Introduction

Welcome to Tim Harding’s blog of writings and talks about logic, rationality, philosophy and skepticism. There are also some reblogs of some of Tim’s favourite posts by other writers, plus some of his favourite quotations and videos This blog has a Facebook connection at The Logical Place.

There are over a thousand posts here about all sorts of topics – please have a good look around before leaving.

If you are looking for an article about the Birth of Experimental Science recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Out of the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Dark Ages recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘In the Dark’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Traditional Chinese Medicine vs. Endangered Species recently published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Bad Medicine’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the rejection of expertise published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Who needs to Know?’, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about Charles Darwin published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Darwin’s Missing Link“, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about the Astronomical Renaissance published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Rebirth of the Universe‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about DNA and GM foods published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘The Good Oil‘, it is available here.

If you are looking for an article about animal welfare published in The Skeptic magazine titled ‘Creature Features‘, it is available here.

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What is logic?

The word ‘logic‘ is not easy to define, because it has slightly different meanings in various applications ranging from philosophy, to mathematics to computer science. In philosophy, logic’s main concern is with the validity or cogency of arguments. The essential difference between informal logic and formal logic is that informal logic uses natural language, whereas formal logic (also known as symbolic logic) is more complex and uses mathematical symbols to overcome the frequent ambiguity or imprecision of natural language.

So what is an argument? In everyday life, we use the word ‘argument’ to mean a verbal dispute or disagreement (which is actually a clash between two or more arguments put forward by different people). This is not the way this word is usually used in philosophical logic, where arguments are those statements a person makes in the attempt to convince someone of something, or present reasons for accepting a given conclusion. In this sense, an argument consist of statements or propositions, called its premises, from which a conclusion is claimed to follow (in the case of a deductive argument) or be inferred (in the case of an inductive argument). Deductive conclusions usually begin with a word like ‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘so’ or ‘it follows that’.

A good argument is one that has two virtues: good form and all true premises. Arguments can be either deductiveinductive  or abductive. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. The term ‘good argument’ covers all three of these types of arguments.

Deductive arguments

A valid argument is a deductive argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, because of the logical structure of the argument. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. Conversely, an invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, the validity or invalidity of arguments must be clearly distinguished from the truth or falsity of its premises. It is possible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be true, even though one or more of its premises are false. For example, consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Napoleon was German
Premise 2: All Germans are Europeans
Conclusion: Therefore, Napoleon was European

The conclusion that Napoleon was European is true, even though Premise 1 is false. This argument is valid because of its logical structure, not because its premises and conclusion are all true (which they are not). Even if the premises and conclusion were all true, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the argument was valid. If an argument has true premises and its form is valid, then its conclusion must be true.

Deductive logic is essentially about consistency. The rules of logic are not arbitrary, like the rules for a game of chess. They exist to avoid internal contradictions within an argument. For example, if we have an argument with the following premises:

Premise 1: Napoleon was either German or French
Premise 2: Napoleon was not German

The conclusion cannot logically be “Therefore, Napoleon was German” because that would directly contradict Premise 2. So the logical conclusion can only be: “Therefore, Napoleon was French”, not because we know that it happens to be true, but because it is the only possible conclusion if both the premises are true. This is admittedly a simple and self-evident example, but similar reasoning applies to more complex arguments where the rules of logic are not so self-evident. In summary, the rules of logic exist because breaking the rules would entail internal contradictions within the argument.

Inductive arguments

An inductive argument is one where the premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. While the conclusion of a sound deductive argument is supposed to be certain, the conclusion of a cogent inductive argument is supposed to be probable, based upon the evidence given. An example of an inductive argument is: 

Premise 1: Almost all people are taller than 26 inches
Premise 2: George is a person
Conclusion: Therefore, George is almost certainly taller than 26 inches

Whilst an inductive argument based on strong evidence can be cogent, there is some dispute amongst philosophers as to the reliability of induction as a scientific method. For example, by the problem of induction, no number of confirming observations can verify a universal generalization, such as ‘All swans are white’, yet it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single black swan.

