Politics


The person who has just been appointed to the head of Australia’s once1 world-admired science organisation, the CSIRO,2 believes in magic.

Yes dear Cowpokes, Dr Larry Marshall, a man whose scientific credentials barely cast little more than a dim glow from within the deep shadow of his business escapades, and whose tumbling grammatical trainwreck of a biography uses expressions like ‘leverage’ and ‘serial entrepreneur’, wants to create water dowsing machines.

Larry says he would…

…like to see the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it,” he said. “When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’

You know what, Larry? When you see that – as a scientist – you should actually ask yourself why no real scientists believe, for even a nano-second, that dowsing works.

You have no idea how they do it? My suggestion is that you look up the ideomotor effect and watch this video. Several times, if you don’t get it on the first run through.

  1. I say ‘once’ because, like everything else in this country lately, it seems that the idiotic buffoons who aspire to be some kind of ‘government’ here, are hell bent on making it the laughingstock of the educated world. []
  2. You know WiFi? The CSIRO invented that. Yeah, WIFI! []

Over the last few days, the following interview with comedian Russell Brand has been doing the rounds on Facebook. I’ve lost count of how how many people have posted and reposted it, mostly with the addition of a ‘Yeah, right on brother!’ sentiment. I recommend you watch it to get the flavour of what’s happening here, before I chuck in my two cents.

Before I start, I will first proffer a disclaimer: I didn’t really know much about Russell Brand until recently. My awareness of him was limited to that of seeing him do a few bit parts in films and as the voice of Dr Nefario in Despicable Me. But I do read the Guardian frequently, and New Statesman sometimes, and I started to see articles by him pop up now and then. He’s an excellent and intelligent writer, with a clearly better-than-average knowledge of politics and social economics. And yes, he’s pretty funny too. So I have a reasonable amount of respect for him, all things considered.

But the video above really annoyed me. Or, I guess what really annoyed me was the way it has been waved around on the internet as if this man is demonstrating some level of profundity in it.

Now I know some of the people who I’m criticizing for doing this might well be reading right now, so I just ask you to set aside your ire for a minute (because I know you are undoubtedly angry with me right now and champing to kick my bollocks in the comments) and hear me out.

Mr Brand is colourful and voluble in the interview with Jeremy Paxton, but if you actually take the time to think about what he’s saying, it’s actually nothing at all. Worse than that, he says things that are counter productive and possibly even stupid.

He is plainly unhappy with the way things are in politics and in our world. There’s really nothing to add to that sentiment: so am I. Brand gestures and shouts and pontificates with righteous indignation, but he actually says nothing more than ‘things are fucked and we should fix them‘. He stops short of suggestion a revolution (and Paxman prods him on it, because that’s what Paxman gets paid to do) but focally, offers not even the faintest whiff of any idea for a solution to this situation. Worse, when Paxman takes him up on this, he bails (in my view extraordinarily pathetically) by claiming that it’s not his job to offer solutions because he’s just an entertainer.1 Just prior to this, he tells us that he doesn’t vote, and exhorts all those who are disenfranchised to do the same.

I can’t tell you how much this infuriates me. Anyone can say there’s a problem. This a NO BRAINER. Just as I pointed out on my piece on the Occupy Movement over a year back, a great many people (myself included) are unhappy that things are broken. But I said it then, and I say it again: spitting the dummy is not the way forward. Just as millions of people watched the Occupy [Wherever] demonstrations on tv and raised their fists in solidarity, a similar gesture here in support of Mr Brand is entirely without any utility at all. And just as the Occupy Movement has come to absolutely no productive outcome (as I predicted it would), so Russell Brand’s colourful invective-fuelled pantomime is sound and fury signifying nothing.

What takes me to a level of even greater frustration is that apparently if I voice any of the disagreements I just have, then I am somehow on the side of the status quo. In other words, because I say Russell Brand makes no sense in this particular instance,2 suddenly I am a right wing corporate arse-kisser. Or something. Why does there need to be this extreme polarisation? I’m a moderately smart person – shouldn’t I be able to offer a thoughtful analysis?

The very worst thing for me, though, is that the urging people not to vote thing is just profoundly wrong. If you have the right to vote, then you should use it. Not voting at all is plain stupidity.

