19 December 2010

Scientific integrity comes to America

It’s official: the US government is going to keep politics out of science.

I’m confused about the appropriate response to the news. Do I whoop with joy over this promising turn of events that will lead to greater scientific progress in the US? Or do I facepalm myself over the politicians’ pathetically belated realisation that science and political ideology should never, ever mix?

Ambivalent reactions aside, it can only be considered a good thing that the Obama administration has publicly declared the independence of science from undue political influence. Yes, I’m aware that a public declaration isn’t a magic spell that will suddenly banish all such influence. But at least American scientists will finally be able to do their thing under the aegis of policies that contain “a clear prohibition on political interference in scientific processes and expanded assurances of transparency.”

This has been a long time coming. For years now scientists and organisations like the Center for Inquiry (CFI) have been calling for such pro-science action. The retardation of science under the Bush administration has arguably eroded America’s commercial, technological and intellectual prominence. It has also very likely contributed to the prevalence of anti-scientific attitudes, while nurturing disdain for evidence-based decision making.

The Obama administration’s green light for independent science comes at a time when the US sorely needs to up its game in scientific literacy. In a 2006 world ranking of science literacy among high school students, the US ranked at No. 22 out of 33 countries, which is well below the OECD average (ditto for maths and reading). With American scientific advancement no longer a signed and sealed deal, the last thing US politicians should be doing is sabotaging their already beleaguered science institutions with anti-scientific meddling (and if it’s the Republicans doing the meddling, you can bet your retirement fund that it will be anti-scientific).

Of course, it would also help if members of the science community refrained from making silly comments regarding ‘political bias’ in the actual practise of science, rather than in its implementation, which can indeed be politicised. Now that the Obama administration has pledged to maintain the integrity and independence of science, freshly energised and emboldened scientists should start strutting their stuff. Even if most of them are Democrats.


14 December 2010

Talk about putting the cart before the horse

Consider the following statement:

Most jockeys are short. This is a problem. Horse racing organisations need to address this imbalance by encouraging tall people to become jockeys.

Silly, isn’t it? The reason why jockeys tend to be short has little to do with horse racing politics or managerial bickering. Simply put, short and light physiques lend themselves to riding a horse to victory better than tall and heavy ones. It’s the physics, stupid.

13 December 2010

The Sokal Hoax 2: Alt med gets punked

Arse-cupuncture - coming soon to an alt med provider near you

What’s one way to tell if a system of thought contains utter bollocks? When its ‘experts’ can’t even tell the difference between its own official bollocks and a prankster’s totally made-up bollocks.

10 December 2010

The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’

“Acupuncture relieved my back pain, that’s why I know it works.”

“After my daughter got vaccinated when she was two, she became autistic. How can anyone think that vaccines don’t cause autism?”

“My uncle’s wife’s nephew’s cousin’s neighbour had his cancer go into remission after using only herbal remedies. They’re way better than chemotherapy.”

“Homeopathy is effective because I am living proof that it can cure herpes.”

You may know someone who has expressed something similar to the above. Perhaps you yourself have a personal story to tell about how you became a believer in carb-free dieting/UFO abductions/traditional Chinese medicine after being exposed to ‘evidence’ that confirmed your biases. The confirmation bias and cherry picking fallacies are largely responsible for why Aunt Maria insists that it’s the power of prayer that cured her of her haemorrhoids.

Steven Novella has written a brilliant article explaining how anecdotes and anomalies can lead people to draw inaccurate or plain wrong conclusions, and why a large volume of personal testimonies does not count as proof. The plural of ‘anecdote’ is ‘anecdotes’, not ‘data’. Dr Novella’s article educates us on the nature and proper role of both anecdotes and anomalies in science. As he writes, “Context is king.”

I highly recommend that you also read the comments in response to the post. They contain more instructive information and examples of faulty thinking that further illustrate Dr Novella’s points.