Abductive arguments

Abduction may be described as an “inference to the best explanation”, and whilst not as reliable as deduction or induction, it can still be a useful form of reasoning. For example, a typical abductive reasoning process used by doctors in diagnosis might be: “this set of symptoms could be caused by illnesses X, Y or Z. If I ask some more questions or conduct some tests I can rule out X and Y, so it must be Z.

Incidentally, the doctor is the one who is doing the abduction here, not the patient. By accepting the doctor’s diagnosis, the patient is using inductive reasoning that the doctor has a sufficiently high probability of being right that it is rational to accept the diagnosis. This is actually an acceptable form of the Argument from Authority (only the deductive form is fallacious).

References:

Hodges, W. (1977) Logic – an introduction to elementary logic (2nd ed. 2001) Penguin, London.
Lemmon, E.J. (1987) Beginning Logic. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis.

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Reasoning

Rationality may be defined as as the quality of being consistent with or using reason, which is further defined as the mental ability to draw inferences or conclusions from premises (the ‘if – then’ connection). The application of reason is known as reasoning; the main categories of which are deductive and inductive reasoning. A deductive argument with valid form and true premises is said to be sound. An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent. It is rational to accept the conclusions of arguments that are sound or cogent, unless and until they are effectively refuted.

A fallacy is an error of reasoning resulting in a misconception or false conclusion. A fallacious argument can be deductively invalid or one that has insufficient inductive strength. A deductively invalid argument is one where the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. That is , the conclusion can be false even if the premises are true. An example of an inductively invalid argument is a conclusion that smoking does not cause cancer based on the anecdotal evidence of only one healthy smoker.

By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener (e.g. appeal to emotion), or take advantage of social relationships between people (e.g. argument from authority). By definition, a belief arising from a logical fallacy is contrary to reason and is therefore irrational, even though a small number of such beliefs might possibly be true by coincidence.

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In banning plastic bags we need to make sure we’re not creating new problems

The Conversation

Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

The recent decision by Australia’s big two supermarkets to phase out free single-use plastic bags within a year is just the latest development in a debate that has been rumbling for decades.

State governments in Queensland and New South Wales have canvassed the idea, which has been implemented right across the retail sector in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

So far, so good. But are there any downsides? Many of you, for instance, face the prospect of paying for bin liners for the first time ever. And while that might sound tongue-in-cheek, it shows the importance of considering the full life-cycle of the plastics we use.

Pros and cons

On a direct level, banning single-use plastic bags will avoid the resource use and negative environmental impacts associated with their manufacture. It will reduce or even eliminate a major contaminant of kerbside recycling. When the ACT banned these bags in 2011 there was a reported 36% decrease in the number of bags reaching landfill.

However, the ACT government also noted an increase in sales of plastic bags designed specifically for waste. These are typically similar in size to single-use shopping bags but heavier and therefore contain more plastic.

Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, implemented in 2002, also resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags. These bags are often dyed various colours, which represents another resource and potential environmental contaminant.

Keep Australia Beautiful, in its 2015-16 National Litter Index, reported a 6.2% reduction in the littering of plastic bags relative to the previous year, while also noting that these represent only 1% of litter.

Meanwhile, alternatives such as paper or canvas bags have environmental impacts of their own. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times, and cotton bags at least 173 times, to have a lower environmental impact than single-use plastic bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes.

This illustrates the importance of considering the full life cycle of shopping bags to arrive at an evidence-based decision rather than one based on emotion or incomplete data. I am not suggesting this is the case with plastic shopping bags; I’m just pointing out the value of proper analysis.

Simply banning a certain type of bag, while this may be a good idea in itself, could result in other knock-on impacts that are harder to manage. Replacing shopping bags with heavier, more resource-intensive ones may solve some environmental impacts but exacerbate others.

Plastics, not plastic bags

In a 2016 discussion paper, Western Australia’s Local Government Association suggested that the focus of action should be plastics in general, not just shopping bags.

As the Keep Australia Beautiful data show, plastic bags are just a small part of a much bigger problem. Many other plastic items are entering the litter stream too.

