Archive for November, 2009

The Truman-Byrne Show

The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is certainly no bastion for solid, conscientious journalism. In fact, I’ve come across less non sequiturs and discombobulated arguments in the writings of pre-pubescent Korean children. However, it was still something of a shock to come across Agnès Poirier – vainglorious Myspace photo included – profile on the Guardian’s website.

The first two articles I read contained:

1. The most frivolous defense of Foie Gras I have ever encountered.
2. A violin sonata on the arrest of Roman Polanski.

You’d be tempted to think she was some sort of postmodern and oh-so-sophisticated French correspondent. Wait…

Here is her – oh isn’t it all just a big joke? – argument regarding the potential banning of the pâté:

Another pleasure to go down the drain after smoking, drinking and parental spanking. If we ban foie gras, I suggest we also ban human force-feeding, you know, obesity, and make it a crime for all who encourage it and all who indulge in it. Cadbury should be forced to close down, so should Häagen Dazs and many others, and let’s lock up everyone with a BMI above 25. Yes, you, filthy foie gras eater.

And here she is on the arrest of a self-confessed statutory rapist:

There is a feeling in France that the US justice department is acting out some kind of prudish revenge against a great talent who never abided by American rules even when he was the most celebrated director in Hollywood.

Sometimes I really think it’s all a big scripted joke.

Kindergarten Con

A gaudy crucified Jesus, painted blood flowing down his wilted body, stared down at me in the silent classroom. My Italian classmates, also staring at me, sat around a circle of dilapidated desks that looked to be built out of detritus reclaimed from one of Mussolini’s tanks. The teacher was waiting for my reply. Under pressure to defend my doubts about the existence of God, I was trying to translate something my father had once challenged me with:

If God is omnipotent, can he create a stone so large he cannot move it?

I scratched my head. What was this? It sounded like a trick; maybe he was trying to make me look stupid.  If God could create such an object he was not omnipotent, and if he couldn’t, he had the same problem. I thought it through again. The answer confirmed my suspicions. It was a trick, the old smug bastard. Maybe this was part of the ruse though… Maybe he was still going to come out on top? I stayed silent. He took the fag out of his mouth and looked over at me, “Well?”

I explained my problem with the question. “What does that tell you about God then?” he asked. I still didn’t get it. Best keep quiet. “It shows that there is a problem with the idea of omnipotence.” It was slow to dawn on me but I finally got it… there was a problem there! Furthermore, it was one without an immediate solution. Well, at least one that a dull eight year old could think of.

Anticlimactically, however, delivering the Problem of Omnipotence had no discernible epistemological effect on my Roman Catholic teacher and comrades. There was no problem, they replied, God can do whatever the blue fuck he likes, whenever he likes. I tried to explain that that was precisely the problem. But it was no good; they’d grown up in a tiny village in the mountains with catholic parents, teachers and priests. Some of them believed that clouds were made out of cotton wool and that metal teaspoons would float in water.

Of course, this is the problem with children: they’ll believe any old shit. Unfortunately, however, this is not a feature particular to children. The Revd Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s chief education officer, believes that parents have a right to raise their children in any philosophical or political framework they wish. Here she is on the issue:

If parents wish their children to be brought up as Christians, or, for that matter, atheists, what right do others have to stop them?

And again:

It is surely central to the role of a parent, whether committed to a religious faith or not, to want to pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live. It is also consistent with that role to want to have those beliefs and world view acknowledged and affirmed as part of their children’s education.

First off, it is worth noticing Ainsworth’s rhetorical ploy in her first quote. The inclusion of Christians and atheists in the same question is a deployment of the same tired old rhetoric that there is no relevant epistemological difference between these positions: both are fundamentally faith based. However, as I’ve argued before, this is false:

To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

Atheism, the probabilistic doubt in the existence of God, is a straightforward consequence of our knowledge gathering processes. The same processes would return a higher probability of his existence were there any good evidence. If God, in his infinite mercy, decided to unequivocally reveal himself to all of us miserable unbelievers tomorrow there would be none of us left by dinner time. However, as we already know, God works in mysterious ways. So mysterious, in fact, that he’s convinced a large fraction of the world’s population to not believe in his existence. Funny that. The salient point here though is that raising children as Christians is fundamentally different from the atheistic equivalent. Whereas the former requires threats of everlasting violence, manipulation and dogma to establish its primary ontological belief, the latter does not  –  as far as I can remember, I have never been threatened with even a mild kicking for a failure to believe in the non-existence of God.

