Labour – manhandling pensioners for your security

The fact that the Labour Party tried to swiftly silence Walter Wolfgang when he heckled Jack Straw doesn’t surprise me. But even a hardened cynic like me couldn’t imagine that an 82-year-old man would be physically dragged out of his seat and later detained under the Terrorism Act when he tried to re-enter. Tony Blair, in an equivocating, weaselly apology, stated:

“The conference is stewarded by these volunteers, and they are people who try to do a very good job. This time they were a little bit over-zealous so I fully apologise to him, and I’m sorry about it.”

Sorry, terribly unfortunate, but y’know, it’s the staff – they were a bit OTT, got carried away. Not the fault of anyone on high. Oh no. Why do I suspect the same excuse will be trotted out once these guys report on what actually happened to this guy?

Religion, society and bad science

Apparently, according to a survey published today, religious societies are worse off than non-religious ones. From the article:

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

It’s already appeared in plenty of blogs and linklogs, with many comments, some along the lines of “hmm, this is interesting”, but many willingly take the causation line as gospel.

However, this falls into the exact same trap of bad science that pro-scientists all too frequently bemoan. For starters, it’s neatly smoothing over the difference between correlation and causation. It’s not entirely implausible that the causation is in fact the other way round – social problems and the suffering they cause will mean more people resort to religion, both for spiritual reasons and for the social bonds it forms – a hypothesis which is ignored. Secondly, once you actually read the article in question and look at the data, you’ll see many of the graphs produced are highly scattered and correlation is quite weak – no statistical tests of correlation are provided (in fact, the author explicitly avoids them). In many cases they are a close-knit jumble of points, and the only point which clearly matches the hypothesis is the United States. This perhaps suggests that religion is not the most relevant variable to consider here, and instead America’s problems are unique and specific to that country.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not especially pro-religion – I’m an atheist, and believe very strongly in a secular state that does not promote or favour any religion at all. But I do find it disturbing that in the attempt to rescue science and rationality from the jaws of fundamentalism, supposedly pro-science people are willing to throw out rationality and jump on to any old rubbish that is published.

Blair, reform and Dickens

After reading through Tony Blair’s conference speech (which deserves a thorough fisking if ever there was one), just waht is his obsession with change? Everything must be continually reformed, reshaped, or else the juggernaut of globalisation will run over us all. He possessed a near-obsessive fatalism, in which we’re not allowed to debate or try to steer the course of progress. Nothing is allowed to get in the way, we must all acquiesce. Technologically, this means ID cards are a natural accepted consequence; economically, it means economic “liberalisation” and a steady opening of every facet of life to market forces; socially, this means junking whatever rights and freedoms necessary to win an unwinnable war on terror. Blair scorns obsession with ideology, and urges freedom from doctrine, without realising that a mile-wide ideological streak runs right through him.

Anyway, I haven’t time to go through all the distortions and rhetorical flim-flammery, but by far the worst was this:

We are trying to fight 21st-century crime – ASB [anti-social behaviour], drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime – with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.

Now, I don’t know know my Dickens too well, but given that Dickens created characters such as the Artful Dodger’s marauding gang of child thieves, the opium addict John Jasper, the drunkard Bill Sikes and the master arch-criminal Fagin, it perhaps suggests that these crimes are not as uniquely “21st century” as Blair likes to make out…

A few quick points

Spent the weekend away in Edinburgh; too many things to talk about, but here’s a few quick points:

