Saturday, 27 December 2014

Science: 50 years in retrospect

I have taken an interest in things scientific for over 50 years. My tastes incline more to basic science than applied science and technology so that will colour my reflections in this post. Recently I tried to identify the most important advances in science since around 1960. No doubt you will disagree with these personal opinions - if so, let me know in comments what your own picks are.

For me the rise of computer technology has produced a revolution in our lives and in our thinking. It's hard to really appreciate how powerful today's computer are compared to those of 50 years ago. I like the figures, first calculated by Christopher Evans (in his 1979 book The Mighty Micro) to compare advances in automobile performance with advances in computer performance. Updating these comparisons to 2014: if automobile performance had increased at the same rate as computer performance then

  • a car would have a speed of around 100 billion kilometres per hour - over 100 times the speed of light
  • its fuel consumption would be over 10,000 kilometers per litre
  • your standard garage could hold 100s of vehicles and
  • the manual for opening the front door would be as thick as the Bible (the last is a humorous comparison whose provenance I don't know).
These figures are somewhat rough and ready but they portray the scale of how computers have advanced. However, just as remarkable and as difficult to foresee, is the way that computers now pervade our lives. Thomas Watson, the President of IBM, got it so wrong in 1943 when he estimated that 5 computers would serve the needs of the entire world. Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, said in 1977 "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home". Computers are now inextricably bound up in our professional and personal lives in ways that not even experts expected.

My next pick is the Science of the Gene by which I mean our understanding of the importance of genes in controlling all biology on the planet. When I left school in 1964 I had not taken a single course on biology (it was possible to take biology but only as an elective and it would not have contained any genetics). 

But the stage was certainly set for the Genetic Revolution in 1964. Crick and Watson had discovered in 1953 how DNA could replicate itself: that it, rather than proteins, was the genetic material. Although Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection was very well-accepted it was now able to use the new gene discoveries to explain exactly how it worked. Nevertheless the acceptance of this Neo-Darwinism has taken many years and there are still hold-outs in some educational institutions in the world that reject it as being contrary to their religious beliefs. However modern biological theories all depend on our understanding of how genes control biological functions and modern medical advances simply could not have happened without our increasing knowledge of genetics: determining the genetic constitution of various creatures,  designing drugs to target various illnesses, and advances in agriculture are just some of the things we owe to the Science of the Gene.

But culturally also genetics has had great benefits. One of these was to provide a scientific refutation that certain peoples were inferior to others - anyone who now argues this need not be taken seriously since on the genetic level we are a single species. Yet another benefit, and a breath-taking revelation to me, is knowing that every single living thing on the entire planet is part of the same biological family. We are all related: son to father, human to horse to spider to tortoise to tomato to lichen to bacteria. This is a beautiful and wonderful fact, far more miraculous than any religious explanation of creation.

My third pick is historically the most recent: neuroscience and the workings of the brain. For centuries we have been unable to study the brain as intensely as other organs because its physical responses are so much more subtle than in other organs. While the idea that the neuron was the basic unit of brain activity was first proposed over 100 years ago by Santiago Raman y Cajal it was really not until last few decades that neuroscience research escalated bringing it from a subdiscipline of biology into a multi-disciplinary subject spanning chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, genetics, philosophy and psychology.

The huge array of techniques being used in today's neuroscience research coupled with the fact that many of the conclusions being drawn are complex and difficult to summarise makes it impossible for me to get a clear view of just where the subject is sitting on the scale of achievement. However I have no doubt that this work which seeks to elucidate the most complex organ in the human body will have very profound societal effects.

I am not only thinking of the benefits to medical science, or the computational model that is so different from the von Neumann model. More I have in mind the more nebulous effect it has on our psychological understanding of ourselves. Neuroscience is gradually dismantling centuries of woolly metaphors that have taken hold of our popular view of "the mind". For example extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis are now totally discredited. Freud's "id", "superego" etc are now recognised as just made-up concepts. We understand that feelings of wonder, or feelings of being connected to a remote being are caused by electrical patterns forming in our brain. And, perhaps most profound of all, mind-body dualism is a dead theory: all our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations originate in the brain and there is no separate mind.

As I stated at the beginning of this post the scientific theories I have selected as the most influential are surely biased by my own experiences. Let me know if you have your own choices to add and I may do a follow-up post on some others.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Who's the Jihadi?

Western governments have recently been getting their knickers in a twist at some of their citizens making for Syrian and Iraq to join up with forces on the "wrong" side of the War on Terror. The establishment rhetoric that portrays these young people bemoans that they have been "radicalized", that they have been "seduced" into supporting the "savagery of ISIS", and that they are "aiding and abetting" the enemy.

Now don't misunderstand me. I wish these young idealists would stay at home because I fear they will lose their lives for nothing. Most of them are Moslems (including some who have converted to Islam) and, if they are religiously motivated, then I think they would be better off renouncing their religion. But I really cannot condemn them.

If you are Moslem then you must feel at least a cultural connection to other Moslems, and therefore to most of the countries in the Middle-East - just as we Kiwis feel such a connection to the European countries or to the United States because we share a rich history. What must Moslems feel when they reflect on the oppression of their peoples and countries by the Western powers (particularly the United States if we are talking about recent history)?

As Glenn Greenwald has recently pointed out the United States has bombed or invaded 14 Moslem countries since 1980. It invaded and pulverised Iraq on trumped-up claims that Saddam Hussein was developing atomic weapons. That invasion caused the deaths of nearly one million Iraqis. And it was presented to the American people as retaliation for the 2001 9/11 attacks for which there was no evidence whatsoever (and, grim though that attack was, it killed only 3000 Americans - in other words over 300 Iraqis died for every American life lost).

Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries kill scores of civilians every month - justified by the male victims as being "suspected militants" which is establishment-speak for "military-age males".

If your culture is so routinely attacked by the greatest killing country in history you would be blind and deaf if you did not reflect on that aggression, if it did not produce in you a sense of overwhelming grievance, and if you did not sometimes feel an urge to seek redress.

"Jihad" is an Arabic term that refers to the Muslim duty to battle wrong-doing or to convert infidels to Islam. Nowadays it is often used by Islam-bashers to condemn a whole culture because of the Koran's various primitive injunctions encouraging Muslims to fight for their culture. But who are the Jihadis nowadays? Who are the worst of the belligerent aggressors? Is it individuals or small groups who bomb their enemies in hundreds, or is it the United States which carries out the systematic, merciless extermination of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. For me the answer is clear: The United States, the world's only super-power, the greatest terrorist state that has ever existed, is waging Jihad on the countries of the Middle-East.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The anti-Jihad narrative

The Guardian has just published a story about a 15 year old Bristol girl who has just left her home to go to Syria. To quote from the story: she is feared to be on her way to Syria to join "extremists". Looked at from afar one man's extremist is another man's freedom fighter and I'm sure the girl herself does not see things quite like that. So, while I hope the girl returns home safely, I would more characterise her journey as that of a young person who is sick of the way the UK and the US use the Middle-East as a military playground. Put like that I am sickened by the tone of the article that takes it as given that the girl is suffering from being "radicalised" (a term which is used at least 6 times, along with the claim of "brain-washed").

There has been a lot of concern over young people making their way to Syria to fight on one side or the other. The Guardian reported on Monday that hundreds of girls were leaving the UK to fight in Syria. And the US is actively tracking would-be fighters travelling to the Middle-East. Of course, the concern stems from our perception that we are right and all other sides are wrong.

We should all ask ourselves: if young idealists feel compelled to leave their homes to go to war, what does that say about our pathetic excuses for bombing the crap out of innocent civilians (quite apart from the fact that, as A C Grayling has convincing argued, bombing is impossible to target properly, has little military effect, and is insanely expensive).

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The curious rush to war

The caution of Western nations to engage once again in military action in the Middle East has vanished. For a short time it seemed that they (and the US in particular) appeared to have learnt some lessons from their disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year we saw President Obama draw back from attacking Syria and the UK parliament voting against military action there. In some ways it was like the aftermath of another American disaster - their war in Vietnam whose abject failure curtailed their overt military interventions for a decade. I use the word "overt" deliberately of course because their covert operations to undermine regimes they dislike have never ceased.

But within the last week President Obama has authorised military force against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL) and the Levant, and the UK parliament have voted to add British support. What has so suddenly changed?

In one sense probably nothing much has changed. There were hawks in London and Washington who always wanted to re-engage in Iraq for realpolitik reasons to do with oil, support of Israel, fear of losing influence etc. But while the public at large opposed military intervention it was hard to force war-like actions through elected assemblies. The thing that has fundamentally changed is the public mood who now clamour for action against ISIL. In my opinion the public mood has been skillfully manipulated by the media who have exploited to the hilt the public brutality of ISIL. The revulsion to the YouTube beheading videos that ISIS have released surely explains why the man in the street is now so trigger-happy but the media have been grossly negligent in whipping up public sentiment.

At least three things have to be borne in mind which all suggest a more measured reaction. First of all, shocking though it is, a beheading is just another way of killing. Indeed in some countries such as Saudi Arabia (which last month beheaded more than one victim per day) beheading is a normal occurrence. Furthermore, if we recognise that summary executions, no matter the manner of them, are the real sin then we have to recognise many other greater sinners (and I can't avoid adding "such as the USA").

The second thing is that ISIL clearly wanted to provoke an armed response by Western nations (why else would the axe-wielding thugs address the leaders of the US and the UK so directly on the beheading videos?). It seems obvious what their motivation is: to garner support by encouraging so-called "Christian nations" to make war on Middle-eastern soil so that they can be painted as the real villains.

And thirdly, are we really so sure that ISIL are some super-army overrunning territory in Iraq and Syria? I do not believe that their original numbers (a small number of thousands) were so savage and efficient fighters that the Iraqi army and police (numbering over a million personnel trained by the US and armed with modern weaponry) laid down their arms without a fight. It is surely much more likely that many of them, quite likely a majority, had great sympathy with a Sunni insurrection. It is much more likely that we are witnessing further unravelling of the band-aid wrapped around Iraq before the Americans left declaring "Mission accomplished".

We are making a shocking mistake by yet more intervention in Iraq and Syria. Wasn't killing around one million Iraqis, devastating their country's infrastructure, and earning the hatred of so many of them enough? It is astonishing how we just haven't learnt from our mistakes.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A chance for Scottish emancipation

It's the British political sensation of the year: will the Scots vote for their independence on 18 September? The most recent YouGov poll suggests, for the first time, that the Yes votes are in the majority (with 60% of those under 40 in the Yes camp).

The 1707 Act of Union merged the English and Scottish Parliaments. It was bitterly opposed by most Scots (most of whom did not have the vote) and supported in Scotland mainly by the nobility who had been financially ruined in the ill-fated Darien Scheme and were the main beneficiaries of the £400,000 grant to Scotland. Discontent was so acute in the remainder of the 18th century that there were two armed rebellions against the English (1715 and 1745) the latter leading to savage treatment of the defeated Scots and presaging a period (the Highland Clearances) during which Scots were systematically thrown off their land with no compensation.

In one sense that is ancient history which should have no bearing on how Scotland chooses its political future in the upcoming referendum. Scots should make their choice in the context of the 21st Century. Does political union with England serve its people better or not?

