If I were in charge… (Part 1)

If I were in charge of a country, I would change 3 significant things:

  1. I would legalise and monopolise all illegal drugs
  2. I would implement a universal basic income
  3. I would rigorously secularise society

Put the cartels out of business legalise drugs

Part 1. The War on Drugs has Failed

This is no secret. It is well documented now, in all sorts of ways. It costs many billions each year, it causes more harm than good, costs lives, creates crime, and completely fails to deliver on its one objective. Drugs are more accessible, cheaper, and more numerous than at any other point in history.

We need a new approach.

Portugal has been the only country to really give decriminalisation a serious go. And it has worked remarkably well for them. But decriminilisation is a weird halfway sort of solution. Sure, it isn’t ‘criminal’ any more, but it still isn’t legal. It becomes more like speeding.

If I were in charge, pending rigorous expert consultation and comprehensive review, I would immediately take steps to create a centralised government drug production and wholesale distribution system.

Dare to legalise drugs

Initial Education

While the infrastructure was being set up, I would ensure adequate educational material was made available and regularly presented to kids of all ages, at least once a year throughout all of high school warning of the side effects and risks of drugs (in all forms), ensuring that everyone in society grows up with a valid understanding of drugs, not a fear based one. TV commercials, paper, radio, and mail-drops of informational pamphlets would also be done at this early stage to inform the public of the changes, and provide them with access to a website where more information and drug facts could be accessed.

With the warnings and education in place, the drugs would start being produced, and retail outlets would be licensed. Either directly through pharmacists, or similar to how liquor outlets are currently handled in Australia. Either way, the government would handle the production and wholesale distribution to private, highly regulated, thoroughly trained and licensed retail outlets. Every shipment of every type of drug would have information sheets which go with each batch, providing crucial information relevant to the dosage, side effects, risks, interactions etc that should be known before taking that drug.

Retail Scenario

The retail outlets would be responsible for ensuring the customer meets age restrictions (most likely 21+ for most drugs, but definitely based on scientific rigour rather than ideology), limiting the quantity purchased per customer, providing cursory verbal information, warnings and queries to ensure the customer understands the risks (as pharmacists currently do for prescription drugs), and of course, giving information pamphlets/booklets with the purchased drugs.

User Consequences

Now, all drug users have a clean reliable source of known quantities of drugs. This will significantly reduce risk of poisoning and overdose. Plus all users have readily accessible information about risks, rather than trusting ‘friends’ and random strangers to advise them. This too will have a significant impact on overdoses, overuse, addictions, bad interactions and many other risks typically assumed to be the fault of the drugs, rather than the fault of ignorance.Remember prohibition it still doesn't work legalise drugs

Crime Results

With a reliable government source, drug dealers will all be rapidly put out of business.

All of the drugs will be sold with a high tax rate and commercial mark up, so drug dealers might be able to keep lower prices. However, people will tend to prefer the certainty of knowing they are getting pure quality of known concentrations from reliable outlets over slightly lower prices. The profitability of large drug running organisations and organised crime groups will simply disappear, and with it, those groups will die a quick death. Most organised crime will simply disappear because most of them depend on their drug sales to maintain cash flow.

With the death of most organised crime groups, violence will decline. Turf wars, inter-gang rivalry, and violence to intimidate and maintain control will disappear with them. This fact is already being demonstrated with marijuana legalisation in Colorado, with violent crime declining by 5.2% in the first 6 months. Legalise all drugs, and it will be much more significant.

Revenue and Expenses

The biggest positive will be the significant new income source taken from crime syndicates and given to the government for the benefit of the public.