This kind of knowledge should really be taught in schools to develop students’ critical thinking skills. It would certainly reduce the number of adults who subscribe to all sorts of dubious beliefs, simply because they lack an understanding of logical fallacies like confirmation bias, cherry picking, argument from ignorance, equating correlation with causation, and creating false dichotomies. Many don't know how to think about thinking – what psychologists call ‘exercising metacognition’. Thankfully we have great science educators like Dr Novella to teach us the ropes.


08 December 2010

WikiLeaks: the case for and against

Looks like they got him. Julian Assange now sits in a London jail on rape charges, awaiting possible extradition to Sweden. But I won’t be drawn into this sideshow. I’m more concerned about the ethical issues behind the actions of WikiLeaks. Assange may be the cognitive, directive and even motive force behind it, but his current absence from WikiLeaks won’t lessen the impact the organisation has made on the international landscape. The fallout of ‘Cablegate’ will continue to occupy people’s thoughts and fuel fiery arguments attacking and defending WikiLeaks (and thus Assange).

07 December 2010

No, I'm not a 'blogger'

A writer who writes books isn’t called a booker. A writer who writes magazine articles isn’t called a magaziner. So why is it that a writer who writes a blog is called a blogger? Why do wordsmiths working with a certain early 21st century internet medium get labeled with such an unlovely appellation? Bad enough that said internet medium suffered the historic misfortune of having the adequate designation of ‘weblog’ hacked into the fecal-sounding ‘blog’. Must we compound this disgrace by calling writers of blogs ‘bloggers’? A blogger blogging on his blog gives the impression of needing 3-ply toilet paper.

I’m not alone in my antipathy for the word ‘blogger’. Jonathan Dobres eloquently denigrates all things ‘blog’ related in this website post. Personally, I can somewhat tolerate the term ‘blog’, so long as it refers specifically to a website maintained by one or more individuals who regularly post original material (textual, visual or auditory) that isn’t purely objective, disinterested reportage or organisational propaganda. Otherwise it’s a news website or an impersonal home page. It helps if the posted material is interesting/educational/edifying in some ineffably sublime way. Alright, erotically titillating is good too.

What I would like to see go the way of the broad-faced potoroo (potorous platyops) is the word ‘blogger’ being used to describe someone who writes for a blog. My fellow online scribes, you are writers, no less so than someone who gets paid to have her alphabetic ejaculations appear under a globally recognised masthead, or behind a hip orange-and-cream cover with a fucking bird on it. Wherefore this ashamed reluctance to declare oneself a writer just because one hasn’t been professionally published? You use words, do you not? You string them together into (sometimes) coherent sentences, correct? And you are (hopefully) read by an audience, yes? So call yourself a writer, damn it! Unless you prefer a description reminiscent of taking a shit.


05 December 2010

Leaking is the new terrorism

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks
According to a former Alaskan governor and North Korean ally, Julian Assange is a terrorist. He has “blood on his hands”, because being the editor of an internet outfit that makes secret stuff not so secret is just the same thing as exploding bombs in crowded places, gunning down hotel guests and flying planes into buildings. With the sort of manhunter posturing and persecutive bombast coming from his critics, you’d think Assange was Osama bin Laden’s chief operations coordinator.

28 November 2010

FBI stops jihadist from killing (but will they get much thanks?)

I feel for Americans, I sincerely do. They’re caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place – between potential terrorist attacks on unsuspecting targets and illiberal laws aimed at preventing such attacks from occurring. Their executive, legislative, judiciary and law-enforcement institutions are committed to protecting citizens from being wantonly murdered by ideological fanatics, yet their often difficult decisions are routinely savaged by cynics, conspiracy theorists, PC zealots and bleeding-heart liberals.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud

19 November 2010

Is atheism/humanism a white man’s club?

