Thursday, 29 November 2012

Leveson, The Media, And The Secret They Don’t Want You To Know.

Here’s something interesting about the world of counterintuitive probability – the more likely it is than an article will appear in a science magazine, political magazine or a newspaper, the less likely it is to be very accurate.  Yes you did read that right – the less likely it is to be accurate.  I’ll tell you why in a moment.  Today, Lord Justice Leveson has published his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press, following a public inquiry launched in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal. This report contains proposals for future media regulation, and an indictment of the press, politicians, and the police.  Everyone now knows that some factions of the media behaved awfully with the phone-hacking incidents.  Most people know (although not all admit it) that there is a toxic co-dependency between the press, the readers and celebrities (slebs) – inasmuch as journalists camp outside nightclubs to get a shot of Lindsay Lohan’s knickers, to feed the appetite of the numerous readers that love seeing Lindsay Lohan’s knickers – and in full circle, it is that kind of exposure that does no harm to the careers of those slebs.  That said, celebrities deserve a degree of privacy, and their not having it is largely due to saleability of the ‘name’, which is due to the voracious appetite of the fans, or the vicarious onlookers, that live through proxy gossip-feeders.

Most of you already knew all that about the media.  Here’s something you perhaps did not know – it is the secret that the media don’t want you to know.  The tree that Lord Justice Leveson is barking up is only a tree related to making the media accountable for reprehensible invasions of privacy and libellous claims.  The thing that is most wrong with the media will not be fixed by Leveson, or by David Cameron, or probably by any future Government.  I’m talking about the rubbish the media writes that is assumed by the majority to be correct.  If you’re the sort of person who values the truth then that’s a far more important issue than reprehensible invasions of privacy – because they are pretty conspicuous acts, whereas the rubbish is buried amongst the truths and half-truths, and it is rather excessive.

This is why it is likely that an article published in a magazine is not going to be true.  In fact, ask yourself this; what percentage of the articles in, say, The Times or The Guardian or The New Scientist are true?  I'll bet you went for a figure much higher than is actually the case.  Here's why newspapers, magazines and websites are likely to have a lot more falsehoods and inaccuracies than you'd expect. It's true that an Oxford biologist's new theory of abiogenesis is more likely to be true than a Liverpudlian roadsweeper's theory.  But if a newspaper, magazine or website publishes a theory, it is very likely to have quite a few falsehoods and inaccuracies - or if it is a socio-political opinion piece, even more so.  The reason is that people like to write things that shock, surprise or stir the attention, because that is what publishers know people like to read. The best way to produce material that people want to read is to write something contentious, or speculative or just plain controversial.  If a theory is contentious, or speculative or controversial, then the chances are it has plenty wrong with it (this is especially true of political opinion pieces).

Even scientific theories published in popular magazines and websites are likely to contain some errors - and science is seen as one of the more reliable disciplines.  You see, long before an article is submitted to the principal editor for publication, the author is compelled by policy to circulate drafts among experts in the particular field under consideration, and then address criticisms and comments – rewriting anything required.  This takes a lot more time than most publishers have to spare between pieces, so naturally corners are cut.  And, remember, I said that what grabs the intention and sells is the contentious, speculative and controversial material - so in terms of probability, in a busy press office, lots of attention-grabbing but questionable material is going to make it into the publication.  I'll bet if you could find a copy of 100 New Scientist articles from the 1950s you'd find most of them had a mixture of contentions that turned out to be right, but also numerous falsehoods or inaccuracies, and quite a few that were almost entirely wrong. 

That's going on within the relatively reliable edifice of science - now imagine the situation for political opinion, which is far more intractable and diverse and complex than the nuts and bolts of science. In political or social commentaries, even when a writer finds out facts, then circulates drafts among fellow so-called experts, and then addresses criticisms and comments, he is always under the rubric of the subjective interpretation of vast and complex data.  Further, he must then augment that data into an attention-grabbing piece with a catchy headline, and an opening gambit that will keep the reader interested.  Add up those probabilities into the melting pot, and it amounts to a lot of falsehoods and inaccuracies that you're reading on a daily basis. 

The logic is fairly straightforward; ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more headline grabbing than ‘Man has bacon for breakfast’ because ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more unusual.  But being unusual, ‘Pig has man for breakfast’ is more likely to be false, inaccurate or exaggerated, which explains why the more likely it is that an article will appear in a science magazine, political magazine or a newspaper, the less likely it is to be very accurate. 

