Archive for Referendum

Voting Matters

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2018 by telescoper

At last I have this afternoon free of teaching and other commitments, and having fortified myself with lunch in Pugin Hall, I’m preparing to make an attempt on the summit of the Open Journal of Astrophysics now that all the outstanding administrative obstacles have been cleared. Before shutting myself away to do up the loose ends, however, I thought I’d do a quick post about a couple of electoral matters.

The first relates to this, which arrived at my Maynooth residence the other day:

This document reminded me that there is a referendum in Ireland on the same day as the Presidential election I mentioned at the weekend. The contents of the booklet can be found here. In brief,

At present, the Constitution says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law. Blasphemy is currently a criminal offence. The referendum will decide if the Constitution should continue to say that publishing or saying something blasphemous is a criminal offence. If the referendum is passed, the Oireachtas will be able to change the law so that blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence.

Having read the booklet thoroughly and thereby having understood all the issues, and the implications of the vote,  I have decided that I will vote in favour of making blasphemy compulsory.

The other matter being put to a vote is something I just found out about today when I got an email from the International Astronomical Union concerning an electronic vote on Resolution B4, that the Hubble Law be renamed the Hubble-Lemaître law. For background and historical references, see here. I don’t really have strong opinions on this resolution, nor do I see how it could be enforced if it is passed but, for the record, I voted in favour because I’m a fan of Georges Lemaître




On the Plural of Referendum

Posted in Pedantry, Politics with tags , , , , on September 5, 2018 by telescoper

Quite a few people are suggesting that one way out of the current Brexit fiasco is to have another referendum when the terms of the withdrawal agreement (if any) are known. Bafflingly, Theresa May has argued that a second plebiscite would be `a betrayal of democracy’ and has categorically ruled out that possibility. Given her U-turn about last year’s General Election one might reasonably infer that a second referendum is now a racing certainty, but she called the election because she was confident she would win. All the signs are now that if given a chance to vote again the UK would vote to remain in the European Union, so the PM will need a very hard push to allow a second referendum.  A smart politician would have used the evidence of electoral misconduct by the Leave campaigns as a way out, but we’re not dealing with smart politicians on either side of the House nowadays.

Whether or not there is a second referendum an important question arises from the possibility, i.e. what is the proper plural of “referendum”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m never pedantic about such matters. Well, maybe a little bit, sometimes. Latin was my best subject at O-level, though, so I can’t resist making a comment.

Any dictionary will tell you that “referendum” is obtained from the Latin verb referre which is itself formed as re- (prefix meaning “back”) + ferre (to carry), thus its literal meaning is “carry back” or, more relevantly to the current discussion, “to refer”. Ferre is actually an irregular verb, which complicates the discussion a bit, so I’ll use simpler examples of regular verbs below

Latin grammar includes two related concepts derived from a verb, the gerund and the gerundive.

The gerund is a verbal noun; such things exist in English in forms that mean `the act of something’, e.g. running, eating, loving.The word formed from a verb with the ending `ing’ can also function as a present participle in English, but we wont be going there. It may easy to muddle up gerunds with participles in English, but not in Latin as they are formed in distinctly different ways.

IAs an example, in the case of `loving’ the  relevant Latin verb is the first conjugation amare (amo amas amat and all that) and the appropriate gerund is amandus. You can this sort of Latin construction surviving in such English words as “graduand”. Note, however, that a gerund has no plural form because that would make no sense in Latin. There are plural forms in English such as `doings’ and `comings and goings’ but I don’t think these are relevant here as I interpret them as jocular, and pedantry is a very serious business. Moreover

Related to the gerund is the gerundive which, as its name suggests, is an adjectival form related to the gerund, specifically expressing necessity. In Latin, an adjective takes an ending that depends on the gender of the noun it describes; the gerundive also follows this pattern.

In the loving example above, the gerundive form is amandus in a masculine case or, if referring to a female entity, amanda, hence the name Amanda, which means “deserving or requiring love”, or amandum for a neuter noun. In cases where the noun is plural the forms would be amandi, amandae, and amanda. Endings for other gerundives formed from other verbs are constructed in a similar fashion depending on their conjugation.