With this in mind, it pays to ask exactly why we are banning plastic shopping bags. Is it the litter issue, the potential impact on wildlife, the resource consumption, all of the above, or something else? Is it because they are plastic, because they are disposable, or because it saves supermarkets money?

The answers to these questions can guide the development of an effective strategy to reduce the environmental (and perhaps economic) burden of taking our shopping home. With that in place, we can then develop an education strategy to help shoppers adapt and make the scheme a success. But this costs money.

The triple bottom line

There should be plenty of money available. The Victorian state government’s Sustainability Fund, for instance, has A$419 million to spend over the next five years on researching alternatives to shopping and household waste management. Developing a shopping bag strategy would consume only a small part of this and would be money well spent.

The concept of the “triple bottom line” – ensuring that decisions are based equally on environmental, social and economic considerations – needs to be applied to decisions about whether to ban single-use plastic bags, and what alternatives will result. The problem with simply announcing a ban is that this leaves it up to shoppers themselves to work out what to do to replace them.

Evidence-based policy is crucial. We first need to find out how many people already use re-usable bags, whether they always take them to the shops, and what items they put in them. Do people generally know how many times each type of bag should be re-used in order to be an environmentally better choice than the current plastic bags? What’s the best material for re-usable bags, taking into account not only their environmental credentials but also their ability to get your shopping home without breaking?

The ConversationWhen it comes to environmental impacts, it’s important not to simply exchange one problem for another. If all we’re doing is swapping between different types of plastic, it’s hard to see how we’re solving anything.

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Richard Dawkins’s response to his de-platforming in Berkeley

What is the world coming to?

Why Evolution Is True

As I posted this morning, radio station KPFA had lined up Richard Dawkins for a public appearance in Berkeley, California, in which Richard was slated to talk about his latest book of essays, Science in the Soul. KPFA then cancelled the talk without informing Richard in advance, saying that they discovered belatedly that Richard’s tweets about Islam constituted “abusive speech.”

Richard decided to write to the station this morning, but didn’t want his response to appear until KPFA had a chance to answer his email. He waited five hours after sending the letter and, having gotten no response, has given permission to have his email be made public as an “open letter.” Here it is:

*************

July 21st 2017
 
Dear KPFA
I used to love your station when I lived in Berkeley for two years, shortly after that beloved place had become the iconic home of free speech…

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How determinism can help insurance companies deny medical claims

This satire makes a good point.

Why Evolution Is True

I think this article—which could have come from The Onion but actually came from another “joke news site,” The Beaverton—is hilarious. 
Here’s an excerpt; I hope compatibilists have a sense of humor!

Chicago, IL – American health insurers have begun classifying all medical claims as pre-existing conditions and refusing to offer settlements because of the clockwork nature of the physical universe.

“Everything that has happened, is happening or ever will happen was set in motion 13.8 billion years ago,” says Annalise Bufford, the spokesperson for the Insurance Company Trade Organization. “We can’t be expected to pay out on health problems that began eons before the policy went into effect.”

A small cottage industry of philosophers has sprung up to help customers navigate the increasingly esoteric insurance claims process.

“Like everyone else, I used to make fun of philosophy majors,” recent patient Guy Tregowan says. “But now I’m grateful someone…

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Richard Dawkins deplatformed at a book talk Berkeley for “abusive speech” about Islam on Twitter

Why Evolution Is True

Richard Dawkins was supposed to speak at this event in Berkeley on August 9: a talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate AtheistAs you see, the talk has been canceled.

But why? You can guess. The talk was to be sponsored by a Berkeley radio station, KPFA, and they sent out this announcement—but didn’t even inform Richard before deep-sixing the event. The ticketing agency, Brown Paper Tickets, sent out this email with the “reasons”:

From: Brown Paper Tickets 
Date: July 20, 2017 at 2:04:53 PM PDT
To: [NAME REDACTED]
Subject: Notification for Richard Dawkins: Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

Dear Richard Dawkins event ticket buyers,
We regret to inform you that KPFA has canceled our event with Richard Dawkins. We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we…

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A neurosurgeon on medicine, euthanasia, and God

Why Evolution Is True

I’m off to my GP as I injured my shoulder, most likely acquiring bursitis, and will probably get a cortisone shot, which a friend just informed me “really hurts!” Now what was the point of telling me that? It adds no value to my day except a soupçon of fear (I’m not afraid of needles, but I don’t like pain).