This is something about the media that is not going to be sorted out any time soon – but it should give you a different perspective when reading material with a large readership.  Then again, given that in the writing of this Blog post I had in mind the goal of grabbing your attention - by my own assessment of probability, at least some of this Blog post should be false or inaccurate. :-)

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Why Shops Display Christmas Goods So Early!

For the past few weeks I’ve heard/read several people bemoaning the fact that shops are stocking Christmas goods earlier and earlier.  You only need to see a tree and tinsel in the shop window in late October and there will be a mass moan.  Here’s what the moaners don’t understand – you cannot really blame the shops for opening earlier and earlier, it isn’t really their fault.  If the critics knew about non-linearities and feedback effects they would understand what is happening.

To see why shops are opening earlier, consider this simplified feedback model.  Suppose we have M & S, Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s in the city centre.  A long time ago all four shops used to stock their Christmas goods from December 1st.  One day M & S try to obtain the advantage over the other three by stocking their Christmas goods a week earlier (from November 24th).  Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s have three choices; they can do nothing, they can emulate M & S, or they can go one better and stock their Christmas goods earlier (say, from November 17th).  If they do nothing they risk losing a week’s vital Christmas trade from opportunist shoppers to M & S; if they emulate M & S then there’s nothing stopping M & S doing the same again, leaving Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s on the November 24th date and stocking their Christmas goods a week earlier (from November 17th). So, quite naturally in response they pick the best of the three options by stocking their Christmas goods earlier than M & S.  But it doesn’t stop there – what then happens is that each one of their competitors will look to outdo the other by choosing a date earlier than the others.  This continues over the years – and if you obtain the statistics you would find a pattern of increased early Christmas stock to match and/or outdo the competition.

This is what happens when feedback effects occur; the shops are continually under pressure to stock their Christmas goods earlier and earlier to obtain an advantage, which is why you see all these shops beginning their Christmas trading at times that are, to many of you, premature.  Their hand has been forced, lest they lose vital trade time to their competitors.  The shops are subject to "feedback" effects – whereby a particular parameter x changes and via a "feedback" route the change in x causes further change in x (thus x is "feeding" back to itself). Feedback systems, depending on the kind of feedback involved, can produce varying "curves" of change when plotted on graph paper – some of which are quite chaotic.

There is a ‘but’ of course – if it were just down to procuring an advantage by trading earlier then M & S, Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s would all begin their Christmas trading on January 1st.  But, of course, it isn’t like that – there is a balance to be struck, because the shelf room they take up with Christmas stock amounts to a loss of shelf space for other more saleable goods if they are displayed too premature for the festive season.  The decorations, wrapping paper, cards, bumper chocolates, etc would be counter-productive stock if they were displayed in August in the hope of obtaining a festive head start on the rival shops – which is why the balance between being too early and too late in the year is of huge importance.

The other benefit to obtaining customers in the festive season is that a proportion of the shoppers will return the following year to do at least some of their Christmas shopping in the same shop.  People like routine and pattern - and if they've had a good experience they are likely to want to repeat it - particularly in a city full of the mad rush of festive shoppers.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women Bishops: Why The Church of England Has Messed Up Here

The general synod of the Church of England has voted against the appointment of women as bishops. Three things are evident; firstly, it won’t be too much longer before the balance is tipped; secondly this vote doesn’t reflect the views of the majority of Christians in the UK; thirdly, many have asserted that this compounds the view that we live in a patriarchy, which obviously isn't true. I will address all three points. 

Let me start by repudiating the hasty assumption so many people make, that we live in some kind of oppressive patriarchy. People who peddle the patriarchy-narrative are confused about how complex the world is, how multifaceted and diverse human behaviour is, and how to properly analyse an epistemologically intractable social environment. To cherry pick a few isolated examples of where men have the edge in society, and ignore all the contra-indicators and declare 'patriarchy', is a bit like surveying people in their 40s inside a job centre and claiming that most of the people in their 40s in the UK are unemployed. Most people in their 40s in the UK are not unemployed, but if you cherry pick that sample group from only inside a job centre, it's going to look like they are.
The UK may look like a patriarchy if you only look at the Catholic and Anglican churches, or if you only look at male CEOs, or if you only sample garage mechanics, or if you fall for the bogus 'unfair gender pay gap' canard (by the way, on this one: men and women earn equal pay for equal work - it's illegal for employers to contravene this - and the statistics you often see that proclaim women earn less than men are based on statistical averages, which does not point to unfair discrimination).
But the UK doesn't look very much like a patriarchy if you only sample primary school teachers, or if you look at the number of male suicides compared to females, or if you look at the ratio of men to women who have died fighting in wars or doing risky jobs.

