20 Rules

I found this in the drafts folder so decided to publish as-is. A list of 20 rules to live by for the fledgling rationalist.

Well, they’re more like guidelines

1) Question everything – but question what you agree with more. What you don’t agree with has evidently been questioned enough.

2) Don’t hero worship. In reality they’re no better than you, and they’ll disappoint you on at least one thing eventually.

3) Hold your allies to a higher standard than your opponents. They don’t deserve the echo chamber.

4) Revise all of your values and commitments at least every six months. If you’re not embarrassed by your past self, you haven’t evolved as a person.

5) Know that smart people are a myth. There are two kinds of people: idiots, and idiots who are aware of it and so take steps to mitigate the impact of their idiocy. Some in the second category even succeed.

6) E-Prime is (quasi-intentional irony) your troubleshooting friend, but not a way of life. It can help you see where you’ve masked your opinion as a fact.

7) Not believing in God doesn’t automatically make you bright. Some of the dumbest people in the world are the most strident atheists.  Some of the smartest still pray, for whatever reason the reason.

8) Be aware of logic and reason as things. Don’t mistake them for “logic” and “reason” the buzzwords. The latter only get used to find like-minded individuals and silence the unlike-minded.

9) Learn to be confidently tentative. You can’t be absolutely sure of anything, but you can aim to be absolutely sure of something to an absolutely sure measure of error.

10) Those that try to cross a road by using a laser speedometer, a calculator, and deducing the optimal time to cross from base principles will wait there for hours for the perfect time… and will still probably get run over by a bike that they didn’t see.

11) Don’t laugh at religious ritual – you do silly thinks like turn-it-off-and-on-again, shake dead batteries, press the remote control buttons harder when it doesn’t work, blow on NES cartridges, and press-and-hold the “ON” button on your computer… all while having no idea why those things work or even if they do.

12) It’s the 21st century. Just Fucking Google It.

13) Learn to read at least one form of basic logical notation, even if you’re doing it to show off it means you’ll know more actual logic than most people who use the word “logic”.

14) Citing the dog Latin name for a fallacy doesn’t make it fallacious. Tell us why, and be precise. You don’t need to know its name if you can say why its wrong; while the name doesn’t help you if you can’t.

15) Shun your “in” group when you need to think. Read the stuff written by your “out” group instead.

16) Don’t use identities as a substitute for a personality or belief system. People will fill in the connotations themselves and you’ll spend more time explaining why you’re not like that.

17) Don’t use your subjective tastes as objective judgement. You hating a band has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with the band.

18) Know that you can revise for an IQ test, and that the only thing IQ measures is your ability to take IQ tests. The fact that libertarians score statistically higher on these tests says all you need to know.

19) Pedantry is the last resort of the intellectually insecure. If you can correct someone’s spelling, punctuation and grammar, it means it did its job perfectly fine in the first place.

20) Always do sober what you promise to do drunk – that’ll teach you to shut your mouth. Try to do drunk what you think you do sober, that’ll teach you what your instincts really are. Except drive, obviously.

“Democracy” my ass…

If you ignore the paranoid raving about Skynet coming to eat us, I think this is one of the more lucid thoughts from Eliezer Yudkowsky – that people say things just for the sake of inviting applause. They’re trite and pointless things, but they sound good at a first, uncritical, glance.

This is particularly important to realise in an era where such soundbites aren’t just used to invite the audience to clap, but also used to is used to shut people down. And one phrase I think has come up a lot goes along the lines of “that’s democracy”. I.e., “but people voted for David Cameron and Conservative policy, you shouldn’t be allowed to protest because that’s democracy.”

Because what does “democracy” even mean these days? If it isn’t about putting up a sign that says “APPLAUD NOW”? As Yudkowsky points out “let’s bring more democracy to the process” sounds nice, but doesn’t mean much when you try to figure out their point.

We tend treat it as a magic word that just means ‘Good Thing’. It’s tautologous.

