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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Stupid Scientology Revisited

Last Monday I went to Cardiff for the first anniversary of Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub.

This was for a joint talk with John Dixon about "Stupid Scientology".

The background to this was a strange day in July 2010.

That morning someone anonymous had sent me a link to a news article about a Cardiff Councillor facing a complaint from a Scientologist for was a tweet about Scientology.

The tweet had simply said:

"- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."


The tweet had been sent in May the year before; but it was not until December that a Scientologist complained about it to the Welsh public services ombudsman, who (in a woeful decision) held that there was a case to answer.

This is what was reported last July; it made page seven of the local paper.

Feeling mischievous, I retweeted the original tweet with the hashtag #StupidScientology.


It then went viral.

By the end of the day, the story had gone from being tucked inside the local paper to an item on Newsnight...



Yes, it was nice to have a hashtag which one had devised read out by Kirsty Wark.

In the end, the Council sensibly rejected the complaint.


It now seems a long time ago, bit it was fun to re-live that curious day through with John upstairs in a pub in Cardiff.

At the time people were genuinely scared of the Scientologists and their litigious and bullying way: the sort of aggressive strategy which Scientologists and others adopted in the old days of the media approach of "command and control".


Nonetheless, I do not regard Scientology as inherently better or worse than any other religion.

For me belief systems based on superstition and the paranormal (or, in this case, Science Fiction) are much of a muchness.

What does matter to me is the wrongful use of litigation to intimidate or deter.

The Church of Scientology has as much right as anyone else to assert and protect their ultimate legal rights.

But it is misconceived and illiberal for litigation (or the threat of litigation) to be used by itself as weapon.

L Ron Hubbard has been quoted as saying:

"The purpose of the [law] suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."


This abuse of the litigation process (and the abuse of regulatory complaints, such as with John Dixon) should be checked; and one merit of social media is that such abuses can be more readily checked.

A cack-handed complaint about a tweet calling Scientology stupid can rebound, and it can provide the Church of Scientology with far worse and critical publicity than it otherwise would have had.

That was the stupidity of the Scientologist who made the complaint.

And that was the meaning of the meme last July of "Stupid Scientology".


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Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Executing Troy Davis

Troy Davis is due to be killed by officials of the State of Georgia in only a matter of hours.

The killing has now been approved by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

This State Board, members of which boast of their involvement in religious activities in their on-line biographies, exists in part to authorise the deaths of their fellow human beings.

Troy Davis is just the latest to have his execution approved.

In this one sense, his execution will be unexceptional.


The deliberate taking of life as any kind of punishment is wrong at all times, and in all circumstances.

It does not matter if the execution is widely publicised or if it is not.

And it also does not matter whether there has been some effort at due process, or no effort at propriety at all.

As George Orwell describes in A Hanging, perhaps his most brilliant and moving essay, there is an “unspeakable wrongness” about the judicial taking of any life.

All executions are vile; each one is absolutely wrong.



Nonetheless, the case of Troy Davis is widely regarded as exceptional, and it has attracted international attention and condemnation.

There appear to have been serious irregularities in both the investigation and at trial.

It is said that seven of the nine witnesses at the original trial have now recanted evidence and that someone else has confessed to the original crime.

All these disturbing factors are emphasised in today’s powerful editorial in the New York Times.

Today is now the fourth execution date that has been set for Troy Davis.

Previously his life has been temporarily spared by operation of the criminal justice system.

But there is only so far appeals can seek to check what seems to be an irresistible force of a process intent on ending life.

And this is not some impersonal and abstract process: it is a sequence of decisions and non-decisions by identifiable people with moral agency.


Even if one adopts the horrific misconception of justice that a human life can somehow be taken as a punishment, this is surely not the sort of case where a person should be put to death.

In the United States those in favour of capital punishment in principle (“as long as they are guilty”) are speaking out against its application in this particular instance.

It appears a man will die when there are well-grounded concerns as to his innocence: the State of Georgia is just going to kill him anyway.


Amnesty International has a campaign site for those who wish to try and prevent this execution which I encourage you to visit.

An email in support may even make a difference.

There may be a last-hour reprieve.

But it really does look as if the State of Georgia will kill Troy Davis at its fourth attempt.



