Thursday, 30 April 2009

Melanie Phillips: intelligently designed?

Oh, joy of joys, Mel's back on the Intelligent Design bandwagon in the Spectator, with a stirring missive full of cold, hard assertions she's pulled out of her arse. In Creating an insult to intelligence, Phillips begins by saying how irritated she was to hear Kenneth Miller on the radio being mean about ID. (Critiquing radio is great since no-one, least of all me, is going to bother going through the iPlayer or Listen Again or whatever to check if your account of what was said is in any way fair or if you've been taking things out of context, not that Mel would ever do that).
Anyway, ignoring all the enormous gaping flaws in ID, she takes offence at Miller for saying that the 'theory' of Intelligent Design is...

...nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable.
This is a fairly widespread and perfectly fair opinion from Miller, one which was given some serious legal basis by the Kitzmiller vs Dover ruling, which agreed that the version of ID the Discovery Institute and its friends were trying to get into the schools was indeed creationism in the most threadbare of cheap suits (more of which later). Phillips gets mad:

But this is totally untrue. Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller.
It was 'simply wrong'? Ooh, this'll be good!

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science. Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days. Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.
There's a quite staggering amount of horseshit there, so we'll start at the beginning. The 'textbooks' she's referring to is really only one textbook, 'Of Pandas And People', written by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, two Christian theologians (by sheer coincidence, of course). It was the book the IDers were trying to get into schools in Dover to be taught as science, and it's essentially a creationist argument against evolution which uses the term 'intelligent design' instead of 'creationism'. That's not my opinion, either. It came to light that they had literally replaced the word 'creationists' with 'design proponents' in the majority of cases, primarily because in the editing process someone fucked up a 'Find and Replace' meaning there was a draft saved showing the 'missing link' between the two terms; 'cdesign proponentsists'. Dembski and Wells are among the leading lights of the ID movement, and while they publicly avoid using the word 'creationism' too often, that nugget of info about the book that turned up during the trial suggests they consider the two terms pretty much interchangeable, as indeed they are in reality despite Phillips' protests. Phillips has dismissed actual evidence regarding a pivotal ID text in favour of a completely evidence-free assertion that ID 'comes out of science'.

One of Phillips' problems (and woah, she's got problems) is that she makes the mistake of defining 'creationism' entirely by the batshit insane Young Earth Creationists, who literally believe everything happened the way it sort of almost says in the Bible and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. This is ridiculous; creationism as a term covers all manner of things, including old-earth creationism, which kinda sorta accepts bits of science and evolution with the caveat that it all happened because God planned it that way. When scientists like Miller talk about ID and creationism being interchangeable, what they mean is that they are both (usually) religiously-derived hypotheses that put a creator at the beginning of the universe, and cast scientifically-unfounded doubt on evolution. IDers replace the word 'creator' with 'designer', but the difference is largely semantic.

The idea that 'Intelligent Design comes out of science' is disingenuous at best. The term was popularised by Phillip E. Johnson, a born-again Christian heavily involved with the Discovery Institute, for which he, famously, co-authored the Wedge strategy, a pretty damning piece of evidence that intelligent design is not a scientific theory, but a bid to "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions". I urge you to read about it, as it pretty nakedly states what the movement's intentions are, and renders claims that it's merely about scientific truth laughable. William Dembski, who wrote 'Of Pandas And People', contributed to the idiotic ID film 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed' and is also inextricably linked to the Discovery Institute, is perhaps the best-known of the ID proponents and a key writer for the definitive ID blog Uncommon Descent. By happy coincidence, he believes that "The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God". This appears to be an amazingly common theme among cdesign proponentsists; they take offence at the suggestion that ID is just a weak argument for God and claim they're simply talking science, but they almost invariably happen to believe that the designer is God.

ID is the successor to 'creation science'; creationists used to try and get that taught in schools until 1987 when the decision of the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard effectively killed it. There's a clear path you can draw from there to ID, and it's done briefly but quite well by the Wiki entry on creation science.

The claim that ID's "proponents are mainly scientists" holds little water; you'll notice that Phillips completely fails to mention them. So far, Intelligent Design hawkers have conspicuously failed to get any papers in proper peer-reviewed science journals. There are scientists among them, such as Michael Behe, but his theories have been discredited by all major scientific organisations and institutions. There's a difference between something 'coming out of science' and something which is believed by a few scientists. It's a conclusion without a plausible mechanism, without evidence. At best, it's a scientifically lazy critique of evolution. It fails to justify its assertions, merely trying to pick holes in evolutionary theory. Its central theory, irreducible complexity, has failed to generate convincing examples for its argument. That argument boils down to 'shit is way too complicated to have evolved'. That isn't science. (The amusing part is that Darwin himself predicted that people would be droning on about the complexity of the eye in the Origin Of Species. The evolution of the eye has been comprehensively studied since then, and IDers have failed to come up with a compelling challengeto these studies).

