August 2010

In this month’s Scientific American Michael Moyer casts doubt upon predictions of doom…

We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. “It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way—for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.

Climate Change sceptics have seized this like a blog with something overblown. Half Sigma writes…

People want to believe that some huge catastrophe is coming, but people now have a hard time believing in coming supernatural apocalypses, so people have turned to pseudo-scientific catastrophes like global warming.

Hang on, guys, we do live in consequential times. Recent millenarians were quaking under desks as Russian ships snaked towards Cuba. With a bit less fortune and a slightly more deranged elite the remnants of humanity would have choked irradiated dust. We’re among the first generations with the power to obliterate our species. We’re among the first people who’ve consumed enough to drain our vital resources worldwide. Even if we squeeze the elephant of climate from the room we’re left to find new power sources, make space for our children’s kids and ward off the diminished but still fucking scary threat of nukes. With a to-do list like that it’s no surprise that people are forecasting times of upheaval. Nor are they unhinged. Or wrong. Scorning the doom-mongers feels like mocking the conspiraloons: an attempt to keep our dialogue sensible and lives at peace, however disturbed and threatening the real world may be.

(Also see: A Post Too Long To Paint Onto A Sign and Anti-Environmentalism As A Secular Religion. If nothing else those pieces land the odd blow on James Delingpole.)

This press release may or may not have arrived this afternoon:

Electronic Arts are proud to announce the release of its new game, Fox Hunting, wherein players chase the Secretary of State for Defence and slap his rosy cheeks until he fixes his priorities.

A senior human rights lawyer has called for an independent inquiry into the Lockerbie bombing as controversy intensifies over the convicted bomber’s early release on medical grounds.

Professor Alan Miller, the head of the Scottish human rights commission, said there were still significant doubts about the guilt of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi after an independent investigation uncovered new evidence that undermined the conviction.

Miller told the Guardian that the UK government should release a secret intelligence report that the Scottish criminal cases review commission said could – on its own – have been enough to have freed Megrahi on appeal. It was withheld at his trial.

Other wide-eyed paranoiacs include the Scot’s Review Commission, the UN observer to the case, experts who’ve reviewed the trial and a one-time Archbishop. Even if the hand of God descended and carved “New Investigation?” in lightning upon the cliffs of Dover, though, I don’t think Prez. Obama and his friends would grant the chance of innocence.


Michael Mansfield QC, one of the country’s best-known defence lawyers, said a full judicial inquiry was required to settle the doubts over the case. Mansfield said he had no doubt that the evidence given to secure Megrahi’s conviction was “entirely unsustainable”.

The process wasunfair” and “biased“; the evidenceunsustainable“. Does no one have a good word to say for the conviction?

This blog’s excursions into culture tend to be a mite genteel: opera, detective fiction, Asian Extreme cinema. So, let’s venture into that most civilised of sports. When a relative passed on he left me part of his ageing, extensive hoard of cricket books. Among these I’ve found a preview of the 1953 Ashes, which is wholly and magnificently of its time.

It’s written in prose as cultured as an off-drive from Jack Hobbs. Take this staid appreciation of an up-an-comin’ talent…

What a truly judicious assessment of class batting! Here’s another young recruit of favourable promise…

Didn’t hear much from him. Post-war austerity was slowly dissipating, and the populace could regain joys of leisure and invention…

You put the tobacco in the paper…

Great Scott!

Ah, an Ashes series, a hearty smoke and more brylcreem than a whale has grease. Those were — some days.

Recently I had a bout of tweeting with Aaronovitch on the theme of David Kelly. I’m sad to report that it was a fruitless and hostile affair, ending with his accusation that I “couldn’t be arsed to read” – I had! – and was “asking questions that [he'd] already answered” – he hadn’t! A shame, perhaps, but not particularly chastening: he knocks out ad hominem when faced with a theory or opponent that he’s not equipped to match.

In this case the latter wasn’t me but Tim Wilkinson, who muses on the ruckus here. I’d directed his attention to Tim’s robust fisking of his Times column on the subject. Ah, he pounced, but Wilkinson made one contentious speculation. Well, perhaps, I granted, but he made incisive points as well. “Nope“. Aaronovitch had thrown the mental shutters up. Wilkinson was “one of those…kooks” and saying otherwise was just a “waste [of his] time“. Ah, the joys of rational discourse: bracing as the sea breeze after an oil well’s exploded.

I’m not keen on the psychologising of one’s adversaries. As “sceptics” take such delight in doing it to “conspiraloons”, however, I’ll indulge. As they say, the theorists might draw comfort from pursuing baroque stratagems of malice. Humankind, as Robert Carrol notes, “has not evolved to calmly seek the truth in a cooperative way” and people are inclined towards certain patterns of thought. This remains true of the “sceptics” as well as the theorists, though. They might well be teeming with the most unreasoned impulses. In my case – quite rare, one hopes – I was dim and insecure, groping for a little cerebral superiority. Aaronovitch and other fiercely sensible pundits hope to maintainrespect” for officials; feeling we must “trust” the governors of our “mature democracy“. Thus, these theories are not just opposed to their perceptions, they’re a danger to their project.