Society as a whole is not accurately represented when seen through cherry-picked data analyses that are sought to corroborate the bogus arguments of people trying to prove a point. Society is much more complex than that, and the reality is, there are many ways in which men have the comparative advantage over women, many ways in which women have the comparative advantage over men, but where in most cases of human living, men and women cooperate together to work, to survive, to love, to have friendships, to pay their taxes, to bring up children, to run a house together, to fight against nature's hardships, and to make each other's lives better (either directly or indirectly).

The church probably is, in several ways, too patriarchal in its ethos - failing to capitalise on the immense benefits and diverse duality of perspective within the two sexes. But to claim the whole of society is an oppressive patriarch is to be guilty of misrepresenting the reality of how men and women really operate in a relationship symbiosis, in mutually beneficial synergies, and in reciprocal encouragement against the vicissitudes of nature's hardships and challenges.

Let me say why I do favour women bishops, and why I think the C of E has got it wrong. I have two reasons; one is to do with a well known principle in moral philosophy, and the other is to do a well known principle in economics. The moral philosophy principle is this; I strongly support women’s rights to be ordained in ministry and leadership – be they vicars, chaplains, or bishops, or any other position, based primarily on a fixed view I have about humans not discriminating against other humans based on race, creed, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other congenital component of being human. 

The economic principle is to do with utilisation of skills, and this is an area that both the feminists and the overly-masculine influences in the church have got entirely wrong.  This is not an immutable rule, but for maximum efficiency you are best to optimise the specialised skills people bring to the table.  In a partnership, if two people have similar skills there is less to be gained from sharing them – all you’re doing is reassigning jobs from one equally suitable person to another.  For maximum efficiency, if two people have similar skills concerning task A, then you’re best to separate roles, where one does task A and the other does task B.  But if two partners have very different skills it is best to share both task A and task B because both sets of specialist skills can be brought into both tasks. 

For example, suppose we have a town planning project - I don’t think are many people who would deny that an economist and a building surveyor partnership would be a more efficient partnership than two economists or two building surveyors. Suppose we have a committee assigned to draw up a document that maximises good parenting; I don’t think there are many people who would deny that a group of five men and five women would be more efficient than a group of ten women or ten men.  And I cannot imagine there are many people who would deny that a partnership consisting of a livestock specialist and an agronomy specialist would make a better farming partnership than two livestock specialists or two agronomy specialists.

This is where the feminists and the overly-masculine influences in the church do not understand maximum efficiency.  Feminists, in trying to make women and men as similar as possible, say that task A should be shared equally.  That’s wrong – if they are similar they would achieve maximum efficiency by specialising.  Overly-masculine church men, in trying to make men and women as different as possible, say that women should specialise in task A and men in task B.  That’s also wrong – if they are different they would achieve maximum efficiency by sharing and bringing to bear both sets of specialties and talents.

Now let me make one thing quite clear; there are situations in which this sort of logic would not be maximally beneficial.  For example, in a marriage, there are all sorts of good reasons why housework, driving, entertaining, gardening, etc are better shared (respect, closeness, togetherness, kindness, consideration, relationship equality, to name but five) – but this issue is about women bishops, and hence on grounds of moral philosophy and economic principles the church is making a mistake in not appointing women bishops. 

In both cases, appointing women bishops is the right thing to do.  Given that women are equal in every sense of rights and respect, both women and men should be allowed to be bishops on grounds that sex discrimination is ugly. And conversely, given that women have very different skills to men (as well as many similar skills), both women and men should be allowed to be bishops on grounds that church leadership (be they vicars, chaplains, or bishops) will benefit from both sets of specialised skills being brought to bear on the running of the church.  Whichever way you cut the cloth, the church is throwing away one of its golden pearls by failing to maximise the talents of both men and women.





Sunday, 18 November 2012

Tax Avoidance, And A Clever Way Of Minimising The Debt

The grossly dislikeable Margaret Hodge, who chairs the parliamentary committee for Public Accounts, has condemned the favourable European tax jurisdictions that Google, Amazon and Starbucks use for their UK businesses. Now while I agree that it would be good to get the full quota of tax from these companies, the Government's (and shadow Government's) insistence that those millions would help reduce the UK debt are remiss.  I could make an argument (although it's a bit oversimplified) that says Amazon pays its taxes, it then puts up its prices, meaning the consumer pays more - therefore given the choice between paying £2 less for a book on Amazon, or the Government having that money (to probably spend at least some of it unwisely), one might prefer things as they are.  Certainly at an individual level, I'll bet most people would rather buy a book from Amazon for £8 than pay £10 and be assured that an extra £2 is going to the Government. 