The costs of policing drug crime are significant, and these will nearly completely be eradicated over the course of a couple of years. The savings there alone will be immense, but they will be nothing compared to the revenue generated by the sale of the drugs, and the tax revenue generated from the retail outlets.  If there is one thing we have learned over the last 50+ years of drug prohibition, it is that druglords make more money than just about anyone else in society

Some of that revenue would be lost to the initial costs – creation of the farms, laboratories and distribution networks. Ongoing staff costs, maintenance etc will be easily covered by the revenue of sale. The significant profits and the taxation from retail sales would then need to be all used for specialised drug-related concerns in society.

Investment into Education

First, there would be the education side. Some of the money would need to be put into ensuring schools can adequately teach children about the drugs, so that no one is left ignorant of their risks and dangers. So a certain amount would be invested into schools every year and specific teachers, teacher trainings, materials, and other overheads associated with this.

Medical Expenses and Drug Abuse Support

Secondly, most of the money would need to go into ‘medical’ support. This would consist of counselling, addiction treatment, rehab and outright medical expenses generated as a consequence of drug abuse. As part of the constant exposure to drug information provided under this system, constant reminders about counselling, psychological support, and medical assistance would be forever pushed on all drug users, so that no one is ever left feeling isolated, vulnerable and trapped by their drug use. This fact alone will save more lives than any other measure in my opinion (and cut medical costs by helping people avoid the devastating outcomes of untreated abuse).

One of the biggest problems created by the war on drugs is the labelling of drug abuse victims as criminals, forcing them to feel trapped by their situation, pushing them deeper into desperation, crime, isolation, mental illness etc. By breaking that stigma alone, lives will be saved, people will be helped back to functional productive members of society, and everyone will benefit.

Scientific Investment

If money remains, or after a few years of keeping enough money in buffer to compensate for fluctuating incomes and expenses, a fund should be generated for scientific research. By having easy access to all known drugs on the planet, scientific research should be delved into with rigour. Medical applications, long term consequences on individuals, society as a whole, psychology, physiology, etc. The ability to finally get some real research done on these most remarkable of chemicals will yield amazing commercial prospects for the country as new medical applications and treatments will be pioneered there exclusively.

Related to this is the fact that by controlling virtually all drug production, wholesale sales, and regulation of retail sales of drugs, it would finally be possible to get actually reliable statistics on the usage rate of drugs. Governments would be able to monitor just how much of each drug is consumed, and the track that against adverse health affects, long term outcomes etc. Rather than just polling people, and roughly guessing. It would even be possible to recruit far more people into long term health studies of specific drugs, rather than trying to infer the outcomes indirectly.

Invest in Children

One final investment option for the new drug based revenue stream, if there is the money available for it, is to invest in parental support.

This is a bit of a wildcard, but it seems to me like most drug abuse doesn’t come from drug addiction nearly so much as it comes from feeling trapped and useless (see the rat park research). One half of that equation is being unable to fend for oneself – unemployable, destitute, desperate poverty etc. We will deal with this issue in step 2 of this piece.

But the other half of the equation (or at least, another aspect of it) is growing up in an abusive or dysfunctional household.

As a society we already try to prevent children suffering through abusive upbringings. And this is great, but no doubt most of them slip through the cracks because abuse and maltreatment isn’t always obvious. It also isn’t always intentional. Often parents just find themselves overwhelmed. Unsure of themselves. Potentially even inadequate (surprise! Just giving birth to a human doesn’t make you a great parent!).

So the wildcard idea here is to invest in family support initiatives. Definitely keep providing strong support to abused and maltreated children, but also start extending support to parents who just wish they had more help with caring for and raising their children. The idea here is something of a government initiative Super Nanny program. Nannies who come and visit for one work day per week (mornings, middays or bedtimes) or more if required, to help advise parents on how to deal with troubled children, structure and support. Lighten the load and inject alternative unbiased professional experience into the household, and hopefully the children will have better lives for it.

My intention with this idea is to help reduce the number of people who grow up harbouring psychological trauma, mild as it may be, at the hands of misguided parents. I don’t mean to over-generalise here, but like it or not, parents have the biggest impact on our lives, and if you are unlucky enough to get one who repeatedly tells you you are useless, or ugly or a failure at life, or the cause of all of their problems….etc then there is a good chance that these sorts of psychological traumas will follow you for your life, and for some people, these traumas can cause them to seek escape into drugs.

