Archive for February, 2009

Hitchens vs the Syrian nationalists

19 February 2009 Comments off

God Is Not GreatSo I’m reading that Christopher Hitchens — one of the now-legendary Four Horsemen of New Atheism, and all-round modern iconoclast — has managed to get himself beaten up while visiting Lebanon.

It sounds pretty dire at first blush, with my first thoughts wondering about some kind of retribution for one of his books or his regular column in Slate, Fighting Words, but the original source of the news indicates that he’s fine and just has a bit of a limp, some bruises and, presumably, a bruised ego.

I have a mixture of respect and repulsion for Hitchens, as I think his God Is Not Great is a fantastic rational book that summarises, in his unique way, how religion gets in the way of basic human functions at best. My repulsion comes from the way he goes about conveying his message, his apparent wildly-variable political standpoints, and for his all-round attitude to things that has culminated in this event. But I suppose in my attitude he has achieved his desired goal — polarisation of opinion, generation of thought, and getting people talking.

Anyway, reports state that while out drinking he chose to walk around a neighbourhood known, to the locals at least, to be sympathetic to an extremist political party — the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) — and to indiscreetly deface one of their posters in plain sight. And they didn’t take kindly to it, as you might expect from any of the extremist parties wherever you live.

It can’t be just me that sees the madness of this on multiple levels, surely? If nothing else, then how about:

  • Out drinking (presumably alone) in a country known for political and religious strife.
  • In an area that seemed to be sympathetic or supportive of the SSNP.
  • Walking around said country while drunk.
  • Brazenly defacing a poster for a political party of another nation.

Without wishing to impugn any nationality: to the Lebanese locals he must look like a drunken, intemperate American tourist defacing an advertisement for another country’s political system. That’s like walking around parts of New York or London wearing a racist t-shirt, or strolling outside one of the growing number of wartime Green Zones with USA No.1 emblazoned on your shirt: you’re not going to get away with it without a limp — sorry. In fact, he’s lucky to just have the limp.

Don’t mistake me: I by no means wish ill of the man, but this has to go down as one of those “What the hell was he thinking?” moments. I hope he learns from it and re-thinks his next surreptitious political protest. Preferably not one in another country where the locals intolerantly see him as an Imperalist Capitalist Pig try to foist his nation’s idea of peace, politics and way of life upon them.

Despite all that, I do applaud his conviction and fearlessness.

Categories: politics Tags:

Pretentious book meme

16 February 2009 Comments off

I thought I’d continue the book meme found at Nullifidian’s site

Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here, though the closest BBC reference I can find to it is The Big Read from 2003. Either way, it’s time to find out:


  1. Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read ENTIRELY (and not just seen the film!)
  2. Add a ‘+’ to the ones you LOVE.
  3. Star (*) those you plan on reading.
  4. Tally your total at the bottom.

The BBC reading list:

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien x
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling x
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee x
  6. The Bible x
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell x+
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman *
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens *
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott *
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller x
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare *
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier x
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien x
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger x
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens x
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams x+
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky *
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll x
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame x
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy *
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis x
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis x
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini *
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne x
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell x+
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown x
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy *
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding x
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan *
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel x
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert x
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens x
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley x+
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck x
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov *
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas *
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac *
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding x
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie *
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville x
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens x
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker x
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce *
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White x
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle x
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery *
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks *
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams x
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas x
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare x+
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl x
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

If I’ve tallied correctly, that’s: 34 x / 5 + / 15 * I’ve not read nearly as much as I’d have liked in recent years, but amusingly I have a number of those “want to read” books sitting in a pile in my living room. So much to do, so little time…

Categories: art Tags:

How to win an argument… at any cost

15 February 2009 Comments off

How often have you encountered a debate in the social arena–particularly around election time — where you see one of the debaters using tactics that seem simply to score points against his or her opponent, but when you examine the point in greater detail you could drive a bus through the argument — but by then the crowd has cheered and sneered, the show is over and it’s too late? Politicians use it every time they take the pulpit, as do captains of industry and even health and medical professionals. It’s manipulative and unethical at best, but it happens every day.