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism. But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them -- the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous. In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator. The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.
Interestingly, one of the scientists who believes in God is, er, Ken Miller, the very person she's arguing with. Phillips omits that inconvenient piece of information. Miller is a Christian who is also a scientist, and he wrote 'Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution'. He has no problem with the idea of a creator because he fucking believes in one himself. The difference is that he understands that the science simply doesn't support it. He's well-versed enough in the history of Intelligent Design to know that it's the discredited creation science by another name, and it offends both his scientific and religious sides to see religious conservatives distorting science to give their ideas legitimacy. It doesn't have any. As Miller points out, it doesn't need any. The only reason the creation science/ID nonsense abounds is because there are creationists who cannot accept evolution, trying to use ID to get their beliefs into schools, which they can't do under the US laws regarding the separation of church and state, hence cases like Dover and the recent battle to get even more watered-down anti-evolution crap into schools in Texas. (That link, by the way, is an excellent piece by Steven Novella which deals with ID crank Michael Egnor making a suspiciously similar pedantic argument about the word 'creationist' to the one Phillips is advancing, so I'd recommend reading it).

Ultimately what Phillips' argument comes down to is a tedious attempt to pass the word 'creationist' onto the wacky Young Earthers no-one agrees with, in order to distance ID from the creationism it's so obviously a part of. It's an entirely pointless argument which completely ignores everything that's wrong with ID, instead focusing on criticising scientists for terminological ignorance which she is just as guilty of. In the end, whatever you call it, ID has failed spectacularly, and Phillips' clich├ęd moaning does nothing to make a case for it.

Ken Miller's point is straightforward; believing in God is fine, just don't use the awful pseudoscience of ID to justify it. And that's unmistakably what's going on; if you're believing in ID but not God, you may well be mental. The science simply doesn't back ID. If Phillips had a fraction of the intellectual honesty that Ken Miller has, she'd feel embarrassed publishing this shit.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

There's a war going on, you know! Quick, someone else write about it!

Guardian writer Tanya Gold (also of the Daily Mail) is on top form today with 947 words about how she's sick of hearing about Nazis, particularly in films specifically about Nazis that she went to see. Nazi cows, Nazi cats, actors playing depressed Nazis. It's all just Hitler porn and it disgusts me is a great example of a kind-of well-meaning, kind-of sensible thought which is argued so badly that it almost makes you want to believe the exact opposite. It's been prompted by a largely irrelevant piece of tat about "Nazi super-cows" that appeared in various papers, not for any political or newsworthy reasons, but entirely because the phrase "Nazi super-cows" is inherently funny, and the millions of cheap internet links it gained will have done wonders for the Guardian's hit count.

Gold goes on about various Nazi-themed films, but her argument begins to look shaky right about the time she does this:

I could go on[...] I could tell you about the Cats Who Look Like Hitler web page - "click here to add your Kitler".
She goes on to mention Cats That (not Who) Look Like Hitler again:

There is a point to all this Hitler porn, you may say. Snoopy Versus the Red Baron has a valuable lesson to teach us about tyranny. Cats Who Look Like Hitler have something to meow about the dangers of genocide. Bollocks, I say.
Of course, Cats That Look Like Hitler is merely a whimsical internet repository for pictures of cats that, well, I'm sure you can figure it out. It doesn't even begin to attempt to say anything about genocide, so to argue that it tries to and fails is a tad disingenuous, and runs the risk of making you look stupid even in comparison to a plainly stupid website. Gold keeps throwing out various examples of Hitler appearing in popular culture, but her problem is that she just lumps a load of unrelated instances together out of context. She mentions that 'he' (rather, a ludicrous animated version of him) appears in South Park, where he appears singing 'O Tannenbaum' in Hell, and then mentions 'Heil Honey I'm Home!', a BSkyB sitcom from 19 years ago that was cancelled after a single episode. Both these examples are of things that briefly took the piss out of Hitler, making the context completely different to the supposedly serious films like Valkyrie she mentions at the start.

