Life and Plans Update: The Socratic Web, Crowdfunding, Conferences, Writing and Travelling

Since attending the Workshop on Digital Misinformation in Montreal back in April 2016, my whole life has been on a new tangent. I was already back on the rbutr train at that point, but this workshop helped me solidify many thoughts and helped point me in the right (I hope) direction for moving forwards.

Since then I started writing more on the topic of Fake News and the problems with all other efforts to fight it. I also started posting those articles to my Medium blog, which has now become my official Digital Misinformation and Fake News blog.  This has helped me get my ideas out to many more people than I ever seemed to be able to reach through the rbutr blog (and definitely this blog, something which I am sure about 4 friends read. And probably never the same 4 friends.)

As well as that I have given a few talks/presentations, and attended a couple of low key workshops on misinformation, journalism, truth, etc, which have also helped put me in contact with more people active in the space.

I published my Socratic Web white paper the other week, and am now at the point where the next major stepping stone is crowdfunding the foundational money to get that project started, and otherwise planning/organising as many conferences as possible for next year.

Which brings me to what I am doing next…

December and January

Christmas is a terrible time to run a crowdfunding campaign, so I have decided to delay that campaign until February. So over the next two months, between Christmas, New Years, and some plans to go camping on the Australia day long weekend, I will be spending my time writing more articles and applying to present and participate at conferences which have misinformation and fake news tracks. Most of my time will still likely go towards preparing a killer crowdfunding campaign so that the execution in February will be as perfect as possible.

February and March

At the beginning of February Vanessa, Leonardo and I will be moving to Koh Phangan, Thailand, for two months. Rent, daycare and food is infinitely more affordable for us there than it is in Sydney and Vanessa (who suffers from moderate-severe (30) ME/CFS) can get frequent massages to help manage her pain.

This will give me some time and space to focus on running the crowdfunding campaign, preparing for my presentation at the International Journalism Festival in April (the real reason for our travel), and beginning the creation of The Socratic Web organisation, brand, and website as soon as the crowdfunding is completed.

April and After

The beginning of April has all of us travel to Rome so that I can present at the International Journalism Festival. We’ve planned a small trip around the event and will see some of Rome, Pompeii and the area around it, Perugia, Florence, and then more to the North West as we head towards France to visit some friends in Paris.

There is a Web Conference in Lyon at the end of April, so I am going to chase up participating in that event too. Then there is another conference in Toronto in mid May which I am going to apply to speak at too, so I may find myself heading over there if that goes well.

So our plans from the end of April are much more vague until I sort out whether I am going to these other conferences or not. Either way, we will all end up back at Ness’s mum’s place in the UK between events.

There is also a Basic Income conference in Finland at the end of August which I could be persuaded to make it to as well….

 

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Uber Stole my Startup Idea!

OK, I’ll stop pretending now. They didn’t steal anything. But they did just launch what sounds almost exactly like an idea I spent many months developing back in 2008 before abandoning it when I realised I couldn’t possibly make it work.

Uber have just launched UberCOMMUTE.

My idea was called 42ity. Pronounced “For-too-ity”, it was a perfect combination of the fortuitous occurrence of finding someone driving in the same direction as you, with a Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy reference thrown in for good measure for a product which could exactly be described as an “electronic hitch hiking thumb.”

I went so far as registering a domain (42ity.net – the guy who owns 42ity.com wasn’t interested in selling it), and setting up a blog on it, but when I realised that I couldn’t possibly afford the marketing campaign that it would take to achieve the market saturation required to make the app actually work, I put the whole project into my ex-project vault.

How many people need to be actively running the app whenever they drive before you are actually lucky enough to have one driving past your location who is also going to/past your destination? A lot. The answer is definitely a lot. And until that market saturation is achieved, the app is almost utterly useless, and people would quickly uninstall it, and thus you’d never get there.

That was my conclusion anyway, and I stand by it.

Uber, on the other hand, already have global recognition and massive uptake of their main app. They actually have a chance – so good on them! I still think it will be very very difficult to get the right level of saturation to be of any significant use, but if they ever expand the app to Sydney, I will install and use it.

Oh, though they seem to be focusing on long distance driving. I was open to all drivers at all times. But they basically cover most of that with Uber already, so this is a complimentary feature to their existing platform.

Of course the ideas aren’t identical. They never are. But this is the closest I have seen to my idea – despite many numerous ride sharing apps which have been launched over the years. None ever seemed to focus on the real time hitch-hiking-style which I thought would be idea.

Here is one blog post from 2008 where I mention 42ity. And that seems to be just about the only evidence I have of 42ity left online these days.