I am not a Scot (although I have lived and worked in Scotland) but I am still outraged by how they have been treated since the Thatcherite '80s. Their remoteness from London (a problem shared with some English regions) has meant that Westminster MPs are not as conscious of Scottish issues as they should be. Scotland is the UK's nuclear missile repository. They were the first UK region to endure the hated poll tax. And for more than 15 years there has been no more than one Scottish Conservative MP - in other words the now ruling party in the UK represents virtually no-one in Scotland.

That last fact has many consequences. For example the rise and implementation of a surveillance state in the UK has arisen without the Scots having any chance to challenge its creation.

To say that Scots are oppressed by the English jackboot is over the top. But it is still the case that policies that are devised by Englishmen are applied to Scots and many of these are deeply unpopular. Imagine that Scotland was an independent country and there was to be a referendum on whether it should surrender its sovereignty to England, allow the English to station their nuclear missiles in their countryside, be spied on by the English GCHQ, and be governed by a party that in no way represents Scottish aspirations. Would it not be unthinkable that Scotland would vote Yes?

So go for it Scotland! Being part of the UK allowed the English to screw you over completely in the 1980s by devastating your industry without softening the effects by using the North Sea oil bonanza: that fine resource was wasted on tax cuts for the rich and expensive foreign wars. Seice control of your destiny and vote Yes to independence!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dirty Politics: Kiwi style

If only politics was about having rational discussions about the best way to run your country! But hardly anyone nowadays can believe that. In a democracy most voters will not be influenced by discussion anyway - and fair enough that opinions can be held with unshakable conviction. Still, most of us would like to believe that our society still allowed enough public information and discourse that electors could, if they wanted, come to informed decisions on how they should vote.  Once that belief is undermined we naturally see widespread cynicism about politicians that discourages voter turnout and possibly hands control of a nominal democracy to a small group of manipulators.

The degree of this cynicism varies from democracy to democracy. In countries where the financial rewards of political office are highest (such as the US) we naturally see politicians gaming the system the most. And of course "first past the post" electoral systems vest power in one political party only so allow politicians to gain the greatest power. Here in New Zealand we took another step in the direction of cynicism with the publication of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics.

For readers who don't live in NZ (or anyone who has not heard of the book) I'll give some brief details. Chief among the cast of characters is Cameron Slater who manages the right-wing blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked. The blog is ostensibly an independent forum for Slater's opinions that has achieved notoriety from publishing scuttle-butt leaked to it by sources many of whom are highly placed.

Nicky Hager is a left-wing investigative journalist who has written some hard-hitting critiques of the ruling National Party (The Hollow Men), NZ's role in the so-called war on terror (Other People's Wars) and many other establishment targets. A vast trove of Slater's Facebook postings and emails was leaked to Hager earlier this year and his present book is a distillation of this material and a commentary on what it means for the political forum.

What emerges from these transcripts is a picture of Slater as a thug who has no scruples about the truth and whose vaunted independence is a joke (much of his income comes from publishing material supplied by tobacco companies, soft drink manufacturers etc. as though they were his own opinions - and this gives the material more respectability than if it came directly from the companies themselves). This tactic is one that has been exploited by the National Party who have used Slater to disseminate information that they do not want to actually say themselves.

Had this happened in the US very little comment would have been made. Indeed this is so far merely a case of a rather unpleasant foul-mouthed pretend journalist spouting opinions (some planted) and you might merely breathe a sigh of relief that your daughter hasn't brought the man home. But Hager's analysis show there is something more sinister afoot. From the material that he has been given it is quite clear that some members of the National Party have been abusing their positions. Chief among them is (former) Justice Minister Judith Collins who resigned her ministerial portfolio last week because (so the material alleges) she used her position to bully the (former) Director of the Serious Fraud Office Adam Feeley (this was actually the last of several abuses of power for any one of which she could have been sacked).

It is clear that there is a well-used conduit between Cameron Slater and Jason Ede (formerly Prime Minister John Key's senior advisor and now a ministerial staff member working for the National Party). The very many messages that passed between Ede and Slater paint a picture of an enduring National Party strategy to smear their political opponents through Slater as a third party thereby maintaining the fiction that the smears do not originate with them. So widespread is the campaign that it may reach right to the Prime Minister himself although John Key continues to deny his own involvement.

It is beginning to look like some classical political scandals in which the accused vehemently denies any wrong-doing but, day by day, is confronted with more embarrassing revelations until their guilt is undeniable. Watergate anyone? Or the behaviour of the NSA as they reacted to Snowdon's revelations?

Unquestionably this story is not going to go away. It is already the case that Cameron Slater's journalistic reputation has been discredited and difficult to see now why anyone would take any further stories from him seriously. The NZ General Election is just round the corner and will already have taken place before any in depth conclusions about the culpability of National's senior politicians can be reached. Nevertheless the party has taken some damaging blows and if it is elected again may still face some serious fall-out.

In some sense NZ politics is at a cross-roads. An independent inquiry must establish exactly which politicians have behaved wrongly and they must be brought to justice. The inquiry will certainly begin with Judith Collins but other politicians figure in Hager's book. If justice can be seen to be done then voters can begin to take their politicians more seriously. If not there is every likelihood that voting numbers will continue to decline - any democracy should view that prospect with alarm.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Our changing mores

In 1952 Alan Turing was convicted of Gross Indecency because of a homosexual relationship. I do not know what protests were made at the time but, since homosexual relations between males were then  illegal in the UK, I doubt that there would have been much outcry. Certainly no-one would have anticipated that, 57 years later, the British Prime Minister would publicly apologise for Turing's treatment calling it "appalling" and "utterly unfair".