Like I said – wildcard idea, and far from validated. Just an idea at this stage, which I am happy to receive feedback on.

Ultimate Outcome

So in summary, the government produces and wholesales all (currently illegal) drugs to highly regulated retail outlets who sell to very well informed customers who have significant psychological and medical support provided to them should they need it. Drug cartels would be put out of business, reducing violent crime significantly as crime syndicates lose their main source of funding. Policing can focus on actually protecting people rather than arresting drug users, the government has more money all round, and scientific research will undoubtedly find innumerable medical applications for most of the drugs, selling the technology/knowledge/application/treatment globally, creating even more revenue for the nation.

legalise regulate educate medicateCost?

I really don’t see one.

I know, I know: More people will have access to drugs, and drugs are dangerous!

Access will be there, but most people, even if offered heroin for free at a party, would still decline. Hell, alcohol is ever present in our society and I turn that down all the time! Just because something is available does not automatically mean people will start doing it. There has to be a desire to do it.  Just ask a Dutch person whether they smoke marijuana and take mushrooms or not – most don’t.

Secondly, if people want drugs, they can already get them! This is the current situation! The difference is that when you have problems, you have no real support. And your chances of having problems are significantly increased because of the unreliable source, the materials the drugs are cut with, and the lack of education around the drug usage. The only ‘education’ we currently have is “Don’t do it.”

Abstinence only sex education causes more pregnancies than real sex education, and abstinence only drug education causes more death and harms than real drug education.

So, when we get over this automatic assumption that ‘doing drugs’ is the bad thing, and start to think in terms of actual harms – overdoses, adverse health affects, psychological illnesses etc – then we can start to assess which system causes more harm. Does the current system which provides no support and proper education and reliable sources cause less harm than the system outlined here?

I doubt it very much.

Not only do we have easy comparisons between the USA and the Netherlands showing that the country with legal access to drugs actually has LOWER usage, but we have the obvious fact that support and education create better outcomes than ignorance, violence and unreliable sources.

So again.. I can’t see an actual negative.

End the war on drugs. Legalise and monopolise drug production and lets make the world a better, more inclusive and supportive place.

 

Part 2 to follow soon.

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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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Cost-Benefit Analysis for Journalists and Fact Checking

I’ve read so many rebuttals of journalists which say things like “<journalist> did not take the effort to speak with experts/check their facts/verify the evidence…. in the future they should…”

I’m pretty sure the guilty journalists in these cases *usually* know this, they just don’t care.

I can imagine a journalist being on top of a great story, a story full of controversy, of revelation and exposé…. and the last thing they want to happen is tofind some inconvenient bloody fact which undermines the whole damn story!

If that happened they would have to start all over again on a completely new story which will definitely be far less exciting and interesting. It is much easier, and far more rewarding to publish the (potentially inaccurate) scoop that they have and get crap loads of exciting traffic and create a buzz and a hive of activity and “conversation”, than it is to ‘go speak to the experts’.

This doesn’t seem like a good system for the consumers.

I haven’t thought of a solution to fixing it yet. Anyone got any ideas?

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Is the singularity upon us?

I feel like the singularity is inching up on us and no one is noticing because they’re all waiting for the fireworks.

Over the last couple of days I have seen headlines about Google’s self driving cars being announced, automation due to cut 50% of all of the US’s jobs, and just now Skype announcing a real time translator service. Oh, I almost forgot – Watson designed a BBQ sauce?!?!?

So of course none of these things are the singularity. But damn me if they aren’t all parts of the future vision we have all been told about for so long. Robots. AI. Real time translators. The general outsourcing of all of our menial tasks and complications in life. Our phones have already taken over our memories, and provided us with instantaneous global chat, voice comms and video calls (4g is pretty awesome, and it isn’t even new anymore), and I don’t think most people even realise that this has happened. It feels like everyone is still waiting for this future, and missing the amazing things already happening.

