Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for February 2011

False rape charges in Germany, Jörg Kachelmann

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Through a comment on a German blog post on the Assange casee, my attention was directed to an article in Die Zeitw giving a thorough review of the Kachelmann casee: Famous man stands accused of rape and sees his world collapse on the word of a woman—and as time goes by, the evidence against him proves to be flimsy at best.

(So far, I have not really paid attention to this case. The Assange case is different in that Anna Ardin was someone I was aware of and irritated at before she raised her accusations. It has, however, been given considerable media attention in Germany during the last year, even with a blog dedicated to Jörg Kachelmann und das Chaose.)

As a complement to my earlier article on rape statistics, I will make a few quotes pertaining to the general attitude shown and the actual numbers of true versus false accusations:

(Note: The language is often technical or highly idiomatic. I try to bring the correct meaning across without always adhering to the correct “legalese” or being idiomatically true.)

Die Staatsanwaltschaft Mannheim hatte in der Öffentlichkeit stets den Anschein erweckt, es existierten objektive Beweise für die Täterschaft des Angeklagten. Die Hauptverhandlung aber hat über die vergangenen Monate die Behauptung von der überzeugenden Spurenlage widerlegt.

(The DA’s office in Mannheim always gave the impression in public that objective evidence existed for the guilt of the accused. However, the trial has over the past months refuted the claim of convincing evidence.)

Dass der Fall Kachelmann zu einem Mammutverfahren ausufern konnte, dessen Ende nicht abzusehen ist, hat auch damit zu tun, dass die Ermittler der Opferzeugin über viele Wochen begegnet sind, ohne ihre Aussagen kritisch zu hinterfragen. Der Fall Kachelmann zeigt beispielhaft, dass kein mögliches Opfer eines Sexualdelikts in diesen Tagen mehr Angst vor Behörden haben muss. Das von Polizei und Justiz zusätzlich gedemütigte und drangsalierte Vergewaltigungsopfer ist ein Phänomen aus der Nachkriegszeit, längst überwunden, gleichwohl von Frauenrechtlerinnen immer noch gerne beschworen.

(That the case Kachelmann could degenerate into such a mammoth process, the end of which is not yet in sight, is also a dependent on the investigators having met the “victim-witness” over many weeks, but without critically questioning her statements. The case Kachelmann shows exemplary that no possible victim of a sex crime has to fear the government these days. The victim who was additionally humiliated and harassed by the police and the justice system is [was] a phenomenon of the post-war era [i.e. a limited time after WWII], long conquered, yet still ever called upon by members of the women’s rights movement.)

Außerdem gehe er grundsätzlich davon aus, »dass jemand, der einen anderen einer Straftat bezichtigt, wahrheitsgemäße Angaben macht«.

(Besides, he [the judge] has the basic assumption, “that someone who accuses someone else of a crime, tells the truth”.)

Die Gutachten des Sachverständigen vom Frühjahr 2010 standen damit im Gegensatz zur Überzeugung der Staatsanwaltschaft. Als Bernd Brinkmann schließlich zum Prozessauftakt als von der Verteidigung geladener Sachverständiger in Mannheim erscheint, wird er behandelt wie ein Feind.

(The expert opinions of [Bernd Brinkmann] from early 2010 were consequently in opposition to the conviction of the DA. As Bernd Brinkmann appears as an expert witness for the defense at the beginning of the process, he is treated like an enemy.)

Früher sei man in der Rechtsmedizin davon ausgegangen, dass es sich bei fünf bis zehn Prozent der vermeintlichen Vergewaltigungen um Falschbeschuldigungen handelte, inzwischen aber gebe es Institute, die jede zweite Vergewaltigungsgeschichte als Erfindung einschätzten.

(Earlier, the assumption in forensics was that five to ten percent of the alleged rapes were false accusations. Meanwhile, however, there are institutes that estimate that every second rape story is a fabrication.)