I will try to remember to plug in my hard drive later today and find some of my mock-up images for 42ity and add them to this post.

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Quick Intro / About me

I’m the founder of rbutr, BioNascentImmortal Outdoors, and Sports Arbitrage Guide. I’ve been conceiving and managing the development of startups, websites and web applications for over 9 years now, ever since I graduated from UNSW with majors in Molecular Biology (hons), Philosophy, and in The History and Philosophy of Science. You can see my LinkedIn profile here.

Outside of “work” I have a strong interest in issues which pertain to social justice and welfare. At the moment, my main interests are Universal Basic Income, Drug Law Policy, Ethical Non-Monogamy, and Secularism. I love to travel. I love extreme sports. Probably a neophile.

When it comes to beliefs, my permanent goal is to become less wrong. I have no interest in holding onto erroneous beliefs.

Of course I am also on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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The problem with the new atheist movement is…

I had a short conversation with a good friend yesterday which consisted of him (an atheist) telling me that the problem with the atheist movement is that they don’t provide an alternative option to replace the role that religion has fulfilled in our society for so long.

I often have atheist friends tell me that the new atheists are doing it wrong. That they should be doing X other thing instead of what they are doing, or that they should also be doing Y, or that they are wasting their time because some particular philosopher destroyed the notion of God hundreds of years ago, so this is all old news.

All of these sorts of criticisms of the new atheist movement strike me as exceedingly odd.

It is like claiming that climate change activists are doing it wrong because they aren’t personally replacing the coal and petroleum industry with an alternative energy infrastructure. It is like claiming that websites like Skeptical Science are a waste of time because climate scientists have known for decades that climate change is caused by humans. I never heard climate change advocates making these arguments because it is obvious that they are nonsensical. The alternatives exist independent of the activists, and the scientific consensus isn’t reflected in public opinion – therefore the activism is still needed! The atheist movement is no different.

So, when I hear that the new atheists should provide an alternative structure to religion, I think: No, that already exists. It comes from philosophy (morality), science (explanations of the world), sports teams, family, hobbies groups, etc (community). The atheist agenda isn’t to transform society – it is simply to fight for representation in a society which has clearly declared that non-belief is unacceptable, untrustworthy and to be despised.

My understanding is that the atheist movement as we currently know it was basically started by Dawkins giving this TED talk. I think he very clearly outlines why we need this movement, and what its objective is. And I agree completely with him.

Religions cause people to make decisions which harm themselves and people around them, and they do so because they believe that the creator of the universe commands it. They don’t do it because they are intentionally trying to harm people, or because they are necessarily biggoted – they do it because the book commands it.

Yes, there is overlap. Yes, sometimes bigoted people will use the bible to justify their bigotry (as if that is much better), but just as often people will be bigoted just because they believe that the creator of the universe has commanded them to be!

How do you rationally argue against that?

You can’t. You literally cannot make a single argument against “I have to be a bigot, because the creator of the universe has told me that I must behave this way.” The basis of the position is not founded on rational thought – it is founded on authoritarian command. Therefore the only way to correct the erroneous bigoted position, is to undermine the authoritarian command itself. You have to show that the belief in the commander is false. It is the only viable option.

Let’s make this crystal clear. At the very same party where this criticism of the new atheists took place, another good friend pointed out that she was a feminist prior to discovering christ herself and becoming a true believer. In doing so, despite it going against everything she felt and believed, she knew that because God was real and because the Bible was his true word, she must submit herself to her husband, she must see gay people as sinners, and other such commanded positions. These were not positions she wanted to hold – it was just what the bible very clearly told her.

Multiply that experience across the population, and you now have a basis for terrible laws and government policy which leads to vilification and sexism.

Or, lets look at another example of religion doing harm. As I write this article a news story is running about a Jehovah’s Witness family denying their son a blood transfusion. This will kill their son. Do you think they actually want their son to die? Do you think they have some sort of weird bigotry against blood transfusions?

No. They just believe that the creator of the universe has commanded them to do this, so they are obeying the command.

You cannot rationally argue against this position. You can only rationally argue against the underlying belief in a universal creator and master.

And that is what the atheist movement is all about. Fixing the actual problem.

For too long religion has influenced politics, law and social convention despite evidence. And as the “Nones” have grown in number over the decades, their influence has stayed non-existent. This is the problem. This is what the atheist movement cares about.