From this discussion you can see that in Latin amandum could mean either “loving” (gerund) or “a thing to be loved” (gerundive). Latin grammar is sufficiently precise, however, that the actual meaning will be obvious from the context.

As an aside, based on my own experiences in mathematics and physics, the abbreviation `QED’ which is often placed at the end of a proof is short for `Quod Erat Demonstrandum’, meaning `which was required to be shown’ rather than `Quite Easily Done’.  I’m surprised how many people use QED without knowing what it means!

Now, back to referendum. It seems clear to me that this is a gerundive and thus means “a thing to be referred” (the thing concerned being of no gender, as is normal in such cases in Latin). So what should be the word for more than one referendum?

Think about it and you’ll realise that referenda would imply “more than one thing to be referred”. The familiar word agenda is formed precisely this way and it means “(a list of things) to be done”. But this is not the desired meaning we want, ie “more than one example of a thing being referred”.

I would therefore argue that referenda is clearly wrong, in that it means something quite different from that needed to describe more than one of what a single referendum is.

So what should we use? This is a situation where there isn’t a precise correspondence between Latin and English grammatical forms so it seems to me that we should just treat referendum as an English noun and give it the corresponding English plural. So “referendums” it is.

Any questions?

P.S. In a forthcoming post I shall give the full conjugation of the verb brexire, as brexit must be formed from that verb  in the same way that exit is formed from exire (i.e. third person singular in the active voice; exire is an irregular verb but basically similar to fourth conjugation). On this basis the gerund of brexire would be brexeundum and the gerundive brexeundus

On the Eighth Amendment Referendum

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , on April 6, 2018 by telescoper

When I was walking to lunch yesterday I saw that there was some sort of demonstration on the road (the R148) that divides the North and South Campuses at Maynooth University:

It was all a bit confusing as it seemed to be a protest and a counter-protest all in the same place. It turned out after asking a few people that the original demonstration was by a group calling itself the Irish Centre for Bioethical Reform (ICBR), which is  a fringe anti-abortion group that specialises in putting up gory images to make their point. They have been pulling a series of stunts in the area ahead of the forthcoming Referendum on the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which will take place on 25th May 2018.

The Eighth Amendment introduced Article 40.3.3 into the constitution. This was subsequently amended twice (following referendums) and now reads:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

The counter-demonstration (which seemed to involve more people) deployed the simple device of standing in front of the the ICBR demonstration so their lurid images were hard to see. This is why I couldn’t quite see what was going on as I walked past.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll state that I support the campaign to repeal the Eight Amendment, which effectively prohibits abortion in Ireland. I realise that abortion is an emotive ethical issue for many people, but it strikes me as a new arrival in Ireland that the fundamental thing is that Eight Amendment is basically a muddle, and that it really does not belong in the Constitution anyway. In my opinion it is regrettable that it was ever passed (which it was, after another referendum campaign, in 1983). If the repeal side wins the referendum then the existing Eight Amendment (which is Article 40.3.3) will be replaced with

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

(Incidentally, that would be the 36th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland. It is in the drafting and amending of any such provisions that emerge when the ethical issues should be debated. The matter for the referendum is (or should be) simpler than this: it’s just about whether the existing Article should be scrapped.

Incidentally, a number of people have asked me if UK citizens resident in Ireland can vote in this referendum, as Irish citizens resident in the UK could in the Brexit referendum in 2016. The answer to that question is `no’: British citizens in Ireland can vote in local elections, elections to the Dáil, and European Elections (although presumably that will change if the UK leaves the European Union); they cannot vote in any referendum or in the election of the President (which will take place later this year). Irish citizens can vote in every election and referendum.