But don’t take my word for it. Read on and find out for yourself…

As a thinking person, you may be well aware of the numerous logical fallacies and cognitive biases that can be used to evaluate an argument, however it might be conveyed. Rather than list them here, I’ll point you to that sometimes dubious ([1] [2] [3]) oracle of knowledge, Wikipedia:

  • List of cognitive biases. Low-level or even unconscious behaviour or error in evaluation. A common example of this is to do, say or believe something just because others do (Bandwagon Effect, aka herding or group mind); the number of people who do or believe is unrelated to whether it is real, true or correct.
  • List of logical fallacies. Higher level errors in reasoning, logic or understanding. A common example of this is the “if you are not for me then you are against me” threat (False Dichotomy, aka False Dilemma or Argument of Excluded Middle); a position somewhere in the middle ground (such as neutrality) is completely ignored or implied to infer aggression.

Even a basic understanding of a handful of these makes for a completely different view of the political world around us.

Given enough time and data, anyone with a passing understanding can judge whether a position is likely to be true or false — often when you don’t have a specialist understanding of the topic itself. A good thing, too, as the sheer number of decisions we’re asked to make on a variety of topics in our lives: purchasing decisions, local and national politics, child raising, etc.

The sad truth is that the vast majority of people don’t bother to check their facts or even the truth of the arguments that are presented to them. This makes this kind of arguing very successful against the general public, and the reporters from whom many of us rely on for bite-sized summaries (you could think of it as outsourcing your thinking in favour of cutting to the chase), as most aren’t properly schooled in debating, critical thinking or evaluation. I wasn’t. Even after a few years of university I’d never heard the term cognitive bias or been told about logical fallacies, critical thinking and how to apply them. And it’s something that shocked and angered me, so I’ve set to resolve the gaping hole in my knowledge and understanding of how the world works–you’re seeing that process here in posts like this.

So when I read Dr Steven Novella’s How Not To Argue article on Skepticblog — which is based on Arthur Schopenhaur’s original list — I recognised a useful approach to the problem. If people aren’t learning about logical fallacies and cognitive biases, why not have a check-list of what to watch for? That is, a list of dirty tricks you’re likely to see used in a debate, news report or on a political pulpit which will then encourage you to look deeper into the topic. Great idea!

So here is a list of ways that you will see an argument manipulated to the unethical (or ignorant) arguer’s advantage:

