Category Archives: politics

Fluoridation decisions to be made by District Health Boards

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Image credit: Constant Contact

This has been on the cards for a while. In recent years ideologically and commercially motivated activists have played havoc with the consultations organised by local body councils. Councils have shown by their own actions they are not capable of considering the scientific and health evidence related to community water fluoridation. The political intrigues of local bodies and the lack of scientific skills have prevented sensible decisions in many cases – and resulted in reversals of decisions – sometimes within a few weeks. yet New Zealanders have in most places voted to support community water fluoridation.

Councils have asked the central government to remove decisions on fluoridation from their responsibility. And now the government has decided to do just that.

This is the text of today’s  press release from the Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Health, and the Hon Peter Dunne, Associate Minister of Health (see Fluoridation decision to move to DHBs):


DHBs rather than local authorities will decide on which community water supplies are fluoridated under proposed changes announced today by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

“New Zealand has high rates of preventable tooth decay and increasing access to fluoridated water will improve oral health, and mean fewer costly trips to the dentist for more New Zealanders,” says Dr Coleman.

“This change could benefit over 1.4 million New Zealanders who live in places where networked community water supplies are not currently fluoridated.

“Water fluoridation has been endorsed by the World Health Organization and other international health authorities as the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”

DHBs currently provide expert advice on fluoridation to local authorities.

“Moving the decision-making process from local councils to DHBs is recognition that water fluoridation is a health-related issue,” says Mr Dunne.

“Deciding which water supplies should be fluoridated aligns closely to DHBs’ current responsibilities and expertise. It makes sense for DHBs to make fluoridation decisions for their communities based on local health priorities and by assessing health-related evidence.”

A Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament later this year. Members of the public and organisations will have an opportunity to make submissions to the Health Select Committee as it considers the Bill.

See also: DHBs could make call on fluoridating water

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Nadine gives a necessary message to her fellow Muslims

TV host Nadine Al-Budair made this statement on the Saudi Rotana Khalijiyah TV on April 3. I hope she survives to say more.

We need more, much more, voices like this among Muslims.

Here are some extracts from a recent article of hers.

“Imagine a Western youth coming here and carrying out a suicide mission in one of our public squares in the name of the Cross. Imagine that two skyscrapers had collapsed in some Arab capital, and that an extremist Christian group, donning millennium-old garb, had emerged to take responsibility for the event, while stressing its determination to revive Christian teachings or some Christian rulings, according to its understanding, to live like in the time [of Jesus] and his disciples, and to implement certain edicts of Christian scholars…

“Imagine hearing the voices of monks and priests from churches and prayer houses in and out of the Arab world, screaming on loudspeakers and levelling accusations against Muslims, calling them infidels, and chanting: ‘God, eliminate the Muslims and defeat them all.’

“Imagine that we had provided an endless number of foreign groups with visas, ID cards, citizenships, proper jobs, free education, free modern healthcare, social security, and so on, and later a member of one of these groups came out, consumed by hatred and bloodlust, and killed our sons on our streets, in our buildings, in our newspaper [offices], in our mosques and in our schools.

“Imagine a Frenchmen or a German in Paris or Berlin leading his Muslim neighbor [somewhere] in order to slaughter him and then freeze his head in an ice box, in a cold and calculating manner… as one terrorist did with the head of an American in Riyadh years ago.

“Imagine that we visited their country as tourists and they shot at us, blew up car bombs near us, and announced their opposition to our presence [there] by chanting: ‘Remove the Muslims from the land of culture.’

“These images are far from the mind of the Arab or Muslim terrorist because he is certain, or used to be certain, that the West is humanitarian and that the Western citizen would refuse to respond [in this manner] to the barbaric crimes [of the Muslim terrorists]. Despite the terrorist acts of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we [Muslims] have been on [Western] soil for years without any fear or worry. Millions of Muslim tourists, immigrants, students, and job seekers [travel to the West] with the doors open [to them], and the streets safe [for them].”

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Why is Donald Trump so successful – and will he win?

Trump-web

I think Donald Trump is a buffoon – but perhaps I have got it all wrong. According to ‘Dilbert’ creator, Scott Adams, Trump is the ultimate politician – especially in deploying his powers of persuasion. And surely that is what all politicians want to do? In fact, Adams believes  Trump is so good at persuasion that he will win the election in a landslide.