But just going back for a minute to the automation of our driving, our labour, our translating and to some extent, our thinking, I have noticed lately that it seems like the guys involved in Futurism (see /r/Futurology for example) are the only people genuinely switched on enough about what is happening and where we are going to have the slightest clue how to handle the approaching economic apocalypse.

Seriously – 50% of all jobs about to disappear. Driverless cars putting all taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers….well, all drivers of all descriptions, all of them out of work….

As I joked with my friend on Facebook, the obvious political response to this problem of approaching joblessness will be to cut welfare so that people will be so desperate to get jobs that that desperation will magically create jobs out of thin air.

OR, a sensible person might start considering what is going to happen in a world where ‘jobs’ are no longer what people do. How does our ‘get a job’-centric society deal with the end of jobs?

I don’t think there is a coincidence that the people who have started championing Universal Basic Incomes are quite closely tied in to the Futurist crowd. It is one of the obvious solutions. In a world where costs to produce are approaching zero, and production is growing all the time, it just makes sense that we find a new way to ensure everyone gets a fair share of that arrangement, and those who improve it further get rewarded fairly (by getting more, but not in a way which detracts from the wellbeing of others).

I won’t get into it too much, but I just wanted to say those two things. 1. I think that if you aren’t paying attention to where we are going, then you’re already behind. and 2. Universal basic income is no longer just a crazy hippy commie pipe dream. It is rapidly becoming a necessary next step just to ensure the system doesn’t collapse under revolution.

 

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Some Thoughts About a Basic Income in Australia

I only heard about the concept of a basic income for the first time in the last year but immediately loved the idea. I especially loved the overwhelming successes which each trial of it seemed to return. Nonetheless I hadn’t taken the time to consider exactly how such a thing would be funded until today.

First of all – what is a Basic income? It is the idea of replacing a welfare system (which only helps people who are in dire need of it) with a guaranteed basic income for all people regardless of whether they need it or not. This overcomes a number of the problems of welfare (the fact that welfare disincentivizes getting low paying jobs for example). But I won’y waste your time explaining the intricacies of the concept or arguing for it here – it has already been well done elsewhere:

And one final point which sticks in my mind whenever I think of Basic income, is the results of a recent study which found the best way to help people in poverty is actually to just give them cash and let them do with it whatever they want: What Happens When You Just Give Money to Poor People?

Australian Budget, Welfare and Basic Income Cost

There is a lot of attention on the Australian budget atm in Australia and it has motivated me to look into our numbers recently. I found this fantastic breakdown of last years budget: Budget 2013. It tells us that last year we spent just under $400 billion dollars. And roughly $138 billion of that went to Welfare.

A fortnightly payment on Newstart (our jobseeker payment system) is worth about $510. If we take the idea that someone is meant to be able to live on Newstart (and that is debatable), then we’re looking at roughly $255 per week.

If we then pay that amount of money to every single person in the country (22.68m) each week, that will cost the government about $5.8 billion per week, or $300 billion per annum. Nearly the entire yearly budget of Australia, and more than twice as much as the current spending on welfare.

It is a bit more complicated than that of course, because usual basic income systems don’t give the full amount to children, so not everyone would get the entire amount. And there would be some level of overhead – but it would be insignificantly small since there would be very little work involved to ensure the payments are made.

Is It Possible for Australia to Have a Basic Income?

Looking at the numbers as they currently stand, clearly we can’t afford it. I mean, there simply isn’t any way we could cut other expenses nearly enough to be able to afford the $300 billion (minimum) of a basic income. BUT, economics is of course more complicated than that. There are of course ways of increasing government revenue. And there are other ways of keeping the overall cost of the basic income down. As I said above, children would receive less for instance.

