Notes and Comment Blog


Sep 23rd, 2004 9:30 pm | By

That discussion below in the comments on ‘Memory Tricks’ about memory and how reliable it is or is not, is highly interesting (I think) and suggests a number of other thoughts and subjects. There is for instance the matter of Elizabeth Loftus and her work and what it suggests: that memory is highly unreliable, easily manipulated and changed, a dubious source for evidence, testimony, and information-gathering generally. Not that that was completely unknown before Loftus’ work (defense attorneys have, I believe, long had a heightened awareness of it, for instance), but her research did add some new elements to the picture, and that at a time when memory and its fallibility were in the news, so to speak. That was the time of all those allegations of child abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories, etc etc etc – all those allegations that sent people to prison for very long terms on the basis of what seem likely to have been fabricated or reconstructed memories. That poor sad guy just sixty miles south of where I sit typing this, for example, who (it appears) invented a whole stack of memories of his own participation in grotesque ‘Satanic’ abuse of his own daughters, later expanded to include his son. It seems unlikely that any of it ever happened at all – but he was convicted.

And then there is the large subject of how memory plays into the matter of Freud – of Freud’s role in making memory and ‘recovered memory’ seem vastly more credible and reliable than it ought to be and otherwise would be, because so many people were raised on the idea that repression happens often and routinely and can be undone by the right kind of analysis, rather as one might rewind a videotape. Our friend Frederick Crews has an excellent book on that, Memory Wars.

So then there is the question of how belief works, and how skepticism works, and how the two interact, or fail to interact. I’ve been thinking hard about this lately anyway, because of a chapter I’m working on for this book JS and I are writing. I might talk further about this later. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about the fact that some people learn to be cautious about forming beliefs in the first place, while other people don’t, and that this difference is an important one. It is a good idea to be cautious about forming beliefs. It’s a good idea to be sharply aware that beliefs can always be wrong, that one, we, I, can always be wrong. One step toward that awareness is to recognize various ways that false or unfounded beliefs can be formed. One of those ways, is to have unwarranted confidence in one’s own memory. That’s one of the things I learned from reading Elizabeth Loftus – actually it’s two of the things: how easily we can get our own memories wrong, and how obstinately people refuse to believe that. It’s as if memory is somehow sacred. That’s understandable in a way – memory feels accurate, it feels real and like our own. But if one thinks a little harder, it seems to me, one can realize that that’s an illusion. For instance by comparing a fantasy with a memory, and then trying to specify how they differ. Surely the first thing one notices is that they don’t. And that being the case, how can we be sure we know the difference? We can’t, it seems to me. (Another way might be to consider all those experiments with the guy running into the lecture hall and doing something dramatic and running out again, and then the way everyone’s written answers to questions about the incident give different accounts. Ought to give one pause, that kind of thing. What – everyone else misremembers and only I don’t? Unlikely, don’t you think?)

So maybe it’s relevant that the guy who had such a predictable, generic, Identikit memory of conversations with Bush that took place thirty years ago*, is not a scientist or some other kind of inquirer but a professor in the Business school. Maybe it’s not, maybe I’m just being rude in saying that. But scientists and other empirical inquirers do get quite a lot of training and then experience in, at least, knowing that evidence is not transparent, that it doesn’t interpret itself nor offer the right interpretation of itself written in letters of fire across the sky.

Large subject, as I said. More later.

*Go on, remember a conversation you had thirty years ago, word for word, with some guy you barely knew. Go on, let’s see you.

My Dinner With No One

Sep 23rd, 2004 5:26 pm | By

Timing is everything. At least when it is, it is. I say that because in a few days my colleague is going to be in a place with several of our contributors and/or fans and supporters. People I have had energetic email correspondences with, people I admire, people who have a high opinion of B&W which they have conveyed to me with enthusiasm. I would love to be there. These are people I would really love a chance to talk to, to discuss ideas and events relevant to B&W with. In fact I would give a couple of limbs to talk to them. Meera Nanda, for instance, whom I have quoted here so often and who has written several brilliant articles for us. Alan Sokal, whose title we helped ourselves to and whose hoax is a permanent inspiration to us. Latha Menon, who told me about Romila Thapar and then wrote that wonderful article for us. Kenan Malik, who wrote an excellent review of Meera’s book as well as an article for us (roundly disagreeing with my colleague, who is therefore confidently expecting they will engage in fisticuffs). A.C. Grayling, who is the only one I don’t have an email acquaintance with but who is against FN and N generally, so a sort of ally all the same (otherwise he wouldn’t be there). And of course good old Julian Baggini, who writes Bad Moves for B&W and does one or two other things on the side.

And the final refinement of the torture is that if this confluence of people were taking place a mere three weeks later…I might be able to go. Though I might not, because, er, I haven’t been invited. But I could perhaps loiter around in the street and be able to chat with people as they left. Or I could perhaps just pitch a loud fit until someone invited me – I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, because it’s not taking place three weeks later. Timing is everything. In three weeks (near enough) I’ll be there, but for now I’m here, and that’s that. So let that be a lesson to you. Always be in the right place at the right time.

Memory Tricks

Sep 22nd, 2004 7:15 pm | By

Everybody’s favourite Rottweiler, Mr Leiter (maybe it’s Dr Leiter; then again…), cites some Harvard Law professor talking about his experiences of teaching G. W. Bush.

Here’s some of it:

[Bush] was totally the opposite of Chris Cox. He showed pathological lying habits and was in denial when challenged on his prejudices and biases. He would even deny saying something he just said 30 seconds ago. He was famous for that. Students jumped on him; I challenged him.

[In a discussion of government aid for retirees, Bush] “made this ridiculous statement and when I asked him to explain, he said, ‘The government doesn’t have to help poor people — because they are lazy.’ I said, ‘Well, could you explain that assumption?’ Not only could he not explain it, he started backtracking on it, saying, ‘No, I didn’t say that.’