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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Further thoughts on "David Rose"

This week it came out who "David Rose" was all along.

I wrote about it here, and - as I said there - I wanted to "draw a line" and "move on".

This was because of two things.


First: for although I believe in intellectual consistency - and so contend that secularist and liberal writers should adhere to the same standards one expects from religious and conservative writers - it has not been a pleasure to have been part of this exercise.

This lack of pleasure is not crude tribalism - I would not hesitate for a second to hold any other secularist or liberal charlatan to account. My discomfort certainly did not affect my work on "David Rose".

Instead it is a general sense that promoting secularism and liberalism should be essentially a positive endeavour, and not a negative one.

(Though, that said, I am currently working on a project to demonstrate and document the systemic dishonesty of another public figure.)


Second: I do not believe in retribution, but in rehabilitation.

That is why I suggested that the real "David Rose" should go to journalism school and that measures be put in place to give his future readers confidence in his journalism.

(I do not know if my suggestions had any actual impact, though I am reliably told they were considered carefully by the Independent's editor.)

What was important to me was that the evidence, and what what it showed, was frankly admitted. I did not want anyone to actually get the sack.


But the "David Rose" matter has not quite come to an end.

It has not been meaningfully resolved.

The adverse evidence has not genuinely been admitted.

In fact, the apology offered in respect of "David Rose" hardly even begins to cover the extent of the recoverable malice and deceit of that fictional construct.

And so that is why I am writing this one further post.


On this blog in July I did (with the fine help of excellent commenters) what I set out to do: which was to, in a measured and libel-safe way, identify "David Rose".

And, in the end, I did not even have to go to the extent of naming him: he had no alternative but to name himself.


For me there was one Wikipedia page and one blogpost which, more than the sad fact "David Rose" was editing the Wikipedia page of Richard Littlejohn on the evening of Christmas Day last year, shows just how wretched the whole business had become.

The Wikipedia page is here.

You will see "David Rose" spends several months in early 2007 convening and then participating in a Wikipedia mediation about whether someone is really the youngest ever nominee for the George Orwell prize (this was for the year before he won it in 2008), and whether a photograph is really that of the subject (which of course it clearly is, it is just a rather unflattering photograph).

"David Rose" even states:

"This is a bit surreal. That picture really isn't Johann. That was my suspicion when I first saw it, and when I e-mailed Johann, he said he doesn't own the clothes 'he' is wearing in the picture."

So "David Rose" was emailing the real "David Rose" to ask if the real "David Rose" has certain clothes, which the real "David Rose" denies, leading to an assurance from "David Rose" that the real "David Rose" doesn't own those clothes.


The blogpost to also look at was the only one which the real "David Rose" acknowledged the existence of his alter ego. (There is now no direct url, though I quoted it here.)

The last sentence of this is particularly interesting; but in its entirety it reads oddly now one knows who is the real "David Rose".

(Emphasis added.)

A friend has just e-mailed me a link to the comments section of the 'Daily Ablution', a blog by right-wing writer Scott Burgess. It's quite amusing. Check it out - it's the first comments box on the page.

Burgess is very fond of writing to left-wing newspapers and demanding corrections in print. Daily journalism written to tight deadlines inevitably involves errors - I make them myself, like everyone else - and all sorts of gadflies can be helpful in pointing them out, even when they have a pretty ugly agendas like Burgess. That's why I'm grateful to him for pointing out an error I made in citing Louis Emmanuel, the hurricane expert, a few weeks ago, for example. As soon as I found out about it I posted a correction, and thanks to him I won't make that mistake again.

But what's so funny is that when Burgess' own factual errors - real whoppers, like citing scientists who say exactly the opposite of what he claims, part of his total illiteracy on the question of global warming - were exposed by Alex Higgins on this website, Burgess posted no corrections. Nothing. Recently David Rose has been writing in his comments box, asking how to contact Burgess' readers' editor to request a correction.

And Burgess has been... totally silent. It has been left to barely-literate posters in his comments box to respond, accusing people like David with real scientific knowledge (a starred first from a degree specialising in environmental science at Cambridge, and extensive work in Antarctica observing the effects of global warming) of being "stupid" and "twerps."

