Tuesday 23 February 2010

Simon's Appeal in 3 hours

Today, 23rd February at 9:45 a.m., Simon Singh's supporters are gathering outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL. Anyone can go along; and anyone can hear the appeal, which takes place at 10:30 - just under 3 hours from now.

Simon is in remarkably good spirits, tweeting about the London Word Festival (which looks fun!), and thanking people for their support. (I love Twitter.) I admire his bravery. The boss I was describing yesterday also attempted to take me to court for "theft", i.e. sending one or two e-mails to my friends during the 7 months I was lucky enough to work in his office with permission he subsequently denied giving me. Even that piece of petty idiocy was terrifying. But then I was only 18. It's wonderful the strength people can develop. The British Chiropractic Association say that Simon has rounded up a bunch of malicious supporters to get revenge. I, and I'm hardly alone, say that Simon has turned their mean-spirited and illiberal repressiveness into a wonderfully positive campaign, a campaign that seriously needs to happen in view of the English Libel Laws. It is mortifying that the wealthy can pop along to our country to sue people halfway across the world, and that the burden of proof is on the defendant. This had to change - and it is now changing!

For the latest news, Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago have, as ever, written great posts with, as ever, varying degrees of seriousness. And (update) here's a wonderful article in the Times: "Test medicine in the lab, not in the court" by
Raymond Tallis. This wonderful sentence jumped out at me: '“Tested in court by the most powerful lawyers” is not an exactly reassuring statement on the patient information leaflet.' Whoopee!

Sense About Science, among so many others, have done a wonderful job in raising awareness. And Simon has had an idea to send more ripples of awareness through the population. I understand we're well over 30,000 signatures now . . .

Please sign the petition to reform libel laws. Doesn't matter if you're English, or live in England, or not - they are currently available to be hijacked by anyone of any nation, regardless of whether or not this is suitable or just. And good luck Simon today!

Monday 22 February 2010

The Ticking Bomb and the Tooth Fairy

When I was very small, my mother told me that flies were bad. When I was also very small, I think it was "Black Beauty" in which I was very surprised to read a passage in which one boy beats up another boy for being cruel to flies. When I got older, I suddenly remembered that I used to think it was all right to be cruel to flies and general "bad" creatures, and felt shocked and sick with myself.

A lot more years later, I so often hear or read something like: "Yeah, that's a great theory, but real life isn't as nice as that" as an excuse for such things as cruelty. The implication is that innocence, immaturity, weakness, a general lack of thought, is the only place for goodness - while real thought and ability is the place for wrongdoing; and idealists should grow up, stop making others feel guilty, and join in. I suppose one could say that this idea goes back to the Garden of Eden, and probably many years before that. Personally, I'd say that it's the other way round.

A week ago, Bruce Anderson wrote an editorial in the Independent that caused a furore whose like I have rarely seen. He claimed: "We not only have a right to use torture. We have a duty".

He begins by detailing the revoltingness of torture, rather as a boss I once had used to begin trying to order my 18-year-old self to "grow up" and approve of corruptness and dishonesty by lecturing me on the damage that corruptness and dishonesty can do. Possibly this introduction is intended to forestall uncomfortable retorts, and make the opposition feel thoroughly depressed.

He then goes on to claim that torture provides us with useful information, that "although we find torture repulsive, it does not follow that those who are tasked with governing Pakistan could safely dispense with it", and that "we should be grateful for the Pakistanis' efforts on our behalf". He claims that America is too sophisticated to need to use torture at present, though it might in the future, if presented with the famous "ticking bomb" scenario.

This "ticking bomb scenario" is the crux of his argument: "the intelligence chiefs, grey and drawn from lack of sleep, inform the Prime Minister, ditto, that it seems almost certain that a nuclear device is primed to explode in the next few hours. There is a man in custody who probably knows where it is. They are ready to use whatever methods are necessary to extract the information..." Anderson favours waterboarding. He also favours the torturing, if possible, of the prisoner's wife and children.

The general idea of the article is that it is better to torture one person, or a few, than to allow "the ticking bomb" to explode and kill millions. He says what so many people say, to make the idealists feel immature: "There is nothing to be gained from refusing to face facts".

