Notes and Comment Blog

Follow That Herd

Sep 28th, 2003 8:25 pm | By

This column by David Aaronovitch raises a lot of perennially interesting and chronically unanswerable questions. What is fashion? Who is fashionable? According to whom? In what circles? Who gets to decide? Does it matter?

This question comes up a lot on B&W, not surprisingly. Well it would, wouldn’t it, since we take ourselves (self-flatteringly enough) to be fighting fashionable nonsense, and since we have a fashionable dictionary. Clearly we think we have some idea of what’s fashionable. But equally clearly we’re using the word in a pretty narrow sense, or at least to apply to a pretty narrow population. We’re not talking about runways and models fashion, nor about best-seller list, this week’s top-grossing movie, Top Forty, hit tv show-fashion. But we are still talking about fashion, even though it is minority or coterie fashion. But coteries often have influence out of all proportion to their numbers, so it’s always worth looking at fashion among people with influence.

But it has to be done with care. It’s an easy pejorative, ‘fashionable’ is. Just as ‘politically correct’ is, and for much the same sorts of reasons. It’s one of those ‘Yes Minister’ irregular verbs again – ‘I am hip, you are fashionable, she is a sheep.’ (In fact I wrote an essay for TPM on this tension a couple of months ago.) So Aaronovitch marvels at the notion that Tariq Ali’s polemic against the occupation of Iraq is unfashionable while Aaronovitch’s position on the war in Iraq is fashionable.

The ‘fashionable lurch to the Right’ is, in terms of the war in Iraq (which is what we are really talking about), the least fashionable thing that some of us have ever done. The entire bien-pensant world, every political actress, every talking painter, every modish singer, every T-shirt designer, every clever cartoonist, every radio quiz-show panelist, every TV critic, every professionally young person who can string three words together, has been against us and with Tariq Ali. We have not just been wrong on balance, but wrong beyond discussion, wrong beyond the possibility of being the slightest bit right. Fashionable? We might just as well have ventured into Tate Modern wearing mullet hair and tartan hot-pants.

It’s a fair point. This is yet another kind of confirmation bias at work. People I don’t agree with are fashionable while I’m bravely independent and so are all my friends…


Sep 25th, 2003 7:51 pm | By

One can see from this story how hopeless it is to try to reconcile worries about injustice, torture, inequity, barbaric punishments, misogyny, and just outright cruelty and brutality and bloody awful ugliness, with worries about being tolerant and broad-minded and not colonialist or cultural imperialist or Eurocentric.

Prosecutors argued Ms Lawal’s child was living proof she committed a crime under Sharia. However, defence lawyers countered that under some interpretations of Sharia, babies can remain in gestation in a mother’s womb for five years, raising the possibility that her ex-husband could have fathered the child.

That’s interesting. What if there were no such interpretations of Sharia? What if every possible interpetation of Sharia that anyone could find anywhere held that a woman who had a baby that was not her divorced husband’s should be buried up to her neck and stoned to death? What then? How would defence lawyers counter the prosecutors in that case?

To put it another way, what would we all think if the court had not overturned the execution? What would we think if it had gone ahead? Would we think Sharia was a disgusting nightmare that should be stamped out as fast as possible? Or would we think it’s none of our business.

This is the same question I always wonder about when people earnestly discuss the Koran and earnestly assure us that Sharia and the Taliban are aberrations, that fundamentalist Muslims misunderstand the Koran, that really in many ways it’s very egalitarian about women. Okay, I think, but what if it weren’t? Would everyone still go on finding excuses for Islam? Or would people summon up the nerve to just go ahead and reject that whole method of deciding on morality wholesale. It seems so obvious. 1500-year-old or 3000-year-old books dictated by a deity are not the best source for guidance on how to treat people in the real world. They’re just not.

281 to 1

Sep 25th, 2003 5:16 pm | By

I’m reading Mark Crispin Miller’s The Bush Dyslexicon, a witty but deadly serious analysis of Bush’s real as opposed to advertised nature, and what the election of such an ignorant, unqualified, spiteful man says about US politics and media. Miller makes, for example, one point that doesn’t get made nearly often enough or loudly enough – that Bush and his propagandists succeed by conflating ignorance with poverty – intellectual poverty with literal, financial poverty.

However, the comparison with Andrew Jackson is, to put it mildly, problematic. That military hero was, of course, a fiery democrat…When ‘the laws’ are used ‘to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful,’ Jackson wrote in 1832, ‘the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.’ Our president, on the other hand, is at the service only of the haves – as any cursory study of his record will make clear…

This calculated, transparent, insulting flim-flam serves a dual purpose: it gets a thicky like Bush elected, and it deceives a lot of people about the grotesque and ever-growing inequality of the US system, where CEOs make 281 times what their workers do. No problem. There’s a rich scion of privilege in the White House who got into Andover, Yale and Harvard on family connections, but he doesn’t know anything and he can’t put a coherent sentence together, therefore he’s just plain folks. Right.