In Püschels Opferambulanz haben sich im Jahr 2009 genau 132 Vergewaltigte vorgestellt: Bei 27 Prozent der Frauen hielten die Ärzte die Verletzungen für fingiert, bei 33 Prozent für echt. Bei den restlichen 40 Prozent haben die Hamburger Rechtsmediziner nicht ermitteln können, wer der Urheber der Blessuren war: der beschuldigte Mann oder das Opfer selbst.

(In Püschel’s [an interviewed professor] victim ambulance, exactly 132 [alleged] rape victims presented themselves in 2009: For 27 per cent of the women, the physicians considered the injuries to be fabricated, for 33 per cent genuine. For the remaining 40 per cent, the Hamburg forensics could not determine who the creator of the injuries was: the accused man or the [alleged] victim.)


Written by michaeleriksson

February 27, 2011 at 3:37 am

On language change, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and related issues

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Language is ever changing. New words are invented and old ones are lost, altered, or gain new meanings. The rules of grammar bend over time—usually in the direction of simplification. These changes are sometimes good and sometimes bad—and more often than not, they replace an ultimately arbitrary set of rules with another equally arbitrary set. Only one thing is certain: Change is unavoidable.

In light of this, descriptive grammar is often considered the “right” way, while prescriptive grammar is frowned upon. (This, it self, being an example of a similar change in another area: Prescriptive grammar was once more popular.) I find this highly unfortunate, for several reasons:

Firstly, I consider the opposition between prescriptive and descriptive grammar to be a sign of flawed thinking: One can legitimately be given value without discarding the other. Certainly, linguistics should be concerned both with describing and investigating language as it is and with trying to detect “higher” rules, suggesting changes that increase the logic or reduce the ambiguity of a language, or even with creating new languages. An acceptance and respect for the inevitability of change does not mean that prescriptive grammar is a dead-end.

Secondly, not all changes are beneficial. On the contrary, many make the language less expressive and nuanced, increase ambiguity, and cause unnecessary misunderstandings between members of different generations or native English (French, Spanish, …) speakers from different countries. Most reduce the backward compatibility of language over the centuries, making texts from the past harder to understand: In the case of my native Sweden, the changes over the last hundred-or-so years have been so drastic that even Swedes can have trouble understanding an older text—and the same fate could befall English over the coming hundred years.

Notably, there are many changes that do not result from a deliberate enrichment or a creative use of language, but from sheer ignorance, thoughtlessness, or sloppiness. I have for instance seen absurd statements like “Petrified with fear, he ran away.” or “The runner literally massacred his opponents.”—both cases where a word (“petrified”; “literally”, unless the problems lies with “massacred”) is used to signify the opposite of what it actually means.

In many cases, the changes are unnecessary and could have been avoided with little extra effort in early tuition. Alas, nowadays many teachers have themselves never learned the rules of the language.

In yet other cases, the changes can have a component bordering on the malicious. A good example of this is the words “they” and “their” when used as a generic singular due to a linguistically ignorant political agenda (but not when used out of carelessness). Here we have mechanisms like politically correct teachers in the US telling their students that “he” is sexist, resulting in the English language being objectively worsened world-wide due to their leverage. This to such a degree that I regularly see “they” used when the sex is actually known and a generic singular does not make sense in the first place. (“I saw my cousin. They had a new job.”) In many other cases, a generic singular is called for, but undue confusion is caused by “they”. (“If someone wants to eat, they must work”: Who? The someones parents?) This is the worse because the thinking behind proposing “they” is faulty—an issue that I have discussed elsewhere.

Another driving force behind changes is the wish for the writer to have it easy: Conscientious writing puts the focus on the reader. It strives to ensure that the resulting text clear in logic and composition, that there are no confusing errors, that ambiguities have been detected and clarified, etc. Too many modern writers put themselves first: Instead of spending a few minutes extra on a text, they write it willy-nilly and put the burden of understanding on the readers, who each have to spend the same few minutes extra in understanding (or misunderstanding…) it. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with ignoring nuances between words, grammatical constructs that disambiguate who does what to whom, and the internal logic of the language.