The Four Horsemen of Atheism - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris

Guardian writer Alom Shaha is an atheist. He is also of Asian extraction. In a ‘Comment is Free’ article, he expresses his worry over the predominantly white male demographic of atheist, humanist and skeptic groups in the UK and across the Atlantic. “Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, James Randi […] – they are all white men. The atheist and sceptic movements are dominated by white men and I think this is a problem.” Shaha is correct in pointing out the preponderance of white male atheists/humanists/skeptics, especially in leadership roles. He may even be correct that this presents a problem, if only through projecting an image of humanism (for the purpose of this essay I will treat ‘humanism’ as synonymous with ‘atheism’) that doesn’t accurately reflect the diversity of its subscribers.

14 November 2010

The sad state of England's legal system (or What the f**k is wrong with English laws?)

For a land that gave the free world the likes of John Stuart Mill and his seminal work ‘On Liberty’, England has become a decidedly unfree place, particularly for writers and communicators. Two cases highlight the sad state of English law, which currently advocates narrow literalism, rigid process and stagnant tradition over intelligent interpretation, context and even justice.

12 November 2010

Iran denied seat on UN Women board

Iran added another mark of shame to its national image when it recently failed to get a seat on the executive board of UN Women, a newly formed UN agency for gender equality and women’s rights. This is the second time this year that Iran has been denied a place in a human rights organization. In April Iran withdrew its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, presumably due to pressure exerted by liberal UN members who saw the utter ridiculousness of having an egregiously human rights-abusing nation like Iran on the council.

04 November 2010

Ashtiani’s execution not revoked, only delayed

The 3rd of November has come and gone. To the relief of thousands, perhaps even millions, around the world, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still alive. But the Iranian judiciary has only postponed her execution, not revoked it, and may yet proceed with her murder within the next few days.

03 November 2010

Iran's barbaric laws

By the time you read this, an Iranian woman may have already been stoned to death. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday 3rd of November for the crime of adultery. Ever since her horrible sentence became known worldwide, international pressure has mounted on Iran to stay Ashtiani’s execution and release her from prison.

27 October 2010

On not being a dick

Skeptics and critical thinkers everywhere have recently been engaged in a sort of family quarrel. The issue: how should one go about correcting the falsehoods, poor reasoning and wrong beliefs of others? With tact and sensitivity, or with righteous anger? The answer seems obvious, but some in the skeptic community think that too many of their fellow nonsense-debunkers are choosing the latter option, with predictable results.

25 October 2010

“It’s got to do with intention”: The photography of Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt

Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy - the tone range isn't right and things like that - but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention.

- Elliott Erwitt

Stumbling across Erwitt’s comments on his fellow photographer’s work was a moving moment for me. They reaffirmed my own thoughts on photography and its values, and reassured me that I wasn’t alone in having such thoughts. When it comes to technical knowledge I’m still an ignoramus who has trouble telling his f-stops from his film speeds. But Erwitt’s words give form to an attitude that I embrace. They hint at a manifesto that I would gladly be a signatory of.

16 October 2010

Is ignorance bliss? Not when it harms others

Recently a friend and I were discussing an online debate on the motion 'This house believes that religion is a force for good'. Our talk on the subject of religion naturally segued into the subject of values, and whether objective, universal values exist or not. I believe that they do, and that such values can be derived from a naturalist source without recourse to divine authority. In the aforementioned debate, the writer and neuroscientist Sam Harris was against the motion, succinctly arguing that "religion gives people bad reasons for being good where good reasons are available."

22 September 2010

Being and Mental Illness: Does neuroscience undermine existentialism?

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Freedom. Authenticity. Responsibility. Choice. These concepts form the basis of existentialist philosophy, one that challenges and provokes because it denies people their excuses for the (perhaps disappointing) quality of their lives. While acknowledging the limits, constraints and contingencies that affect the number and type of choices available to a person, existentialist ethics nonetheless declares this axiom: you may not have chosen what type of vehicle to travel in, or its condition, but you are the driver. The journey and the destination are your unavoidable responsibility.