Whatever memory-pill the Harvard Prof has been taking; I want some of it. I used to find it difficult to remember what my students had said five minutes previously, let alone thirty years after the event. Admitttedly, I didn’t encourage them to talk too much. Well, at all, really.

But, in the spirit of democracy and mass participation, here’s a task for you all.

Rearrange the following words in the correct order:*



*Okay, I don’t want to claim that these memories are necessarily false. But really, at least a modicum of wariness is sensible here. It’s all just a little too convenient…

Postmodernism at the Post

Sep 21st, 2004 10:45 pm | By

This is a deeply irritating article in the Washington Post. The guy who wrote it seems to think (as so many postmodernists and ‘theorists’ seem to think) that postmodernism thought of everything and that nobody thought of anything before postmodernism came along, or independently of postmodernism after it came along. But that is not the case.

Sitting in the shadow of the Capitol, on some of the most prestigious real estate in Washington, the new museum has emerged with ambitions far greater than simply putting a sunny face on the kind of anthropology represented by Mead, or becoming a Disney-style happy magnet for native peoples. It is a monument to Postmodernism — to a way of thinking that emphasizes multiple voices and playful forms of truth over the lazy acceptance of received wisdom, authority and scientific “certainty.”

Um. For one thing, ‘the kind of anthropology represented by Mead’ in fact has a lot in common with postmodernism; Mead is to a considerable extent a hero figure to postmodernists. For another thing, Mead’s research has been sharply criticised in recent years for sloppy research techniques, but not by postmodernists. For another, blindingly obvious thing, postmodernists are hardly the first or the only thinkers to question ‘lazy acceptance of received wisdom’ and authority. It is not very difficult to think of others who have done that sort of questioning. A few thousand, in fact. For one more other thing, scientific ‘certainty’ is a straw man. Scientists don’t (on the whole – yes there are no doubt exceptions) talk about certainty, they talk about evidence. It’s the people they’re talking to who have an ineradicable tendency to translate that into certainty, as I’ve mentioned here many times, with examples. (Seriously. It’s a journalism thing. Scientist will say ‘there is good evidence that’ or ‘there is no evidence that’ and Reporter will answer, ‘Okay so there’s proof that’ and Scientist will sigh [and probably weep, tear hair, kick the table, pretend to throttle self with the mike cord] and say ‘I didn’t say there’s proof, I said there’s evidence.’ And 99 times out of 100 [I’m estimating] the reporter will neglect to report that, because it makes the reporter look stupid, which she/he is.)

And that’s only the beginning. The article goes on in the same damn silly way.

When “The West as America” catalogue was published, Alex Nemerov contributed an article quoting Remington on the merits of using violence against unruly minorities…But when the National Gallery presented an exhibition of Remington’s paintings last year — a very popular exhibition — they did so mostly in the absurdly abstract yet ecstatic language of Art Appreciation. The exhibit was focused on the painter’s “nocturnes” — studies in light and composition and surface control. Remington, the cultural and historical actor, was gone, and his reputation was restored to a more convenient category: great artist. In the words of gallery director Earl A. Powell III, “Remington sought to capture the elusive silver tones of moonlight, the hot flame of firelight, and the charged interaction of both.” Getting free of this kind of glossy art-speak, and wresting control of native identity from the legacy of painters like Remington and the hauteur of scientists like Mead, has been a long road.

Sneer sneer sneer. Absurdly abstract yet ecstatic, convenient category, glossy art-speak, hauteur of scientists. All to back up the odd assumption that it is required to talk about an artist as a cultural and historical actor instead of talking about him as an artist. That’s not to say that the cultural actor aspect is not interesting and important, but it is to say that it seems reasonable for an art gallery to talk about art as art, for Chrissake. And then that business about the ‘hauteur of scientists like Mead’ – it’s such a giveaway, that. Oh those pesky scientists with their hauteur, ignoring all the wonderful daring playful revisionist postmodernists who are the first people ever to notice anything – how we hates ’em.

The Heye Center’s approach was a trial run for the current museum, an attempt to put Indian voices on at least an equal footing with “scientific” ones. It would, wrote scholar Tom Hill in a catalogue published at the time, be in the vanguard of a new reordering of museum priorities — a reordering that sounded like the first step in a broader, societal reformation. “Traditional native values can help guide museums as well,” he wrote. “No longer monuments to colonialism, these institutions may be led to a truly new world in which cultures have genuine equality and creators and creations can be seen whole.”

Note the scare-quotes on ‘scientific’ – because we all know there is no such thing as ‘scientific,’ right? Right. And cultures have genuine equality – well in what sense? In the sense that no culture should have all its artefacts casually scooped up and taken away, fine; but one can think of other senses that would not be so fine. It would depend on the cultures, for one thing. The Taliban have a culture. The Mafia have a culture. ‘Culture’ covers a lot of territory, and so does ‘equality’. But that’s kind of a revisionist thing to say, and revisionism is a monopoly of postmodernism, it seems, so maybe I should leave it to the experts.

Then there’s a hilarious paragraph in which the staff writer tells us to note the language of an article in the Baltimore Sun. He’s a fine one to talk! He uses quite a lot of revealing language himself. (Yes I know – even now there is someone somewhere even nerdier than I am, pointing out all the revealing language I’m using in this comment on someone else’s language. Sit still and be quiet.)

Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.


Already, in the new museum’s inaugural book…you can see the dizzying Postmodern playfulness at work…This delightful little game can stand for any number of basic Postmodern conundrums: that truth may lie in what isn’t said, that the right to hide meaning may be more meaningful than anything that could be revealed and that, ultimately, the only real truth in the world is the lack of a single truth. This basic mind dance — a corrective ritual to old, stultifying notions of truth — has been driven out of our society, for the most part, by a conservative intellectual entrenchment. But in the National Museum of the American Indian, it is being reanimated, and grafted onto the remnants of a diverse and ancient worldview. On the run most everywhere else, Postmodernism has a victory arch on the Mall.