A particular issue with a too relaxed attitude towards language change is that there is always some offset between actual use and “correct” use. People will still drive too fast even if the speed limit is raised—and it is the same with language: If one set of rules and word meanings is prescribed, people will deviate from these. Change the rules to adhere to actual use today and the result will be that the use drifts away by roughly the same amount as before; change the rules again and the use will drift away again; etc. By setting a prescriptive base-line that is only altered slowly over time this continual drift from one set of rules to another can be slowed in a corresponding manner; take a descriptive laissez-faire approach and we have a plenitude of new or aggravated disadvantages without any new advantages. In both cases, the distance remains; only the latter causes a continual and largely negative drift.

Note: This text is partially intended as a response to a previous discussione. I have preferred, however, to write it on a more abstract level without detailed reference to that discussion, taking the opportunity to write down some long-standing thoughts of mine.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Publishing of a censored comment II

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In the Swedish blogosphere, I have repeatedly stumbled across comments by one “Nymnchen”. She almost invariably goes on my nerves, because she has the very unfortunate tendency to try to lecture others from a position of deep ignorance and repeatedly proved weakness when it comes to reasoning and critical thinking. (One of the most extreme examples of the Dunning–Kruger effectw that I have ever encountered. Note that I actually enjoy and feel that I profit from discussing issues with intelligent, informed, and well-reasoned disagreers—Nymnchen is none of the three.) So in her latest comments on an old Swedish bloge: Here a new debater asks for clarification concerning some claims about the contents and conclusions of a few academic papers that she cites in favour of her position. None of the questions were in anyway inappropriate. Furthermore, with Nymnchen, there is more than a fair chance than the research she cites does not actually back her position.

Her responses contained very little of constructive character, but did contain a long rant about how presumptuous it is for a layman to question a published paper… (A rant, through which she, unsurprisingly, proved herself to be ignorant about science.) I posted the following (regrettably, censored) reply:


Oavsett ditt sista inlägg ser jag mig tvungen till följande svar, framförallt då jag från tidigare debatter har intrycket att din egen förståelse av god forskning och kritiskt tänkande inte ger dig rätt att kritisera andra:

Din argumentation när det gäller forskning är i sig på gränsen till oseriös. Helt säkert finns det ingenting att invända mot att en lekman framför synpunkter och ställer frågor. Skulle dessa vara naiva, då räcker det ju med att förklara varför.

Hur det förhåller sig med kvaliteten i just det här fallet kan jag inte säga. Generellt sett är dina utsagor dock av begränsad giltighet (och med tanke på vad Johan frågade verkar de orättvisa). Betänk tex att:

o Det finns inkompetenta i alla branscher, inklusive forskning.

o Även goda forskare kan falla offer för önsketänkande, ”confirmation bias”, och liknande.

o Områden som tex socialvetenskap och nationalekonomi har ofta problem med en ideologisk komponent som inte alltid undantrycks tillräckligt.

o Det finns många papers som har gått igenom peer-review och likväl senare visat sig vara felaktiga eller, i vissa fall, innehållande direkta klumpigheter. En rätt vanlig attityd är att den verkliga peer-review följer efter publicering, när inte bara en eller två, utan hundratals ”peers”, kan ge sina synpunkter.

o Det är inte ovanligt att det finns flera papers, alla antagna för publicering, som har olika uppfattningar. Det förekommer tom att resultat publiceras som är i stark kontrast mot ”scientific consensus”, tex undersökningar som visar på positiva resultat för homeopati.

o Även när forskningen är korrekt är det mycket, mycket vanligt att bloggare, journalister, politiker, ody., tyder forskningen på ett sätt som inte forskarna själva skulle stödja. Likaså att de rapporterar forskningsresultat utan att ange betingelser och antagande som forskarna skulle se som kritiska.