20 September 2010

Secularism and democracy in Turkey

Earlier this month, Turkey held a referendum on changes to its constitution, with 58 percent of Turks saying ‘yes’ to the amendments. The proposed changes aim to reduce the power and remove the privileges currently enjoyed by the military – who created the present constitution after a 1980 coup – and restore the sovereignty of civilian institutions, among other goals. According to UCLA School of Law acting professor Asli Ü. Bâli, the revised constitution will include provisions that “empower civilian courts while reducing the jurisdiction of military courts; strengthen gender equality and protections for children, the elderly, veterans and the disabled; improve privacy rights and access to government records; expand collective bargaining rights; and remove immunities long afforded to those responsible for the 1980 military coup.”

16 September 2010

Good riddance to religious rubbish

Sometimes the system works. Australians who don’t care much for religious beliefs playing a role in policy-making have refused to reelect senator Steve Fielding of the Family First Party to the Senate. After serving only one term, Fielding failed to garner enough voter preferences in the recent federal election and thus lost his seat to the Democratic Labor Party’s John Madigan. Since senators serve fixed six-year terms, Fielding will remain in the Senate until June 30 next year.

26 August 2010

The Pope is wrong (and also right)

In the latest issue of Standpoint magazine (Sep 2010), George Weigel argues that the UK should welcome Pope Benedict XVI when he graces its fair isles next month on a state visit (‘Britain Can Benefit From Benedict’). There is a rather vocal minority who are not too pleased about this, given the Vatican’s perceived complicity in child abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, among other egregious misdeeds. But even without this albatross around his neck, the Pope can expect little warmth from rational folks who see him as the representative of an ossified institution that claims to have unique access to eternal truths and moral laws dictated by a supernatural agency.

11 August 2010

"Eeeww!": Disgust and morality

A few weeks ago the intellectual middleman and founder of Edge.org John Brockman brought together a group of psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers to discuss the emergent science of morality. It’s a hot topic at the moment, as our technology and methodology become more capable of studying the scientific basis of our sense of right and wrong. It would perhaps be no exaggeration to say that new discoveries in this field will have an impact on society and culture, politics and economics, education and law, possibly on every single facet of our lives as moral beings.

05 August 2010

Good news on proposed internet filter

My distaste for the Liberal brand is largely due to the unsavoury conservatism of its budgie-smuggler-in-chief Tony Abbott. But the Libs have scored a point on my goodwill card with their objection to the Labor government's proposed internet filter. 'Enemy of my enemy' and all that.

The online freedom advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) welcomes the Coalition's stance on the internet filter issue. While it's unsurprising that the leftist Greens have opposed the filter since the idea was first floated, civil libertarians like EFA must be delighted with the perhaps unexpected support of the centre-right Liberals.

With both the Coalition and the Greens opposing the internet filter, there's a good chance now that even if Labor wins the upcoming election, its controversial proposal will not get past the Senate. Netizens would rightfully call that an epic win.


28 July 2010

Aussie lobbyists choose security over liberty

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

With the recent Afghan War Diary leaks by Wikileaks, the Australian Defence Association (ADA) has accused Wikileaks editor and Australian citizen Julian Assange of jeopardising the safety of Aussie soldiers and possibly committing treason by aiding enemies of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). ADA executive director Neil James displays his powers of sophistry by arguing that the “[International Security Assistance Force]’s battlefield mistakes are the result of typical wartime tragedy, accidents and at times incompetence or personal failure, not deliberate or institutional policy”.

26 July 2010

‘Negative Capability’: Rationalism and a Romantic poet’s idea

One of the happy side-effects of watching period films is the curiosity they arouse in the viewer to learn more about the characters and their era – a rewarding practice some call ‘tangential learning’. And so it was that I found myself reading up on the 19th century English Romantic poet John Keats after watching Jane Campion’s beauteous film Bright Star (2009), a partly fictionalised story of Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne.