Old, stultifying notions of truth. What would they be, exactly? Not playful, of course; not ‘revisionist,’ because apparently no historians ever disagreed with previous historians until postmodernism came along (which would be news to Beard, Gibbon, Hume, Thucydides…), not haughtily and bullyingly scientific, not ‘conservative’.

Mock mock. But it’s beyond a joke, really. Because the thing is, postmodernism is not, as this writer apparently takes it to be, some sort of enabler or precondition for critical thinking; in many ways it’s the opposite, and a preventer of it. If you don’t think you can get at the truth, or that there is a truth to aim at, to get closer to or farther from, how critical is your thinking really going to be? Judging by this piece of innuendo-ridden nonsense, not very.

The Noise of the Pigs

Sep 20th, 2004 5:56 pm | By

Another update. Crumb Trail has a post on the pigs comment. He points out something –

It’s only funny if you know pigs. They scream for the fun of it, to socialize. Even the wild (feral) pigs that infest the woods around here scream at one another, other animals, the sky, the moon, whatever. They’re vocal like coyotes. Two pigs, or coyotes, can make enough noise in enough distinct ways that you might think there were dozens of them involved in some life and death drama unless you knew their ways. They scream more when they find something yummy than they do when they are being eaten alive by a predator.

Fair point. Pigs do scream a lot – I do know that. I did think of it while writing the comment – that pigs just are vocal, that they scream for anything or nothing. I thought of mentioning that, but the trouble is, the way I remember it (and I may remember it wrong – memory is not infallible) the screaming was concentrated at the end of the chute. So I didn’t mention it, lest I get myself entangled in one of my usual tangles of qualifications and clauses. But Crumb Trail does have a point.

But I’m not sure I think it’s what you might call a knockdown point. The fact remains that the pigs were just sent down a straight open chute instead of a twisting closed one of the kind that Grandin designs, and that they did have time to see hear and smell what was happening. I don’t see why that’s either necessary or useful, or why it shouldn’t be done differently. Therefore I don’t see the point of this part:

Those completley detached from the real world – from nature, food, birth, death and material reality in general – make consistently bad decisions due to lack of information and understanding. There’s nothing amusing about that since they do great harm while feeling innocent. This lack of grounding in reality, detachment from the world, is correctable like any other form of ignorance. In a very real sense they choose to remain ignorant by looking away from contrary information, preferring to see only things that reinforce their biases or perhaps being too emotionally engaged to become intellectually engaged?

Great harm. Hmm. I’m doing great harm by suggesting that humane methods of slaughter are preferable to inhumane ones? Why, exactly? And how? And where does ‘feeling innocent’ come in? And I’ll tell you one thing. If there’s anything I’m not detached from, it’s food. I love the stuff, I’m deeply attached to it, and I spend a lot of time cuddling and embracing it and making it part of my life. So there.

Elephants, Foxes and Pigs

Sep 19th, 2004 8:22 pm | By

The discussion continues to continue. Norm has more, so does Harry, so does David T. Plus I had a long talk with Polly Toynbee on the phone earlier. No I didn’t, that’s just one of my jokes. (Or irony? No, just a joke. I don’t know from irony.) There’s quite a lot of agreement this time around. This from Harry’s –

For what it is worth I am not a supporter or defender of fox hunting nor am I opposed to a ban. I accept Ophelia Benson’s criticism of Polly Toynbee’s phrase “Liberals should always be wary of banning people from doing as they like”. There clearly need to be some qualifications added to such a statement although wary does not mean should never.

Indeed. But I’m wary even of ‘wary’ – at least as it’s stated there. As Harry points out, it’s the missing qualifications that cause the wariness.

Actually, of late, I have been giving a lot of thought to the whole issue of our treatment of animals and meat-eating given that my six-year-old daughter has woken up to where her meat comes from and was horrified by the fact. Her reaction (and I am being literal with the term horrified) has me contemplating vegetarianism again.

Yeah. That made me think of a not very fond memory of my own. As you may remember if you’ve ever read ‘About,’ I used to be a zookeeper. (Funny, that ‘used to be’ came up earlier today, too. There is a passage in Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense about how one reacts to seeing someone come screaming out of a lecture hall, shouting that there is a herd of elephants stampeding inside. One cautiously looks, and if one sees no elephants or trail of elephantish destruction, one calls the police and the psychiatrists; if one sees elephants, one [runs away and] calls the police and the zookeepers. Ah yes, thought I, I’ve been there. I have. The elephants did get out a time or two, and I was called. ‘Get back in there right now you bad elephants!! Boo, Tote, Chai, Sri: Corner!!’ I was muy macho in those days.)

But that’s another story. I once had to go to a slaughterhouse. I bet you’ll never be able to guess why – it sounds quite odd. To get blood for the vampire bats. True. It was a weekly job for the commissary keeper, which I wasn’t, but I suppose Rachel was sick that day or something – anyway I was deputed to go. A pig slaughterhouse. It was absolutely horrible. A nightmare – literally. They scream. They line up, they’re forced down a chute, and as they get to the end, they start to scream, and they go on screaming until they’re killed. And of course since it’s a production line, there are always pigs in the chute and pigs getting to the end and pigs being killed and pigs screaming – so they hear the screaming long before they get there. It’s horrible.

I’ve upset myself writing about it. But it is horrible. And disgusting – it could have been done another way, surely, if anyone could have been bothered.

Thank goodness for Temple Grandin. She designs chutes for slaughterhouses that work so that the animals do not know what’s happening and are not stressed. They’re still killed, but they’re not made to watch it all beforehand. She’s high-functioning autistic, Grandin is, and she thinks the autism is the reason she understands what’s going on with animals. Interesting, that. Also doesn’t say much for ‘normal’ human intelligence.