David is quite right when he says, "If Scott doesn't respond to [Alex Higgins'] fair and accurate critique, then I'm afraid his ability to fact-check and critique others is simply shot to pieces."

Next time you read him trying to fact-check a liberal, remember that he has been proven to have no respect for facts - none - himself.


Yes, "David Rose" is actually being quoted in aid here.

Yes, a blogpost is actually being dedicated to praising what the author said as "David Rose" on some discussion forum.


But this Wikipeda page and that blogpost are relatively trivial examples in view of what else "David Rose" got up to.


My serious concern is that the failure of the person behind "David Rose" (and his supporters) to genuinely acknowledge the extent of what "David Rose" actually did means that this issue will not just go away; that the more serious abuses will keep coming out.

It would have just been far better had the ultimate apology not been so weasel-worded.

The apology should instead have been on the basis of full and frank admissions that "David Rose" didn't just make a couple or so errors, and was instead a deliberate and systemic on-going smear campaign and dishonest self-promotional exercise premised on the repeated deceits of (and contrivances by) "David Rose" over his real identity.

In the end, "David Rose" invented at least fifteen biographical facts (from a lawyer girlfriend in Walthamstow and subbing jobs at the Independent and Spectator, to a principled and noisy opposition to the invasion of Iraq) which were simply not true; it was a fluent stream of lies contrived just so that the systemic smear campaign and dishonest self-promotional exercise could carry on and never be exposed.


Ultimately "David Rose" was an intellectual fraud.

It was a structured and enduring enterprise to shape a false intellectual reputation by the deceitful means of over 800 Wikipedia edits (and by numerous online comments on blogs and forums, and also even emails to bloggers). This included the publication of serious libels against other working journalists.

And, until this is admitted in the round, and properly (and sincerely) apologised for, then one suspects the ghost of "David Rose" will not finally be put to rest.



(Postscript: Christopher Snowdon has analysed some of what "David Rose" did here. It isn't pretty.)


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Friday, 16 September 2011

The Met Statement on the Guardian "production order"

The Metropolitan Police have issued the following statement regarding the production order they are seeking against the Guardian.

The last two paragraphs are the stuff of parody...

"The MPS has applied for a production order against the Guardian and one of its reporters in order to seek evidence of offences connected to potential breaches relating to Misconduct in Public Office and the Official Secrets Act.

"The application is about the MPS seeking to identify evidence of potential offences resulting from unauthorised leaking of information.

"Operation Weeting is one of the MPS's most high profile and sensitive investigations so of course we should take concerns of leaks seriously to ensure that public interest is protected by ensuring there is no further potential compromise. The production order is sought in that context.

"The MPS can't respond to the significant public and political concern regarding leaks from the police to any part of the media if we aren't more robust in our investigations and make all attempts to obtain best evidence of the leaks.

"We pay tribute to the Guardian's unwavering determination to expose the hacking scandal and their challenge around the initial police response. We also recognise the important public interest of whistle blowing and investigative reporting, however neither is apparent in this case. This is an investigation into the alleged gratuitous release of information that is not in the public interest.

"The MPS does not seek to use legislation to undermine Article 10 of anyone's Human Rights and is not seeking to prevent whistle blowing or investigative journalism that is in the public interest, including the Guardian's involvement in the exposure of phone hacking".

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Fusspots, and the Four Kinds of Fusspottery

Every so often one needs to make a determined effort to get to the truth of something.

This may be because the target of one's inquiries is evasive or obstructive, or it may be because they have systems or defences in place which deter or frustrate investigation and scrutiny.

Invariably such a target does not provide a full answer to one's straightforward questions.

In such circumstances, one has to be persistent.

However, when such doggedness (which can yield rewards) is under the full glare of social media, there is often a reaction against one's efforts.


There will be those who will become more concerned about the one asking the questions than the target of those questions.

These third parties will say how they don't think those questions should be asked, or why think other questions should be asked, or that no questions should be asked at all.

This may be because that third party is a partisan for the target; or it can be that the third party simply cannot be bothered to understand what is at stake, but wants to say something anyway.

Sometimes, though not always, the third parties may have a point.


