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Can We Please Tax The Outrage Bus Service?

Posted by softestpawn on December 7, 2012


For those of you who haven’t been subjected to the original ‘viral’ poster silliness from ’38 degrees’, here it is for reference:


The “Outrage Bus” was introduced by Arrse to describe how to quickly assemble flash-mobs of temporarily outraged people.

It seems there are now people who make a living from it. 38 degrees company accounts are (or were) here: . About half a million profit and no corporate tax, year ending Sep 2011.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Not “Winning the War on…”

Posted by softestpawn on July 31, 2010

“The war on” terrorism, drugs, crime, poverty and so on frames these activities as a struggle with an end: either victory or defeat. As with the Second World War, the armies will destroy the enemy’s will to fight, the victors will introduce a Marshall Plan to fix everything that got broken, and then everyone settles down to enjoy peace and posterity.

If the end does not arrive nice and promptly, that the war is going on ‘too long’. The activity may not even be winnable. And if it’s not winnable, then we should give it up as pointless.

This metaphor seems suitable when ‘The War On..’ involves real war. The invasion of Iraq and the struggle for control of areas of Afghanistan had and have soldiers and gun battles and people deliberately trying to kill each other.

But real actual killing warfighting is only a fairly specific component of even a military-backed mission. Without other activities the overall intent can fail: the coalitions plainly won the war to control Iraq. They just never quite established that control themselves, and what they did they lost – through ‘factors other than war’. Even within modern armed conflicts we rarely operate with the clear remits for killing that we associate with clear warfare. The rules of engagement in Afghanistan are heavily restricted to reduce casualties amongst civilians; this necessarily prolongs the fire fights but is intended to improve the overall situation.

The wars on crime, on drugs, on poverty are more obviously foolish as useful metaphors.  There is no expected end state on any of these; we don’t expect crime to ever disappear, and definitions of poverty tends to change as our overall standard of living improves.

We could just give up the struggle; ‘the war on drugs’ could be ended (in defeat? victory?) by legalising all drugs. While it solves a few issues, it doesn’t suddenly solve debilating addictions. Some activities-other-than-war would still be needed.

Using metaphors like ‘the war on’ doesn’t just hide all these other important activities, it makes it difficult to appreciate them and balance them, and it provides the wrong references for judging progress.

‘Fighting crime’ for example involves quite a lot of not fighting at all: improving education to improve prospects, encouraging employment, changes to social and community attitudes.

A much more appropriate metaphor is gardening. There is no end-state ‘win’ in gardening; there are desired states for the garden or parts of it but work does not stop when you reach it. Indeed, some gardens require tremendous effort to maintain. You can change your intended result to make the work easier or harder,  but you have to keep working to maintain an approximation to that result.

And while “Crime Gardening” doesn’t really cut the spin mustard, some metaphors might be usable: Weeding Out Crime, Landscaping A New Society, Cultivating Good Relationships, and probably something about Roots.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Painful Subject of… Interrogative Torture

Posted by softestpawn on July 20, 2010

Some time ago, following memos and documents released from the interrogations at Guatamalo and others, some writers argued that torture doesn’t work:

and a raft of others.

In this article, long awaited by both readers of this blog, I’m going to ask in a rather Delve-special way:

  1. Does torture work?
  2. Why, then, do some people claim that it does not?
  3. What do these claims and  the way they are supported tell us about the way ‘evidence-based policy’ should be examined and tested?

For the purposes of this article, torture is direct physical pain or maiming. Whereas this, including invasion of personal space, isolation and sleep deprivation and this use of psychologists are not. They are certainly unpleasant, but not in the same league as having – or threatening to have – your fingernails torn out. If they are ineffective it might simply be that they are not gruesome enough.

Also, I’m only looking at how it ‘works’ as a direct interrogation technique, rather than whether it ‘works’ as a suitably effective social tool.

While I go over the collected evidence, consider these two situations:

  1. A bloke knocks on your door and tries to persuade you to give him your car keys.
  2. A bloke breaks in through the door, pokes out one of your eyeballs and threatens to tear various new holes through your particularly painfuls until you tell him where your car keys are.

