Category Archives: society

Cause and effect

I haven’t been too impressed with ethanol fuels for a while. My concern back then was “that if governments make emotional knee-jerk reactions, the cure may be as bad as the disease it is designed to alleviate.”

In that context, the current food crisis is a salutory reminder of the nature of cause and effect.  Food riots have occurred in Egypt and Haiti and other countries, and the World Bank has warned the increased cost of food will push 100 million impoverished people deeper into poverty.

As this Washington Post article makes clear, the causes of the crisis are many, including the Australian drought, high oil prices and world economic trade barriers which obscured the rising food prices, preventing the market from making gradual adjustments.

However, another cause is the move in the US to plant crops for biofuels. Apparently one-fifth to one-quarter of the US corn crop will go to the production of ethanol for biofuel, which has contributed to the rise in global corn prices. And one must question how efficient biofuel is, according to these statistics stated in a New York Sun article

“It takes around 400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons of ethanol,” Mr. Senauer, also an applied economics professor at Minnesota, said. “It’s not going to be a very good diet but that’s roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year.”

Some environmental and charity groups have now turned against biofuels as a result of the current crisis. It just proves that there’s no easy solution, and that proper and considered thought needs to be put into alternative fuel sources. This is why I hate scaremongering; it leads to irrational responses where the outcomes can be disasterous. Hopefully this will cause some thought about other options instead of biofuel.

But more than that, I hope that people will not starve as a result of the heightened food prices.

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Filed under climate change, Economics, environment, ethanol fuel, food, politics, society, USA

The Spirit and the Law – consumer protection and mediums

A certain section of the British spiritualist community is protesting again the repeal of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (UK). The Independent reported the other day that the recently formed Spiritualist Workers Association (SWA) believes that the repeal of the legislation is discriminatory towards spiritualism. The Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU) which is a long-established body, backed the changes.

The government has denied that the changes are in any way discriminatory, saying that the repeal of the legislation is merely intended to pave the way for the implementation of the EC Unfair Commercial Practices law. The Consumer Protection Regulations cover all activities involving the supply of goods and services to consumers in trade or business, and like our Australian Trade Practices Legislation, looks to prohibit any activity which is misleading to consumers, and aggressive selling techniques.

The issue is that the previous act (which replaced the Witchcraft Act 1735) required the medium to have a deceptive intent or to use a fraudulent device before any contravention could be proven. Very few prosecutions were made, because it was difficult to prove dishonest intent. By contrast, it will be easier to punish or prosecute fraudulent mediums under ordinary consumer protection laws. According to this article in The Times, about £40 million is lost per annum as a result of fraudulent clairvoyant or spiritualist schemes. I agree with the author that the veracity of the religion is not being challenged: it is merely that those who provide services should be subject to uniform standards, and should not make claims that mislead or exploit vulnerable people.

When looking at the issue, I found this interesting directive by the UK Committee of Advertising Practice, which summarises its conclusions for spiritualists, psychics and the like as follows:

  • Marketers should hold documentary evidence to prove any claims that are capable of objective substantiation;
  • Marketers should not mislead or exploit vulnerable people;
  • Claims about successfully solving problems or improving health should be avoided because they are likely to be impossible to prove;
  • Claims of ‘help offered’ should be replaced with ‘advice’;
  • References to healing should refer to spiritual rather than physical healing;
  • Direct marketers should not imply that they have personal knowledge about recipients;
  • Claims relating to the accuracy of readings or guaranteed results should not be made unless they are backed up by appropriate evidence;
  • Claims about being a personal advisor to stars, the wealthy etc and claims such as ‘…as featured on TV’ should be backed up by appropriate evidence;
  • Claims relating to the length of time that a marketer has been established should be backed up by evidence;
  • Money-back guarantees should be clear and genuine;
  • Any testimonials used should be genuine;
  • Marketers should not imply that a lucky charm can directly affect a user’s circumstances;
  • Claims that a lucky charm can act as a confidence prop are acceptable if emphasis is placed on a user’s state of mind, and unproven beliefs that do not relate to the effect of a lucky charm may be acceptable if expressed as a matter of opinion;
  • Marketers offering premium rate fortune telling services should adhere to the ICSTIS Code of Practice.

Sounds eminently sensible to me…any UK clairvoyant, spiritualist or other practitioner in the alternative health sphere would do well to heed it, and then they shouldn’t have any problem with the new legislation. Legitimate practitioners need not worry, because presumably they can provide evidence of their skills, accreditation and testimonials from satisfied customers.

Some lawyers have suggested that spiritualists should describe their service as “entertainment” or a scientific experiment. Hmm, I don’t think so. Just don’t make claims that you can’t back up.