“Democracy is a good thing” simply means “The Good Thing is a good thing” to most people. We fight for it. We rile ourselves up for it. But rarely do we seem to take a step back and ask why it’s a good thing. What properties of “democracy” are the Good Things that we want? Much like “freedom of speech”, democracy is should be the means to a better world, not the end in itself. When people didactically declare that “we have democracy” and “we have freedom”, is that just a meaningless platitude and a thought-terminating cliché?


So what is “democracy” really about? Or, more precisely, what should it be about?  And even more importantly, do we have it? Do we have good things, or do we have the didactically self-declared Good Thing? Have I used too many rhetorical questions in this post so far? Yes?

Is it about elections?

Well, we get those so infrequently we could host most of one of the World Wars in between them, and a lot can change in those 4-5 years. To put it in perspective, we complain that students are a demographic that don’t vote, but about 2-in-5 university students  won’t, statistically, get even the opportunity to vote because elections are so comparatively rare. A degree lasts 3-4 years, and so you could go that entire time without the opportunity to vote. You could be paying fees imposed by a government you had no say in and will have no say in while tuition has salience to you.

But when these elections do come around, our choices are constricted already. We don’t get to choose the candidates, those choices are made for us by the Parties. They have to undergo pre-selection before hitting a ballot paper – and while you can go it alone as an independent, please, don’t make me laugh at you for suggesting they have a genuine chance of making a difference. Our selection process is truncated at the first hurdle without our input.

I hate to say it, but on their own with nothing else to support them, our elections are mostly meaningless.

election results

Or, to be brutally honest, you take more dumps in a week than we’ve had general elections since women were allowed to vote in them. Well, not literally, if it’s literally true for you, see a doctor. But you see what I mean, though? Right?

Is it about voting in general?

Well, we get to vote… occasionally. As I pointed out above, the elections come around every 5 years. Twice a decade.

But we certainly don’t get to vote on most policies, voting for those are covered by our representatives. In theory, that system arises because voting for every little thing is a pain in the arse – elections and referenda are difficult to organise. So we avoid doing it and have representatives.

So, no we don’t get to vote on specific things, or even on general things most of the time. We vote on representatives who we trust make decisions for us. And, as recent UK political events have shown, quite frequently elected governments do the opposite of what they claim. After the election, we’ve got no power to object save protest and petitions. And less said about how the whips system and party power means representatives rarely get a free vote to follow the will of the people, and leaving their constituents high-and-dry in the process, the better.

We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them. – 2001 Labour Manifesto, a position which was reversed entirely by January 2004, conveniently before the next election

Is it about representation?

At this point I would like to say I think this is the biggest key point in the democratic process. You can have all the votes in the world but they mean nothing without representation. Meanwhile, while you can, at least conceivably, do accurate representation without formally voting even once. For instance, you can randomly select people to serve as representatives like jury service – thus making sure you have a statistically representative cross-section of the country, without ever having to poll the whole population at a ballot box once.

Well, the current UK government are in power with about 7 in 10 people not voting for them. Or “actively voting against them”, if you will, since we have a first-past-the-post system that doesn’t allow us to transfer votes and gauge broad support, or empower people to vote for their true preference.

All of our electoral woes translate into a disproportionate number of seats in Parliament compared to the popular vote and our best guess for what the will of the people actually is. More people voted for UKIP than the SNP, yet the translation of that into representative seats is farcical.

Basically, it ain’t representative. Not in the slightest. If you think otherwise you are fucking delusional.

Let’s be clear, though – I fucking hate UKIP. But I have to be consistent. In the 2010 election, Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised debates caused a near-unprecedented surge in popular support for the Liberal Democrats. Despite this increase, they lost a seat. It was absurd then, it’s even more absurd now.