Michael Cavna outlines Adams’s arguments in the Washington Post article Donald Trump will win in a landslide. *The mind behind ‘Dilbert’ explains why. Basically, it boils down to the fact that:

“On the stump, the real-estate mogul is not running on the knowledge of his numbers or the dissection of the data. He is running on our emotions, Adams says, and sly appeals to our own human irrationality. . . . .

“Most simply put: Adams believes Trump will win because he’s ‘a master persuader.’”

OK – that analysis appeals to me -I have often asserted that humans are not a rational species – more a rationalising one. Emotions play a huge role in our decisions – even when we think, and claim, we are acting rationally. “Psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president,” writes Adams, adding: “Trump knows psychology.”

So, here are 6 things Trump is doing to win hearts and minds:

People are irrational

1. Trump knows people are basically irrational.

“If you see voters as rational you’ll be a terrible politician,” Adams writes on his blog. “People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence.”

2. Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level.

“The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favor of emotional appeal,” Adams writes. “Sure, much of what Trump says makes sense to his supporters, but I assure you that is coincidence. Trump says whatever gets him the result he wants. He understands humans as 90-percent irrational and acts accordingly.”

Adams adds: “People vote based on emotion. Period.”

Fact don’t matter

Apparently this cynical approach has the advantage that facts are not longer important:

3. By running on emotion, facts don’t matter.

Adams writes. “There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them.

“Right in front of you.”

4. If facts don’t matter, you can’t really be “wrong.”

Trump “doesn’t apologize or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy,” Adams writes. “If you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).”

5. With fewer facts in play, it’s easier to bend reality.

Trump can be thin-skinned when his “reality” is challenged. “The Master Persuader will warp reality until he gets what he wants,” writes Adams, noting that Trump is “halfway done” already.

Identitiy politics

Finally, something which many of us find especially hateful – the denigration of people – turns out to be yet another powerful trick in Trump’s persuasion arsenal.

6. To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics — and identity is the strongest persuader.

“Do you think it is a coincidence that Trump called Megyn Kelly a bimbo and then she got a non-bimbo haircut that is … well, Trumpian?” Adams writes. “It doesn’t look like a coincidence to this trained persuader. . . .

“Writes Adams: “Identity is always the strongest level of persuasion. The only way to beat it is with dirty tricks or a stronger identity play. … [And] Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.

“If this were poker, which hand looks stronger to you for a national election?”

It’s a pretty convincing argument. We ignore the irrationality of humans at our peril and most political commenters had dismissed Trump because he is irrational. They ignored the fact that he had special skills at appealing to emotion and using crude identity politics.

But, I hope Adams is exaggerating in his claim that Trump will win the presidency in a landslide. I hope there enough people who refuse to be led by such crude emotional and identity politics appeals. However, the fact that there is a large number of American’s who are persuaded by such buffoonery is a worrying thing.

Mind you – I think all politicians use similar techniques – appeal to emotions and our irrational nature, neglecting or bending facts and use of identity politics. But I like to think there is a large proportion of the population who are concerned with facts, are appalled by identity politics and are suspicious of emotional manipulation.

Hopefully, this proportion is large enough to prevent the landslide victory Adams is predicting. Mind you – the alternative may present equally large problems to the world?

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Why are our politicians so silent on Palmyra’s liberation from clutches of Daesh?

Palmyra_-_Monumental_Arch

Palmyra’s historic monumental arch. Bernard Gagnon

Robert Frisk, The Independent’s multiple award-winning Middle East correspondent, is angry with Western Political leaders who are silent about the liberation of Palmyra (see Why is David Cameron so silent on the recapture of Palmyra from the clutches of Isis?).

So am I. We should all be angry.

Frisk says:

“The biggest military defeat that isis has suffered in more than two years. The recapture of Palmyra, the Roman city of the Empress Zenobia. And we are silent. Yes, folks, the bad guys won, didn’t they? Otherwise, we would all be celebrating, wouldn’t we?

