Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Covid-19 in Australia Update

For largely good reasons, international coverage of the covid-19 pandemic is not currently focused on Australia. However, the dusty continent is where I keep my body, so I pay a bit more attention to it. While New Zealand remains almost virus free (the exception being people returning from overseas), Australia has low numbers of new cases but there remain a persistent number of cases apparently from community transmission.

The main attention is on the state of Victoria that has had a spike of 41 new cases on Saturday. New South Wales has much smaller numbers but there are still cases that appear to be community transmission (i.e. not people in quarantine who have recently returned from overseas). Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Western Australia has been able to further ease restrictions with pubs and nightclubs opening fully.

One geographic/demographic aspect of Australia that is relevant to WA opening up is the degree to which each state can restrict travel between states. This has lead to some tension between New South Wales and Queensland which still retain some border restrictions.

Things have otherwise pretty much relaxed into a new normal. Cafes and restaurants are sort of open, the roads are busy again but public transport is less crowded. Most people who can work from home (those that work in the great Excel and Microsoft Word mines churning out documents) still are.

Schools have been open for time. Post-pandemic there will be a lot of discussion about schools. As a policy intervention, school closures has been one of the most erratic i.e. there are countries with quite strict lockdowns that have left schools open or partly open and countries with less strict lockdowns that have kept schools closed. Overall, it does look like children aren’t a major source of transmission but it is also clear that the social logistics of closing schools was a genuine challenge. In future pandemics we might not be so lucky (yes, I can’t say anything about this feels lucky except in the sense of it really could have been even worse). A different disease might have more aggressively affected children and governments really need to start planning for ways of closing down schools in a sustainable way.

I travelled into Sydney CBD the other day and there was a normality to the city. The streets were busy with cars and people again. I wore a mask but most of the other people I saw wearing masks were ethnically Asian. Mask wearing hasn’t become habitual here and Australia didn’t have a ‘wear masks at the shops’ level of eased-restrictions mainly because the number of cases fell pretty rapidly (we got to skip that step). Australia likes to boast about itself as part of the Asia-Pacific region but it would do well to adopt the habit of major cities in the region and make mask wearing the norm.

There were Black Lives Matter protests here but so far there have been no recorded covid-19 cases that appear to have originated with the protests. Of course, protestors were generally very good at wearing masks and other PPE (police…not so much).

The shortages in various goods experienced in April had largely been forgotten, aside from some shops being overstocked with off-brand toilet paper. However, the small but scary surge of cases in Victoria has led to supermarket chains imposing restrictions pre-emptively. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-24/woolworths-reintroduces-item-limits-victorian-stores/12388436

The big difference with this new upswing in cases is that testing is now widely available and the infrastructure for contact tracing exists. The contact tracing app doesn’t look like it has had enough people downloading it and using it to make a big difference though.

I think it is still too early to draw any clear conclusions about policy responses to covid-19 other than ‘do not have Boris Johnson or Donald Trump as your national leader’. Mask-wearing? It looks like it works but to have really made a difference to the covid-19 outbreak, people needed to be wearing the masks before they knew about the pandemic. That’s not absurd so long as people in major cities just start adopting that as a habit, particularly if they have the sniffles. Panic-buying of PPE would have been a potential disaster for health workers in the early weeks of the pandemic. However, if people habitually wear them then people will have supplies in and ready. In Australia we may need them anyway if we get another bad fire season (oh, yes that was still this year even if it feels like it was decades ago).

Above all, Australia was lucky rather than smart. Our national government isn’t particularly competent but they managed to step over the low bar that the UK Tories and USA GOP failed on. As I have suggested before, I believe the PR disaster that befell the PM (Scott Morrison) because of his woeful handling of the bushfire crisis resulted in the federal government fearful of a repeat performance.