Where Torture Works

There is, I think, no need to give examples of victims under torture confessing to all kinds of things that they may or may not have done. Even the articles above recognise that ‘with torture you can make people say anything’. While this is rightly considered somewhat beside the point, if torture can force people to ‘confess’ to shameful things that would be against their principles, it should not be surprising that it might force people to confess what they know.

All the same, let’s have some evidence.

For fairly obvious ethical reasons there is little in the way of modern reliable random controlled trials on the efficacy of torture. Similarly, many regimes with widespread routine torture are thankfully gone and their records not generally available.

Lack of reliable monitored evidence however is not evidence of lack of effectiveness.  We can start by looking at historical accounts.

There is indirect evidence in the precautions taken by WW2 spies who were routinely going into environments where interrogative torture was likely. Organisation cells were created to prevent single points of failure, and key locations hidden from the staff.  This tells us that people who worked in these environments expected torture to give away information. It can be argued from the safety of this armchair that this is only circumstantial evidence – perhaps that fear was unfounded – and so should be discarded.

When it comes to more direct examples, despite the courage required to resist such terrible action, a stigma is attached to ‘breaking’ under torture.  More frequent – more newsworthy, more heroic – are accounts of resisting.

So where accounts give examples of victims revealing information, they are usually not named.  Some do and are controversial, for example Rene Hardy is said to have betrayed Jean Moulin among others.

Some less so include this obituary of Louis Handschuh, where an escapee is captured and tortured and gives up the names of thirteen others. And in this obituary of Andrée Peel, she was “betrayed by a fellow agent who had been arrested by the Gestapo and threatened with the torture of his family”

Accounts of Miguel Enriquez’s discovery and death in Cuba commonly give it due to MIR members talking under torture (and here)

Zoya Kosmodemjanskaja is betrayed by a captured colleague

Von Ruffin is named by another gay man who was tortured.

Succumbing to torture, someone named the entire Daman family

Henry Ballard betrays under torture the other members of the conspiracy to place Mary on the English throne

Turning to more ancient examples, the conquistador Pizarro tortured Incas to locate their king Atahualpa

Sinan Pasha captured and tortured – by impaling – Prince Jem’s couriers to force them to reveal their messages, as described by Freeman in “Jem Sultan“.

Rather famously for UK readers, Guy Fawkes was tortured over several days to extract the names of his co-conspirators, leaving him barely able to sign his confessions.

And so on.

None of the above however are primary (first-hand) accounts, and apart from Pizarro’s are poorly verified.  More careful work has been done by Darius Rejali and describes situations where it most definitely worked. Maybe not efficiently, but it’s not easy to directly compare that efficiency with that of any other method (more later).

In practice, however, we can see evidence all around us of how pain – or the threat of pain – causes us to do, say or give things we would rather not. We even have a name for it:

Robbery: Theft with Violence

Not all the violence in robbery is to cause compliance under duress. Sometimes it is to disable the victim. Sometimes to temporarily prevent the victim from interfering – a shove out of the way, a push to the floor. Sometimes it is for the fun of it.

But there are hundreds of thousands of robberies a year in the UK, and plenty of examples where pain or death – or the threat of it – resulted in compliance:

…also held up a newsagent at knifepoint and stole £150 earlier in the month…

…if you shout any more I will break your neck…

…assaulted her while demanding money. He then fled with a three-figure some of money…

…The men armed with weapons dragged Mr Bowers-Lovett from his bed and demanded he opened a safe. They continued to assault him and his wife before they escaped with a substantial amount of cash…

…two males rushed towards him from behind before threatening him and demanding he hand over his possessions. He handed over his wallet and mobile phone…

…Two men forced their way into the premises and threatened an 64 year old man with a knife before demanding that he handed over his money. The suspects then fled the scene with a sum of cash…

…he was confronted by a male carrying a knife, who demanded he hand over his money and mobile phone.  The 27-year-old complied…

…five masked men kicked down the front door of his house on Kingscroft Close, Streetly. They beat the victim, demanding the keys to his [car]… Also in the house were the man’s wife and two children…

…two men appeared behind her and pushed her inside, demanding that she open the safe. The men then escaped with a substantial amount of cash…

…Two men approached a 28-year-old man and threatened him with a knife, demanding the keys to the car. They punched him two or three times before driving off in it…

…assaulted him and his 21-year-old house mate. The housemate was then taken to a nearby cash point … by one of the robbers, while the other man was kept at home by the other robber. Both men left the address when they had returned from the cash point…

And that’s just a tiny sample of the terrifying ordeals where the victim complies under duress. Few approach the even more daunting prospect of facing deliberate torture for days, months or years on end.

