All entries by this author

The innocent have nothing to fear

Oct 25th, 2005 | By

"If a government takes offence at this, that government should be offended by the acts of its own citizens, if they are hateful."
Lynne Weil, US State Department communications director, the Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2004

Last year, the US Congress ordered the State Department to “start rating governments throughout the world on their treatment of Jewish citizens.” Alarmed by an apparent rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, Congress decided that the situation needed monitoring.

Several countries, however, objected to this. But State Department communications director Lynne Weil argued that there were no good reasons for any government to object to such reporting. In essence, her argument was that if a country had no particular problem with anti-Semitism, then … Read the rest

Motivation speculation

Oct 10th, 2005 | By

"That Darwinist authorities find public scrutiny of their theory so threatening indicates to me that there is a hidden insecurity in their intellectual position which will eventually become so visible it can no longer be concealed."
Phillip E. Johnson, Think, Issue 11

One of the most intractable puzzles in the history of philosophy is the problem of other minds. This isn’t the difficulty of knowing exactly what other people are feeling or thinking, but that of knowing whether other people have minds at all. Might they simply be senseless automata, behaving as though they had thoughts and feelings, but not really having them at all?

This kind of philosophical difficulty is of a different order to the everyday challenge … Read the rest

Category Mistakes

Jul 11th, 2005 | By

" I get into trouble for saying that ‘Al Qaeda’ doesn’t exist, but there is no such organisation."
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 10 July 2005

The intelligentsia have never been keen on the “war on terror”, often for good reasons. Perhaps what irritates them the most is how the rhetoric of the campaign has been so simplistic, reducing complex situations to straightforward battles between good and evil, and blurring important distinctions between Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden.

This justified scepticism, however, has led some to be too quick to dismiss every claim made by the American and British governments. Both have been accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat, sometimes by the same people who, when Madrid and … Read the rest

It worked for me…

Jun 19th, 2005 | By

"It would be interesting to see how the world would be different if Dick Cheney really listened to Radiohead’s OK Computer. I think the world would probably improve. That album is fucking brilliant. It changed my life, so why wouldn’t it change his?"
Chris Martin of Coldplay, Guardian Weekend 28 May 2005

Our ability to predict what will happen and detect order in the world depends upon a type of argument which is strictly speaking illogical. Induction is a form of reasoning which allows us to infer general principles from particular experiences. Sometimes we have many particulars to work on: countless observations have shown water to be H2O, so the hypothesis that all water is so composed seems pretty … Read the rest

Contorting to balance

Jun 4th, 2005 | By

“Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP and Honorary Associate of National Secular Society and Dr Jasdev Rai, Director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, discuss whether the play ‘Behzti’ in Birmingham should continue.”
The Today Programme, BBC Radio Four, 20th December 2004

I quite often get contacted by researchers for radio or television programmes as a potential contributor to some kind of topical debate. It’s common for nothing to come of the initial discussion, but on more than one occasion the reason for my unsuitability has left me concerned. As one researcher explicitly said, and others have implied, I am not extreme enough in my views.

This woke me up to the fact that all too often, “balance” in a … Read the rest

Don’t You Look Pretty Today

May 3rd, 2005 | By

"Mrs Hillier, who wore a dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue, has two children aged five and three, and greatly dislikes the “macho, aggressive” style of traditional Westminster politics."
Andrew Grimson, the Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2005

Forgive the pun, but clothes are not immaterial. William James went so far as to claim that “In its widest possible sense … a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his,” including “his clothes”. What we wear can be significant.

Andrew Grimson, in his daily election sketches for the Daily Telegraph, has mentioned clothes on several occasions. He remarked that Boris and Stanley Johnsons’ “scruffy appearance did not win universal approval”. He … Read the rest

Mood music

Apr 15th, 2005 | By

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?
UK Conservative Party election manifesto slogan 2005

Elections are a sobering time for people who like to think that arguments count, and that opinions can be shifted by reasoned arguments about the various positions held. For as the present general election in the United Kingdom is once again demonstrating, sound arguments have little to do with the success or failure of campaigns. What seems to matter most of all is the overall impression given by the various candidates. This is why all the main parties are quite justifiably very concerned with image. We might prefer it if the election campaign were a vigorous intellectual debate, but any party that showed a high-minded disregard for … Read the rest