News Flash

Sep 25th, 2003 12:19 am | By

Let’s re-invent the wheel again. How many times do we need to learn that democracy is not the same thing as freedom, that the majority will does not necessarily (in fact almost certainly doesn’t) represent the will of absolutely everyone, that in fact majorities are perfectly capable of deciding to oppress minorities? John Stuart Mill seems to be widely read, judging by the number of copies of On Liberty one sees in used bookstores, and yet we still go on telling each other with an air of innocent surprise that democracy in Iraq could possibly mean that people will vote in an oppressive fundamentalist Islamic government. Well yes, it could mean exactly that.

Nicholas Kristof pointed this out in the New York Times a few weeks ago:

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a more repressive one; it may well be that a majority of Iraqis favor more curbs on professional women and on religous minorities. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his smart new book, “The Future of Freedom,” unless majority rule is accompanied by legal protections, tolerance and respect for minorities, the result can be populist repression.

It’s not really even paradoxical. Just for a start, the U.S. democracy elected pro-slavery president after pro-slavery president in the 19th century. Of course majority rules needs to be accompanied by legal protections in order to avoid populist repression. For that matter, we don’t always entirely avoid it even with those protections, do we.

[Another recycle.]

Ya Big Meanie

Sep 24th, 2003 9:05 pm | By

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting story in June – interesting albeit peculiar. So many people arguing so back-to-front – I don’t like this/this is offensive/this hurts my feelings, therefore this has to be wrong. Not that it’s exactly a news flash that people do argue that way – it’s even possible that I’ve been known to argue that way myself – but there is so much of it in this story it does get one’s attention.

Other scholars and activists have blasted the book for reinforcing inaccurate stereotypes.

Hmm. Why do I suspect that those scholars and activists would still have ‘blasted’ the book even if the stereotypes had been accurate? Why do I wonder if they bothered to investigate whether the stereotypes are really inaccurate or not? Why do I think they probably just assumed from the outset that the stereotypes were inaccurate, and ‘blasted’ accordingly?

Despite the draw he has on the campus, many of the descriptions of Mr. Bailey and his new book that have appeared on Web sites and in interviews have been ugly. “Cocky,” “insensitive,” “lurid,” “condescending,” and “mean-spirited” are just some of the designations used.

Notice how all those designations desribe the putative character of the researcher and his attitude but say nothing about the accuracy of the book or the reliability of his methods, and then when you’ve noticed that, notice how back-to-front that is. The book may or may not be dead wrong, but calling the author a big meanie doesn’t prove that it is. Peer review is an excellent institution, and it does not function by peers calling each other mean-spirited and insensitive. No, peers have to do better than that.

But no doubt Mr. Bailey is used to this sort of thing; he ran into it as an undergraduate.

Instead, he pursued an interest in Freudian psychology that was piqued by an undergraduate history course on the topic. “Freud was into all this dark and sexy stuff with the unconscious and how people’s motives are usually hidden,” says Mr. Bailey. “I thought, ‘I can become a psychoanalyst.'” But at Texas he quickly grew annoyed with the clinical-psychology program. “The people doing it were not really researchers. They were more like an authoritarian cult: Believe this or else,” he says. He was more attracted to scholars who were “being hard-headed and asking questions,” and even considering unpopular possibilities, like a link between IQ and genes.

Yes, believe this or else. Or else we’ll say strange things like this:

“He is looking to the body for truth, as opposed to social and cultural frameworks,” says Lane Fenrich, a senior lecturer in the history department who teaches gay and lesbian history and the history of the AIDS epidemic. “It’s in many ways no different from the way in which people were trying to look for the alleged basis of racial differences in people’s bodies.”

Imagine, he’s looking to the body for truth about things that happen in the body. How very shocking. When everyone knows that social and cultural frameworks operate in a complete vacuum, and should be studied that way. Otherwise, people will start making dark references to looking for the alleged basis of racial differences, and if that doesn’t shut you up, what will? Belive this or else we’ll call you inthenthitive and mean-thpirited, and then you’ll be sorry!

[If you’ve been reading B&W for awhile and this seems familiar, that’s because it is: it’s a slightly re-worded version of a N&C that disappeared when the server crashed in July.]

Sauce for the Gander

Sep 24th, 2003 4:35 pm | By

So, as if to prove my point, here is an article that gives some idea of the kind of thing the Competitive Enterprise Institute gets up to. Helping the Bush White House to ‘play down’ research on global warming that could have consequences the CEI wouldn’t like, for example.

White House officials wanted the CEI’s help to play down the impact of a report last summer by the government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in which the US admitted for the first time that humans are contributing to global warming…The email discusses possible tactics for playing down the report and getting rid of EPA officials, including its then head, Christine Whitman…The CEI is suing another government climate research body that produced evidence for global warming.

Interesting. On the one hand we have an article from someone at the CEI who cites malfeasance by two count them two scientists, but talks about ‘the scientific community’ and ‘environmental scientists’ as if there were no difference between two scientists and all scientists. On the other hand we have the CEI colluding with the Bush administration to ‘play down’ (it’s not clear from the article whose language ‘play down’ is, whether it’s actually in the email in question or it’s the reporter’s paraphrase) scientific findings they don’t like.

And then…it’s interesting that Iain Murray draws our attention to one speech by a scientist and one article by another, but doesn’t draw our attention to the way Bush’s staff suppressed and re-worded whole sections of an EPA report on climate change.