The occasions when the robbery is resisted are more public, more newsworthy, more rare. While we can call these people heroes (or stubborn, perhaps) that is not a reason to call those who folded cowards. It is normal to succumb.


There are also of course lots of examples of victims resisting and saying nothing, or giving false information.  This appears to be the main argument in the articles linked to at the beginning: a rather extreme ‘test case’ (getting the location of a bomb from a terrorist) is proposed and then used as a representative example. And since the victim may lie, you can’t trust torture, and therefore torture does not work.

And there is some watery reasoning that torture, because it makes victims more suggestable and confused, also makes their testimony less reliable, and again, since it is not completely trustable, therefore it is useless.

Indeed, if you put someone on the rack in order to find the location of the bomb, and you hurt him until he tells you stuff, you can’t tell if what he’s told you is true. But then, anyone under any kind of interrogation may be lying to you, or confused, or suggestable. We might as well not bother asking anyone anything. All the same, torture may be about as reliable as any other interrogation but with more shouting, moral turpitude and cleaning up.

And so we hit the nub problem of any interrogation: how does a competent interrogator ensure that what he gets is good, useful information and not just what he wants to hear, or even biased by his own preferences?

It’s a good question. A difficult question. And if you don’t work out an answer soon, we’ll send someone around to beat one out of you.

Improving Reliability

Generally speaking, you check what has been said against what has or can be verified, against previous testimony, or other testimony. Once you’ve got those loops in place, it can be much easier to ‘encourage’ the victim to be truthful. It’s where the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario above falls down – it assumes that if you can’t verify information given, then torture might not work (as indeed any other interrogation might fail) and therefore torture doesn’t work at all.

It seems generally accepted that, when broken, “people will say anything to make the pain stop”, which is of course exactly the idea. They may make stuff up, but a competent interrogator does not take what is said at face value.

If you’re in the business of gathering contacts for example, false information leads to to dead ends. Useful information can lead to more evidence. And if your victim is still in the loop – if you come back to them having checked their information – then this can be used to ‘encourage’ better performance.

And if they know you will hurt them if they get anything wrong once it’s been verified, there’s a very good incentive to tell the Truth in the first place.  An incentive that isn’t there if you’re just chatting over tea and biscuits.

Evidence Based Policy

Evidence based policy is the new religion amongst some people, including myself and at least two of the bloggers linked to at the start. But to use it we need to  understand what it actually means.  Ben Goldacre, for example, is  a great public advocate of it but even he confuses written reports with ‘sound scientific evidence’.

We need to consider what evidence is valid, how much is sufficient, we need to have systems to include new evidence to adjust and perhaps reverse policy, methods to cope with uncertainty and incompleteness and poor quality, and mitigatations for  biases in its collection and summary.  And we need to remember that sometimes it is irrelevant.

It is difficult to ‘prove a negative’ (such as proving that aliens do not live in clouds, or that torture does not work), and when assembling circumstantial evidence to try and do so, it is vital to consider contradictory evidence and remove duplications under different disguises before drawing conclusions from it. Particuarly, it’s important to remember that just because something sometimes doesn’t work, this is no reason to reject that it does work sometimes, or even usually. “Smoking kills”, for example.

The supporting evidence given by the writers above are examples of collection bias, of morally-driven analysis:  the evidence collection (in this case, largely the blindness to widespread contradictory evidence) is shaped by the wishes of the collector.

Perhaps this bias is because it is a morally fraught subject. Dearly held fundamental principles tend to contradict each other when trying to weigh up the pros and cons of whether, or under what conditions, we as a society should tolerate torture. Some of them do not even compare well: the principles of acting vs not acting, of saving lives vs not being ‘dirtied’. Pretty much any conclusion is imperfect, and would result in pain and loss for some people somewhere.

