The right to die

The story of the end of Christian Rossiter has been in the news recently, and serves as another hook into the euthanasia debate. Euthanasia is one of those controversial subjects where the politics seems stubbornly opposed to what people generally regard as sensible.

I’m not unreservedly committed to the right to die. I consider myself a humanist, and as such I regard human life as being as close to sacred as anything can possibly be. However, on balance, in situations where there is no hope and where appropriate couselling is provided and informed consent given, the arguments against the right to die seem rather unconvincing.

One thing that does bother me, in this particular situation, is the following quote from Christian’s lawyer (given in the ABC article above): “Death I suspect comes as quite a relief for Christian.”

Those are rather poorly chosen words. For Christian, death cannot possibly provide relief, or indeed any emotion or physical sensation (unless there’s an afterlife*). Death is the option chosen when relief is unattainable. Relief may be felt by those close to the individual, on account of the end of the suffering, but that’s not quite the same thing.

This is not a happy ending, but merely an ending that could have been worse.

* This ought to be a somewhat redundant qualification. Clearly anything could happen if we suppose the existence of some hitherto unobserved and inexplicable magic.

The American hypothesis

I have a hypothesis on politics – a somewhat unfortunate hypothesis given its implications. Roughly speaking, it’s this: the workability of democracy diminishes with large populations. I’m not talking about the logistics of holding elections, but about the ability of society to engage in meaningful debate.

My reasoning goes like this. Insofar as I can tell, in any given (relatively democratic) country, the media tends to focus predominantly on the national politics of that country. At the same time, there are of course a variety of political parties and interest groups seeking to alter public perception for their own ends. We can think of this in two parts:

  1. the effort expended on politically-charged adverts, campaigns, editorials, etc.; and
  2. the resulting effects on the public mindset.

Due to mass media (TV, radio and the Internet), a fixed amount of “effort” will probably yield the same result, independent of the population size. That is, the effectiveness of a single TV ad will not diminish simply because more people are viewing it.

However, countries with larger populations will naturally have a higher talent pool from which to draw people to promote particular causes. Thus, more effort will be expended on political advertising, campaigns, editorials, etc., and so the effect on the public mindset will be greater. (I also assume that the proportion of people employed to promote particular causes is independent of population size.)

Now, we might naïvely assume that all this political advertising “balances out”, since there’s always an array of competing interests. I say this is naïve, because all efforts to promote political causes have one thing in common – one thing that can’t easily be balanced out: deception. I’m not only talking about outright lies (though it does come to that with tedious regularity), but also errors of omission, logical fallacies, appeals to emotion and any other psychological tricks used to blunt your critical thinking. They’re not even necessarily deliberate.

Without wanting to generalise, there are certainly a subset of PR people, political strategists and so on who do seem to hold an “ends justifies the means” view. These are the people who really feed the political machine, who take things out of context, invent strawmen, engage in character assassination, and generally pollute the political debate with outrageous propaganda. The larger the population, the more of these people there will be, and so the louder, better organised, more pervasive and more inventive the disinformation.

The effect of disinformation is to disconnect public perception from reality. At at sufficient level this would cripple democracy, because democracy relies on the people having at least some understanding of government policy and its consequences.

I can’t comment too much on India – the world’s largest democracy – because I honestly know very little about it.

I don’t claim much expertise on American politics either, but I suspect the US is suffering this affliction. To me, American politics now seems to languish in a state of heated anachronism. The political machine instantly suffocates any sign of meaningful debate with ignorant fear and rage. You’re still perfectly able to exercise your rights to free speech and free expression, but it’s not going to achieve anything. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to climb above the fray, the media sometimes treats political debate more like a sporting match than a tool of democracy. I’m sure there is an element of this in every democratic country, but in the US it seems to be boiling over.

It might pay to consider this if we intend to move towards a World Federation, as science fiction often proposes, and which appeals to me intuitively. Of course, a “One World Government” is the nightmare-fantasy shared by so many conspiracy theorists. However, the danger is not that the government will have too much control, but that even with our rights fully protected, democracy will nevertheless be pummelled to oblivion by global armies of political strategists and PR hacks.

Just a thought.

Asylum statistics

One of Amnesty International’s media releases reports on a survey of Australians’ knowledge and opinions on asylum seekers. However, the point of the media release is clearly to highlight some of the facts themselves, not just the extent to which people are aware of them. This seems reasonable, given that:

The opinion poll also showed that a large majority of Australians have major misconceptions regarding the percentage of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. On average, Australians believe that about 60 per cent of asylum seekers come to Australia by boat. More than a third of Australians believe that over 80 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by boat. In fact, only 3.4 per cent of people who sought asylum in Australia in 2008 arrived by boat – the other 96.6 per cent arrived by plane.