So, perhaps we're to conclude that Gold is against all mentions of the Nazis (except a couple of highbrow reference points she includes). A lesser writer than myself would make the point that that sounds a bit...y'know, totalitarian itself, but I'll neatly avoid the Godwin minefield there (while still mentioning it, ahhh) and we'll move on to the compelling argument behind why we should stop making cartoons that make Hitler look ridiculous:

This disgusts me. It makes me wretch. I thought the whole point of the second world war was to eradicate Nazism from the face of the earth. No more swastikas, no more shiny boots, no more dwarf narcissists giving vegetarian dinner parties and shooting liberals.
Well, no, the Second World War wasn't about getting rid of the fucking swastika and the shiny boots, was it? Unless my understanding of history is rather warped, I would have thought the symbolism and the fashion choices of the Nazis ranked pretty low on the list of 100 Things That Worried Us About Nazism, some distance behind all the dictatorship stuff, the country-invading and the massive amounts of Jew-murdering. I don't think there were any soldiers who thought they were dying to protect their grandchildren from seeing flippant animated comedy several decades in the future.

Ultimately though, all this is a distraction from Gold's main, ridiculous point:

There are genocides happening today, and they are being shot off the front pages by Nazi cows - Nazi cows! - and interviews with Mortensen talking about playing a depressed Nazi: "I spent a lot of time in Germany just looking at people." Really? Five million have died in the Congo in the last 10 years, in a war for the minerals that we use.
The Nazi cows story wasn't on the front page of any newspaper as far as I can make out, with the exception of The Times, which used it as their picture story with a headline about how they 'terrorised Julius Caesar', rather than referring to them as 'Nazi super-cows'. The main headline was about MPs' expenses. I agree that the papers are far too full of cheap nonsense, but the problem is far more widespread than stupid stories about Nazi cows (notwithstanding the fact that most of her examples are from TV and film anyway rather than the press). In a week in which everyone's been going on about some woman who can sing quite well despite not being exactly being prime masturbation material, it seems nuts to go on about the Nazi cows piece as if it's our Nazi obsession that's keeping the Congo out of the papers. For a start, we're in an age where the obsession with celebrities means the Guardian writes almost as much pointless guff about Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton as the tabloids.

Of course, most of that stuff goes in its own section, as has the Nazi cows story, which papers seem to be filing under 'Quirky', so it's not quite as simple as 'every word you write about Hitler is a word you could have written about Darfur'. There are, however, people who do have a binary choice they can make about what to write about; columnists. They can write at great length about the Congo if they want to. So let's have a look at what Tanya 'shut up and start talking about important genocides' Gold has been talking about recently.

A week ago, Gold was writing about the aforementioned woman on Britain's Got Talent. The week before, she was writing about the pressing issue of how she doesn't like posh hotels any more. She's written recent articles about how much she likes a character from shit 80s soap Dynasty, and going further back an urgent public service announcement about how why you probably shouldn't go out with men that want to fuck other women. A glance through her articles sees her talking about diet pills, her weight loss regimes, dating advice, gap-year students, trying to track down her ex-boyfriends, Judith Chalmers not wearing any knickers, Carry On films...

Her Daily Mail columns (yep) are even more illuminating. Last week she was found dribbling over hunky muscle men and how she doesn't fancy geeks. Recently she's written about how she hates Valentine's Day, how she's bored with her life, an expensive dress and why people should stop telling her what to eat.

Now, all of these are perfectly valid topics for a columnist, and she tries to make some serious sociological points with many of them (and to be fair to her, she's also written a very good, very personal and important piece about rape which is well worth reading and gives an insight into a serious issue). It's perfectly fine. But if you're going to mostly use your platform as a columnist to write about the horror of staying in upmarket hotels and how you once dated a swinger, and not to educate people about the horrors in the Congo, then it kind of undermines you when you start laying on the weltschmerzen despite apparently never having bothered to write about it yourself. I couldn't find a single column in Gold's article history dedicated to actually making a point about the various worldwide genocides that are currently going on. 'There are more important things than this; you should write about them even though I'm not going to' is the kind of lazy argument lots of us fall into at times, but it doesn't make it any less rubbish.