16 July 2010

'Hijab is Protection'

I'm all for cultural diversity and yes, I do deplore the accelerating homogenization that's taking place globally. But I draw the line at oppressive practices that are promoted on supposed ethical grounds. Especially when the promotion - or rather propaganda - relies on crude caricatures of gender.

Who should feel more insulted by this message? Women, for being condescended to as unwitting temptresses who, unless they obliterate their femininity, are powerless to stop the attacks of lustful male predators? Or men, for being collectively portrayed as exactly that kind of sex-crazed thug?


Image taken from the Raajjeislam website.

15 July 2010

Why secularism matters

Those of us who take our secular societies for granted need to be reminded that a great number of our fellow human beings live under governments that don't distinguish between politics and religion. That there exists cultures that conflate morality with one particular set of irreproachable, divinely-mandated rules. That those whom fate has cast into such a culture may have to pay a terrible price if their conscience should ever lead them to question and perhaps reject those rules.

07 July 2010

Culture viewed through the three 'E's

All of culture can be examined on the level of entertainment, education and edification. Some cultural products score highly in one ‘E’ while neglecting the other two, while some address all three to a more or less similar degree. Yet the general vibe is that (too) many areas of culture emphasize only one ‘E’: entertainment. Variety shows, reality TV, no holds barred cage fights, Michael Bay movies; all these vacuous descendants of the ancient gladiatorial combats in the Colosseum have now annexed vast tracts of the cultural landscape into their sphere of influence. Meanwhile those aspects of culture that focus on educating and edifying their audience are shouted down by the cacophony of the spectacle.

22 June 2010

Against immaterialism: A rebuttal of esoteric metaphysics

In his article ‘It’s Immaterial’ (New Humanist magazine, May/June 2010), Hindu Council UK director and trained scientist Jay Lakhani becomes the umpteenth person to attempt the impossible: reconciling unprovable, faith-based religion with testable, evidence-based science. More specifically, it is the ideas of non-theistic esoteric Hinduism that Lakhani puts forward as a replacement for what he scoldingly calls the ‘materialist paradigm’. “It has long seemed to me,” Lakhani writes, “that the paradigm which now needs to be challenged is that of materialism, that worldview that everything and everyone is essentially just a product of little bits of matter.” With this line, Lakhani takes his place amongst the ranks of discontents revolting against the reductionist, secular, Western (and thus automatically disreputable) idea of a purely physical universe governed by discoverable laws.

28 May 2010

Three cheers for the RANZCOG!

It’s encouraging to know that Aussie doctors unequivocally oppose the horrible practice of female genital mutilation – euphemistically referred to as ‘ritual nicking’ in this case – despite the knee-jerk objections of cultural relativists. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists appears to possess a moral backbone evidently lacking in their American counterparts, who actually considered a less drastic form of clitoral cutting as a compromise between religious ‘requirements’ and adherence to human rights. To their credit though, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has since outrightly rejected this policy.

PodBlack Cat’s blog write-up on this topic has additional content and links, including a couple of videos, one of which is an interview with author and human rights activist Waris Dirie, who underwent genital mutilation when she was a child. Rant & Reason also has a post that expounds on the issue in more depth.

If there is one lesson that we should take away from all this, it is that there is demonstrably little value in holding on to traditions from a bygone age that are not only irrelevant to today’s reality, but also proven to be harmful, whether physically or psychologically. Modernity isn’t exactly the hell-on-earth disgruntled nostalgics believe it to be, despite having bequeathed us the nuclear bomb, big box stores, e-mail spam and Justin Bieber. Cultural practices whose origins lie in a nomadic, patriarchal, tribal past are indefensible if their current exercise flouts every single bit of progress humanity has since made in our understanding of what contributes to people’s welfare. Whatever their gender.


