Thursday, 21 August 2014

The case for clean(er) politics

New Zealand is buzzing right now about Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics. Buzzing so hard, in fact, that it’s sold out, and I can’t see myself getting hold of a copy before the election. (There have been rumours of it being bought up and destroyed by National supporters, but I haven’t seen these substantiated and they seem implausible, given the financial and political costs such actions would incur.) So I can’t quote word for word. But there are plenty of summaries and synopses and juicy tidbits being shared all over the net. For non-New-Zealanders, and New Zealanders currently living under a rock, I gather the basic gist is this:
Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, he of “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, has been covertly getting fed information, in various forms, from the very highest levels of government, which he’s been using to smear and slur and manipulate both the National Party’s political opponents and anybody nominally on their own side who they wanted rid of. Among other things, he’s been given Labour Party membership data obtained by hacking their database, and he’s been tipped off when potentially embarrassing Official Information Act requests are being processed, so that he can request the same information, get it first, and blog it himself with a pro-National spin. There’s a summary of the major allegations here.
Details that have been quoted or scanned on blogs and tweets and Facebook reveal a consistently nasty mindset, from calling Canterbury earthquake survivors “useless pricks” to a fundamental disrespect for the rights of young women. Prime Minister John Key has of course dismissed the whole thing as a left-wing conspiracy theory and put Judith Collins, the National Party minister who has worked most closely with Slater, on what I think is her third or fourth final warning by now.
Not having seen the book itself, I can’t comment on it directly. What I wanted to talk about was a much more humane blogger’s take on the situation. Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s foremost representative of what I guess you’d call the Old Left. His response is captured in the title of the piece: Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? My response to that is: There had better be.

Friday, 15 August 2014

When science and politics collide

Content note: fat-shaming
Today I took notes in a first-year biochemistry lecture. The students are starting a big module on metabolism, it seems, which is obviously a major part of human life and health. First-year health science papers tend to have a different lecturer every time. They’re often grad students or teaching fellows, but today we had a senior lecturer from the Biochemistry department with dozens of publications to her name. So, not somebody who I’m in a position to call out for bad science in her own subject.
And in this introductory metabolism lecture, this authority on biochemistry and health told a hall full of students that there is an obesity epidemic in the Western world and it’s all due to basic thermodynamics – people eating more joules than they burn off – and it’s causing a raft of health problems that she didn’t detail.
Now she didn’t say or imply that obese people are all lazy gluttons; in fact she pointed out that one problem with exercise is it makes you want to eat more. She didn’t say anything whatsoever about willpower or self-control. She did show us a list of countries ranked by the percentage of obese people in the population, and joked (by way of warning the class not to confuse correlation with causation) that speaking English is evidently a major cause of obesity.
What’s bothering me is that I could find dozens of sites, just a click or two a way from this blog, that say obesity is not something you can fix by changing your eating and/or exercise habits, and that weight as such doesn’t cause the health problems, and that the things today’s lecturer said are myths and constitute fat-shaming. And it’s quite clear that shaming people about their weight doesn’t help them in any way. In general, I think if you look at someone who has a problem that you don’t have, and your immediate response is “That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just—” no matter what you think they should just, you’re wrong. Sometimes people are stupid, but millions of people are not so stupid that they live in thrall to something you can solve with a snap of your fingers.
The point is that politically I agree with the latter group of people. Shaming people about their appearance is a heinous thing to do, regardless of whether they have a “choice” about it or not. But I can’t say that they must have science on their side just because they have morality on their side. Reality is regrettably amoral. If it’s true that Western diet and exercise patterns cause obesity and obesity causes health problems, then it’s true and no amount of cultural repositioning will change that. Equally, if it’s not true it’s not true and no number of people who think it is true will change that.
I’ve written at some length about the parallel issues I have with evolutionary psychology. There I concluded that most of what you see in the popular media is indeed bullshit but there is a core of science underneath that isn’t so easily discredited. I don’t know whether that’s the case on this issue. I would dearly love to stand with my political fellow-travellers here, but I can’t if they’ve got the facts wrong.
Of course scientific assertions are always open to correction. If there are facts I’m missing which support the “there is no obesity epidemic” side, I would love to hear them. But they will have to be facts that a published expert in the biochemistry of metabolism are likely not to have heard of.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Election graffiti: anger is one thing, hate speech is another

