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The precautionary principle

Jun 17th, 2003 | By

"Genetically modified crops raise more questions than they answer. Insufficient
laboratory tests have been done on the effect of GM crops before going to
field-scale trials. The precautionary principle means that, if you are unsure
of what the result will be, especially if it is going to be so serious, it
would be wiser not to do it until more evidence is available."
RSPB spokesperson. Source: Belfast Telegraph, 4 June 2003

If you want to see a good idea become misunderstood and abused, give it a clear
and simple name. Very often, this is the cue for people to start mistaking the
clarity and simplicity of the nomenclature for clarity and simplicity in the
idea itself.

Such is the … Read the rest

Ancient means wise

Jun 8th, 2003 | By

"Manufacturers are reaping the benefits of natural remedies. It’s not
surprising really, as they’re tried and tested ingredients dating back thousands
of years."
Spirit and Destiny magazine, February 2003

The next time you suffer from an inflammation, why not try a little blood letting?
This "tried and tested" method dates back to the fifth century BCE
and probably owes its origins to Hippocrates. The principle behind blood-letting
is simple: the human body needs to maintain a balance between its four "humours":
blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Inflammation is caused by excess
of blood, so losing a bit of it should help restore the natural balance of your
body and make you feel a whole lot better.

Why not … Read the rest

Loading the dice

Jun 1st, 2003 | By

"Julie (she’s open to spiritual stuff) and Kate (the cynical one) continue
their voyage of discovery through the world of the New Age. This month our
testing twosome try colourpuncture."
Spirit and Destiny magazine, February 2003

Imagine you’re a comedy writer and you want to send up New Age, alternative
medicine. "Colourpuncture" would be a stroke of comedic genius. But
too late – it’s already out there, and it’s for real.

According to the truly frightening Spirit and Destiny, colourpuncture
was devised by a German scientist, a claim which is typical of the New-Agers’
desire to have it both ways: it’s an alternative to mainstream medicine, so
not subject to the same principles and tests; but devised by a … Read the rest

Someone must pay

May 20th, 2003 | By

"For every winner, there has to be corresponding losers, and it has
nothing to do with skill, ‘investing’ or how popular you are."
Neil Collins, The Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2003

Like many opponents of the "something-for-nothing culture", Neil
Collins does not just believe that if something good is done someone has to
pay; he seems to regard it as a moral imperative that someone does. So irritated
is he in his attack on the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown,
from which the quote above comes, that he finds himself insisting that there
have to be multiple losers for a single winner, getting his grammar garbled
in the process. (If it’s a sub editor’s error it still … Read the rest

Appealing to common-sense

May 11th, 2003 | By

"I am not convinced carbohydrate-restricted diets meet the standards
of common sense, and thus, I am not convinced that more research is needed."
Dr. David Katz, New Haven Register, 14 April 2003

I couldn’t have said it better – or worse – myself. I despise faddy diets,
and so I’m right behind Dr Katz’s dismissal of the idea that severely limiting
the intake of carbohydrates is a healthy or sustainable way of losing weight.
(The fact that I adore pasta and pizza does not, of course, influence my judgement.)
And I’m also keen to find ammunition to support my cause, having discovered to my despair that a friend has followed Dr Atkins down his low-carb garden path.

I’d even … Read the rest

Selective quotation

Apr 26th, 2003 | By

"My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote
Jacques Chirac, President of France, 10 March 2003

The phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" has been happily adopted
by many Americans and Britons as a fun way of expressing disdain for the French.
It gives them something to laugh about as they tuck into their "freedom
fries" and swill non-Gallic wine. No matter that the phrase, first uttered
by Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons, was surely a send-up rather
than celebration of the current mood of francophobia. Either that or Matt Groening
et al have lost their genius for razor-sharp satire and social observation.

What have the French done to deserve their pariah status? It wasn’t just the… Read the rest

Can’t do it? Don’t back it.

Apr 18th, 2003 | By

"I am a vegetarian but I have no problem with animals as food, I just think
that if you are not prepared to kill it, you ought not to eat it."
Allan Beswick, columnist, Manchester Metro News, 11 April 2003

Confucius’s golden rule was "Do not do to others that which you do not
want done to you." Beswick’s golden rule seems to be "Do not have
done to others that which you would not do yourself."

