In Focus

This section of the site is where we get specific, examining particular examples of truth claims rooted in ideology rather than evidence, frivolously casual dismissals of science, truth and reason, and other forms of fashionable nonsense. Each section comprises an overview of the particular subject area, plus links to relevant external internet resources and recommendations for further reading.

Cultural Relativism

Mar 30th, 2003 | By

There are times when, do what we will, we are confronted with goals, values, moral preferences, that are in flat contradiction. We have to choose one and reject the other. Much as we would like to, we can’t blend or compromise or harmonise or take a little from this pot and a dab from that and come up with a nice mix. Doing one thing simply rules out doing the other and that’s all there is to it. Digital not analog, yes or no.

So for instance reasonable and desirable goals of tolerance, understanding, cosmopolitanism, and cultural relativism can clash with equally reasonable and desirable goals of preventing harm to others, criticising unjust laws and customs and traditions, exposing exploitation … Read the rest

Education and Inequality

Mar 9th, 2003 | By

Inequality is an old and vexed issue. Isaiah rebuked Israel for grinding the faces of the poor, Thersites got himself beaten up for complaining about Agamemnon, and so it has gone ever since. From Marx to Rawls to Michael Young, equality and meritocracy, justice and opportunity, class and race, money and taxes, jobs and immigration, education and tuition and top-up fees, have been debated and re-debated.

Education, especially higher education, is one area where tensions and disagreements about inequality play themselves out with extra passion. Many citizens, parents, students, employers, thinkers would like to see higher education available to more people and especially to a wider range of people: more women, more non-white people, more poor people. The difficulty is … Read the rest

A Scientific Controversy In Progress

Jan 13th, 2003 | By

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, a branch of the Danish Research Agency, issued a report on January 7, 2003 that Bjørn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist was ‘dishonest science’. The seventeen page report explaining their reasoning provides a fascinating case study in the workings of science: it’s a small education in itself.

One thing it teaches (in case we didn’t know) is how difficult and complicated such questions are. There is no eureka moment, no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot pacing the hearthrug while he explains how All was Revealed, no conclusive proof. There is only a huge and complex variety of evidence and the hard slog of interpreting it, there is only probability and ‘if…then’ and statistics. There … Read the rest

Science Studies

Nov 2nd, 2002 | By

In 1994, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition,
and the pigeons have still not recovered from the shock of that particular cat.
Higher Superstition is a funny-painful ‘deconstruction’ or rather demolition
of an array of trendy anti-science ‘studies’, stances, branches of putative
scholarship: Postmodern, cultural constructivist, feminist, sociological, environmental.
Most of these orientations are on the left, although it has been frequently
pointed out (e.g. by Richard J. Evans in his article on Postmodern history on
this site) that PoMo is at least as useful to the right as it is to the left
and that there are indeed right-wing Postmodernists. But the majority of the
attacks on science come from the left (and could be … Read the rest

Difference Feminism

Oct 24th, 2002 | By

Second wave feminism has always had a radical strand. It has always been about
more than equal pay. It was also, for instance, about exposing and then discarding
banal conventional unreflective ideas that led to banal conventional unreflective
behaviour. Ideas about cooking and cleaning being somehow naturally women’s
work, for example, which led to men cheerfully lounging about while women put
in what Arlie Hochschild calls a second shift. And even more than that, unexamined
ideas about what women are like, what they want, what they should be and do.
David Lodge once remarked that women became much more interesting after feminism,
and his own novels bear this out, as do those of Michael Frayn and other male
novelists who … Read the rest