(In short: Nymnchen should be very careful about criticizing others. Publication does not make a paper the absolute truth [and here is why]. Even when the research is correct, there is no guarantee that the interpretations made by a blogger/journalist/whatnot are supported.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 21, 2011 at 1:16 am

Publishing of a censored comment I

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At the beginning of February, I encountered a very prejudiced and depressing blog entrye titled “Någon har fel på internet!” (“Someone is wrong on the internet!”). The contents depended heavily on a naive and long disproved view of a “tabula rasa” human; the equally naive and dangerously faulty conclusion was tantamount to denying children the right to develop their own interests, chose their own toys, etc.—after all, feminists “know” that we are all identical and that any difference in choice is a sign of evil. Indeed, contrary to what science actually does say, the author (Rebecka) hypocritically and ignorantly accused her opponents of e.g. “De angriper forskning och vetenskap med sina känslor” (“They attack research and science with their feelings”)—a prime example of reversing the accusation.

At that point, I wrote a factual comment (unfortunately, without saving a copy) pointing out that there is solid scientific evidence that the reality is far more complex and the author’s take on the issue would do more harm than good.

After this comment, for no other discernible reason than dissent, was censored, I let matter rest until the discussion started over and further highly naive statements were made—including, absurdly, comparing sticking to actual science (as opposed to the distorted image of science that author apparently had) to racism. I then saw myself forced to re-iterate my statements at somewhat greater length:

Då jag redan har blivit censurerad utan giltig anledning har jag egentligen ingen lust att skriva mer.

Dock, med en blick på diskussionen mellan Rebecka och Emmy, måste det än en gång betonas att det finns vetenskapligt välbelagda biologiska skillnader mellan genomsnittsindivider av dem olika könen. Sedan har vi stora individuella variationer och ett kulturellt inflytande, men varje försök att uppfostra barn genom att utplåna dessa skillnader är lika illa som, i många fall värre än, en fostran som ignorerar den individuella variationen. Vad vi behöver är friheten att utvecklas som vi själva vill—inte som någon samhällsgrupp pga av en föråldrad världsbild anser att vi borde utvecklas. (Detta gäller oavsett om vi talar om ett medeltida synsätt eller 1960-talets ”tabula rasa”- tänkande.)

Jämförelser med tex rasism är helt missvisande, framförallt då ett av huvudproblemen med rasism är ignorerandet av individuell variation. Tvärtom kan man argumentera att en mycket stor del av världens ondska har uppstått just genom försök att förvandla människor till någonting som någon har tyckt att de ”borde” vara, inklusive mycket av det som nazister, kommunister, och religiösa fundamentalister har ställt till med. För en lättillgänglig parodisk behandling se Terry Pratchetts ”Witches abroad”.

(In brief: Science has clearly shown that there are differences between the average male and female individuals. Trying to exterminate these differences can do untold harm. Much of the evil of this world has come exactly through trying to force people to be what they “should” be, rather than letting them develop as they actually are.)

This comment, unsurprisingly, was also censored—to which I add two statements: Firstly, those who censor are almost without exception those who are evil. (Even when they imagine themselves to be good guys.) Secondly, someone is wrong on the Internet, Rebecka. That someone is you.

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February 21, 2011 at 1:14 am

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There has been very little activity here recently (for a number of reasons, including other obligations and a computer that upped-and-died last weekend). As is, I have a handful of half-written entries that I hope to be able to finish and publish in the next two weeks, most notably a promised entry on the myth of privileged white men.

In the very short term, I will republish two censored comments in Swedish, which can safely be skipped by readers not involved in those discussions or with the same debaters.

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February 21, 2011 at 1:12 am

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Publishing of lost comment

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(The lost comment, respectively the first submit of it, has since appeared on the original blog. I keep the below duplication just in case.)

For some reason, a comment I am currently trying to submit results in … nothing. (Not even an error message.) Correspondingly, I publish it here for now. The original (German) discussion can be found on http://tapferimnirgendwo.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/mein-nein-zur-quote/e.