In reality, though, the Government has a contingency plan for this - they simply smuggle in stealth taxes to obtain from the taxpayer the money they are not getting in revenue from tax avoiding companies.  But they should do two things with the money obtained – they should spend it on services that will benefit the country (NHS, Education, Social Services, Planning and Transportation, etc) and they should pay off the debt interest but not the debt itself.  The first is obvious, the second not so obvious, but here’s why.  If the Government sets up a policy whereby they approximate future outlays of debt interest but suspend payments on the debt aggregate itself they can set our tax rates so that those revenues match those outlays on an annual basis and not inhibit the spending on services that will benefit the country. 

Here’s the important distinction between paying off the debt and the interest attached to the debt.  In the future the debt aggregate is going to be a lot more trivial (and a lot less painful) to future generations than it is to us – so if we keep up the interest payments but have a moratorium on the aggregate debt payment, then paying it off for future generations will seem a lot like to charity to them (and we all like charity, don’t we?).  Think of it this way – suppose our UK bankers had run up the equivalent debt (pro rata) in the 1880s, and suppose William Gladstone had had the foresight to set up a policy immediately to pay off the interest every year for 120 years up to our present day – our current Government would be faced with a meagre debt of tens of thousands of pounds.  Much better to pay off that than see our great-great-grandparents’ generation miss out on important Government spending because they were yoked to a crippling debt.

The other important factor in this idea of future benevolence is that it minimises deadweight loss (deadweight loss is the damage done to the economy through raising taxes to combat tax disincentives).  The deadweight loss value is approximately proportional to the square of the tax rate, so paying interest for the foreseeable future but not the debt is the best way to minimise deadweight loss*, because it doesn’t negatively impact present day spending, and it enables future (much richer) generations to pay it off for us at a smidgen of the current aggregate. If the Government is going to waste taxes from big corporations on slicing off the debt aggregate, then you may as well cheer on Amazon’s tax avoidance policy and enjoy cheaper books. 

* Here’s the maths: every £100 in outstanding debt commits the Government to paying it off with a present value of £100, and hence to collecting tax revenues with a current value of £100. In a world in which the interest rate is 3%, the options include the Government collecting (and paying off) £100 immediately, or £50 this year and £51.50 next year, or £11.38 a year for ten years running, or £3 a year for the long term foreseeable future until our progeny can pay it off at a cheaper rate that won’t cripple them. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Logic Of Charitable Giving

If you're feeling charitable at any time throughout the year, by all means give charitably. But here's my advice; don't do what your natural instincts tell you is right by giving to many different charities. The best thing you can do is give all you want to give to one charity. In other words, if you were going to give £20 to Oxfam, £20 to Cancer Research UK and £20 to the RSPCC, you should decide which you think is the worthiest charity and give all of the £60 to that one charity (by 'worthiest' I mean the neediest charity for the most important good in the world).  

Don’t be fooled with the argument that says “I don’t know which is the most worthy, so that is why I diversify and give to multiple charities”, because even with imperfect knowledge you have still made the decision to the best of your ability, so the logic still holds. 

The only caveat I would add is this; if everyone in the country came to the same conclusion - for example, that WaterAid is the worthiest charity - then all the other charities would be notably short of donations. But given the diversity of charitable giving across the nation, I don't expect that would happen.  People do currently give to the charity they think is most worthy – it’s just that for some irrational reason they withhold some of the ‘worthiest’ money by giving some to charities they consider less worthy.

Granted, giving all to one charity must feel counterintuitive – but an extreme case will demonstrate the logic of my argument.  After a Tsunami has hit a nation and there are mass appeals, suppose you work out that you can afford to send £500. I doubt very much whether you’d get the sudden urge to only give the Tsunami appeal £250, because you felt compelled to split the other £250 between Break and the RSPCA.  You are giving all to the Tsunami appeal because you have an intensified notion that that is the most worthy recipient of your beneficence at the present time. 

But although the Tsunami appeal is a heightened case, you’re only doing in the extreme what you are otherwise doing in moderation – you are trying to give to the charity you think needs your money most, except that outside of extremes like emergency appeals, you habitually adopt a proclivity to diversify your giving. 