The second, and perhaps more relevant, point is Ainsworth’s claim that no one has the right to interfere with what parents teach their children.  Does she really believe, however, that Ku Klux Clan parents should be permitted to “pass on to their child the things they value most, the beliefs and world view that shape how they live”? Is she of the opinion that many conspiracy theorists’ demented belief that our governments are run by a shape-shifting reptile bourgeoisie from the constellation Draco should be ‘acknowledged and affirmed as a part of their children’s education’? Of course not. None of us, apart from those in the grip of these delusions, think such things should be taught to our children. Why? Precisely because there is no good reason to believe them in the first place. If you want others to believe claims about the existence of gods, vampires, perpetual motion machines, shape shifting lizards or anything else for that matter, then you are shouldering the burden of proof.

The Dawkinsian point is that raising children in a religious framework, one based on faith and often other surreptitious methods of inducing belief, is taking advantage of a child’s cognitive vulnerabilities. Apart from the inherent dishonesty, Dawkins goes on to say that:

…the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

Making a child believe there is a hell where the misbehaved are forever castigated is a merciful and necessary favour if true. If it is false, however, and if there is no good reason to believe it, the theist has done the child a serious harm.

John Stuart Mill, “Negro Cocaine Fiends” and Contemporary Drugs Policy.

The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. – John Stuart Mill. On Liberty.

Of the 1st of July 1908 a certain Dr. Hamilton Wright was appointed as the United States Opium Commissioner by the then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Two years later Wright claimed that Black workers were being dosed with cocaine to increase their productivity[i]. These claims, or the practices they alluded to, were likely the cause of the reports of “cocaine crazed Negroes” misbehaving in Southern society. The New York Times published this distilled piece of racism in an article entitled “Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace” in 1914[ii]. The article claimed that “most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the ‘cocaine-crazed’ Negro brain” and that “Negro cocaine fiends are now a known Southern menace.” These delusional and racist claims coupled with the general apprehension regarding increasing narcotic consumption led to the Harisson Narcotic Act of 1914[iii]. Although the act was originally intended as a means of controlling the distribution of these drugs through physicians its wording eventually led to their legal prohibition in the United States. Now, of course, that a given policy was implemented for prejudicial reasons doesn’t mean it still is.

Prohibition, however, has been the orthodoxy in the western world since the early 20th century. Tens of thousands of people have been punished for the possession or distribution of drugs in the form of fines, incarceration and the associated cascading costs of being convicted. The execution and implementation of this policy also costs our governments tens of billions of dollars a year; an economic burden which is ultimately, and in its entirety, born by the normal citizen, you.

The net human and economic costs of these drug policies are immense. Of course, if our governments are right, this is just the cost of doing the right thing. Conversely, if they are wrong, not only would they be implicated in the considerable injustice of persecuting these individuals, but also in squandering your money in the process. Given the stakes, one might hope that there are better reasons for shouldering these costs than fearing ‘cocaine crazed rape fiends’ and other blatant demagoguery. In fact, it would not be optimistic to hope that the policy of destroying tens of thousands of people’s lives at an enormous fiscal cost to other members of that society would be shored up by implacable evidence and argument… We’ve got our best people on this right?

Unfortunately not. The people who have historically perpetuated these policies and those currently in charge of doing so are a collection of prejudiced, confused and epistemologically incompetent arseholes. Invectives aside, the arguments for the prohibition of drugs are premised upon principles most of us believe are false. Their conclusions are in direct tension with key tenets of individualism and, ipso facto, western liberalism. The main argument promulgated against the use of drugs is motivated by a paternalistic concern for citizen’s health.

