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Beckett defending hips

The current government introduced a new regulation a few years ago: Home Information Packs (HIPs). Those selling their houses must have one produced. It consists of all sorts of information about property including copies of evidence of title, sustainability and energy use information and searches for things like drainage. It must be provided by estate agents to any potential buyer on request.

On the 20th January, 2009, Tory whip Angela Watkinson asked Margaret Beckett, the Housing minister, about Home Information Packs. There are a few bits of logic that need to be nitpicked!

Angela Watkinson opened:

[Will Margaret Beckett] use her powers under the Housing Act 2004 to suspend the requirement for sellers to provide home information packs[?]

Beckett responds:

We have no plans to suspend home information packs.

Okay, that is straight forward enough. Watkinson continues:

Surely the Minister has realised by now that home information packs were a bad idea from the outset. Even when the housing market was buoyant, neither sellers nor buyers had the slightest interest in them. Now that the housing market is so stagnant that estate agents are going out of business, the Minister could take this opportunity to abolish the utterly superfluous home information packs without loss of face. Will she do that?

A fair point. Beckett attempts to defend HIPs:

First, let me say to the hon. Lady that the intention—and, indeed, the effect—of home information packs is to provide much needed information for consumers on the most important purchase of their lives. She talks as though home information packs have had no impact and no benefit, but 1.2 million such packs have been issued. They are the most simple way of getting information for that most important purchase. She may feel that it is not important to protect consumers; consumer representatives do not [agree with her], and nor do the Government.

(Emphasis mine.)

The bolded statement doesn’t actually justify HIPs. Simply pointing out that 1.2 million HIPs have been issued does not mean that HIPs are effective or worthwhile or ought not to be abolished. Wikipedia informs me that the Backstreet Boys have sold over 130 million records worldwide, but that doesn’t mean they are any good. In the case of HIPs, since it is a mandatory requirement that all people selling residential property have a HIP produced, that doesn’t really justify them either.

To be fair, Beckett did say that 1.2 million packs have been issued not produced, but that doesn’t mean much. It is fairly likely that during the period in which HIPs have been required, every person who makes a serious offer on residential property will have been given the HIP for the property – it may just be a routine part of sale rather than something they explicitly requested.

If Beckett wants to justify HIPs, appealing to the number of HIPs is no way to do so. How could she justify it? I can think of two simple ways: firstly, by showing that HIPs contain information that was not previously accessible to home buyers and that is of some importance in protecting buyers. Secondly, she could perform a study on home buyers and ask them whether the HIPs have been useful.

Beckett’s last sentence is, of course, a failure of the principle of charity. But this is politics, right? That is pretty much the modus operandi of partisan politics.

Let’s continue.

Beckett is later questioned by Anne Main, Conservative MP for St. Albans:

I pressed the Minister on this issue when she appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 27 October. At that time, she estimated that £5 million had been spent on marketing the packs, to provide a benefit of only £30 per pack. I said that I was concerned that the packs were becoming outdated in a slack market, to which she said:

“Of course that is an issue that we are looking at with the relevant authorities”.

She accepted that it would be a problem in a slack market. What exactly has she done since then to ensure that the arrangements are not affected by the slack market?

Did Beckett accept Anne Main’s concerns? The quoted statement doesn’t really seem to suggest that it does. Saying “that is an issue” doesn’t mean that it is a problem. The sense of the quoted statement seems to suggest that the concern Main raised wasn’t misplaced. Beckett seems like she might have given an inch, Main then took a mile – or at least a few more inches than Beckett gave to the committee.

Grant Shapps, Shadow Housing Minister, asked this of the Minister:

I am not convinced that the Minister really believes that home information packs are the right way forward. If they are so beneficial to the housing market, why was the former grace and favour residence of Mr. Blunkett—Government house in Pimlico—placed on the market by the Minister without a fully completed home information pack?

Slightly amusing but irrelevant. Said problem can be explained away as administrative cockup. This is a bit like saying that government anti-smoking campaigns don’t work because you can find an MP on the Government benches who smokes cigarettes occasionally.

I apologise for the terrible pun in the headline. I blame it on the BBC News story Hips extended to three-bed homes.


Inferring structural change from change

In a debate in the Commons on the 19th January, 2009, on local news media, the Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Andy Burnham said this:

Only a few years ago the press accounted for 54 per cent. of the advertising spend in this country, but the figure is now down to 43 per cent., so there are real structural changes taking place.

Grant Burnham the stated fact – a cursory search of press reports don’t contradict it – does Burnham’s stated conclusion follow from it? I don’t think it necessarily does. We have one particular facet of data: that some years before 2009, the press was 54% of advertising spend in Britain, and now it is only 43% – an 11% drop in “a few years”.