Personally, I don’t rule out the existence of talents which I cannot explain or the effectiveness of alternative treatments, although I have a fair measure of scepticism about some practices. What I very much object to is unrealistic claims about the provision of such services.

I particularly dislike some faith healing claims where, if the service doesn’t work, the fault is not that of the practitioner or the healing method, but the fault of the patient for lacking “faith” or “determination”. As someone who has suffered from illness and disability from an early age, I know that there are some things which just can’t be fixed. Don’t get me wrong: positive thought and determination are very useful. But you’re not a failure if you’re ill. The last thing you need if you are ill is to feel that somehow it is your fault. I have personally benefited from some “alternative” therapies in relation to problems with walking, including Feldenkrais, yoga, acupuncture and Bowen therapy. A friend’s mother gave me Feldenkrias training when I was a teenager after I had an operation on my legs and had to learn to walk again, and it was extremely helpful. I doubt I would have recovered so quickly or so well without it. But ultimately, some problems can never be totally “healed”.

I guess the ultimate point for all consumers is: IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT IS! How loudly can I say it (well, type it)?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s spiritualism, alternative therapy or investment services. In one of my jobs, I used to come across a lot of share scams and investment scams, and I’ve seen some tragic cases. Indeed, there was a case in the paper this morning about the collapse of a Geelong investment firm which reportedly promised some investors returns of up to 70%. As I always tell my class: as a general rule, the return is directly proportional to the risk – the higher the return, the higher the risk!

So, to all you consumers out there, retain a measure of scepticism and don’t get carried away by extraordinary claims. I’m all for uniform standards which keep those who provide services to the public on the straight and narrow.

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Filed under consumer affairs, crazy stuff, law, society

Not so much gibberish as derivative and boring

I was rather amused to see that the Judge hearing the J.K. Rowling copyright infringement case has described Rowling’s plotlines as “gibberish”.

To explain briefly, as outlined in this article from The Times, Rowling is asking the Manhattan Federal Court to block publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon, a guide to places and names in the Harry Potter series penned by Stephen Vander Ark. Vander Ark had been compiling the guide on a website when RDR Books persuaded him to publish it as a book. The trial has been very emotional, with Vander Ark breaking down in the witness box, and Rowling saying that her characters were as dear to her as children. I thought it was all rather melodramatic myself.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, I don’t think the plot lines are gibberish, but I find the series rather derivative, and Books 4 and 5 were very long, badly edited and boring. I never bothered to read Books 6 and 7, something which still amazes those who know of my voracious reading habits. Hence I was somewhat amused to see Rowling accusing Vander Ark of being derivative: her work is just a clever patchwork of motifs from other much better fantasy works.

I wonder if a better course of action for all would have been for Rowling to broker a deal whereby she collaborated with Vander Ark and fixed the bits of the Lexicon that she found to be offensive and derivative. I’ve noticed that where guides to a fantasy book deal are produced, they are often the product of collaboration between the author and a third party. A third party seems to be able to provide some perspective. But I don’t know what Rowling’s contract with her publishers is: perhaps that wouldn’t be possible. Still, it all seems unnecessarily confrontational.

Update

Further news and sensible commentary in this Guardian article, which asks how can Rowling talk about debasement when she is agreeing to the construction of a Harry Potter theme park in the US?

Although I have to confess that my sister and I went to Parc Asterix in Paris when we were young, and that was quite fun and not overly commercial from memory. We chose Parc Asterix over Eurodisney…after all, we had read our Asterix books all over France, and visited the site of Vercingetorix’s defeat in Alesia.

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Filed under books, copyright, Harry Potter, law, literature, reading, society

God’s law and the law of the State

What happens when you have a particular group in society who are not minded to follow the law of the State, but prefer to follow God’s law as they interpret it?

Recently this question has come up in relation to Sharia law, particularly after the Archbishop of Canterbury said that some aspects of sharia law would inevitably be adopted in Britain. But the question doesn’t just arise in relation to Islam. Many religions have a group within who prefers the laws of God to the laws of the State. For example, orthodox Jews in Australia may take some disputes between one another to the Beth Din, a religious court where rabbis hand out judgment. And some indigenous Australians may prefer that a dispute be dealt with under traditional law rather than “whitefella law”.

