Monday, 26 August 2013

Syrian weapons of mass destruction

Suppose your husband is acting rather distantly.  You suspect he is having an affair.  He denies it but, in due course, you are proven right.  Husband is contrite, you are forgiving.  A few years later you notice the same symptoms of distance.  Is he having an affair?  You ask him.  He denies it.  Do you believe him?  And, in a nutshell, we have the problem of trust.  Why should you believe his declarations?  Would your girl-friends advise you to be very wary?  Quite frankly you need an unimpeachable source and your husband just doesn't cut it.

Now we hear the claim that the Syrian government has unleashed chemical weapons on the rebel insurgency.  The US is outraged, sabres rattle, and we hear the familiar prelude to a US-UK intervention.  Should we believe what we are told?  Doesn't our memory go back to 2002/2003 when we were told with cast-iron certainty that Iraq - another oil-rich country - had WMD and that armed invasion was therefore vital.

The US and the UK have a credibility problem of gigantic proportion.  Let's leave aside the question of whether they have a moral obligation to go to war (I think not, but that is not the point I want to address here).  Let's assume that war could be justified if the WMD claim is true.

But how can we the ordinary voters know what to think?  After all, it wasn't just the leaders of the US and the UK who sold us a pup 10 years ago.  Our media, including the "quality press" (such as the UK Observer - see the expose by Nick Davis in Flat Earth News), bought in to and passed on as truth, all their government's propaganda.  Seriously, folks - what could convince us that Syria is not another Iraq?  The resemblance is uncanny.

I don't know what could realistically be said or done to make us believe the claims of chemical weapons.  Obviously what the US and UK governments say is worthless. Obviously, what the US and UK press say is tainted by their past behaviour.  The chickens of their lies have come home to roost.

We need some credible sources and those sources have to be clearly not beholden to the US and UK.  So, how about inviting the Chinese to investigate?  How about flying in the Libyans?  Or the North Koreans?  Or some representatives of America's down-trodden black community who have suffered the most in the financial fallout from the two trillion dollar spend in the Iraq war?  I am not joking - I would trust these sources more than I trust our official overlords.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Despairing of the UK: Scottish opportunity

We are culturally disposed to feel respect and loyalty to our country of birth.  On the whole I believe this is a good thing.  It makes us more likely to sign up to the social contract: cooperate with law enforcement agencies, pay our taxes, behave responsibly about litter, and a host of other things to make us good citizens.  But what do you do if you think your country is taking measures against the populace, overt or covert, which are clearly a breach of their part in the social contract?  And, worse, if they ignore the wishes of large sections of the populace leading them to a genuine sense of disenfranchisement?

This is the situation I find myself in as a UK citizen largely as a result of the revelations given to us by Edward Snowden.  Of course I am not alone.  Other British people are similarly outraged.  Furthermore, residents of several other countries - the USA and New Zealand spring to mind - are also outraged by the behaviour of their own security agencies.  Instances of these agencies over-reaching their mandate are too many to enumerate but the present furore over the harassment of journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner David Miranda is typical.

To return to my question: what should I do?  The sad answer is that I have no immediate recourse.  All I can do is to continue to make my views known and to use the democratic process to express my strong disapproval of the slide towards totalitarianism.  We are still a long way from an East German state so peaceful protest has still to be order of the day.

However, in the UK, there is a constitutional issue on the horizon that could enable a large swathe of the UK population to express their disapproval of HM's government in a very significant manner.  Next year there will be a referendum on Scottish independence.  Scotland has felt a sense of disenfranchisement for many years.  Currently it has only one Conservative MP (out of over 50 seats) and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Conservatives are hated in Scotland.  The arguments leading up to the referendum are already becoming heated and, in some cases, quite silly (just recently the question of whether Scotland would continue in the British Commonwealth has arisen, as if the Commonwealth meant anything other than just a consortium of sporting nations).  But the mood from Westminster is chillingly uncompromising and, if I were a Scot, I would not hesitate to vote "yes" for independence.

So, if I were a Scot, I would be adding another injustice to an already long list suffered under the English jackboot.  This government has proclaimed loud and clear that it does not care about the civil liberties of its people.  The Scots have a chance to save themselves and who could blame them for seizing it?

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Obama's press conference: more lies

At his press conference at the weekend President Obama promised "appropriate reforms" to the domestic surveillance carried out by the NSA.  He also used the term "safeguards against abuse" but it is crystal clear that he does not intend any dismantling of the apparatus that has come under such criticism since Edward Snowden's revelations.  In fact Obama's track record on truthfulness is so patchy (along with almost all administration apologists) that we cannot have any trust in even the weak promises that he made.  The sad fact is that Obama is a liar, just one of many in the US government.

His hypocrisy is mind-blowing.  The extraordinary claim that his administration would eventually have gotten round to reining in the NSA is pathetic in the light of the over 10 year abuses that have gone unchecked until the public was eventually enlightened.  And let us never forget that this enlightenment came from a man who is being pursued by the authorities as a criminal.