And if you want to change the meaning behind “representation” slightly, don’t forget that Parliament is way off our actual demographic make-up on all counts. Gender, ethnic groups, disabilities, sexual orientations… In fact, the Lords – the appointed house – is a comparative trailblazer in that respect, probably because it’s appointed and not elected. We tend to elect people similar to “us”, and in most places the majority is, as they say, male-and-pale. Given our winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system… well, it’s an unfortunate side-effect of elections that we don’t get demographically representative representatives. There’s also probably nothing we can do about that.

Graph of MPs demographics compared to the general population

This is direct from parliament.uk, which looks… okay, until you realise it took until 2010 to get that far. Now, one can argue that representatives should be more educated and older so have better experience, but when we have a health secretary who believes in homoeopathy and a PM that doesn’t realise the effects of his own policies, then clearly that plan is, to use the technical jargon, bollocks.

What about electing the leaders and holding them to account, that must be what democracy is all about, right?

Again… you don’t vote for the leader of the country, that’s selected for you. You vote for your MP, and that translates into a seat, and the side with the most seats takes their preferred MP and sticks them in the executive branch of government.

Even the cabinet you don’t vote for. They’re appointed based on connections and party loyalty, and certainly not their qualifications or suitability for the post. And they’re reshuffled at will, at quasi-random intervals, and usually with regard to what looks good on the news.

So, think about that: in UK politics, the people actually wielding the power are not voted for.

The whips mean the Party must vote the way the government want, and the government – that is, the cabinet and the policy-makers – are selected and appointed from the pool of MPs, not elected directly to their positions. Doctors have zero say in who the Health Secretary is, school teachers have no say in who the Education Secretary is – because no-one, save the Party Elite, has that power.

Oh, and when we petition a vote of no confidence in one of them because he’s fucking up the job at an objective and demonstrable level, we get nothing. In fact, we occasionally get laughed at.

Because fuck you, that’s why.

So, if “that’s democracy”, then screw it.

Democracy is evidently shit.

I’d rather have meaningful voting, qualified representatives, an accountable executive branch, houses that accurately reflect our opinions, and the ability to be continually heard. Because those are good things, not Good Things.

When you say “that’s democracy” like it’s a good thing, to avoid talking about problems with the government, or to shut down protesters, complaints, and petitions, then you’re doing nothing but buying into a load of bullshit. If you want “democracy” to begin and end at elections every five years, if you want representatives that aren’t allowed to represent us, and you want executive leaders who are appointed through their connections and party loyalty, then you probably shouldn’t be engaging in the political process in the first place.

A Skeptical Cynic’s View of the Cameron-Oxford Letters

We’ll get onto these megalomaniacal folk in a moment, but first…

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger and his collaborators, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, embedded themselves within a small but intense doomsday cult lead by Dorothy Martin. The cult claimed that the world would end in December 1954 through a great apocalyptic flood, and that the believers of the cult would be whisked away by a quasi-magical group known as ‘The Guardians’. The date came, and the date went. No apocalypse, no knocks at the door from the Guardians. Psychologists expected the group to disband – with their belief shattered, surely these rational humans would quit and get on with their lives. What actually happened shocked Festinger and his colleagues – the group expanded. They proselytised, preached and practised, and their numbers grew. The cult became ever more embedded in its beliefs, despite being proven wrong.

In 1994, a relative unknown named Harold Camping predicted the end of the world would happen on September 6th of that year – being a committed Christian, he called it Judgement Day, and the Second Coming. September 6th came and went, but Camping remained unfazed by this lack of realisation. With his 1994 date largely ignored and forgotten, Camping would go on to make a number of other Judgement Day predictions – cumulating in a massive, national campaign that stretched across the United States in 2010. He predicted the end of the world for May 21st, 2011 and became a household name due to it. His followers and believers sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to him to continue the awareness campaign. Some may have even killed themselves or their relatives in anticipation. The date came and went, and Camping’s Judgement Day was nowhere to be seen. Still, Camping stubbornly adhered to his belief – he dismissed the May 21st date as a “spiritual” judgement, and rescheduled the real Judgement Day for October. His campaign ramped up further still – billboards were erected, believers became more fired up for the real judgement. That date came and went, with the world spinning on as physics dictates. Camping died in December 2013, before he could make any other predictions or cause any more damage through them.