A change of subject; but not really. The basic subject is suffering, and how to think about it and what to do about it.

Update: Dave at Backword asks a good question:

Factory farming also has utility, but I’d get rid of it if I could. I hadn’t heard of Temple Grandin until I read this Butterflies and Wheels post, but why aren’t her slaughterhouse designs compulsory?

Why indeed.

Update 2: Dave’s post inspired me to Google, and I discovered that Temple Grandin has a web page, with a lot of information on humane slaughter (and its absence). Remarkable what a lot of difference one person can make.

You’ll Never Ever Guess in a Million Years

Sep 19th, 2004 6:19 pm | By

Maybe I should do one before anyone else does.

I was just thinking, while staring out the window in a daze and scratching, that books are one thing and people are another. How about that.

People don’t like science. What’s up with that?

Multiculturalism – hmm – one sees the point, and yet.

I’ve been reading this book. Here are some quotations from it.

Here are some more quotations from that book I’ve been reading.

Richard Dawkins rocks.

I’ve read another book. Here are some quotations from it.

Here are some more quotations from aforementioned book. Aren’t you thrilled?

People say silly things sometimes. Here’s an example. Here’s why it’s silly. I never say silly things.

I agree with my colleague about that. [Okay that one’s pure fantasy.]

Secularism rocks.

My colleague is always right about everything. [Okay more fantasy.]

But What Do They Like?

Sep 19th, 2004 1:42 am | By

Ah. That’s reassuring. Perhaps I’m not so confused after all, since Norm makes a similar point. Not an identical point, because he doesn’t focus on the Toynbee column, he merely mentions it; but a similar one. The basic disagreement with what she said and with what Harry said at his place I take to be the same.

Harry endorses a piece by Polly Toynbee in which she belittles the importance of the fox hunting issue relative to the ‘things that really matter’, like social injustice. In response to which I offer the following.

(1) One should care about the suffering of other sentient beings. Indifference to the suffering of others is part of the definition of cruelty.

(2) Putting the interests of human beings above those of other species is all right as a general principle, but it doesn’t by itself settle all particular cases where these interests compete. Otherwise you would have to allow that someone who mildly enjoyed beating an animal to death with a club every morning should be allowed to do so. But one shouldn’t allow that, and in fact as a community we don’t.

Exactly. What I said. Cases where these interests compete. It’s no good just saying liberals shouldn’t stop people doing what they like, because people like doing all sorts of horrible things. And if it were any good saying that, then you would have to allow that someone who mildly enjoyed beating an animal to death with a club every morning should be allowed to do so. Yes, factory farming and battery farming are horrible too, but since I’m a vegetarian (okay apart from a little fish now and then) I’m not being hypocritical in being against fox hunting as well. But I’m even more against saying vaguely that people should be allowed to do what they like.

Guess that Blog!

Sep 18th, 2004 9:12 pm | By

First off, a personal message: stop reading now Fryslan, you’re not going to like this.

I realise that there is nothing people like more than a game (except maybe chocolate); so here’s the first in a new regular spot on the B&W blog (I hate that word).

Guess that Blog

All you’ve got to do to win – and the person who gets the most right at the end of the series will win a copy of The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense – is to guess, on the basis of the (imaginary) subject titles below, which blog I’m talking about. Answers on a postcard; or using the comments facility below.

Here we go:

1. Republicans are fascists.

2. Bush stole the election in Florida (yes, I’m still going on about this).

3. Bush kills cats.

4. Professor Smith takes up new position at Not As Good As Mine University.

5. Bush eats babies.

6. Republicans stole election in Delaware (surely, they must have done).

7. People who disagree with me are wrong, have never achieved anything in
lives, and have no qualifications (Part 1).

8. Republicans are aliens from Mars.

9. I’m great.

10. Professor Jones – who admires my work – takes up new position at Really Quite Good University.

11. Bush bribed nun to forge election results.

12. Bush sighted wearing suspicious black shirt (shock).

13. People who disagree with me are wrong, have never achieved anything in
their lives, have no qualifications, and they’re hopeless in bed (Part 2).

14. Bush eats babies whilst they’re still alive.

15. I’m really great.

Liberty Hall

Sep 18th, 2004 3:28 am | By

I’m confused – I must be, because I really don’t understand this at all. I usually like Polly Toynbee (not that I read everything she writes), but this seems to me to be a very odd thing to say:

The countrysiders in the Lords will oppose the hunting bill again, but others will oppose it for good liberal reasons – proving the need for a second chamber. Liberals should always be wary of banning people from doing as they like. There needs to be an overwhelming case for the serious harm done: hunting just doesn’t meet that criteria (killing a few foxes is not more cruel than battery farming).

Wait – what? ‘Liberals should always be wary of banning people from doing as they like.’ But isn’t that awfully sweeping? ‘Doing as they like’? Doesn’t that cover an awful lot of ground? Underpaying and mistreating employees, abusing children, driving dangerously, vandalising parks or libraries, threatening or stalking people? And all sorts of things. People get banned from doing as they like all the time. Obviously. What does she mean ‘overwhelming case’, what does she mean ‘serious harm’? Overwhelming according to whom, serious by whose measure? My point isn’t about fox hunting, it’s about the generalization itself. I don’t think there should be some presumption that people should be allowed to ‘do as they like’ – it depends very much on what it is they like. Ah well – I must be confused.