I ran through this idea in that previously-mentioned article about #occupy, but I’ll paraphrase the pertinent points again:

1. If you think there should be a revolution, then you should also have the acumen to realise that you need to define the outcome of that revolution and how you are going to make that outcome work better than the current regime, otherwise you’re just looking at a great big clusterfuck in which the disenchanted plonk their arses neatly onto the warm seats of the recently beheaded (tell me that hasn’t happened in almost every angry revolution that’s ever been). So good luck with that – wrangling that problem has been grist for the social philosopher’s mill for the last four millennia at least. Brand has written elsewhere of what he thinks such a system should embody, but not how it could ever be achieved. Once again, his ideas are admirable (peace, love and everbody respect your neighbour), but it seriously does not take any skill to come up with admirable hopes.3

2. Democracy is the best solution we humans have been able to come up with so far4 in several millennia and when it works, it creates the best possible outcome for the largest number of people. The problem with democracy is that it’s at its most effective if everyone involved is actually involved. And educated. As I’ve said many times before, a dumb democracy is only as effective as the smartest people on the highest part of the bell curve. If you have a badly educated democracy, then wily, smart, wealthy people will quickly find ways to control it, and that, my friends, is pretty much where we stand.

Russell Brand says that by voting, you are complicit in the system, and in the status quo. Well, of course you are. That’s what democracy is. By not voting, though you are simply copping out of the problem, unless you have some better idea – and let’s be clear here: a revolution is seriously not a better idea. What seems to me to be shockingly obvious here is that there IS a way to fix things, but few people want to acknowledge it: you vote out the status quo. If you’re unhappy, vote the fuckers out. You can do it – vote for anyone except the major entrenched parties. In pretty much all major democratic elections of the last half century, there has always been an option that presented a better and more people-centric outcome than the party that got elected – but not enough people voted for that party. Why? Because people are, by and large, fearful, narrow-minded, self-centred and venal. Brand seems to think there is something stopping such a democratic action from happening – he stops short of invoking a conspiracy, just – but really, it’s not like the elections in the UK, or the US or Australia are rigged or something (well, not to that degree, anyway). People vote these fuckers into power. YOU voted them into power unless your vote went to an independent or a competing small party. This need not happen.

To put it simply, things would change if the priorities of the democracy were values, human decency, fairness for all and generosity, indeed, all the things that Russell Brand espouses. But they plainly aren’t for the great majority of people, and we can’t simply blame ‘the Capitalist System’ for that, as Brand quite simplistically does.5.

I believe that we could change things by using our vote if we had the will, and that changing them in such a way would be constructive and useful and far less damaging than some kind of ‘revolution’ with an unspecified aim except for general ‘niceness’. It seems to me, though, that not enough of us do actually have the will.

No-one has encapsulated this problem in fewer words than the great John Lennon:

War is over, if you want it.

We can have a good society. If we want it.

  1. Being an entertainer apparently doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on the problem and spout it for all and sundry – just that you can’t have any constructive ideas for progressing. []
  2. Brand makes reasonable sense much of the time in his writing. He just turns into a clown in front of cameras, in my opinion. []
  3. I do take great humbrage to him bundling ‘atheism’ in with ‘materiality’ as part of what’s wrong – why do religiously-inclined people always do this? I’m an atheist. I can understand how to be kind to, and tolerant of, my fellow human travellers. The two things are not mutually exclusive. The fact that Brand disses atheism in this way really grates on me. Talking about being all ‘spiritual’ about the solution is a flashback to the Age of Aquarius (which Brand says it’s not, but seriously…) – and that worked out great, didn’t it? []
  4. Aside from benign dictatorship which is way preferable if you have an excellent leader, but any halfwit can see the problems inherent in that idea. []
  5. Let me be quite clear: I’m no great fan of Capitalism. I think capitalistic endeavour has fucked much up, no question about it. But unlike Brand, I don’t plonk that blame into the laps of a wealthy few: I think it’s an endemic trait of humans to exploit one another. Dealing in the debunking of pseudoscience has taught me that this tendency is quite nicely vertically integrated, thank you very much []

While Violet Towne and I were out on our bikes yesterday, our conversation turned to philosophy and politics, as it sometimes does. Specifically, I was defending the Mars Lab/Curiosity program against her assertion that it was a waste of money when there were so many much more important issues on the political plate. Well, I agree that there are numerous pressing matters that need our attention (and money) but I was most vehement that there are a lot of other things that could lose a few pounds (metaphorically speaking) before we should start carving up great and inspiring science projects.