A temperature record covering 1,000 years was also deleted, prompting the EPA memo to note: ‘Emphasis is given to a recent, limited analysis [which] supports the administration’s favoured message.’ White House officials added numerous qualifying words such as ‘potentially’ and ‘may’, leading the EPA to complain: ‘Uncertainty is inserted where there is essentially none.’…When the report was finally published, however, the EPA had removed the entire global warming section to avoid including information that was not scientifically credible.

What price the ideals of science or ‘science as an objective tool in public policy decisions’ now, eh?

Leaving Out Words

Sep 22nd, 2003 9:28 pm | By

This is an interesting article that makes a useful point. I thought about posting it in News but then decided not to. The trouble is, there’s too much rhetoric and not enough evidence.

There is a crisis emerging in the scientific community. The ideals of science are being sacrificed to the god of political expediency. Environmental scientists are becoming so obsessed with the righteousness of their cause that they are damning those who wish to use science as an objective tool in public policy decisions.

But Iain Murray gives only two examples. One from 1989 and one new one. But that’s not ‘the scientific community’ or ‘environmental scientists’ as a group, obviously. So why write as if it were? In order to discredit all scientific as opposed to market-oriented discussion of environmental issues? That would seem to be a goal consistent with the outlook of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now, if someone from the CEI writes an article saying some scientists are unscrupulous about their public rhetoric, fine, we’ll put it in News. But if they leave out the ‘some’ then they are playing the same game they accuse ‘environmental scientists’ of playing, aren’t they.

Cultural Relativism, Again

Sep 21st, 2003 8:56 pm | By

Here is an interesting item. At least I think so. A blogger commenting on our In Focus article ‘Cultural Relativism’ and how the subject has exercised him since he arrived in China (where he lives and works, he’s not just visiting). Then he updates the entry with a link to an article in which the subject is absolutely central. A Norwegian journalist spent some months living with a middle-class family in Kabul and has written a book (now a best-seller) on what she learned there. What she learned, among other things, is that the nice urbane bookseller treats the women in his houshold ‘like dirt’. Now the furious bookseller himself has come to Europe determined to ‘drag Seierstad through the courts and campaign for the destruction of her book’.

The difficulties in cultural relativism show up in for instance the reaction of

Norwegian anthropologist and Middle East specialist Professor Unni Wikan, who doubts the authenticity of much of the book – ‘especially some of those bits she gives in quotation marks’. He said: ‘There is no way she could have possibly had such access to people’s hearts and minds. The moment I saw it in Norwegian, I thought it would be a catastrophe when it came out in English. She has revealed the secrets of the women, which is shameful and dishonourable. It will be regarded as an affront for its lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims.’

Lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims? Really? Is Professor Wikan not perhaps just conflating ‘Afghans and Muslims’ with ‘adult male Afghans and Muslims’? Ishtiaq Ahmed addressed this very issue in a column in the Daily Times of Pakistan a few weeks ago:

The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite.

So there is the familiar difficulty. Tim Judah remarks in the Guardian article that ‘The case has opened serious questions about the ethics of journalists and authors from rich countries writing about people from poor countries with very different cultures,’ which may be so, but then what about the ethics of anthropologists from rich countries taking the side of men from poor countries who treat women and children badly? Is that so obviously morally preferable? If so, why, exactly? One has to wonder.


Sep 20th, 2003 10:53 pm | By

There’s a lot of nonsense upon stilts around. Maybe our subtitle should be Fighting Fashionable Nonsense Upon Stilts. I heard something on the BBC World Service this morning that surprised me a good deal. It came at the end of a rather dreary discussion of sport that I wasn’t really listening to – about people who change their nationality in order to compete for a different country, and some of the drawbacks to this arrangement. And then we heard from someone from the European Commission on Human Rights, saying that if governments took a too ‘punitive’ approach (odd word) then they might be violating the human rights of the athletes. ‘People have a right to compete for their country,’ she said. They do? (And what do you mean ‘their country’ since the issue is precisely their swapping countries? And why call the potential reconsideration of this policy ‘punitive’? Is declining to allow people to do something necessarily punitive? If I don’t let you come into my living room without permission is that punitive?) (You see? We can just never get away from rhetoric.) Why do people have a right to compete for their countries? And then, why do they have a right to compete for someone else’s? Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like an odd conception to me.

It reminds me of a story I linked to some weeks ago, about a UN representative who said that testing schoolchildren could be seen as a violation of their rights. I can see claiming that testing is a bad idea, not helpful, counter-productive, harmful – but a violation of rights? That seems like a stretch.

Julian’s latest Bad Moves discusses some of the reasons a proliferation of rights and rights-talk is not necessarily a good idea.

Yet when people claim the government owes them support to conceive a child artificially because they have a right to have children; that they should be allowed to spread racist or homophobic views because they have a right to free speech; or even that there is no need for greater gun controls in America because of the right to bear arms; it should be clear that it is all too easy to evoke a seemingly unobjectionable right to justify a possibly objectionable course of action.