If you too are worried that the atheist movement might be wildly successful, and leave devastation in their wake as millions of people wake up without religious structures to prop up their meager existence – then go and start your own Humanism Organisation which provides everything religion does, just without the God stuff, and fill that gap. Just don’t be surprised when you find out people are surprisingly capable of filling the gap all on their own with the innumerable other options which already exist.

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A response to Tim Worstall’s article Raising America’s Pay; Might Someone Hit The EPI With A Cluebat Please

I came across this article shortly after it was published, and meant to publish this response back then, but have been exceedingly busy. So here it is now.

In his article Raising America’s Pay, Tim Worstall argues that the Economic Policy Institute has made untrue claims about poverty staying the same despite continuous economic growth because the way the USA measures poverty is flawed and doesn’t take into account the support provided by the government. In his own words:

The American system is much closer to a measurement of here’s the number of people who would be poor if we weren’t helping to alleviate their poverty.

So basically, Tim’s argument is that because the government provides support for many people who would otherwise be in poverty, the EPI’s claim that a growing economy has not proportionately pulled people up out of poverty is untrue.

This argument doesn’t make sense.

Companies are making more money than ever. The wealthiest are making more money. The poor though, they’re getting more government hand outs – therefore a rising tide floats all ships…? No. Clearly, the basic argument of the EPI report remains valid. Exceptional economic growth has NOT improved the lives of the poorest. Continual government oversight and support has done a bit to help them, and that is all.

So, the evidence here seems perfectly clear. Strong economies don’t alleviate poverty. Strong governments do. The rational advice would be to tax the wealthy more, and give that money to the poor.

 

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Making enemies out of allies

I learned something this week. I learned that I was wrong when I thought that the following image was hilarious, and an effective parody of a ridiculously untenable position held by some moronic members of the US congress. I was wrong to laugh at it and wrong to think it a useful public statement, because instead of finding humour in it and understanding its intent, I should have been outraged.

we should ban life jackets rape analogy funny joke haha

I should have been outraged at how this “joke” makes light of the serious nature of drowning. Do the makers of this joke not care that 10 people die of drowning every day? Do they think that is funny!?!? Are they ignorant of this fact, or do they just not care?

You might try to tell me that I am over-reacting. That they aren’t really making fun of drowning, but are just using it as tool to make a point.

That doesn’t matter, because as someone who has suffered from two near-drowning events in my life, let me tell you that I personally find this image incredibly offensive. I could have died to drowning. Proper real end of life actual death…and you think that that trauma is irrelevent? You think I should have to spend the rest of my life letting people make light and “fun” out of something which really did happen to me and was traumatic? How about instead of that, everyone else on the planet stops being so insensitive!?!

I also learned that I should imply that the creators of this image are active representatives of whatever organised community they are part of, and imply that that whole community are anti-drowning-safety. Because if you find this image funny, then you basically drown children. There are no half measures when it comes to this sort of thing, you are either as outraged as I am that some “comedian” makes light of an issue as serious as drowning kids, or you drown kids.

<fin>

OK, enough stupidity and hyperbole. Yes, I was exaggerating, but this is how I feel when people react to a “#grapeculture” joke made by someone talking about a good night out with friends having drinks (presumably, wine, which is made from a “grape culture“)

#grapeculture tweet outrage

So when someone not included in the (publicly visible) conversation decided to take offense at the use of the #grapeculture hashtag and invite herself and her opinion, outrage and judgement  into it, I couldn’t help but feel very quickly like the whole thing became a parody of the very thing the joke was making fun of.

Despite the initial reaction of @vitabrevi which was to imply that @rjblaskiewicz and @cherryteresa  thought that rape itself was funny, it seemed quite clear to me that the tag was (at the most) a parody of people who use hashtag activism to accuse people of perpetuating rape culture. ie: it is no wonder vitabrevi felt attacked by the joke, it was probably aimed at people like her. But the shocking thing is that she bit. She bit with all of her might, accusing @rjblaskiewicz of supporting rape, misogyny and representing the entire skeptic community. Is there any world where that is a reasonable reaction to a #grapeculture joke?

How is it any different to my hyperbolic example above, where I claim that I should get desperately offended by the maker of this life jacket joke, and accuse them (and any communities they represent) as being supporters of people who enable the drowning of children?

This is why I made the reference to 4chan raids which aim to make the feminist movement look moronic by taking ridiculous positions and claiming to be feminists. I wonder if @ViteBrevi isn’t one of the, because if she isn’t, everyone can tell 4chan that they need not bother, some people are doing a fine job of making the movement look moronic all on their own.

And this upsets me.