It’s an extremely popular moral maxim. Anti-war campaigners berate "hawks"
on the grounds that they usually show little willingness to get out on the battlefield
and face the enemy themselves. Opponents of capital punishment can make those
with the contrary view squirm … Read the rest

Dubious advantages

Apr 7th, 2003 | By

"We do not generally employ people who have spent a career doing something
else and who have turned to executive search as a second career. We want our
people to be the best at hiring great management. … To do this well you
need to get the kind of commitment you have in a first career, not a second
Armstrong International advertisement, 2003 campaign (Source: The Economist,
29 March 2003)

The comic alter ego of Graham Fellows, the hapless singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth,
had a wonderful line in his stage show when he evangelised to the audience over
the merits of a well-known sports drink. "It’s isotonic," he said,
"it cares for the environment."

As with so much of … Read the rest

Complacent superiority

Mar 31st, 2003 | By

"When asked "How often do you have sex?" Horne replied, "Every
orgasm is a sacred offering to the universe." When asked if she believed
in life after death, she replied, "The energy that we are has to go somewhere."
A witch’s wisdom or wacky Wicca waffle? I’ll let you be the judge."
Julian Baggini, Bad Moves: The Is/Ought Gap,

Who do we think we are, we guardians of good sense and rationality? In this
series, I claim to "detail the various ways in which arguments or points
are made badly, but often persuasively." Presumably, that must mean I think
my own arguments are made well. Is that confidence or arrogance?

Butterflies and Wheels itself risks hubris when it sets … Read the rest

The is/ought gap

Mar 24th, 2003 | By

"Humans have not evolved to be monogamous; the survival of the species
depends on diversity."
Fiona Horne, 8 March 2003, The Guardian Weekend

In case you haven’t heard of Fiona Horne, this multi-talented antipodean is a rock
star, journalist, author, model and witch. Seriously. She’s written five books
on witchcraft, including Witchin’: A Handbook for Teen Witches. Like it or not,
what this person says gets published and listened to.

Judge for yourself whether this is a good thing. When asked "How often
do you have sex?" Horne replied, "Every orgasm is a sacred offering
to the universe." When asked if she believed in life after death, she replied,
"The energy that we are has to go somewhere." A … Read the rest

False dichotomies

Mar 17th, 2003 | By

"Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you
are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
George W Bush, 20 Sept 2001

You couldn’t get a starker demonstration of a false dichotomy than President
Bush’s bold statement, made shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center
in 2001. A false dichotomy presents two options as though these exhausted all
the possibilities, when in fact there are other choices available. In this example,
one alternative to Bush’s choice is to oppose terrorism but also to oppose America’s
preferred methods of dealing with it. A person or country that adopts that line
is not with President Bush, but nor are they with the terrorists.

On … Read the rest

Better than nothing

Mar 10th, 2003 | By

"Although conditions in many of the [sweat]shops are admittedly wretched,
people chose to work in the shops of their own free will, experts point out,
because a lousy job is better than none at all. If major U.S. retailers stop
doing business with countries where exploitation is a fact of life, maquila
production will decline further in Central America and thousands of workers
– children and adults – will join the ranks of the unemployed, experts warn."
(Source: National Center for Policy Analysis, Month In Review, Trade June,
1996) (

Sweatshops stir the consciences of all but the hardest of westerners who become
aware that most of their clothes come from them. We know that conditions in
these … Read the rest

Arguments from incredulity

Mar 3rd, 2003 | By

"No one in their right mind can look in the stars and the eternal blackness
everywhere and deny the spirituality of the experience, nor the existence
of a Supreme Being. There were moments when I honestly felt that I could reach
out my hand, just as the pilot John Magee says in his poem ‘High Flight’,
and touch the face of God."
Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon (Source: Observer Magazine,
16 June 2002)

These few lines are stuffed full of argumentative bad moves. There’s the ad
hominem abuse – people who disagree are just not in "their right mind".
There’s also a whiff of the argument from authority: an "I’ve been into
space buddy, and … Read the rest

Blurring the boundaries

Feb 24th, 2003 | By

"Air conditioning made it [global warming] all possible. And now having
opened the door to southern pols and Dixie climes, it’s also planning to export
those hot summer winds all over the world by making the hole in the ozone
layer a reality."
Michael Moore, Stupid White Men, p130

Ozone depletion and global warming are not two wholly unrelated issues. Both,
for instance, can be seen as the product of mankind’s high levels of consumption
having detrimental effects on the environment. But they are not as closely related
as they are sometimes assumed to be.