  1. The state has a responsibility to prevent its subjects from harming themselves.
  2. The use of drugs causes direct and serious harm to the individual and is likely to cause others to also begin harming themselves.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, the government is morally required to place a prohibition on drugs and punish anyone involved in their consumption and distribution.

This is a basic form of the anti-drugs argument and as well intentioned and reasonable as it might seem at first glance it is a load of rot. Premise one is false and most of us already believe it so. The falsity of premise two is becoming increasingly clear with mounting empirical evidence.

Premise 1: The Legitimate Scope of State Action.

Most of us believe that the realm of state action and personal recreational activity are, to use one of Gould’s phrases, non-overlapping magisteria. The vast range of activities that we partake in including rock climbing, horse riding, scuba diving, boozing, smoking cigarettes (in a private place), butter eating, boxing, and cheese rolling are not legitimate targets of state intervention. This is despite the fact that each year thousands of people are seriously injured or die as a direct result. People do these activities because, despite the risks, they enjoy them. Drugs are no different. People take drugs, despite the risks, precisely because they enjoy them. Here it is often replied that the comparison is false, that drug use causes large swathes of collateral damage in the form of crime, poverty and homelessness. However, there is good evidence that these social problems are a product of the illegality itself. Government sponsored Heroin trials run across the world have found that supplying the addicts results in a decrease in crime, homelessness and addict mortality rate.

Government prohibition of the aforementioned practices would be unjust because, as Mill famously concluded:

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

The liberty principle, the right to decide for one’s self what to do with their body (provided they refrain from harming others in the process), is why we believe that the state would be committing a serious injustice in prohibiting any of these activities. Furthermore, it is in direct contradiction to the first premise of the anti drugs argument. For a democratically elected representative to presume that they know what is best for you, what risks you should and should not take, and what goods you should and should not consume is nothing but bigotry. It is a pejorative and derogatory assessment of your abilities as a rational adult. The insult does not end there though, for not only are they perfectly qualified in deciding what is best for you, but they are also, funnily enough, capable of deciding what is best for them. Since we do not believe this nonsense is acceptable in any of the previous cases neither should we in the case of drugs.

This is not to claim that the state has no role here, it does. The state should provide non-partisan, empirical evidence on the dangers of these activities, including drugs, such that individuals can rationally weigh the benefits and risks. The government also has a job of regulating the drug industry. Industry would have to meet standards of quality, transparency and consistency. Currently illicit drugs would be government regulated like any other products on the pharmaceutical market.

Premise 2: Drugs, Harms and the Empirical Issues.

For those who have kept up with the recent scandal in Britain it is probably no surprise that the putative harms of taking these narcotics is minimal. The evidence is now widely available online and it won’t be rehashed here. The final interesting point though concerns the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, and his attitude towards the results of this empirical work, as espoused by the Chief Government Drugs Advisor David Nutt. Here he is on the issue:

Professor Nutt is indeed a reputable scientist whose views on drugs policy are well known. However, his role as my principal adviser was to (unsurprisingly) present advice. It is the job of the government to decide policy.

Professor Nutt was not sacked for his views, which I respect but disagree with (as does Professor Robin Murray, who wrote in your newspaper on Friday).

He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy. This principle is well understood and long established.

Of course, this last paragraph is no surprise: If empirical evidence is in tension with party policy then your circulation of it will result in dismissal. This is brazen and unrepentant bigotry; the primacy of dogma over intellectual honesty.

Back in 1859 John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty got it right. Our systems of government generally reflect these ideals in allowing citizens to live free and autonomous lives. Maybe it is no great surprise that a few residual and surreptitious dogmas linger from more religious and unscientific times. And while a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a dogma enshrined in policy still emits an olfactory malaise.  

[i] David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control, 1973.

[ii] The New York Times, “Negro Cocaine Fiends, New Southern Menace” February 11, 1914.