Since the 1950s, there has been an unprecedented boom in biological research. Beginning with Crick, Watson and Wilkins, genetics has shown us the heritability of traits from generation to generation. It has made sense of evolution, our ancestry, and how all species on the planet are related in a complex tree of life. New major discoveries that all fit within this network of evolutionary biology are added every day to the great pile of scientific knowledge. Yet, in 2007 – and with a price tag of $27 million – Ken Ham of the organisation Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum. The museum would stand as a monument to everything that 150 years of scientific exploration and evidence knows to be wrong. In 2010, Ham decided to press on with yet a new, large project; the Ark Encounter. Built as a giant, replica boat, it would be a living museum dedicated to the myth of Noah’s Ark, with an accompanying price tag an order of magnitude higher than that of the Creation Museum. Yet scientific discoveries such as the Tiktaalik in the ’00s and the mapping of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 haven’t pushed back our knowledge towards Biblically-literal 6-day creation. Ham’s responses have intensified in the opposite direction to the evidence.

The three stories above illustrate a concept well known to skeptics; cognitive dissonance. When faced with contradictory information, information that makes our internal view of the world less consistent, we react with discomfort. The discomfort forces us to either re-evaluate everything we believe to be true, or to adjust the evidence to fit. A total re-evaluation of our lives requires rewiring large sections of our beliefs, as if re-writing the software that our brains run on from scratch and building up our worldview all over again from nothing. Cognitive dissonance is more than just a face-saving exercise where we deny that we were wrong about something – the cognitive load to admit we’re incorrect, and fix ourselves appropriately, is simply beyond what we’re capable of.

So in September 2015, David Cameron exchanged letters with the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire council. In the letters, Cameron expressed his disappointment that the council was cutting essential services – libraries, museums, care homes, youth clubs – and that the council should instead look for savings in efficiency and in offices. The Oxfordshire councillor replied almost bluntly; we have done that, and the Conservative government’s cuts are too drastic, too deep, and we must cut front-line services. In other words: the policies of David Cameron’s government have left us with no choice but to hurt real people.


David Cameron expresses disappointment that such a thing had to be done. As if he had no idea it was needed. George Monbiot’s article on the subject suggests that Cameron is merely ignorant of the effect his own policies have. And he may well be right; as a millionaire with a fund in an offshore bank, and effectively in stable employment on a massive salary provided by the state, it’s very likely that Cameron has no idea of what austerity means to people who rely on council and state-funded services.

David Cameron has had evidence almost-literally thrown into his face about how severe, damaging, unproductive, and outright dangerous his austerity policies are, in particular to his own home constituency – the tiny little packet of the country he’s been voted to directly represent. This isn’t a new thing, of course; the UK’s slow recovery from a depression that happened 7 years ago is due to these policies, and when the policies fail to provide growth it completes a feedback cycle that proves such policies are needed.

So the ideology of austerity has been challenged, and its real effects made clear. The evidence is in: it doesn’t work. In an ideal world Cameron, Osborne, Hunt and the rest of the government would change their track.

But, instead, everything we know of cognitive dissonance tells us that we should be very, very scared of what will come next.

You’re Not Here To Study Chemistry

I don’t gripe about work too often here… okay, maybe I do. Anyway, here’s one thought flowing throw my head as I have ten minutes to kill between doing allegedly important things.

File:Chemicals in flasks.jpg

Sometimes, I want to scream to my students: “You’re not here to learn chemistry!


If you want to learn chemistry, read a book. Read Wikipedia. Read ChemGuide. Read HyperPhysics. Any idiot can pick up the material and learn all about it. Science is, possibly more than any other discipline, a well-documented subject. Want to learn some science? It’s out there for you to take. Now, more than ever, with knowledge freely flowing through the internet, anyone can learn about chemistry.