Wouldn’t it be easy to just bypass these quite horrible comparisons? And gosh, here’s an opportunity. After all, if torture doesn’t work, then there’s no need to have to do all that difficult introspection.

By ‘removing’ the utility argument, we remove the need for any difficult moral argument.

The difficulty of the moral question encourages the selection, ignoring, twisting and shaping of evidence to fit the desired policy rather than the other way around. The intent, possibly, is to show that torture does not work, whether or not you think it’s moral, so therefore there’s no practical reason to use it. Rather than that torture is morally indefensible, whether or not it works.

So Torture Works?

Of course it does. Would you not have given up your car keys? Of course you would. Life and health is more important than a car. But would you have given up your children?  That’s a very different motivation.

So torture works sometimes, in the same way that “Smoking kills (sometimes)”. The reverse is not true: “Smoking does not kill” is a difficult claim to support.

And there are (sometimes) more effective methods available. Ordinary persuasion, perhaps via the introduction of alternative views from respectable leader figures, appears to (sometimes) offer good results. Someone who is converted will (sometimes) offer far better cooperation, but, of course, it’s only sometimes possible to convert dedicated foes.

Far more important is that we recognise torture’s every-day efficacy when we take a moral stand against it. Taking defenceless human beings and deliberately inflicting pain on them is a horrific thing to do. Robbery works, and it can tell us that torture works, but it’s not a reason to condone either.

The Moral Argument

Even putting aside the evidence list above, it is simply not good enough to claim that we shouldn’t torture because we have no evidence that it works. It remains a moral argument as follows:

(1) If someone produces evidence that certain methods of torture do work, this is not a reason to take it up as a tool of the community. The reasons not to torture are independent of whether we have thorough proof of its efficacy right now.

(2) There’s a huge number of people who have encountered torture, and as the world population connects up they become closer to us. To claim, loudly and widely in papers and blogs, that ‘we’ believe torture doesn’t work divides the comfortable armchair writers from the people who have ‘been there’. In particular, it shames those who have broken under it, who in my armchair view have no reason to be ashamed . Imagine, if you will, someone who has been through days, weeks, months of such hell and given away names of friends and family and colleagues, and telling them: “Torture doesn’t work”

(3) Most importantly, this blind-eye attitude cheats our ability to think through our ethics, and our ability to take a proper moral stance:

I oppose torture not because some dodgy armchair reasoning tells us it might not work sometimes.

I oppose it because my armchair principles call it vile.

Posted in Politics, Science | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Hydrogen: not as clean as petrol

Posted by softestpawn on March 3, 2010

Hydrogen fuel is sometimes given as a clean, sustainable alternative to petrol and other fossil fuels.

For background, fossil fuels such as oil, petrol and coal mostly consist of hydrocarbons; they are basically made of hydrogen and carbon. These burn – combine with oxygen – to produce water from the hydrogen combining with the oxygen, and carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide from the carbon combining with the oxygen. Plus some energy, that is used to make the car go or the water heat or the fire burn merrily.

Burning hydrogen is, unsurprisingly, like burning a hydrocarbon but without the carbon; you get water and energy. Nice one. No carbon monoxide human poison, no carbon dioxide planet poison, just water and energy.

However there are two issues: There is no hydrogen lying around for us to burn, and it’s not all that easy to move around from where we make it to where we use it. And once we’ve considered the whole lifecycle, from finding an energy source to using it, then hydrogen is by no means the cleanest.

Making a fuel

Hydrogen can be a fuel, in the sense that we can use it to fuel an engine, but it’s not an energy source. There’s no hydrogen gas lying around on the planet. It’s very light, so it tends to to float off up the atmosphere and into space, where there is quite a lot of it but it’s very spread out.

So we need energy in order to make the hydrogen gas, the fuel.

At the moment it’s usually made by splitting oil hydrocarbon molecules to get hydrogen and a smaller hydrocarbon, methane, a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This splitting takes energy, whether that comes from burning fossil fuels or wind farms or nuclear power.

You can also make it from water by electrolysis as you might have done at school; using electrical energy you can break the water molecule into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. Water molecules are quite ‘strong’, and tearing it apart takes more energy than breaking up oil molecules, though people are working on how to make it easier.