Content note: racism, NSFW language
It’s election season here in New Zealand. We vote in six weeks. There are election billboards going up all over the place, and naturally some people are taking matters into their own hands.
Party Vote Act(ual Racism): One Country, One Law (One Dillusion)
(Ab)Use Your Party Vote to keep the government on a short leash: Vote Conservative
Vote (Batman) Labour
There’s a collection of them over at Vandalized NZ Political Billboards on Tumblr, which is where I found these images. It’s dominated by attacks on National Party billboards,
Nicky Wagner (Muppets) Christchurch Central: Party Vote National
Working for (Rich People): Party Vote National
some comparatively subtle,
Carter, Port Hills: Party Vote National (The Rich Deserve More)
some very much not.

Monday, 4 August 2014

What have we learned?

A hundred years and a month or so ago, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. This triggered a wave of anti-Serb violence across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, because apparently what one Serb did every Serb was responsible for. As he was a minor, Princip got twenty years in prison instead of the death penalty. He died of tuberculosis just a fifth of the way through his sentence. The Empire demanded that Serbia suppress all anti-Imperial actions and publications and accept Austrian control of their police force. Serbia said “OK,” but they didn’t say “OK” to every single demand, and Austria-Hungary declared war.
Some bits of what happened next, I’m not clear on. The Russians felt obliged to intervene on Serbia’s behalf. The Germans had been itching for a war with both Serbia and Russia for some time. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain stepped in to help Russia. I don’t know why any of that was the case. I do know that one hundred years ago yesterday, Britain declared war on Germany. At that time, white New Zealanders and Australians identified as British, so from that point on “we” were at war. Which I guess is why my local newspaper dedicated its front page yesterday to the centennial.
Get used to this kind of thing. You’ll be seeing it a lot in the next four years. Thought for the day: World War I was rich countries invading rich countries. Nowadays you don’t see that, “nowadays” here meaning since 1945. Why not? What changed? Why, for the last seventy years, has it only been poor countries being invaded? What trick have rich countries learned in that time for avoiding being warred upon? (It’s certainly not that rich countries no longer go to war.) Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is required reading here, but has he got it right? He dismisses the popular “nuclear deterrent” theory; I have no problem with that. He also claims that global trade has been a major force for peace, which sits most uncomfortably with my politics but Pinker’s data and logic are persuasive. Basic idea: if country A is a source of trade goods for country B, country B has an incentive not to want country A’s economy disrupted by war.
Something’s missing. One lucrative set of trade goods is armaments, which reverse the incentive structure. If you’re selling guns, you want your customers threatened by wars, so that they’ll buy your guns. Also, protecting trade ships and trade zones has become a major raison d’etre for military deployments. And then look at the protests at all the big free trade conferences; look at the violence governments are prepared to deploy against their own citizens in defence of commerce. Free-trade apologists might reply that the protesters are mistaken or misguided in their choice of political goals, and that trade is a powerful enough force for peace to justify suppressing dissent. But even if trade is a force for peace, so too – taking my information from The Better Angels of Our Nature once again – are democracy and the free exchange of information. Trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement threaten both.
I take Pinker’s point. Economic interdependence links nations together, it helps people put a value on each other’s lives who otherwise didn’t have a reason to care. Yes, that sounds awful, but the reality is no human being could care about every single other one of their seven billion fellow human beings. We care about the couple of hundred people we know personally, and we can have our consciences and our compassion stung by stories and images of a few more, but there comes a point at which it’s just too much. So we can’t hang our plans for world peace on everybody caring, personally, about everybody else. That’s not going to happen.
But granted that economic ties between nations are a good idea per se, is this really the best we can do? Do we have to sign our democracy and our freedoms over to giant corporations and their neoliberal running-dog enforcers? Corporate capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels, which has historically caused shortage crises as well as global warming, and to dirt-cheap labour, which has historically caused large-scale political unrest. Fuel crises and political unrest are both causes of violence. Being better than 1914 is not much to congratulate ourselves on.