The feminist movement is bloody important. Fighting the rape culture which is present in our society is incredibly important to me. But instead of actually doing that, we have counter-productive people out there claiming to be feminists who are busy sticking their nose in other people’s conversations, interpreting jokes to meet a pre-defined outrage sore-point, projecting their own suffrage on those comments, and inciting outrage and attack in their friends and colleagues. All to what end? All it does is make enemies out of friends.

I’ve met the people @VitaBrevi was attacking with her projected victimhood and offendedness. They are NOT the people we need to deal with. The people we need to deal with are abundant enough without picking fights with allies. The #grapeculture guilty are allies where it matters. They are feminists and want equal opportunities and freedoms and rights for people independent of sexuality, race and gender. But apparently being an advocate and champion of equality and a progressive society isn’t enough – they have to be super-sensitive to every possible sensibility that every person on the planet might have. They have to double check their language at all times, and avoid ever making jokes which might trigger traumatic events from the pasts of people they have never met nor talked to.

How about instead of that, people take responsibility for their own lives and emotional states (which may or may not include getting help from friends, family or trained professionals)? I’m not saying “suck it up”, I’m saying that we all have to take responsibility for our own lives, and that most certainly does not involve forcing the rest of the world to behave a particular way.

accept responsibility
Expecting the word-part “rape” (as in Grape) to be forever out of bounds as a tool in jokes is literally the sort of thing that fascists actually do. It is the core control mechanism in the book 1984: Control the language, and you can control the people. I am all for ending rape culture., but I want no part in ending our ability to use words, or our ability to find humor in things – even the morbid or the upsetting. (not that this even was – it was a joke at the (slight) expense of people doing this sort of thing! by making a pun about how wine is made).

*sigh*

So anyway, yes @VitaBrevi, you definitely seem to be “determined to be offended” – this is why you went into someone else’s conversation and chose to interpret their use of a phrase in a way which offended you, rather than 1. not paying attention to their conversation 2. not interpreting their joke as diminishing the experience of being raped 3. accepting the words of the several people who pointed out that the joke was about slacktivism, not rape 4. not projecting your outrage on an entire community which has nothing to do with one #hastag chosen by two individuals which didn’t even mean what you decided it meant  …or any other of an infinite other possibilities which didn’t involve you being mortally offended and justifying your outrage at their chosen method of interacting and attacking them (and everyone who defended them).

It is bad enough that reasonable people have to fight against tradition and socially conservative people who want to keep things ‘the way they have always been’ regardless of the fact that things used to be terrible for most people. But it is so incredibly disheartening when we also have to fight against extremist nut jobs who make reasonable objectives look crazy. It just gives the traditionalists and social conservatives material to use to undermine the real movement.

 

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Surviving as an entrepreneur

It only occurred to me recently just how difficult it is for most people to pursue entrepreneurial activities.

The stats of success for small businesses are notoriously bad. The stats for successful startups is significantly worse. Tiny fractions of a percent actually make it to being profitable, and the road to going from new novel idea to successful business is incredibly difficult. It is uncertain and a process which evolves as you make it happen. You start with nothing, and work for nothing to build something of value, never knowing if you will even make revenue let alone turn a profit until you reach that point…and sometimes that point is months or even years after you start working.

How many people can work for years without making money?

Pretty close to 0% I would guess. It is a very privileged minority who can work on a project for years without needing to make money while they do it. Just think about how much this amplifies the difficulty of making a startup you are working on successful. If a startup is already an incredibly challenging proposition – something which is necessarily an unknown proposition, which unfolds as you manually force it all to happen by virtue of your own relentless will, held back by endless setbacks, disappointments, distractions, mistakes and common human flaws – then multiple all of that difficulty by the factor of “Must also work part time to fund this endeavour”, then you now have a situation where you have an incredibly difficult thing to do and only some of your spare time to do it in.

It is amazing anyone ever succeeds.

Of course, the standard solution to this is to pitch early. Get seed funding. Then get series A funding. Get a few million dollars of someone else’s money behind the project, and finally you can just get to work. Money is no longer an issue; not survival money anyway, business money is always going to be an issue but at least you can focus on working for a while without worry about being able to feed yourself, pay rent or catch a bus.

But pitching to investors really isn’t a perfect solution. Pitching doesn’t just automatically lead to instant money. First of all, investors want to see that you have already demonstrated that your product is viable, or is going to work because it has some early traction. So you must have already put in crap loads of work (for free) making something which proves you’re worthy of their money. Then you will need stop working on your project and instead start working on pitching full time (also without pay) so that you can find the right investor(s) who understand your vision.

