Daily Archives: 11 February 2008

Rowan Williams: still clinging onto exceptionalism

Blink and you might miss it, but someone at the BBC has finally spotted the real problem with Williams’ speech and his repeated clarifications:

He made that clear to the Synod, too: “…as the assumptions of our society become more secular…Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.”

That of course lays him open to a quite proper charge by non-believers, that he is seeking to advance the interests of religion however it is defined. But that is quite separate from the criticism assailing him from within Anglicanism.

The point which much of the media has ignored is that Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism whereby we atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords. Gay marriage, and even same-sex registered partnerships, is apparently a threat that undermines the institution of marriage, yet we should at least be open-minded about the idea of Muslim polygamy. People of faith can say what they like about atheists, but atheists should be locked up for slagging off the religious. In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.

Sadly, I suspect that because of all the sound and thunder over sharia, we won’t have a wider debate about this most pernicious part of his thinking. Ho hum. The only rational response is to all go and join Charlotte Church’s Jedis.

UPDATE: Another point which I meant to include here but forgot was a reminder that for all Williams’ exhortation about the importance of human rights, it was the Church of England that demanded that they be exempted from such rights when the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998.

Is time travel the new porn?

The Daily Mail’s Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a pop at the trend in physics towards ever more outlandish theories in the New Scientist this week:

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all. Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam’s razor – the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either. There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It’s hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn’t the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines? Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Coming from a Daily Mail man, this sounds like fightin’ talk (to be fair to him, I haven’t read anything by Hanlon that I would characterise as scare-mongering anti-science, but as the Science Editor you’d have thought he’d have some say in the sillier stories that do follow this trend in his paper). He has a point though. New Scientist’s cover story this week is about a scientific theory that the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN could be made into the world’s first time machine. When you get into the detail though, it turns out that this whole theory depends on “dark energy” of which we know very little, being used to “stretch” open the mouth of the resulting wormhole in space-time to allow us to communicate – let alone walk – through it. That’s a whole heap of speculation.

It sells copies of the New Scientist, but somehow I doubt we are on the brink of a major new discovery of this kind any time soon. And if we were it will probably not be anything like the future we imagined. Just as we have been denied the jetpacks we were promised, this new time travel technology will probably end up so boringly mundane that we don’t even notice when they start churning it out. Instead of people in jumpsuits from 10,000 years in the future coming back to murder their ancestors, my guess is the first time we see this technology being used is when some bozo introduces the mobile phone that allows you to text yourself messages in the past to make sure you remember to pick up the milk on the way home.

Like picture messaging, no-one will see the point of it at first, but then suddenly everyone will be at it. Within weeks, the lottery will become utterly pointless as the jackpot is won on a weekly basis by 60 million people and thus pays out 5p each. On the other hand, the stock exchange will become even more chaotic as people tip themselves off on a massive scale, only to discover that if everyone’s at it such information becomes utterly redundant. Eventually a member of Parliament hits upon a wheeze to claim their additional costs allowance an infinite number of times and the universe will implode in a puff of contradiction and self-important venality.

How annoying will that be? Even if it doesn’t happen, I can just imagine my future self texting me lies just to screw me over. Bastard.

Nick Clegg’s half century: not out

Not my best ever article, but I’ve written about Clegg’s first 50 days over at Comment is Free. I’m delighted to see my Tory baiting has caused a reaction:

All the signs are there to indicate that David Cameron is likely to have a poor 2008. Gordon Brown’s remarkable meltdown has not brought Cameron the sort of poll ratings that even Neil Kinnock could take for granted in the early 1990s. The success of last October is now a distant memory. Labour and the Tory headbangers have out-maneuvered him and forced him to bore for Britain on the Lisbon treaty; an issue which steadfastly refuses to fly for him. It is becoming increasingly evident that George Osborne – Cameron’s closest ally – is woefully out of his depth in the job of Shadow Chancellor at a time when the economy is a bigger issue than ever. And fundamentally, his own parliamentary party simply defy him every time he tries championing a progressive issue, something which he does less and less often these days.

Is it time to revisit rules on lobbying Lords?

Cameron is to capitulate over Lord Oakeshott’s private members’ bill aimed at ousting peers who are resident abroad for tax purposes. The clear target of the bill, Michael Ashcroft, who is currently running a Messagespace advertising campaign to push his two latest books, has this to say about his beloved Belize on his website:
Michael Ashcroft website screenshot

Belize – “if home is where the heart is, this is my home”

Michael Ashcroft grew up in Belize after his father had been posted there by the Foreign Office.
In 1982 he revisited the country and fell in love with its people and culture for a second time.

Michael Ashcroft is now a major investor in Belize. He also funds educational charitable projects in Belize and neighbouring islands.

Between 1998 – 2000 he was the Belizean Ambassador to the United Nations. He was nominated for his knighthood by the Belizean government.

All of which is fair enough, but doesn’t exactly scream suitability for the UK legislature. I fear that Lord Ashcroft would fail Lord Tebbit’s cricket test.

But the point of my post is not (just) to make cheap shots at Ashcrofts expense. It is to question whether, in the light of this and the ongoing debate over Parliamentarians and expenses, it is time for the Lib Dems to revisit their policy banning members of the House of Lords from working for lobbying companies.

The Lords Parliamentary Party has consistently blocked these proposals on the grounds that many peers require supplementary income. Since then, two facts have emerged which undermine this argument.

First of all, the level of expenses which peers can claim for has become apparent – £37,000 tax free. Secondly, those unwilling to give up their cushy lobbying jobs have a simple option: take a long term leave of absence. If Andrew Phillips can do that, so can Tim Clement-Jones.

Should we have another go at this at the autumn party conference? In the current climate it seems to me this is one loophole we can’t afford to leave gaping.

General Synod: how Williams should break the ice

There’s still time to give Rowan Williams some advice on how to spin himself out of the mess he’s created for himself at the General Synod today. My suggestion is that he should start with something like this:

When I set out to write a speech about major religions operating their own quasi-legal systems, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Trust me; they’ll love it.