Less than a week after the lost souls of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ destroyed the lives of more than 30 innocent human beings in Brussels, we should – should we not? – have been clapping our hands at the most crushing military reverse in the history of Isis. But no. As the black masters of execution fled Palmyra this weekend, Messers Obama and Cameron were as silent as the grave to which Isis have dispatched so many of their victims. He who lowered our national flag in honour of the head-chopping king of Arabia (I’m talking about Dave, of course) said not a word.”

Yes, the silence of these political leaders has been deafening. But not all leaders.

According to the Syrian Arab News the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the restoration of Security and stability to Palmyra and the expelling terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the historic city:

“We were happy with the announcement of the Syrian army the restoration of security and stability to Palmyra… the Syrian army will protect and preserve this human heritage.”

He added ISIS terrorists don’t only kill people in a brutal way, but they also destroy the heritage of the human civilizations that date back to thousands of years.

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

Even the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, expressed gratitude for the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra. “Thank you,” he wrote in Russian in response to the message of the Russian Embassy in the US on the complete liberation of Palmyra.

McFaul

The Russian President congratulated the Syrian president on Palmyra’s liberation – although maybe that doesn’t count as his country contributed to this defeat of the Daesh jihadis in Palmyra.

Why this reticence?

Perhaps that is the problem – even if such a reason is childish. The policies and strategies of the US, NATO and the EU have been shown to be an absolute failure and then their political opponent – that upstart President Putin – comes along and shows them up. He gives substance to those criticisms of the failed policy of regime change in Syria.

As Frisk writes:

“When Palmyra fell last year, we predicted the fall of Bashar al-Assad. We ignored, were silent on, the Syrian army’s big question: why, if the Americans hated Isis so much, didn’t they bomb the suicide convoys that broke through the Syrian army’s front lines? Why didn’t they attack Isis?

“If the Americans wanted to destroy Isis, why didn’t they bomb them when they saw them?” a Syrian army general asked me, after his soldiers’ defeat.  His son had been killed defending Homs. His men had been captured and head-chopped in the Roman ruins. The Syrian official in charge of the Roman ruins (of which we cared so much, remember?) was himself beheaded. Isis even put his spectacles back on top of his decapitated head, for fun. And we were silent then.”

Back in September Putin asked during his speech to the UN General Assembly – “Do you realise what you have done?” He called for unity in the fight against terrorism – unity of the sort we experienced during the struggle against Nazism during World War II. But he didn’t sit back and wait for this unity – he provided help to the Syrian regime whose collapse, which was imminent,  would have thrown the country into anarchy of the sort that only breeds more terrorism. An anarchy which was the only clear future of the “regime change” policy. So, as Frisk points out:

“[Putin’s] aircraft attacked Isis – as US planes did not – in advance of the Syrian army’s conquest. I could not help but smile when I read that the US command claimed two air strikes against Isis around Palmyra in the days leading up to its recapture by the regime. That really did tell you all you needed to know about the American “war on terror”. They wanted to destroy Isis, but not that much.

“So in the end, it was the Syrian army and its Hizballah chums from Lebanon and the Iranians and the Russians who drove the Isis murderers out of Palmyra, and who may – heavens preserve us from such a success – even storm the Isis Syrian ‘capital’ of Raqqa. I have written many times that the Syrian army will decide the future of Syria. If they grab back Raqqa – and Deir el-Zour, where the Nusrah front destroyed the church of the Armenian genocide and threw the bones of the long-dead 1915 Christian victims into the streets – I promise you we will be silent again.

“Aren’t we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That’s Putin’s job. And Assad’s. Pray for peace, folks. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? And Geneva. Where is that, exactly?”

“Regime change” is a threat to Europe

Europe is suffering the largest immigration crisis since the last World War – a crisis caused by the thoughtless application of “regime change” strategy in the Middle East.

I don’t go along with the claims that this immigration is being used by ISIS to infiltrate trained terrorist groups into Europe – after all, the groups we have seen in action have been essentially “home-grown.” But jihadists have captured territory in Iraq, Syria and now Libya –  have set up their own “caliphate” which enables the training of such “home-grown” jihadis. This also provides an ideological “homeland” for these terrorists. Daesh (ISIS) public sponsorship of terrorist actions in Europe – and elsewhere (which our media practically ignores) is clear evidence of a direct link.