“For instance,” I said, “Do you realise that the 2012 Olympics cost more than twice as much as Curiosity? And that the US bank bailout was more than ten times the budget of the Mars Science Lab mission?”

I don’t think she believed me.

“Show me the numbers!” she said, defiantly.

Well, Acowlytes, you all know it’s best not to challenge the Reverend when he’s on his soapbox, even if you’re the Reverend’s wife.1 When we had pedalled homewards, I went straight to Captain Google, and plugged in my questions. You might understand, dear Cowpokes, my utter amazement when I found my figures were wrong. Wrong by an order of magnitude. But not in the direction VT had hoped. It’s FAR worse than I had even imagined. Here ya go. I made a graph:

As you can plainly see, the budget for the Curiosity/Science Lab project is not even one pixel high on this comparison scale.

So, in order to get some perspective on how much that little rover trundling around on the surface of Mars costs, let’s examine some of those figures and related issues. First of all, it’s obvious that the military budget for the US for one year (2012) and the amount of money spent on the bank bailout are each in a completely different league to the kind of expense put aside for Curiosity. It isn’t hard to see that even NASA’s entire budget for 2012 is hardly a blip on the radar for the government accountants when compared to sums like that. What’s even more gobsmacking is that each of these figures (that is, ONE SINGLE YEAR of US military spending, or the humoungous pile of money forked out to save the US economy from the destruction wrought by the excesses of greedy and morally reprehensible assholes) exceeds the budget of NASA’s entire 50 year existence.2 The yearly outlay for military air-conditioning alone exceeds NASA’s annual budget by 4 billion dollars.3

The London Olympics cost, in fact, nearly 6 times more than Curiosity – not merely double as I’d thought – and we’re only talking about the money spent to stage the games.4 It’s plain that large amounts are poured into the Olympics from elsewhere as well, including every participating nation’s competition expenses, and not insubstantial amounts from all the bids made by countries attempting to secure the Games every four years. That’s a frikkin’ ginormous pile of cash for a sporting event. Even if you amortize the London expense over 4 years, the yearly figure still exceeds that of the Mars Science Lab mission. Of course if we permit that, it should be fair to amortize Curiosity’s cost over the Mars Science Lab program’s lifetime (9 years), making the contrast even greater and returning an expense to the US taxpayers of $277m per year (or, less than a dollar per person per year). For 2012/13 the Australian government has budgeted over 10 times that figure for sport.5

To put that per-person/per-dollar/per-year expense into perspective, Americans6 spent 4 times the cost of the Curiosity mission at the cinema in 20107, and are spending something like $137 billion dollars a year on alcohol8 and somewhere in excess of 30 billion dollars a year on cigarettes. In 2011, the US government spent 313 billion dollars9 on ameliorating the problems caused by the abuse of all that alcohol & tobacco. And, while we’re on the subject of substance abuse, coming in at a staggering 30 billion dollars,10 America’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ costs the nation over 10 times the budget of Curiosity (or, nearly twice the annual NASA budget) every year and that is widely argued to be a complete waste of money.11

I could, of course keep going with this – I haven’t touched on gambling, or government inefficiency, or tax breaks for religion or a half dozen other areas where large amounts of money seem to slush around without a proper degree of scrutiny. But what does all this mean, in the end?

For me, it’s simple. As humans we can, of course, choose to put our resources wherever we like. So far, I believe that choice has always leaned far too heavily towards the things at which animals are good – being the fittest, the strongest, the fastest. Or being the greediest, the most aggressive, the most dominant. It has not served us well. The result is that we have become powerful animals facing an existential crisis, and the traits that we carry as animals – the aggression, the greed, the power-mongering – are the exact opposite of what we need to get us out of this crisis. We are starting to encounter problems that we will not conquer by being fast, or strong or fit.12 Being better at animal things was once enough. Now it isn’t.