In many countries homosexuals are still persecuted today. The persecutors often justify their attitude by reference to the Bible and cite Leviticus Chapter 18. But Leviticus proscribes many other activities that today occasion no especial opprobrium so I think we need to look to other reasons for the persecution. Many persecutors say that they are revolted by the idea of same-sex relations and argue that such activities are unnatural and therefore abhorrent.

In my opinion this abhorrence is genuinely felt. However there are many intimate practices which occasion a feeling of ickiness and I believe that, the more intimate the activity, the more our senses and feeling come into our play - and these senses and feelings can be both positive and negative. To give one example: licking ones partner's ear may be a very erotic act in some relationships but produce revulsion in others. I am sure you can think of many such activities that produce polar opposites of approval.

In most Western countries we have come to realise that any gut feeling we might have about an intimate activity is something that we do not need to dwell on and we need not therefore let it upset us. This applies to ear-licking and gay sex and all manner of other forms of intimacy. We can instead let our feelings of social justice come to the forefront and sanction pretty well any form of intimate activity. Our sexual mores have become more relaxed and we are all the better for it.

I said "pretty well any form of intimate activity" but of course I should have added the important rider "so long as both parties agree to the activity". And for ultra-caution I should also add that both parties should be of an age and mental state that they understand what they are agreeing to.

So far you may be thinking that all I am saying is: the more enlightened we become the more we sanction different forms of intimate activity. But that is not quite the whole of it because there is one large aspect of what we permit that has become more restricted over the years: the licensing of intimate activities with children. Child brides were once very common in Western society (and remain so in some parts of the world even today). Nowadays marriages can only take place between parties who have attained a certain age (varying by country) and sexual relations with minors are against the law (the age of consent varies between 12 in Angola to 20 in Tunisia). By the way, just so there is no confusion, I regard the laws against non-statutory rape as laws against physical violence rather than sexual prohibitions. So what once were perfectly legal activities might nowadays fall under the pedophilia umbrella.

This brings me to the controversial question: do we have the right attitudes towards pedophilia? Since the majority of people will regard this as a no-brainer I want to explain why I want to challenge the orthodoxy that all forms of pedophilia are so sick as to be against the law. First I have to say that I do not condone in any way actual intimate activities with children. But the reason I am against them is not because it is "icky" or "abhorrent" nor because it offends what we regard as acceptable sexual practice: I condemn them because sex with a child is a physical assault and an emotional abuse. Perpetrators should be punished and the victims counselled as would happen for any other physical or emotional attack.

Instead I want to take issue with how we treat pedophiles who do not engage in sexual activity with children.

Should we criminalise people who have sexual fantasies about children? In my view, no. This smacks of Orwell's 1984 Thought Crime. If you disagree with me then I fear we shall not find common ground and you might as well stop reading.

Should we criminalise people who seek out child pornography? Again I think not, realising that this is more controversial. I understand the argument that says we must forbid viewing child pornography because it may encourage passive pedophiles to become active pedophiles. Some studies of this hypothesis may be found here: bottom line, the evidence is very weak.

But what about when viewing child pornography produces an intent to indulge? Here I am in the camp that "intending to commit a crime" is itself a crime but, before a prosecution can be successful, it has to be demonstrated that the intent was there (e.g. by finding records of a conspiracy to groom children). In other words the mere possession of child pornography should not be a criminal offence.

I would like to see a much more open discussion of how pedophilia should be regarded. This discussion should not be coloured by feelings of "ickiness" otherwise we will not be able to progress to a rational conclusion of what should be legal and what should be illegal; we would be locked into the thinking that for so many years condemned people with homosexual urges.

Finally I want to draw attention to how the advertising and fashion industries exploit images of children (or adults who are deliberately made to look like children) to further their products. In a society that tries to protect children that is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Sensing the world

This post has been inspired by my recently attending two weddings within 8 days of one another: my youngest son and youngest daughter who each acquired mates of whom I thoroughly approve. As might be expected the two occasions generated quite a bit of emotion: happiness for the young couples and pleasure at suddenly being related to a large number of new people. They caused me to reflect on the different ways in which we sense the world around us.

The 5 classical senses are sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. We normally think of them as being the main ways in which we acquire our knowledge of the world around us. One of our sense organs is employed and the corresponding chemicals that are generated and the neurons that are fired induce in our brains a more refined knowledge of the world around us than we had before. Or to put it another way, the sense organ gathers data and we process this data with our brains.

Yet, the classical senses are not the only ways in which our brains acquire knowledge. The two recent family weddings gave me knowledge of what other wedding guests were experiencing in their own consciousnesses. I was aware of their own happiness and, while some of this awareness came from visual and other classical senses, it seems that these alone don't explain the sense of connection that is made when we let our analytical guards down. I felt a sense of sharing that it is hard to believe arose solely out of simply seeing and hearing the same sights and sounds as the other guests.

Of course I am not describing anything mysterious or unique: almost everyone has experienced an empathetic connection (some more than others, depending on the day to day situations they find themselves in).

I think one often hears this empathetic sense pooh-poohed as being not so reliable as the sense of sight (to fix on the classical sense that seems to be the strongest in most humans - though not in all animals). Can you imagine, in a court of law, struggling to communicate something that you have knowledge of through empathy? Yet the same difficulties might not be present if you described something you knew through being an eye-witness. 

Certainly I admit that empathy can often get things wrong. But the point I want to make is that the classical senses can often get things wrong too. Increasingly, psychologists are discovering that our brains can easily be fooled into wrong interpretations of what our 5 sense organs have detected. Even sight which is the sense we use all the time to navigate and whose reliability we rarely question is now known to be very imperfect - a fact which is exploited to the hilt by stage magicians. Courts of law no longer use the eye-witness account as the gold standard for deciding how or whether a crime has been committed.