Percipi est esse

Mar 29th, 2005 | By

“Muslims in Britain are suffering soaring levels of Islamophobia and discrimination based on their faith, rather than the colour of their skin, a report published today says. […] Of British Muslims, 80 per cent said they had suffered Islamophobia.
The Independent, 22 November 2004

Percipi est esse is a (possibly ungrammatical) inversion of Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. Being a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, it has nothing to do with claims about rises in Islamophobia or the like. However, “to be perceived is to be” neatly captures the way in which people often slide from the fact that something is perceived to be the case to the greater claim … Read the rest


Mar 7th, 2005 | By

“More than 50 dangerous pesticides contaminate Britain’s food, official tests reveal. […] The revelation – in a survey of official testing results – will heighten concern about food contamination.”
Geoffrey Lean, the Independent on Sunday 27 February 2005

Geoffrey Lean, the environment editor of the Independent on Sunday, should not be a soft target for criticism. He has won numerous awards, including a special award for lifetime achievement in environmental journalism from the World Conservation Union, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, the Reuters-IUCN Media Award, and The British Press Award Scoop of the year. Yet finding faults in his report on the “more than 50 dangerous pesticides found in British food” is like shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish. In … Read the rest

Bold assertion

Feb 21st, 2005 | By

“Think about it: every time there’s a list of the 100 greatest records of all time, all those albums were recorded in two days.
Jack White, the White Stripes, Observer Music Monthly November 2004

Think about it? This is 2005! Why think when you can Google? A search for “greatest records of all time” will take you to Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll, in which you’ll find such classics as Sgt Pepper’s, OK Computer, Dark Side of the Moon and, er, Achtung Baby. Top of their poll was the Beatles’ Revolver. It’s a familiar selection, reflected in countless other polls and surveys. Among musicians and music writers, certain albums tend to do even better, notably the Beach … Read the rest

It didn’t work then, so…

Feb 6th, 2005 | By

“Crime and terror would be better addressed with 10,000 more police and a national border force, rather than wasting £3 billion on ID cards that didn’t protect people in the US or Spain and which would curtail British rights and liberties.”
Lib Dem chairman Matthew Taylor, on the Queen’s speech debate, 23 November 2004

Bertrand Russell once told the story about the Turkey who, noting that he had always been fed at 9 am, concluded that “I am always fed at 9 am” held as a general rule. On Christmas morning, it therefore came as a bit of shock when, instead of getting feed down his neck, he got his neck wrung.

The moral of the story is that although … Read the rest

Fallacy of equivocation

Jan 17th, 2005 | By

“[John Woods] was scheduled to be on the Pan-Am flight that exploded above Lockerbie in 1988 killing all 259 people on board. He cancelled at the last moment and went to an office party instead. […] On September 11, 2001, John left his office in one of the twin towers seconds before the building was struck by a hijacked aircraft. […] Why do some of us seem to be blessed with an extraordinary amount of good luck, while others suffer misfortune after misfortune? According to Anne Watson, co-author of The Book of Luck, published this week, luck doesn’t even exist. “I believe that what we commonly consider to be luck is something that lies within our control,” she says.”

Read the rest

Partial defence = support

Jan 6th, 2005 | By

“In the Guardian last week, the eminent philosopher, Julian Baggini, announced that, contrary to appearances, New Labour’s plans for identity cards were an idea which should be embraced by the left.”
Nick Cohen, the Observer, 5 December 2004

Bad moves can be made by readers as well as writers. When those readers are writers themselves, the result can be flagrant misrepresentation of someone’s position, which is very irksome for the inaccurately portrayed party.

I have been at the receiving end of this kind of thing several times now, and a pattern seems to be emerging. Time and again, people mistake a partial defence of something for full support of it. It seems impossible to point out that something can … Read the rest

High redefinition

Dec 6th, 2004 | By

“I am not a drink driver: it just happened to be a one-off.”
Celebrity chef Keith Floyd, Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2004

Marion had never sung before in her life. Then one day at a pub karaoke, she bravely took to the stage, belted her lungs out and received an enthusiastic response from a crowd numbed from endless bad Celine Dion impressions. “You’re a great singer,” said one of the punters. Marion replied, “I’m not a singer; it just happened to be a one-off.”