Worlds Enough and Tim

[Scene: The drawing room of Felapton Towers – Reality ℥℔Ωℨ 2017, during the unfortunate Weasel Flu Pandemic of that year during the presidency of ¡Jeb! Bush and the Prime Ministership of the Right Honourable Cilla Black]

[Camestros (sleeping)] zzzzz
[Timothy the Talking Cat] Wake up! Wake up! Time for the daily Zoom meeting!
[Camestros] Whaaa…huh…oh, it’s you. Oh, good grief are we doing the online meeting thing again?
[Timothy] PMs orders! All workplaces are REMOTE workplaces and that includes my publishing house.
[Camestros] Yes but you are literally sitting on my lap.
[Timothy] It’s the only place I can reach the laptop that is next to you on the lounge.
(Timothy click “Join Meeting” and after a short but somehow annoyingly long time a Zoom meeting starts. Camestros does the same with his phone. As the meeting starts an ungodly howl omits from both devices.)
[Camestros] Aggh! Turn off the mic! Turn off the audio!
[Timothy] I did that already.
[Camestros] So what was that howling?
[Timothy] You were sitting on my tail.
[Camestros] (grumbles under his breath) So, “boss”, what’s this meeting about?
[Timothy] Well I think we need a holiday.
[Camestros] Yeah but [moves hands to indicate the whole current state of the world] an appalling pandemic that has but the whole world in lockdown. Even the pubs are closed. Even the creepy dry-cleaners is closed and that was even open to begin with.
[Timothy] Ah ha! But I have found the solution…we can escape from all this ON A CRUISE SHIP!
[Camestros] Hmm, well, let me count the ways that is an appalling idea. 1. cruise ships are, even on a good year without a global plague of biblical proportions, floating Petri dishes of disease. 2. I can’t swim. 3. You can’t swim and you hate boats. 3. If we get on a cruise liner I will sing the theme tune to The Love Boat and you will attempt to claw out my vocal claws as a result. 4. Do you KNOW how many people just fall off cruise ships every year and NOBODY notices? It is like A LOT! Good grief, sometimes the crew just throw away the luggage in apparently abandoned rooms and don’t tell anybody. 5. You get cross with me whenever I try to explain the connection between Jordan Peterson and the film of the Poseiden Adventure at the best of times. A cruise is just one long giant social event and you know how I’ll get and that will be the ONLY topic of conversation I’ll be able to think of. 6. I’m pretty confident all the cruise line companies have gone bust. 7. …
[Timothy] …shut that pie hole for a moment, please! This isn’t a regular cruise! It’s not a cruise on the sea! It is a cruise ship of THE IMAGINATION!
[Camestros] Gasp! Tell me more…

More Cruise Ship hi-Jinks below

Meanwhile in Australia, Press Freedom is Under Attack

In 2017 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation released information about possible war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan (Content warning https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-11/killings-of-unarmed-afghans-by-australian-special-forces/8466642 ). The allegations came from a leaked internal investigation and detailed disturbing levels of violence towards unarmed civilians by Australian troops.

Yesterday, the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC’s Sydney offices: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-05/abc-raided-by-australian-federal-police-afghan-files-stories/11181162

There is more coverage here:

Very disturbing.

Well that was disappointing

After all the fuss and intrigue of a general election, nothing seems to have changed much in Australia. The Liberal-National coalition looks likely to scrape in with a tiny majority in Parliament, leaving things pretty much where they were when the election was called. If PM Scott Morrison looks surprisingly happy about that its because the polls (including the exit polls) were pointing in the opposite direction: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/19/scott-morrison-credits-the-quiet-australians-for-miracle-election-victory

People are scratching their heads about the opinion polls https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/19/voters-across-australia-left-asking-whats-the-deal-with-the-polls which had implied a small Labor victory. Now, the difference between the polls and reality was small when it comes down to margins of error but this is just one of several elections were the polls were marginally wrong.

The happy news is that the obnoxious Tony Abbott, ex-PM and generally unpleasant man, lost his seat to an independent. Ironically, this is good news for his party, as he was a source of disunity in parliament for them.

Australian General Election 2019 FAQ

The Australian gneral election is this saturday May 18 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Australian_federal_election

Didn’t you just have an election?

That was the New South Wales state election. This is the Federal election.

You could have just done both at the same time.

That’s a statement not a question.

[sigh] Ok. WHY didn’t you just have both elections at the same time?