My personal opinion is that as long as the law of God does not transgress fundamental human rights, then parties can consent to that particular law binding their actions. It is rather like an agreement to arbitrate in a contract where any disputes are referred to a mutually agreed arbitrator. The problem occurs when a particular practice or punishment which is said to be required by the law of God or tradition is illegal under the laws of the State: eg, stoning, spearing through the leg, promise of child brides etc. My personal opinion is that such things should not be allowed. The issue is slightly more vexed with indigenous tradition than it is with other religious laws because indigenous people didn’t “choose” to move here and to be subject to our laws, they were imposed upon them from colonisers. Nonetheless, as I have explained in one of my very early posts, as a feminist, I just cannot countenance the assault and rape of a teenage “promised bride” by her tribal husband, for example. Cultural relativism be damned.

It is a difficult question however, because it is a balance between religious tolerance and universal human rights (which should apply to all, regardless of race or religion or anything else).

Consequently, I was really interested to read this article in Slate about the American legal system and the Amish and the Mormons. I hadn’t really thought deeply about the conflict that would arise between State law and the traditions and laws of these two groups.

Amish are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin who live in separate communities. They dress in conservative dress, do not use much modern technology and do not educate their children beyond 8th grade because of the “worldly values” they might learn. Study is focussed on the Bible, and children are expected to work in the fields with their parents once they leave school. They do not believe in Social Security, and do not either make payments or accept payments from the government. The educational practices and expectation that children will work in the fields has brought them in to conflict with US education and child labor rules. In Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972) three Amish parents were fined by the Wisconsin authorities for taking their children from school before the age of 16, but the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld the right of the parents to do this. Amish refuse to participate in wars, and their conscientious objection has also gotten them into trouble. As the article in Slate observes, the Amish have been given a fair degree of latitude, in part because they are peaceful and because they have managed to broker compromises with the State.

Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. They believe in the Book of Mormon. The Church of the Latter Day Saints officially abandoned polygamy after pressure from law enforcement in 1890, but some other fundamentalist groups continue to practice polygamy. The practice of taking multiple wives and taking child brides has brought the Fundamentalist Mormon Church into conflict with the law. In the last few weeks, Texan authorities raided a Fundamentalist Mormon compound after a 16 year old girl called authorities to say that she had recently borne a child to her 50 year old husband. Other US States are concerned that this raid may ruin their efforts to make Fundamentalist Mormons trust them and cooperate with them. As the Slate article outlined, a large raid on a Short Creek Fundamentalist Mormon community in 1953 was ultimately counterproductive. The Slate article concludes that the Mormon groups are in a different situation to the Amish:

But the fundamentalist Mormons groups are in a state of evasion. The ban on bigamy functions as a zoning ordinance: Plural marriage is fine in isolated communities, but not in Salt Lake City, and certainly not on TV talk shows, as Tom Green found. So long as the fundamentalists remain in hiding, the extreme ugliness of conducting raids creates a form of tolerance. They are thus in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” state of legal limbo that could break open at any time. They are outside the law in a different way.

It will be interesting to see whether the Texan raid is counterproductive or forces the Fundamentalist Mormon church into submission.

These situations remind us that the conflict between God’s law and the law of the State has many facets, and there are different ways of resolving the issue. Have a read of the Slate article and see what you think.

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Filed under children, christianity, feminism, human rights, indigenous issues, islam, judaism, law, marriage, politics, religion, society, tolerance, USA

Jah on their side…

This article about the collapse of a legal trial against some Rastafarians cracks me up.

Apparently the five Rastas had been charged with cannabis dealing, and the trial had been running for two weeks when one of the police officers recognised a paralegal from the defence team for one of the defendants. The paralegal was said to have telephoned the police and complained about alleged drug running at the Rastafarian temple, although she denied this. What were the chances of that?

The trial descended into chaos, and the prosecution decided not to tender any further evidence. The judge decided that the defendants should be acquitted.

(Hat tip to Dave Bath at Balneus)

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Filed under courts, crazy stuff, criminal law, drugs, law, religion, society

Fitna

The other day, I watched the film Fitna on YouTube, a film about Islam by Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had read some interesting reviews by Skepticlawyer at Catallaxy, Pommygranate at Australian Libertarian Society Blog and Saint at Dogfight At Bankstown.

I must say that I felt considerable ambivalence about it. I’ve waited over a week to write on it.

On the one hand, I support freedom of speech. Furthermore, there is no denying the fact that there are extremist Muslims who in the world who advocate terrorism or jihad (as I’ve argued previously). I think this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone of any religion, and should be condemned.

But on the other hand, I wonder what this film will really achieve other than deepening the divide between the West and Islam. Among other things, it extracts news, film and photographs of all the worst instances of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and juxtaposes them against sura from the Qu’ran. It has a scaremongering feel which I do not like at all – it makes broadbrush generalisations and depicts the worst of a particular group. As I have said in a previous post, I find scaremongering propaganda to be problematic, regardless of whether it is on the Left or the Right, or from the West or Islam. It makes people behave in an irrational manner.

