Climate conspiratology

Climate denialism has taken a turn for the worse. I say this with great trepidation, of course, because it was never an especially pretty sight to begin with.

A substantial number of private emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia have been retrieved and published online without permission*. One hardly needs to read between the lines: the hackers were presumably looking for the “smoking gun” that would prove some kind of conspiracy on the part of climatologists. Real Climate are methodically refuting all the miscellaneous scraps of hysteria that seem to have been whipped up over this.

However, observe some of the comments at the bottom of this blog post and you’ll get a feel for the way this incident is being perceived. Many of the denialist fraternity (and it’s still early days) have apparently decided that this is it; that this is the clincher. They feel confident that it’s all over, that even the dreaded “mainstream media” (MSM) can’t ignore it, and generally that the tide of history has swung in their favour. (This is the result of some interpretation on my part.)

It’s not the hubris that bothers me particularly, but where this is leading the public debate. The IPCC, the world’s other scientific institutions and science in general will all carry on as if nothing had happened, because of course in reality it hasn’t. The notion of a climatologist conspiracy is extraordinarily bizarre and improbable, and as such would require an extraordinary body of evidence to demonstrate its existence. If there was to be a “smoking gun”, it would need to be strong evidence of the systematic fabrication of evidence on a scale that would beggar belief. It would also beggar belief that such a venture could have been kept secret up until now, considering how widespread it would need to be. This is the same problem that most conspiracy theories face. Nothing remotely approaching the requisite level of evidence has been discussed so far, and yet there is a sense in some quarters that the conspiracy has been cracked wide open.

What happens when the denialists realise that nothing is going to change, having already convinced themselves that “The Truth” has been well and truly exposed? Will they then perceive an even greater global conspiracy, with the power to make the world ignore what is sitting in plain sight (as occurs in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four)? How far down the rabbit hole will they go?

More importantly, how will the world’s politicians react, particularly with Copenhagen around the corner? Will they see this stunt for what it is and ignore it, or will they perceive some increased political risk in taking action? Or will more be sucked into believing the conspiracy themselves?

* I haven’t downloaded the emails for myself, because frankly I don’t believe I have either a legal or moral right to do so.

Also note: as you’ll be aware, I’ve not been keeping up with my regular blogging, owing to other commitments. I hope to become more prolific with my postings in the future, but that may be several months away.

Wilson Tuckey, supergenius

Kevin Rudd must secretly love Wilson Tuckey, in the way that one might value a psychopath who happens to inhabit the enemy bunker and can’t actually fire a weapon. In other words, Tuckey plays right into Rudd’s political message.

Perhaps feeling a little defensive over all the condemnation of his boat terrorist hypothesis, Tuckey latched onto a breadcrumb left by one Dr Victor Rajakulendran:

That is a probability, that is what I have been told, so out of 200 Tamil asylum seekers, there could be a Tiger. They are also fleeing the country like any other Tamils because their life is also in danger and I would say their life is in more danger than a common Tamil civilian. The common Tamil civilians are leaving the country because of fear of their lives – these people also will definitely flee the country so they could be in the boat.

There you go. Terrorists on boats – case closed. I won’t make too much of Tuckey himself supposedly using this as evidence to support his position. It doesn’t, of course, for reasons that I think are obvious given the above quote. Tuckey previously referred specifically to people coming to Australia with hostile intent, and I doubt that blowing things up in Australia is a terribly appealing strategy for someone fighting for a homeland in the north of Sri Lanka.

In this instance, all he had to say was: “Well, I think it authenticates it. It is quite interesting of course.” As silly as this is, it sounds like a throw-away response to a journalist’s question, which raises two points:

  1. It’s not clear what the question actually was (cue Douglas Adams); and
  2. Tuckey may not have heard the actual quote before he responded, but merely an interpretation of it.

If I had more time to dig up useless factoids, I might be able to figure that out. However, I don’t, and so I’m going with my own theory that someone was simply pushing Tuckey’s buttons, which I imagine isn’t a terribly hard thing to do.

Not to leave us too disappointed, however, Tuckey offers us this additional morsel of insight:

What is [the asylum seekers’] health status and what threat, unfortunately, might they represent to children and others within Australia.

To children, Wilson? Terrorism isn’t enough for you, eh? Now you’re sagely warning us that they might be terrorist paedophiles?

It’s teh boat terrorists!

The existence of Wilson Tuckey is truly an unnecessary contribution to the heat death of the universe. Quite predictably, he suggests that terrorists are lurking among asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Sayeth the Great Purveyor of Entropy, himself a convicted criminal:

If you wanted to get into Australia and you have bad intentions what do you do?

Board a plane, perhaps? No no, our illustrious former minister of the Howard Government has a much more efficient and sophisticated proposition:

You insert yourself in a crowd of 100 for which there is great sympathy for the other 99 and you go on a system where nobody brings their papers, you have no identity you have no address.

That’s right! No papers! I mean, how will we know who the terrorists are without the enormous, bright red “TERRORIST” stamp that magically appears in the passport of anyone intending to commit such an act in the future? And these evildoers could gain entry in a matter of months, while being subjected to nothing more than a thorough background check by the immigration authorities, a few headlines in major newspapers and a stint in the Christmas Island detention centre. Not like those terrible long-haul plane trips, where the meals are awful, the seating is cramped and the security is so tight that they x-ray your baggage.