It is very rare to get investment from the first investor you talk to. I’ve heard numbers where people have to meet with 50-100 investors before they finally get funding, spending 3 to 6 months, or even longer, to secure funding. That is 6 months taken away from working on the project! And again, you’re somehow meant to survive through that whole process… Either you are already independently wealthy, or you’re only pitching part time while you work to survive…or you are lucky enough to have a family or partner successful/generous enough to support you while you work.

When you consider all of the factors against success, and then think about them being constantly reapplied over time; difficulties, rejections, changes in strategy happening every week, every month for many months… the psychological toll is significant. My suspicion is that most startup failures are actually a result of attrition. That is, they would keep pushing and trying if they had the resources to do so, but the constant set backs and rejections are all happening under the shadow of “How much longer can I keep this up for before I lose my house/can’t afford food/disappoint my family for the last time?”

My suspicion is that if this ever-present shadow of ultimate-failure was removed from the picture, there would be a lot more interesting and progressive startups out there…

The Luxury of Being Able to be an Entrepreneur

My life as an entrepreneur has been incredibly lucky. I stumbled into my first business straight out of University and made a fantastic low-effort easily monetised website which then paid me a small income for many years after that. That small income – never quite enough to thrive on, but always enough to get by – gave me the freedom to explore several business ideas over the last 5 years.

At the beginning of 2012 I started working on rbutr, and it became my whole focus. I had actually already stopped paying adequate attention to my first business, and 3 or so years after starting to neglect it, it’s income has now dwindled down to a trickle. With that now the case, I am made doubly aware of just how much support I have from my awesome family. My parents and my partner both are incredibly supportive and explicitly provide the security in my life which ensures that I have the freedom to continue working on a project which has no promise of making money any time soon.

What a luxury I have…

rbutr is one of those projects which is going to change the world. But if I didn’t have the freedom to pursue it relentlessly on account of a bit of early luck, and an awesome understanding and supportive family (who are by no means wealthy, btw, just very generous and understanding), then rbutr could easily become just another footnote in the history of failed efforts to make a difference.

I know that no one else sees the importance of rbutr as much as I do. I know that no one else will make this happen if I don’t. I also know that when it happens, everyone will look back and point out how obvious it was, and how they ‘had the same idea’ and “I could have made that!” But no one else will, because it is bloody hard to do.

I have had great luck. I have incredible support. I got so lucky when I found my partner, Craig, who is an incredible developer that just made the MVP happen within a month. I am lucky that we have been able to build a small group of true fans that keep pushing this project forward. I am lucky we have had other friends start helping out, volunteering their time to work on this project… We have had so much go right for us. And we’re still a million light years away from ‘success’. We could disappear tomorrow and a tiny fraction of a percent of the world population would even remember that we tried.

This shit is hard!

But I have the vision so strongly planted in my mind now that I cannot unsee it. I know where this is going, and it is amazing. I am just lucky that I don’t have to walk away. Not just yet anyway. I am running out of time…I have that shadow hanging over me (in my case, it is a baby due soon combined with the end of savings and a guilt of being so dependent on family)… but that is my issue which I need to solve before I hit that wall.

The point I am trying to make here, is that even with incredible luck in the form of an early success, an incredibly supportive family and girlfriend, and a startup idea that is truly revolutionary, which has some strong traction and powerful allies, I’m still in a position where there is a chance that I can fail just out of attrition. If we don’t get funding within the next few months, or start bringing in a revenue, then I will be forced to get a job. And that kinda sucks….

The Value of a Successful Startup

This leads me to the second part of this post: successful startups are a big deal.

When someone makes a Google or a Facebook, they take an idea, and they turn that little bit of nothingness into a great big money making machine. And I don’t just mean for themselves, I mean a machine which makes money for thousands of employees, for all of the businesses that they do business with, and most importantly, tax revenue which ultimately is intended to benefit everyone in society.

When you look at the fact that the large tech companies of the USA (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), those companies have the same amount of revenue as Australia’s largest companies (mining, banks and grocery giants). That is, tech companies which (largely) sell non tangible substances (software, copyright, advertising) to a global audience bring in as much revenue (and much more profit) as companies which have to either extract limited resources from the ground, or sell real goods to consumers, or take a cut of transaction costs of Australians. Clearly non-tangible products sold to a global market is of a far greater value to the Australian population than companies who take a cut out of our own resources?

Getting a Google equivalent company in Australia would have such a huge impact on our economic position that it would be worth investing a lot of money into it, right? When you can take an idea from nothing, to 60+ billion dollars in revenue (again, from people all over the world) each year… that must produce a phenomenal return to the Australian economy in the form of jobs and tax revenue.