Books and Personalities

Sep 17th, 2004 8:27 pm | By

I was thinking earlier this morning in an idle moment – well not altogether idle, because I was looking out the window, because it was one of those staggeringly beautiful autumnal mornings when it has partly cleared up after rain and clouds and the air is bright and clear and hard like diamonds or ginger ale or I don’t know what, and the sun is at just the right angle so that it makes the windows on the boats in the marina wink and twinkle which they certainly don’t do most of the time, and the light and shadows on the water and the peninsula look much more light and shadow-like than usual – one of those mornings. I was thinking, while staring at all this, about the difference – the subjective difference, the cognitive difference, the difference in our heads – between people one knows in real life and people one knows via the written word. That thought led to the related and equally familiar thought about books and their authors and how we think about them. To what extent we have ideas of their ‘personalities’, and how accurate or inaccurate such ideas may be. How some writers have (seem to have, via their writing) more ‘personality’ than others, and how that does not necessarily correlate with the quality of the books. A writer can have bags of personality and write crap books, or have none at all and write dazzlers. And what do we mean by personality, and how does it differ from character, and does the same apply. Can a writer have no discernable character and write brilliant books? Offhand I would say no – I don’t think so. The brilliance, the brilliant-book-writing, is the character, or part of it. But it’s not the personality, so much. Why? I don’t know why. Because personality is more adventitious, and so more beside the point? More just one of those things, like curly hair or buck teeth? Whereas character is more basic, and more important. But I can’t swear that’s not just a mere matter of labeling, rather than a genuine distinction.

Emerson and Carlyle met briefly when they were comparatively young, and had an immediate rapport. They sustained this friendship for years via letters; then Emerson made another trip over, and they found they didn’t like each other at all. Emerson found Carlyle a savage misanthropic terror; Carlyle found Emerson full of moonshine and endlessly talking (one knows the type).

I wouldn’t much want to meet either of them, myself. There are some writers I would want to meet; others I would want to observe but not meet; others I wouldn’t want to meet or observe. But what’s odd about it is that the groups don’t correlate with either favourites or hierarchies. It’s not that I want to meet all the best (in my opinion) writers, or all the ones I like the best. No. There’s something interesting about that fact…but I’m not sure what.

Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov. Them I would like to meet. Emily Bronte, Byron, Montaigne – them I would like to watch, but not meet. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, George Eliot, Austen – I don’t even want to observe, let alone meet. And yet Austen is possibly my very favourite novelist and the one I think is the best. And Wordsworth is one of my favourite poets – but I would go out of my way not to meet him. Hazlitt, now – yes, I would want to meet Hazlitt. I would be frightened, but I would want to. Thoreau. I would like to meet Thoreau. Emerson said walking with him was like walking with a tree. He sounds like exactly my kind of person. I’m a tree myself. Two trees taking a walk; it sounds very agreeable, in a chilly sort of way.

Eye Row Knee

Sep 15th, 2004 9:44 pm | By

On a lighter note. (Lighter than what? What could be lighter than Andrew Ross? Okay not lighter then, just different.) I have a staggering piece of news for everyone. Are you sitting down? Because this is a real shocker, and so new and fresh and unfamiliar – you just can’t think how new. Ready? Okay here it is.

Americans don’t get irony.

You didn’t know that, did you. You’ve never ever heard that before, have you. That’s not a stupid boring worn-out stale dull flat endlessly-recycled tedious cliché, is it! No indeed. No, you only hear that some three times in every BBC arts programme, that’s all.

I do beg your pardon. How unbecoming. And unironic. But there it is, you see – I don’t get irony. Never have. It’s a closed book to me. Comes of being born in New York, you see, that well-known haven of flat-footed wide-eyed literalness and naiveté.

No it’s just that I heard that particular gem of folk wisdom three times in one day last week. It’s just that it’s gotten so I can hear it coming, and prepare to roll my eyes. The minute one of the boffins on ‘Front Row’ or ‘Saturday Review’ comments on a certain sentimentality or fatuity in a new American movie, I know the next sentence is going to be the one about how Americans don’t do irony. Followed by a Tweedle-dum-Tweedledee-esque group hug. ‘Aren’t we cool, aren’t we great, aren’t we swell, we get irony and those poor pathetic dweebs across the pond don’t, not one of them, they’re all Biblical literalists and every other kind of literalists to boot.’

Gross exaggeration, I know. Well that’s what I do instead of irony, you see – hyperbole. I always do that. (And, I have to admit, a lifelong habit of doing that has revealed to me that some Americans do indeed not get irony, in the sense that I have had people of that nationality owlishly correct or question obvious hyperbole. ‘Was he really ten feet tall?’ Uh – no.) But if other people are allowed to do irony, then I’m allowed to do hyperbole. There’s a law on the books about it. I’d show you but I’m too busy.

One of the funny (possibly even ironic) things about the three in one day is that one of them was so very old. Two were from ‘Saturday Review’ but the other was from an ancient Morse I happened to watch on tv – one from 1991. Some guy tells Morse he’s going back to Princeton and it will be so nice and restful because Americans don’t do irony. Oh really! Princeton’s an irony-free zone, is it! Well I grew up there, and that’s news to me. In fact it’s bollocks.

To be fair, one of the two mentions on ‘Saturday Review’ was saying the same thing. Good old Tom Sutcliffe pointed out that it’s not that there’s no irony in the US, it’s just that it’s not evenly distributed. It may be a bit scarce in Nebraska, he said mildly, but there’s a lot of it on the coasts. Well exactly.

I’ve been slightly touchy about this for years – decades in fact. Ever since reading a long windy pompous self-congratulatory novel by John Fowles, Daniel Martin, which went on and on and on about how Americansdon’tdoirony. Even the clever ones, even the clever and funny ones, even the very clever and funny ones – even they don’t do irony. Whereas, apparently, all Ukanians, however dim and unfunny, do irony like polecats. I hadn’t a clue what he meant by it, which I thought might possibly indicate that it was true and that I too did not do irony. That it was like those notes that only dogs can hear, or sonic thingies that only dolphins can detect – that I simply couldn’t even recognize it, let alone appreciate it or smile at it or deploy it myself.

