To thine own self be true

Archive for August, 2009

It’s no time to gloat

Posted by Polonius on 28 August, 2009

I’ve had misgivings for a while now about Pharyngula. I think the issue of science versus religion is a kind of triage (in the original French sense): there are basically three groups of people in the world:

  1. the ones who will believe in a god or gods regardless of evidence,
  2. the ones who won’t,
  3. and the ones who might be open to persuasion.

Ridiculing Group 1 is entertaining in the short term, but gets tedious after a while. Preaching to Group 2 is pointless. Telling Group 3 they’re stupid is counterproductive, and Pharyngula is all about ridiculing religion.

PZ Myers doesn’t explicitly impute any causal link between religion and the events that have recently come to light in Antioch, California. He simply juxtaposes a few facts and leaves readers to form their own conclusions. Sadly, most of the comments on his post are about as reasoned and evidence-based as those at Garrido’s disturbing blog.

Rational people, especially scientists, can do better than this. “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote”, and this incident doesn’t prove anything. We should not aspire to be as unscientific as the religious in our treatment of evidence.

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Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi

Posted by Polonius on 20 August, 2009

This started off as a comment on Head of Legal’s post on the rumours leading up to today’s release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

A successful appeal would be embarrassing to the governments of several countries. Where there’s terrorism, the standard government reaction seems to be some form or other of the politician’s syllogism. The American approach is along the lines of “We must invade somewhere. The culprits were from Saudi Arabia, but we can’t invade there – Afghanistan will do.” The British approach seems to be to convict somebody – anybody will do.

That goes some way towards satisfying the immediate lust for revenge. If they convict the right people, so much the better – it stops them committing crimes and deters others. But it’s intensely embarrassing when it goes wrong. If an appeal succeeds, it’s apparent that the real culprits are still out there somewhere. Furthermore, potential terrorists can see no point in not committing crimes if they think they’ll be considered innocent until proved Irish/Muslim/whatever.

I think Lord Denning understood that, and he pointed out that the death penalty is an effective way of preventing such appeals. Of course, he also felt that the possibility of embarrassing police officers with evidence of their perjury constituted grounds for rejecting such appeals. (Many readers will know that that was the speech where he coined the term “appalling vista”, preempting Microsoft by a quarter of a century.)

If I was a real conspiracy theorist, I’d say that the Scottish government saw an opportunity to avoid an embarrassing defeat at the appeal, especially if the rumours turn out to be true.

Posted in News, Rants | 1 Comment »