25 May 2010

The irony of anti-cult laws

Amid the political grandstanding, media sensationalism, indignant protests and nervous murmurs surrounding Independent Senator Nick Xenophon’s call for anti-cult laws comme les Français, it seems that people forget one crucial point: all religions were once cults. The big players are simply the lucky few who, thanks to various factors, eventually grew into the global behemoths they are today, mega-corporations of the soul whose products aren’t material consumables but rather intangible ministrations to the psychological need for teleological narrative and ontological meaning endemic to our species.

24 May 2010

Australia tells Israel: "Mate, that shit ain't cool"

You've got to respect the Australian government's decision to expel an Israeli diplomat over the forging of Australian passports for Mossad agents to off Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. While journalists are legally obligated to qualify their statements with words like 'allegedly' and 'suspected', the rest of us are free to entertain the not-quite-preposterous belief that Israel did order the hit and did forge those multinational passports to allow the assassins unimpeded entry into Dubai.

The Opposition flings accusations of Arab-courting at PM Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, yet what did the Liberals actually expect them to do? Wag their fingers at Israel and go 'tsk tsk'? Say "Now that's not very nice" and leave it at that? We're talking about a blatant breach of trust and security between two sovereign states.

Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop allowed that "in the absence of proof, it would be appropriate to reprimand, appropriate to chastise the Israeli government." But wouldn't a reprimand in itself imply some level of guilt, of culpability, on Israel's part? Yet the Opposition shies from following this to its logical conclusion, one supported by mounting evidence that the sophistication of the passport forgery and the hit itself bears the stamp of the Mossad.

Israel pulled off an assassination that may have benefited them militarily. But dragging innocent, unsuspecting friends into your dirty fights isn't a politically savvy tactic. Because some of those friends might actually feel, y'know, betrayed.


20 May 2010

If I were a pilgrim...

I’m not easily given to romantic fancies. This resistance to idealizing people and especially places probably explains my lack of enthusiasm for globe-trotting. Years of imbibing international anecdotes and photographs from books and magazines have suppressed (for the moment) any desire for first-hand experience. Especially when the benefits of armchair travelling include low monetary costs, minimum stress and the avoidance of that terribly deflating sensation one gets the moment you realise that you’ve travelled half-way across the world only to encounter the same globalised locales, food, dress and lousy manners.

But I would consider leaving that comfortable armchair to go on a pilgrimage. And my Mecca would be the Royal Society in London.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was founded in November 1660. It is the oldest organization of its kind, being one of the earliest institutions formally dedicated to the pursuit of scientific discovery. Isaac Newton was its president from 1703 until his death in 1727. One could argue that the founding of the Royal Society marked a significant moment in the history of ideas. It was the beginning of the cultural and political ascendency of science and its practitioners.

The Royal Society prefigured the formation of similar organizations across Europe, notably the French Academie des Sciences (founded in 1666). No longer were scientists isolated individuals often deprived of resources and support. With the founding of the Royal Society and its sister organizations, scientists had a forum where they could gather and share ideas, discoveries and funds. This networking accelerated the progress of science from the 17th century onwards.

I hope to one day visit the Royal Society building in London to pay my respects to a group of brilliant individuals who stood for curiosity, intelligence, reason, progress, knowledge and truth. Incidentally, I’d also like to drop by the Creation Science Movement’s Genesis Expo in Portsmouth, since the CSM (which claims to be “the oldest creationist movement in the world”) represents exactly the opposite values.


Photo by Kaihsu Tai

20 April 2010

Is cognitive science the final word?

Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks but the task of science.

- Erwin Schrodinger, Science and Humanism, 1951

Would an ever expanding knowledge of how the brain and the mind work culminate in the undisputed victory of natural science in the Science Wars? Although cognitive science covers various disciplines, including a few from the social sciences, its methodology is mainly that of the natural sciences; objective empirical study with the aim of developing predictive, falsifiable theories. Given the speed at which new understanding is acquired on how the physical brain produces non-physical phenomena like thoughts and emotions, cognitive science is becoming ever more indispensable in our ancient quest to know ourselves, as individuals and as a species. Meanwhile, social science is playing catch-up as it finds its ideas continually overturned by some latest discovery in neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. It seems that the more social science tries to emulate the methods of natural science, the more open it leaves itself to criticism or refutation.

