegation of "misconduct in academic research" had been substantiated against Kamal Naser, a senior lecturer in accounting at the university's business school."