  • With his “Gerin Oil” article, Richard Dawkins is sounding more and more like the batty, obsessive uncle your family would rather not talk about. His unsophisticated and tiresome ‘critique’ only strengthens the impression that scientists as grumpy, over-rational, unspiritual and dull, something which is nowhere near the truth. I suspect that’s why the press like printing his stuff so much, he fits the stereotype so easily.
  • Hell is (happening to) other people over at Chicken Yoghurt is a quality rant, one that I myself have been wanting to make. It really is worth reading.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but Flickr‘s quality of service has been quite atrocious recently – rejecting photo uploads for no reason, “not finding” photos or sets that have just been added, refusing to rotate or rename them, etc. This is not what I paid for.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle was an enjoyable film, but nowhere near as good as Spirited Away, and suffers a little from resorting to deus ex machina. But it raised some interesting (but not very well-developed) thoughts on wizardry and its supercession by modernity. Oh, and there’s a good interview with Hayao Miyazaki in the Guardian.
  • The news that Blair is falling into Bush’s line on global warming is utterly disspiriting, but at least it will give future generations of Britons a single figure to blame for the whole sorry mess. But I’m not surprised at anything he says or does now, it makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to vote Labour again…

Real blog posts to follow later. For someone with absolutely nothing to do, I find that I am astonishingly busy.

Bloody Foreigners

It’s recently been my pleasure to read Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners: The History of Immigration to Britain. I originally bought it to while away a long train journey a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been continually going back and re-reading chapters I’d already covered; not because it was too difficult to grasp, but because there was just a simple pleasure in reading it and going over the rich history that he had written.

As well as being well-written (and packed full of amusing anecdotes and trivia), Winder has managed to organise his material incredibly well; generally, each chapter tells the story of a particular minority group and their arrival in Britain, but he does it without forcing artificial divides, and manages to include groups that I had never really considered before – it’s not just about the Empire Windrush, but covers Britain’s history from pre-Roman times up until today: medieval Jews, freed slaves in the 18th century, German dissidents in the 19th, Polish servicemen after the War – they all have their stories told. The final chapters, on the asylum seeker hoodoo whipped up by the media and turned into a temporary national psychosis, are an excellent and dispassionate account of the recent stupidity and misinformation (Chapter three of Nick Cohen’s Pretty Straight Guys is another good reference, incidentally).

Out of the book come a couple key themes. The first is that immigrants are not scroungers (as the right paint them), but neither are they meek and helpless (as some patronising parts of the left paint them). Rather, they are strong, willing and capable individuals themselves – to migrate to a new land, often overcoming barriers in one’s homeland and leave behind the place of your birth is an act of bravery, not cowardice. The other is that despite the current anti-immigrant mood, and past blots on our record such as Moseley and the National Front, Britain has generally been a receptive and hospitable home (“tolerant”, with its implication that immigrants are a nuisance that have to be put up with, is not an ideal word) to newcomers (especially when compared with many other parts of the world), and that should be something to be proud of.

The book flags a little at the end – a chapter discussing what national identity means is a little muddled and doesn’t draw enough on the preceding 400-odd pages of historical account. There are too many ideas in it, and it could have been spun off into a separate book entirely, to be honest. But that’s a minor quibble, overall the book is a superb and informative read, and thoroughly recommended.

When otters go bad, really, really bad

From this week’s Popbitch – and no, it’s not about Kate and her friend Charlie…

Californian sea otter Morgan was abandoned as a pup, and taken into care by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter programmes, which attempts to rehabilitate parentless otters. But like so many products of the care system, it all went wrong.

When he was released back into the wild, Morgan became a serial killer paedophile… of baby seals. Morgan used to shag the seal pups and when he was done with them, hold them under water to drown them. He raped and killed about 20 seals off the Californian coast, at one time even attracting a copycat Son-Of-Morgan rapist wild otter.

After a year, naturalists finally managed to recapture Morgan. They considered castrating him but then decided that would leave him a non-contributing member of otter society, taking up valuable space in otter habitat. So they kept him in captivity, where he will only be allowed to have sex with female sea-otters. No doubt Morgan finds this rather dull.

There’s a Home Office policy somewhere in that. Though other fans of the animal kingdom may stay well clear – I doubt those extolling the virtues of penguins will be rushing to co-opt otters any time soon.

Update: Funnily enough, Jamie at Blood & Treasure has blogged the exact same thing before I did – a coincidence and nothing more, I assure you…