You are mere clicks away from a myriad of experts who have it all written down for your personal consumption and pleasure.

If you’re throwing 3-4 years of your life to come and study, you need to do more than just learn the chemistry. Much, much more. And this is a lesson most of us fail to learn until it’s way too late.

You’re not here to learn chemistry…

You’re here to learn how to be a decent human being. If you leave this place thinking it’s okay to treat the rest of the world like pieces of shit, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and become a Daily Mail reader, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and think “well, I don’t mind gay people just so long as…”, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and think “but women should never earn the same as men because…”, you’ve wasted your time. And you’ve wasted my time, too.

You’re here to become a rounded individual. If you do nothing but learn chemistry, and chemistry alone, and just what we put on the syllabus only, and take no time to engage with another subject, join a society, pick up an instrument, join a protest, write a novel, finger-paint the windows… I dunno, just anything else, then you’ve wasted your time. Take the opportunity to get out there and do more. Do different. Try things. Find out what you hate by doing them. If you don’t, it’s time wasted.

You’re here to become a scientist. If you just learn the facts, you’ve wasted your time. If you can’t think critically, you’ve wasted your time. You’re here to practice science, to do science, to experiment and figure out how to experiment. So if you just learn about it, you’ve wasted your time. You need to do it. Learn some philosophy of science. Learn hypothesis testing, and p-values, and Bayesian statistics, and distributions, and confidence intervals whether your module requires it or not. Learn how to write, to communicate. If you stay up all night fiddling over one lonely mark out of 100 on your lab report, you’ve wasted your time: get hammered in the pub and explain quantum mechanics to your friends instead.

You’re here to become a functioning adult. That means figuring out how to pay bills, cook food, live with others, be on time, and organise your day. Forget the alternative-living hippy-crap for now because you can’t accomplish that with dreams and wishes; if you want to change the world you first need to know how to survive in the crapshack that it is. You need to know when to sleep, when to wake up, when to plough ahead and work hard and when it’s best to give up and try another method another day. You have to tackle your anxieties, fight your depression, face your self-doubts and crippling insecurities, and learn to manage stress about deadlines. You’ve got 3-4 years of your life in the most supportive environment that is physically possible to create – and make no mistake, few other humans get that kind of opportunity. If you can’t do that here and now, when else are you going to pull this off? If you don’t take the opportunity to fight yourself head on, you’ve wasted your time.

You’re here to learn how to take over the world. In 3-4 years time you’ll graduate. You’ll be a post-graduate researcher, a teacher, or in industry, or anywhere else with a job and making a difference in the world. 5 years after that you’ll be managing and leading, making decisions. 10-15 years after that? Who knows. But without warning. and without your consent, and without any other time to prepare, you’ll be running this planet. Remember all those dicks out there running the show and making the world worse? You’re destined for their position – so if you don’t learn how to do that job less dickishly than they are, you’ve wasted your time. Whether you like it or not, all the adults, the ones that you think know what they’re doing, will die off. You are going to have to take their place. There’s not another batch of replacement adults and rulers out there to make decisions… there’s you. And you have to do a much, much better job than they have. And the bad news is that you have to do that all while being the most detested and maligned generation on record; the generation that has come before think you’re all lazy, whiny, self-entitled, self-obsessed losers for wanting even a sliver of the advantages they got, and they want to punish you for it. The hate you with a passion that’s absolutely unrivalled across countless centuries of grown-ups muttering “Bah! Kids these days!” They want to strip you of your voting rights, lumber you with debt, deny you prospects and shit on your happiness – and you’ve got 3-4 years to learn how to tell them you’re not going to fucking take it any more. You’ve got 3-4 years to unlearn everything they taught you that was to make them feel better, and learn that you have to take the keys to the planet from them before they can cause any more harm to it.

You’re not here to learn chemistry, you’re here to make the world a better place by learning that chemistry. So don’t waste your time.