No Dash for Gas vs progress and the open society

Recently a group called No Dash for Gas (henceforth NDFG) have been protesting near a site where EDF energy are doing shale gas fracking. I think that when you look closely at what NDFG say and do it becomes clear that they are thugs, wannabe tyrants and an impediment to progress.

In one of their “protests” involved NDFG broke into West Burton power station and camped there on some of the power stations chimneys for a week. NDFG pled guilty to the criminal offence of aggravated trespass. This “protest” cost EDF energy £340,000 in labour and £5 million in delays to finishing the site. Note that this protest doesn’t involve discussing ideas or anything like that. After all, if NDFG wanted a discussion they could have written articles or blog posts instead of committing a criminal offence. Rather, the objective was to deprive EDF of the use of their property, just as a mugger tries to deprive you of the use of your wallet.

NDFG do have a website but looking down the list of what they say about gas they seem a lot fonder of dogmatic assertion than actual argument. They appear to have no interest in understanding their opponents’ position and addressing their problems. For example, they say that gas is bad because burning gas causes carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming and so we shouldn’t burn gas. They don’t address the argument that the warming might have good effects or that we could adapt to it, or that we could do geo-engineering to stop the warming if it is bad. Even if all of these alternatives are wrong, anybody who thinks they are okay will not be convinced otherwise by NDFG.

NDFG also claim that the price of gas will rise. In and of itself this alleged fact, for which we are given no arguments, doesn’t imply anything about whether EDF should frack for gas or make more gas power stations. More expensive gas may be better than no gas. And I’m not surprised that there are no arguments because the future is not predictable. What we will do in the future depends on the knowledge we have in the future. We don’t know what knowledge we will have in the future and so we don’t know what the price of gas will be in the future.

There is something very odd about NDFG’s actions. Let’s suppose they know of a better alternative to gas. Good for them. They should go out and build a power station. So why haven’t they done this? If they build a power station and provide plentiful, cheap energy then people will buy from NDFG rather than EDF. And if they don’t know how to do that, then why are they protesting? They have nothing better to offer so the protest will achieve nothing.

Then we have EDF’s actions. I don’t know why EDF didn’t throw NDFG out on the first day. They even allowed the protesters to have ropes between the chimneys. EDF then tried to sue NDFG for £5 million in damages, then dropped that suit and got an injunction against NDFG to stop further trespass. Perhaps EDF were hamstrung by bad laws. But that doesn’t quite account for them offering NDFG a dialogue. EDF should not be appeasing NDFG in this way. NDFG are criminals. Nobody should be negotiating with NDFG unless they renounce the use of illegal means of pursuing their agenda. And even then it’s a bit of a puzzle how anybody could have a discussion with people who don’t seem to understand that to change another person’s position you actually have to address the substance of that position.

NDFG’s reply to EDF reveals more about their bad ideas. First, there is this astonishing statement:

Objectors like ourselves have gone to great lengths to point out some crucial facts to EDF: for example, that the CO2 from EDF’s UK coal and gas plants cause £5 million of climate change damage every day; that EDF’s attempts to get a guaranteed price for its nuclear electricity represents a massive multi-billion rip-off public subsidy that could be better spent on energy efficiency and renewables or that EDF’s decision to use its huge wealth and power to lobby against Government renewables targets and in favour of more nuclear power and fossil fuels is anti-democratic and completely disgraceful.

EDF should not be allowed to lobby the government? EDF are a group of people. Anything that is legitimate for people to do is also legitimate for EDF. NDFG don’t have any objection to asking the government for stuff per se because they want the government to give lots of money to people doing stuff with renewables. So what they want is for everybody who disagrees with them to shut up and stop trying to influence the government. So NDFG are opposed to freedom of speech and the existence of an open society.

NDFG also say stuff about £5 million in damage per day caused by fossil fuels but no source or argument is given for this alleged fact. By contrast fossil fuels supplied something like 88% (see p. 12) of the energy consumed in the UK. Since electricity is required for cleaning running water, medicine, food production and just about everything else, it is doing a vast amount of good. If we get rid of 88% of our current energy supply and have nothing to replace it, then we’re fucked. People will die in very large numbers. If NDFG have something to replace it they should start building instead of messing about with protesting. And if they don’t then they’re irresponsible.

NDFG also say that:

The best way for EDF to “ameliorate concerns” and reduce the likelihood of future protest is to take all the above points into account, reduce its prices to a level that people can afford, set a timetable for the closure of all its fossil and nuclear power stations, and release its lobbying stranglehold on Government so that energy efficiency and renewables can be expanded to take their place.

Now I’m puzzled. I thought NDFG were opposed to carbon dioxide emissions, which nuclear power plants don’t produce. So why do they oppose nuclear power?

NDFG might try to excuse their actions by saying that it is urgent that we do something. If that is so, then it is urgent for them to get people on their side, in which case they should be interested in getting good at argument. They should also be trying to build power stations rather than committing criminal acts if they’re serious. Groups like NDFG are a useless impediment to progress.

Against Censorship

Censorship is a bad idea. It is the use of force or confiscation of property or money or threats thereof to stop the expression of an idea.

Censorship is a bad idea regardless of the content of the idea for a couple of reasons.

If the idea is bad, by censoring it you prevent people who know better from answering it. This, too, prevents the improvement of ideas.

Sometimes a person will think an idea is bad even though it is good. If you censor such an idea you prevent the improvement of ideas. There is no infallible way to distinguish when you are right about an idea being bad from when you’re wrong, so this is always possible.

