Monthly Archives: January 2015

Sharks aren’t criminals, but our fear makes us talk as if they are

The Conversation

By Adrian Peace, The University of Queensland

Sharks have been making news yet again, after a spate of sightings in Newcastle, New South Wales, prompted days of beach closures and reports of oceangoers allegedly being “stalked” by “monster” specimens.

Similarly, when West Australian teenager Jay Muscat was killed by a shark on December 29 last year at Cheyne’s Beach, near Albany, the state’s media understandably covered the incident in detail, with an ABC television report claiming that a shark had been seen “stalking” the area for about week before the tragedy.

This term also appeared in subsequent media reports about a local family who, three days before the incident, had reportedly been “stalked” by a shark at the same beach. One family member expressed her guilt at not having informed the Department of Fisheries about the shark, which she described as “menacing”.

“Stalking” and “menacing” are graphic, emotive words, typically reserved for criminal behaviour on a serious scale. Petty thieves don’t stalk; rapists and assassins do. Armed robbers are menacing; shoplifters not so much.

What is also important about this language is that it connotes behaviour which is deliberate, conscious, and calculating. In the wake of human encounters with sharks (and particularly great white sharks), we are used to hearing that a shark has “stalked” an area to “target” a victim. Most people don’t consider this terminology inappropriate, despite the fact that the animal is being crudely demonized.

This characterisation is quite arbitrary, as shown by the fact that a minority of observers choose instead to emphasize the “incidental” and “accidental” nature of the same attacks. But this latter interpretation tends to be buried under the flow of negative and emotive words.

The language of crime

Plenty of other metaphors of criminality are also used to characterize sharks in Australian waters. Great whites are routinely said to “lurk”, “linger”, “prowl”, “maraud” or “loiter” near “innocent” or “unsuspecting” bathers.

Sharks “encroach on”, “intrude into”, and “invade” the water near beaches, marinas and surf breaks. When an attack takes place across these presumed boundaries, whole populations of people are “terrorized” into leaving the water, enduring a summer of fear at the mercy of “rogue” sharks.

Not a good day for a dip.
AAP Image/NewZulu/Lucy Alcorn

After a tragedy, the shark is still ascribed with qualities of deliberation and calculation. It is said to have slipped away and avoided capture, even “gone under the radar”. The “elusive” or “evasive” killer shark retreats into the vast, unfathomable ocean like a professional assassin disappearing into the anonymity of the city. The shark takes flight, successfully “giving authorities the slip”. “It’ll be miles away by now” is a frequent complaint.

Descriptions of this kind suggest that, like a fugitive from justice, the animal knows it is at large and is weighing up its options: flee the scene, or return to the place of its initial attack and launch another one.

Why do we treat sharks like criminals?

Among developed world populations, Australians are arguably unique in living alongside a considerable number of indigenous wild animals with the capacity to kill them. (Europeans and North Americans rarely come face to face with bears or wolves these days). Whether it’s the redback spider in the chook shed, the brown snake under the veranda, the pure-bred dingo on Fraser Island, or the vast population of crocodiles across the Top End, Australians know how deadly the local wildlife can be.

But none of these – not even crocodiles – is linguistically maligned with quite the same degree of opprobrium, even hatred, as the great white shark. Why?

There are several reasons, but the most important is that while it is easy to ascribe human characteristics to sharks (as we have seen above), many people find them difficult to love, or even to like.

When wild creatures bear even the vaguest resemblance to humans or domesticated animals, this can afford them a level of protection from untrammelled exploitation. The danger which they might pose is somehow offset by some semblance of similarity in appearance or behaviour. The purely wild dingoes of Fraser Island were treated like domestic dogs until we realised they could be deadly.

It is difficult to think of sharks in this benevolent way. The black and beady eyes, the gaping jaw, the rows of serrated teeth, the seemingly malevolent expression, the immense body size – all seem to justify the final damning characterisation as the “ultimate killing machine”.

It is important for this narrative that the damage wrought on the victim’s body by a great white is immense. Although media reports respectfully attempt to gloss over exactly what happened at the moment of impact, we nevertheless have accounts of bodies being “bitten in half”, limbs eviscerated, and – perhaps most powerful of all – victims who are never found at all.