Yes, the social and cultural problems of current European citizens of Middle East origin contributes to their radicalisation as well. But surely this massive immigration will only help set up a future situation of increased ghettoisation and radicalisation of the immigrants and their children.

Politicians have failed to develop policies in Europe capable of preventing the current ghettoisation and radicalisation – it’s an open question whether they will be able to develop policies suitable for the new wave of immigration.

Meanwhile, these same politicians in Europe, NATO and the US have created the current problems with their ‘failed “regime change” interventions in the Middle East. Realists have started to realise this and complain about that strategy. But, so far, they seem incapable of completely rejecting it, accepting the right of the peoples in those countries to decide their own regimes – and decide for themselves any changes they consider necessary.

As for the possibility of united action to combat terrorism, I think there have been hopeful signs with the US-Russian cooperation over the cessation of hostilities in Syria and support for the Geneva negotiations on Syria’s future. Perhaps that is a good start which can be built on. But so far such cooperation appears to be confined to the activity of the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Given that president Obama couldn’t bring himself to welcome Palmyra’s liberation I wonder what John Kerry says in private?

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The US speaks in two tongues on terrorism

Palmyra liberation

I wonder how democratically minded people reacted to news of the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad during World War II. Or to the liberation of inmates from German concentration camps in Poland by Russian forces towards the end of the war.

Surely they welcomed these victories – even reacted ecstatically. I find it hard to believe otherwise.

But now I wonder. Surely the liberation of the Syrian city of Palmyra from Daesh (ISIS) occupation must be welcomed ecstatically by democratically minded people. Yet we find this pathetic hand wringing by a US State department spokesperson Mark Tonner.

He was far from enthusiastic the other day when asked if the US considered Palmyra’s liberation a positive development. Less than 24 hours before the Syrian Arab Army’s major push, Toner was asked on Wednesday if the US would like to see “the regime retake Palmyra, or do you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands?”

But no clear support for such a liberation. Instead, Tonner talked about “alleged violations of the cessation of hostilities” by the “regime.”  How the hell could a responsible State Department spokesperson talk that way – surely he is aware that the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the US and the Russian Federation specifically excluded Daesh!

He effectively refused to answer the journalist’s question instead suggesting there was little difference between Daesh and the “regime” of President Bashar Assad. After giving an evasive non-answer, Toner was pressed to clarify his remarks.

“No, I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s not a great choice, an either/or, but – which is worse, Daesh or the regime – but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case,” Toner replied.

Bloody hell! With such an evasive attitude by someone representing a country which is claiming to play a decisive role against international terrorism no wonder we have problems.

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Life for women under Daesh (ISIS)

This video was taken in the Syrian city of Raqqa – the Daesh (ISIS) capital and stronghold in Syria. It portrays the life for ordinary women under the tyranny of these Islamic terrorists.

Fortunately, this situation may soon be reversed. Armed forces of Syria and its allies are currently massing to retake the historic city of Palmyra.

Palmyra

The ruins at Palmyra are shown here in 2009. Source: PETER RAYNER/AXIOM/ZUMA

Battles are also occurring around Deir ez-Zur. The capture of these cities well enable liberation of Raqqa.

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The “interfaith” trap – particularly for atheists

The video above shows some of the hassling of Maryam Namazie by members of the Goldsmiths Islamic Society when she gave a talk to the London’s Goldsmiths College on the topic “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of ISIS.” The talk was sponsored by the Goldsmiths Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society but was opposed by the Goldsmiths Islamic Society and the Goldsmiths Feminist Society who attempted to get her invitation withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin had also originally withdrawn invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims.

The video is long and the sound quality is not good. However I persisted and found interesting the fact that female Muslims in the audience were not able to ask their questions until  near the end – after the male disruptors had left!

Now University of Sheffield

The other day I saw a similar example of this attempted censorship at the University of Sheffield. But this time, the Sheffield Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (SASH) itself was the censor – they “turned down a suggestion by a student to invite Maryam Namazie to speak at the university. The reason? Her ‘hard anti-Islamist approach’ is not ‘conducive’ to the direction that the society wishes to go in” (see Atheist students are losing their faith in free speech).