Gold's piece kind of sums up the attitude that most people (and I'm not exempting myself from this) have towards the Congo and Sierra Leone and Sudan and all these other places; just pay lip service to how terrible it is, speak wistfully about how sad it is that no-one cares, and then go on not really caring yourself and expecting everyone else to write/do something about it.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Income tax mysteriously related to income, journalists discover

Some shocking stats in today's Mail, where it turns out that people who receive more income pay more income tax. This was fearlessly revealed in Tax map of Britain shows middle-class towns clobbered by the Treasury. How long has this so-called 'income' tax been going on, and why weren't we informed? Witness the grotesque disparity:

Taxpayers in middle-class towns are handing over up to four times more to the Treasury than those in less affluent areas, a tax map of Britain has revealed.
FOUR TIMES? What sickening bias.

The tax map reveals that in St Albans, the average paid in income tax is £10,500. This is almost a quarter of the average income of £43,500 in the Hertfordshire town.

By contrast, in Hull, which is at the bottom of the table, the average wage is £17,300 and each taxpayer hands over an average of £2,360 in income tax - equating to around a seventh of income.
The references to towns are something of a red herring, since your income tax is only related to what you earn, and not where you live. If you live in St Albans but only earn £17,300, then you will be taxed the same as the average person in Hull, likewise rich people in Hull will be taxed the same as an equally rich person in St Albans (admittedly the cost of living may be lower, but that's offset by having to live in Hull).

The 'tax map' aspect of this is strange, it seems to just be a way of bringing a memorable new angle to the tedious tradition of the well-off moaning about how much they're getting taxed. You could take the same figures and complain about how the average person in St Albans gets earns 2.5 times the amount of money that someone in Hull does. But then the demographic of the Mail is the middle-class, and the wannabe middle-class, leading to the grim spectacle of people who earn £43k a year effectively complaining about lucky people living in Hull on £17k are.

Surprisingly, this income tax business seems to come as news to some people, who had apparently hitherto been unaware of the concept of progressive taxation. Despite the figures telling you nothing other than that the income tax is doing what it has always been intended to do, folks in the comments are unhappy:

Stealth tax by another name. What's next - a return to window tax?
Dr Stephen Fox, Sydney Australia,

Mail readers, and the paper itself, love to talk about 'stealth taxes'. Originally this used to refer to hidden charges in the tax system that most people didn't know about, whereby they'd be hit by unexpected levies, but now it seems it's become synonymous with tax itself. It's hard to think of a way income tax could be any less stealthy. Announced annually in the Budget, written about in the press, rates published for all to see, and the figure literally printed on your monthly payslip under the none-too-stealthy name of 'Income tax', it seems to me that Alastair Darling is not perhaps the most cunning of pickpockets in this regard. Short of coming round to everyone's house at the end of each month in a massive Income Tax Collection Tour Bus with flashing neon signs on the side and the words 'WE'VE COME TO COLLECT YOUR TAX!' blared out over a loudhailer, before making you fill out a ceremonial oversized cheque for the amount, it's difficult to know what would actually prevent a Mail reader from deeming a tax 'stealthy'.

Another doctor writes:

Income tax is robbery under threat of jail. It is an immoral tax on the family and should be abolished. the left squeal it is about ability to pay. I say it's my money and I know how best to spend it. Half of it taken before it is even seen is disgusting.
Dr Nick Ashley, Huntingdon England,

Not only stealthy, but robbery! Immoral robbery at that. I'm not sure why Dr Nick (who disappointingly fails to begin his reply 'Hiiii everybody!') wants to see his tax money before it's taken away from him, but whom am I to judge one man's deeply personal attachment to his money?

Next up, Claire arrives to put obligatory Token Reasonable Commentator Dereck in his place, with a winning mix of condescension and factual inaccuracy:

Seems like stating the obvious to me, the more you earn the more you pay, as it should be.
- Dereck Smith, Insch United Kingdom

Perhaps you haven't quite understood this article. Of course logically the more you earn the more you pay, but surely the percentage should be the same? How is it right that people in St Albans pay 25% tax, whilst those in Hull pay only 14%? What happens to those people who work hard to make £43,000 a year, and get their pay rise which takes their earnings to £43,874? Their tax doubles, and they end up taking home less than they did before their pay rise!

Classic stealth tax, by a very clever government who could foresee that the average rise in wages would quickly bring many 'average' workers into the 40% tax band!
Claire (ex-pat), California, USA, 20/4/2009 9:11

Perhaps the California sun has affected Claire's brain, but she's voicing a misapprehension held by a surprising amount of people. Let's re-read the funniest part of that again; "What happens to those people who work hard to make £43,000 a year, and get their pay rise which takes their earnings to £43,874? Their tax doubles, and they end up taking home less than they did before their pay rise!". Of course, that's not what happens at all. When you cross a tax threshold, your earnings ABOVE THAT THRESHOLD are taxed at a higher rate. This makes it literally impossible for the situation Claire mentions to occur. She's right that it would be daft to do it that way, because it would result in people actually refusing pay rises. That's exactly why it doesn't work like that. Wealthy people get the same tax allowance as everyone else, and their income below the 40% threshold is taxed, amazingly, at the same 22% 20% rate as everyone else!