38 Ways To Win An Argument

  1. Carry your opponent’s proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it.
  2. Use different meanings of your opponent’s words to refute his argument.
  3. Ignore your opponent’s proposition, which was intended to refer to some particular thing.
  4. Hide your conclusion from your opponent until the end.
  5. Use your opponent’s beliefs against him.
  6. Confuse the issue by changing your opponent’s words or what he or she seeks to prove.
  7. State your proposition and show the truth of it by asking the opponent many questions.
  8. Make your opponent angry.
  9. Use your opponent’s answers to your question to reach different or even opposite conclusions.
  10. If your opponent answers all your questions negatively and refuses to grant you any points, ask him or her to concede the opposite of your premises.
  11. If the opponent grants you the truth of some of your premises, refrain from asking him or her to agree to your conclusion.
  12. If the argument turns upon general ideas with no particular names, you must use language or a metaphor that is favourable to your proposition.
  13. To make your opponent accept a proposition, you must give him an opposite, counter-proposition as well.
  14. Try to bluff your opponent.
  15. If you wish to advance a proposition that is difficult to prove, put it aside for the moment.
  16. When your opponent puts forth a proposition, find it inconsistent with his or her other statements, beliefs, actions or lack of action.
  17. If your opponent presses you with a counter-proof, you will often be able to save yourself by advancing some subtle distinction.
  18. If your opponent has taken up a line of argument that will end in your defeat, you must not allow him to carry it to its conclusion.
  19. Should your opponent expressly challenge you to produce any objection to some definite point in his argument, and you have nothing to say, try to make the argument less specific.
  20. If your opponent has admitted to all or most of your premises, do not ask him or her directly to accept your conclusion.
  21. When your opponent uses an argument that is superficial and you see the falsehood, you can refute it by setting forth its superficial character.
  22. If your opponent asks you to admit something from which the point in dispute will immediately follow, you must refuse to do so, declaring that it begs the question.
  23. Contradiction and contention irritate a person into exaggerating their statements.
  24. State a false syllogism.
  25. If your opponent is making a generalization, find an instance to the contrary.
  26. A brilliant move is to turn the tables and use your opponent’s arguments against himself.
  27. Should your opponent surprise you by becoming particularly angry at an argument, you must urge it with all the more zeal.
  28. When the audience consists of individuals (or a person) who is not an expert on a subject, you make an invalid objection to your opponent who seems to be defeated in the eyes of the audience.
  29. If you find that you are being beaten, you can create a diversion–that is, you can suddenly begin to talk of something else, as though it had a bearing on the matter in dispute.
  30. Make an appeal to authority rather than reason.
  31. If you know that you have no reply to the arguments that your opponent advances, you by a fine stroke of irony declare yourself to be an incompetent judge.
  32. A quick way of getting rid of an opponent’s assertion, or of throwing suspicion on it, is by putting it into some odious category.
  33. You admit your opponent’s premises but deny the conclusion.
  34. When you state a question or an argument, and your opponent gives you no direct answer, or evades it with a counter question, or tries to change the subject, it is sure sign you have touched a weak spot, sometimes without intending to do so.
  35. Instead of working on an opponent’s intellect or the rigor of his arguments, work on his motive.
  36. You may also puzzle and bewilder your opponent by mere bombast.
  37. Should your opponent be in the right but, luckily for you, choose a faulty proof, you can easily refute it and then claim that you have refuted the whole position.
  38. Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.

The full article with detailed explanation of each point can be found here or from Steven’s original source — please give it a read.

Next time you see someone trying to convince someone else (probably you) of something, check if one or both parties have tried to sneak in one of the above tricks into the argument. Then you know what to do… call shenanigans!

Categories: misc Tags:

Buy 5 books for $30 to help those hit by the Victorian bushfires

10 February 2009 Comments off

Victorian BushfiresAs anyone who reads world news will know by now, the state of Victoria in Australia has been hit by the worst bushfires in the country’s history (surpassing the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983), and they rank among the worst in the world. They have been exacerbated by record high temperatures and strong winds, and the impact has been devastating. Of a state with 5,000,000 people (~25% of the country’s population), around 200 people have been killed and thousands made homeless as they’ve watched their houses go up in flames.

A Victorian-based company has made an offer — valid until Friday, 13th February — to help assist those affected by the fires. They list the offer as a “5 for the price of 1” sale of PDF books, but as 100% of the proceeds are being donated to the Australian Red Cross, they are effectively giving away the books and providing you with the opportunity to donate US$29.95 to help those in need.

You can take advantage of the offer or donate directly but, whichever option you choose, every penny will be directly helping those affected by the bushfires:

The Australian Red Cross desperately need money not goods, as goods are expensive to move and the money can be used to buy local goods which will additionally help the area.

It’s at times like these that humanity can put aside differences of politics and belief as we realise that we are all in this together, and that just a modest amount from a lot of people can make an avalanche of difference.

Please give as your means allow.

Categories: misc Tags: ,

Have I told you about the dragon in my garage?

5 February 2009 Comments off

Every now and then one comes across something that illustrates a certain point supremely well. And when it’s written by one of my personal heroes, I have to share it. It’s probably an excellent allegorical response to works such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which many understand are in themselves an allegory for Christianity. Not to mention new age beliefs, other religions, and other forms of belief.

The Dragon In My Garage
Carl Sagan

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons–to say nothing about invisible ones–you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages–but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”–no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it–is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Fantastic, isn’t it? Using his renowned ability to instruct and correct kindly and sympathetically, and without the frustrated emotion and insults that many of us succumb to, he manages to illustrate and educate this point brilliantly. A true humanist, skeptic, educator and ambassador for science and reason.