This is a fairly important statistic. However, this article is utterly devoid of citations, and as a researcher this annoys the hell out of me. Amnesty is a kind of lobbying organisation. As such it has an interest in altering opinions, and so it shouldn’t always expect people to take it at face value.

The other thing that troubles me is the discussion of processing costs (it costs more to process asylum seekers on Christmas Island than on the mainland). Why would Amnesty even care about asylum seeker processing costs? It’s hardly an issue on which human rights hinge. I’d venture that it cares only because it’s another means of altering opinions. It certainly wouldn’t be reporting processing costs if they were less on Christmas Island.

(This reminded me of the nuclear power debate. Greenpeace has argued that the nuclear power is unwise because the economics don’t stack up. This is actually quite dishonest, in my opinion, even if it’s entirely accurate. It’s hard to imagine that Greenpeace cares about the economics argument against nuclear power for its own sake. Coming from an authority on economics, such an argument may be taken seriously. The same argument coming from Greenpeace just looks like someone trying to push our buttons.)

In general I don’t wish to denigrate Amnesty. The lobbying it does is directed at a genuinely worthy cause, unlike that conducted by a large number of other lobbyists. However, worthy causes are almost always served by open discussion, and this includes the ability to verify the facts and statistics for oneself.

There is of course much discussion of the statistics in the media. For instance, Crikey has a list of statistics on asylum seekers with numerous but not terribly good references. I eventually managed to (more-or-less) confirm that only 179 out of 4750 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2008. This report gives the 179 figure on page 4, while a media release on the Immigation Minister’s website mentions the 4750 figure. That comes out at roughly the same percentage (3.8%) as quoted by Amnesty.

The processing costs, I’m guessing, came from a 2007 report for Oxfam. The report states:

The latest figures given to a budget estimates hearing on 22 May 2006 suggest that it cost $1,830 per detainee per day to keep someone on Christmas Island compared to $238 per detainee per day at Villawood in Sydney.

So why am I interested in asylum seeker processing costs? I’m not; not directly, anyway. I consider it to be an argument that largely misses the point –  mechanisms intended to discourage unauthorised boat arrivals incur a human cost, not just a financial one. However, from the financial cost I note that not even selfish motives would justify a hardline position on unauthorised boat arrivals. What, then, are the hardliners actually arguing about? If both altruism and self-interest suggest the same course of action, what kind of corrupt mode of thinking can possibly raise an objection?

It’s inexcusable that we should make asylum seekers the object of such irrational concern. By definition, these are people who possess the least political power of anyone in the world. However, as a direct result, their suffering also carries the least political risk; not that you’d know it from listening to some of the myopic reactionary logic floating around over the last few years.

It seems that ideology can thrive where beliefs are not merely simplistic or unsupported, but where they are demonstrably false.

Biblical decline

I read that the National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 in the UK has reported a poor showing for Bible knowledge. I can’t say I’m either terribly surprised or troubled by this; there are any number of other literary works more deserving of public knowledge, and at some level this must be reflected in the public’s attitude.

There is, of course, some lingering sense that we “should” understand the Bible; that it above all other books has some special status. Well, that particular miscellaneous collection of ambiguously-translated ramblings is supposed to be the Definitive Word of the Infallible Creator of the Universe, isn’t it? Of course it is – it says so itself. Comments from those affiliated with the survey are not much more moderate:

Brown said the survey showed the need to push for greater religious education among young people as knowledge of the Bible among the under-45 age group was in decline.

“We have got to recognize that it (the Bible) is the foundation of our society, upon which our whole culture has been based,” he told Reuters. “To understand it and to live in it you do need an understanding of the Bible.”

Well, I’m not entirely convinced. If only someone had conducted a survey to determine the relevance of the Bible to our society. Oh look, they did! This piece of logic evidentially fails on some people. The fact that few of us know or care about the Bible these days is fairly good evidence that it isn’t relevant to much of our society at all, let alone forms the foundation of it. I assume, of course, that British and Australian culture are not too far removed.

To understand and live in Iranian or Saudi Arabian society, by contrast, I imagine you would need a solid understanding of the Koran and other sources of Islamic doctrine, but then that’s because those countries are theocracies. The West has spent a good few hundred years slowly disentangling society and governance from religion, and frankly we’re all much better off as a result.

Recycled drinking water

The recycled water issue has arisen here in WA, where our state water minister Graham Jacobs has come out as a proponent.