Indeed it should. People here in the US do claim (very loudly) not only that there is no need for greater gun controls, but also that there is urgent need to get rid of the few weak controls we have, and furthermore that if their ‘right’ to bear arms is eroded any further they will use those arms to resist. And then there is the tragic irony of the way the First Amendment is used to overturn legislation that attempts to reform the way political campaigns are financed – which is, not to put to fine a point on it, by means of large bribes. The courts argue that the right to give millions of dollars to the party of one’s choice is constitutionally protected free speech – with the result of course that the ability of corporations and rich people to influence the governement is protected. Of course, it’s perfectly fair. Just as everyone has a right to sleep under a bridge, as Anatole France said, so everyone has a right to shovel millions of dollars into the pockets of the people who run things. Yes, rights can be quite tricky.

The Colorado Question

Sep 17th, 2003 7:57 pm | By

There’s a heated debate going on in Colorado right now, over something called the ‘Academic Bill of Rights,’ planned legislation that would enforce or promote or encourage universities to adhere to or comply with said Bill of Rights, David Horowitz, the imbalance between registered Democrats and registered Republicans in the political science departments of Colorado universities, and whether and how something should be done about said imbalance. The Academic Bill of Rights itself sounds pretty unexceptionable, declaring for instance that scholars should be hired on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge, not their political beliefs. That provision, for instance, is simply another version of B&W’s mission statement. So far so good. But it is difficult to help being suspicious. It is a Republican governor and legislature that has landed on the idea like a duck on a June bug, and I don’t share Republicans’ assumption that it is only the left that has an axe to grind. I wonder, for example, what these surveys that tell us how many Democrats and Republicans are in the political science department, have to say about how many of each are in the business school – which is, if Colorado universities are typical, much, much larger than the poli sci department. My innocent guess is that Republicans are well represented in business schools. Perhaps over-represented. Does this worry the Republican governor and legislature? If not, why not?

And then there is the question of why there are more Democrats than Republicans in the political science department. It’s not automatically or self-evidently the case that that could only happen if the people doing the hiring were applying political criteria. That’s one possible explanation, but surely it is not very difficult to think of others. Self-selection, for instance. Perhaps the kind of people who prefer teaching political science to, say, selling real estate or bonds, are also the kind of people who prefer to be Democrats. Now, how would the governor and legislature go about fixing that, if it turned out to be the explanation? People’s free choices about how to live their lives, what kind of work they do, what they think and believe, what parties they do or don’t belong to, are supposed to be the kind of thing Republicans are keen to protect. Aren’t they? Am I wrong? Wouldn’t they think it was what they like to call ‘social engineering’ to start fretting about the fact that there are ‘too many’ of one kind of people in universities and ‘too many’ of another kind in real estate, and start issuing instructions and laws and regulations designed to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’?

I don’t know. It seems likely to me that there is a lot of the second kind of reason involved along with (perhaps) some of the first, but I don’t know. Meanwhile at least there is an array of opinion represented in reply to this article at History News Network. And the article makes some good points, too.


Sep 16th, 2003 12:32 am | By

It’s interesting how ideas can go off in unexpected directions. Sort of a six degrees of separation thing – it can seem as if any given idea can lead to any other in three or four steps, however remote they may seem at the beginning. I noticed it yesterday, for instance: I started writing my TPM essay thinking it was going to be about one thing, and after the first paragraph found myself talking about something quite different. I started out thinking the idea led into one subject (and it did) but in the writing found that it also led into another, so followed it there instead.

The core idea was that of competing goods. A familiar enough idea: that many desirable things are incompatible with many other desirable things. Equality and freedom, just for one example. So I meant to do a semi-jokey rant about the unfairness of the arrangement, but found myself instead doing an ironic rant about the unfairness of various other arrangements, and never got to the competing goods aspect at all. Then this morning I was reading a bit of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, for no particular reason (I often read things and bits of things for no particular reason), and he said something interesting about ‘the tension between sympathy and judgment,’ which made me want to write the first essay again. We’re never finished with ideas. We take them on, we think about them, we wrestle with them, we come up with a further idea or two, we think that’s that. And then a day or two later a new thought occurs, and we realize that’s not that after all. And so we keep ourselves occupied.

Just a Bit More

Sep 14th, 2003 11:36 pm | By

Just a little more about the religion article. Because there really is a lot of nonsense in that piece. I only talked about some of it, and I find there’s another bit I just can’t leave alone, in the last paragraph.

It is often said that science answers “how” questions while religion asks “why”, but that is simplistic. The greater point lies in their scope. Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering. The account it provides is wonderful. It has shown that the universe is incomparably more extraordinary, and altogether more glorious, than could ever be conceived by the unaided imagination. Yet it succeeds by narrowing its focus, as a matter of strategy. The story that science tells us, then, does not stand in contrast to that of religion (properly conceived). It is embedded within it.

The longer you look at that the more ridiculous it becomes. First of course there’s the obvious point, that religion can ‘ask why’ all it wants to, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it can’t answer the question any more than anyone else can. It claims to answer it, of course, but as I keep saying, that’s another matter. Claiming isn’t doing; the word is not the deed and shouldn’t be taken for it. But that’s a comparatively minor point next to the really absurd last three sentences. Science is somehow inferior or subordinate to religion because it narrows its focus, it addresses only the questions scientists feel they have a chance of answering. Oh, I see – that’s a problem, is it? It’s better to do what religion does, and ask questions it doesn’t have a chance of answering? And then answer them anyway, by the simple expedient of making it up? That’s better, is it? Ask impossible questions and then make up answers instead of finding pesky old evidence? Thus coming up with the most complete [however fictional] narrative that human beings are capable of? What about those of us who don’t actually want a ‘narrative’ (which is a nice way, i.e. stealth rhetoric, of saying myth or fairy tale or story) but instead want an explanation or a hypothesis? Are we ’embedded’ in the story that religion (properly conceived) tells us too? I refuse, I refuse to be embedded.

