Friday, October 13, 2006

It may be time to retire from satire due to unfair competition, again. The news item is unremarkable, but the readers comments are utterly beyond parody...


Mike Taylor said...

The truly astonishing thing about this is the unanimity. When I looked, there were 54 comments. Of those, perhaps one could be considered neutral (it consisted of the single word "ouch") and ALL the other 53 were in favour of the punishment; and, where an opinion was expressed, in favour of introducing it to England.

The thing is ... I can't quite see where they're wrong (except in reading the Mail, obviously).

Louise H said...

The "serve him right" group aren't wrong, in any objective fashion. If the purpose of punishment is to provive revenge on behalf of the victim then it is difficult to see how being hit a few times with a rather nasty whip is out of proportion to attacking an elderly person in her home.

On the other hand, the "that will stop them" group are almost certainly wrong. There is, I believe, no convincing correlation between the harshness of the likely punishment and the number of people committing in particular violent crimes. I doubt that this particular individual gave any thought whatsoever to the legal consequences of his actions before acting.

There is likely to be a bit more of a correlation between the punishment and the actions of a burglar or a swindler; someone who is actually breaking the law in order to benefit financially might be more likely to perform some sort of cost-benefit analysis. But sex attacks against the elderly wouldn't seem to come into that category; they would seem to be the product of an at least partially disturbed mind. Which is not a bleeding hearts attitude but a practical one; there is no point in trying to deter people whose actions aren't dictated by the consideration of consequences.

Revenge, deterrence; that leaves rehabilitation. I've no idea how rehabilitating being flogged in public is but my instincts would suggest not very. But the Daily Mail readers obviously have different instincts, so who knows? I think I prefer my world view to theirs though.

Loftus is an idiot said...

Biblical proof of the deterrent effect of punishment:
"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. "

Biblical validation of flogging:
"When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make him lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of lashes his crime deserves, but he must not give him more than forty lashes. If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes."

God's covenant with Noah (this is still in force):
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man. "

The evidence of harsher penalties for crimes having a deterrent effect is overwhelming and has been believed in by every culture in history until the last 100 or so years. The correlation is obvious but people do not see it because they do not want to see it.
See this essay for example:
The liberals are sending this country to the dogs. The streets aren't safe, chavs prowl the neighbourhoods looking for victims, youths sporting tracksuits have already attacked two of my friends, only 1% of burglaurs are caught and they only serve on average 13 months, violent criminals serve only 5.5 years, rapists serve just 3, 3.3 crimes are committed for each police officer whilst 25 years ago it was the exact opposite, people are put in jail for taking drugs instead of being fined whilst dangerous criminals are let loose.
Liberals think that criminals should be understood and pitied rather than condemned, and it's claimed that all criminals can reform when obviously they can't etc.
People need to stop making emotional opinionated reactionary responses, stop reading Michael Moore and instead get down to some serious study of textbooks on crime prevention, econmics, and political history before we all DIE!!!!

Anonymous said...

I think a persuasive argument (though not compelling) can be made for corporal punishment. There are two reasons why it might be superior to jail time. 1) It's probably less cruel than jail time. If you gave me a choice between taking eight lashes with a cat o' nine tails, brutal as it certainly is, or giving up, say, five years of my life to prison, there's no question that I'd choose the lash. I'm not going to live forever - I'd do a great deal to avoid wasting five years of my life. 2) Since that would be my choice, it seems to stand to reason that the lash should be a less effective deterrent. However, I'm not convinced this is true. Criminals are very bad at time discounting problems. That's why they're criminals. It might be the case that the threat of physical pain would serve as more of a deterrent than being locked up in prison. Having said that, I'm not sure there is any effective deterrent. Most criminals aren't exactly expecting to get caught and so don't really consider the consequences too deeply.

As for rehabilitation, I don't think either the lash or prison serve that function very well, at least not here in the United States. (Britain might be different.) In principle, prison ought to be the more rehabilitative option, but the reality is that most prisoners come out as hardened criminals even if they didn't go in that way. This is for the natural reason that people tend to absorb more lessons from their peers than from authority figures. In prison, those peers are other criminals. We could probably fix this, but it would be very expensive. Prisoners would have to be separately housed and kept away from each other.