As Pommygranate noted in a post at the Australian Libertarian Society Blog, there is a rather odd dichotomy in this film – Wilders preaches Western values of tolerance and free speech, but he is essentially calling for intolerance of a certain religion. Pommy says:

He [Wilders] is essentially a hypocrite as on the one hand he champions Holland’s proud history of tolerance and freedom, yet on the other, seeks to introduce discrimination back into the Constitution (by banning further immigration of Muslims), wishes to ban the Koran as a fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf, and wants a complete ban on the wearing of the headscarf. 

The ironic thing, as with the Danish cartoons, is the way in which various Islamic groups and countries are claiming that the film is offensive and inaccurate for saying their religion is intrinsically violent and intolerant, but radical Muslims are also making death threats against LiveLeaks for posting the video… Don’t those guys who make the death threats have any sense of irony whatsoever? Any violent retaliation against Wilders will prove his point rather nicely.

The film makes me think of a book by Chester Porter called The Gentle Art of Persuasion. He argues that using fear to get your point across is not an intelligent way to put an argument. I concur. The central message I got from the film was “Muslims are terrorists, intolerant people, anti-Semites, bashers of homosexuals, genital mutilators and oppressors of women’s freedom.” But I am still wondering: what was the point? How are people (Muslim, Dutch and others) meant to respond to that message? How does this film fix anything?

If this film’s central message is that Muslims need to rethink the violent and unpleasant aspects of their religion, which is one of the film’s claims, then I don’t think a vehicle such as this would be the way to achieve it. It would immediately make even a moderate Muslim defensive of his or her religion, rather than open to reasonable criticism.

I suspect there were two responses Wilders wanted – to provoke a backlash among Dutch people to Islam (or at least, some extreme practices of some Islamic groups), and to make a point that the response to films or writings which criticise Islam is often violence (although I note that the Dutch Muslim population seems to have sensibly decided that the best response is to be moderate).

I’ve noticed in blog comments threads that a common response to the film is that “Christianity is just as bad” (see for example the comment thread which has developed at Iain Hall’s post). Yes, one could do the same with Christianity and find some nutbag Bible bashers who wanted to stone homosexuals or whatever, and intersperse it with Biblical quotes (particularly chapters like Leviticus). But I think that misses the point of the film. As Skepticlawyer has indicated in her post at Catallaxy, I think one of the particular concerns Wilders is focussing on is the interaction between Muslim immigrants in Holland and the mainstream Dutch culture, which is tolerant of homosexuality, prostitution, drug-use etc. Thus, it’s obviously not relevant for him to make a film on the shortcomings of Christianity, because the Dutch Christian attitude is generally tolerant; or at least, most Dutch Christians turn a blind eye to those things in Dutch culture which they disagree with. If a whole slew of US Southern Baptists emigrated to Holland and started questioning Dutch values, it would obviously be relevant to question Christianity, but that’s not the particular conflict he has in mind.

And ultimately, so what if you can do the same with Christianity? It doesn’t make the conduct of Islamists who espouse the same views right. It cannot be denied that there are a proportion of radical Islamists who believe many or all of the things in this movie. A plague on all the houses of those who seek to convert by the sword, kill and persecute those of different religions or oppress and use religion to justify violence towards women and homosexuals.

What is the best thing to do about Islamist terrorism and intolerance? I’m just not sure that this movie is a constructive solution to the problem: it may just make things worse. Yes, it is important to be honest about the problems of Islamist extremism, but it is also important to find ways to solve those problems rather than to inflame them.

Postscript

Incidentally, I heartly agree with Skepticlawyer that many Muslim commentators, politicians and imams need to get over calling anyone who disagrees with Islam’s tenets “Zionist”. A Jordanian media coalition described Wilders as “extremist and Zionist deputy Geert Wilders” in a press release. Wilders is not Jewish, and I don’t know if he supports the establishment and/or expansion of the State of Israel or not. Even if he does, that wasn’t the point of the film anyway. As soon as I hear insane frothing at the mouth about Zionists such as this, I start to doubt the credibility and sanity of the source.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, freedom of speech, islam, judaism, politics, racism, society, terrorism, tolerance

Student evaluations

I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.

First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.

The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.

Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.

On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.

The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…

However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.

The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).

The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.

The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.

The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.

The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.

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Filed under academia, cheating, education, freedom of speech, law, legal education, powerpoint, sexuality, society, tolerance, universities, USA