Notes and Comment Blog


Nov 3rd, 2004 9:54 pm | By

I’m just going to ignore it. That’s okay isn’t it? Just pretend it’s not there. Or at least that I don’t particularly have to talk about it. I mean, what is there to say, and everybody else is already saying it anyway. I don’t have to chime in. (It’s not even just the politics. It’s more basic. It’s the thing about minimal competence. It’s like having a choice between a grown-up and a not very bright child to do a difficult job – designing a bridge, doing research into a new killer virus, figuring out how to get cookies right-side-up on a plate, that kind of thing – and choosing the child.) I don’t have to chime in so I’m not going to. I’m just going to bracket the whole damn thing for as long as it takes – the rest of my life, probably, and everyone else’s too. The gerrymandering thing makes it look as if the bastards are going to be there forever, busily drawing Congressional districts that look like pretzels or corkscrews or the finest old Brussels lace or a game of spillikins so that there will always always always be a Republican majority until Ozymandias returns from the dead and asks what –

Sorry, sorry, I said I was going to ignore it. And I am.

Actually Ozymandias is a good way to make the transition from what I don’t want to talk about to what I do. I didn’t mention him on purpose, he just came into my head, I suppose because I was thinking about eternity and forever-and-ever and metaphors and phrases for same – so there was Oz, sitting there smirking at me. ‘You wantcher metaphor for eternity? I’m yer man.’ So I grabbed him and stuck him into the sentence. I didn’t plot or plan it (that’s what I mean about ‘on purpose’ – not that it was an accident, but that there was no forethought involved), I didn’t form a deep design to mention a name that will be less familiar to some people than Lisa Simpson or Posh and Becks in order to make myself feel clever and grand and learned. I didn’t. But there are people who might suspect that I did. Or who might even firmly believe I did, and say so, and laugh uproariously and tease and mock and demand how many people I think will have the faintest idea who Ozymandias is. People who [voice rising like Tweedledee’s when he was so fussed about his nice new rattle] themselves refer often to names and concepts that I know nothing whatever about, but do I take it for granted they’re showing off and being pretentious and playing one-upmanship? Do I? Hah? Do I not rather simply think that I don’t know much and ought to know more and ought to do better and ought to fill in some of these gaps? Do I call them


No, I don’t, but they call me it, and when I flap my arms around like a heron and say I’m not I’m not, they draw diagrams that they claim show that I am. Hmph. What could be more elitist than that? I can’t draw diagrams that show people are what they say they aren’t, so therefore someone who can when I can’t must be an elitist. Obviously. Since that’s the definition in play.

Except actually it’s not, it’s a highly selective version of that definition that’s in play. It goes like this [I would draw a diagram if I could, but I can’t]: Anything that X mentions that might not be common knowledge is a symptom of elitism and anything that I mention that might not be common knowledge is a symptom of the fact that I know some things that are not common knowledge but I do it in an anti-elitist way. That has to be the case, a priori, because I’m anti-elitist and X is elitist, by nature. X has an elitist personality and I have an anti-elitist personality; these things are hard-wired.

I’m being slightly outrageous here, but only slightly, because that is pretty much how the argument goes. It’s a slightly outrageous argument, it seems to me (not to say waspish), so it seems only fair for me to be slightly outrageous too.

Anyway elitism and charges of elitism and resistance to perceived elitism are all subjects that interest me a lot and also that seem relevant to much of fashionable nonsense. Therefore I think the whole subject is worth exploring, and I intend to – I intended to make a start right here, but I got sidetracked into some mocking and teasing first and now this N&C is more than long enough and I have to run off, so this will have to do for the moment. Actually it’s not a bad way to start, despite the peculiar tone, because it does bring up some of the issues involved. What does make one kind of subject matter ‘elitist’ when another that is at least equally obscure or little-known or erudite is not? What makes one word (‘quotidian,’ say) elitist when others (teleology, contingency, sentient, omniscience, say) are not? That’s a real question. I have a feeling I know the answer (that nothing does, because they’re not different), but I could be wrong, and maybe you have some thoughts. If so, enlighten us – go on, it will take your mind off the vegetation in the White House.