I think I know why people do this; what is being suggested you do in charitable giving is the opposite of what is suggested in most other walks of life. Over consumption of one product, over-activity in one particular hobby, too much work and not enough play, and all that jazz, is bad for us, so we choose moderation as we try to diversify our time and resources. That, I think, is why people naturally look to diversify when giving to charity. 

But here’s the key difference between the charities and the other activities. When you over-consume in other walks of life, it comes at a cost to your other equally important activities. If you were down the snooker hall every night and all weekends you would become a good snooker player, but your wife and kids would be devoid of your other qualities, and you’d miss out on other interests too. If you only read books by Charles Dickens you would miss out on a wealth of literature.

Yet this very rarely happens in charitable giving. If you decide that providing drinking water to people without it is your top priority, you are never going to over-do the giving to the point that no one else needs drinking water. Once you have decided that providing water to dying people is the neediest cause, then splitting £500 between the clean drinking-water charity and the RSPCA is tantamount to taking £250 out of the hands of (what is to you) the most needy cause and giving it to (what is to you) a less needy cause. 

If you want to give because your concern is 100% for the recipients in need, then I think you would rationally arrive at the conclusion that the neediest charity should have all your charity money. However, if you wanted to give because, at a subliminal level, it feels good to think to yourself 'I frequently give to all those charities – pat on the back for me' (and let’s face it, we are all highly susceptible to self-praise and delusions of grandeur), then your motives may be a little less meritorious than you first hoped. 

That’s not to divert from the fact that all charitable giving is noble, and hugely significant for the charities concerned. But if you think one is more worthy than the others – that is the one to which rationality says you should give all your charity money - and logic is against you if you don't follow it through.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Faux Lucky Numbers

I came home from work tonight, sat down with my tuna steak and veg, switched on the TV and watched Deal Or No Deal.  It’s not a terribly good show, but tonight something interesting happened.  First, here’s a description of the game (from Wiki):

The game features a single contestant trying to beat the Banker, as they open twenty-two identical sealed red boxes assigned to potential contestants in an order of their choosing. The boxes contain randomly assigned sums of money inside ranging from 1p to £250,000. The day's contestant is selected at the beginning, bringing their box to the chair. As the boxes are opened over a number of rounds, the Banker makes offers of real money to gain possession of their box. The gameplay is coordinated by Edmonds, who communicates with the unseen banker by telephone. Contestants can either 'deal' to take the money, or play to the end, settling on the amount in their box.

What was special about tonight’s episode was this; the contestant’s godson had drawn a premonitory picture beforehand, depicting box number 22 containing the sum of £20,000.  After 20 of the boxes were opened, the contestant, remarkably, was left with box number 22 (which he brought to the table after a random 1/22 choice) and box number 13. I say ‘remarkably’ – but just how remarkable is it?  Well the boxes are chosen at random – the contestant happened to choose box 22 (as his godson predicted), and there are 22 sums of money – so the exact odds are 1 in 484 (1/22 x 1/22). 

Naturally everyone in the studio was getting excited; here sat a picture of box 22 with £20,000 in it, and here sat our contestant who coincidentally picked 22 at random, and who still had the figure £20,000 left in play (along with £5).  As you’d expect he chose to ‘No Deal’ when offered £6750 by the Banker, and opened his box 22, ready to be met with £20,000.  But, much to the audience’s astonishment, no £20,000 – the box contained the £5.  The premonition wasn’t really a premonition at all – it was just one of those coincidences of which they should have been mindful beforehand (and perhaps were). 

Of course, the explanation is simple – it’s the old ‘law of large numbers’ phenomenon.  Basically, even though the odds of it happening are a slim 1 in 484, there are so many games played that coincidences like this are bound to pop up every now and then. As pattern seekers we humans distort the real picture by editing out all the extraneous information and focusing only on what we see to be radical breaks from normalcy.  The old ‘These things always happen in threes’ fallacy is a good example – when people construct this illusory triune pattern, they do so only by forgetting all the times that things did not happen in threes. 

From watching this show a few times a month, and observing the many times contestants perceive as patterns or lucky legacies what is really only inevitability in the law of large numbers, it’s quite clear that most contestants (and by that I infer most people) do not understand this principle.  I don’t think host Noel Edmonds understands it very well either – you will often hear him say things like “£250,000” came to the table yesterday – what are the chances it will come twice in a row?” as though that somehow lessens its chance of returning the next day as well.  Guess what Noel, the odds are still 1/22, just as they were yesterday.  If you play the games long enough you’ll find all sorts of interesting patterns emerge, and that is the law of large numbers at work - but the odds never change at the level of the particularity. 