Surely this outcome is something worth fighting for?

Giving Entrepreneurs a Fighting Chance

What can we do to help improve our chances of finding Australia’s Google or Microsoft? How about removing that ‘shadow’ that hangs over all entrepreneurs? How about making it so that people feel free to work on projects which don’t make money, and aren’t even certain what the final product will look like, without fear of starving or losing their lives and family?

There are a couple of ways to do this. One option is to make a startup focused system, similar to what the Startup Chile program did, but focus it on Australian startups (instead of global), evaluate a pool of applicants and provide generous grants to a certain number of companies each year, giving them all the oxygen they need to keep pushing their idea uphill. This is one narrow method of solving this problem – though it still suffers some of the same limitations experienced by normal pitching (you need to prove your business worthy and spend time perfecting your pitch before you are likely to get the money).

A better solution is to embrace the concept of a Universal Basic Income.

If everyone had access to a guaranteed income which would be sufficient to ensure food and rent, then you would empower innumerable people to take the risks necessary to chase their startup dreams, and push forward on them relentlessly until they succeeded, or at least exhausted their own confidence. You would empower the exploration of ideas which may seem crazy, but also might just change the world.

The finding of another Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple would offset the cost of funding these dreamers many times over. It may not cover the costs of providing a Basic Income to everyone, but that is a wider question already well covered elsewhere. I just wanted to point out that it is generally acknowledged that funding many startups is the best approach to finding ‘the one’ which makes so much money that all of the other ‘losers’ are so insignificant in their costs as to not even be noticeable (<- this is a big link because you really should read this to understand how significant this point is!).

Giving everyone a Basic Income won’t make them all Elon Musks, but it does give them the security to try to be, and thereby the opportunity to prove themselves, or not. The ones who fail get to try again, or return to normal employment, or whatever else they wish without ever facing the specter of ultimate failure (abject poverty). While those who succeed – even if it is just 1 or 2 or 3 of them in total – will earn their way off the basic income into the lands of the ultra-wealthy. Where their business will more than pay for itself and all of its fallen brothers, and where the entrepreneur who made it will also hopefully be happy to pay the high taxes appropriate to their absurdly large income, at peace with the fact that they are only in that position because of the tax-sacrifices of those who came before them, not naively holding on to the easily-disproved notion that they made it ‘all on their own’.

No human has ever made it all on their own. We are a social species, and we depend on each other for everything. Let’s accept that fact and empower as many people as possible, and make the world a better place for everyone.

 

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How to criticise Richard Dawkins

  1. Criticise him or something he said
    Either take something has has said out of context, or exaggerate it into something unreasonable, or just jump on the tall poppy bandwagon and assert that he does more harm than good, and is offensive, strident, or any other of the standard list of acceptable words used to criticise him
  2. Pre-empt any defense by declaring defenders fanboys
    If you assert that anyone trying to defend him is unthinking and reactionary, then you don’t need to deal with their actual defense because you have ‘poisoned the well’ in advance.
  3. When someone makes an argument in defense of Dawkins, dismiss it as sucking up to their idol/hero
    Building on top of the previously established expectation that they are mindless fanboys who will defend him no matter what, simply ignore the argument and discredit the person by assuming that they are defending him because they hold him in high regard despite his (assumed) terrible action/personality/beliefs etc
  4. Ignore the original criticism and start calling Dawkins a bigot as justification for you criticism
    You don’t want to get caught up in the details of what Dawkins may or may not have actually said…they get too tricky. Just go back to the tried and tested surefire line of “Dawkins is a bigot” No one wants to get caught defending a bigot, so the fanboy is sure to back off with this line.
  5. Block them.
    You just can’t reason with some people. No matter how much you ignore their arguments, insult them, insult other people without true justification and attempt to socially vilify them through implication…they just refuse to see reason.

Maybe next time you will be luckier to meet more people on the ‘Dawkins made me embrace religioun’ bandwagon. Because no one ever became religious before Dawkins started campaigning against it.

And just remember people – if you ever want to become a world renowned expert in any field – you better damn well be absolutely perfect in everything you do and know plenty about every field of knowledge.

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Australia’s Welfare Needs to be Increased, not Cut Back

I was told over Facebook just today that these new changes to welfare and medicare that The Liberal Party are trying to bring in won’t make anyone starve. Of course this claim shows a complete ignorance of what life is like on Newstart and disability, and also highlights how strong ideological thinking is, where evidence and data are ignored because an ideology tells us that something should be better, so we assume it is better.