Fearsome Nature

In other words, what gives sharks their unrivalled symbolic character is the fact that they are a living testament to the destructive capacity of Nature.

The fact that great whites remain beyond our control runs entirely counter to the trajectory of recent history where human-animal relations are concerned.

The UC Berkeley geographer Michael Watts has described this relationship as “a gigantic act of enclosure”. The routine capturing, corralling, and containment of animals by humans has become a dominant pattern.

We kill animals and commodify their bodies and other products in endless ways – in battery chicken farms, piggeries, and even the crocodile farms of Australia’s tropical north.

Exceptionally, the great white shark has so far escaped the ignominies and impacts of enclosure enforced on other animals, including most wild ones.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that through our ways of speaking we tend to condemn the great white for resolutely remaining well beyond the pale, just as we do with other extreme and uncontrollable elements on the margins of our society.

This is a culturally complex issue, beyond the scope of linguistic fixes like replacing the emotive terms such as “shark attack” with more prosaic ones like “shark bite”. But we should nevertheless start paying as much attention to how we talk about our encounters with sharks as we do to the encounters themselves.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Choosing a compatibilist free will perspective

Scientia Salon

brainby Dwayne Holmes

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]

Despite the question having been around forever, the topic of Free Will (FW) has been pretty hot lately, including several entries at Scientia Salon [1-4]. Personally, I find the philosophical aspect of the topic of Free Will a bit pointless (either we have it or we don’t), but references to questionable “findings” in neuroscience and claims of how FW beliefs impact ethics and social policy do interest me (quite a bit) and force me to beg everyone’s patience for yet another essay on FW.  If you will, think of this as an entry on how not to interpret findings from neuroscience (or biology).

Let’s begin by cutting…

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Wittgenstein Jr, A Novel, by Lars Iyer

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Wittgenstein JrI came across this book via an enticing review at Tony’s Book World and ordered a copy the same day.  I was intrigued because I had not long finished reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,  a self-inflicted challenge imposed by signing up for a year-long course called Great Books at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne.  Most people, I suspect, would be more familiar with Wittgenstein from his appearance in the Monty Python skit below, and unless you are deeply into philosophy of the most exacting kind, I recommend that you stick with the Pythons.

But the novel is a delight.  Narrated by a Cambridge student called Peters, it tells the story of a group of undergraduates and their perplexed response to the tortured musings of their philosophy lecturer, whom they nickname Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s been teaching us for two weeks now.

Was it Ede’s idea to call him Wittgenstein?  Or…

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Paul Keating’s Redfern speech

Paul John Keating (born 18 January 1944) is a former Australian politician who was the 24th Prime Minister of Australia and the Leader of the Labor Party from 1991 to 1996. Keating was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1969 as the MP for Blaxland, New South Wales. He was later appointed Treasurer of Australia in the Hawke Government, which came to power in 1983.

On 10 December 1992, Keating delivered the Redfern Speech on Aboriginal reconciliation, a speech which has regularly been cited as among the greatest in Australian political history.

Marked up excerpt from Prime Minister Paul Keatings' Redfern Park speech, December 1992

Marked up excerpt from Prime Minister Paul Keatings’ Redfern Park speech, December 1992

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Book review: Free Will, the Basics

Scientia Salon

71wZXjIRXLLby Massimo Pigliucci

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter… Also, as part of Scientia Salon’s apparently somewhat controversial “(slight) course correction” we are beginning to publish book reviews and — forthcoming — interviews. Stay tuned.]

Sometimes it’s good, or even necessary, to go back to the basics. This is true of all complex and/or confusing issues, and free will certainly qualifies. Scientia Salon has published a number of essays on free will before [1], and this special “free will week” has begun with a vigorous, neurobiologically based defense of compatibilism and will end (in a couple of days) with a provocative, high-tech, apology for libertarianism!

Yet, underlying all current discussions about the topic is…

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Einstein’s desk


“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” ― Albert Einstein

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Explainer: how are Australia’s knights and dames appointed?