Very well. Let us actually start thinking, and examine some facts.

Of course, we don't have very many facts to hand - which is why, for example, we are simply supposed to take it on trust that the information gained by the Pakistani torturers or Guantanamo is useful, accurate, worthwhile, and could not be obtained by other means. I don't take that on trust. Anyone being tortured will eventually say absolutely anything to get the agony to stop. They will sign false confessions, they will probably end up babbling nonsense. And of course any terrorist with half a grain of sense will have a good misleading cover story or two. Meanwhile, what is the actual likelihood of knowing that somebody has planted a bomb, and while you don't know where the bomb is you do capture the right person? If there is one incident of this ever happening (TV shows do not count), I would be very interested to know. Frankly, I doubt that it has ever happened or ever will.

. . . Where do I get all these "facts"? From logic, from the news, from the Internet - from, I hope, growing up and understanding human beings. Even from being bullied at school, where I was once thrust up against a fence, had my arms pinned behind my back, and had a lit cigarette shoved into my mouth, and this was a fairly normal day; and at the office when I was 18, where I eventually found it less trouble to admit that it was entirely my fault that the boss had made an idiot of himself or trashed all the company files, than to tell the truth and be disciplined even further for arguing.

And from books, of course. I recommend "The Railway Man" by Eric Lomax, which I found by reading The Independent's version of this haunting article about Nagase Takashi, a wartime interpreter for Japanese torturers and who has spent the rest of his life in repentance. Isabel Allende's books describe how Pinochet's Chile used torture to terrorize and repress its citizens. Thomas Powers's "Heisenberg's War" reminds us of the horrors Fritz Houtermans went through at the hands of the Soviets, who thought him a German spy, and the Nazis, who thought him a Soviet spy. The former told him untruthfully that they had captured his wife and children, at which point he signed all the confessions they wished. Anhua Gao's "To the Edge of the Sky" tells the story of interrogation in Mao's China; how, having nothing to tell them, but knowing they would not let her go until they had a name, she simply gave them a name of a woman she did not like - and it worked. And Sattareh Farman Farmaian's "Daughter of Persia", the best book I have ever read, shows us only too clearly what it was like living under a reign of constant terror of imprisonment and torture in the Shah's Iran.

Torture is never one isolated incident. Anderson's article makes it sound like one; offers a choice between one wrong and another. But it doesn't work like that. The torturers, those who ordered the torture, and the victim and their community, are all a part of it. How many countries whose governments use torture are forgiven and respected by the rest of the world? A torture victim who may not have been radicalised before capture is far likelier to do so afterwards, as are their family, friends, and perhaps whole country. After the ultimate suffering and humiliation, they will probably be a broken person. A broken person cannot trust others, form relationships, or, probably, hold down a job and be a productive citizen. Pure cold selfish economics should decree that breaking down a person in such a way leaves the state an expensive mess to clean up. You've also taught them torture, which they might go on to use on others. To say "they do it, so why shouldn't we" simply says, "We do it to them, so they can do what they like to us". And I have seen people argue that a terrorist whose intention is to blow up everyone surrounding them has given up their human rights - whether or not that is so, that does not mean we have given up our human responsibilities.

Just as I disagree with the message of the Garden of Eden, I also disagree that "sin" is something we carry around inside us until it is extracted by a mythological being, rather as detox purports to purge us of past burgers and fries. And yet it is rather a good metaphor, because a torturer must carry what they've done inside them forever. They might become a Nagase; which would certainly defeat the government's purpose, so they'd have to employ someone else. More likely, they'd have to desensitise themselves to what they'd done. They might become lost and withdrawn. They might grow to hate themselves. They might enjoy their work, the implications of which are sinister. What kind of a work culture would it be, having colleagues like that? Would they do it to each other; would they bring it out of the workplace, perhaps? And once a moral boundary has been crossed, how far do we go beyond it? Would the government start setting targets for how much information must be got out of suspects per year, requiring arbitrary torture? At what point, in any case, do you decide you can stop torturing someone because they've told you everything you want; at what point, indeed, do you decide that torture is necessary?