But what is common in each case is that they are more critical of the questioner (or the line of questioning generally) than they mind the target not answering the questions.

This type of behaviour can be regarded as "fussing". By this one means that they appear to have a misplaced concern about something.

And if they are fussing then this allows us to use the splendid word "fusspot" to describe them.

Indeed, we can even use "fusspottery" instead of "fussing" to describe the phenomenon.


There appears to be four primary kinds of fusspottery.


One: "Whataboutery"

This is the simple response of a third party to inquiry [x] of "what about [y]?".

Here [y] may have some or no connection with [x], but it shows that the fusspot is more concerned with something other than inquiry [x].


Two: "Sowhatery"

This is another simple response of a third party to inquiry [x]. This response, however, does not even go the effort of positing an alternative concern. As such it can be regarded as a lazier form of Whataboutery.

Here the fusspot is seeking to discredit or dismiss the efforts of the one posing inquiry [x], usually because the fusspot cannot be bothered (or is unable) to work the significance of inquiry [x] but wants to emit a noise.

A related form of Sowhatery is Iamboredery.


Three: "Notahangingoffencery"

This is for the advanced sort of fusspot.

Here the potential truth of inquiry [x] is conceded (even if the target has not admitted or denied it), but before there is even any question is even answered by the target, the fusspot is giving assurances that its significance is limited.

For Notahangingoffencery to be a genuine form of fusspottery it has to take place before the questions are answered.

Often the sophisticated fusspot will combine Notahangingoffencery with other forms of fusspottery, as in "So what if [x] is true, it is not a hanging offence".


Four: "Witchuntery"

For the fusspot, the allegation of there being a "witchhunt" is merely that they have noticed that inquiry [x] has had to be repeated and the target of the inquiry has not provided an answer.

Here the fusspot cannot distinguish between a determined effort to get to the bottom of something and a fondly remembered scene from Monty Python or The Crucible.

The allegation of witchuntery is thereby used in the attempt to make those asking a question feel very bad about themselves about not just accepting the lack of an answer. As such, the questioners are the ones most at fault.



The analysis above only goes to the responses to questions; it does not go to those reacting against others demanding some sanction ("you must apologise" or "you must be sacked") or those who are just being abusive.

Genuine fusspottery is about someone criticising the questioner, rather than criticising the target for not answering the question.


Fusspots are not necessarily wrong: sometimes there is the lack of perspective or importance that warrants fusspottery; sometimes a demand for sanctions or forms of abuse should be criticised even if in the form of questions. (These are usually rhetorical questions.)

As such, fusspottery should not be discouraged.

But if one finds oneself commenting adversely on someone seeking the answers to questions, rather on the target for not answering those questions, than it may be that there is fusspottery about.

And anyone can be a fusspot sometimes.


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Saturday, 3 September 2011

The virtue of coherence

The leading political blogger Graemer Archer once said of coherence in politics:

Coherence, you see, is the natural consequence of an ideology, and in politics it is rarely A Good Thing. Since an ideologue has a rule book, a device which he or she believes is a perfect description of the rules which govern man's interactions with man, he or she need almost never make any contradictory statements. This follows with probability nearly one, because all political thought will flow from the axioms of the ideology machine.

He concluded:

That's enough. Leave theology to the religious, and ideology to the left. And leave coherence to mathematics. Politics is for humans.

Graeme happens to be a Tory, but dissing what he says just for that attribute is not good enough. He is a fluent and articulate blogger of subtlety and great power; and (as most readers will know) I was a judge of the George Orwell Blogging Prize which made him this year's winner.

So is he right?


For me, coherence is a virtue when thinking about political, media, and legal issues.

When Johann Hari first faced criticism for his journalism, I set out why it was important to hold him to the same standards which would be applied to conservative and reactionary writers.

Similarly, I have also critcised supposed champions of rationalityRichard Dawkins and A C Grayling. On the other hand, I have defended Cherie Booth from unfair criticism in respect of the religious language in her sentencing remarks.


But that sort of stuff is easy; such consistency is the simple avoidance of partisanship (which is a bane of British intellectual and political life).

More difficult is conceptual coherence: do one's arguments in context [A] lose any force because they do not work in context [B]?