As we age, our bodies gradually accumulate infirmities and scars: now I have two crooked fingers and a ruined toenail. (The day I moved into my office, the building manager and I had to move my huge and heavy oak desk out of the elevator, since the movers would only take it to the building entrance. It dropped onto my foot, completely severing the bone of the left big toe, causing me to faint, and then to visit the hospital where they pulled off the toenail with pliers…

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Plonk: a language lover’s guide to Australian drinking

The Conversation

File 20170719 13534 1hfi3j
Here’s cheers: Australians have developed a lot of slang phases for alcohol and drinking. Shutterstock

Howard Manns, Monash University

The hard-drinking Aussie is the stuff of legend and lore. But there’s little proof Australians drank more than other colonials and by some accounts they drank less (points made in Sidney Baker’s The Australian Language).

But, of course, we do enjoy a drink – at times a little too much – and a rich bevy of terms suggest we do it in Australian ways: merrily, tongue in cheek and with a shout or two.

Plinkity plink, let’s see how we drink – or rather the words Australians have used to do it throughout history.

Plonk, chardy and the goon of fortune

Plonk is perhaps Australia’s best-known word for alcohol. It originally meant cheap, fortified wine but over time came to mean any cheap alcohol.

In terms of origins, lexicographer Bruce Moore notes that one account links plonk to the range of sounds the liquid might make hitting the bottom of your glass (plinkity plink, plinkity plank, plinkity plonk).

A more likely story, conveyed by Moore among others, views plonk as a malapropism used by first world war diggers who misheard or had some fun with the French vin blanc “white wine”. The diggers also called or spelled white wine point blank and vin blank. And, of course, these days we drink chardy and champers, lest we give French its full due.

Australian drinkers are known to have a bit of fun with French. Last year the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) welcomed chateau cardboard to its pages, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cask wine, using chateau for a wine-producing estate in an ironic way.

Australians invented boxed wine and celebrate its invention through games (Goon of Fortune was another addition to the AND) and a rich array of words, including boxie, box monster, Dapto briefcase, Dubbo handbag, red handbag, goon, goonie, goon bag, goon juice and goon sack.

Goon is mostly likely a shortening of flagon, but might also be linked to the Australian English goom, itself linked to an indigenous word gun, meaning “water” in the south Queensland languages Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga and Gureng-gureng.

And then, of course, there’s grog, eponymous with Admiral Edward Vernon who ordered his sailors’ rum to be watered down. Vernon was known as Old Grog because of his grogram-fabric coat, and so this watered-down rum also came to be labelled.

Full as a raging bull

Australians might get on the grog or hit the grog, but there are also many other things we might get or hit. For instance, we hit the piss, slops or turps (short for turpentine) or get on the tiger, get a drink across our chest or get a black dog up ya.

The result of our hitting or getting is to be full “drunk” and there is an even longer list of things we might be full as, including a bull, a bull’s bum, a footy final, a goog, the family pot, a pommy complaint box or a seaside shitter on a holiday weekend.

The important thing is to have lively fun, or a rage with your mates, who might themselves be ragers. Rage and rager were the choice words for lively parties and revellers from the 1970s. These are probably unrelated to the obsolete homophone rager, meaning “an untamed and aggressive bull or cow”, but it’s fun to note the overlap in light of the party animal.

Before the 1970s, Australians called lively parties shivoos. Some thought shivoo was Australians having a bit of fun with French (from chez vous “your place” or shivaree “a serenade of rough music”). Others linked it to British nautical slang, and a word meaning a drunken ruckus or punch-up.

Shivoo’s most likely origin is a British dialect word (by some accounts Yorkshire or Cornwall) shiveau (with the sometimes Frenchified spelling of chevaux).