Why find out whether people are struggling to survive on Newstart currently, and then get the data on how the new changes will change their situation, when we can just outright assert that there won’t be any real negative change, and then assume we are right?

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What Is Skepticism For? The Case for Skeptic Activism against The War on Drugs.

I’ve never been much of a drinker. I didn’t do it at all until late into my 20s, and since then only very rarely have I bothered. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. Drug taking has been almost completely non-existent in my entire life and I spent the first 30 or so years outright denouncing them.

I tell you all of this because I am about to make an argument in defense of drugs and drug users, and it has become standard practice to minimise anyone who defends drugs as a ‘pot head’ or a ‘junkie’ or some other ad hominem attack to save the effort of actually engaging with the arguments. I am no pot head. And I am definitely no junkie.

With that out of the way, I think the War on Drugs, and with it, public perception of drugs + public policy on drugs + media representation of drugs (which is a whirlpool of feedback loops) is just about one of the most harmful things our society does to itself. And I believe that the Skeptic community should take a more active role in fighting against this harm.

Why The Skeptic Community?

It is true that many organisations already exist which are fighting for legalisation, deciminalisation and other reforms on the drug law front, but they are usually fighting on the political level and are also usually ignored by the mainstream (both the media and the public) because “…you know… potheads.” The skeptic community has the advantage of NOT being about drugs, but being about good science. That is what makes this proposition so powerful for undoing this harmful set of laws.

rock fishing is one of the most dangerous sports there isBut why should the skeptic community care? Because my understanding of what the skeptic movement is really about – at its roots – is correcting false beliefs to reduce harms. The objective is to make the world a better place by saving people from themselves. To save people from using useless medical treatments, or to save people from wasting money on useless rituals, treatments or activities.

Skepticism is about destroying false beliefs. And social perception of drugs, thanks to decades of propaganda and manipulation by governments and the media, is so out of line with reality that we are perpetuating incredibly harmful policies out of fear and ignorance when we should be basing our policies on science, knowledge and rationality.

This is what skeptics fight for, and I see no reason why this fight should be any different to any of the others skeptics pick.

Why Drugs? Why Should Skeptics Care About Drug Law?

Skeptics should care about drug laws exactly the same way that skeptics care about vaccination.

Imagine a world where 50 years ago some extreme political party got into power in the USA and decided that vaccination was a dangerous act, and needed to be made illegal. They start massive advertising and propaganda campaigns and convince the majority of the population that vaccination is a dangerous activity for which there is no possible benefit. They highlight every adverse reaction, twist evidence to suit their agenda, and gain a popular support of outlawing vaccination.

vaccination and drugsImagine a modern world where people have to get vaccinated in secret, with vaccines they can’t be sure are what they are meant to be, and with needles which might be reused. Imagine the media covered every single adverse reaction which ever occurred, and talked about people dying and contracting blood born diseases from shared needles, despite the fact that these problems only exist because vaccines are illegal (ie: not a product of the vaccines themselves). While the media is covering every negative aspect of vaccination it is of course only covering 1 in 200 of the complications experienced with alternative medicines. The public is justifiably convinced that alternative medicines like homeopathy and acupuncture are perfectly safe, while vaccination is a high risk treatment which doesn’t offer any benefit to the receiver.

And then someone suggests that maybe the skeptic community – so concerned with saving people from misinformation and scientific manipulations – might want to perhaps argue for the legalisation of vaccination again.

  • “But we don’t deal with that. Lets stick to what we know…”
  • “That is an issue for lawyers and politicians. We are just concerned with pseudoscience and the paranormal”
  • “I just don’t understand why vaccination is something we should care about?”
  • “Research has shown how harmful having backroom vaccinations can be. It is clearly dangerous, you shouldn’t do it, and there is very little science supporting the value of vaccinations! And your conspiratorial talk of government controlling research makes you sound like a nut job.”

This is what I see when I suggest skeptics care about drug laws. Willful avoidance of engagement with the issue, and dismissal of the fact that governments have very clearly controlled the substances (halting scientific research in many ways) while simultaneously funding many studies in order to prove their existing biases. This fact is most strongly highlighted by the fact that David Nutt (winner of the 2013 John Maddox award for defending science) was fired from his government position for reporting that many illegal drugs were far less harmful than the legal drugs, thus the laws should be changed to be more scientifically consistent. The government (usually through ‘drug abuse’ organisations) has been funding ‘drug research’ for decades with the clear intention of finding specific results. For example, the most recent study to get a lot of press because it found ‘abnormalities’ in the brain of ‘casual’ marijuana users, was in part funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The press derived from this paper was clearly designed to hype the somewhat biased language used in the paper.