Next, Jessica from Poole steams in:

Why is it people think the more you earn the more right people have to take your money. The people with the most money are in fact the so called 'poor' who take everthing they can in benefits and housing and pay nothing back to society. It sickens me that decent hard working individuals who have always worked and paid whats fair, who would be ashamed to go on the dole if they were jobless despite paying into it, are the ones that are always targeted for tax hikes. If people honestly think £40,000 is a high wage think again. Factor in mortgages, pension contributions, NI, food prices, fuel prices and normally looking after a family on top of the ridiculus amount of tax they have to pay and what you find is a class of people with very little disposable income. It is disgusting, something has gone seriously wrong in this country and it needs to be sorted out.
Jessica, Poole, Dorset, 20/4/2009 9:44

Aside from the hilarity of claiming that earning double the national average wage doesn't constitute a 'high wage', I had to re-read that a couple of times to make sure that Jessica actually said, without irony, that "The people with the most money are in fact the so called 'poor'". Impressively, that's not actually the most unhinged comment:

Typical Mclabour and Mcbaldrick.
Where are all these cities?
England, of course - WHERE ELSE?
Mcbaldrick loathes and detests us hard working thrifty ENGLISH taxpayers and savers.
No votes from us to him - AND HE KNOWS IT.
ROGER, brighton, in the USSR - Union of Scottish Socialist Regulators, 20/4/2009 10:18
There seems to be a growing aversion to calling Gordon Brown by his real name, instead substituting any number of increasingly bizarre names with the prefix 'Mc', He's Scottish, you see. It won't be long now before his name is so unspeakable that he'll be referred to in hushed tones as 'The Scottish Prime Minister', lest saying his real name bring bad luck. The Scottish income tax conspiracy that Roger darkly hints at is an intriguing one, to say the least. In order for it to work, Brown merely has to ensure that his fellow Scots earn considerably less money than the English, and thus somehow win! Welcome to the technicolour dreamworld that is the inside of a Mail reader's head; a world in which Gordon Brown opens his paper to see Dundee listed as one of the ten poorest towns in Britain, and cackles with Machiavellian glee. "Ah, I see my plan to ensure that my Scottish brethren pay low income tax by virtue of being really quite poor is working perfectly!".

Monday, 13 April 2009

It's Easter! Suck it, Dawkins!

It's Easter weekend, hooray! I don't know about you, but I always found the resurrection story to be the moment where the Bible jumped the shark; it always smacked a bit of the writers trying to write themselves out of a corner. Still, until they approve my alternative suggestions for more contemporary national holidays based around similarly ludicrous fictional moments that stretch some of the goodwill you have towards a series (I'm thinking National Marge Accidentally Gets A Boob Job Day), it'll have to do I suppose. So what better way to celebrate the peak/nadir of the Bible than by writing a joyous paean to all things spiritual, so that we might reflect on the important lessons of Jesus' death and subsequent reappearance?

Well, it seems A.N. Wilson has indeed found a better way; stickin' it to the godless! Yes, Religion of hatred: Why we should no longer be cowed by the chattering classes ruling Britain who sneer at Christianity is in many ways Wilson's masterwork, up there with that time he stuck up for Thatcher. It starts off with a simple, some might say quite boring, account of a Palm Sunday procession he took part in, before he gets to the big question, a question that's simultaneously massive and yet somehow irrelevant:

But how many in Britain today actually believe the story? Most recent polls have shown that considerably less than half of us do.
I suspect the majority of the people who don't are those of us who have had trouble finding out which parts of the Bible are supposed to be actually true, and which parts are just allegories not to be taken literally, and have subsequently decided that the best course of action is probably to take all the broadly physically impossible shit with a grain or three of salt. Wilson goes on to say that, he too, once became one of those people who thought it might not be true, even going so far as writing a book about it.

Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti.

To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs.