The comments pages (12 pages, by now) are heartwarming. To read a few of them right after the article, I felt like despairing at the human race. To read most of them, however, affirms my faith in it, and my hopefulness at learning and teaching us not only citizen science and working together, but to choose the right thing. Many people wrote movingly that they would prefer to die in a terrorist's bomb than live under a state that tortured. Others suggested that a good way to avoid the need for torture, and fear of bombs, is not to invade other people's countries. The Independent's letters have been pretty good too; though why they call it a "debate" I know not, given the unity of the writers! They'll probably be deeply buried soon, so I'll link them: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday - in which one of mine got published, sarcastically (I couldn't resist) comparing the "ticking bomb scenario" to the tooth fairy telling a reader to rape a child in order to bring about world peace. I hope it is clear by now that, put in a sort of vaccuum, one might choose to sacrifice the child - but to put it into the context of the whole world, it's obviously nonsense. (The rapist and raped are not exactly in a state of peace for starters.)

Some Twitterers were angry enough to set up a Facebook group against the torture of children. One letter was jointly from Amnesty International and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the very group that helped Eric Lomax. I looked up the latter and was very pleased that I had. The "Torture Myths" section is particularly well worth a read . . .

At first, I was nauseated that the Indy could have published such a hideous, violent piece; now, like one of the letter writers, I am pleased they did - for the way to defeat a hateful argument is to expose it, and answer it. Torture is in every way wrong, and arguments against it are not merely liberal, self-indulgent wooliness, nor childlike innocence that the thoughtful outgrow: both human and logical arguments answer it clearly. For those of it who accuse me of "not thinking", I can safely respond, "Think yourself."

Sunday 14 February 2010

The Mathematician's Valentine, etc.

Yes, I really will type up my Astrofest notes soon!

In the meantime - you must seriously check out the Mathematician's Valentine. Shapes, folds, Mobius-strips-turned-no-longer-Mobius-strips, graphs, equations, and finally sweets to fall back on - plus the, er, true heart-throb, fail-safe, sweep-'em-off-their feet poem:

Roses are red.
Violets are approximately blue.
A paracompact manifold with a Lorentzian metric,
can be a spacetime, if it has dimension greater than or equal to two.

(I suppose I should add that no really mathematically inclined person I've showed it to seems impressed yet. But I loved it.)

To mark the occasion of today, or probably rather choosing today as an excellent opportunity to cover something I hadn't realised was regarded as a long-standing mystery, ZookeeperChris wrote an Object of the Day about "The Heart Galaxy", or SDSS 587729227151704160.

If you're more patient with mysterious computer simulations than me, you'll do much better at the Galaxy Zoo Mergers project,which is featuring this galaxy today. Chris has a Masters student named Georgia Barrie studying the rings, who tells us that she will be sharing the results of the world's largest ring catalogue with us soon. Good to meet you Georgia, and I look forward to it!

And totally off-topic but not least, many congratulations to Zookeeper Karen, who's just produced her 2nd addition to her family!

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Homeopathic Overdose Story in the Western Telegraph

The article about my homeopathic overdose is now in the Western Telegraph, our local newspaper. Check out the online version as the paper version has a photo of me looking extremely silly! Have this nice picture of the Town Centre instead, taken from PBASE. Boots is right behind the Clock Tower.

A very nice beginning!
A national campaign against homeopathic remedies being in sold in Boots stores was brought to Haverfordwest on Saturday.

One woman from Johnston took a lonely but determined stance against the so-called alternative remedies, joining a mass ‘overdose’ of homeopathic tablets, to prove that they have no effect.

At least two readers are less impressed. It's the first time I personally have been lampooned in comments pages, though customers and schoolchildren have said far worse things to me in my time - I can't quite decide what it's like, yet. These criticisms are really rather pitiful (so far). A very useful thing to go through, I guess - as Karen kindly showed me. I don't think I'm as ignorant as they call me, but it's a healthy reminder never to pretend I know everything - about anything!

Many thanks to Katy Woodhouse for interviewing me and writing the article! They didn't go into the science - I guess there wasn't room - so I did that in the comments for them.

Hope you enjoy it!

Update: By midnight, it appears to be the most read and commented on story! Though perhaps that is due to a lot of input from a few people, rather than some from lots!