Of course, some choose to drink alone. Such drinkers are said to be dry hash, Jimmy Woodser, Jack Smithers, drinking on my Pat Malone or drinking with the flies. Pat Malone is merely rhyming slang (for alone) and it’s never quite been clear if a Jimmy Woods or Jack Smithers ever existed.

Lambing down till the horse jumps over the bar

One thing’s for sure: if you drink with mates you’ll probably be expected to shout a round or two (or alternatively stand, sneeze, carry the mail, wally grout, wally, bowl, sacrifice).

If you don’t, you might find yourself accused of an American shout, Chinaman’s shout, Dutch shout, Yankee shout or Yankee. Moreover, people might say of you (s)he wouldn’t shout if a shark bit her (him).

On the other hand, the best kind of friend is a captain, or someone who lavishly spends on drinks for themselves and their mates, perhaps at the behest of a lambers down, a pub owner who encourages people to drink lavishly (or lamb down).

Failing a captain, you’ll probably have to run a tab, or tie a dog up or chain up a pup. But after time, the publican might want to settle the score or mad dog “unpaid credit”.

A publican who wants a tab paid might point out that the dogs are barking, as this publican did in a 1937 advertisement (from Sidney Baker’s, The Australian Language):

He particularly requests that all dogs tied up at the hotel be released. This reservation specially applies to Kelpies, Alsations and other large breeds.

The ConversationIf you don’t have the cash to pay the publican, you might have to jump a horse over the bar, which is what one did when all they had left to pay with was their horse.

Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The superb Superb Bird of Paradise

Why Evolution Is True

The Cornell Birds-of-Paradise Project is a great website that contains all kinds of information about the 39 species in this fantastic group. There are videos and information about the sexual dimorphism in plumage and behavior, and other aspects of the birds’ biology, information about their evolutionary history and the people who study them, and general information about evolution and sexual selection—even a video on speciation. It’s a remarkable and informative site: the best place to visit if you want to see what are the most stupendous examples of sexual selection—and I’m referring not just to the male behavior, but to the female choice that drives much of it. It’s a rich resource for those who teach evolution.

Below is a 4½-minute video of the famous Superb Bird of Paradise (Lophorina superba), whose Cornell page is here. I like this video because it’s not just a “gee…

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The new Department of Home Affairs is unnecessary and seems to be more about politics than reform

The Conversation

File 20170718 19023 l0hltu
Peter Dutton (right) is set to assume responsibility for the newly created home affairs portfolio. AAP/Mick Tsikas

John Blaxland, Australian National University

It is difficult not to give in to cynical impulses over Tuesday’s announcement that the government will create a Department of Home Affairs.

Described as a “federation of border and security agencies”, the home affairs minister – set to be the current immigration minister, Peter Dutton – will be responsible for ASIO, the AFP, Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Office of Transport Authority.

The Home Affairs department was announced at the same time the government released an eagerly awaited review of Australia’s intelligence agencies. But the rationale for the creation of a “super ministry” seems to conflate the well-intentioned and important intelligence review with an inadequately justified yet major rearrangement of federal government executive agencies.

Fraught with danger

The Home Affairs model appears to stand on contestable grounds.

There may be an argument to be made about potentially improving internal bureaucratic efficiencies by having power centralised under one minister. However, this is debatable. And the move upends long-standing conventions on how security intelligence and executive police powers are managed separately.

Bringing ASIO and the AFP together in one department and away from the attorney-general is a fraught move.

Multiple royal commissions and a protective security review following the Hilton Hotel bombing in February 1978 saw the police, security and intelligence functions tried and tested by fire. They were found wanting, but were then subject to significant review and reform.

That reform led to an understanding about how best to delineate and maintain the separation of powers while upholding robust accountability. That understanding has come to be broadly accepted as the best way of managing intelligence and security affairs.

This model includes a high degree of healthy contestability concerning intelligence judgements and operational options. This is thanks in large part to the diffusion of power between ministries, and authority between agencies, departments and ministers. These arrangements mean there are clear lines of accountability and responsibility.