Over the last year I have written on a variety of topics, and I do wonder if my position is coherent overall. In each case my argument is made sincerely (I am not a contrarian, though I often get called that); but do all the arguments cohere with each other?


Earlier this week I set out some thoughts on abortion. Here I prioritised the privacy of the woman and said that an abortion is a surgical procedure which is the business only of her and her doctor.

In this, I was being consistent with my views on transgender issues and sex work: a transgendered person's surgery is a private medical matter, and a sex worker has complete autonomy over what he or she can do with their own body.

So far, so coherent; and because the principle of privacy being employed is consistent, I think my overall position is stronger for it.


However, I have also written recently about capital punishment.

There I denied the autonomy of those involved:

But capital punishment demands more than a willing executioner and cheering spectators; it needs for the whole of the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being. The absolute wrongness of the original act is then repeated by the State on our behalf.

This is why capital punishment can be fairly said to be barbaric. It takes something which is wrong, and then projects it on the political and legal institutions of the State: it makes repeating that wrong a purpose of public policy.



Is this coherent with my view of abortion as an essentially private matter?

Is not an abortion also a requirement that "the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being"?

For me, the answers to these questions are informed by my (implicit) denial that the aborted foetus is a human being.


But what of my general support for "liberal intervention" in foreign policy, where people are killed as a consequence of the military actions of the UK State?


Can one oppose the death penalty as a matter of first principle and not also be a pacifist (or at least an isolationist where the military is used only for self-defence)?

At this point, one can imagine Graeme nodding and saying this was his very point. Coherence, by itself, is not a political virtue.

He is certainly right to the extent that something illiberal or misconceived should not be done just because of a general ideological stance.

But when it comes to taking lives (or the taking of potential life), it appears to me that the principled arguments to be deployed should cohere.

If one life (or potential life) is to be taken by the State in one situation, but not in another, it seems to me imperative that the State - and the supporters of the State's policy - should be clear as to what the basis of that lethal or non-lethal action is.

Lives may be at stake from weak or muddled thinking.

Either the State can take lives (or potential lives), or it cannot.

And if so, we need to know why one life is taken but not another when similar arguments could apply.


Graeme is right to emphasise that purported coherence by itself is not a virtue; but in matters of life and death, it seems to me that there should be coherence.

If capital punishment - or torture - is wrong in all circumstances, why is the killing - or maiming - of people by our armed services not also wrong?

Can I really be against capital punishment as a matter of basic principle, but in favour of liberal interventionism abroad?

How come the latter gets the benefit of the "greater good" and not the former?


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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Some general thoughts on abortion

The abortion issue has always seemed to me to be a straightforward matter of personal privacy.

On one side there is the autonomy of the individual (in this case a pregnant woman) competent to decide what should happen in respect of their own body; and on the other side are those who seem to resent and deny the competence of that person to make their own decisions.

Accordingly, the job of the anti-abortionist is to make it as difficult as possible for the woman to make her own decision to terminate a pregnancy, whether it be by the spurious involvement of "independent counsellors" or the use of primary legislation.

No sensible person is "pro abortion" - the question is really who makes the ultimate decision: the woman (in consultation with her doctors) or the legislature.

Parliament has enacted that abortions are (generally) unlawful after 24 weeks.

But if a woman seeks an abortion within the first 24 weeks of her pregnancy, it is surely then a matter for her alone, subject only to medical advice and approval.

This general proposition is, for me, the starting point of any current debate in respect of abortion.

Any attempt to frustrate or remove her access to an abortion within those 24 weeks appears to me to simply have the whiff of misplaced paternalism; it implies that the woman does not know her own mind.

To seek an abortion within those 24 weeks cannot be an easy decision for any woman in any circumstance; but it can only be that woman's decision.

And, by implication, any decision to seek advice or counselling is also for the woman alone; it is illiberal for a woman to be obliged or expected to take advice or receive counselling, should she elect to terminate her pregnancy; again, any such obligation or expectation implies that the woman does not know her own mind.

The heart of the matter is that any woman is - in principle - fully capable of making the decisions for herself as to have an abortion, and what support she requires in doing so.

For me, it is a matter for the woman, and her doctors: a private surgical procedure which is none of your (or my) business.



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