16 April 2010

A victory for critical journalism!

After 2 years slogging through an expensive libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, journalist and science writer Simon Singh was finally vindicated on Thursday when the BCA dropped their libel suit. Medical bullshit-buster Ben Goldacre wrote a piece on the good news, and you can read the original article by Singh published in The Guardian in 2008. When the BCA sued Singh for apparently defaming their medically dubious profession, the article was forced to be taken down from the Guardian website. Since the libel case was dropped, it has been reinstated, to the cheers of intelligent folk across the land.

Now the push for libel law reform in the UK begins in earnest. Singh’s victory, though a sweet one, is only over one battle in a much larger war, a conflict that pits evidence-based medicine and rigorous science against the legions of bogus alternative therapies and their fraudulent claims. Without a legal system that protects free speech and scientific criticism, quacks, charlatans and witch-doctors will continue to threaten the health and welfare of gullible citizens, unchallenged by critics gagged with dysfunctional libel laws.

Let’s hope the UK gets the libel law reform it so obviously needs.


14 April 2010

Vain men ascendant

Here's GQ Style Guy Glenn O'Brien's encouraging thoughts on the return of the Well-dressed Male. I especially agree with his observation of how the female half of many couples tends to be far better dressed than her male consort. Maybe there's an evolutionary reason for the male predisposition to slovenliness, but surely it can't hurt the guys to up their sartorial game, if only as a gesture of respect and appreciation for the effort their lady friends make.

Sure, don't judge a book by its cover and all that, but here's a thought: what are the odds that a hooligan/hillbilly/harasser/heckler/hoon would be wearing a baseball cap, hoodie, saggy jeans and dirty trainers, rather than a smart hat, fitted jacket, trim pants and dress shoes/boots? You don't need a PhD in Research and Statistics in Social Psychology to intuit that how one dresses can speak volumes of one's character (or pretensions to a certain kind of character). And spare me the charge of monetary elitism; you can get a decent jacket from an op shop for a fraction of the price of those hi-tech, hi-performance, hi-monstrosity sports shoes.

The ideal man strives to cultivate internal and external grace, charm and style. We're all gonna be a long time dead. Might as well look dapper before our final exit.


12 April 2010

Postmodernist writing: the real deal

In case you hadn’t notice (and who could blame you for failing to do so), my previous ‘essay’, "Preconceptualist patriarchialism and semiotic narrative", was a pastiche of absolutely meaningless mumbo-jumbo, randomly generated by this clever program created by fellow Melbournian Andrew Bulhak (click on your browser’s ‘refresh’ button to generate a brand new configuration of po-mo keywords, hackneyed phrases and notable names). A wry dig at the abstruse terminology, liberal name-dropping appeals to authority and banal observations dressed up in profound-sounding language that are the stock-in-trade of many postmodernist and social constructivist writers, the Postmodernism Generator at least produces essays that are, as Richard Dawkins noted, “distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read.”

07 April 2010

Preconceptualist patriarchialism and semiotic narrative

1. Capitalist subcultural theory and capitalist deappropriation

“Sexual identity is fundamentally responsible for capitalism,” says Bataille; however, according to la Fournier, it is not so much sexual identity that is fundamentally responsible for capitalism, but rather the failure of sexual identity. Semiotic narrative implies that narrative is a product of communication, but only if Sontag’s analysis of capitalist deappropriation is invalid; if that is not the case, language may be used to entrench the status quo.