First of all, it may be the case that such things are cyclical. I’m not saying it is, but it doesn’t directly follow from the change that it is permanent. As the global warming sceptics are always so keen to point out, just showing that something changes isn’t enough to show that it is will continue to do so. If say, due to a dramatic global recession, advertising spending were to slump dramatically across all sectors in a consistent but non-uniform way, then such a figure can be explained as basically a statistical anomaly of said recession.

Secondly, it may be the case that how you define the sectors determines the result you get. What exactly is ‘the press’. We can point to particular examples of ‘the press’: a newspaper like the Daily Telegraph or The Observer is obviously ‘press’. News magazines like The Economist count too. What about lifestyle or general interest magazines? I mean, Hello! or Grazia isn’t exactly serving the same social role as the newspapers, but we are talking about advertising revenues here rather than social function. Take it as read that the press includes all newspapers and magazines. Presumably, the structural change we are talking about is a shift from money being spent on advertising in those publications to, say, money being spent on Internet advertising. Does that mean that there is a structural change taking place moving money away from ‘the press’? Depends on whether the Internet sites that are coming up count. If Grazia counts as press, then so does A case can be made for local bloggers being ‘the press’ in the same way that local newspapers are.

Governments are a dab hand at this: changing how you measure something can dramatically change the result. I’m not saying that in this particular case that has happened, but it does illustrate the possibility.

For Burnham to establish the conclusion he is attempting to establish, he would need to show that this was part of a longer trend and to show that the statistics support the conclusion he is deriving from them. I don’t believe that they don’t, but he has not made the case in this speech.

Video Recordings Bill debate brings out fallacies ahoy!

The Video Recordings Act has had a strange life. It was passed to respond to what many sociologists describe as a moral panic over so-called ‘video nasties’. But due to an administrative cock-up, in 2009 the law was invalidated on a technicality – apparently, Margaret Thatcher’s government neglected to formally notify the relevant European government body that the law had been passed. And so it wasn’t actually a law, and for a few months at the end of 2009 people could basically sell as many dodgy DVDs as they like without the cops being able to do anything. In 2010, they reintroduced the law. It passed through Parliament without controversy – it was only re-enabling a law that the country had grown used to for the last 25 years!

During the debate, though, Lib Dem MP Don Foster made this statement in support of passage of the Bill:

In Cheltenham, for example, law enforcement officers cannot pursue a newsagent selling R18 and unrated porn DVDs that are displayed above an ice cream display cabinet.

Is it true? Who knows. Let us say it is, although one has to be careful with anecdotes (as they say in science, the plural of anecdote is not data). It is a blatant appeal to emotion. Let us grant that the police not being able to do anything about a newsagent displaying for sale some real dodgy videos is bad. The fact that the newsagent is showing the videos above an ice cream display cabinet isn’t doubleplusbad. Said newsagent must display the videos somewhere in the shop. With few exceptions, putting something bad anywhere in a newsagent’s shop in Cheltenham means it will be within “gasp!”-inducing proximity to something. Would it be worse if he’d displayed the videos next to the magazines? What about the kiddies coming in to buy The Beano? Perhaps the shop owner should have put the videos next to the sandwiches? But, then, what about the kiddies coming in to get a nice hummus sandwich to go in their lunchbox? Next to the greetings cards? Then some poor and innocent child will be confronted by Extreme Lesbian Squirting 7 on his way to buy a Get Well card for his dear grandma.

This irrelevant detail is a distraction. The law states that R18 videos are only supposed to be sold in licensed sex shops. A cheap rhetorical appeal to emotion can be made if R18 videos are sold anywhere other than such an establishment. Any establishment other than a sex shop would have the same rhetorical effect. But, you know, kids eat ice cream and they might see porno.

One problem: Foster is stating this in January of 2010. News of the accident with the Video Recordings Act was published on the BBC News website on the 25th of August 2009. Two scenarios arise: either the newsagent in question had been displaying the videos before the news of the invalidity of the Act started circulating at the end of August or he started doing so afterwards. If it was afterwards, we could reasonably infer that the newsagent started selling the DVDs as a result of the news about the invalidity of the Act. If the newsagent had been doing so before that, then this example cannot be used to show that the Video Recordings Act is required to prevent him from doing so because it obviously had no effect on the newsagent. If he started selling the DVDs after it became known that the Act was invalid then the emotional appeal of Don Foster’s statement is lost: how many children are purchasing ice cream in the autumn and winter? They aren’t exactly enjoying the warm summer holidays any more.

Just to nail this point home, check out the historical weather station data from nearby Cambridge: the max temperatures in ºC for September–December 2009 are 20.1, 15.7, 12.0 and 6.0. Now, as a point of comparison, I was in sunny San Francisco last November and it was 17ºC. Ice cream was not on my mind!

Now that the Don Foster’s rhetorical peanut of an anecdote has been thoroughly sledge-hammered, I feel that we should move onto two coconut-sized bits of wrong-speak. First, Keith Vaz (Labour, Leicester East) said this:

There has been a huge leap forward since I first took up this issue, along with others, after young Stefan Pakeerah, from Leicester, was stabbed to death in a park in Leicester in circumstances similar to those found in a video game watched by his killer, Warren Leblanc. I know that the judge in that case said that there was no connection, but the mother of the young boy stabbed to death felt very strongly that there was.

Not only did the judge make no connection, neither did the police. And, really, there was no actual causal link. Warren Leblanc did not actually own a copy of Manhunt, the game Vaz is referring to. This isn’t a clear identifiable fallacy: it is just an old-fashioned falsity. What Stefan Pakeerah’s mother believes about Warren Leblanc’s motivations to commit murder are false and irrelevant.

There is one important lesson that Vaz should have learned from the Pakeerah case: however earnestly someone believes something, and however sympathetic someone is (and Giselle Pakeerah is undoubtedly honest, earnest and deserving of sympathy), that doesn’t mean they cannot be wrong. There are undoubtedly some NHS patients who believe that their cancer went into remission due to the divine action of angels; the Health Minister would still do well to listen to what the oncologists have to say.

We’ve had a Lib Dem MP and a Labour MP. I guess to ensure we are fair and balanced (excuse the figure of speech, I do not consciously set out for false balance), we need a Tory to round it out. Thankfully, John Whittingdale (Conservative, Maldon & East Chelmsford) has got us covered:

We will debate the matter at greater length when we come to the measures against piracy through illegal file sharing that the Government are proposing to take in the Digital Economy Bill. It is worth remembering that it is not just protection of copyright that is at stake when we consider file sharing. There is equally the concern that it is being used to circumvent the protections that the House has put in place. In the most extreme cases, as I am sure the Minister will be aware, child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal file sharing. That is another reason why I share with other hon. Members the view that it is important that we get the Digital Economy Bill on to the statute book.

Non sequitur alert! The Digital Economy Bill – now Act – has nothing to do with child pornography. The powers given under the Digital Economy Act are not clear until Ofcom produce the code, but there is nothing in the relevant part of the act (clauses 3–18) about child pornography. The idea that child pornography is being “widely distributed through illegal file sharing” is wrong. What do I mean? Well, imagine if Whittingdale had said “child pornography is being widely distributed through illegal use of the Royal Mail”. The fact that you are sharing illegal material using technology x doesn’t mean that technology x is illegal. There are undoubtedly people using BitTorrent or some other file sharing technology to trade child pornography. They are also sharing Gentoo Linux ISOs. We have a statement here that borders on a compositional fallacy. Illegality is not some kind of transitive property. You can reconstruct Whittingdale’s sentence to make it reasonable: “illegal child pornography is being widely distributed through file sharing”. The fact that one uses file sharing to distribute child pornography doesn’t make that particular instance of distribution of child pornography especially illegal. Not using a file sharing network is hardly a mitigating factor at trial!

Cutting off Internet access – the harshest punishment given for alleged copyright infringers by clauses 3–18 of the Digital Economy Act – is arguably a disproportionate punishment for copyright infringers. But, even if it applied to child pornographers (which it doesn’t), it is far too weak a punishment for those trafficking in child pornography. There is already a much simpler way of dealing with child pornographers: the criminal justice system. Whittingdale’s suggestion that child pornography makes it “important” to pass the Digital Economy Bill is a total non sequitur.

Good to see that the simple administrative task of reinstating an Act that was invalidated by an administrative cockup provided these three MPs a chance to wander away from the true path of reasonableness…

This isn’t so much a fallacy as an interesting aside from Ed Vaizey (Conservative):

We need to protect children from access to violent video games, films, television shows and books. The issue is not the genre – be it video game, film or video – but the content. That is what we must protect children from.

Does this mean that Vaizey would support an equivalent to the Video Recordings Act which would put restrictions on books that match those on video games, VHS tapes and video DVDs?

Meet the Archbishop of Awkward Arguments

As someone with academic training in philosophy, I do find it amusing when our Parliamentarians turn their thoughts to the bigger things in life and start waxing philosophical. It is a pleasant change from 27 pages of partisan sniping on the crime figures or the Budget, but it does allow for rhetorical silliness to run free. Good philosophy is like good politics in requiring sound, valid arguments. Just because we are discussing the meaning of life or whether there is a God doesn’t mean that we should lower our tolerance for sloppiness.

How about this from a 2007 Lords debate on the concerns of the non-religious where John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, had this to say:

Twenty-seven years ago I was chaplain to a young offenders remand centre, Latchmere House. Every inmate was asked to declare his religious affiliation, and four young men were registered as having no religion. One Sunday, all the inmates were offered the chance to go to worship. The four young men with no religion declined the offer, while their fellow inmates on the A wing took up the offer. The prison officer, not wanting the four men to remain locked up in their cells, asked them to clean the toilets on the wing. The following Sunday, our four non-religious young men took up the offer to go to worship. The prison officer was puzzled why they had opted in this week. “Why are you going to chapel?” he asked. The four replied, “Sir, we didn’t like the ‘No Religion’ place of worship”. Crudely as they put it, those four young men were saying in their naivety that we are all essentially religious.

And so we observe yet another Parliamentarian failing to apply Occam’s Razor! You have four inmates in a young offenders remand centre. They are offered the chance to attend chapel on Sunday. They decline and are asked to clean the toilets instead. The next week they attend chapel. Which of the following conclusions seems more likely?

  1. While cleaning the toilets, they had some kind of religious awakening and they came to believe that we are all essentially religious and decided to attend chapel in order to explore their budding religiosity.
  2. They would rather sit in the chapel than cleaning toilets.

I think the latter explains the facts significantly better.

I have an acquaintance who once explained how when he was in the U.S. Army, they operated a similar regime. Those who chose not to participate in religious services were asked to clean the barracks. After a week of this, he was attending all the religious services on base: three or four different Christian services, then a Buddhist service. He is certainly no believer now. As A. J. Ayer said of saying grace at meals (in the context of an Oxford college): “I won’t utter falsehoods, but I’ve no objection to uttering meaningless statements.” Slightly rephrased: I won’t endorse falsehoods,  but I’ve got no objection to people uttering meaningless statements if the alternative is cleaning lavatories on Sunday morning.

Amusingly, this is in a debate about whether or not there is discrimination against the non-religious. In a more logical universe, surely the Archbishop would realise that using toilet cleaning as a stick to beat people into the chapel with actually is discrimination against the non-religious? If someone in the workplace were to insist that their employees ought to become members of the Church of Scientology and refused to promote anyone who does not attend the Scientology seminars, that would be an awful case of religious discrimination in the workplace. But when it is a choice between the established Church and toilet cleaning in a prison, it is a cute story about the universality of religious faith. No double standards here, dear reader.

The Archbishop continues:

Time does not allow me to speak at length, but let us be clear: dogmatic assumptions also underline non-religious world views—Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, capitalism, secularism, humanism and so on. Those are clear dogmatic positions.

There is so much to unpack.

First of all, the debate in the Lords is not about whether or not the non-religious are dogmatic–or even whether they are right in their (lack of) beliefs; it is about whether or not the non-religious are being discriminated against in society.

The Archbishop’s statement is at best a red herring. At worst, it could even be a justification: okay, there is discrimination against the non-religious, but it is okay because they are dogmatic Freudian Marxist capitalists. And, yes, being a Marxist capitalist makes as much sense as being a Christian Muslim or a behaviourist Freudian.

To be fair, humanism is often about as dogmatic as the Anglicanism of Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway, Richard Harries or the clergymen so humourously depicted by Monty Python or Rowan Atkinson. The primary criticism of humanism is how bloody wishy-washy it is!

As for Darwinism: really, how dogmatic is the scientific consensus about the origin of biological diversity? I mean, given that we use it to understand the progression of HIV/AIDS, the dangers of agricultural monocultures and to design–rather, evolve–algorithms for use in computer software.

‘Secularism’ as a word begs the utterer to equivocate! Many religious people use secularism as a scare word to describe their vision of a post-religious dystopia where the Anti-Religion Police imprison anyone who dares to mention the man upstairs. But it is also a political doctrine that says that the state should be supremely neutral on religious matters. This does not “underline non-religious world views”. There are plenty of secularists in this latter sense who are religious: the head of the secularist lobby group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is Reverend Barry Lynn. There are also plenty of religious groups who agree with them.

When is a debate not a debate?