Gehälter: Es hat keinen Zweck auch mehrere Dutzend Quellen aufzuzählen, die alle den Fehler machen, nur auf die rohen Zahlen zu schauen. (Warum dies nicht funktioniert wurde schon auf die gelinkte Seite erklärt.) Oder wie Ihre eigene Quellen sagen “Grund ist die unterschiedliche Berufs- und Branchenwahl, so das Statistische Bundesamt. Außerdem seien Frauen eher teilzeitbeschäftigt und tendenziell schlechter ausgebildet.”—was auch nicht alle “nicht-sexistischen” Erklärung abdeckt.

“Die IQ Diskussion von Ihnen ist erschreckend.”

Die Welt ist, wie sie ist—nicht wie Sie die Welt gerne hätte. Das gilt auch für IQ.

“Sie negieren auch, dass wenn Frauen in Führungspostionen sind, sich dies positiv auf die Wirtschaft auswirkt.”

Ich habe kein Wort zu dem Thema gesagt.

Gehirne: Quantität und Qualität sind unterschiedliche Sachen (und was anderes habe ich nie behauptet). Die Gesamtleistung, jedoch, setzt sich aus beides Zusammen. Was die Wissenschaftler hierbei festgestellt haben, ist z.B. eine Korrelation von ~ 0.4 zwischen IQ und Gehirngröße—was sogar mehr ist als ich vorher erwartet hatte. (Nachträgliches Googlen hat z.B. http://www.iq-tests.eu/iq-test-Brain-size-and-IQ-510.html mit mehreren Quellenhinweisen zur Tage gebracht.)

Darüber hinaus ist mein Ziel mit der Diskussion der Größen nicht die Bedeutung von eben der Größe selbst aufzuspielen—sondern auf Schwächen in der politisch korrekten Argumentation hinzuweisen, wo man von der These “Frauen und Männern müssen gleich sein” ausgeht, um anschliessend die Beweise zu werten oder entwerten, je nachdem wie sie diese These stützen oder nicht stützen. Hier muss man aus der anderen Richtung kommen und sich die Beweise anschauen um die These zu akzeptieren oder verwerfen. Dies ist auch einer der bedeutendsten Unterschiede zwischen Wissenschaft und Pseudo-Wissenschaft.

Voll nehmen, usw.: Derartige unqualifizierte Personenangriffe sagen mehr über Sie aus, als über die Angegriffenen.

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February 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm

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Opinion and the wish to be well-behaved (brav sein)

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Preamble: The “be well-behaved” of the title is an approximate translation of the German “brav sein”. As this translation does not quite catch the concept I try to pin-point, a brief explanation: “Brav sein” is a phrase usually applied to children or pets, either as an imperative (“Sei brav!”–“Behave yourself!”/“Be nice!”) or a complimentary description (“Ein braves Kind.”–“A well-behaved child.”), in many ways being the opposite of the out-dated English “wicked child”. The child who is “brav” is rewarded; the one who is not is punished. While the decision about what is “brav” is often highly arbitrary, an implication of morality is still often involved (but “brav” and “moral” are not the same)—and the implication of approval or disapproval from the “powers that be” (adults/humans) is central. Somewhat similar concepts are reflected in the English cognates “bravo” and (in one meaning) “brave”.

Looking back at my own teenager years, I see an occasional tendency of wanting to have the “brav” opinion—not an opinion that had convinced me through facts and arguments, but one that was the “enlightened” opinion to have, the one that was “expected” of those who were not barbarians. (Causing the odd moment of cognitive dissonance, because the “brav” opinion and the facts often clashed—nowadays, I have learned to go where the facts and arguments point.) Over the years, I have seen many signs that this kind of thinking applies to a very significant part of even the adult population—and almost all teenagers and children. Paradoxically, there are some signs that those of above-average intelligence are actually more easily snared than the below average. (Possibly, through often being more conformant in school and being used to seeing “brav” behaviour rewarded, or because they have a greater exposure to “brav” ideas, e.g. through newspapers.)