One idea which came to mind for cutting the cost is to not actually make it universal, but make it universal for lower income earners. As soon as your income (total including the basic income) reaches a certain threshhold ($60,000 pa? $100,000 pa?) your basic income starts to be incrementally decreased. This in effect acts as a steep tax for higher income earners at a specific level, but the real negative of this system would be that it would probably create more overhead and the need to administer the system. A more reasonable approach would be to leave the basic income as a universal system, but simply increase the tax rate of higher income earners overall. So this no longer makes an ‘effective tax’ out of losing the payment, but just increases the amount taxed in our existing taxation system. This method would also be applied more fairly and universally across all higher income earners than just people at a specific threshhold income.

However, it can be said that income tax has a negative affect on the economy (I would argue that the benefits of removing poverty and the lower class and replacing it with a strong guaranteed middle class) would more than compensate for the cost of a higher taxation – but nonetheless, let us accept that higher income tax may have negative affects. So one suggestion is to implement/increase land tax.

And Finally, it is possible for Australia to over spend and go into debt to fund this. Australia currently has the second lowest debt of all of the OECD countries. Our debt is about 60% of our yearly budget, compared to the UK debt which is almost twice their yearly budget, and the US debt which is roughly 4x their annual budget. Of course debt for debts sake isn’t great – but debt to fund an investment can be the most powerful debt possible. Especially when your debt is charged the sort of interest rate that government debt is charged. (To make this point more sound, if you could borrow or at 5% and lend at 10% – would you rather borrow nothing, $100 or $1 billion? If you answered anything other than $1 billion, then you don’t understand maths.)

Why Do it?

If we’re going to have to increase taxes to be able to do this, it better be worth it right? Well, I think the destruction of poverty in a country is a pretty powerful reason alone to do this. This not only affects the lives of those in poverty, but of everyone in society as there would be less crime (less theft out of desperation) and a general improvement of society as more people have the luxury of attending school/college/university or pursuing their dreams rather than feeling trapped by their circumstances.

The benefits of a basic income are numerous, and the long term returns would be immense. I expect most of the article linked to above have already covered that though. So I might just leave it here. It is late. I might proof read this tomorrow or something…. 🙂 Goodnight.

 

(looking at my last few blog posts, it is no wonder my blog will never become popular – who else is interested in economics, drug policy, vaccination, non-monogamy, religion…etc.)

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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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Apologetics for the Status Quo

I have a few philosophical obsessions/interests in my life, of which 3 are:

  1. The desire for extreme longevity
  2. ethical non-monogamy
  3. atheism.

These subjects interest me greatly and have each lead me to stand apart from the mainstream in many ways (though atheism is of course becoming much more mainstream all the time).

That said, I accept wholeheartedly that other people don’t have the same interests or desires as me. If you want to die in old age. Fine. If you want to believe in God. Fine. If you are certain that Monogamy is the only option for you. Fine.

But I am starting to get incredibly frustrated by the apologists out there who argue for the maintenance of any of these status quos.

With all 3 of these status quo situations, people who argue for their maintenance are as much a consequence of the system as they are part of its perpetuation. And the blindness to this reality is so very difficult to overcome within the usual 30second snippet interactions. You actually have to tear down the whole system and start again before they realise that their arguments only make sense ‘because that’s how it has always been done!’

It feels like arguing with a slaver who insists that slaves actually like being given structure. Or misogynists who insist that women like having lower positions in companies. And then having them point out examples which validate their arguments. yeah, it might even be true…but only because the system is rigged to make it true, and because people are incredibly malleable and so adjust to the bullshit world they are raised in.

So yeah, you have convinced yourself that you ‘really want to die in old age’ – but I promise you that is only because you resigned yourself to that fate because it feels helpless and pointless to do otherwise.