The things that humans alone are good at – the things that our brains enable us to do such as imagining the possibilities of the future, pondering the poetry of our existence, turning our curious gaze onto the mechanics of the very universe itself – occupy the very tiniest parts of the minds of most people (and therefore most governments). This ability that humans have to plan for the future by creating a mental vision of it is more-or-less nonexistant in all other animals.13 So what do we do to the people who are very good at this kind of inspirational far-thinking? We vilify and undervalue them. When they tell us ‘There is a big problem with the climate and we should do something about it!’ the powerful apes get up on their boxes and beat their chests, so that they might remain popular and powerful, and the greedy apes use all the cunning that their superior brain has given them to make arguments that everything is OK and we should all just kick back and consume, and the fit and fast apes run around entertaining everyone. If we cannot use the leverage that nature has given us to come to terms with the world-destroying problems we now face, we are truly doomed. We have squandered the one advantage that we have over other animals. Our difference will have enabled us to wipe ourselves out, rather than allowed us to achieve that future which we alone can imagine.

So what has all this to do with a little vehicle pottering around in the dust of a cold world some 225 million kilometers from our home? Well, in my opinion, projects like Curiosity help us turn our gaze outward – out of ourselves and away from our tiny little human preocupations. Indeed, I think that this curiosity to know stuff that has no direct consequence to our animal existence is a marker that says that we may, perhaps, have a chance after all.

There are, of course, many areas where we might have directed the 2.5 billion dollars that went to Curiosity. Violet Towne considered that it would have been better spent going towards helping solve the climate change problem, for example. Well, I agree that climate change research is an area that could really use that kind of money. And there are numerous pressing compassionate issues that are desperately in need of money also. I hope my argument has convinced you (and her), though, that stealing the funds from visionary human endeavours like the Mars Science Lab is entirely the wrong tactic if you want to help address these probems. I want to make it quite clear that I’m not advocating doing away with sport, or stopping everyone from imbibing reality-altering substances, or even saying that we could conveniently curtail all our military spending, but to me it seems that all these pursuits – these profoundly ‘ape-like’ pursuits – are where we should look first for money that could be better off spent elsewhere. I’m pretty sure they could spare a little of the quite exorbitant amounts of cash that are currently rained down on them.

___________________________________________________________________________

Violet Towne fears that I have portrayed her as a Luddite here, and as somewhat anti-science. I want to assure you that she is not, and that I respect her views, and her willingness to challenge me on my own, very much. You all know that it’s unlikely I would last long with a partner who didn’t have a vibrant and informed worldview. But I think I am right in saying that, like many people, she had formed an opinion – almost entirely concocted by irresponsible and ignorant media reporting, in my view – that NASA spends excessive amounts of money on things no-one really cares about. My intent with this post is simply to demonstrate that, in the grand scheme of things, NASA’s budget is relatively well spent. It seems to me that robbing Peter to pay Paul by redistributing NASA’s budget to areas of more pressing need is a kind of madness fanned by a perplexing and distressing anti-science sentiment creeping across the world.

  1. You’d’ve thought she would have figured this one out by now… []
  2. Here. Do the sums. []
  3. The Pentagon rejects this figure, which was calculated by Brigadier General Steven Anderson, a military logician for operations in Iraq. They have, however, not put forward an alternative anywhere I could find. I’m open to correction on this. []
  4. Arguably, some of that expense is recouped in benefits of one kind of another by the British taxpayers, but not the majority of it by any means. Equally as arguably, the Mars Science Lab program has benefits of one kind or another for the human race. []
  5. I had trouble finding out how much the US government spends on sport. It’s either a well kept secret, or they don’t care to support the same ridiculous level of sports fantaticism as ours does. []
  6. Canadians are also included in this figure, but even cutting it by, say, a generous third, that’s still a shitload of money. []
  7. I couldn’t find anything more recent, but I think it’s safe to say that 2011 & 2011 will track that figure. []
  8. 2002 figures, but I think we can probably assume that has trended upwards rather than down. []
  9. This is probably a conservative estimate – it’s hard to get an exact figure due to the nature of defining the field, but I’m quoting on the conservative side. Stats here and here. []
  10. Depending who you ask. It’s variously quoted at somewhere between 20 and 40 billion. It’s certainly not less than 20, but it may be more than 40. In any case, I’ve erred on the probable side of conservatism and just taken the median. []
  11. Here, here, and here, for just three examples of hundreds you can find. []
  12. Or religious. []
  13. To all intents and purposes it is completely non-existant as far as we know, but that’s an area of research that is still contentious. []

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