What this suggests to me is that our empathetic sense should be accorded more respect than it has normally received. I do not know whether our empathetic sense is more reliable than our classical senses. Indeed I think the issue of comparative reliability of all our senses is very complex. It is probably not the same for everyone and very likely it changes throughout our life-times.

Anyone want to conduct experiments in empathy?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime

I have just finished reading Peter Gøtzsche's 2013 book of the same title. The book is a hard-hitting vituperative attack on pharmaceutical companies, the way they trial their drugs, the way they influence the medical profession and the way they market their products. As Gøtzsche says in the introduction he concentrates on what is wrong with the industry rather than what is right ("... in a study of muggers no-one expects a 'balanced' account mentioning that many muggers are good family men").

The charges levelled by Gøtzsche are so severe that the first thing a reader will want to know is whether they are true. In a short article like this I can't address every issue confronted by Gøtzsche: he makes hundreds of allegations of illegal or unethical behaviour that span every corner of the pharmaceutical industry. But I can tell you of one or two which I think are typical and can offer my opinion on how accurate his criticisms are. So at the outset let me declare that I think he is right - or right enough - that the drug companies are completely out of control, dominated by the profit motive to such an extent that they kill hundred of thousands of patients,  routinely pervert the regulatory process, and unduly influence the medical profession. I think this because the book is painstakingly referenced with sources that bear up the claims that are made.

I often declare that I am an atheist over all conspiracy theories and "The Evil of Big Pharma" has some of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. Internet declarations that Aunt Beatrice suffered a stroke after taking Drug X are anecdotes that one cannot check, reek of confirmation bias, and are often made by enthusiasts of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a "discipline" that is entirely undisciplined and usually not evidence-based. So I approached the thesis of this book rather cautiously. However when I checked a good number of the sources in the book (more of this below) I came to believe that Gøtzsche has done a tremendous job of exposing the heinous practices of an industry that seems to have lost its moral compass.

But first, something about the author.  Peter Gøtzsche became a physician in 1974 and is now Professor of Clinical Research Design and Analysis at the University of Copenhagen. His most telling credential is that he was a cofounder of the Cochrane Collaboration and continues to be a senior member of the Nordik Cochrane Centre. The Cochrane Collaboration is an internationally respected organisation that specialises in meta-analyses of clinical trial data and is the first port of call if you want an honest assessment of what the benefits of a particular drug treatment are. In particular, Cochrane is independent of all industrial drug producers (one of Gøtzsche's criticisms of pharmaceutical companies is that their own testing is self-interested and unreliable - a theme rammed home by Ben Goldacre in Bad Pharma).

So the serious charges levelled by Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime come from a very heavy hitter. Although that in itself is not conclusive that what Gøtzsche says is true one has to wonder why, if he is making it up, he hasn't been sued for libel.

Now let's dip into the book for some examples of the accusations it makes. There are literally hundred of accusations to choose from (and, indeed, their very density makes the book somewhat of a gruelling read).

On 15 January 2009 the US Department of Justice released a statement with the heading "Eli Lilly and Company Agrees to Pay $1.415 Billion to Resolve Allegations of Off-label Promotion of Zyprexa". Briefly, the Eli Lilly company promoted its Zyprexa drug as an effective treatment for dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) flagrantly disregarding that no approval by the US Federal Drugs Agency had been given. According to the statement the company's marketing department "created marketing materials promoting Zyprexa for off-label uses, trained its sales force to disregard the law and directed its sales personnel to promote Zyprexa for off-label uses". This appalling and cynical exploitation of a vulnerable sector of society is one of many such criminal behaviours by drug companies.

This example is very clear-cut since the company admitted its crime and paid a large fine (though still comparatively small in comparison to its profits). My second example has not as yet resulted in a prosecution: it is the marketing of the Tamiflu drug. Several countries stockpiled billions of dollars worth of Tamiflu in readiness for a flu epidemic and are now collectively realising they have wasted their money. The makers, the pharmaceutical company Roche, claimed that their trialling of the drug showed that it reduced hospital admissions by over 60%. Yet, despite a concerted campaign by the British Medical Journal and others, Roche would not release the raw data gathered in their trials. It is only now, after several years of stone-walling, that this data is becoming available and when independent experts analysed it a very different picture emerged - that Tamiflu has only marginal effects if any on flu victims. This is a complicated story and some of it is told here and here. Gøtzsche sums it up by calling it "perhaps the biggest fraud ever perpretated" and you can see why he is so blunt.  It is important to note also that Roche was not the only offender in this sorry story - regulators and drug agencies were also negligent in accepting the claims made by Roche without proper scrutiny.

As I just hinted drug companies are not the sole offenders in bringing suspect treatments to market. My last example is about how academics and the medical profession behave unethically (Gøtzsche is especially critical here, possibly feeling a betrayal of the academic standards that himself strongly promotes, and my last example is one of very many similar incidents). The New York Times reported in 2006 of a routine practice by Medtronic who make devices to help with back problem; this company makes cash payments to doctors in exchange for their recommending their devices; for example, one Wisconsin surgeon was paid $400,000 for a mere 8 days of work. While the company is obviously behaving unethically the recipients of these gifts are themselves badly tainted. And this is the tip of a large ice-berg: academic and medical professionals are allowing themselves to be advocates of drug companies for their own profit. It is easy to see how this can begin ("I already think the treatment is effective; how then can it be harmful for me to receive a consultancy fee?"); but it is also easy to see how this can easily lead to whole-sale corruption of an entire group of supposedly unbiased professionals.