The Conversation

By Adam Webster and John Williams

Prime Minister Tony Abbott caused quite a stir when he re-established the appointment of knights and dames under the Order of Australia early in 2014. For this to occur, no law needed to be passed. Instead, Her Majesty The Queen, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, amended the Letters Patent for the Order of Australia awards.

In 2015, it was the knighthood given to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, that proved for many to be the Australia Day barbecue stopper. But how is it that Prince Philip – someone who is not an Australian citizen – is awarded a knighthood? Can foreigners even be awarded honours under the Order of Australia?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to delve into the language of the Letters Patent.

What are Letters Patent?

Letters Patent are a legal document signed by the Monarch (or the Governor-General) that grants some sort of right, status or title.

When a royal commission is established, the appointment of the royal commissioner is done so by Letters Patent. One recent example is the appointment of former High Court judge Dyson Heydon as the royal commissioner to investigate alleged corruption within trade unions. Some not-so-recent examples are the letters patent signed by the monarch establishing each of the Australian colonies during the 1800s.

The Order of Australia – our system for recognising the achievements of outstanding Australians – was established by Letters Patent in 1975. Letters Patent are unique in that the document is approved without reference to parliament. This is how knighthoods and damehoods were re-established without the involvement of parliament. Abbott simply instructed the Queen to amend the letters patent.

How are knights and dames appointed?

Knights and dames are essentially “captain’s picks” of the prime minister. Abbott said he “consulted with the chairman of the [Australia Day] Council for the Order of Australia and … with the Governor-General”.

Appointments are made:

… with the approval of the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, by Instrument signed by the Governor-General.

To understand the appointment process it is necessary to have a close look at the clauses in the current Letters Patent.

Clause 11 of the Letters Patent states that:

Australian citizens … are eligible to be appointed to the Order.

It also allows non-citizens to be “appointed to the Order as honorary members”. In short, it establishes two categories of eligibility.

There are also important clauses that relate specifically to appointing knights and dames. Clause 11A(1) states that:

Appointments as Knights or Dames, or honorary Knights or Dames, in the General Division shall be made for extraordinary and pre-eminent achievement and merit in service to Australia or to humanity at large.

The other important clause is 11A(2), which deals with non-citizens. It qualifies the previous clause by stating that:

Notwithstanding subsection (1), a distinguished person who is not an Australian citizen may be appointed as an honorary Knight or Dame … where it is desirable that the person be honoured by Australia.

What is unclear from the wording of these clauses is whether non-Australian citizens can only be given honorary knighthoods. On one reading of the clauses, non-citizens can only be given honorary knighthoods. An alternative view is that while this may be the sense of the clause, it is not mandatory: that is, non-citizens may also be awarded the “ordinary” knighthood or damehood.

There is no mention that Prince Philip’s award is an honorary appointment. This raises the question of whether Prince Philip’s award should be viewed solely as “honorary”. However, the distinction is important.

The distinction of “honorary” knights and dames

Why does it matter whether Prince Philip’s award was “honorary” or not? Only four knights and dames can be appointed each year. However, this limitation of four per year does not include “honorary” knights and dames.

If Prince Philip’s award was not an honorary appointment, it has taken the award away from an Australian. If Prince Philip’s was an honorary appointment – and this fact was omitted from the list released on Australia Day – it highlights that while only four Australians can receive knighthoods or damehoods, there is no limit on the number of appointments that the prime minister could make to people who are not Australian citizens. The prime minister could start handing out honorary knighthoods or damehoods to foreign leaders left, right and centre.

The 2015 Australia Day honours may be remembered for many reasons. However, the show-stopper was the decision to add a knighthood to Prince Philip’s long list of titles. We can hardly wait for the Queen’s Birthday honours list.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Krugman on power vs truth

Prof. Paul Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is a Nobel Prize winning American economist, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, Distinguished Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.

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Einstein and Chaplin on universality

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Francis Bacon on perception

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, QC (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, essayist, and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England.  After his death, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the second scientific revolution.

“It is not true that the human senses are the measure of things; for all perceptions…reflect the perceiver rather than the world. The human intellect is like a distorting mirror, which receives light rays irregularly and so mixes its own nature with the nature of things , which it distorts”. – Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

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