It would have been too confusing. For example state constituencies and federal constituencies are very similar but not quite the same. For example these two maps show the constituency centred on the town of Penrith in Western Sydney (a key battleground electorally) Lindsay (Federal) versus Penrith (State).

And the parties are different?

No, that’s pretty much the same but the reputation of the state v federal versions of the major political parties can be different. For example NSW Labor is still a bit shambolic after several years of corruption scandals whereas Federal Labor has a better reputation. On the other other hand NSW Liberals are more centrist than Federal Liberals.

And the Liberals are conservatives, right?

Yes and “Labor” is spelt the American way even though Australian’s spell “labour” the British way.

So what are the big issues?

Taxes, Wages, Super and Climate Change. Housing in general is an issue but it is fairly vague.

Super? The government will be cracking down on costumed vigilantes? About time too, that Spider-Man is a menace!

Superannuation. If you work you pay into money for your retirement. There are mandatory aspects to this for employers. People can manage their own superannuation, or join a for-profit superfund or join a not-for-profit industry superfund. Some self-employed people invest their super into shares and there is a special kind of tax-refund that helps that. Labor want to abolish that refund on share dividends and some people are upset by that.

Ah, yes, this would be the franking credit/dividend imputation credits policy. Can you explain for us all what a franking credit is?

No, I haven’t a clue.

That was the only proper question I had.

You could ask about climate change.

[sigh] What about climate change?

Well it is a bad thing for Australia. Australia isn’t the easiest place to farm and Australian farmers are feeling the impact of less predictable weather and long term shifts in climate. Bush fires, droughts and floods all impact rural communities.

However, right leaning parties are also beholden to powerful mining interest in Australia and the coal lobby is very powerful. Pricing carbon emissions has been an issue that has toppled a series of party leaders and Prime Ministers over the past few years.

So…

The Liberal Party officially recognises that climate change is occurring and that action needs to be taken but has a powerful climate change denialist faction within it. Labor is keen to not lose votes to The Greens by being too soft on Climate Change but is painfully aware that they will get attacked by the right wing press over any specific policy. Overall, voters are keen on action around climate change but are wary when it comes to specific policies.

You’ll be eating sausages?

You remembered!

How Coal Runs Australian Politics

The latest news in Australian politics is that ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull will resign his seat sooner than expected triggering a by election. I suspect this won’t bring down the government but it’s a more assertive act by Turnbull than I expected.

The Guardian has a report here: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/aug/27/malcolm-turnbull-to-trigger-byelection-by-quitting-parliament-on-friday?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Further down in that article is a comment from Turnbull’s son Alex, that confirms an observation I’ve made about this chaos:

“After Turnbull’s leadership loss last week, his son Alex Turnbull has started speaking publicly about his frustrations with the federal Coalition.
On Monday, Alex said he suspected a powerful group of coal mining companies on Australia’s east coast was having an “undue level of influence” on federal Liberal party policy.
He said the Coalition’s “singular fixation” on the Galilee Basin – a gigantic coal deposit in central Queensland – and on keeping ageing coal-fired power stations alive, had led him to believe “there are other forces at work” to explain the Coalition’s unproductive policymaking.”

“That there is an undue level of influence on Liberal Party policy by a very small group of miners who have some assets they probably now regret having purchased which did not make a lot of sense anymore and are trying to engineer an outcome which makes those projects economic,” he told the ABC on Monday.
When asked who the miners were, he laughed. Then he said: “People who own a lot of coal in the Galilee Basin.”

The observation certainly fits known facts. And here is a weird twist or perhaps an example of saying the quiet part loud: Denialist website Wattsupwiththat has an article loudly complaining that the press aren’t giving ENOUGH coverage to the fact that Turnbull was ousted because of climate policy: https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/08/25/l-a-times-conceals-facts-regarding-climate-policy-repudiation-which-triggered-australian-pm-turnbulls-ouster/

What’s going down in Canberra Town?

Australian politics time!

What the heck is going on?

The current (I haven’t checked the headlines so I’m assuming he’s still current) Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had his leadership challenged by his party’s MPs. There is a good chance that he won’t be PM much longer.

But they can’t just depose your nation’s leader just like that?