Update: Ben Aaronovitch suggests that I use the twitterer’s full name, lest his reputation be defiled. Fair enough. I speak, of course, of Dr Sam Aaronovitch, author of the classic Mergers, Growth and Concentration.

Here’s a thought that adds some insecurity to the young day: a convict might have done no wrong. Judge n’ jury combinations may be as reliable a process as we’ve yet established but that doesn’t render them the arbiters of truth. Humankind is fallible and thus its institutions will be. Unless you’ve witnessed a suspect’s crime, close-up and in good light, you’ll never be quite sure they did it. Even then Descartes might plant a doubtful seed inside your mind.

Journalists should have remembered this when writing on Megrahi. His guilt was assumed to have been proven by his trial, despite manifold reasons for being suspicious of both that and it. Meanwhile, across the pond, another famous case is shaking…

Proclaiming itself bound by technicalities, a federal appeals court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision not to overturn the conviction of Jesse Friedman, a Long Island man who served 13 years in prison for sexually abusing several children in a 1980s case later made famous by the movie “Capturing the Friedmans,” a documentary that questioned his guilt.

But in exceptionally harsh language, the court excoriated the trial judge, prosecutors and detectives in the case, suggesting that it ought to be reopened at the state level.

“While the law may require us to deny relief in this case,” the panel of judges wrote, “it does not compel us to do so without voicing some concern regarding the process by which the petitioner’s conviction was obtained.”

The court wrote…that the actions of the Nassau County district attorney’s office were “troubling” because instead of acting to “neutralize the moral panic, the prosecution allowed itself to get swept up in it” as well.

The appellate court also had harsh words for Abbey Boklan, the Nassau County Court trial judge in the case…Mr. Friedman, the federal appeals court found, could not have expected to receive a fair trial from Judge Boklan, “who admitted that she never had any doubt about the defendant’s guilt even before she heard any of the evidence or the means by which it was obtained.”

Via. Capturing The Friedmans may be watched on teh youtubes.

“Innocence ’til proven guilty” does imply that Courts can prove. Yes, they might establish something to a reasonable point: without baby-step assumptions we’d never get out of bed. Yet we should leave room for doubt within our inculpating minds. Jurors – and, of course, Judges – are as open to bias and mistakes as the average Josephine, and there’s nothing in the Court’s structure that nulls this fallibility. On that note, end capital punishment!

(By the way, this note isn’t preemptive self-exoneration. If anyone asks, however, the guinea pig was like that when I found it…)

A group of medical experts have written to the Times, calling for an inquest into Dr. David Kelly’s passing. The suggested cause of death, they write, is “extremely unlikely“…

Absent a quantitative assessment of the blood lost and of the blood remaining in the great vessels, the conclusion that death occcurred as a consequence of haemorrhage is unsafe.

A detailed investigation of all the medical circumstances is now required and we support the call for a proper inquest into the cause of Dr Kelly’s death.

Unsurprisingly, the “Great Debunker” isn’t moved. David Aaronovitch sniffs (via Tim Wilkinson’s lusty fisking)…

There is an element of the legal purist at work here. Sure, the probabilities are pretty clear, and they are (to be blunt): dead guy, knife, pills, blood, wrist cuts, no sign of struggle or of any second-party presence. But if you can’t absolutely prove that death was caused this way, then, in the letter writers’ view, the verdict must be open. What people then deduce from that is their affair.

If you read Tim’s piece you’ll find these “probabilities” aren’t half as clear as Aaronovitch states. Even if they were, however, he’d have just fed Occam’s razor through a mangle once again. Parsimonious theories consider all the data, not just that which forms intuitively graceful explanations. “Dead guy“, “knife” and “blood” might appeal to our prejudices but if there’s a factor that defies their grim union within a suicide that must be realised and accounted for. One might find a spanner-wielding Reverend Green atop a corpse but if its wound suggests a longer, thinner implement it may have been a swinging candlestick. Besides, the expert’s disputations weren’t just split hairs and picked nits: they think the stated cause of death is “extremely unlikely“; that’s pretty urgent, isn’t it?

On the experts, and the case, I offer no opinion. As of yet I’m Switzerland. John Rentoul – a volunteer publicist for Tony Blair – fails to tempt me to his view with this “rebuttal”, though. He wields the sophistic tropes of vacant “scepticism” like a jouster who proclaims his triumph even as he lies upon the grass…

The other puzzle is why The Times published the letter. It is not as if it would print one from supporters of David Icke, who are also convinced that Kelly was murdered, and who believe that the world is ruled by two-legged lizards from the constellation Draco, inhabiting the lower level of the fourth dimension – that is, the one closest to physical reality.

Perhaps because the studious opinion of professionals is rather more worthwhile than ranting from the lizard-baiters? This pompous ad hominem is typical of commentators. At least he restrained himself from implying they’re anti-semites.

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