December 28 2004


Why no warning?


Events around the rim of the Indian Ocean almost defy belief.
One minute fishermen were tending heir nets; holiday makers were sunbathing on the beach; and others lying abed in their beachside huts and the next they were engulfed by a huge silent tidal wave that killed untold tens of thousands.
But what is really unbelievable is that no attempt seems to have been made to give any sort of warning.
Within minutes of the earthquake that triggered this catastrophe, every seismology station on earth must have been aware of the intensity of the 'quake and the location of its epicentre.
It is also well known that these sorts of events can, and often do, lead to tsunami of the type experienced.
Yet with all the modern communications at our command - radio, television, mobile phones - not a finger seems to have been lifted to sound the alarm.
Given the one-two hour time lag between the earthquake and the tsunami's arrival onshore, and that many, if not most, of those swept away to their deaths were no more than a ten minute walk from safety, this seems inexcusable.


False logic

During last week's lecture on due process and fairness (see On the carpet), the Chief Executive sought to give weight to his opinions by referring to himself as a "trained lawyer".
I hope it is not paranoia that leads me to believe that this was meant to be a dig at Old Grumpy, who, while possessing a law degree, has not spent a year at Law College in Chester, or wherever, being crammed with facts about solicitor's accounts and whatever else it is that transforms an ordinary lawyer into the trained variety.
It is not my intention to bandy educational qualifications with Mr Parry-Jones except to say that I have twice as many 'A' levels, including mathematics, and, in addition to studying law for three years, I can discourse at some length on the Laws of Thermodynamics and Quantum Theory.
Mostly, I keep this knowledge to myself because, whenever I start up a conversation on any of these subjects in the pub, the eyes of the other occupants of the bar tend to glaze over; whether as a result of incomprehension, boredom, or something they are smoking, I can't be sure.
Also, considering the county council's Cabinet seems to have been specially selected to demonstrate the truth of Robert Louis Stevenson's dictum that: "Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary", I would have to say that the use of educational qualifications as the arbiter of truth and falsehood is not exactly the finest example of intellectual consistency I have ever encountered.
But enough of this rhetorical trickery because all of the above arguments are examples of one of the best known fallacies of logic.
So well known, in fact, that it even has its own Latin tag: argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority).
While the opinion of a trained lawyer is more likely be right on matters concerning the law than that of a bus conductor that doesn't amount to proof.
And logic deals with proof not probabilities.
There is no doctrine of the infallibility of "trained lawyers", as can be seen every day of the week in the higher courts where 50% of them are shown to be wrong.
It is even more problematic when the "appeal to authority" involves a subject outside the expert's field.
For instance, a "trained lawyer" is no more qualified to pronounce on matters of ethics than anyone else.
Writers of logic textbooks often invoke the name of Einstein when discussing this topic.
As they say, with nothing else to go on, it is reasonable to rely on Einstein's theories about physics, but the fact that Einstein was a genius gives no special weight to his views on football or fox hunting.
Indeed, Einstein is a classic example of the illogicality of arguing from authority because he was working as a patents clerk in Switzerland when he formulated the theories that exposed the flaws in the conventional Newtonian wisdom believed in by every physics professor in the World.
So, even consensus among experts can be overthrown by logical proof.
While I would hesitate to call myself a "trained philosopher", it has also been my pleasure(?), in a long and busy life, to have studied the works of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume.
As Hume pointed out, it is impossible to prove anything with absolute certainty because we cannot be absolutely sure that the rules that govern the future will be the same as those that held sway in the past.
That doesn't prevent us from making forecasts; but it does warn us to be aware that our predictions are merely statements of probabilities.
Some of our predictions - the numbers in the next Lotto draw, for instance - have a low truth-probability, while others, such as that a concrete block dropped from an upstairs window will fall to the ground, have a degree of probability verging on the certain.
Hume's other great insight was that it is rational to believe in that which your personal experience tells you is the more probable.
So, if you are locked up in a darkened room from midnight to midnight and, on emerging, your friends tell you that the sun didn't rise that day, you have a choice.
Which does your experience tell you is the more probable: that the earth took a break from its daily rotation, or that your friends are mistaken, or lying, even?
Bit of a no-brainer, I would suggest.
Which brings us to the case of Cllr Brian Hall's claim for travelling expenses on 1 February 2001.
On that day, you will recall, Cllr Hall was travelling back to Wales from London.
Timed receipts show he crossed the Severn Bridge at 12.56 pm before calling in at the First Motorway Service Station, near Magor, where he bought lunch at 1.08 pm..
The next positive sighting is at 2.00 pm that day when Cllr Hall's expense claim shows him leaving Pembroke Dock to attend a meeting of SWITCH at Penllergaer, near Swansea for which return journey he claimed 130 miles (£63).
As the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, this means he ate lunch and drove the 125 miles from Magor to Pembroke Dock in 52 minutes.
Interestingly, the minutes of the SWITCH meeting show that it commenced at 2.00 pm which means that, on any realistic analysis of his space-time co-ordinates, the meeting was already well underway when he drove past Penllergaer in an westerly direction with the 120-mile Penllergaer - Pembroke Dock - Penllergaer leg of the journey still before him.
And, according to what I was told by the police, the reason for Cllr Hall circumnavigation of west Wales was to deliver an "Irish inward investor" to the ferry in Pembroke Dock.
So, we have Cllr Hall and his precious cargo crossing the Severn Bridge at 12.56 and needing to be in Pembroke Dock to catch the 3.00 pm ferry.
Actually the ferry sailed at 3.04 that day and, I am told, you have to be on board 15 minutes before sailing time so that safety checks can be carried out before casting off.
It is just about possible, theoretically, to get from the Severn Bridge to Pembroke Dock in 1 hr 53 mins (67 mph) though the AA recommends you allow 2 hrs 26 mins for the trip.
However, it is not altogether clear why anyone on such a tight schedule would decide to call in at the first service station he came across to have lunch.
Nor why he would choose to travel to Pembroke Dock via Haverfordwest - adding nine miles to the journey.
All in all, applying Hume's probability test, the mathematical conclusion: that Cllr Hall claimed £63 for a return journey from Pembroke Dock to Penllergaer that he couldn't possibly have made, seems rather more compelling than any alternative explanation; even one backed by the combined authority of the police, CPS and as many "trained lawyers" as you can shake a stick at.