The State of Catalonia

Posted in Politics with tags , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was appalled by the scenes of violence yesterday as police tried to stop voting in the `referendum’ on Catalonia. Here’s some footage from the BBC which clearly shows excessive use of force inside a polling station:

This is far from the worst example: elsewhere plastic bullets were fired at unarmed protesters. In all, about 900 people have been reported injured, though this claim is contested and  thankfully none of them – as far as I know – seriously.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the independence movement – and I’ll tell you what I think in a moment – there’s no question that the Spanish government has handled this issue very badly and in so doing has conceded a propaganda victory.  There was no need to use force to prevent the voting, as the  referendum was unlawful. The national government was undoubtedly in a difficult position, but I think it would have been far better just to let the vote go ahead in full knowledge that it had no constitutional validity. The referendum result (claimed to be about 90% for independence, on a turnout of just over 40%) means nothing even if you actually believe the numbers (which are doubtful). ‘Democracy’ means nothing without the rule of law. 

Nevertheless, it just may be that history will judge Sunday 1st October to be the day that Catalonian independence became inevitable not because of the vote per  se but because of the reaction to it.

Many seem to be either casting this as a battle between democracy and fascism, raising the spectre of Franco, or, even more absurdly, blaming all this on the European Union, ignoring the blame attached to the antics of the separatists. For a counter to the simple-minded propaganda emanating from the extremes of left and right, you might read this piece

Of course I’m just an ignorant foreigner and I encourage those with different opinions to express them through the comments box below.

The EU will of course not intervene in what is essentially an internal problem for Spain, but is right to call for a dialogue to begin quickly before things get any worse, as the Commission has made clear:

Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.

For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.

We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union.

Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.

We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.

It was wrong to proceed with the referendum, but it was also wrong to use heavy-handed tactics to try to stop it going ahead. There is blame on both sides, and both sides need to get together to sort it out. I’m not optimistic that will happen immediately, but the only way to make peace is by talking to your opponents. Let’s hope that common sense prevails, if not immediately then perhaps eventually.

So what do I think about the case for Catalonian independence? Well, I’m not qualified to talk about the specific arguments, so I’ll keep to the generalities. Let me start with a bit of autobiography that might explain why I see things the way I do. I was born in Wallsend (on Tyneside) in the North East of England. My parents were both born just before World War II started, also in the area where I was born. Of my four grandparents, one was born in England, one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. I always smile when I get to write my nationality on a form, because I put “United Kingdom”. Of course being born in England makes me English too, but I find that less defining than “UK” or “British” or even “Geordie”. To be honest, my ancestry means that  I generally find the whole concept of nationality fundamentally silly. I find nationalism silly too, except for those occasions – regrettably frequent nowadays – when nationalism takes on the guise of xenophobia. Then it is truly sinister. Nationalism is a tool by which unscrupulous individuals whip up hatred for political gain, regardless of the human consequences.

It may be apocryphal, but Albert Einstein is reported to have said “nationalism is an infantile disease”. The obvious way to cure it is to grow up and focus on fixing the real problems facing us instead of just waving flags, shouting slogans, and blaming others for our own failings. The reality is that we depend on each other too much for independence to have any meaning, let alone be desirable.

The EU Referendum – “Dishonesty on an Industrial Scale”

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on June 22, 2016 by telescoper

This short talk, by Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool Law School, has been widely circulated but I thought I’d nevertheless share it here as it explodes many of the untruths circulating about the European Union. There’s far more useful information in this than anything produced in the official campaigns on either side, so whether you’ve made your mind up already or not, please have a look..

The UK Financial Contribution to the EU

Posted in Finance, Politics with tags , , on April 22, 2016 by telescoper

There’s so much misunderstanding and distortion flying around about the United Kingdom’s contribution to the European Budget and what it might be spent on if we left the EU that I just thought I would post this for information. It shows official figures from HMRC for 2014. Similar pie charts are available for other years, but often they include the EU contribution under “other” which is why I’ve chosen this particular one. Also, I’m very lazy and it came up first on Google…

fat cut

Although it’s a lot of money in cash terms, it’s very small compared to current expenditure on, e.g. Health, Education and Welfare and even compared to the interest payments on our national debt. Saving this contribution would not make sufficient financial resources  available to make a significant difference to these other big ticket  items. Note also that if the UK loses its current credit rating, the expense of servicing our debt will increase by an amount that could easily on its own wipe out the saving on our EU subscription.