A lot of contestants play the game emotionally, by making reference to their ‘lucky numbers’.  There are two kinds of perception of lucky number, and they are related - the ones in prospect and the ones in retrospect.  You only have the former because you have the latter, and both are illusions, but one is much more dangerous than the other.  The ones in retrospect are based on ideas about past patterns; for example, John might say his lucky number is 3, because he was born on 3rd April, he met his wife on the 3rd December, he bought 3 scratch cards when he won £10,000, and he has 3 children.  That might make him leave box number 3 until the end – it has always brought him luck, so let’s hope it continues. 

But, of course, the reality is, 3 is no more of a lucky box for him in prospect than any other number – it is only perceived that way through the lens of retrospection.  When it comes to these kinds of pattern, the lens of retrospection is an unreliable predictor of the future.  If for John box number 3 contains a big sum of money it will no doubt perpetuate the illusion of it being his lucky number – but this is a philosophy by which one should not be ensnared.  It’s all very well thinking fondly of a number because it is associated with fortunate dates or events, but runs of events mean nothing with regard to the prospective lucky numbers, just as a run of five reds on a roulette wheel does not mean next time out you’ve got more chance of landing black, and a run of seven heads in a row with a fair coin does not mean that your next coin toss is more likely to be tails. Superstitions and frivolous pattern-seeking both remain ok as a bit of fun – but don’t be fooled by these concepts – they are illusory and can lead you astray if you overlook the law of large numbers. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Why You Probably Shouldn't Have Bothered Voting

As much as I’m glad to see Barak Obama victorious in the Presidential Election, I’m reminded again of something that seems on the surface to be contentious, but is in actuality evidently true.  Despite all the excitement and impassioned campaigning at the collective level, every single person’s vote is irrelevant to the outcome at the individual level.  In other words, the paradox is this; all the votes for Barak Obama saw him victorious at an aggregate level, but each one of those votes at an individual level didn’t affect the outcome one bit. 

To see this, let’s take the closest election known to man.  The closest official margin in American history was two elections ago when it all hinged on Florida, and George Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes.  So consider what needs to happen for your single vote to make the difference – firstly, you need the voting to be hinged on one single State, and it needs to be the one that you happen to be in.  Then you need the election in your State to be absolutely neck and neck, with your one vote being the deciding vote.  The odds of that happening are close to zero – but let’s suppose that instead of partisan votes we improve the odds of it being 50/50 by having coin tosses instead of votes.  Florida has around 6 million voters (let’s say 6 million for simplicity’s sake), which means you’d require exactly half of those coin tosses to land heads and half to land tails. The odds of that happening are just over 3000 to 1*.  Note that 3000 to 1 is the ‘most’ generous to you based on a 50-50 likelihood that every individual votes for either Obama or Romney – in real terms the odds would be astronomically greater than 3000 to 1**.

The probability of your vote making any difference in the outcome is so narrow that you might like to consider doing something better with your time (it’s the same kind of reasoning used to tell you that you shouldn’t buy insurance on your electrical goods, but with even greater probability in your favour this time).  The argument that “If everyone thought that way, the voting system would be a debacle” is a meaningless argument.  The fact is, almost everybody doesn’t think that way, and they never will.  But that doesn’t mean you have to think as they do – in fact, to realise voting is a waste of time means you shouldn’t bother – unless you have a psychological inclination to do so. 

Yet despite all that, I can understand why Americans vote for a President.  It may not be rational (after all, there are not many cases in which you would do something that you knew in advance would have no effect at all) but I can conceive of a situation whereby the satisfaction of voting for Obama or Romney outweighs the costs. 

I cannot say the same for the situation in Britain though, where the voting is far less tangibly rewarding, where candidates are tied to constituencies, and where the outcome of the vote makes even less difference than it does in the USA.  Moreover, you have to factor in that even if your vote made a difference in one constituency in the UK elections, the odds that that difference would have any tangible effect on your life are significantly more minuscule again.  Some do have psychological inclination, because they feel good voting for a candidate or party they support, so it can be contended that in some cases the time spent voting is worth the price for feeling good about voting.  But in most cases it is a waste of your time – particularly given that even if by the narrowest of chances your vote does happen to be the one that swung the result, the odds of your candidate actually going on to make any difference in the areas of concern that most affect you are virtually nil. 

