Sunday, May 25, 2008

Scientology, Britain's police and politicians

In light of the recent episodes regarding Scientology and the police, I decided to see what stories were around relating to Scientology's influence in Britain. I came across a number of stories:

  • Apparently, the Labour party have been given thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology and allowed a Scientology-backed stall at one of their conferences. From the link:

    They allowed the charity, the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE), to take a stall at the party's annual conference in Manchester.

    Exhibitors at the conference have to pay up to £13,500. The stand was part of an extensive lobbying operation by Scientology members to promote its drug treatment programme, Narconon, and the criminal rehabilitation scheme Criminon.

    Correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Evening Standard reveals how Graeme Wilson of the Church of Scientology met Baroness Scotland - then a Home Office minister - in Manchester in September.

    Baroness Scotland was later invited to attend the opening of the Scientology's new base in London and was handed information about Narconon.

  • The Church of Scientology has spent thousands of pounds on gifts for members of the City of London Police:

    The Church of Scientology appears to be involved in an effort to woo officers from the City of London police - an unlikely partnership perhaps, but one that seems to be blossoming. Details of how more than 20 officers, from constables to chief superintendents, have been invited to a series of engagements by the scientologists over the last 15 months have been revealed by a freedom of information inquiry by the Guardian.

    The hospitality included guest invitations in May for two constables and a sergeant to attend the premiere of Mission Impossible 3 in Leicester Square, where they were able to rub shoulders with the best known Scientologist of all and the star of the film, Tom Cruise.

    The Guardian requested details of meetings between police and scientologists after a senior officer from the City appeared as a guest speaker at the opening of the £23m Scientology centre near St Paul's Cathedral last month.

    At the lavish ceremony, Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, the fourth most senior officer in the force, praised the scientologists for the support they had provided after the July 7 attacks, when followers of L Ron Hubbard's movement appeared at the police cordons of the Aldgate bomb site offering help to those involved in the emergency operation. The relationship flourished in the following months, according to the City police's register of hospitality, which all officers are required to fill out.

  • The Metropolitan Police have given the Church access to data on security alerts.

  • The police have also used Scientology leaflets in anti-drugs drives in Britain's schools:

    In total 1m booklets are distributed each year. They label alcohol and antidepressants as “poison” and say that oxycodone, a prescription painkiller, is “as powerful as heroin”.

    A booklet on heroin says methadone, the drug used by the NHS to treat heroin addicts, is as dangerous as the class A drug and should not be prescribed.

    Martin Barnes, of DrugScope, the drugs information charity, said: “These booklets fall short and should not be allowed in schools.”

    Met officers have attended meetings in London and West Sussex hosted by the church, aimed at forging links with “community leaders”. They were briefed about the Say No to Drugs campaign and given information packs - although Scotland Yard said working with the church should not be seen as an endorsement.

Clearly the Church of Scientology are gaining some influence in Britain.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Glasgow anti-Scientology protestors told to bin "cult" signs

Today I was helping out at the Glasgow NO2ID's stall in Buchanan Street. As we were packing up, Geraint, the Glasgow No2ID group coordinator mentioned that the police had been called to an anti-Scientology protest taking place further up the street.

I'd noticed the "free stress test" stalls run by the Scientologists earlier in the day, and we were both curious as to what was happening so we went to chat to the protestors. The police were still talking to them when we got there. I was told by one protestor that a "May Day" flag had been confiscated, and that they were being told that the word "cult" was offensive and, if I recall correctly, if they continued to use it it would constitute a "breach of the peace".

Also, I personally witnessed one of the protestors taking some signs to the bin at the direction of one of the officers. The signs being binned apparently used the word "cult". Geraint later told me he'd seen a the protestors holding a sign saying "Cult" with an arrow on it which was held so as to point at the scientologists. This was presumably one of the binned signs. The protestors were however allowed to continue their protest, though the were told to make sure they were well over the other side of the street from the Scientologists. I'll add that the police were perfectly civil towards the protestors as far as I could tell.

However apparently Glasgow police think it is "offensive" to describe Scientology as a cult, or at least were willing to act on the basis of offence caused to whoever phoned them up to complain (most probably one of the Scientologists).

And this episode, along with the recent episode in London (which has had a happy ending thankfully), illustrates why "causing offense" should not be considered a valid restriction on freedom of speech or the right to peaceful protest. People can (claim to) take offence at ANYTHING, including purely factual statements. Not causing offense may be good manners, but you should not be required by law to do so since that allows people to silence those whose message they simply don't like and to silence those exposing awkward truths.

The Church of Scientology would love to have the power to silence its critics and it seems the idea that causing offence is sufficient grounds to curb someone's speech or protests is beginning to give them that power here in Britain.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Scientology is a cult...

...according to this court judgement from Judge Latey, who repeatedly describes Scientology as a cult:

In Re: T Minors (Transcript of judgments given on 10th December 1975) the Court of Appeal was concerned with children one of whose parents was a member of another and very different sect. In the course of his judgement Lord Justice Scarman (as he then was) stressed that "it is conceded that there is nothing immoral or socially obnoxious in the beliefs and practices of this sect". Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious. Mr. Kennedy did not exaggerate when he termed it "pernicious". In my judgement it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous. It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has as its real objective money and power for Mr.

Hubbard, his wife and those close to him at the top. It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestioningly and to those outside who criticise or oppose it. It is dangerous because it is out to capture people, especially children and impressionable young people, and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living and relationships
with others.

Also, here is the definition of the word "cult" from the Compact Oxford English Dictionary online:

• noun 1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object. 2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members. 3 something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.
It seems to me, from reading Judge Latey's judgement, that Scientology falls under the second definition above. Why am I saying this now? Because there are those seeking to prevent people from being able to describe Scientology as a cult, including the City of London Police, according to the Register:

His sign read: "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult."