06 April 2010

Objective reality and science

No one would deny the utility of science in creating more effective medicines, more nutritious food, less polluting fuels and faster, more efficient communication systems. But to achieve such utility, it requires researchers, designers, engineers and manufacturers to recognise the objective laws of nature (in physics, chemistry, biology etc) and work within their limits. Would you fly in a plane designed and built by folks who reject the physical laws of aerodynamics? Or take medication prescribed by someone who is totally ignorant of human physiology or pharmaceutical chemistry? Yet when scientists declare that an objective reality – independent of our subjective selves and our culture – exists, and that the scientific method is to date the most accurate way to discover the facts – truths – of this objective reality, they are accused by non-scientists (and amazingly, even some scientists, as we shall see below) of being needlessly provocative and egotistic.

12 March 2010

The three cultures

During the mid-twentieth century, the British physicist and novelist Charles Percy Snow wrote and spoke of the gulf between the ‘two cultures’; the humanities on one side and the sciences on the other. Snow observed that a breakdown in communication between intellectuals from both camps of knowledge was obstructing efforts to solve the world’s problems. In the nineties, American science writer John Brockman updated the concept of the two cultures by positing the emergence of a ‘third culture’. This third culture consisted of scientists and other intellectuals who were communicating their (mainly scientific) ideas directly to the public and in the process challenging the traditional cultural authority of writers and thinkers from the humanities.

28 January 2010

“Small boobs encourage pedophilia,” says Australian government

The Australian Classification Board (ACB) is banning depictions of modestly endowed women in adult publications and films, reports the Australian Sex Party (as in ‘political entity’, not ‘antipodean orgy’). Apparently the ACB’s reasoning goes like this: since our A cup sisters may resemble prepubescent girls, therefore naked images of them may be considered pedophilic. But of course! So if a woman sleeps with a youthful-looking adult male who’s got a three-inch penis, she may be considered a boy-molesting pervert.

The Great Moral Panic isn’t just over the pedophiliac menace. Female ejaculation too scares the shit out of our prudish bureaucrats. The ACB refuses to classify films showing women having squirting orgasms because they are ‘abhorrent’. It's bad enough that women today are bombarded with Photoshopped images of impossible physical perfection that batter their self-esteem, yet those with small chests and copious climactic emissions are now being told that they’re juvenile freaks. By their own government!

In the interest of fairness, here is the ACB’s response to the claims made by the Australian Sex Party (oh, stop sniggering). Note the ACB’s dancing around the specifics of what actually constitutes underage appearance or whether female ejaculation should be classified under ‘golden showers’, which is a banned category. Such casuistry on the part of the nation’s moral police is not surprising, given their feet-dragging on the issue of establishing an R18+ classification for computer games.

Looks like Victorian moralism and repression are back in fashion. Better behave now, children. Big Nanny's watching you.


25 January 2010

Why I am proud to be a Westerner

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

- Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

It’s hip nowadays to proclaim oneself a global citizen, thereby impressing others with one’s espousal of an inclusive, non-judgemental, live-and-let-live philosophy which studiously avoids allegiance to a particular culture. Yet contrary to the nomadic airs they affect, global citizens actually do have preferences when it comes to where they put down roots, or at least stay for longer than the typical sight-seeing holiday. Curiously, they tend to be permanent residents of countries with longstanding traditions of democracy, the rule of law, liberalism and respect for human rights.

08 January 2010

Bad science, bad media

So here we are, newly arrived in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Yet in an era of bionic prosthetics, large hadron colliders and gene therapy, media corporations pay self-styled astrologers and ‘psychics’ to cast horoscopes and tell fortunes, the charlatans’ babble splashed across newspapers, magazines and websites. And on the same payroll as the mumbo-jumbo peddlers are journalists who cannot, or will not, differentiate between science and pseudoscience.

The dark side of Japanese traditionalism

It’s a familiar travel-guide cliché: Japan is a land of contrasts, where tradition and modernity coexist in harmony. While many elements of Japanese traditional culture embody all that is refined, sensitive, beautiful and noble, there are aspects of such traditionalism that aren’t as flattering, which fall far from the lofty reaches that the best in Japanese culture attains. Two that are especially pervasive are gender inequality with its attendant discrimination against women, and negative attitudes towards migrants.