And of course what we get for that relatively small contribution is access to beneficial trade agreements, inward investment from EU companies and other sources, and access to the science programmes. You may disagree, of course, but I think it’s money very well spent.



Fear, Risk, Uncertainty and the European Union

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve been far too busy with work and other things to contribute as much as I’d like to the ongoing debate about the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Hopefully I’ll get time for a few posts before June 23rd, which is when the United Kingdom goes to the polls.

For the time being, however, I’ll just make a quick comment about one phrase that is being bandied about in this context, namely Project Fear.As far as I am aware this expression first came up in the context of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, but it’s now being used by the “leave” campaign to describe some of the arguments used by the “remain” campaign. I’ve met this phrase myself rather often on social media such as Twitter, usually in use by a BrExit campaigner accusing me of scaremongering because I think there’s a significant probability that leaving the EU will cause the UK serious economic problems.

Can I prove that this is the case? No, of course not. Nobody will know unless and until we try leaving the EU. But my point is that there’s definitely a risk. It seems to me grossly irresponsible to argue – as some clearly are doing – that there is no risk at all.

This is all very interesting for those of us who work in university science departments because “Risk Assessments” are one of the things we teach our students to do as a matter of routine, especially in advance of experimental projects. In case you weren’t aware, a risk assessment is

…. a systematic examination of a task, job or process that you carry out at work for the purpose of; Identifying the significant hazards that are present (a hazard is something that has the potential to cause someone harm or ill health).

Perhaps we should change the name of our “Project Risk Assessments” to “Project Fear”?

I think this all demonstrates how very bad most people are at thinking rationally about uncertainty, to such an extent that even thinking about potential hazards is verboten. I’ve actually written a book about uncertainty in the physical sciences , partly in an attempt to counter the myth that science deals with absolute certainties. And if physics doesn’t, economics definitely can’t.

In this context it is perhaps worth mentioning the  definitions of “uncertainty” and “risk” suggested by Frank Hyneman Knight in a book on economics called Risk, Uncertainty and Profit which seem to be in standard use in the social sciences.  The distinction made there is that “risk” is “randomness” with “knowable probabilities”, whereas “uncertainty” involves “randomness” with “unknowable probabilities”.

I don’t like these definitions at all. For one thing they both involve a reference to “randomness”, a word which I don’t know how to define anyway; I’d be much happier to use “unpredictability”.In the context of BrExit there is unpredictability because we don’t have any hard information on which to base a prediction. Even more importantly, perhaps, I find the distinction between “knowable” and “unknowable” probabilities very problematic. One always knows something about a probability distribution, even if that something means that the distribution has to be very broad. And in any case these definitions imply that the probabilities concerned are “out there”, rather being statements about a state of knowledge (or lack thereof). Sometimes we know what we know and sometimes we don’t, but there are more than two possibilities. As the great American philosopher and social scientist Donald Rumsfeld (Shurely Shome Mishtake? Ed) put it:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

There may be a proper Bayesian formulation of the distinction between “risk” and “uncertainty” that involves a transition between prior-dominated (uncertain) and posterior-dominated (risky), but basically I don’t see any qualititative difference between the two from such a perspective.

When it comes to the EU referendum is that probabilities of different outcomes are difficult to calculate because of the complexity of economics generally and the dynamics of trade within and beyond the European Union in particular. Moreover, probabilities need to be updated using quantitative evidence and we don’t actually have any of that. But it seems absurd to try to argue that there is neither any risk nor any uncertainty. Frankly, anyone who argues this is just being irrational.

Whether a risk is worth taking depends on the likely profit. Nobody has convinced me that the country as a whole will gain anything concrete if we leave the European Union, so the risk seems pointless. Cui Bono? I think you’ll find the answer to that among the hedge fund managers who are bankrolling the BrExit campaign…