Mechanisms for prioritisation and avoiding overlap exist with the Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meetings, the Secretaries Committee on National Security, cabinet’s National Security Committee, and the National Intelligence Collection Requirement Priorities mechanisms. It’s unclear how the new arrangements will alter the dynamics in these contexts.

Under the previous arrangements, in authorising a warrant the attorney-general had to be satisfied it was justified, recognised as consistent with agreed-upon national intelligence collection priorities, resourced appropriately, executed within the legal guidelines, and then suitably reported on in a timely manner.

Under the new arrangements, the attorney-general – having relinquished management responsibility for ASIO – will retain responsibility for issuing warrants and ministerial authorisations. Yet the attorney-general will not, seemingly, be responsible for seeing the process through to its completion.

This change risks diminishing the prospects of a clear connection between ministerial authority and ministerial responsibility. The two functions look set to be performed separately, by the attorney-general and the home affairs minister.

The attorney-general also will gain responsibility for two important oversight agencies: the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. These are two little-understood but important offices that have been performing significant roles to ensure intelligence agencies are accountable and compliant with legislation.

The inspector-general, for instance, has the enduring powers of a royal commissioner. They are able to walk into any sensitive intelligence facility and ask to see any files virtually at any time.

Like the monitor, the inspector-general can report directly to the prime minster. This is a powerful tool to ensure accountability. It is hard to think of a compelling reason for their lines of reporting responsibility to be altered.

What role did the intelligence review play?

Announcing the changes on Tuesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did not speak about the intelligence review – undertaken by former senior public servants Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant – in great detail.

However, Turnbull did mention the headline items. These include:

  • the creation of an office of national intelligence (a sensible and graduated move);
  • the better resourcing and management of intelligence capabilities (also a reasonable step);
  • the establishment of the Australian Signals Directorate as a statutory body within the Department of Defence (something talked about for years by insiders); and
  • a bolstering of the profile and placement of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (an unsurprising step given the high profile of cyber affairs this year).

The review also proposed:

  • an expansion of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s remit to cover agencies with intelligence collection and reporting functions not previously counted as part of the six agencies in the Australian Intelligence Community over which he exercised oversight; and
  • a slightly expanded, operationally-oriented role for the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to request briefings and initiate inquiries.

These recommendations are sound. But they were made in isolation of the Home Affairs proposal.

By announcing the review and the new arrangements together, the issues appear conflated. The Intelligence review is well considered and reasonable. The new governance arrangements lack the same level of intellectual rigour for the public to consider and accept.

The ConversationPut together, it suggests this is more about politics than substantive fact-based organisational reform.

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Consent to risk fallacy

I have added another paragraph to this fallacy.

The Logical Place

A common argument against counter-terrorism measures is that more people are killed each year by road accidents than by terrorists.  Whilst this statistic may be true, it is a false analogy and a red herring argument against counter-terrorism. It also ignores the fact that counter-terrorism deters and prevents more terrorist attacks than those that are eventually carried out.

This fallacious argument can be generalised as follows: ‘More people are killed by (fill-in-the-blank) than by terrorists, so why do we worry so much about terrorism?’  In recent media debates, the ‘blank’ has included not only road accidents, but also deaths from falling fridges and bathtub drownings.  However, for current purposes let us assume that more people do die from road accidents than would have died from either prevented or successful terrorist attacks.

Whenever we travel in a car, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of…

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Do ravens plan for the future?

Why Evolution Is True

The answer to the title question is “apparently so, and at the level of great apes and four-year-old human children”. That, at least, is the conclusion of Can Kabadayi  and Mathias Osvath, the authors of a new paper in Science on raven behavior in the lab (reference and free download below; see also the Perspective summary in Science by Markus Boeckle and Nicky Clayton).

Ravens, like most corvids, are very smart. They’re known to cache food for later consumption; they know when another raven is watching them cache, and then re-hide their food in response; and they can follow the gaze of another raven looking at its cache, and then pilfer that cache later. These, however, aren’t regarded as ravens using new information to plan for the future, though it seems to come close to that!

What Kabadayi and Osvath did was to teach five captive, hand-reared ravens two new skills…

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