So to make hydrogen you need energy. That energy needs to come from somewhere; and it’s whether that source is clean and sustainable that defines whether your energy system is clean and sustainable.

If you’re making hydrogen out of water by using electricity from a petrol generator for example, you’re even less ‘clean’ than putting that petrol into your car engine directly, because of the extra losses in making the hydrogen gas and moving it around:

Transporting a fuel

Hydrogen acts very much like electricity: that is, it acts as a medium for moving energy about. You can make some in one place and move it somewhere else to use. This means, for example, that you can use it in a car where you want to be moving while using it.

The energy density of hydrogen is pretty good by weight – it’s very light for the amount of energy you can get from it. But it’s pretty poor by volume – it takes up three or four times more space than petrol for example.

Gas is much harder to move around than liquid. To make it liquid you need to either pressurise it or cool it, and that means either strong special containers or more energy for the cooling. This is already routinely done for natural gas, but as hydrogen is a very small molecule, it gradually leaks through container walls. So there are losses in using hydrogen as an energy transport medium: it takes energy to cool it, to make and to move the containers, and you expect to lose some before it gets used.

And it’s a lot less convenient for general use. You can’t just pour some out from a jerry can.

Still, the pressurised containers are much stronger than the thin plastics currently used to hold petrol in a car, and so are less likely to break in an accident. And hydrogen gas escaping from a fuel line would generally disperse upwards rather than lie around near the ground waiting to go bang as petrol does. On the other hand, an airburst of highly flammable gas might not be that much better than a somewhat manageable ground fire.

The whole lifecycle

Once we separate out the concept of transporting energy from the concept of the energy source, we have far more options available.

Ideally, we want a sustainable, cheap energy source, and a convenient, easily transportable, safe fuel.  At least, as safe as something that stores a lot of readily available energy can be.

Sometimes these are the same; petrol is (for general purposes) an energy source because we can just dig out of the ground,  and it can be conveniently carried around in tankers, pipes, and small tins for dodgy old camping stoves.

Where they are not the same, in principle we can pick the best of both. After all, if we have a clean and sustainable energy source, we don’t just have to settle for hydrogen;  we can make ethanol, or methanol, or bigger hydrocarbons such as petrol from water and carbon dioxide, like wot plants do eventually.

Artificially making diesel would keep the overall impact of carbon dioxide neutral, as all the CO2 released when the fuel is burned matches the CO2 broken into hydrocarbons during manufacture. Biofuels are an example of this, using solar power to manufacture hydrocarbons.

So hydrogen offers very little if anything over petrol even as a way of transporting energy, and the advantage of making and transporting petrol instead is that we can continue to use our existing oil infrastructure, our existing cars and car technology, and our old dodgy camping stoves.

All we need to do is build clean sustainable energy sources. Just as soon as we run out of oil.

Addendum Update Thing

We don’t have to limit ourselves to a single energy transport.  We might use nuclear power or solar power as energy sources, then transport the energy as electricity over generally safe, fixed power lines to our homes.

There we plug in our new slimy algae farm to generate diesel from electricity, so that we can use convenient diesel to fuel a car.

Posted in Environmentalism, Politics, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Elitism & Science

Posted by softestpawn on November 22, 2009

As the he-said-so-he-must-have-meant pop-psychology goes on over the unexpectedly published EA CRU data, some of the discussion turns to how scientists (or, to be more specific, academic researchers) involved should behave professionally.

We’re all – even most academic researchers – human. We can expect Phil Jones and his team to be angry, to scorn those who question his theories, especially when he sees those theories as vital to the future of humanity. And so he does. So would most of us, though we may be a little more careful about committing those things to email.

Dr Spencer, a well known skeptic, has quite a lot to say about such ‘elitist’ behaviour

Good -isms

But there’s nothing wrong with being elite, with being amongst the best at doing a job. And being able to discriminate on merit – on the ability to do things well – is a vital part of any society that intends to improve its lot.

We similarly must discriminate between ages if we want to avoid sharing a wing with Sidney Cook. We discriminate between religions to book holidays, and when providing meals to guests. We discriminate between sexes if we’re heterosexual, or homosexual. We discriminate between sexual preferences to ensure that those that can’t discriminate between ages get to share a wing with Sidney Cooke. We discriminate again between ages to allow certain ages to get away with not making that discrimination.