There is nothing wrong with recycled drinking water. Surely all the water we drink has been through the digestive systems of a hundred million organisms over the history of the Earth anyway. Hence, the “yuck factor” is an astonishingly inane reason to reject water that we’ve recycled ourselves. It’s entirely psychological – nobody has shown reason to believe that there are any actual safety issues (except insofar as dihydrogen monoxide is inherently unsafe, of course, but if you’re worried about that then you’re truly a sucker).

There are plenty of other things one might find cringeworthy about the food and drink we consume, from the component parts of a chicken nugget to sugar content of so-called  “flavoured water”. These are far more legitimate points of concern than either the imaginary dangers or “yuck factor” of recycled water.

The shadow water minister seems to be hedging his bets, though:

The Opposition’s spokesman for water, Fran Logan, supports the strategy, but says he is concerned about the public response to the longer-term recommendation to source water directly from waste water treatment plants.

“With respect to taking waste water directly from a sewerage works and then putting them through a recycling plant and turning it into straight drinking water, I think the Minister is going to have a big job on his hands convincing West Australians that’s fine and that’s ok to drink,” he said.

One would have hoped that Mr Logan, being someone who purports to support the idea, might actually do something to help reassure the public of the safety of recycled water, rather than promoting the fears of its opponents.

Same-sex marriage bill

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens has introduced the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009. It’s been referred to the a Senate committee, due to report on November 26.

Plenty of time for a raft of both enlightening and cringeworthy commentary to materialise as public submissions. The bill isn’t going to get far, of course (though I will be happy to be proven wrong). The ALP seems to be walking a path of compromise that it hopes will be minimally acceptable to the maximum number of voters; i.e. they do not support same-sex marriage, but they support everything that same-sex marriage is about.

Personally, I think that the same-sex marriage issue, more than almost anything else, shows vividly just how much sway religious and social dogma has over our society, compared to empathy and rational thought. There just isn’t any remotely intelligible argument against allowing same-sex marriage – just a haphazard collection of inane and fearful pronouncements. There are precious few political issues where I’d feel comfortable saying that.

The flu scoreboard

According to the WHO, Australia is now coming fifth in diagnosed H1N1 cases, behind the US, Mexico, Canada and Japan. We started off slow, but I reckon we can take ’em. Come on!


Update (June 5th): we’ve knocked off Japan to take fourth place! As of update 43, the WHO has us at 501 vs. 385. We’re closing in on Canada as well (1530). Unfortunately, the WHO’s scoreboard lags behind reporting within Australia. According to the Health Minister of the Australian team, we’re up to 878. However, Mexico and the US seem to have the silver and gold in the bag, with impressive WHO scores of 5029 and 10053 respectively.

Bike helmet laws

According to New Scientist, an Australian academic has determined (using a mathematical model) that the costs of mandatory bike helmet laws may outweigh the benefits. This relies on the notion that fewer people cycle if forced to wear a helmet, and so do not receive the health benefits of cycling. However, there is some debate about the numbers used in the model.

As a cyclist, the helmet requirement has never entered my mind as an inconvenience. It’s just something you do, like putting on a seat belt.

I imagine some people might be put off cycling in the short term, when helmet laws are introduced, because they can’t be bothered to go out and buy a helmet. However, I can’t really imagine that these laws would reduce number of people on bikes in the long run. For anyone considering purchasing a bike once the laws are in place, a helmet is not an onerous requirement. (Bike accessories are often thrown in for free, at least around here.)

The doomsday argument

This has recently been the source of much frustration for some of my friends, as I’ve attempted to casually plow through a probabilistic argument that most people would instinctively recoil at. So, I thought, it might work better when written down. Of course, plenty of others have also written it down, including Brandon Carter – its originator – and Stephen Baxter – a science fiction author (who referred to it as the “Carter Catastrophe” in his novel Time).

The main premise of the argument is the Copernican principle. Copernicus, of course, heretically suggested that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Thus, the Copernican principle is the idea that the circumstances of our existence are not special in any way (except insofar as they need to be special for us to exist in the first place).

We are now quite comfortable with the Copernican principle applied to space, but the doomsday argument applies it to time. Just as we do not live in any particularly special location, so we do not live at any particularly special moment. This is distorted by the fact that the human population has exploded in the last century to the point where about 10% of all the humans to have ever lived (over the course of homo sapiens’ ~200,000 year history) are still alive today. We can deal with this distortion by (conceptually) assigning a number to each human, in chronological order of birth, from 1 to N (where N is the total number of humans that have lived, are currently alive, or will ever be born in the future). We can then say, instead, that we are equally likely to have been assigned any number in that range.