A reader emailed me the witty suggestion that the article is a Sokallish hoax. Interesting thought. ‘Perhaps funnier though mortifying if he really meant it. I hope it is an attempt to expose how ‘religious tolerance’ allows utter drivel to not just be printed but thought.’ Indeed. Religous tolerance has a lot to answer for.

Another Stack of Jumpers

Sep 14th, 2003 1:39 am | By

Oh good, more fuzzy-headed nonsense about religion. There does seem to be an inexhaustible supply of it out there. This one is so full of odd, vague, fuzzy statements it’s hard to know where to begin.

One of the highlights of this week’s meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was a discussion on why, although the existing religions do not capture all of what’s out there in the universe, some at least of their endeavours must be taken seriously.

Well what on earth does that mean? ‘Endeavours’? What do you mean endeavours? For that matter, what do you even mean by ‘capture all of what’s out there in the universe’? What do you mean by ‘capture’, what do you mean by ‘all of what’s out there’? Oh never mind. But ‘endeavours’…that could cover a lot of territory. Kindly hand-waving, or telling people they’re damned to hell if they masturbate, or flying planes into tall buildings – the existing religions have had a part in all those ‘endeavours’. Yes I know the planes thing isn’t an official part of the religion in question, but that’s just it, that’s why we need some precision of language here. But vaguest of all – what do you mean ‘must be taken seriously’? I do take religion very seriously indeed, I assure you; I think it can be very dangerous, and I also think it does a lot of more subtle harm even when it’s not actually killing or damning people. But perhaps what is meant by ‘taken seriously’ is ‘believed’. One of those bits of stealth rhetoric like ‘on its own terms’ which we discussed a few weeks ago. Only people don’t want to come right out and say ‘There are some at least parts of religion which must be believed’ because that would seem a bit much. Ever so slightly coercive. So instead there’s just some vague unmeaning rigamarole about taking some (unspecified) endeavours seriously. Well sure, we can all agree to that, right, hon? On account of how we don’t know what it means.

Watson’s and Dawkins’s atheism is rooted at least in part in a mistake. They seem to assume that serious interest in religion must be fundamentalist.

No they don’t. You just assume they do, perhaps because you don’t think anyone can actually disagree with a little harmless theism. But you assume incorrectly. Dawkins is by no means talking only about fundamentalism. He is among other things talking about this line of nonsense:

Religion of course can be discussed from many angles, but the absolute and immediate importance of religion lies in its contribution to morality.

What contribution? What contribution does religion make that philosophy and other kinds of secular thought cannot make? What qualifies religious people to pronounce on morality? The Bible? No, because we pick and choose which bits of the Bible we admire and which we don’t, so clearly we’re using our own judgment on that issue (and besides Tudge has already told us he doesn’t mean fundamentalism, so that lets out Biblical inerrancy). Long practice in thinking about the subject? But moral philosophers can make the same claim, and so can thoughtful amateurs. What then? Just tradition and authority, custom and habit, as far as I can tell. And those aren’t good reasons.

And then there’s this ridiculous assertion:

Religion, properly conceived, attempts to provide an account of all there is: the most complete narrative that human beings are capable of. Science, by contrast, is – as the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter – “the art of the soluble”. It addresses only those questions that it occurs to scientists to ask, and feel they have a chance of answering.

Stealth rhetoric again. ‘Complete.’ Well yes, no doubt (although really I would think people like Tolkien and his many imitators who write those great, thick books full of imaginary worlds would give some stiff competion), but since the narrative isn’t true, why is that such a stunning achievement? Are we all supposed to be little children who just want to be told a Story and let it go at that? There’s a very, very great deal of merit to the art of the soluble – to not offering answers to questions you don’t in fact think you have a chance of answering without resorting to ‘narrative’. There’s something deeply unattractive about trying to persuade people that it’s better to have complete but untrue narratives rather than incomplete but well-supported explanations of soluble questions.

Rigorous What?

Sep 12th, 2003 8:06 pm | By

There’s a bizarrely idiotic argument from a commentator on NPR here. The subject is religion, and the Brights, and Dennett’s editorial again. The commentary starts off with the name, which I have no intention of defending: I think it’s absurd, and I’d rather be nibbled by sharks than call myself a Bright. But then it goes on.

55% of people with post-graduate degrees (lawyers, doctors, dentists, and the like) believe in the Devil. 53% believe in Hell. 72% believe in miracles. Remember these are people with post-graduate educations. 78% if them believe in the survival of the soul after death. 60% believe in the virgin birth. And 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ. You can’t get a post-graduate degree without being taught rigorous examination of evidence – figuring out which symptoms indicate a particular disease, or what facts could justify a lawsuit.