Traditionally, there have been many objections to free speech.

First, there is the question of whether you can shout fire in the crowded theatre when there is no fire and you’re not an actor on stage. If you shout fire in a theatre then you are doing a wrong to the people who came to watch the play, and possibly also to the theatre owner. What you are saying is not the problem, the wrong that you are doing in that context is the problem.

Second, shouldn’t people be able to control the content of their blog or YouTube account? Should they not be able to prevent you from posting comments that they dislike? Yes, they should but that’s not censorship. You can start your own blog or YouTube channel or whatever. And in any case, like the theatre owner the blog or channel owner has no obligation to use his property to support your speech. If you feel bad about this that’s your responsibility, not his.

Third, what if somebody is inciting people to violence, should we not censor him? In this case, the problem isn’t the ideas the speaker is expressing, rather he is participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit assault or murder or something like that. If the police get a tip that somebody is planning an armed robbery and raid the robbers’ hideout and stop them from making further plans, they are not interested in stopping the robbers’ speech per se, but the robbery.

Recently, the British government has proposed a plan to make internet service providers require people to block porn websites unless their customer asks them not to.

Some people have said this is a bad idea, but many of them have given the wrong argument. They say: “We agree that it is laudable to deny children (under 18s) access to porn, but this is a bad way to do it.” These people are wrong, it is not at all laudable to deny children access to porn.

“But people under 18 can’t deal with porn because they don’t have the appropriate context to deal with it,” I hear you cry. This is puzzling. Whatever the appropriate interpretation of porn might be if the child can look for porn when he’s interested in it, that will give parents an opportunity to help the child the appropriate interpretation.

The people who use the “context” excuse for censorship may not understand how porn should be interpreted. They say things like: “porn should be used as a way for people in loving relationships to spice up their sex.” Many people in romantic relationships and marriages end up suffering, so at minimum there is something wrong with the way people enact such relationships. So given that people are bad at relationships perhaps they should question the idea that they’re right about all of the issues concerned, including how to use porn.

“But people under 18 can’t understand porn,” the critic objects. If a child looks at porn and doesn’t have any understanding of what he’s seeing at all then he’ll get bored and go do something else.

But what if more teenagers get pregnant as a result of watching porn? People under the age of 18 can find out about sex in ways other than looking at porn. People under 18 found out about sex even before the internet was invented. Also, people often use porn for masturbation so why would more porn lead to more teen pregnancy?

But porn degrades women doesn’t it? If that is true, that is not just a problem for people under 18 and so can’t be a reason for preventing them specifically from getting access to porn. And in any case, the stuff women do in porn is also done by men and transexuals and midgets. While it might be a good idea to have debates about porn, we should have an open debate featuring serious arguments both for and against porn.

I think an unstated reason for the opposition to people under 18 watching porn is precisely that some of them might enjoy it. They should be working hard in school and becoming badminton champions and stuff like that. In other words, people under 18 should be doing what other people want them to do, not using their own judgement. It is disgraceful that the same adults who often chide children for not using their initiative are so keen to deprive them of opportunities to exercise their own judgement about what they should think. Anybody who wants a more rational world should be appalled by the British government’s attempt at thought control.

Nicholas Maxwell’s bad moral philosophy

Nicholas Maxwell seems to like to think of himself as a great moral thinker, but actually he is has no good insights and seems to want to set himself up as a Platonic philosopher king.

Let’s start with his vision of one supposed problems in current affairs. He talks about a “long-standing problem of the rapid growth of the world’s population” (p. 4 of this paper). In other words, more people = badness. The truth is that high birth rates happen in dirt poor places that have bad institutions such as oppressive and corrupt governments, poor protection of property rights and that sort of thing. (Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist discusses this particular issue well but I don’t endorse it in general.) It is quite revealing that he claims this is a matter of population. He doesn’t see every person as a potential creative problem solver who could make the world a better place in all sorts of major or minor ways. Rather he sees their existence as problematic and acts as an apologist for their oppressors by not even mentioning the existence of said oppression.

On reading a summary of his political agenda it becomes clearer that Maxwell is even worse than this disgraceful stance makes him sound:

Natural science needs to create committees, in the public eye, and manned by scientists and non-scientists alike, concerned to highlight and discuss failures of the priorities of research to respond to the interests of those whose needs are the greatest – the poor of the earth – as a result of the inevitable tendency of research priorities to reflect the interests of those who pay for science, and the interests of scientists themselves.

This is terribly muddled. First, science can’t reflect both what the poor currently want, what scientists currently want and what the rich currently want. For example, many poor people want to use fossil fuels and Maxwell thinks this will cause some sort of catastrophe as a result of global warming. What would be needed is a serious discussion of the political economy of current scientific institutions. Maxwell apparently has no interest in this since he doesn’t discuss it.

Rather, he wants to create a world academic government and a world government:

The world’s universities need to include a virtual world government which seeks to do what an actual elected world government ought to do, if it existed. The virtual world government would also have the task of working out how an actual democratically elected world government might be created.

Democratic institutions are problematic enough in a single country where politicians can be relatively more accountable without engaging in the pretence that such an institution can work for a world government. There is also a lot of disagreement on basic issues like whether it’s a good idea to murder Jews in the world (to judge by propaganda put out by the Palestinian Authority) never mind on complex issues like global warming. Maxwell apparently has nothing to say about any of these problems.

Maxwell is not wise or insightful. He is apparently totally oblivious to many of the most serious problems facing the world and of serious problems in his own worldview.