Geoff was one of the impressed drinkers. When he got home to the wife he hated, he found her dunk and singing “My Heart Will Go On” in precisely the kind of way that makes … Read the rest

The gambler’s fallacy

Nov 19th, 2004 | By

‘Dunfermline are due a win at Tannadice.’
Dunfermline defender Scott Wilson, Daily Record, 30 October 2004

When people say they are “due a win”, in sport, gambling or, more metaphorically, in life in general, they are more often than not doing little more than expressing a hope born of despair. But sometimes they also believe that in a very literal sense their luck is due to change.

The idea, usually vaguely rather than explicitly held, is that nature balances things up in the long run, so a recent run of results going one way requires a balancing set of results going the other. Otherwise, as Hamlet might put it, the world is out of joint.

Perhaps the clearest evidence … Read the rest

How else do you explain it?

Oct 31st, 2004 | By

Down inside, we are all born apart from God, and we grow up selfish and demanding our own way. What the Psalmist said of himself is also true of us: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). And one sign of our sin is that we don’t want God’s way in our lives, and we are in rebellion against Him and His will. How else do you explain the evil in the world?
Rev. Billy Graham

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation at all? If you have no idea why your mug suddenly shattered and someone suggests it had spontaneously gained consciousness, realized the futility of its existence and … Read the rest

It’s a free country

Oct 14th, 2004 | By

At 3.15pm protesters moved towards the barricades facing the Houses of Parliament. "Come on, chaps, it’s a free country," said our half-blind friend. Scuffles broke out; police hats flew in the air. People were being pushed from behind and couldn’t go back. Women raised their hands in an attitude of surrender as the batons came down. An old man in a tweed suit and tie staggered out, blood pouring from his head.
Leanda de Lisle, the Guardian, 17 September2004

Who were these protestors storming the British parliament, only to be beaten back by baton-wielding policemen? Anarchists? Anti-globalisation campaigners? Foot soldiers in the class war? In a surprising way, perhaps the last guess would be right. The clue is in … Read the rest

Tu quoque

Oct 1st, 2004 | By

The onnagata [male actors in the kabuki theatre who play female roles] justify their perpetual monopoly by saying they believe that women are too close to femininity to capture its essence…
Richard Eyre, Guardian Review 21 August 20004

Looking back at the rationales the dominant classes used to offer to justify their oppression of others, it is remarkable how paper-thin their arguments often were. Unless we are prepared to say that people just used to be more stupid, the most likely explanation is that the reasons people offer for their beliefs often have very little to do with the real reasons why they hold them. It also seems that we are good at convincing ourselves of the rationality of the … Read the rest

Ought without can

Sep 9th, 2004 | By

The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Menzies Campbell, said the government should use its influence with the US president, George Bush, to secure [the] freedom [of nine Britons detained for more than a year at Camp X-Ray and at Bagram air base after being taken prisoner during military action in Afghanistan].
The Guardian, 25 April 2003

The principle that “ought” implies “can” is usually attributed to Immanuel Kant, although he never actually said anything quite so pithy. (See chapter eight of the Critique of Practical Reason for his more convoluted expression on the idea.) Whether we credit Kant with the discovery or not, the principle itself is pretty self-evident. It makes no sense to say we ought to do something … Read the rest

Genetic fallacies

Aug 22nd, 2004 | By

Cow’s milk is meant for baby cows. Which helps explain why this foodstuff is a leading cause of unwanted reactions to foods that can give rise to a variety of health issues such as nasal congestion, sinusitis, eczema and asthma.
Dr John Briffa, Observer Food Monthly, August 2004

Don’t get me started on “health food”. Doesn’t anyone smell a rat when they go into a shop dedicated to “natural” remedies only to be confronted by rows and rows of bottles, pills and supplements? Why is it that it seems every infusion in the world is good for you except for the everyday, normal tea we know and love? Why are stimulants such as guarana considered good while caffeine is … Read the rest