And I bet that 90% of the people out there who are CERTAIN that monogamy is the only option for them, would be certain that they could never be monogamous if everyone was non-monogamous. It is just a coping mechanism because from early childhood it is made clear to us that there is only one option, and to fight the system is pointless and a lost battle. You must step in line, and you might as well ‘enjoy it’.

So then, when people ‘cheat’ in the rigged system which they had fooled themselves into believing they wanted, everyone acts shocked. The blindness of people looking in on this just leaves me dumbfounded.

sexual healing screenshot don't get caught south park

 

It reminds me of a great South Park Episode called Sexual Healing. Here are a couple of excerpts from it:

 

Chairman: I’ve gathered you together here because you are the best minds our country has to offer. As you’ve all seen on the news, our country is facing a major crisis, and we need to find out what’s causing it. [the men glance at each other] Why? Why are rich successful men suddenly going out and trying to have sex with lots of women?
Expert 1: [with mustache and black coat] Tiger Woods was only the most prevalent, but our data shows that the numbers are growing. David Letterman and before that, Bill Clinton. There’s a pattern here, people.
Expert 2: [with mustache and midnight blue coat] Why would a man who’s famous and makes tons of money use that and have sex with lots of different women? [glances at the woman to his left, then looks ahead again]
Chairman: [stands up] Aand these rich celebrities have perfectly good wives at home. Why would they even think of sex with others? Dammit![pounds the table with his right fist, but manages only a soft blow] I want answers!
Expert 3: [balding, with lab coat] We believe that it may be an outbreak of sex addiction, sir.

 

Chairman: Mr. President, in every test the results were the same. The monkeys who were given cash always acted out their sexual addiction to dangerous levels. It appears that money has a direct effect on the virus’s ability to develop.
Obama: So we must keep our nation’s youth away from money and success.
Chairman: No good, Mr. President. Because we’ve learned that sex addicts will find ways to make money and become successful in order to feed their addiction.
Obama: You mean boys will start working towards being rich and successful just so they can one day have sex with lots of women??
Chairman: Yes. That’s why we decided to look at the cash itself for clues! We tried to find something in the hundred dollar bill that could explain why this is happening now. Then we looked at the backside, and found this. [points to the picture of Independence Hall on the back of the bill]Independence Hall.
Obama: The birthplace of our country.
Chairman: We believe something is happening in Independence Hall that gives money its power over men.
Obama: Independence Hall… Independence Day… Aliens… Gentlemen, I might know what’s causing the sex addiction outbreak. This is highly classified, but… in 1947 a flying saucer was discovered in Roswell, New Mexico. Two deceased alien bodies were recovered and hidden from public knowledge. They carried… a virus with them. A virus that only barely stopped from spreading all over the country.
Chairman: And you think that these aliens… could be back with a new virus? One originating from Independence Hall causing rich successful men to have sex with lots of women?!
Obama: [seriously] It’s the only explanation that makes any sense. [glances at Michelle, who doesn’t react, then looks at the chairman again]

 

 

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Debating Creationists (Or any other anti-science position)

So Bill Nye just finished debating Ken Ham at the Creation Museum and I actually sat and watched the whole thing live. I have tended to agree with Richard Dawkins about the problems of debating creationists, and the fact that Bill Nye agreed to this intrigued me (since it seems most people agree with Dawkins here, and there have been very few high profile science educators doing these sorts of debates for many years now).

Why We Should Debate Creationists

However, in considering what Nye could do with this debate I started to change my mind. That change was confirmed when I saw the 500,000+ live viewers of the debate on YouTube (and who knows how many more will watch it over the weeks, months and years to come). So apparently there is an appetite for this sort of a debate. Apparently people want to see it. And by agreeing to do these sorts of debates….by going in to the heart of the beast (The CREATION MUSEUM no less), you are getting knowledgeable scientists in front of the very people who most need to hear what they have to say!