Well yes, they can. That’s how the Westminster system works. For example, Margaret Thatcher stopped being PM in the UK because her own MPs ousted her. It’s meant to be a feature not a bug.

A rare occurrence only used in extremis then?

Um…well…it’s happened to the past four PMs. Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbot by this method.

So who is the challenger?

Initially a guy called Peter Dutton. He’s an ex-police officer with very right of centre politics.

But presumably he’s a great public speaker?

He sort of drones in a way that’s frankly unsettling and makes kittens cry.

But his supporters must think he has some electoral appeal. Is he dashingly handsome?

Come now, I’m not going to start judging people by their appearance. It is unseemly and irrelevant. The key thing is his right wing politics which will alienate many voters.

Did you just say underneath your breath that he looks like a gormless potato?

I would never…ok, yes I did.

But a man of steadfast integrity though?

He might be referred to the high court because of conflicts of financial interest that would make it illegal for him to sit in parliament.

Well it could be worse…

…and he may have used his position to reverse deportation for two foreign au-pairs for reasons he can’t explain…

He doesn’t sound like an ideal candidate?

Well the Australian Labor Party must be delighted but in reality Dutton will never be PM. He’s mainly just a weapon of the right of the Liberal Party to punish Malcolm Turnbull for not doing what they say.

You’ve explained this ‘Liberal’ party before. They’re actually conservatives?

Yes, its because of the Coriolis effect.

And Australia just likes to dump its Prime Ministers?

That’s a more recent phenomenon. John Howard was PM for several terms. This current habit started with Labor PM Kevin Rudd. His ousting was partly due to poor polling but also he was apparently a very poor manager who alienated colleagues.

So it’s a malaise that spread from Labor to Liberal?

Not quite…there are some common factors.

Could you list them as bullet points?

  1. Tony Abbot – aggressive right wing politician who relentlessly attacked Rudd when Abbot was leader of the opposition and then Gillard. As PM Abbot proved less than competent and was ousted by Turnbull but Abbot stayed in parliament to undermine Turnbull for revenge and ideological reasons.
  2. Energy policy. Politically (and electorally) Australia supports energy policies to minimise climate change and move from fossil fuels. Turnbull believe climate change is real and supports action to limit emissions. However, the right of the Liberal Party is vehemently in the climate denial camp and spends every effort to sabotage climate policy and scare monger about energy prices (which have risen in Australia for reasons OTHER than climate change measures).
  3. Immigration. While Australia leans progressively on climate, the same isn’t true on immigration and both Labor and the more centrist elements of the Liberal have adopted frankly appalling policies on asylum seekers to appease the Liberal right and fringe parties like One Nation. Scares about immigration or new immigrant communities are used as wedge issues by the right to destabilise centrist governments. (Oh, you’ve heard this song before…)
  4. Right wing media, in particular ‘Sky News’ owned by…Rupert Murdoch. (Oh, you’ve heard that song before also…)

What’s the good news?

Turnbull is a canny operator with little to lose and a house that has a Scrooge McDuck style vault of money in it [citation needed]. He doing his best to ruin any chance of Dutton becoming PM. In particular he’s made it clear that if he is ousted then he’ll reign from parliament. The government have a razor thin majority of 1 MP, so if Turnbull goes, the government won’t have a majority.

What’s the bad news?

Turnbull’s delaying tactics will help a more moderate replacement get enough support to stand, replacing Turnbull with somebody who would be more electorally palatable. The political paradox that helps fuels this kind of chaos is that the electorate HATE this kind of instability but often reward a new party leader with a boost in the polls. That might be enough for the Liberals to win a general election which will mean another three years of this kind of divisive nonsense from the Liberal’s right.

What’s the other good news?

You get great sausage sandwiches at polling booths on Election Day.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27

There are many Holocaust remembrance days. Poland, for example, commemorates the anniversary of the   Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19. Jewish communities and Isreal mark Yom HaShoah on the 27th of Nisan (which falls in April or May) as a day to remember both those who were murdered by the Nazis but also the Jewish resistance to the Nazis.