The politically correct are possibly the example. This manifests e.g. in not merely abandoning old prejudice but to actually err in the other direction, or in the belief that the world conforms to what it “should” be, that we do live in “the best of worlds”. Conversely, when someone questions the “truth”, even with scientific support, he is denounced as “wicked” (respectively, “racist”, “sexist”, whatnot). Consider e.g the events around Lawrence Summers.

Political parties and ideologies (in general) often have some component of this “brav sein”; however, rarely to the extreme degree that the politically correct do. An important case is the leftist use of “progressive” (likely in a deliberately play on this principle) to make their own opinions seem “brav”—despite often being consider regressive, anti-progress, and anti-enlightenment by their opponents. Other words that often appear to be used with a similar intent include “democratic”, “American” (in the US), and “freedom [something-or-other]”. Besides, who would willingly declare himself to be part of the “immoral minority”?

Religion is similar: It is “brav” to do or to abstain from this-or-that. The imposition of belief and behaviour does not follow merely from arguments or through threats of hell-fire, but also from the general attitude that some things are more “brav” than others.

Some book authors, including e.g. Daniel Goleman, provide yet other examples. For instance, the concept of “Cultural Creatives”w (official pagee) is a first rate illustration:

Some people have a certain set of opinions and are rewarded by being allowed to call themselves “Cultural Creative”—a very progressive and enlightened sounding title. More than that, they are now among the “50 Million People [who] Are Changing the World”, with the possibility to advance to being a “Core Cultural Creative”. Interestingly, looking at the list of opinions presented on the Wikipedia page, a very sizable part of the population of any western country would qualify as “Cultural Creative”—often for having opinions that have no real connection with each other, nor have anything to do with either culture or creativity. (I could count myself as one too, with only ten matching opinions being needed; however, there is little doubt that I am in a different camp from what the authors would want.) Indeed, I would even voice the suspicion that the originators of the concept deliberately attempt to gather in as many people as possible by the Forer effectw (“Hey, I am Cultural Creative! Yay me!”) and then to guide them to the “right” opinions in other areas (“I want to be a good Cultural Creative! Now, what should I believe?”), thereby overriding reason.

One Michael Hardy makes a comment on the talk page of the Wikipedia article that well catches both my own impression of “Cultural Creatives” and (with the last sentence) much of what I try to say in the larger context of this post:

But if you scan down the list of things that alleged “Cultural Creatives” are interested in, it looks as if they’re just people who want to follow popular trends. That’s the common thread. And the book congratulates them on their superiority, so they look down on their less trendy neighbors and feel warm fuzzies about how much better they are than those other people.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Assange rape case

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Today, I stumbled upon a Swedish blog with an Assange updatee, including some English discussions and a link to “leaked” documents from the investigatione.

(Assange stands accused of having raped/assaulted/molested/whatnot two women, one of which, Anna Ardin, was a topic on my blog even before the Assange affair. The other is referred to by “SW” below. Some links to more information are present here.)

I have gone through the hundred pages. In short:

There is nothing whatsoever to the SW case—confirming an interpretation I have seen repeatedly from those more familiar with the details. She was a groupie, pressed herself on Assange, and got what she wanted sexually (she may or may not have had non-sexual or romantic wishes that did not come true). The only real point of possible culpability is Assange’s alleged refusal to take a HIV test; however, seeing that she could have had herself tested (and that HIV has an infection rate noticeably lower than 100 %) this cannot reasonably be a criminal issue. Looking at some testimonies, I have the impression that SW need not have wanted to claim rape or assault in the first place, but merely wanted a forced clarification of the HIV (or, more generally, STD) issue.