I have to declare an interest on this one: I have expressed support for the work of Tom Watson MP (Labour, West Bromwich East). He voted against the Digital Economy Act which I’m strongly opposed to. I’ve met him at numerous events and have been involved in briefing him about the Semantic Web and microformats when he was a government minister. But problems with political rhetoric cross all party lines.

Tom Watson MP, then, in a question to the Leader of the House (Harriet Harman) on the 14th January 2010:

The United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked the Chinese Government to explain themselves after a tech company, Google, revealed that its internal systems had been hacked into with a view to looking at the e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that we need a debate on cyber security, so that we can applaud Google’s brave corporate decision to end the censorship of its search results and encourage other tech companies, such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Apple, to follow suit?

A debate where the primary stated goal is to applaud Google and encourage other technology companies to copy Google’s decision to pull out of China? Anyone want to put forward an opposing argument and argue that technology companies ought to collaborate with the Chinese censorship regime more? That’s really not a debate if we’re using the word in its traditional sense. ‘Celebration’ may indeed be more appropriate! We can have a debate, but Tom Watson’s statement makes it seem like the reason we ought to have a debate is to applaud Google’s decision in China. Is that a good enough reason to have a debate?

Though slightly jarring, there is nothing egregiously wrong with Tom Watson’s statement. There is a possible equivocation at work with the word ‘debate’. When someone attempts to make political hay out of having a debate on some issue (“Thanks to my interventions, we had a much-needed debate on [x]!”), that may mean that they are actually having a substantive and meaningful exchange of views, or it might mean that two MPs turn up at quarter-to-midnight for an adjournment debate wherein they make some platitudinous remarks and strongly agree with one another. When politicians use the word ‘debate’ they may be using it in the same sense one might use it in a sentence like “They had a big debate about the cider tax in the pub last night”. Or they might mean there was a session of the House of Commons on that topic. In the former, you kind of need to disagree with one another, while in the latter, you can have a debate where no substantive discussion actually takes place.

Debate as celebration is something one finds peppered throughout Hansard. Here is the opening statement Andrew Selous, the Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, made in a Westminster Hall debate from the 11th March 2009 on Christianity in Public Life:

My main reason for securing the debate is to celebrate and put on record the incredible contribution of the Christian community to the life of our country in every one of the 646 constituencies, particularly the work that it does to serve the poorest, the most vulnerable and those in the greatest need. We do not always recognise that work enough, so the debate gives us an opportunity to celebrate it and to say thank you to the many people who do fantastic work, without which we, as Members of Parliament, know our constituencies would be worse off.

Even the most ardent anti-theist will agree that many Christians and the Church do great work – they may dispute the motivations or point out that they don’t necessarily require their faith to do so, but few would really dispute that plenty of religious people “do fantastic work”.

So where is the debate? It turns out that a debate does indeed happen about the old chestnut of the status of religion in public life (a particular bug-bear of mine: debating what role something should have in ‘public life’ or the ‘public sphere’ conflates a lot of issues by being tremendously vague – people will have different opinions as to how involved the religious community should be in any particular part of the ‘public sphere’).

But if you actually want a debate on that, why not just have it? There is a valid debate to have on religion and secularism in public institutions (and charity law, employment regulations, the bishops sitting in the Lords and so on), and on cyber-security (and Chinese Internet regulation) – why does the hook for such debates need to be a big hoorah for Google’s stance on Chinese censorship or on the general niceness of many Christians? At best this is just that – a hook, a starting point for discussion – but it can be worse. It can end up being a way of framing the debate.

As salesmen and opinion poll writers know, you can get whatever answer you want if you frame the question right: nobody is “pro-abortion”, they are pro-choice. But the anti-abortion crowd are “pro-life”. The pro-choicers are then, by contrast, anti-life. Supporters of California’s Propositon 8 – which banned same-sex marriage – described themselves as “protecting marriage” and the opponents were responding to “hate”.

In a deliberative, Parliamentary procedure like ours is supposed to be, could it be done any other way? Is there any way to make sure that Parliamentary debates don’t start with fawning congratulations and get to the substance of the issue quicker?

Success doesn’t necessarily require trying

To start the blog, I may as well start with a fallacy from a long time ago as we have plenty of time to catch up with modern fallacious reasoning.

Captain Euan Wallace was MP for Hornsey in 1935 and gave the following answer in his role as the President of the Board of Trade to Mr Thomas Williams:

The fact that we have negotiated 19 successful agreements shows that we have made a very large number of proposals.

It shows no such thing at all. The fact that the government in 1935 negotiated 19 successful trade agreements doesn’t mean that they have made a large number of proposals for trade. They may have made as few as nineteen and been exceptionally lucky in having all nineteen proposals successfully agreed upon.