This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio.
Luckily for the Church, Wilson had stopped believing in the veracity of the Biblical account for entirely superificial reasons, which meant he could be won back into the religious fold with an equally stupid justification (more of which later). Huzzah! Wilson then goes on to complain about Polly Toynbee being artlessly secular in The Guardian, which ironically seems to carry more pro-religious writing than the Daily Mail itself (it's all here, and if you have the patience to actually read most of that you may qualify to become a saint yourself). Wilson also complains about what he suspects to be the attitude of the BBC towards religion, which as the national broadcaster nevertheless has daily religious programming required by law.

So, what of Wilson's reasons for turning back to religion? We already know that he stopped believing because he thought religion was a bit uncool (and A.N. Wilson is nothing if not cool), so why the second 180?

My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age.

Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis; foul-mouthed, self-satisfied TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Jo Brand; and the smug, tieless architects of so much television output.
Some might say that that's a slightly childish reason for adopting a belief system, particularly given that there's no evidence that Jo Brand (what an odd reference) gives the merest fuck what A.N. Wilson thinks about religion, or indeed anything. Still, TAKE THAT, JONATHAN ROSS! Apparently Wilson's simmering resentment towards novelists, TV presenters and comedians is so intense, that in his sheer fury the most appropriate adjective he can come up to describe them with (after 'smug') is 'tieless'. Of course, we all know where the Holy Bible stands on ties; who can forget the story of Jesus chasing the polo-neck wearers out of the temple? Jesus famously knew the importance of a tie; would anyone have taken his proclamations seriously if it wasn't for his impeccable Savile Row threads?

It's not entirely clear whether Wilson has ever actually seen Jonathan Ross, who almost always presents his chat show in a suit and tie. Nor is it clear why he castigates the female Jo Brand for not wearing one, but alas, Wilson moves in mysterious ways. You have to wonder where the depravity of it all might stop though. Today, no ties; tomorrow...? It doesn't really bear thinking about. Fuck, they might be messing around with logic next...

Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility.

And it is true to say that no one can ever prove - nor, indeed, disprove - the existence of an after-life or God, or answer the conundrums of honest doubters (how does a loving God allow an earthquake in Italy?)

Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person.
At this point I'd like to offer Wilson my services as an editor to clean this bit up a tad. I propose adding a little coda to the first sentence of the last paragraph so it reads "Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic, or, indeed, at all". I feel that by adding the last bit you can prevent the readers from becoming confused when you then fail to offer any kind of explanation for why God lets innocent people die in an Italian earthquake, instead dribbling on about 'addressing the whole person' like some kind of tedious two-bit holistic therapist.

In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it.
I'm not sure whether that is merely largely meaningless, or if Wilson does in fact live in an area with a particularly high resurrection rate. Indeed, it took me a while to navigate through that section. At first it looked like he'd decided to believe that something physically impossible did in fact genuinely happen simply because some element of the telling of the story struck an emotional chord with him, which seemed to be missing a link somewhere. But then I realised that my problem was that I was attempting to use 'clever-clever logic', when in fact logic is something to be sneered at while bemoaning that people sneer at your own beliefs. By jettisoning the restrictions of 'logic', you can gleefully stomp around the lush fields of logical fallacy with impunity. Argument from authority? Hit me with that shit, Wilson!

And in contrast to those ephemeral pundits of today, I have as my companions in belief such Christians as Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson and all the saints, known and unknown, throughout the ages
Yeah, we got Dostoevsky, what have you atheists got? JO BRAND? Pah! Suckers!

As a matter of fact, I am sure [...] that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Oh, this'll be good. Irrational how?

Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.
Let's assume for a moment that that's true, and look at the gauntlet that's just been thrown down. This is Wilson's moment to convince the unwashed heathen masses with the deep religious explanation for how we meatbags can write poetry or fall in love. The next sentence may very well change your life, so make sure you're not leaning back too far in your chair right now, lest its awesome revelatory power send you toppling backwards:

The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are.
So there you have it. It's because of 'spirit', which is 'mysteriously conjoined' to matter in some way. And to think I was worried that this might somehow still be less rational than materialist atheism! Boy, is my face red right now.

To sum up, then; under a materialist worldview, some questions about the human condition and consciousness remain as yet unexplained, but with religion, instead of keeping a worryingly open mind about possible explanations, we can just rest safe in the knowledge that it's all just some kind of 'mysterious' thing. And thus is was that A.N. Wilson so thoughtfully redefined rationality; a vague and utterly unsubstantiated explanation for an ill-defined question is probably better than none at all! I can't recall now why I ever found religious explanations unsatisfying.

So there you have it, atheists, secularists and liberals; if this doesn't make you finally put a fucking tie on, I don't know what will.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Outrage as licence fee payer profits from filth!