Within five minutes of arriving, the teenager was approached by a female police officer and told he was not allowed to use the word "cult" to describe Scientology, and that the Inspector in charge would make a decision. Soon afterwards officers again approached, read Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and handed him this notice.

The Act makes it an offence to display "any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby".

The Register article also states:

City of London Police gave us this statement:

City of London police had received complaints about demonstrators using the words 'cult' and 'Scientology kills' during protests against the Church of Scientology on Saturday 10 May.

Following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service some demonstrators were warned verbally and in writing that their signs breached section five of the Public Order Act 1986.

One demonstrator, a juvenile, continued to display a placard despite police warnings and was reported for an offence under section five. A file on the case will be sent to the CPS.

I hope this case gets thrown out, otherwise people's ability to say what they believe to be true, and engage in peaceful protest, will have been seriously undermined.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why Julian Simon is both right and wrong

[This is the followup to my earlier article about Julian Simon.]

Now I'll restate this line of thought into a theory that will appear again and again in the book: More people, and increased income, cause resources to become more scarce in the short run. Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present opportunity, and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for solutions. Many fail in the search, at cost to themselves. But in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. That is, prices eventually become lower than before the increased scarcity occurred. (From The Ultimate Resource 2, Chapter 3)
This is perhaps the key passage in Chapter 3 of Simon's book. It highlights a key part of the drive that has led humanity to develop a dizzying array of technologies, achieve the longest lifespans, the most comfortable lifestyles and the healthiest populations in history. It also illustrates why Paul Erhlich lost his infamous bet with Julian Simon.

Unfortunately, the copy of the book on the internet I've been using seems to have Chapter 3 cut short, so I don't have the reasoning there that takes Simon from the problems of defining "natural resources" discussed in Chapter 2 and the passage above to his conclusion that resources are not finite. However, an article of his published at the Cato Institute, does shed some light:

...the term "finite" is not only inappropriate, it is downright misleading when applied to natural resources. The mathematical definition of "finite" is quite different from a useful economic definition.

For instance, the quantity of services we obtain from copper should not be considered "economically" finite because there is no way of counting them appropriately. We should also consider the possibilities of using copper more efficiently, of creating copper or its economic equivalent from other materials, of recycling copper or even obtaining copper from sources beyond planet Earth.

Therefore, a working definition of the total services that we could obtain from copper now or in the future is impossible to construct. (emphasis added)

There is also his reply to critics in which he says:

Finiteness by itself is not testable, except insofar as the fact that no one is able to state the absolute size of the relevant system (our cosmos) demonstrates the absence of finiteness in its dictionary sense. But the relevant evidence we have available - decreasing prices and increasing substitutability - is not what one would expect from a finite system. (emphasis added)

Nothing I have written is intended to suggest that during any particular period there may not be too much use of any resource, renewable or non-renewable; indeed, I expect temporary overuses (for example, overuse of forest resources in various countries in various centuries) just as I expect boom-and-bust cycles in all other human endeavors. But this is a matter of management and adjustment in dealing with, and riding out, the ups and downs, rather than a matter of ultimate finiteness.(emphasis added)

From this I posit that Simon's argument can be boiled down to the following:
  • As reserves of resources run down, the resulting price rises spur the search for new sources of them, for more efficient ways of using them and for ways of substituting other resources for them.
  • The long run trend (for centuries) has been for the price of resources to continue falling. Temporary shortages have often led to discoveries that leave humanity better off than before those shortages occur.
  • We do not know, ultimately, what resources are available to humanity in the long run. All we know is what resources are available now/in the forseeable future, given current technology.
  • We don't know whether the universe is finite or not, and we cannot thus state that the resources available to us are finite. The long run trend of falling prices and greater abundance of resources seems at odds with the assumption of finiteness.
  • Since we do not know what resources will be ultimately available to us, we cannot say they are finite in any meaningful sense.
There are several problems here:
  1. We do know that the earth is finite. This is an incontrovertable fact. There is a finite amount of energy reaching earth from the sun each year, and a finite amount of matter falling to earth each year from outer space. Until we can exploit extra terrestrial resources at least as easily as we currently exploit the resources on earth, i.e. until we can escape the confines of earth as easily as we can escape the confines of a continent, this really does limit how many people the earth can support and the standard of living those people can enjoy. That seems unlikely to happen for at least a century --- on that timescale the most I'd expect is colonies on the moon and a manned trip to mars.
  2. The trend for falling resource costs is a matter of a few centuries -- this is a short time compared to (a) recorded history (b) the existence of humanity. We know that civilisations in the past have thrived and then collapsed. It seems likely that some of them died because of resource shortages.
  3. For the process of resource discovery and creation to keep us from "running out", it must produce new resources at or above the rate at which we consume them. If we're to rely on this process to prevent disaster, we must therefore posit that there will always be sufficient resources that can be reached via the process within the timescale required to stave off disaster, at every point in time. It seems to me unlikely that this can be guaranteed.
Simon is correct to highlight the existence of the process of resource discovery and creation, and at a highly abstract level he is even right that we don't know whether the resources ultimately available to humanity are finite or not. But the process is not automatic, and even when running efficiently, it is not guaranteed to provide us with all the resources we might need at a given point in time.

To act as if resources are infinite, when we know that running out is a real possibility and when even our most advanced science and technology tells us we can do no more than an exploratory flight to our nearest planetary neighbour (let alone colonise it, terraform it or get there in the sort of timescale we can travel to other continents) would be irresponsible.