So this is yet another example of the way group thinking and irrational arguments are being used to prevent open discussion of important issues like human and women’s right? (I discussed this in my articles Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy and Misrepresentation, misogyny and misandry – these should concern sceptics). But it is also an example of how “interfaith” activity, and indeed finding common cause with groups holding different beliefs, can result in the suppression of such vital discussion.

The author of the article is Hallam Roffey who is a writer and a student at the University of Sheffield. He writes:

“This isn’t a wind-up. Not only is the suggestion that you can be ‘too hard’ on Islamism baffling, but the fact that this statement came from an atheist, secularist and humanist society is almost beyond parody. To clarify, this is a society which aims to defend human rights and promote secularism declining to invite a renowned and influential ex-Muslim, secularist and human-rights campaigner. (Namazie has done extensive work supporting refugees, and has tackled both religious fundamentalism and far-right bigotry.)

“In its response to the inquiring student, SASH said that it would like to concentrate on ‘interfaith’ activities instead, stating that ‘interfaith between faith societies is vital’. Apparently, inviting Namazie, which may not be welcomed by some members of Sheffield’s Islamic Society (ISoc), would be antithetical to their objectives.”

So, in effect, this student society has thrown away some of its basic aims simply to further its “interfaith” activities.

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Photo credit: AP/Valentina Petrova

I find that incredible. While I accept that cooperation between groups of different beliefs is important and laudable what is this worth if it involves giving up such important principles. Would the Christian societies at Sheffield give up their bible studies and prayer meetings in order to further “interfaith ” cooperation with the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society? Would the Islamic Society give up their involvement in Ramadan activities for such vague “interfaith” reasons?

I think not.

I think that this example shows how the involvement of atheists and humanists or “interfaith” organisational activities can be a trap. After all, many of these sorts of activities already assume ideas and customs which exclude atheists (eg religious observations and collective ‘interfaith” prayers). Atheists should limit cooperation to issues where there is common ground – and they should not limit their own activity on issues like human rights because one or other of the theist groups do not support them.

Or is this just   a fashionable “political correctness?”

Mind you, I wonder if this “interfaith” issue is just a handy excuse for those who rejected the request that Maryam speak. I wonder if the bogeys of “anti-feminism” and Islamophobia” are not the real reasons, at least for some, in the way these arguments have been used in attempts to suppress the voices of others – like Richard Dawkins.

Hallam Roffey says:

“SASH was particularly concerned that there would be a repeat of ‘what happened at Goldsmiths’, when Islamist students disrupted a talk being given by Namazie. But this only projects a pretty dim view of Sheffield ISoc. As a Sheffield student myself, I’d like to think that ISoc members would be up for the debate, and would not act at all like those thugs at Goldsmiths. Not all Muslims resent apostates.

“What’s more, the subtext here is that Namazie was in some way to blame for the Goldsmiths incident. Though SASH insists it does not condone Goldsmiths ISoc’s actions, it is nevertheless siding with Islamists at Namazie’s expense. This is cowardly and pathetic.”

I agree – this sort of suppression of discussion on topic human rights issues is cowardly and pathetic.

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Scientific self-deception

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There is a lot of scientific self-deception about – and not only among ideologically motivated activists who wish to opportunistically use science in their campaigns. Scientists themselves are also prone to self-deception – as Richard Feynman sums it up in this meme.

I like this cartoon Eureka! with Regina Nuzzo from Cara Gormally as it indicates why we are so prone to self-deception and some things we can do it overcome it.

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Media misleading on Syria

Syrian Observatory

“COVERAGE OF the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. Reporting about carnage in the ancient city of Aleppo is the latest reason why.”

That is according to a recent Op-ed by Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe. The article is The media are misleading the public on Syria.

This article is a sight for sore eyes – a “mouse” roaring against the “lion” of misinformation on the Syrian war. I am fed up with the biased reporting of the Syrian conflict and the surrounding political aspects. Information coming from people outside the country – even blatantly so as in TV news reports from Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (reporting from Coventry in the UK) is often used as sources for reports of bombings., civilian casualties, etc. yet who the hell considers that an objective source.

Aleppo – liberation?