To end I think it is worth reflecting on the relationship between academy and commercial interests more generally. It does seem clear that parts of medical academia have become badly corrupted. But Schools of Medicine are particularly at risk from financial manipulation because they interact with an industry which makes huge profits. My colleagues in philosophy or in Ancient Hebrew are probably not at risk. But my colleagues in, say, Computer Science or Food Science perhaps ought to be watchful. There are sensitive moral dilemmas to face here: for example, should a CS department seek or accept sponsorship from MicroSoft or Apple for running a conference? We do it routinely but the example of how drug companies buy endorsement from medical academia makes me think this has the potential to be rather dangerous.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Harding: The Snowden Files

Less than a year has passed since Edward Snowden passed his sensational material to Glenn Greenwald. In that time the governing establishments of the Five Eyes alliance, particularly the USA and the UK, have been regularly embarrassed by a series of disclosures that reveal how extensive is their scooping up of data from phone calls, email, and other web traffic in a manner that historically we might associate with the KGB or the East German Stasi. Unquestionably these events and their ramifications for our supposedly democratic societies will be raked over for many years and there will be accounts from all quarters, each giving their own spin, of the rights and wrongs of state surveillance.

The first comprehensive such account has just been published. Unsurprisingly the author is a Guardian reporter Luke Harding who has written the very readable book The Snowden Files. Harding has a track record in writing books based on award-winning Guardian exposés (most recently with David Leigh a book about Wikileaks and Julian Assange) and knows how to write a rattling good yarn.  Expect other accounts to come thick and fast very soon. Indeed Greenwald himself will soon be publishing No Place to Hide (maybe this explains why he was critical of the Harding book on the grounds that Harding had not met Snowden). It will be interesting to see the inevitable books that will take a more hostile view towards Snowden but Harding and Greenwald treat him as the hero he is.

Even if you have followed all the Snowden revelations you will value that the whole extraordinary story is collected in one place. But, for me, an interesting section was the description of Snowden's life as an online libertarian geek and the insights this gives into how he came to his decision to become a whistle-blower. A picture emerges of a politically aware and brilliant techno-geek; and his journey from defender of his country's security, through a dawning realisation that the US and the UK were trampling on civil liberties, to a personal compulsion to let the world know what was happening. He knew what he was in for, knew that the safeguards for whistle-blowers were effectively worthless, but nevertheless sacrificed his comfortable existence for the life of a fugitive.

We all know the aftermath. The Guardian and the Washington Post received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Yet many senior members of the US/UK establishments have publicly called Snowden a traitor. One of these critics is Senator Dianne Feinstein who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. She has strenuously defended the NSA's intelligence gathering - although she took a very different view when it emerged that the CIA had been eaves-dropping on her Committee's staffers. Another critic is former Vice-President Dick Cheney and British PM David Cameron has also weighed in. Cameron's House of Commons statement about the forced destruction of Guardian laptops is breath-taking and worth quoting at length:

I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary [Sir Jeremy Heywood] to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files.
"Politely asked to destroy the files"! That typifies the eyewash that is spewing from the mouths and pens of our embarrassed politicians. One of the most bizarre aspects of the whole drama has been the schizophrenic reaction of our governors. President Obama has been forced to admit that the NSA's activities have gone beyond their remit and that we know this only because of Edward Snowden; at the same time the US Department of Justice has charged him with treason.

The result has been a meltdown in the way that citizens trust their government. For many years we might have suspected it, for many years we had tantalising hints of it; but now we know for certain that our rulers lie to us on a routine basis. We have to thank Edward Snowden for exposing this once and for all.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Why Nations Fail

The intellectuals I admire the most are those whose horizons are the widest. Peter Watson is one such intellectual because of his book Ideas from Fire to Freud which majestically surveys all the major ideas from neolithic times to the present day. Another of my icons is Jared Diamond on account of Guns, Germs and Steel, a book that offers a number of very original ideas to explain why some parts of the world have been more prosperous over the ages since farming replaced hunter-gathering.

Now I have met two more giants: Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. They are the authors of Why Nations Fail which was published in 2012; I have only just read it but, better late than never, it was breath-taking in its explanatory power.

The topic of the book is captured in the title: it explains why some nations are less successful than others and indeed why some fail altogether.  The one sentence explanation is that failing states have political and economic institutions that allow an elite minority to dominate the remaining citizenry.  This simple idea is developed in great detail.  The authors make a distinction between extractive institutions (bad) and inclusive institutions (good).  At the political level this distinction is between systems that allow all citizens equality of voting rights and equality before the law and systems that don't.  At the economic level the distinction is between systems that allow elites to amass great wealth at the expense of the others (by giving them monopolies or exclusive access to natural resources for example) and systems that protect the financial resources of everyone (by enforcing property rights for example).

The remarkable aspect of the book is how much evidence the authors bring to justify their hypotheses.  They give detailed analyses of dozens of countries at various points on the inclusive-extractive spectrum which convincingly demonstrate the validity of their ideas.  In most cases these examples trace the historical causes of a country's institutional practices and this perspective is a brilliant look at history through a particular lens.

I'll give two contrasting summary examples: the countries of South America compared with the USA and Canada.  When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America they found a land rich in both material and human resources.  In several brutal centuries they enslaved the population in order to loot the gold and other precious materials for the Spanish crown.  Obviously this was a very extractive system.  But it remained extractive when the various South American countries gained their independence since the new rulers took over the institutional practices set up by the Spanish.

In contrast something rather different unfolded when North America was colonized (although the authors are clear to point out that this was in no way due to any more noble motives of the colonizers). Things were rather different for several reasons. One reason was that the British were already moving towards a more inclusive system in their own country (because of the monarchy losing much of its power in the Civil War and the resulting Glorious Revolution of 1688).  Another reason was that North America was not rich in precious metals. Instead tobacco was the cash cow but tobacco required intensive farming and, there being insufficient or unwilling natives to enslave, the colonists had to furnish the labour themselves. This gave them economic leverage with the British government and, of course, the War of Independence allowed the Americans to set up a relatively inclusive state apparatus.

Why some countries followed a historical path towards inclusive institutions while others didn't cannot be explained by some simple mechanism. The authors refer to "critical junctures" which set countries travelling along particular trajectories. Often it seems to be accidental what happens on these occasions. For example, a plausible consequence of the 1688 invitation to William of Orange might have been that the Stuart Royalists might have won the day and firmly entrenched James II back on the throne to roll back the reforms following the Civil War. Or, a century earlier, bad weather might not have sunk the Spanish Armada and Philip II might have established a Catholic stranglehold on England.

The book explains why, once a direction has been set, either to an extractive state or an inclusive state, vicious or virtuous circles tend to preserve that direction. This is certainly seen today among the former colonies of Great Britain where often the extractive apparatus they established has been inherited by the new rulers after independence who have found it comfortable to enjoy getting rich just as their former British overlords did.

I ended the book reflecting on two things. The first was a comparison with Guns, Germs and Steel which is another attempt to explain why different countries nowadays enjoy very different levels of prosperity. Diamond's explanations are rather different (and, intriguing though they are, are more speculative) but they reach back much further to the time before nation states developed. Acemoglu and Robinson believe that their institutional explanations would apply to these much earlier societies. Here they are on weaker ground because there is less evidence in the historical record. I find many of Diamond's explanations plausible about why agriculture took off more quickly in some parts of the world than others but we shall probably never know with certainty.

The other thought I was left with is that, despite the tendency of inclusive systems to be self-correcting, we cannot be complacent. I look at the recent track record of the USA with some anxiety: the great income and opportunity inequity in that country shows some of the signs of an extractive system. If this book sets more alarm bells ringing it will have done the whole world a service.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The forgotten American shame of Vietnam

It is almost 40 years since the Fall of Saigon and the end of the US war in Vietnam. Memories of that traumatic war are dimming as veterans, politicians and journalists who lived in that period die off. It is therefore easier to mythologize the war and cast the US defeat in a more positive light. Nevertheless the US psyche remains deeply scarred. A new book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse picks the scab (Turse would most likely claim "lances the boil") of possibly the most shameful aspect of that conflict.

Written over a 10 year period the book is a meticulously researched exposé of systematic institutionalized abuse of Vietnamese civilians. The narrative that most Americans accept is that, while there may have been occasional excesses carried out in the blood-lust of the moment, the war was prosecuted honorably and within the rules of the Geneva Convention. Turse demonstrates that this narrative is completely fictitious. He has interviewed hundreds of US veterans and Vietnamese survivors, pored through numerous written records and built a consistent and compelling picture of the army culture in Vietnam. What he has discovered is chilling.

American troops faced a guerilla war where the enemy was a shadowy figure often indistinguishable from a civilian. This produced more endemic anxiety in the average American soldier than in a more conventional war where a small number of pitched battles are separated by long periods of tedium. Not knowing who was friend or foe cannot have been easy for the raw recruits many of whom were unwilling draftees. The army's response to this very stressful environment was very often to turn a blind eye to the over-reaction of trigger-happy soldiers. At least it perhaps started like that but very soon, as Turse demonstrates in a multitude of case histories, the ease with which troops could get away with murder bred a callousness that quickly got out of control. Very soon civilians (including women and children) were being killed for sport and their deaths were reported as the deaths of enemy combatants. Significant quarters of the army turned a blind eye to atrocity after atrocity - all that mattered was body count. A few men in a US unit could level an entire village in minutes, leaving no-one left alive, merely because they were looking for a lone sniper; that power is too corrosive to be left unchecked.

Obviously this new narrative is so explosive that one would be tempted to reject it out of hand. But Turse has amassed a mountain of supporting evidence for his claims and it is time that the United States confronts its past with honesty. It is no longer credible to believe that the US war crimes began and ended with the My Lai massacre. The truth is that there were hundreds of My Lai's.

Possibly it is too late to bring the war criminals to justice (although, of course, there is no statute of limitations of war crimes). But the guilty parties are not simply the young men who raped and murdered Vietnamese civilians, all the time demonizing them as "Gooks" or "Charlie". The guilt should be borne by those senior officers in the US army who were aware that the men on the ground were out of control but either did nothing or tacitly encouraged their behaviour.

Retribution would not only represent justice for the survivors of the indiscriminate killings but would remind the most powerful (and therefore most dangerous) nation in the world that their military might can hardly be used without being abused. Shining the torch on their Vietnamese atrocities would ignite a debate about the very society they stand for - a debate that currently is not happening because the establishment has been so successful in hiding the facts.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Blair: the religious terrorist

Tony Blair, writing in the Observer, offers us his thoughts on war and and religion.  He writes "religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world".  Can he possibly be right?

Let's take the war he knows most about: Iraq v. US/UK.  As we know, this was a unilateral attack in 2003 by the US and the UK led by Bush and Blair.  This war caused between 600,000 and one million Iraqis to die (estimates vary wildly - the BBC's More or Less podcast explains why).  We also know (see, for example, The Downing Street memo) that both these men lied to their people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (their justification for the war).  No doubt then that this war was a horrible example of aggression and that the BB leadership has to take full blame.  Where though does religion enter into the equation?