In probability theory, this is equivalent to saying that you have been randomly selected from a uniform distribution. Yes, it must be you (the observer) and not someone else, because from your point of view you’re the only person who has a number selected from the entire range – past, present and future. You could have been assigned a number at any point along the human timeline (by the Copernican principle), but you still cannot observe the future, and so by selecting any other specific individual you’d automatically be restricting the range to the past and present. The number you’ve actually been assigned is something on the order of 60 billion (if we estimate that to be the total number of humans to have ever lived so far).

So where does that leave us? Well, in a uniform distribution, any randomly selected value is 95% likely to be in the final 95% of the range. If your randomly selected number is 60 billion, then it’s 95% likely that the total number of humans to ever live will be less than 60 billion × 20 = 1.2 trillion. Similarly, it’s 80% likely that the total number will be 60 billion × 5 = 300 billion, and 50% likely that the total number will be 120 billion. Now, 50%, 20% and 5% probabilities do crop up, but we must draw the line at some point, because you cannot demand absolute certainty (or else science would be impossible.)

This should make us think. The doomsday argument doesn’t give an exact number, nor does it directly give us a time, but this can be estimated from trends in population growth. However, the prospect of a scenario in which humanity spreads out beyond the solar system and colonises the galaxy, to produce a population of countless trillions over tens of thousands or even millions of years, would seem vanishingly unlikely under this logic. Even the prospect that humanity will survive at roughly its current population on Earth for more than a few thousand years seems remote.

It’s also worth pointing out, as others have, that the doomsday argument is entirely independent of the mechanism by which humanity’s downfall might occur. That is, if you accept the argument, then there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Needless to say, the objections to this reasoning come thick and fast, especially if you bumble like I have through a hasty verbal explanation (hopefully I’ve been more accurate and articulate in this blog post). One should bear in mind that this isn’t simply some apocalyptic pronouncement from a random, unstable individual (it wasn’t my idea). This is work that has been published some time ago by three physicists independently (Brandon Carter, J. Richard Gott and Holger Bech Nielsen) in peer-reviewed journals. That’s not to say it’s without fault, but given the level of scrutiny already applied, one might at least pause before simply dismissing it out of hand.

The objections I’ve heard (so far) to the doomsday argument usually fall along the following lines:

  1. Often they discard the notion that the observer is randomly selected, thus reaching a different (and trivial) conclusion.  One can point out that there always has to be a human #1, and a human #2, and so on, and that this says nothing about the numbers that come after. However, in pointing this out, one is not randomly selecting those numbers, and random selection is the premise of the argument.
  2. They object that a sample size of one is useless. Indeed, in the normal course of scientific endeavour, a sample size of one is useless, but that’s just because in a practical setting we’re trying to achieve precision. If we’re just trying to make use of what we know, one sample is infinitely more useful than no samples at all. The doomsday argument does not at any point assume that its single randomly-selected number represents anything more than a single randomly-selected number. If we had more than one random sample, we’d be able to make a stronger case, but that does not imply there’s currently no case at all.
  3. Sometimes they object on the grounds of causality – that we simply can’t know the future. I think this is just a manifestation of personal incredulity. There is no physical law that says we cannot know the future, and here we’re not talking about some divine revelation or prophecy. We’re only talking about broad probabilistic statements about the future, and we make these all the time (meteorology, climatology, city planning, resource management, risk analysis, software development, etc. ad infinitum).

However, I’m sure that won’t be the end of it.

Conroy and Bolt on filtering

The ABC’s Q&A programme spent about 30 minutes last night pondering Senator Conroy’s mandatory Internet filtering plan… well, idea, because it’s increasingly clear that “plan” is too strong a word. Conroy was, frankly, an embarrassment. To be honest, most of the questions put to him were not especially articulate, but Conroy made a mockery of himself. What disturbs me is that he seems to be fully cognisant  of the reality of public opposition, the technical barriers and even the dangers of encroaching on political freedoms, and yet at the same time he has no inkling that it means anything. Sure, ACMA may have blacklisted a dentist’s website, among a number of other worrying examples, but somehow that’s perfectly alright and acceptable simply because Conroy is able to explain how it happened (something about the Russian mafia, apparently). Forgive me if the idea of a secret blacklist doesn’t fill me with confidence. If said blacklist hadn’t been leaked recently, such errors would never come to light, and so there would be no pressure to correct them.

Andrew Bolt’s remarks on the filter were mostly directed at the Internet libertarian strawman. The argument – not terribly innovative – lays down a few of the worst examples of criminal behaviour and suggests that you can’t allow free access to everything. Possibly true, and utterly beside the point. Mandatory Internet filtering is and should be opposed on the grounds that there just isn’t a workable mechanism, by which I mean one that is effective while being compatible with basic democratic principles. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your filtering criteria are. Computers aren’t smart enough, humans aren’t honest enough and the Internet is just too damn big.