What’s All the Fuss About Anyway? What is the Harm in Protecting People from Drug Abuse?

ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse ridingI’m so glad you asked! Because we all know that drugs are bad and dangerous and harmful right!? Well, yeah, there is some level of truth to that. Like driving cars. Or mountain biking. Or horse riding. Everything in life contains risks and we all have to choose what level of risk we are each willing to accept. When it comes to drugs though, for some reason personal autonomy is not an option.

So yeah, drugs can be harmful, but this is where the science really matters – How harmful are drugs exactly?

This is where David Nutt’s research becomes incredibly important. He was actually trying to answer that question. And when his findings highlighted the inconsistency between the actual risks associated with particular drugs and their legal status, he was fired for actually reporting it as such. Nonetheless, we can still thankfully see the results of his research and see that many drugs are actually less harmful to individuals and society as a whole than the legal drugs and many other activities which no one would ever consider criminalising.

So that is the first point here; our laws do not represent the actual risks involved, and thus the notion that our laws are there to ‘protect people’ are immediately questionable.

But the second point is far more important – these laws are outright harmful.

If someone smokes a joint, it might have negative affects on their brain (an incredibly slight chance) – but if that same person is caught by a police officer with that one joint, it could get them a permanent criminal record which will affect them for the rest of their life. That is real and genuine harm that lowers individuals well being, chance of success and happiness in life.

  • Placing people in prisons for personal choices – that ruins lives.
  • Being able to use drugs as an excuse to disproportionately target one socio-economic or racial group above all others – that is a real harm.
  • Driving an elastic market underground and creating drug cartels who are already on the wrong side of the law, thus have no reason to obey any other laws – that is a real harm.
  • Not providing a safe way to buy chemicals which people continue to buy despite the laws, thus risking overdose or taking poisons instead of the intended substance – that is a real harm.
  • Spending billions of dollars to enforce these laws while making zero actual progress – that is a real harm.

motorcycle racing - more dangerous than most drugsThe costs of the war on drugs, to individuals and to society as a whole is incredible. This is why I believe it is one of the most harmful things our society does to itself.

I am not alone.

The drug reform movement is growing. Breaking the Taboo is a great example of this, with Richard Branson, US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and leaders from Colombia, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico all coming out against the war on drugs. Even the Wikipedia page on the War on Drugs paints a bleak picture of that policy. And then you have examples like Portugal, who took steps to decriminalise personal quantities of drugs in 2001 and have had many successes in their experiment.

The war on drugs is winding up, and there is growing support for reformation of drug laws around the world, but it is still taking an incredibly long time. And while this is happening, we have people spending their lives in prison for petty and harmless crimes. And we have people being sentenced to death for drug trafficking. As if that fact wasn’t bad enough, dare to publicly speak up to defend these people about to be murdered by governments on the basis of global propaganda, and people actually defend the governments rights to do it. People respond with “well they knew the chance they were taking when they did it!” Very caring and compassionate that is! I wonder if those same people would be so blase if an extreme Jewish sect started stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath? Or if they defend the rights of extremist Muslim groups who kill women trying to get an education. They all knew the risks they were taking too, surely?

The harms of this global persecution of drug use and drug supply are devastating and inhumane, and they need to end. If we could help speed this process up, and bring drug laws into alignment with the best scientific knowledge, than we can make the world a better place and save many lives.

What Skeptics Can Do

Like most things, it starts with self education. Watch this talk by David Nutt and you will have a much better understanding of the drug-law situation than 99% of the population. If you can, watch Breaking the Taboo too. Understand the manipulations present in past drug research – for example, read this comic to see how research has been used to produce desired conclusions and then the correcting studies have been largely ignored. And of course, if you want to know anything about any drug, then Erowid is generally recognised as the most comprehensive and reliable source of information about drugs (and I have been told that Bluelight is great too).

With knowledge on your side, then I think we need to start considering drugs (or drug law? or ‘the science of drug harm’?) to be one of the subjects skeptics care about. We should be inviting people like David Nutt to talk at our conferences. We should be publishing articles about the science of drug harms in our skeptic magazines to help inform more people about the situation. We should be blogging about it. We should be challenging people when they make untrue statements about drug harms.

We have to break through this fear of talking about drugs. We can’t let social pressure and policy pressure stop us from bringing objective scientific information to the public. We have to break out of the propaganda!

Lets make the world a better place and focus our laws on the real criminals – not on the people who want to enjoy life in their own way.

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