Sure you can, if you pick the right subject. I believe there are PhDs in theology, for instance, and in Critical Theory. And besides that, learning rigorous examination of the evidence that applies to one field is not automatically the same thing as learning what counts as evidence in general. Don’t we all know that? Don’t we all know people who are expert in their own field and lost in the fog as soon as they leave it?

Skeptics would say that the human need for something beyond the realities we can touch is so strong that even highly educated people end up manufacturing delusional belief systems. But there is another possibility – that some of these rationally oriented people have found actual proof for their beliefs. Maybe they’ve had a personal supernatural experience with prayer that makes them believe in God or an afterlife. Maybe they’ve found a compelling logic to their views. Perhaps they’ve looked at the universe and said, “something made the big bang happen.” For some highly educated people, faith is not a matter of faith. Rather, they see around them evidence. Evidence that is, to be sure, hard to explain or prove to others, but is nonetheless quite compelling to them.

Our commentator, for instance, seems to be pretty much lost in the fog. Just for a start, ‘actual proof’? A ‘personal supernatural experience with prayer’ constitutes ‘actual proof’? Is that the rigorous examination of evidence Steven Waldman was taught when he got his postgraduate degree? First, to say proof when he means evidence, and then to take someone’s ‘personal supernatural experience’ as evidence? And third, to claim that evidence that can’t be explained or proven to others is nevertheless evidence? Isn’t that a bit of an oxymoron? If evidence is convincing to no one but the person who presents it as ‘evidence’ then it really isn’t evidence, is it, it’s something else. By definition. One would think that would be one of the very first things one would learn when being taught this ‘rigorous examination of evidence’ Waldman says all these highly educated believers in the Devil and Hell and the resurrection of Jesus are in fact taught. Perhaps Waldman skipped class that day.

2001, 1973, 1953

Sep 11th, 2003 7:06 pm | By

Well, I know, it’s all too obvious, everyone is saying it, it’s in the air this year (it wasn’t last year, as far as I remember). Maybe because the anniversary is a round 30 instead of 29, and clearly also because of Peter Kornbluh’s book. But however obvious it is, I’m going to say it anyway. September 11 is a horror-anniversary for Chile as well as for the US. And, stomach-churningly for an American, the Chilean horror show was in large part caused and helped and funded and backed by the US. Which emphatically does not mean that I’m saying we got what we deserved or that Osama bin Laden and his disgusting pals were avenging Allende. But it does mean that the US has done its share (well no, more than its share really) of massacring innocents, abusing human rights, turning a blind eye to murder and torture, and overthrowing democratically elected governments.

And that’s not widely known here. We’re famously amnesiac about history, and history is anything that happened more than about five years ago. But it’s not entirely our fault: it’s not as if the popular media remind us every few days of Pinochet’s coup against Allende and the role Nixon and Kissinger played in the whole thing. And if Chile isn’t discussed a lot, what happened in Iran two decades earlier is even less well-known – and that CIA coup could possibly have more connection to al Qaeda than the Chilean one does. If Iran had been allowed to keep its democratically elected government in 1953 instead of having it snatched away by the CIA and replaced with the Shah and his secret police…who knows what might have happened, who knows whether the idea might have caught on and spread or not. We seem to think that democracy in Iraq will be catching, so maybe it would have been equally catching in Iran fifty years ago. Maybe the whole Middle East would have become democratic, peaceful, prosperous, happy – and thus gutted the pool of recruits for al Qaeda. Who knows. I don’t know, but I do wonder. So even apart from the obvious moral questions, it also seems highly likely that the Iranian coup was a truly terrible idea on consequentialist grounds, for us as well as for the people of the region.

There’s an interesting discussion of the Chilean matter at Crooked Timber today.

Happy Birthday to Us

Sep 9th, 2003 8:50 pm | By

Well, just think – Butterflies and Wheels is a year old. Yes, it’s our birthday. Depending on when you start counting – if it’s from the first day there was anything at all on the site, then the birthday was a few days ago. But I’ve decided to count from the first articles we posted in News, and that was September 10. Three hours from now in London where one leg (or wing) of BandW is, and eleven hours from now in Seattle, where the other leg is. Close enough.

It’s funny – we expected a good deal of hostility and criticism. In fact one of us was looking forward to it, and has been disappointed that we’ve had so little. But then again it’s very good to know that there in fact are more than three or four people out there who are not charmed by Nonsense. So apart from the non-appearance of entertaining insults and abuse, it’s been a good first year.

And much of that is down to the stars who sent us articles or interviews right at the beginning, when we were a completely unknown quantity. Mary Lefkowitz, Richard Evans, Norman Levitt, Steven Pinker, Allen Esterson, Simon Blackburn, Daniel Dennett, Robert Nola. They got us off to a very strong start, and we love them all.