Well. That was a long time ago, and I’ve long since realized that Fowles was talking self-flattering crap. (And after that review of his diaries in the LRB the other month, I have serious doubts about his talent in the irony department, frankly.) Yes, granted, of course, a lot of our movies are full of sentimental bilge, but I’m such an ironist that I don’t go see them, so they don’t implicate the whole population, now do they. And granted our presidential campaigns are full of even more sentimental and utterly irrelevant bilge (Vote for me, I have a dog!), but – um – well never mind what. But we can too so do irony. We just don’t always happen to feel like it.


Sep 15th, 2004 1:51 am | By

Just a bit more. Because I promised, and because there are more that are too good not to share.

…it is perhaps worth drawing an analogy between the demarcation lines in science and the borders between hierarchical taste cultures – high, middlebrow, and popular – that cultural critics and other experts involved in the business of culture have long had the vocational function of supervising. In both cases, we find the same need for experts to police the borders with their criteria of inclusion and exclusion…[F]alsifiability is often put forward as a criterion for evaluating scientific authenticity…But such a yardstick is no more objectively adequate and no less mythical a criterion than appeals to, say, aesthetic complexity have been in the history of cultural criticism. Falsifiability is a self-referential concept in science, inasmuch as it appeals to those normative codes of science that favor objective authentification of evidence by a supposedly dispassionate observer.

Isn’t that lovely? There’s so much in it. It’s like a big ol’ treasure chest. That ‘it is perhaps worth drawing’ – more of that caginess our sharp-eyed readers have noticed. Sure, ‘perhaps’ – that’s safe to say. Then again perhaps not. And ‘worth’? Well, that depends what you mean by ‘worth’. If you mean in the sense of ‘worth because likely to produce interesting, true, useful lines of thought,’ then no. If you just mean ‘more fun than having your teeth cleaned,’ possibly. Okay and then ‘demarcation lines’. Right. That’s what science is all right, it’s kind of like a football field. And then borders. He has a bit of an obsession with borders, Ross does. He seems to think that every distinction and every value judgement (except the ones he makes) equates to establishing and patrolling borders in a peculiarly compulsive, anal, property-hugging, pedantic way. And then ‘supervising’ to underline the point. Right – people who pay attention to culture (slightly more perspicuous attention than Ross pays, one hopes) spend all their time supervising borders; that’s what ‘culture’ is all about. And then, skipping lightly over several more lovely items (experts, police the borders, criteria, inclusion and exclusion) we come to that loopy phrase about falsifiability. Put forward? Scientific authenticity? Oh never mind. And then all the rest of it, all that bilge about normative codes and ‘a self-referential concept’ and ‘objective’ and ‘authentification’ (he seems to have science confused with stamp-collecting) and ‘supposedly’. I’m exhausted now.

But just a little more, because there is one very sly item.

A more exhaustive treatment would take account of the local, qualifying differences between the realm of cultural taste and that of science –

Oh it would! It would notice those differences would it? Well that is a relief!

– science, but it would run up, finally, against the stand-off between the empiricist’s claim that non-context-dependent beliefs exist and that they can be true, and the culturalist’s claim that beliefs are only socially accepted as true.

There, that’s the one. That’s what Susan Haack calls the ‘passes for’ fallacy. That’s that rhetorical trick where epistemic relativists substitute the word ‘beliefs’ for words like ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ and hope we won’t notice. And he follows that up with our last sentence for today.

Ultimately, the power of science rests upon making and maintaining that distinction, and we ought to recognize that science’s anxiety about authenticating its belief in truths is, in the truly Foucauldian sense, a question of power.

There you have it – the making of a celebrity cultural critic.

Ross 2

Sep 13th, 2004 7:42 pm | By

A little more. Because it’s hard to resist. Because there are just so many – um – interesting remarks.

To set the scene. Ross once attended what he calls a New Age trade convention, and gives us his thoughts on the subject.

The more official and centered voice of condemnation against the New Age community can be found in what are often charaterized as the witch-hunting activities of CSICOP…CSICOP is an international ‘inquisition’ of mostly academic ghostbusters, set up…to police the boundary between science and pseudoscience contested by a host of New Age alternatives to institutional scientific orthodoxies.

Same again. Official, ‘centered’ (huh?), witch-hunting (!!), inquisition, police, boundary, institutional, orthodoxies. All that in 1.5 sentences. Talk about over-egging the pudding (or over-egging the omelette, as the Alternative Idiom Community likes to call it). And then on the other hand (cue friendly music): community, contested, alternatives. That’s another way Ross is like Harding, despite the superficial differences in style: he’s what you might call insistent. He doesn’t have much to say, so he resorts to saying it over and over again. He says community, alternative, marginal, contested as often as he possibly can, and orthodoxy, official, authority, dominant, even oftener. Maybe one day we’ll get the point and change over from authoritative science to the New Age kind. Yupuhuh, gonna do that, fer sher.

But such exposés of paranormal activities, whether in dry polemics or showbiz, are always conducted through appeals to the kind of experimental certification that rationalist science has established as the single standard of truth and reason in our dealings with the natural world. In this respect, they might be seen as affirmations of faith in the world-view of a particular culture…

Well that’s wrong, for a start; ‘rationalist’ science has not established ‘experimental certification’ as the single standard of truth and reason; that’s just bollocks. And that tired crap about affirmations of faith – well, it’s tired crap, that’s what. Sure, they might be seen as that, because anything might be seen as anything. But that don’t make it true.


Sep 13th, 2004 4:55 pm | By

Sandra Harding had her time in the limelight; now it’s Andrew Ross’ turn. Fair’s fair. All children are talented, all children are special, all have something to say, we must listen politely to all of them and not make some feel bad and excluded and marginalized and of low worth by ignoring them. Nor must we throw the little bastards out of school merely because they threatened or assaulted a teacher, unless a gun or a knife was used. Once again, fair’s fair. Exclusion damages the academic performance of people who are excluded (except when it doesn’t), therefore it is important to avoid exclusion except in the most extreme of cases. A child who shoots up the classroom with an AK-47 would probably do better in another environment, but short of that, it’s all love and inclusion and extra attention for the dear little mischief-makers. But that’s another subject. We were talking about hip trendy Andrew Ross.