More false logic


Mr Parry-Jones also committed another sin against logic when he attacked my motives for plugging away at this issue.
According to the Chief Executive, he had been told by unnamed persons that I had expressed the intention to "to get a number of individuals" and I was, therefore, biased.
This logical fallacy also has a Latin label: argumentum ad hominem (personal abuse)- in football parlance, playing the man instead of the ball.
In fact, neither my motives, nor my personality, have any thing to do with the matter because whether I was Adolph Hitler or Mother Theresa wouldn't alter by a single inch the distance between Magor and Pembroke Dock, nor by a single second the time between 1.08 pm and 2.00 pm.
Furthermore, dividing the distance travelled by the time elapsed gives the same average velocity in miles per hour whether the calculation is done by Albert Einstein or my 85 year-old mother.
Interestingly, even discounting whatever time it took Cllr Hall to eat lunch, the average velocity required is 145 mph, which, a motor racing enthusiast tells me, is quite impressive when compared to the 137 mph which is all that Michael Schumacher could manage when winning this year's British Grand Prix.
Indeed, I am reliably informed that at these speeds, the world champion would have been lapped twice.
And, according to the Mercury, Mr Parry-Jones said that his study of law had taught him that: "for every bit of information you may consider there is always another bit of information, and for every view you may form there is always an alternative perspective."
That seems quite reasonable until you think about it because what it means is that there is no such thing as objective truth - merely opinions.
That isn't even true in the Law Courts because, as I pointed out above, the alternative perspectives of 50% of lawyers turn out to be false.
This idea of the single truth goes all the way back to Aristotle who showed that two contradictory propositions can't both be true.
If I express the view that something is a tree and you express the alternative perspective that it is not a tree, then, as the Universe is divided into things that are trees and things that are not not trees, only one of us can be right.
And who is right and who is wrong can only be determined by examining the evidence.
Just in case you haven't yet had your fill of logical fallacies I draw your attention to the Leader's claim that people have been coming up and telling him it is time the council to put Cllr Hall's expense claims behind it.
My own experience is entirely different.
People approach me in Tesco and say "Stick up for what you think is right. Don't let the b******* shout you down."
Again, whether Cllr Davies or myself can muster the most support doesn't really matter because this voice of the people stuff is yet another well known logical fallacy - argumentum ad popululum (appeal to the people).
It is the case, in a democracy, that what the people decide is what ultimately gets done, but that doesn't mean they always choose the right policy, otherwise any government with a foolproof method of gauging public opinion could easily achieve perfection.
But, as someone once said: "The truth isn't measured by counting heads."
That's why, despite having the Leader's 38 synchronised voters ranged against me, I don't feel outgunned.
As promised last week, I have now written to two of my adversaries - Cllrs Bill Roberts and Islwyn Howells.
Click on the link (letter) for a copy of what I wrote.
I will publish their replies when, if ever, they come to hand.

The family Christmas

Over lunch, Old Grumpette, my daughter and my son, who is home from Canada for Christmas, were having a long debate on where to go for a walk this afternoon.
Each seemed to have their own view/perspective on the subject, and I could hear the Preselis, Trevine and Marloes being touted as contenders.
After about half an hour of this seemingly interminable discussion, I asked Old Grumpette: "Do you know yet where you are going?"
"Mad." she replied.

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