Think about that. If Dawkins or Bill Nye went to Tennessee and did a talking tour, would one tenth of that audience have turned up at his lecture? No. But they will turn up to watch their favourite Creationist teach him about the Bible! So this sort of event is a great opportunity for Science educators, what can we do with it?

Don’t Debate – Just Teach

We have the audience we most need to reach, so lets take advantage of that. How do we do that? We focus on teaching them science. Forget the debate. Don’t even bother trying to win it…. just focus on teaching the audience something that they can grasp in the short time you have, and something they will remember. Then keep hammering it home.

And that brings me to the critical part of this article – as much as I love Bill Nye, and appreciate the pressure of performing live in a clearly hostile territory, I found myself mostly disappointed with what he said during the debate. No doubt he did say some great stuff which should have left any creationist stuck for an answer, and hopefully questioning how it is that they believe what they believe, but unfortunately, he also said a lot of things which didn’t do that very well. And the lots of things which weren’t spectacular, can unfortunately drown out the few spectacular things. I know they shouldn’t, but they do. And so the problem is that the audience is quickly distracted away from the strong point which is challenging their beliefs, and they refocus their thought process on this new weaker point which they quickly dismiss because *insert mental gymnastic reason here*.

Watching Bill list of all of the reasons we know the universe is the way it is felt like he just wanted everyone to know all of the knowledge behind all of those facts…but this isn’t how it works. Instead it sounds to the ignorant like Gish Gallop and none of it actually sticks because they don’t really understand what any of it means. It is all just words, until something is actually explained in detail!

There cannot be any assumed knowledge in a debate in the creation museum!

Don’t Skim Many Points. Teach Deeply on Few

I think Bill tried to cover too much ground and didn’t go into nearly enough depth in any of them to actually show how and why they are justified. By skimming across the surface this way, you end up actually coming across to them exactly like they come across to us. “We know radiation exists, therefore we know radiometric dating works, and that is how we date the age of the planet!” sounds as compelling to them as “The Bible tells us God made it” sounds to us. “Radiometric dating tells us” doesn’t actually explain anything…

So, what I really want to encourage future debaters to focus on doing when given this opportunity, is to pick the strongest 2 or 3 pieces of evidence we have for our scientific worldview, quickly put them in context of all of the other pieces of evidence perhaps, but then spend your entire allotted time explaining exactly how it is that we know those 2 or 3 pieces of evidence. TEACH the audience the history of that knowledge. Show them the experiments which verify it. Explain the logic behind it. And then just keep hammering those three points.

If you pick your points well, you can probably structure it so that you can keep coming back to one or the other to address the same questions and claims Creationists will always come up with. Say you pick Limestone creation as one of your points. You can use that (and that alone!) to show how the story of Noah is impossible. And you can use it as corroborating evidence to give us an indication of how old the planet it. And you can use it to show that we know about tectonic plate movement and uplift etc.

Pick a couple of key pieces of knowledge, explain them well, then use only those pieces of knowledge to rebut everything they say, and show how we know what we are talking about. (and of course, occasionally remind them that this is just 3 of hundreds of lines of evidence that we have.)

And if we have more of these debates, and every different debater picks different points to argue from, we might slowly teach the creationists geology, paleontology, astronomy, biology etc…. one subject at a time.

Shane

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Correcting the Internet – The difficulties, and a new approach

I just published a new article reviewing an academic paper on the rbutr blog:

 

Review of The Promise and Peril of Real-Time Corrections to Political Misperceptions by Garret and Weeks

by SHANE on APRIL 17, 2013

Research published in the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) Journal shows that apps which highlight incorrect information and provide real time corrections may actually be less effective at changing the minds of people who have a pre-disposition to agree with the incorrect information, than time-delayed correction techniques are.

Here I will review the paper, and then reflect on its findings from the perspective of our efforts (rbutr) to create an alternative system of ‘error correction’ in the form of a semantic linkage between claim-rebuttal webpage pairs.

 

Read the rest on the rbutr blog.

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