Kinzer writes about recent reporting of the fighting in and around Allepo – which was once Syria’s largest city:

“For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression.  . . . Militants, true to form, are wreaking havoc as they are pushed out of the city by Russian and Syrian Army forces. “Turkish-Saudi backed ‘moderate rebels’ showered the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo with unguided rockets and gas jars,” one Aleppo resident wrote on social media.”

“This does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a “liberated zone” for three years but is now being pulled back into misery.

“Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the “moderate opposition” will win.

“This is convoluted nonsense, but Americans cannot be blamed for believing it. We have almost no real information about the combatants, their goals, or their tactics. Much blame for this lies with our media.”

And this “convoluted nonsense” is largely the story delivered by our own media. One has to search very hard to find alternative information – to get a real idea of what is happening in Syria.

Flags in Aleppo

Syrian armed forces placing the Syrian flag on Aleppo thermal power plant after capturing it from Daesh. This completed the eviction of Jihadists from Aleppo. Photo Credit:  Chris Tchaikovsky

Kinzer complains:

“Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms.”

And that is what is passed on to us by the “approved” or “official” news media.

Genuine reporting lost “in the cacophony”

Yet:

“Astonishingly brave correspondents in the war zone, including Americans, seek to counteract Washington-based reporting. At great risk to their own safety, these reporters are pushing to find the truth about the Syrian war. Their reporting often illuminates the darkness of groupthink. Yet for many consumers of news, their voices are lost in the cacophony. Reporting from the ground is often overwhelmed by the Washington consensus.”

He goes on to complain that our media portrays al-Nusra as “made up of ‘rebels’ or ‘moderates'” whereas “it is the “local al-Qaeda franchise.”  Saudi Arabia and Turkey are portrayed as aiding freedom fighters when they actually sponsor Daesh, finance and supply and other jihadist groups. However:

“Everything Russia and Iran do in Syria is described as negative and destabilizing, simply because it is they who are doing it — and because that is the official line in Washington.”

We should expect far more from journalists:

“Politicians may be forgiven for distorting their past actions. Governments may also be excused for promoting whatever narrative they believe best suits them. Journalism, however, is supposed to remain apart from the power elite and its inbred mendacity. In this crisis it has failed miserably.”

And this media inspired ignorance is dangerous, for us, for regional peace and for the Syrian people:

” In Syria, it is: “Fight Assad, Russia, and Iran! Join with our Turkish, Saudi, and Kurdish friends to support peace!” This is appallingly distant from reality. It is also likely to prolong the war and condemn more Syrians to suffering and death.”

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Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy.

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I had been meaning to comment on the controversy surrounding the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at the US Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) – followed by his disinvitation. But events have moved on – he has now been reinvited but has had a mild stroke so there is no longer any possibility of speaking engagements for a few months.

Many people are concerned about Richard’s health – the news seemed good but you can get a better idea from his own description of the problem in an audio message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words.

He sounds pretty frail to me – and the fact he was hospitalised for 4 days suggest it was more serious than I originally understood. Hopefully, though, he will recover well and be back to his usual speaking programme. That’s of some interest to us in New Zealand as a planned appearance at the Wellington Art’s Festival next month has been postponed. Hopefully, his plan to make an appearance here a few months later will go ahead.

Interestingly, Richard’s doctors advised him to avoid controversy because of blood pressure problems! And he acknowledges that recent controversies may not have help his blood pressure.

The current controversy

It seems this problems stems from Richard’s use of Twitter. Which seems pretty petty because Twitter is hardly a format for reasoned discussion with it’s 140 character limits – and the usually abusive and stupid responses.

A comment I saw said Richard on social media “comes across as petty, insulting and yes, sexist.” Well, I think almost anyone debating on twitter comes across this way. I think he is rather naive to use twitter as much as he does (he refers to twitter in his most recent book – Brief Candle in the Dark – and admits to being in two minds about it). While he appears to make an effort to qualify comments and present logical arguments in his tweets that does not stop people from misinterpreting him (innocently or intentionally) – and misrepresenting him in later articles and debates.

Mind you, basing even a blog article, let alone an op-ed or similar media article, on tweets seems rather desperate of people.

The controversy appears to boil down to reaction to this tweet:

DawkinsTweet

Despite the qualification critics have used the tweet to claim he is misogynist and attributes stupid behaviour to all feminists! It contained a link to a polemically crude video drawing parallels between the arguments of extreme feminists and extreme Islamists – so Richard has also copped the Islamophobia charge too. (As well as a new one on me claiming he is saying that extreme feminists behave the same – rather than drawing parallels).