Ozone depletion is mainly caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and its main
effect is to raise the amount of harmful ultraviolet B (UV-B) radiation reaching… Read the rest

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner

Feb 13th, 2003 | By

We should condemn a little more and understand a little less.
British Prime Minister John Major, 8 October 1993

The problem with accepted wisdom is that for every proverb there is an equal
and opposite proverb. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush and you
shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but since everything comes to he who
waits, maybe settling for just one feathered beast isn’t such a good idea. You
can’t teach an old dog new tricks and a leopard can’t change its spots, but
since it’s never too late to learn and it ain’t over until the fat lady sings,
why be so defeatist?

Rather like reading the Bible literally, … Read the rest

Absence and evidence

Feb 2nd, 2003 | By

"It depends on Saddam. If he co-operates with the inspectors in allowing
them not just access but telling them what material he has and allowing them
to shut it down and make Iraq safe and free of weapons of mass destruction
then the issue is over, but he is not doing that at the moment."
Tony Blair, 26 January 2003 (Source: the Guardian, 27 January 2003)

The British and American governments have consistently claimed that Iraq has
weapons of mass destruction. But they have not helped their case by rigging
the rules by which their claim is tested. Here’s the problem.

UN weapons inspectors are currently searching Iraq for these weapons. If they
find them, this is obviously evidence that … Read the rest

Guilt by association

Jan 26th, 2003 | By

Clint Eastwood filed a $10 million libel suit against St. Martin’s Press
and author Patrick McGilligan for an unauthorized bio portraying the actor
as a wife-beater and atheist. (USA Today, 26/12/02)

Sometimes sneaky rhetorical moves can be so subtle that they fail even to register
in the consciousness of the people using them. What would the journalist who
wrote this say about the odd juxtaposition of "wife-beater" and "atheist"?
It looks to me like a classic example of guilt by association: putting two things
that have no necessary connection together in the hope that the bad name of
one will taint the other. The almost subliminal suggestion of this short news
item is that being an atheist is … Read the rest

From ridicule to the ridiculous

Jan 18th, 2003 | By

The war on drugs was weird enough because it was a war on plants, which I found
quite odd. But the whole concept of a war on terror is absurd. How can you declare
war on an abstract, on a notion?
Mark Thomas (Source: Big Issue, December 2-8 2002)

Comedy can be an incisive instrument to reveal the truth. Good satire can be
the most telling and effective form of critique, while in recent years The
has probably been the most consistently insightful work of social
observation in any media.

It is not surprising then that comedy has become one of the most potent modes
of political commentary and polemic. In Britain, for example, comedians such
as Ben … Read the rest

Spurious science

Jan 10th, 2003 | By

I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics,
through poetry, using the medium of sheep.
Valerie Laws, writer (Source: BBC News, 4 December 2002)

It’s all too easy to mock contemporary art, especially when ruminating mammals
are involved. But it is not for me to comment on the artistic merits of Valerie
Laws’s extremely original project. Laws sprayed one word on the back of each
member of a flock of sheep, using a total of seventeen syllables, the same number
as in a traditional Japanese haiku. The idea is that the sheep would constantly
rearrange themselves, each time creating a new poem, which would exist for just
as long as the sheep remained still. … Read the rest

Context? What context?

Jan 4th, 2003 | By

Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London:
No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is
in London all that life can afford.
Dr Johnson, in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Dr Johnson’s paean to London is oft-repeated as if it were an established truth.
To admit being fed up with Britain’s capital is to admit to being worn out with
life itself. Or at least that’s what the shrinking number of people who still
think the city is worth living in would have you believe.

Let us assume for a moment that what Johnson claimed was true. That still leaves
several … Read the rest