It’s interesting reading Ross right after Harding, because in a way he is far more sophisticated than she is, but in another way he isn’t. There is a veneer of sophistication of sorts in his writing – in the style rather than the substance – that is very different from the way Harding writes. You don’t keep getting that dismayed feeling that you’re reading the work of a small child, or at best a teacher of small children who has forgotten how to write for grown-ups. No, you can tell this guy is an adult, all right, and that he’s been around, he knows what’s what, he knows how to push the buttons and impress the right-on. But a veneer is all it is. It’s about a millimeter thick; it’s all surface. The content is just as dopy as what Harding says. And there’s almost as much self-betrayal. There is for instance the way Ross informs us that he’ll be taking a good hard look at the rhetoric of science, while all the time he is peddling nothing but rhetoric himself. That’s exactly why his writing seems so silly: it’s so obvious, the way he simply relies on sly emotive language in place of evidence or argument – and yet he fancies himself a debunker of rhetoric! It’s a joke, and one that he seems to be blithely unaware of. So not as sophisticated as he’d like to think. Apparently he’s quite good-looking though, so that’s all right.

You’ll be wanting some examples.

While I occasionally analyze the language, philosophy, and rhetoric of the dominant scientific claims, my chief interest lies in describing how various scientific cultures – sublegitimate, alternative, marginal, or oppositional – both embody and contest these claims in their cultural activities and beliefs…I have devoted a good deal of attention…to alternative cultures like New Age that are subordinate, marginal, or opposed to official scientific cultures governed by the logic of technocratic and corporate decision-making.

There, that’s good, don’t you think? See what I mean? On the one hand you have ‘cultures’ that are marginal, oppositional, alternative, subordinate, opposed, sublegitimate (do you begin to get his drift, or is it too subtle?), and on the other you have ‘cultures’ that are dominant, official, governed (ew) by the logic (oh no not that) of technocratic (urrgh) and corporate (ow!) decision-making (fascists!). Impressive stuff.

Consequently I focus on how the authority of dominant scientific claims is respected and emulated even as it is contested by apprentices, amateurs, semi-legitimates, and outlaws who are detached in some degree from the authoritative institutions of science.

That’s a great one. Notice how he manages to refer to ‘authority’ twice in the space of one sentence! Now I call that resourceful. And of course he doesn’t limit himself to that. Certainly not. Why bother with precision when you have a nuke in your pocket. No, throw in dominant and institutions while you’re at it, and of course on the other side talk of semi-legitimates who ‘contest’ (always a great hurrah-word), and especially those dear detached outlaws.

Yep, you bet, that’s how the work of ‘contesting’ the ‘authority’ of ‘dominant’ scientific ‘cultures’ is carried out: via vocabulary and innuendo. That’s all it takes. Just say one side has all the advantages – authority, dominance, all that stuff – and the other side has all the other thing – marginalization, opposition, outlawhood – and the job is done. Obviously science is the exact equivalent of slaveowners, feudal masters, priests, landlords, bosses: possessors of arbitrary unjust power which they use to dominate and trample everyone else and engross all the riches. There’s no need to know anything at all about actual science – and Ross doesn’t: notoriously he dedicated this book (Strange Weather) to all the science teachers he never had. Nope; rhetoric is all-powerful. But it’s not authoritative, so that’s all right.


Sep 11th, 2004 11:38 pm | By

I’ve been updating the Dictionary a little – for the first time in more than a year. We decided a long time ago to stop adding to it because of the book, and it was almost a year ago that we decided it was time to get serious about the book – but we may have stopped adding to it many months before that, even, because we thought of the book long before we decided to get serious about it. I don’t remember. I don’t remember if we went on adding to the Dictionary for several months, or if we stopped only a couple of months after we started. Probably the latter.

So anyway. We had a lot of leftovers. I’ve been cleaning out my email, and there’s this immense bulge in March, when we were doing the book and generating definitions like mad. I didn’t just delete them all with one blow of my fist because of the leftovers – I knew I had to go through each one in order to salvage the ones we didn’t use. So I’ve been doing that. Salvaging. Now, before you smite your brows and exclaim ‘Oh thank you so much, just what we want, a lot of rejected jokes!’, that’s not it! I’m not salvaging boring unfunny ones. No. There weren’t any of those, as it happens. No, there were other reasons for not including some, especially since we ended up with more than we needed so could afford to be nice. Some we didn’t include because they were obscure or cryptic; they’re extremely funny, it’s just that you have to know what the reference is to see that. Others we didn’t include because they were too similar to others, which of course is not a problem for the site version, which doesn’t include those others. And others again I really don’t know why we didn’t include – perhaps we forgot. One of us is incredibly forgetful and is always losing things. I forget which one.


Sep 11th, 2004 8:24 pm | By

Terrible about Samira Bellil. A difficult life and then an early and very nasty death – thanks a lot. What godawful luck some people have. I know; no kidding; but it’s worth pointing out anyway. It’s worth registering these futile protests that don’t go anywhere. Worth shaking our puny fists at the sky.

I happened on this article in Dar al Hayat, and it seems relevant, to the issues that Bellil raised and those we’ve been discussing lately. They’re all the same issues at bottom.

In this framework, there are two forms of enmity against Islamists. The first is the annoyance of the wide spreading Islamic thought in comparison with other trends, to the extent that people wish to wake up one day and see no single woman wearing a headscarf on earth!