Faulty generalisation

This interpretation is so mistaken I think only people who are already hostile or desperately searching for something to confirm their anti-Dawkins or anti-male bias would actually fall for it – or promote it. But that is the sort of thing we get on social media – especially Twitter.

Drivers

This is the fallacy of faulty generalisation – or more precisely, faulty induction. Very often resorted to by people with a large axe to grind.

Rebecca Watson is one of Richards most vocal critics. She is very hostile towards the regard that many sceptics and atheists have for Dawkins, recently writing in her article Center for Inquiry Merges with Richard Dawkins & His Twitter Account:

“In conclusion, the skeptic/atheist sphere is an embarrassing shitshow and the organizations will continue polishing Richard Dawkins’ knob until he dies, at which point he will be sainted and his image will be put on candles and prayed to in times when logic is needed.”

(People who find fault with Richard’s tweets should really apply their critical and analytical skills to that sort of anti-sceptic, anti-atheist, vitriol.)

In her article commenting on the NECSS disinvitation, NECSS Dumps Richard Dawkins Over Hate Tweet, she wrote:

“Let’s hope that Center for Inquiry and other organizations take similar steps to distance themselves from Dawkins’ hateful rhetoric.”

So, she has added “hate speech” (or “hate rhetoric”) to her list of Richards failings.

(I must be careful here as some people argue that the terms “hate tweet” and “hate rhetoric” are not the same as “hate speech” – rationalisation by mental gymnastics in my opinion.)

I can’t help feeling there is a lot of bruised ego involved there – but lets stick with her logical fallacy. I have criticised her in the past for committing the fallacy of faulty generalisation. In that case her use of valid cases where studies in evolution psychology amounted to very poor science and bias confirmation (pop-psychology) to attribute that problem to the whole field of evolutionary psychology. See Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychologySceptical humility and peer review in science and Sense on evolutionary psychology  for the details.

I was critical because she, and some of here allies, were demonising a whole scientific field because of the obvious faults of just a part of it.

Professional jealousy

Professionals, like any other human, often suffer from jealousy of other professionals. And this is particularly true in attitudes towards scientific popularisers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Carl Sagan, and many others. Hell, I have seen it many times in my own scientific community when a colleague gets media coverage.

Massimo Pigliucci has for a long time exhibited this sort of professional jealousy, often being unable to hold himself back when even a distant opportunity arises to have a biff at Richard. He has a Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction to the word “Dawkins.” So, not surprisingly, he has commented on this recent fiasco in a very long blog article – Richard Dawkins.

Massimo in this article describes his relationship with Dawkins as “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” – but he is being disingenuous. Colleagues “who disagree on a number of issues” (and shouldn’t we all be described this way) do not build campaigns on that disagreement. Perhaps we should look to Dawkins as an example of how reasonable “colleagues who disagree on a number of issues” should treat that disagreement in public – with personal respect. I have yet to see any personal invective for Massimo from Richard.

In summary, Massimo argues that Dawkins has no original work in his field (except “memes” – which to Richard was simply a passing speculation), is “utterly” ignorant about important biological concepts and has a “hopelessly limited” view of biology.  Massimo  criticises the gene-centric view of Richards first book The Selfish Gene and finds The God Delusion “simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.”

Most of all, Massimo bridles at the occasional media portrayal of Richard as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” Perhaps Dawkins also bridles at that description as it is rather meaningless – there is a media tendency to label any scientist they cover as a “leading” or “top” scientist (and that often causes jealousy among colleagues).

My point is that Massimo comments seem motivated by professional jealousy, rather than any real concern about the sceptic/atheist “movement.” He is being unprofessional to carry out a personal public campaign in this way. And he ends up looking foolish for that and his identification with the NECSS blunder (I have not seem any comment from Massimo on the later reinvitation which attempted to correct that blunder.)

A critical minority?