This from a man who still inhabits the corridors of power.

The Liberal war

Costello is quitting politics, Wilson Tuckey isn’t quitting politics, Peter Dutton (the shadow health minister) has had politics quit on him. Turnbull is the voice of (relative) sanity in the Liberal Party, but not many – either in the Party or in the wider population – seem inclined to listen to it.

Some seem to be in the market for a new messiah in Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott, to save them from the horror of endorsing an emissions trading scheme and thus actually doing something constructive for humanity. Perish the thought that the Liberal leadership should be driving at such things. Better bulldoze them aside and continue squabbling over interest rates before anything useful happens. I’m not convinved that Hockey would be any more popular or politically savvy than Turnbull, and Abbott I think would be a disaster.

On a somewhat different track, Howard isn’t giving up the ideological game either. On motives for victory in Afghanistan, from an ABC article:

What we’ve got to ask ourselves is, what is the consequence of failure in Afghanistan? And that would be an enormous blow to American prestige, it would greatly embolden the terrorist cause.

This is predictable Howard rhetoric, and it gives some insight into his mindset. He actually does see American “prestige” as a commodity worth fighting for. Not freedom, democracy, security or any other desirable facet of society, but image, and not even the image of the country of which he was the second-longest serving prime minister. This is a war, not a beauty contest. There are real people dying out there – how many innocent lives is one country’s “prestige” worth?

I think there is probably a grain of truth in the idea that a withdrawal from Afghanistan could be used in Al Qaeda propaganda, but an “enormous blow”? Since Obama came to office, the world hasn’t seen America in quite the same slight belligerent light. Of course, Obama hasn’t actually done that much yet (a rather premature Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding), but even so he has helped redefine America’s image. I think that people throughout the world are probably far less inclined now to view the US as a conquering power. Consequently, there is less propaganda value in a US defeat as there would be if the hawks were still running things.

I actually happen to agree that, on balance, the Afghan War is an important one to win, but my argument has more to do with the prospect of the Taliban condemning society (especially women) to live in the dark ages. Yes, it’s certainly true that Western military might cannot solve all the world’s problems, and in many situations can be a problem in itself. However, it would be encouraging if we could solve just this one, to help Afghan society back from the precipice.

The problem with that argument, from Howard’s general nationalistic-conservative point of view, is that it’s not our society hovering above the precipice. To argue this case might be to admit that human rights and civil liberties are worth fighting for. If we start saying things like that, where does it end?

The hardliners of the Liberal Party might ask themselves why the election is worth winning. For the prestige of the Party?

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.

Did you miss me?

Oh… I see. Well, same to you with extraneous attachments. Nevertheless, after a short and somewhat unintentional break, I’m now ready to inflict myself upon you once more, hapless reader.

I shall commence by drawing your attention to the fine specimen that is federal MP Wilson Tuckey. (A fine specimen of what shall be left unspecified for now.) Nobody really takes Wilson Tuckey seriously on anything, not even his own party, but the simple fact that he’s been elected (and continues to be re-elected) suggests that he does actually represent someone. This is rather a pity, in the general scheme of things.

Recently, of course, Tuckey has been piping up over the leadership of the Liberal Party, and Malcolm Turnbull’s unsuitability for the role. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the standing of the Liberal Party in my mind would be improved to a vastly greater extent by the removal of Tuckey than by the removal of Turnbull. Though Tuckey’s replacement would have to represent the same constituency, surely he or she couldn’t be quite so much of a callous, disreputable fruitcake.

By contrast, any replacement for Turnbull could easily be a lot worse. I find Turnbull to be a fairly un-objectionable leader, despite his poor polling. He’s a much easier person to listen to than Kevin Rudd. He does come off as a little smug at times, and perhaps a little politically inexperienced, but I can happily live with such minor inconveniences if it means we won’t be subjected to the Moral Crusades of Opposition Leader and Alternate Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The objectionable aspect of the Liberal Party is not (for the moment) its leader, but its policies and ideology. And people like Tuckey.

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.

Even hypocrites can be right

Julie Bishop is making the case that Stern Hu – the Rio Tinto executive mysteriously detained in Shanghai – should be released after having been detained for 7 days without charge.

This is just a bit rich, considering her party’s time in government saw:

  1. the excessive detention for months and even years of completely innocent people – asylum seekers who are overwhelmingly genuine refugees; and
  2. the implementation of preventative detention orders, whereby a person can be detained by the AFP for 14 days without charge. (One might argue that terrorism is a lot more serious than whatever it is Stern Hu may or may not be caught up in, but the legal principle of habeus corpus does not make such distinctions.)

She’s basically right this time, of course – better to be inconsistent than consistently nasty – though I’m not sure of the wisdom of making an international incident out of it.

Paul Kelly’s thoughts on this are interesting. For all its centuries of history and accumulated wisdom, this incident seems to suggest that the current Chinese regime is actually somewhat ignorant of the way the world works.

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.