The case of Anna Ardin is not quite as clear-cut, but contains nothing that could not be seen as a mixture of miscommunication, (playfully) rough sex, and unfortunate coincidence—even by Ardin’s own claims and without hearing Assange’s side of the story. I note, in particular, that the sex was consensual (if, possibly, depending on interpretation and what statement is believed, reluctant and unwelcome for Ardin), that Assange consistently respected her wish not to have sex on other occasions, and that it is not clear how the infamous broken condom actually broke (has happened to me too, on more than one occasion).

Even if, arguendo, Assange deliberately broke it, there is insufficient proof to that effect (in my layman’s opinion): Ardin’s own testimony is conjectural—she only observed that he had fiddled with the condom during intercourse, not that he broke it. The documents do include a forensic report concerning a condom with the conclusion that it was probable (“Möjligheten att erhålla dessa resultat om någon annan hypotes är sann bedöms som liten.”—“The possibility that these results could be found if an alternative hypothesis is true is considered to be unlikely.”; official informatione) to have been “torn apart” (“slitits sönder”). However, this is not a conclusive statement, being a “+2”, where a “+4”, in my understanding, would be needed for a conviction with no other evidence. Further, it does not follow who tore it or when—nor even that it necessarily is the same condom. Notably, the alleged breaking took place on the night of 2010-08-13/14, Ardin was interrogated on 2010-08-21, and had, at that point, not yet turned the condom in. (Assange remained as her guest until the day before the interrogation.)

Obviously, even a hypothetical deliberate breaking is not rape, although it should probably be considered criminal.

As a whole, my previous impression from other sources, that we have a storm in a tea-cup and nothing warranting criminal proceedings, is confirmed.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 7, 2011 at 10:20 am

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No man is a prophet…

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… is the beginning of a saying that has long annoyed me. Usually, the continuation is “… in his own village [town, country].”, implying that men of worth are paradoxically not recognized specifically by those who know them well. (“Familiarity breeds contempt.” is one of several other sayings with a similar idea.)

In my eyes, the opposite is the true problem, namely that strangers who are not known well enough are awarded the status of prophet—while the estimate of the neighbours is more just. Indeed, why should those who knows us the best be more wrong than those who only know us from afar?

Unfortunately, too many people fail to realize that truly extraordinary humans are extraordinarily rare—and that the typical book author, college professor, movie star, …, is just as human as the next-door neighbour. Indeed, the few truly extraordinary are ultimately human too: Even Einstein had to go to the bathroom. More importantly, even Einstein was not infallible. He made silly errors, he grew sad or angry, he had the odd moment of vanity or unwarranted pride, he felt a sting of self-doubt every now-and-then, he even, likely, had malicious or unfair thoughts about others. (And, yes, I feel perfectly confident in saying this without having known him in person—the bathroom part would be the easiest by far to avoid…)

Obviously, there are great differences in e.g. intelligence between different people, and the typical professor of mathematics will sooner be able to understand a particular issue, see its nuances, poke holes in arguments concerning it, whatnot, than the typical delivery boy. If the topic is mathematics, he has an even greater advantage. The saying is true, in so far that many delivery boys will fail to appreciate this, if the professor happens to be the next door neighbour, who spends the weekends slacking in the garden, wearing worn-out shorts and a silly hat. Still, the professor should not be considered a prophet, but have to defend his position with arguments—and now and then the delivery boy is himself a future professor. (A very annoying problem is that below a certain intelligence level in the counter-part, arguments are just a waste of time, as I can attest from many discussions on the Internet, both as a neutral observer and as the bringer of the arguments. That, however, is a different issue.)

The true problems start when the near-by authority is compared to the authority in the distance—and the latter is given more credibility. The true solution, however, is not to elevate the near-by authority, but to view the distant one more realistically. German professors are pretty much the same as Swedish (I have studied in both countries)—and they are all human. A book does not become less valuable merely because its author lives next door—and a text often goes beyond its author in terms of wisdom and insight. The charismatic actor may be shy in real life, while the beautiful actress may be bland without an hour in the make-up chair—and neither is the larger-than-life figure that so impressed the audience. And, yes, Einstein went to the bathroom.

No man is a prophet—period.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm