Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How scientists are stupid

What is it about scientists that they never learn? Isn't the scientific method supposed to be about: theory -> prediction -> observation -> evaluation -> new theory? The so-called falsifiability method?

But here they are in the latest edition of the New Scientist - a special half-century birthday edition - all lining up to tell you all the wonderful things they think are going to happen in their own specialist fields in the next half-century. The leaders in their respective fields wax lyrically about everything from unlimited supplies of transplantable human organs to invisible technology with the potential to create life on other planets, from information sharing between parallel universes to robotic scientists, from artificial life mimicking human consciousness to the death of religion, and whole body replacement.

It all seems strangely reminiscent of the Sixties, when scientists envisaged a future where we would by now have conquered Mars and Venus, be living a life of leisure serviced by robots, and flying around in our own personal hover cars. Instead we are living in a world which is for my money even worse than any of the pessimistic dystopias created by science fiction writers ever since then.

Of course it's not science that is to blame for this necessarily. It's the application of scientific discovery and technology by politicians, society and economists. We are creating the largest amount of species extinction in the shortest amount of time since the asteroid that wiped out all the dinosaurs. We are sitting on a massive population explosion in which most people don't have access to clean water and enough to eat let alone can afford a whole body transplant when they get ill. We cannot eradicate war and the arms trade. We are causing irreparable harm to the planet's climate.

It's astonishing how optimistic the scientists are. Don't they ever poke their heads out of their own research cubicles to look at the world around them? Don't they learn from experience? Isn't that what science is supposed to be about?

None of them even mention climate change, biodiversity loss, the lack of clean water supplies, eradicating war, resource depletion or a hundred other problems affecting the world's poor or the environment.

Are these scientists really any better than the leaders of monotheistic religious cults who themselves never look at the practical effect of preaching that theirs is the one true religion - while claiming it to be morally irreproachable?

Perhaps if scientists ruled the world things might be a little different, but they don't. Instead we keep electing people who don't know much about anything except how to persuade us that they know best and convince us to believe in their vapid promises. We listen to people who appeal to our short-term and narrow interests.

I'm glad that scientists don't rule the world, since they have little idea of the value of the imagination. They are far too specialist to see the big picture.

Perhaps our only possibility of being saved by science is that scientists will one day create a machine that is capable of computing all the possibilities and mapping out for us the best of all possible worlds.

But even if this was possible, I'm sure that nobody would trust it sufficiently to do what it says.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The manufacture of terror

Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller of MI5 has made the unusual step of going public to say that MI5 knows of 30 terror plots threatening the UK and is keeping 1,600 individuals under surveillance.

Do we believe her?

The threat from this quarter is certainly higher than it was before the asinine invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But 30 plots? Here are some reasons why we should treat her remarks with some scepticism.

1. She made it at the same time as asking for more government funds, and government departments always want more funds. And yet MI5 is already twice as big as it was pre-9-11. But do we want to live in a paranoid state? Does the potential threat to a few individuals really justify this level of stress for the whole population?

2. Eliza talks of future threats such as dirty bombs, biological weapons and other horrors, designed to make us rush into her protective arms for safety. I'm sorry, I've heard it before, and even if it may be true, again, the potential threat doesn't make me want to live in the kind of country Eliza wants to create.

3. The timing of her remark comes just a few days after Dhiren Barot was sentenced to at least 40 years in jail for planning a series of attacks, for maximum effect. Fear distorts judgement, and she knows that.

4. An example: over 1,000 arrests have been made under anti-terrorism since 9/11. Out of those, 27 have been found guilty of which only nine have been Muslims. Less than 1% of those arrested.

5. Fear breeds fear. We are in danger of helping to create - as we already have done by our meddling - itself caused by faulty intelligence - more of the very thing we fear.

Let's try and learn from history, get some perspective.

The origin of MI5

Modern Britain began in the 16th century with the foundation of a Protestant state. At that time the majority of the British population was Catholic. Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham helped to found the secret service - today's MI5 - to protect this fledgling state from real and perceived Catholic plots and bolster the hegemony which they benefited from.

Yes, the motivation was religion and power.

At this time, wonderful innovations were introduced - such as torture on the rack to extort confessions, usually suspect, sanctioned for use by Queen ELizabeth and employed by one of the most perverted sadists ever to serve the British State, a man called Topcliffe.

Walsingham created a network of paid informers, dubious spies, encryption experts, forgers, shady double dealers, fanatics, criminals, businessmen wanting diplomatic help with deals in exchange for information, and agents provocateur, to gather information (or misinformation) about Catholic priests and their supporters at home and abroad, in order to persecute and prosecute them.

Many of these 'plots' were invented, manufactured or helped along for political ends. This eventually resulted in his entrapment of Queen Mary Stuart, and her execution.

There is no difference between the methods used then and now. They just seem to be more sophisticated. Then, as now, Burghley and Walsingham exaggerated the threats for their own purposes. They used all the techniques of modern spin for propaganda. They spread rumours to stir the population against Catholics.

Walsingham even proposed an alliance with Islamic Turkey against Catholic Spain before the Armada.

How things change - or not.

The enemy changed

Only twenty years ago the enemy was still Catholic - the IRA. How distant this seems now.

But there was another enemy in the '80s - so-called anarchists. I myself was allegedly one of these, and operated on the fringes of various activities in London. I saw first hand the absurd attempts of MI5 to infiltrate and spread scare stories about anarchist activities.

At one point an attempt was made to plant an agent in our collective. He was spotted straight away, so inept was he. Simultaneously it emerged that Greenpeace London's group - the one campaigning against McDonald's - contained more agents reporting on each other than it did real members.

Every so often a scare story about an anarchist plot to blow something up would appear in the press, which we knew was a silly season tactic, more to do with MI5's funding needs than reality.

How times have changed - or not.

Of course there is a threat - but mostly it's from misguided little-more-than-children. A simple change of foreign policy will nip most of it in the bud, don't we know.

So should we trust Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller?

I wouldn't trust MI5 further than I'd trust Tony Blair. Can I make it any clearer? I trust my cat more.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Mass graves of babies in Ireland

I met Barry Simner the other night at our local writers' group. He's a long-time tv scriptwriter. He said that he was researching a story in Ireland recently and came across two mass graves - 5000 bodies each - of babies, being dug up.

This is literally a buried scandal of Irish life... For various reasons - mostly to do with Catholicism of course - unbaptised, some possibly aborted, babies were secretly buried at a locally known spot out of town.

Everyone knew about them but 'officially' they did not exist - no one spoke of them. Presumably most towns have such spots.

As the Vatican is now considering abolishing limbo - the fantasy place where unbaptised babies' souls are alleged to reside for eternity - this topic is coming to the surface, again literally, in Irish discourse.

Parents, unable to grieve publicly for their lost children, need to be able to do so but have been prevented by a moralistic Church.

Another example of the anguish caused by a so-called compassionate religion.

Anybody have any more info on this?