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I do wish that. Though I suppose I could imagine other utopian scenarios in which the hijab had shed every last trace of connotation of subordination, inferiority, blame for male sexual attention, coercion and control and ownership, and had become simply a piece of clothing like any other. I can imagine such a scenario, but that’s not the same thing as thinking it’s going to happen, so until and unless that does happen, yes, I would be delighted to wake up one day and find every last woman on earth free of the requirement to wear it. And that is indeed one reason I am not pleased about wide spreading Islamic thought, why in fact I think it’s a bad thing.

There is an excellent article by Irfan Khawaja on this larger subject on Ibn Warraq’s Secular Islam site. Khawaja discusses the way nonsense about ‘essentialist’ claims works to deflect critical discussion of Islam.

What Staerk is telling us is that it’s easier to generalize rigorously about the behavior of 1.25 billion existing Muslims plus all the Muslims who have ever existed in the 1400 years of the existence of Islam—than it is to generalize about the claims of a handful of Islamic texts! That is the unavoidable implication of his claim that those who use the Qur’an as the basis for claims about the essence of Islam generalize “sloppily,” while those who rely on Gallup polls for information about “the” behavior of “Muslims” generalize with rigor.

Just so. This is why I keep pointing out that religion is not the same thing as race. Religions do have texts and/or rules, laws, truth claims. Religions are systems of ideas, and thus both can be and must be criticized, disagreed with, analyzed. To pretend that it’s a kind of racism to disagree with Islam or any other religion is an absurd category mistake, a confusion of terms, and a pretext for allowing a supernatural belief system to run people’s lives on the basis of unfounded claims.

…when it comes to the fundamental clash between Islam and its rivals, our half-hearted secularists almost always find an excuse to beg off. Does God exist? “Let’s not look.” Does faith supersede reason? “Let’s change the subject.” Do the demands of the afterlife supersede the requirements of this one? “It’s a matter of perspective.” Are the claims of the Qur’an true? “Depends on how you define ‘truth’.” Does Islam provide a basis for a viable political order? “Sorry, that question is too divisive.” Is there a connection between the precepts of Islam and Islamic terrorism? “Sorry, that question is too essentialist.” At the end of the day, according to this crowd, the only claims you’re allowed to make about Islam are the recycled pieties of PC toleration, followed by claims so “nuanced” that they cease to mean or imply anything of significance. But I don’t see Muslims constrained by the same imperatives…

Great stuff. Read the whole thing.

Recipe for Realism

Sep 11th, 2004 1:54 am | By

Multiple intelligences. Why has the idea always made me want to laugh? Because I’m a mean rotten swine, that’s why. Obviously. Yes but also because it is quite funny. It’s so easy to think of more of those alternative intelligences. Watching tv intelligence, eating intelligence, using the potty intelligence.

Now, one aspect of the general idea seems perfectly unexceptionable.

Gardner’s ideas appealed to many traditional teachers who extolled hard work but also had some students who did better on tests if multiplication tables were set to music or works of literature were acted out in class.

Well, obviously – if it works, do it. (That is, do it if you can, which seems unlikely when most teachers have classes of 30 to 35 students, five times a day. When are they going to get the time to teach everyone differently?) But that’s a different thing from drawing large conclusions about multiple intelligences.

This summer, two university professors accused Gardner, 61, of encouraging elementary school teaching methods, such as singing new words or writing them out with twigs and leaves, for which there is no scholarly evidence of success. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in the journal Education Next that Gardner’s theory “is an inaccurate description of the mind” and that “the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective.”

And Gardner says one thing that’s slightly alarming.

He added that “the standard psychologist’s view of intelligence is a recipe for despair. It holds that there is but one intelligence and that intelligence is highly heritable.”

Yes but…the fact that something is a recipe for despair is a separate question from whether there is good evidence for it or not. Sad to say, there are a lot of accurate descriptions of the world that are indeed recipes for despair, as well as hopeful ones that are not accurate. Gardner’s benevolence is a good thing, but benevolence-driven research can get things badly wrong.

Happy Birthday to Us Again

Sep 10th, 2004 1:36 am | By

Well it’s that time again. Yup, it is – I know that’s hard to believe, but it is. September 10. It’s our birthday. We’re two. Two!! Would you believe it! Well of course you would, why not – but still it does seem very respectable and elderly and established. They haven’t driven us away yet! They haven’t shut us down, they haven’t silenced us, they haven’t sent a plague of locusts. We’re still here! (Who’s they? Oh you know, just the paranoid’s fantasy army. All those faceless Darth Vader types in black plastic outfits who were going to better I mean butter I mean batter down the doors and throw our computers out the window and trample on us until we whimpered and promised to go to Business School.)

And we’re not only still here, we have a book coming out in a few weeks. B&W’s first book. Awww. Don’t websites grow up quickly these days. One minute it just has a logo and nothing else, and the next thing you know it has a book slung over its shoulder and another on the way. (Has nobody heard of birth control these days? I blame the Pope.)

You would probably like to look at last year’s celebration. It was very rowdy. You wouldn’t think it to talk to me, but I am one hell of a rowdy partyer. I get drunk the instant I cross the threshold, I turn the music up until the plaster starts falling off the walls, I aim food in the general direction of my mouth and usually miss, I grope everyone that breathes including the hamster, I smash glasses in the fireplace, and I dance the tarantella. I am fun, man. A few days in the slammer are a small price to pay.


Sep 9th, 2004 7:34 pm | By

I don’t know if you ever have a look at our Letters page, but if you don’t, you might want to. There are some very interesting letters in there – some of them are brief articles in themselves. I’ve just seen one of that kind, the one at the top of the page (at the moment), a short essay on the Whig interpretation of history and moral relativism (taking issue with an article of ours on the subject), by one Michael Davis. If I had the faintest idea who he was or how to email him, I would ask him if he would like to write an article for us. I wonder if he is the same MD as the MD who wrote some previous letters and quite a few comments here. Anyway, his letter is well worth a read.