Time is a more precious commodity than one vote, just as money spent on feeding the homeless or a new ironing board or a lunch meeting with a friend is more precious than insurance surcharges on products.  If it takes 30 minutes to cast a vote, you’d be better off spending that time doing some shopping for an elderly neighbour, or picking up some litter, or scrubbing off some graffiti, or writing that letter to the friend or relative you kept meaning to.  Then you will have done more good for the country than casting a meaningless vote.

If you’re the sort of person for whom voting gives you a greater satisfaction than the time and energy consumed, then carry right on voting.  But if you’re one of those who feels your vote is of some value to the outcome, or that you really ought to make the effort due to some compulsion, then congratulations, you can relieve yourself of the duty and spend the time and energy doing something else, safe in the knowledge that your vote very likely won’t matter, and that almost nobody else is going to think like you on this one.

* The exact odds are 3100 to 1, which is 6,000,000 coin-flippers, each choosing Barak Obama with some probability p and Mitt Romney with probability 1-p, where p is 1/2 and 1-p is also ½.

** For example, if p drops to .51 because of one small bias, the chance of a 50/50 tie drops to 1 in 10 to the power of 1046 (that’s 1 with 1046 zeros).

Monday, 5 November 2012

Why I Think Capital Punishment Is Never The Right Action

It's Guy Fawkes night! I suppose a night like tonight on which many people buy fireworks to celebrate a bunch of Catholic assassins failing to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James is as good a night as any to talk about capital punishment - something that has lingered in my mind since the debate about the appropriate sentence of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.  Around that time, I recall on the BBC show The Big Questions we had one or two people arguing in favour of capital punishment for extreme crimes.  But most powerfully, there was a Christian couple on the show who had lost their son through the actions of a group of killers – but who had taken it upon themselves to forgive the offenders, and show determination in championing forgiveness as a good general principle for life.

My position regarding capital punishment is that I do not think it should ever be employed.  I hold this view on the basis that I can see no good arguments in favour of capital punishment, and that I can see several good arguments against it. There is one frequent defense of capital punishment – the one about saving taxpayers’ money by not incurring the cost of incarcerating criminals for a lengthy duration.  It isn’t because this argument is factually wrong that I object (although it is factually wrong at least some of the time, because in many cases the money spent on death row appeals is astronomically greater than that which would have been spent on incarceration).  No, I object on the same grounds that I would object to all instances of capital death – quite simply, I think everyone has the right to not be put to death. 

I had felt a strong attachment to this view from an early age, just as I remember at an early age adopting a strong conviction towards the idea that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, as long as that expression remains within the orbit of the law (and as long as the law is sound).  In fact, the two are related; since my teenage years of reading works like John Stuart Mill's Essay On Liberty, I have felt sure that freedom of expression is a vital part of being human.  This, principally, is what repels me away from capital punishment – it cuts short a life and denies that person the chance to repent, reform and exhibit genuine sorrow and regret for the bad things they have done.

Here's how freedom of expression and the right to live are related.  If you take away a man’s ability to express himself, you rob him of what he is – a person with emotions, thoughts and feelings.  That is why denial of expression and denial of life are really two wings of the same abomination.  It is not just the case that denial of expression is bad for the man being denied his right to express – it is a double edged sword, because whenever we humans hear a voice or read an opinion which is from someone unlike ourselves, or vastly different from the common opinion, we actually deny ourselves the right to hear or read the expression. 

I think capital punishment should be eradicated because it denies human beings their own right to hear from those from whom we might learn something.  And part of that denial involves denying ourselves the chance of what could be vital information.  We might put a murderer to death and later find that he may have committed other murders.  A future interview might disclose the whereabouts of bodies or it might get an innocent man off the hook.  Moreover, in cases of extreme psychopathy there may well be much information that psychologists and, in particular, neuroscientists can learn about psychopathic and sociopathic illness, as well as other vital knowledge about impaired mental health and extreme behaviour. 