Paul Brown said...

I think I can explain the uniformity of the comments; I tried to add a contrary opinion and it got blocked without ever being shown. Fair enough, really - no-one ever guaranteed free speech on a website and it's their site with their rules.

As to the deterrent angle, if the death penalty were introduced for speeding then I'd never break the limit again, but I can't honestly imagine a rapist considering punishment in their risk / reward scenario; as Andrew S said, most "criminals"* think in terms of not getting caught rather than consequences.

* Use of inverted commas because you'd struggle to find anyone over the age of 12 in this country who has never, ever broken a law.

Anonymous said...

My generalizations about criminals, by the by, referred to real criminals. I'm not talking about people who smoke weed occasionally or drive over the speed limit or even shoplifters. I'm talking about murderers, ambush rapists, armed robbers, serious drug dealers (by serious, I mean the violent protect-their-turf kind), and the like. I know we should eliminate prison time for penny-ante criminals like you, me, and other people over 12, but we pretty much already do that, bar habitual offenders. However, it's on those people that are mostly law-abiding that deterrents are truly effective. Real criminals tend to be very stupid people who think they're clever. (They consider themselves "street smart" though they aren't even that usually.)

I should also note that the Bahamas sentence includes both prison time and corporal punishment. My analysis doesn't really apply unless we're talking about an either/or. If we want to talk about reducing sentences in exchange for bringing back corporal punishment, I think a case can be made for it. When it's tacked on, it clearly satisfies nothing more than a desire for retribution. In fact, I do think prisons are better than corporal punishment for a reason I did not mention. The primary value in locking criminals up isn't rehabilitation, retribution, or deterrence. It's simply the practical matter of making the streets safer by removing the most violent element.

Anonymous said...

Loftus is an idiot is clearly an idiot.

1) Quoting the bible doesn't make your case any more true.

2) If you insist on quoting the Bible, be consistent. How about:
"Thou Shalt not Kill"?
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets"
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy"

and so on...

3) As for "the streets aren't safe" I suggest you look at the british crime statistics. The chance of becoming a victim are the lowest since 1981.

4) The "evidence" you present for harsher sentences is from a pro-death penalty site: hardly unbiased. Plus it seems to work on the assumption that a loose correlation is the same as cause and effect.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why this discussion interests me so much; I normally have little interest in "crime and punishment" topics. I agree with most of The Great Tartovski's post though I think he too quickly dismissed Loftus, but I do have a couple of points in response. On point 3, I'm so glad you said that. I live in the U.S., a country apparently viewed by the rest of the world as being hopelessly violent and getting more violent all the time. In fact, the murder rate has been in continual decline since 1980 (and is now half what it was then) as have most other crime statistics. But you'd never know this by polling the average man in the street. It's very much like economics. Everybody always thinks things are getting worse and yet they're almost always continually getting better. I should point out, though, that people who point out a culture in decline aren't always wrong. When Cicero said, "O tempora! O mores!" he was absolutely right. Fewer than twenty years later, his head and hands would be nailed to the rostra as a grisly symbol of just how far Rome had sunk.

On point 4, however, you're committing your own logical fallacy. The widespread acceptance of the ad hominem argument is one of the major faults in thought and discourse today. Arguments are not defeated by pointing out that their proponents have biases, as so many people seem to assume that they are. And, in fact, by assuming that they are so defeated, you betray your own (opposite) bias. You do redeem yourself somewhat with the second part of that point. Correlation is not causation and that is (perhaps) an argument against the case they made. (I can't really say. I'm a mathematician by trade, but I haven't bothered to read the evidence Loftus referred to, since I'd be astonished if it said anything about my own opinion. My opinion about deterrence is that it works tremendously well on most people, but close to not at all on the people we'd most like to deter. So my interest is in studies that would test that theory, but it means teasing out these different groups of people.)

The largest problem with thought today is that most people do not have a valid and consistent epistemology. They have at least two different epistemological standards for justification. And so they apply their loose epistemological standards for ideas they like and their strict, almost skeptical, epistemological standards for ideas they don't like. This is a prescription for intellectual chaos, but is frightfully common. One of these days, I'm going to start my own blog, entirely about epistemology, and try to persuade people why their skeptical epistemological standards are mistaken although I doubt that this will help much. Confirmation bias is both subtle and powerful. I have to make active, continual efforts to try to defeat it in my own thought and my highest values are intellectual integrity and self-awareness. Those are not most people's highest values (and I do not have a strong opinion that I'm correct and they're wrong), so I assume they would have much greater problems than even I do in defeating that bias.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, ok. But surely you can say a source is biased, without discounting it? i.e. By calling attention to the bias you might start to question the "facts" it presents.

How about 4) The evidence you present is probably biased towards the "pro" side of the argument. I find most disturbing the lack of footnotes to back up the "facts" it presents.

Sam Dodsworth said...

What's interesting to me about "loftus is an idiot"'s post is its strange transatlantic quality. "Chavs" is a British concept, and so (I think) is tracksuit-wearing louts; but 'liberal' as a term of abuse and the ritual blaming of Michael Moore is distinctly American, as is the phonetic spelling of 'burgular'. And, of course, it's not Britain that's most famous for locking up drug users.

Maybe they're a British ex-pat in the States? That would explain the "tracksuits" reference; which sounds a bit 80s to me.

As for the post itself... I'm quite amused by the idea that hitting people is the Christian thing to do, but the use of 'reactionary' is a real comedy classic.

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew Stevens's point "deterrence works tremendously well on most
people, but close to not at all on the people we'd most like to deter"
may be the most significant and insightful thing written on this
subject. I wish I had said that.

Anonymous said...

Mike Taylor, thanks for the compliment. I'm not sure I'm right about it though. I'd really like to see the issue studied. I have no great confidence in my non-numerical observations. I grew up a thug and a juvenile delinquent (though I was always smart and always read a lot) before I radically reformed and became a nerd. So I speak from some experience. I know a number of these people, it's almost fair to say I used to be one, and consequences never really enters their heads.

The Great Tartovski: lack of footnotes is interesting and might mean what you think. However, I looked it over and it seemed pretty straightforward (and footnotes are not standard on a page like that). I'd be surprised though not shocked if they actually got their data wrong, but I'm reasonably sure they did a lot of data mining to show the data in the best possible light for their side. Most people don't falsify data intentionally (except by collecting data, particularly polling data, in illegitimate or biased ways), because they know they're blowing their credibility if anyone catches them at it. If you do think the data is wrong, the easiest way to defeat it is to simply provide the correct data. If they are radically wrong, their argument stands exposed as fraudulent. However, you're certainly right that they gave short shrift to answering opponent's objections. This is an example of confirmation bias again. Most of the time, it's not intentional and not a result of bad faith. It's a mostly unconscious process.

I'll give an example of two ideas which are highly correlated in the death penalty dispute. If you are a proponent of the death penalty, I predict that you believe 1) the evidence indicates that it deters crime and 2) the evidence indicates that virtually no innocent people have been executed in the U.S. in the last thirty years. If you oppose the death penalty, I predict that you believe 1) the evidence indicates that the death penalty does not deter crime and 2) the evidence indicates that quite a number of innocent people have been executed in the U.S. in the last thirty years. Note that these are questions of fact, not morality or philosophy. Your opinion of whether the death penalty is just or unjust should have no bearing on your factual conclusions here (though your factual conclusions may affect your opinion of the justice of the death penalty). So why do the two sides disagree on these factual matters? Confirmation bias.

By the by, the fact is that 1) the best evidence I've seen indicates that the death penalty does not in fact deter and 2) the best evidence I've seen indicates that very few, if any, innocent people have been executed in the U.S. in the last thirty years though there have been cases of people who were probably innocent being released from Death Row prior to execution. I am not fanatical about either of these beliefs (the evidence in neither case is compelling) and I'd be happy to be proved wrong on either one.

Sam Dodsworth: I think he's probably British. I know what a tracksuit is, but I'd never associate it with criminals. He spelled it burglaur, which is a typo no matter how you look at it. The second u indicates that he was probably attempting the British spelling, not the American one, though I can't be sure. So we're only left with "liberal" meaning leftist and Michael Moore. On this, you folks in the UK are more capable of judging than I am. I actually think, by the way, that leftists are often reactionary despite its almost universal association with the right. The left was in control, in the U.S. at least, more or less continually from 1932-1994 (granting some right-wing Presidents in that time period, like Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton, though not Nixon oddly enough) and they are often knee-jerk reactionary about attempts to change what they set in place back then, even if what they set in place clearly isn't working. I don't agree with him that leftist attitudes to the death penalty are reactionary, but in the U.S. it's difficult to describe leftist reactions to any attempt to reform Social Security as anything but reactionary. That's just my opinion, of course. Take it for what it's worth.

Philip said...

I've just submitted this comment:

"This punishment seems unduly lenient to me. In certain countries a rapist would face the electric chair or gibbet -- the Bahamas might learn a thing or two from them.

"And what happened, pray, to burning at the stake, or trial by ordeal? I hardly think that many of the criminals executed by the Spanish Inquisition (in spite of the bleating of their sixteenth-century equivalents of our political correctness brigade) would have reoffended.

"Better still, how about taking a leaf from the book of our dusky Arab brethren? If you commit a crime with part of your body, you get it chopped off. I bet that would make this fellow's eyes water!

"Really, the degree to which we have come to respect the so-called standards of basic civilised behaviour in Western Europe have become quite absurd. Torquemada would be spinning in his grave."

I'm intrigued to see what they'll do with it.

Anonymous said...

Here in America, we just execute 'em. Works goooood....

Anonymous said...

Loftus is an idiot is probably a Brit, but influenced by right wing arguments coming from the US. On the internet there's a lot of blending of political arguments and terminology, to the point where I've seen fellow Australians refer to people as liberals, to mean leftists, when one of our two major parties are the Liberals, who are very conservative.

Unknown said...

In the US, you have the true hummanist liberal, who is against the death penalty...then you have your work-a-day blue colar liberal who wants a 'tag and bag' policy on ilegal immigrants, so I don't really see them being opposed to the death penalty.

On the right there are the eye-for-an-eye fundamentalists who favor 'remanding folks over to a higher court', and the Libertarian/Jefferson Revolutionaries who oppose giving government that much power.

I am certain that I left out a few dozen groups. It's a rather complex issue here, which is why it won't change in the near term...if you can't fit it on a bumper sticker and it doesn't's not a campaign-year issue.

Anonymous: yes, even in the US true conservatives are libertines or classic liberals, and Liberals here tend to be conservative to the point of reactionism. What odd bedfellows politics make?

Sam Dodsworth said...

I'm still convinced that loftus is an idiot was using 'reactionary' by mistake where he meant to say 'reactive'. (Which is a clumsy word in its own right - but that's another thing.)

Anonymous said...

Sam, you're quite possibly right. Reactionary is usually defined as being extreme right wing. Of course, the right wing is usually defined by being in favor of the status quo. So, how long does the left have to be in power before they become the right? Certainly, in America, what we call the right wing would have been the left wing in any other country 200 years ago, based on what they currently favor.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't think that Mr Is An Idiot's quotes from the Bible are entirely irrelevant. Those of us who are reflexive conservatives think that society is quite a delicate machine, that it has grown up gradually over the centuries, and that you probably shouldn't make any drastic change unless you are pretty sure you know what you are doing. It therefore follows that we should treat the accumulated wisdom of the past with some respect. So, if someone says about some idea "This is a complete innovation; it goes against what the wisest moral teachers in our society have believed for thousands of years" that is, indeed, a point against it.

Granted, there are some people who think that if people have believed something for a long time, and if it was believed by people who lived a long time ago, then it is almost certainly wrong. If they could please leave now, it would save us all a lot of time and trouble.

However, what is of no possible use to anybody is typing out a series of quotations from the Old Testament and pretending that, in themselves, they prove something. Unlike, say, the I Ching the Bible is not a repository of free-floating oracles. Any quote requires a context and some interpretation. Otherwise it's just noise.

Mr Is An Idiot quotes Genesis 9:6 and casually remarks "This is still in force". I take this to mean that he thinks that some parts of the Bible are not still in force. While very helpful when you have to answer questions about slavery and mildew I wonder if this dispensationalist interpretation actually helps his case very much. He is right to say that the contract between God and Noah requires Noah to seek vengeance on murderers. This seems have been re-iterated in the much more detailed contract that God subsequently makes with Moses, (which your will remember, contains various illiberal clauses about eyes and teeth.)

A common interpretation is to say that the contract between God and Noah applies to all subsequent human beings (because we are all descended from Noah) but the contract between God and Moses only applies to those people who Moses led out of Egypt and their descendents (i.e, the Jews.)

However, the teaching of Jesus, which I assume that Mr Is An Idiot thinks overides the law of Moses quite specifically says that the law of retribution is no longer, to coin a phrase, in force, and that instead, we should forgive everyone regardless of what they have done.

So: here is my interpretation. The convenant with Noah represents "natural law"; the morality that nearly everyone believes in without thinking about it. This does indeed include the sense that justice involve retribution and blood-letting. However, Jesus' teaching represents a newer and higher law, less intuitive and much harder to follow, which supersedes both our natural inclinations and the torah. If you are a Christian, Noah's covenant is not "in force" -- which is convenient for those of us who like our steak rare.

If Mr. Is An Idiot believes in the direct, supernatural inspiration of King James I & IV (and a disturbing number of people do) then he will indeed have a problem with the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." The rest of us will merely point out that, if Mr. Strong's online concordance can be trusted, ratsach ("Thou shalt not kill") is not the same as harag("I shall kill you with the sword") or indeed zabach (to slaughter an animal.) It's certainly true that a literal reading of "Thou shalt not kill" would preclude war, abortion, capital punishment and the eating of meat. However, unless YHWH was more than usually confused, she would not have forbidden all killing whatsoever in Chapter 20 and started to lay out the rules for temple sacrifice and kosher butchery in Chapter 21 -- which is why all translations apart from that of King James render the verse "Thou shalt not murder."

Sam Dodsworth said...

andrew stevens:

Just to be clear... "reactionary" is a term of the left (according to Wikipedia, it goes back to the French Revolution), and has meanings that cluster around "the opposite of progressive". If you want to argue that the left are the real reactionaries then I think you're going to have to start by showing that the right isn't really conservative (*).

(*) Libertarians could plausibly make this claim; but they're a tiny minority on the right and a leftist would argue that rolling back social controls on capitalism is a retrograde move, anyway.

Andrew Rilstone:
Granted, there are some people who think that if people have believed something for a long time, and if it was believed by people who lived a long time ago, then it is almost certainly wrong. If they could please leave now, it would save us all a lot of time and trouble.

Er... that would be me, I think.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Er... that would be me, I think.

I had in mind people who think that traditional beliefs are necessarily wrong, by virtue of the fact that they are traditional. Believing that certain traditional beliefs happen to wrong, by virtue of their wrongness, is a different thing altogether. If I was thinking of anyone, I was thinking of Shagger Blunkett who thinks you can write off long-established legal principals (right to trial by jury, right not to be tried twice for the same crime, habeas corpus) by describing them as "medieval". This would be a bit like an American saying that you can disregard the constitution because it is "just so eighteenth century."

Anonymous said...

I think it was me who started the whole questioning the Bible quoting bit - my bad.
Though I think qauntified it by paraphrasing the awwesome "fist of fun" by using the phrase: "quoting from the bible doesn't make it anymore true" -which it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I am fairly sure that some of the comments that follow the news item were written with tongue firmly in cheek.

That said, I would not venture money on my ability to correctly identify which are which.