Mr Obama: you should be ashamed of yourself.  Not only for such dissembling but also for thinking that you retain any credibility at all.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Is there life on other planets?

The title of this post is surely one of the biggest questions for which we have no answer.  Of course it is one of those questions - like "Does God exist" - for which we shall never know the answer if it is "No" but could only know the answer if it is "Yes".  Put another way, the hypothesis that there is no extra-terrestrial life can be falsified but its opposite can't.  Or to paraphrase yet again: the null hypothesis is that there is no extra-terrestrial life.  I labour this point because often in science one's position is to accept the null hypothesis until we know otherwise (are there fairies at the bottom of your garden) and yet the scientific and popular literature is full of assertions about the overwhelming likelihood that life elsewhere exists.

The basis of these assertions is almost always the famous Drake equation which is an estimate for the total number N of intelligent civilisations in our galaxy based on multiplying together several unknown quantities.  In 1961, when Frank Drake invented his formula, we had virtually no idea about planets beyond our solar system.  But over 50 years later we now know that they are very numerous and we therefore have a much better idea about some of the factors in the formula.  This knowledge has made some people very hopeful that not only is N>1 but that N might be very large.  To put it crudely the argument goes: "Since there are literally billions of planets it is exceedingly likely that some of them will contain life".

I don't accept this argument.  The Drake equation contains another factor that measures the probability of life beginning (and I mean beginning, not evolving) on a planet with the conditions to sustain life.  We know nothing about this probability.  It may be so small that, even though the number of planets is vast, our own existence may be just a one-off fluke.  I am not saying that no extra-terrestrial life exists; I am saying that we do not know enough to put an estimate on how many instances of it there are, and in particular we cannot say whether this number is likely to be greater than 1.

Why then is there such a lot of firmly-held opinion on the question?  I think the belief in alien life is partly the result of wishful thinking.  It's a cool idea that there may be beings elsewhere in the galaxy, one that has inspired very many science fiction stories.  Wouldn't it be sad to consign all that imaginative writing to the fantasy bucket?  At the end of this post I'll advance another possible explanation for this "belief without evidence".

By the way, we have a much better understanding of how life can evolve once cellular life forms exist so the "trick" might be to explain how readily chemistry can give rise to very complex molecules.  However, that is not the only hurdle we have to vault: some scientists believe that other rare factors enabled the development of life on Earth (such as the shielding effect of Jupiter's gravitational field as an asteroid deflector).

But, before that, let me just touch on some of the scientific estimates for how much extra-terrestrial life there is out there.  First we have Andrew Watson (reported here) who, in 2008,  devised a model that suggested that the probability of (intelligent) life evolving anywhere else is less than 0.01%.  Watson's model took into account the steps from the formation of single-celled bacteria through to intelligent life with an established language.  I haven't managed to access his original paper but I think it must be problematic to estimate the chance of replicating molecules arising.

Next we have Edwin Turner and David Spiegel writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 (and reported here).  They too are pessimistic that life exists elsewhere and they specifically addressed the objection "But it exists on Earth, so why not elsewhere" using a Bayesian analysis.

In the other corner we have an opinion poll: 85% of those who answered a recent poll voted for extra-terrestrial intelligent life.  Most of the believers do not advance serious arguments.  Some scientists, like Stephen Hawkins, merely make the claim that alien life is extremely likely (see here).  Or Harvard physicist and SETI leader Paul Horowitz.  He stated in a 1996 interview with TIME Magazine, "Intelligent life in the universe? Guaranteed. Intelligent life in our galaxy? So overwhelmingly likely that I'd give you almost any odds you'd like."  These types of statement are extremely common.  They stem from a knowledge of how many planets there seem to be but ignore the difficulty of life getting started.

I would like to advance another reason why some scientists and many non-scientists are prone to advance the unsubstantiated opinion that alien life is common.  We live in a culture that is very different from those in times past in the respect that today we see ourselves as occupants of the universe rather than occupants of Planet Earth.  Even 200 years ago most people's metaphysical concerns were with their destination after death: heaven or hell; and these domains figured in their thinking as the only domains other than earth itself (and, from a practical point of view, this was true even of those who pointed their telescopes skywards).  As knowledge of astronomy percolated into the realm of general knowledge and (for many people) the simplistic beliefs in heaven and hell retreated our view of our place in the cosmos was transformed.  We now know to think of ourselves not as the centre of the universe but as a microscopic agglomeration of carbon molecules in one arm of one galaxy among billions.  This has produced a feeling of loneliness that the tales of science fiction, both in literature and in films such as Star Trek, can tap into.  In my opinion, the void that religious world views used to occupy has been filled by another fantasy in which we are not alone; and this is the reason why we are prone to believe that there is indeed life beyond our own planet.

A final thought.  Suppose it is the case that we are alone in the universe.  What does that say for the tussle between theists and atheists?  I think it's fairly balanced.  The theist's world view is strengthened because humankind really would be as special as their churches tell them.  But, for the atheist there is an interesting counterpoint.  Your fine-tuning argument argument looks to be in fragments now, does it not?