Hooray! The Ross/Brand story is back, and there's a new angle for outrage! Do you have a TV? Do you pay your licence fee? Then YOU'RE BEING SCREWED apparently!

Make Ross pay: As BBC is fined record £150,000 over sick stunt, MPs demand £6m-a-year star and Russell Brand foot bill (By Paul Revoir, Liz Thomas and Simon Cable - apparently it takes three people to do journalism of this quality)

MAIL COMMENT: Pay up, Mr Ross!

That Mail comment in full:
The Mail rarely has much time for over-mighty, highly-expensive quangos but today we congratulate Ofcom, which has fined the BBC £150,000 for the 'gratuitously offensive, humiliating and demeaning' attack on the actor Andrew Sachs by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross.

The bitter irony is that because the BBC is a publicly-funded body the fine will be paid by the very licence fee payers subjected to their stream of puerile filth.

That is why we have a suggestion to make: shouldn't Mr Ross (whose friend Mr Brand, true to disgusting form, joined the anarchists smashing up buildings at the start of G20) pay the money himself?
Now, I reckon that since the Mail started the story, which received just two complaints at the time of broadcast, and thereby began the snowballing public outrage which led to this £150,000 fine, maybe the Mail should pay?

It's genuinely hard to know what's most ridiculous about this; congratulating Ofcom for fining the BBC on the one hand, while writing stories about how outrageous it is that the 'licence fee payer' has to pay on the other? Is it the deliberate ignorance of the fact that this is a fine specifically for the failures of the BBC's editorial process which the Mail had consistently criticised, and thus nothing to do with Ross (or Brand), who have both already been punished? Or the deliberate ignorance of the fact that since the money from the fine goes to the Treasury it essentially remains part of the public purse anyway? Is it the utterly irrelevant dig at Russell Brand for being at the G20 protests the other day a mere six months after he was forced to quit the BBC? Is it the ludicrous attempt to link Brand to the 'anarchists smashing up buildings' which he had nothing at all to do with?

I would say the most ridiculous part is the Mail's sudden attack of amnesia about the much-trumpeted fact that Jonathan Ross was suspended without pay for 3 months. As the Mail constantly reminds us, Ross is paid '£6m a year', which would mean that the BBC saved £1.5m when it suspended him. Since the money Ross (well, Ross' production company, but shhh!) earns is apparently dramatically above the market rate, we can safely assume that the programmes that took his place cost considerably less than that, meaning that this fine is almost certainly more than entirely covered by the money it fined Ross, putting the BBC (and by extension you) in profit.

In case you missed it, the Mail does briefly allow this point to be made by a BBC spokesman in the first link. It's there in paragraphs 17 and 18, right after the quotes demanding Ross pay out of his own pocket from Georgina Baillie, Esther Rantzen, Don Foster (a Lib Dem spokesman), Lord Rees Mogg, the director of Mediawatch, the Tory culture secretary, and, with dreary inevitability, someone from the fucking TaxPayers' Alliance. That's balance for you.

I wonder if they had to flip a coin between 'Ross costs YOU the licence payer £150,000! Take to the streets!' and 'BBC makes net profit from Ross shame! Abolish the licence fee!'. Maybe they can get a columnist to make the latter argument and ensure all the bases get covered.

Anyway, I'm glad we have the Mail to stand up against the 'stream of puerile filth' the BBC 'subjects' us to. On a completely unrelated note, here are FOURTEEN burlesque pics of Mel B. Fourteen is the exact number required to judge how 'tacky' and 'provocative' something is, just in case you thought they were being a tad gratuitous or attempting to have their cake and wank over it there. If you're still struggling to decide how disgusted you are, you can enlarge nine of the pictures. Thanks for that, Simon Cable (see also first link). I think my favourite bit of that article is the phrase 'semi-naked man'; there's something about the use of 'semi-naked' as a description that always tickles me. It's a combination of the fact that you could replace the word 'semi' with 'not' and have it be just as accurate, and the way that it it implies something shocking about people who still have all the rude bits of their body covered. "Hey, did you see the Ricky Hatton fight the other night? Semi-naked, he was!".

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Fun with figures in the Express

Today's latest bag of immigration crap from the Express is £200M BENEFITS BILL AS OUT-OF-WORK POLES FLOOD BACK. I say 'latest'; the £200m benefits figure, and indeed the entire premise of this story, might sound familiar to those of you who read a strikingly similar piece by Nick Fagge at the start of this year. According to journlisted, Fagge published a story which began "THOUSANDS of Eastern European migrants who lose their jobs plan to ride out the recession on British 
benefits – costing taxpayers around £200million a year" on January 8th this year, however the link it gives is now dead.