Fair and Unbalanced

Sep 8th, 2003 10:40 pm | By

There is an interesting post and discussion on Crooked Timber today, on the tension between trying to work out a reasoned position on issues like global warming, and the political commitments of some (or all?) of the sources one relies on to make such judgements. It grabbed my attention because of course that tension is what B and W is all about. Also because I bump against it (can one bump against a tension? never mind, two idioms collide) all the time in going about my daily task of finding news and other links. ‘Hmm, interesting article, makes some good points, but do I really want to link to the Washington Times/Reason/the Telegraph?’ Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Well…actually I don’t think I ever have linked to Reason or the Washington Times. So far I haven’t found anything brilliant enough to over-rule my intense distaste for both of them. Other right-wing sources I don’t mind so much. But strictly speaking, perhaps I ought not to think about it that way (if it can be called thinking – it’s more like a reflex). Perhaps I ought to be sublimely unaware of the source, and link or not link purely on the merits. If this article would be good enough from the Guardian or the Independent, it ought to be good enough from Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. But I’m not, and it’s not. I do set higher hurdles for the very right-wing stuff. If there were a shortage of material I might not, but that’s not the case. So that’s my bias at work: now you know.

Doubt is Possible

Sep 7th, 2003 8:22 pm | By

This is an interesting little case study in the use and abuse of evidence, investigative techniques, language and rhetoric, inference and conclusion. One of those (all too familiar) occasions when attention-seeking and self-aggrandizement dress themselves up in scientific (or pseudo-scientific) vocabulary and give the whole enterprise a bad name.

Dominique Labbé, a specialist in what is known as lexical statistics, claims that he has solved a “fascinating scientific enigma” by determining that all of Molière’s masterpieces…were in fact the work of Pierre Corneille…”There is such a powerful convergence of clues that no doubt is possible,” Mr. Labbé said. The centerpiece of his supposed discovery is that the vocabularies used in the greatest plays of Molière and two comedies of Corneille bear an uncanny similarity…Mr. Labbé contends he has infallible statistical evidence of Corneille’s “fingerprints” all over Molière’s greatest works.

Well that’s a bad sign right there, a ‘scientist’ saying that no doubt is possible. That’s a pretty dodgy thing to say even with overwhelming evidence – in fact one could say it’s simply nonsensical, because doubt is always possible. And in real science (which avoids words like ‘infallible’) it’s also essential. A putative scientist who tries to rule it out in advance, even (or no, perhaps especially) when talking to journalists, is letting the side down. And Zanganeh’s article does an excellent job of collecting quotes from other scholars (scientists, honest inquirers) in other fields that point out what a lot of doubt is possible and why.

“Lexical statistics can be useful as an exploratory tool with a descriptive and investigative goal…In no way can it be used as a proof.” In a nutshell, attribution of authorship necessitates a convergence of presumptions. Joseph Rudman, a professor of applied statistics at Carnegie Mellon, agrees that even the best authorship-attribution studies could yield only probabilities. “You can never say definitely, just like in a DNA result,” he said…Indeed, at the heart of this debate lies a more fundamental question about the use and abuse of scientific tools in the field of letters.

But it could be argued that the way Labbé has used it, his method isn’t really a ‘scientific tool’ at all. Obviously these matters are always contested and debated and argued over, but surely one hallmark of good science is not producing evidence of one narrow fact (that Molière and Corneille used very similar vocabularies in their plays) and extrapolating from that to much broader claims. And surely another is not relying on only one narrow piece of evidence to support (let alone ‘prove’) a claim which would require evdience from a number of other fields – a ‘convergence of presumptions’. Ignoring, apparently not even noticing, what kind of evidence one needs to make a case, is hardly good science.

Our Banner: No Consensus for Loonies

Sep 5th, 2003 5:15 pm | By

Here’s an item for all you students of artful rhetoric: an article about pagans, Wiccans and other ‘alternative’ groups and the use they make of Stonehenge and similar sites. Pure wool from beginning to end – enough wool there to make jumpers for the entire Butterflies and Wheels staff.

Spiritual site-users, specifically Pagans and Travellers, have traditionally been negatively represented by the media…However, this report outlines the growing need for recognition of the rights of Pagans, who come from all walks of life…Pagan and other spiritual site-users believe that the spirits and energies of the land can be most strongly felt at sacred sites enabling connections to be made with our ancestors.

Yes, and? So what? What if I believe that the spirits and energies of [your choice of entity here] can be most strongly felt at the library, or the nearest art museum, or the theatre, or your living room, and so go there and carry on in a manner of my choosing? Will two Doctors at Sheffield Hallam University do research that outlines the growing need for recognition of the rights of me to do whatever I want to because I come from all walks of life? If so, why? And apart from that, apart from the consequentialist aspect of the question, what of the epistemological one? What about this fatuous nonsense that ‘spiritual site-users’ believe or claim to believe? Why the studied refusal to mention the nonsensicality of the belief?

Increasingly, they are campaigning to be able to engage with the sites in their own ways…Activities such as the lighting of fires and graffiti on the monuments, which have taken place as part of rituals, are in opposition to the preservation wishes of heritage managers. An extreme example of destructive behaviour was demonstrated by one such alternative group who decided that a stone circle was not positioned correctly and so they attempted to move it. Whereas Pagans are very active site users, heritage managers tend to promote a passive visitor experience, which includes accessing information on display and utilising the visitor centre. The research discusses how, for Pagan and spiritual site-users, the land isn’t something to visit or marvel at in this way, it is a living landscape and to be at the site is like ‘coming home’.