I don’t want to give the impression that all the reaction to Richards tweets has been negative – far from it. Here is a long blog article from Michael Nuget, chairperson of Atheist Ireland. – NECSS should reconsider Dawkins decision, made in haste without full information It’s worth reading and probably gives a more representative assessment of the issue but, for reasons of space, I won’t comment on it here except to quote this significant passage:

“This is the fourth recent controversy involving activists having speaking invitations withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin both withdrew invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims. And Saint Dominic’s College in Dublin withdrew an invitation to me, citing fears that my talk would undermine its Catholic ethos.

After being asked to reconsider, each of these three institutions reinstated the invitations, with Warwick Students Union publicly apologising to Maryam. All three talks have since gone ahead successfully. I hope this article will help to persuade NECSS to follow the example of these other bodies, and revisit their decision based on the skepticism that they promote.”

Well, I guess  we now have 5 recent examples of disinvitations under pressure from biased pressure groups, followed by organisations coming to their sense and reinstating the invitations.

See alsoSam Harris’s audio comment on the fiasco.

What about responses from Richard Dawkins

I think Dawkins handled this issue very well – even wishing the organisers a successful conference after their disinvitation (made rudely by public statement, not personally to Richard):

“I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and scepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.”

In his later oral message – An update on Richard’s condition in his own words – Richard revealed his invitation had been reinstated and politely expressed his thanks and gratitude, even though his health now prevents him taking up the invitation (or reinvitation).

Here are the full texts  of the NECSS formal reinvitation and Richards response:

From the NECSS executive committee, February 14, 2016:

We wish to apologize to Professor Dawkins for our handling of his disinvitation to NECSS 2016. Our actions were not professional, and we should have contacted him directly to express our concerns before acting unilaterally. We have sent Professor Dawkins a private communication expressing this as well. This apology also extends to all NECSS speakers, our attendees, and to the broader skeptical movement.

We wish to use this incident as an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion of the deeper issues implicated here, which are causing conflict both within the skeptical community and within society as a whole. NECSS 2016 will therefore feature a panel discussion addressing these topics. There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity. We have asked Professor Dawkins to participate in this discussion at NECSS 2016 in addition to his prior scheduled talk, and we hope he will accept our invitation.

This statement and our discussions with Professor Dawkins were initiated prior to learning of his recent illness. All of NECSS wishes Professor Dawkins a speedy and full recovery.

The NECSS Executive Committee

Richard’s Response:

Dear Jamy,

Please convey my thanks to the entire Executive Committee for their gracious apology and for reinviting me to the NECSS conference. I am sensitive to what a difficult thing it must have been to rescind an earlier, publicised decision. I am truly grateful. Politicians are regularly criticised for changing their minds, but sceptics, rationalists and scientists know that there are occasions when the ability to change ones mind is a virtue. Sympathy for the victim of a medical emergency is not one of those occasions, and I therefore note with especial admiration that the Executive Committee’s courageous and principled change of mind predated my stroke.

That stroke, however, does make it impossible for me to accept the invitation, much as I would like to do so. I shall especially miss the pleasure of an on stage conversation with you. I hope another opportunity for that conversation will arise. I wish the conference well. May it be a great success. You certainly have managed to put together a starry list of speakers.

With my best wishes to you and the whole Executive Committee

Richard

Richard’s refusal to be pulled into a silly tit-for-tat online – with all the usual charges against the other side – reinforces my favourable opinion of him. He is not prone to extremist positions or personal infighting. I suggest that he comes out of the little tiff well – even if he did make some mistakes on his twitter account (and who doesn’t). In contrast, his critics have exposed their unreasonable and extremist attitudes and NECSS has ended up with egg on its face – unable to resist bullying from these extremists. Let’s hope similar organisations do not get caught in the same trap.

Finally, I welcome the NECAA organisers decision to include a panel discussion on these issues in its conference. As they say – “There is room for a range of reasonable opinions on these issues and our conversation will reflect that diversity.”

Let’s hope that they do not abandon this plan just because Richard is unable to take part. The issues of cyber-bullying and use of labels like “sexist,” “misogynist” and “islamophobic” to shut down important discussion should be dealt with. These issues – the ability to discuss topical problems and those problems themselves – are too important to ignore. Hopefully, organisers will find a person (perhaps Michael Nugent?) who is brave enough to stand up and speak openly and honestly about them.

As Richard would have done.

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