Helpfully, you can Google a bit of that to find the article pasted on a truckers' forum here. The phrase "THOUSANDS of Eastern European migrants who lose their jobs plan to ride out the recession on British 
benefits" is repeated wholesale in the new article, which claims "Last month the Daily Express revealed how thousands of ­Eastern European migrants who lose their jobs plan to ride out the recession on British benefits".

Here's another similarity. Fagge's January article said:

The average family with children can claim around £715 a week in benefits in Britain, compared with just £178 in countries such as Poland.

...that latter figure seems to have been 'sexed down' in Martyn Brown's new version:

A family of four immigrants can pocket an average in benefits of £715-a-week in Britain, compared to £125 in Poland.
Evidently a rapid decline in Polish benefits in the last couple of months!

The £200m figure is particularly interesting. It seems to have been extrapolated from a previous figure of £125m. The closest we get to a source for these figures is this line casually tossed in at the end:

In August 2007 there were 112,000 Eastern Europeans claiming £125million a year. That is now expected to soar to £200million.
So what we have here is an unsourced guess which seems to be based on an estimate of how many Poles will lose their jobs but stay here. Already the figures look rather shaky, but where does the £125m a year come from? As far as I can make out, it's the same £125m figure James Slack was using in the Mail. Well, as 5cc covered last August, that figure seems to be something of a mess itself. In brief, it's estimated from some figures in an official Home Office report (pdf) that covered a three-year period, on the apparent assumption that everyone in those three years claimed their entire benefit all the time. The £125m figure is completely unverifiable; Slack has conjured them up from his table, but they're based largely on guesswork. The figures he uses for the numbers of Eastern Europeans claiming benefits are the total number of applications received in a three-year period, with no indication of how many of those might have stopped receiving them or how he's arrived at a specific total from decidedly less specific original figures.

I tried to work out how he got to £125m a year, but using the figures in the table, the closest I could get was around £111m a year, and that was based on an absolute maximum whereby every one of those applicants claimed the total benefit they were entitled to for the full three years in the report (something we know not to be true, since the figures break down year-by-year showing that only a fraction of the applications in the period concerned were approved in 2004 and 2005, with the majority only beginning to claim in 2006-7, where the report concludes, meaning most had been claiming for less than half that period).

Trying to work out these figures is a bit of a wild goose chase though, so let's step back and look at the bigger picture; what does this £200m a year in 'benefits' include? The word 'benefits' instantly conjures up dole money and people faking it on the sick, but when the word 'benefits' is applied to immigrants, it covers a multitude of things, the most ludicrous of which are tax credits and child benefits. In both those cases, you have to be working and therefore paying tax to receive them. Child benefit is a tiny rebate of the tax and average working person would pay, and tax credits again are simply rebates for people working and paying tax. They have nothing to do with what the Express wants you to imagine, which is scrounging Poles on the dole. And yet these will comprise a huge proportion of the "£200m a year benefits" figure. The whole premise of the article is misleading; £200m 'benefits' a year doesn't mean a great deal if they're benefits paid to working people, because working people contribute more to the country in tax than they get in child benefit, tax credits, pensions and all the other miscellaneous shit the Express is including in its made-up total.

As another example of how wacky these figures are, we get this:

Up to 200,000 Poles are set to flood back here as they become disillusioned by the reality of the economic downturn back home.
So where does the '200,000 Poles set to flood back' idea come from? Oh, right, here:

Nearly half of Britain’s 450,000 Polish workers were expected to leave as businesses were struck by the credit crunch last year.
And here:

Up to 200,000 migrant workers are set to lose their jobs this year.
If this is saying what I think it is, 200,000 migrants are going to lose their jobs. All of them will go home to Poland, and then all of them will come (or 'flood', if you prefer) back to the UK. Amazingly, despite having lost their jobs, they will return here and get jobs, because having jobs is the only possible way they could receive anything like £200m a year in benefits. Ever get the feeling that these figures are based on so many separate guesses that they're utterly meaningless?

But even if these figures were accurate, is there any point to them, beyond pointing the finger at immigrants in these economically-troubled times? Expect more nonsense in the coming weeks and months about how the Poles are getting it all nice easy while the hardworking British man gets shafted.