Sly, no? ‘Active’ versus ‘passive’ – now we know active is good and passive is bad, right? So obviously these energetic, lively, engaged, take charge Pagans are the Good People, and the spineless supine limp passive weak ‘heritage managers’, otherwise known as archaeologists and historians and tiresome pedantic people like that – they’re obviously the Bad People. The dear Pagans improve boring old places like Stonehenge by scribbling on them, setting fire to them and moving the stones around. Now that’s what I call initiative! Whereas the dreary old scholars just stand around and study the thing. Yuk, so left-brain, so linear, so Eurocentric and rational. And yet nobody represents them ‘negatively’ in the media.

The recent news that Stonehenge is to get a £57m makeover to improve its visitor centre and facilities is a step in the right direction, but further demonstrates this passive view of the visitor experience held by heritage managers. This research argues that although the views of heritage managers, archaeologists and spiritual site-users appear irreconcilable, the future of these sacred sites depends upon education, negotiation and consensus between all groups.

Why does the future of these ‘sacred’ sites depend on those things? Why is negotiation required? And especially why is consensus? Why can’t they just be ignored? Why can’t people who hold (or pretend to hold because it makes life interesting and gets them some attention even if it is ‘negative’) ridiculous unfounded ideas simply not be taken into account if their ideas entail destructive practices? What if a group decided it could only properly appreciate Shakespeare by eating the four remaining copies of the First Folio – would we have to negotiate and reach consensus, perhaps allow them to eat two, or chew all of them but then spit them out again? Or would we just tell them to go away. Let’s do more of that.

P.S. Thanks to PM, here is ‘sacred sites’ for your exploring pleasure.

Psychology and Psychiatry

Sep 4th, 2003 9:29 pm | By

We had a discussion/disagreement recently about the validity or otherwise of psychiatric diagnoses or labels, designer drugs, and the DSM [see Comments on the N&C ‘Opinion’ on 26 August if you’re interested]. I was browsing my disorderly collection of printed-out articles this morning and so re-read this article by Carol Tavris that I posted in News last March. What she says is highly pertinent to the discussion/disagreement. In fact, it raises a whole set of questions that are very much B and W territory: what is science and what isn’t, what is pseudoscience, what kind of evidence is reliable and what isn’t and why, what kind of harm can be done by taking shaky evidence as more reliable than it is. And perhaps above all, the strange way the less reliable, well-founded, evidence-based branch of a discipline has become dominant in the public realm while the more cautious, skeptical, research-based branch is comparatively ignored.

Yet while the public assumes, vaguely, that therapists must be “scientists” of some sort, many of the widely accepted claims promulgated by therapists are based on subjective clinical opinions and have been resoundingly disproved by empirical research conducted by psychological scientists…Indeed, the split between the research and practice wings of psychology has grown so wide that many psychologists now speak glumly of the “scientist-practitioner gap”…Unfortunately, the numbers of scientifically trained clinicians have been shrinking. More and more therapists are getting their degrees from “free-standing” schools, so called because they are independent of research institutions or academic psychology departments. In these schools, students are trained only to do therapy, and they do not necessarily even learn which kinds of therapy have been shown to be most effective for particular problems.

And so we come to the DSM – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that is, the ‘bible’ of US psychiatrists. The DSM is a product of the clinician side rather than the research side of this debate. There is a review-article here that discusses the same issues Tavris does while reviewing Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (which has a foreword by Tavris). The differences (in all senses) between clinical psychologists and research psychologists, what kind of evidence they rely on, which treatment techniques are effective, which are ineffective, and which are actually harmful, the importance of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. The book also discuss the controveries that can erupt over these issues. And the DSM.

These two drastically divergent conclusions demonstrate not only how varying standards of evidence can result in vastly different perceptions of treatment effectiveness, but also how some standards, such as clinical-anecdotal literature and clinical acceptance, are inappropriate measures. These conclusions also raise concern about relying on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), which is also based on practitioner consensus rather than empiricism (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994). This concern is reinforced in the chapter titled, “The Science and Pseudoscience of Expert Testimony,” by Joseph T. McCann, Kelley L. Shindler, and Tammy R. Hammond, which observes that the APA acknowledges that DSM-IV diagnoses do not rise to the standard of legal evidence (APA, 1994).

Well there you have it. All those syndromes and disorders in the DSM rely on practitioner consensus (sounds like what Susan Haack calls ‘vulgar Rortyism’) rather than empiricism, and the diagnoses do not rise to the standard of legal evidence. Just what I’ve long thought, so it’s good to see it said so explicitly. And the Candace Newmaker case is discussed too, not surprisingly.

Tavris is not alone among the contributors in suggesting that these practices are not only unscientific, but harmful; at worst, they can lead to inappropriate custody decisions and jury verdicts. Lilienfeld and his coeditors expand upon this concept in their opening chapter, identifying varying degrees of harm that may result from pseudoscientific techniques. Some treatments are truly dangerous, such as the “rebirthing” techniques that gained attention only after the suffocation death of Candace Newmaker; “memory recovery,” which caused many innocent people to be accused-and some convicted-of heinous crimes; and “critical incident stress debriefing,” which exacerbates the trauma it is purported to mitigate.

This is a large subject, and one we’ll be turning our attention to.