And this is all good, if a bit Sir Humphrey.

Bad -isms

But if we consider ‘elitism’ as we consider ‘racism’ (discriminating for differences in behaviour or ability that don’t exist), then we’ve got a much more unpleasant attitude. Then we get people who think that their superior expertise gives them remit to protect that expertise by denying evidence to others, remit to use political or organisation clout to deny them access to publish, or remit to disregard any work by anyone else purely because they are not also ‘officially’ elite.

I’m not convinced however by Spencer’s claim that the CRU team are elitist in that way. Yes they believe themselves right, they believe Spencer and McIntyre and McKintrick and all the other hundreds of skeptical scientists are wrong, and they act as the mini tribe that most of us act when we consider ourselves ‘us’ and others ‘them’. There’s nothing particularly unusual with showing they despise people they think are very wrong and are undermining their hard efforts. Even when it’s rather callous.

And there’s nothing particularly evil about abusive comments from experts about other people’s competence. These are arguments over merit, based on their opinions of each other’s work.

Ordinary tribal -ism.

Declaring that those opinions matter only when they are part of the community is not so good. Apparently they are only worth considering when published in approved journals. Journals that publish them are not approved of, and should be ousted from the community. By somewhat underhand means. Which makes for a nice, comfortable, insular, self-reinforcing community, or ‘ivory tower’ as it is usually known.

So they appear to ‘discriminate against’ McIntyre for example because he’s not part of their community, rather than because he’s not ‘elite’. His theories are ‘discredited’ because they are not published in the community journals, rather than because they are wrong.

He certainly doesn’t fit the community: he publishes openly, on t’interweb, where anyone can and does criticise his work (of course, the CRU community is also now doing this, inadvertantly, and they don’t like it). He has a background in statistics, not environment, and he generally sticks to statistical analysis. And while he’s definitely not an enthusiast for The Cause, he’s careful to remain neutral on what the final conclusion will be.

That Science Thang Agiin.

More importantly than disregarding opinion outside the community (we’re all busy anyway, how much time have we got to consider every criticism everywhere?) or the ordinary abuse and wishful thinking, there are the fairly deliberate discussions about (mis)interpreting the data to fit the cause (eg Bishop Hill, Delingpole – these include some rather dubious criticisms of the emails, but some are very telling).

The complete opposite of the much-vaunted stereotyped scientist that is curious about the differences between theory and observation, and investigates them.

Even so, if these particular twonks demonstrate poor professionalism, bordering and perhaps crossing to deliberate manipulation, misrepresentation and destruction of the data, that only means some of these folks do (some are much better behaved). It would be poor science to infer that’s the case for all climatologists, or reflects on the conclusions of the climatology community as a whole.

Though we might want to check that the wider community is more professional – more scientific – in the same way that we might want to check any other organisation for systematic incompetence when we uncover some in a core part of it.

Anyhow, a few paragraphs from Spencer’s article make much better points about how we outside these academic research communities should view the work that they do:

One of the biggest misconceptions the public has about science is that research is a straightforward process of making measurements, and then seeing whether the data support hypothesis A or B. The truth is that the interpretation of data is seldom that simple.

There are all kinds of subjective decisions that must be made along the way, and the scientist must remain vigilant that he or she is not making those decisions based upon preconceived notions. Data are almost always dirty, with errors of various kinds. Which data will be ignored? Which data will be emphasized? How will the data be processed to tease out the signal we think we see?

Hopefully, the scientist is more interested in discovering how nature really works, rather than twisting the data to support some other agenda. It took me years to develop the discipline to question every research result I got. It is really easy to be wrong in this business, and very difficult to be right.

We can see that we need to do better than ‘hope’, if we are to get any reliable science to inform our votes, lobbying and ‘lifestyles’ on this matter.

Update: Judith Curry (I think this Real Establishment Climate Researcher), talks about tribalism and the duty of public release here. And Eduardo Zorito (another Real Establishment Climate Researcher) says a few things a little more strongly.

Posted in Global Warming, Politics, Science | Leave a Comment »