But most of all, as I have already alluded to, I think capital punishment denies criminals the chance to make things right, and perhaps also make amends with their own victims or the family of those victims.  For me, all those reasons, while not perfect, do far outweigh any positive arguments for capital punishment. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

On Gay Marriage: It's Time To Wise Up

Gay rights group Stonewall has awarded Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien the 'Bigot of the Year' prize after he made some impudent words against gay people. That's a bit like Burger King Executives creating a 'Most Unhealthy Junk Food' category and awarding it to McDonald's.  Now, one disclaimer; even if you had an electron microscope you couldn't detect my feelings of credibility for any of Stonewall's awards.  But something needs to be said about the quid pro quo lack of tolerance, because I hear that politician Ruth Davidson was subjected to jeers and boos at the ceremony after she suggested that awards like 'Bigot of the Year' hardly sound any more tolerant than the people they seek to indict, and that "The case for equality is far better made by demonstrating the sort of generosity, tolerance and love we would wish to see more of in this world."  Quite why she would give two hoots about receiving an award from Stonewall is beyond me (she won Politician of the Year) - but well said anyway. 

But here, I think, is the important point; there are good and bad people in the Catholic Church and in Stonewall, and they are being let down by the mudslingers who do no real good, and help very little in furthering the progression of debates like these. Evidently this debate about gay marriage is not going to be helped by intolerance from either side, and it isn't going to be resolved without bringing some intelligent suggestions to the table - ones that are accompanied by acceptance, tolerance, compassion, generosity and kindness.  The first thing that is clear to me is that liberty of free expression is vital, so I defend anyone's right to hold whatever views they like about gays, about the church, or whatever (providing they are held or expressed with acceptance, tolerance, compassion, generosity and kindness).  For that reason, we must be careful not to discriminate against any group (which is really collections of individuals) that holds views different to ours.  Let me try to suggest a solution that cuts out all the mudslinging. 

It seems to me that something obvious is being missed in the continuing debate about whether gay couples should or should not be allowed to get married in church.  You see, the question must be asked; in the case of the majority of people affected by this (the majority being unbelievers), why would they want to get married in a church?  One might even ask the same question of atheists too.  Let me explain; I have absolutely no objection to any couple being together, gay or straight – their business is none of my business, and I think it unfortunate that so many people in the church wish to make it their business.  But here’s what I think is being missed. When the Christian church performs a wedding for couples who do not share the central beliefs of Christianity they are engaging in ceremonies for couples for whom the central tenets have no intrinsic religious value (it seems these numbers are increasing all the time too).  Of course, non-religious couples should be allowed to get married in a church – but that’s not the point.  The point is, I can only wonder why they would want to if they don't have any beliefs that would naturally affiliate them to the church's ethos.  That people still do is, I should imagine, a mere historical legacy of habit that is slowly dying in out in Britain as we gradually become more secular, and the Church of England gradually erodes into an even tinier minority.

This might be somewhat too prescient for today, but fast forward to, say, 150 years henceforward, and my guess is you'll find church weddings being almost exclusively chosen by Christians, and the majority of other lifetime commitments being non-religious civil commitments.  The point is, this moves the debate away from issues about which group is the most discriminated against, or whose rules are the most reasonable, onto a much more enriching enquiry about how we can escape the historical legacies of anti-church discord and well-worn religious clich├ęs, and live in a society in which chosen rites of passage match people’s tastes and beliefs.

If my girlfriend and I didn't believe in the central Christian tenets, there is no reason why we should have any desire to get married in a church, mosque or wherever - just as if we were vegetarians we'd have no desire to go to a butcher's shop for our evening meal.  In changing long-standing traditions and not seeking refuge in the unreliable legacy of the status quo, we are likely to have a society in which people choose things because those things match their views and beliefs, not because history dictates that ‘This is always how it has been done’.  When gay people or unbelievers seek to defend people’s right to not be discriminated against by any sectarian faction of the church, I think they are right to do so.  But I think they are arguing in the wrong direction.  They act like vegetarians trying to defend the vegetarians’ right to go into butchers’ shops, when what they would be better doing is trying to convince more vegetarians to give up butchers’ shops altogether and seek food stores that better cater their tastes.  Society needn't be so polarised anymore, and it will be much less like it in the future; just as we now have supermarkets in which meat-eaters and vegetarians can happily shop together choosing only the products that match their tastes, we probably will eventually evolve a cultural system in which people pick their ceremonial rites of passage in accordance with their views and beliefs.  I understand non-religious funerals are rising in numbers; in 150 years (maybe sooner) they probably will outnumber church funerals. 

I think that numerous people are still getting married in churches simply because 'marriage' in a church happens to be the oldest ceremonial legacy in this country, or because society says a church wedding is somehow more exalted than a civil ceremony, or because of pressure from family, and other similar reasons. My point is not that they shouldn't. It is; why would they want to unless they have emotional, spiritual or analytical affiliation to the church's ethos?  Realising this probably is the best the best way to forward the debate and culturally progress too.