Blair himself is Roman Catholic and has admitted to praying to God when deciding whether or not to send UK troops to Iraq.  Presumably God gave him the go-ahead.  Bush, a born-again Christian when he was 40, is one of the most overtly religious presidents the USA has ever had.  There are very many examples of him claiming divine guidance during his presidency and at least one plausible claim that he believed he was charged by God to invade Iraq.

So maybe Blair has a point.

It could be, of course, that he doesn't see it quite in the way that I have presented it.  In his article he goes on to say "acts of terrorism are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith".  Oh, that's all right then.  As long as you commit acts of war not acts of terrorism, as long as you don't "abuse" your religion and as long as your faith is not "perverted" everything is fine and dandy.  Can Blair really subscribe to that sophistry?  At this very moment his own church is suppressing women throughout the world by doctrines that deny them access to manage their reproductive systems and thereby keep them in poverty.

No, Tony.  The Campaign to arrest Blair has got it spot on.  You are personally responsible for your actions.  You should face justice and you should stop hiding behind the cloak of your God.  Your article is self-serving hyprocisy and quite likely an attempt to begin the damage control that the Chilton inquiry is going to inflict on you when its report is made public this year.

But on a positive note: you are right in accusing religion as a cause of many wars.  Where you got it wrong was assuming that religions you don't subscribe to, and wars you are opposed to are because the religions became "perverted" or were "abused".  Christianity, Islam and Judaism (to name but three) have all done more than their fair share to deal out death, torture and destruction.  Would you care to widen your target and argue for their wholesale culpability?  And if you did that would you like to go the extra mile and denounce and renounce faith altogether?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Why does the world exist

I have just finished reading "Why does the exist" by Jim Holt.  It is account of Holt's quest to find an answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", possibly the hoariest philosophical chestnut of them all.  Holt's research methodology is quite simple: he interviews a number of philosophers, scientists and other thinkers, listens to what they say, offers his slant on what each great mind has told him, and then hops off to the next guru on his list.  It's an interesting read as a survey of the very different answers to this great existential question and Holt presents the ideas in an engaging manner often lacing the details with personal anecdotes.  Despite this I was left with a bemused feeling that Holt's greatest achievement was to expose the uselessness of philosophical thought at least in this particular area.

I do not accuse the great thinkers interviewed by Holt as intellectual con-men.  However, I cannot help comparing them with thinkers and practitioners in the much narrower domain of theism.  In the latter domain we have a myriad of mutually contradictory faiths defended by their advocates with an impressive array of intellectual fire-power.  But of course we cannot take any of them seriously: if you are a Mormon your beliefs are totally at odds with a Sunni Moslem.  And for any other two religious faiths you will find a huge amount of disagreement.  And all this despite the lengthy education of their most notable exponents at esteemed centres of learning.

As Holt's book makes very clear this level of disagreement is present when the domain of discourse is existential philosophy.  The difference is that the individuals that feature in Holt's book are heavyweight intellectuals: they are clever enough to marshall an argument to build complex structures to explain our existence but none of them come up with the same structure.

I know that many of those interviewed by Holt's have reputations that they justly deserve.  But, cor blimey gov'ner, so far as throwing light on Holt's main question they are a load of posturing charlatans.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Spirit Level: consequences of inequality

Over the last several years a very troubling social issue has boiled to the top of the political cauldron: the increasing income inequality in many countries of the world.  President Obama recently gave a speech in which he stated that reversing the growing gap between rich and poor was "the defining challenge of our time".  His speech did not, by any means, meet with universal approval.  For example, columns in the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic were sharply critical of the idea that inequality in itself was a problem, and also challenged that it was a growing condition.

Nevertheless it does seem to be established that income inequality has become much more pronounced since the Reagan-Thatcher years.  If you doubt this have a look at this very compelling presentation of the US situation.  There are many other statistical analyses and I think that you have to be completely blinkered not to accept that income inequality is a growing phenomenon.

But is it a "problem" that we should be working to solve?  Maybe income inequality is a motivator to make societies stronger or more efficient.  And how can we judge the arguments for and against when clearly this is an issue that is likely to be politically polarised with the left arguing on the basis of social equality and the right arguing on the basis of rewarding the most industrious?

I have just finished reading "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Theirs is not a political text but they do come down completely on the "Income inequality is harmful" side of the question.  They demonstrate, by a large number of statistical analyses, that income inequality is correlated with a host of societal evils (poor social relations, poor mental health and drug abuse, poor physical health and lower life expectancy, obesity, low educational performance to name just some).  They display their results in graphs that plot, country by country (or US state by US state) how income inequality is correlated with particular social evils.

Now correlation is not necessarily the same as causation but the authors do consider in depth whether some other causal agent than income inequality might be present.  Coupled with arguments for how income inequality can be so pernicious they come to the very strong conclusion that very many societal evils stem directly from income inequality.

This part of their book - the case for income inequality having such negative effects - is the main take-home message.  I found it entirely convincing, so convincing in fact that I believe every honest politician should acknowledge its validity.  The remainder of the book begins a discussion about what to do.  Of course this is much less clear-cut but I found it valuable for two main reasons.  The first one is that we should be aware that there are multiple types of solution not all of which would be unpalatable to those on the political right.  

The second one brings in the other flagship problem of our age: to come to terms with our now rapidly changing climate and the inevitable adjustments it will being to our way of life.  It turns out that yet another strong correlation (arguably causal) is that nations with greater income equality are more seriously inclined to pursue vigorous policies to address climate change.

So to underline the principal message of the book: every nation should be aware that  most of their social problems will be alleviated if they can institute measures to distribute their national wealth more equitably.  This is not the politics of envy - it is the politics of our very survival as a species.