Many nations (and since 2006, the UN) remember the Holocaust on January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945. The Auschwitz, Birkenau, Monowitz was the largest complex of its kind, combining labour camps (e.g. for IG Farben) and death camps in which people were slaughtered en-masse. One in six of the Jewish people killed in Nazi camps died in the Auschwitz camps.

An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Around 90 percent of those killed were Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.[1][2] Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals.[3] Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp

The great Italian writer (and occasional science fiction writer) Primo Levi was one of those who was liberated on that day. In If This Is a Man, (also titled “Survival at Auschwitz”) Levi tells of his arrest in Italy as a member of the anti-fascist resistance and his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In it he says:

A country is considered the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.

In The Periodic Table, Levi managed to combine his literary powers with his fascination in chemistry (his other profession) and to find poetry and meaning in humble states of matter:

[Nitrogen:] The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.

This contrast between the extraordinary capacity for fascism to both degrade people and find disgust in humanity, versus his own need to see things as they are runs through his work. Periodic Table again:

[Zinc:] In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.

I’ll finish with Levi’s poem from the start of If This Is a Man which is a demand to remember, to meditate that this came about, and finishes with a curse on those who forget.

You who live safe
In your warm houses
You who fin returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street
Going to bed, rising
Repeat them to your children
Or may your house fall apart
May illness impede you
May your children turn their faces from you

 

Australian Gun Laws – Did they Work? (spolier: yes they did)

University of Sydney academic Professor Simon Chapman is the lead author of a study that has examined the impact of the late 1990’s tightening of Australian gun laws. The Liberal government of the time (for ‘liberal’ read ‘conservative’) enacted tougher gun laws in response to the Port Arthur mass shooting in Tasmania. Australia’s gun laws did not become as strict as the UK’s and the emphasis was on  guns that could be used in mass shootings and a general reduction in gun availability.

So what happened? The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association here: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2530362 [abstract is directly avaialble but I think it is possible to get the full article by a free sign-up]

There is also an editorial in the same edition of the journal here: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2530361

What is most clear from the current study is that Australia’s NFA coincided with an elimination of mass killings with firearms. It is difficult to pinpoint precisely which aspect of the policy contributed to this success, but the substantial reduction in the population’s exposure to semiautomatic long guns capable of accepting large-capacity magazines (LCMs) for ammunition is likely to have been key. Examinations of fatal mass shootings in the United States have found that when assault weapons or pistols with LCMs are used in these shootings, the number of victims shot is about 2.5 times higher than in mass shootings with other firearms.7,8

The study is particularly interesting because it aims to disentangle the effect of the gun law changes from other brother shifts – for example  the trend in many developing nations of declines in homicide that occurred anyway. It also shows that the laws had an impact on suicide and importantly, shows that banning some kinds of weapons does not just lead to shift to still-legal weapons with no resulting decline in mass-killings or suicides. Instead a selective ban and gun buy-back schemes does seem to have resulted in a net reduction in deaths.

From a Guardian news article on the study:

The lead author of the study, Professor Simon Chapman, said a similar study had been conducted 10 years ago, and that the researchers had repeated it to see if gun-related deaths were continuing to decline, finding that they had.

“I’ve calculated that for every person in Australia shot in a massacre, 139 [people] are shot through firearm-related suicide or homicides, so they are much more common,” Chapman said.

“We found that homicide and suicide firearms deaths had been falling before the reforms, but the rate of the fall accelerated for both of them after the reforms. We’ve shown that a major policy intervention designed to stop mass shootings has had an effect on other gun-related deaths as well.”

He said the researchers had chosen to publish the results in an American medical journal not just because the title was a prestigious one, but also because the findings would have a greater impact.

However, he does not believe the findings will have an impact on gun ownership laws in the US.

“The US is a good example of where evidence is going to take longer to prevail over fear and ideology,” he said.

“When people like [Republican candidate] Donald Trump talk about gun violence, he’s essentially not talking about the facts or the evidence, he’s talking about ideology and saying people want the right to protect themselves and their homes.

“The irony is the person you have to protect yourself most from in a home is the person who owns the gun.”

Chapman said more than half of those who had conducted mass shootings in Australia and New Zealand had been licensed gun holders.