Nov 3rd, 2004 3:43 am | By

Yo, I’m back! Out of the outhouse, into the inhouse, back at the desk, back to work. I’ve left the bright lights and whirling crowds of Bedford Square for the quiet backwater of Seattle. I came in, dropped all my cases and bags and excess sweatshirts in the middle of the living room, grabbed a water bottle, and rushed out to vote. Saw a friend on the way in; did not have to stand in line; saw another friend on the way out. You see what a quiet backwater it is. That wouldn’t happen in Bedford Square.

Ohio. Pennsylvania. Michigan. Florida. Well, we’ll see. I don’t dare let myself think about how I long to be rid of Bush.

More tomorrow. I’ve been awake for more hours than you would believe, so there’s no sense trying to say more now. Especially since my eyes seem to be trying to secede from the rest of my head.

Musings on Evolution and Christianity

Nov 1st, 2004 1:01 am | By

Okay, so I have to post something so that November isn’t just a blank page (yes, I should have been cleverer when I programmed this thing). But unfortunately I have so little going on in my head that I’m really struggling here…

I did have a thought – a couple of weeks ago now, whilst running over a golf course – about Michael Ruse. In his book, The Evolution Wars, he claims:

I am arguing what history has shown: there is really no reason why a Christian should not be a Darwinian, and there is really no reason why a Darwinian should not be a Christian.

At first thought, this doesn’t seem an unreasonable claim. But it does raise a number of interesting issues.

  1. If you’re a Christian, have you got to think there’s a kind of teleology in evolution? Were things set-up so that humans were necessarily going to evolve?
  2. But that’s a bit problematic. Maybe something like humans had to evolve, but it does seem that there is contingency in the precise form that humans take (well certainly someone like Gould would think so; and when I asked Ed Wilson whether he’d expect us to emerge again if evolution were re-run, he said he wouldn’t).
  3. However, if one thinks about this even vaguely closely, there are some possible responses that a Christian could offer.(a) Maybe what appears contingent to us, isn’t contingent at all. I can buy that, but it leads to further puzzles: why, for example, would God have set things up so that the emergence of the human species reeks of contingency? That’s bizarre. (b) Or maybe it didn’t matter too much to God exactly what form human beings took; it’s enough that we’re sentient, have a moral sense, etc. Not sure about this one either. If nothing is contingent to God, then she can’t but help know how evolution was going to end up (given omniscience). So she would know exactly what form humans were going to take from the beginning (to the extent that ‘from the beginning’ makes sense when talking about God).
  4. And then there’s a further thought here that maybe this whole puzzle is just a version of the old Calvinist, predestination thing. Perhaps what’s key here is that God is atemporal; that there is genuine randomness in the way that evolution unfolds (maybe it’s allowed by the laws of nature), but because God is somehow present at all stages in the unfolding, any such randomness is not an impediment to her knowing how things were going to turn out. But I’m not sure that this even gets off the ground as an argument. Would it mean that God did a number of different evolutionary experiments, and then kind of stopped when she got humans from initial conditions which had randomness built in? Or perhaps somehow she would know exactly how the randomness would turn out, so she wouldn’t need more than one? I’m not sure I can make sense of either of those possibilities.
  5. And then there is the possibility the whole idea of randomness, or contingency, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve never really been able to understand what it means to claim that things could have turned out other than they did. No doubt this is some limitation on my part.

I had other thoughts about all this; but I’ve bored myself outlining just these few. Anyway, OB can’t complain now that I’ve let down the side by posting nothing on November 1st. Okay, it isn’t November 1st yet, but I’m going to cheat on the timing!

OB’s in an Outhouse

Oct 23rd, 2004 8:34 am | By

I have sent OB on a mission to count copies of The Dictionary. Her base of operation is a sumptuous residence in Bedford Square (though she only gets to use the outhouse). Unfortunately, it has no internet access (not the kind of thing which is required for the servant quarters). This means that there will be a blogging hiatus. Unless I can think of something to say in the meantime. Which I can’t. Hang on, let me think – what have I been irritated about over the last few days? Hmmm. Oh yes. The soccer player Adrian Mutu got caught with traces of cocaine in his body; so he has to undergo a course of psychological counselling. There are so many levels of stupidity with this idea that I’ve exhausted myself thinking about them, so I’m shutting up.

Ah, There it Is

Oct 19th, 2004 6:32 pm | By

Further travel news.


Oct 19th, 2004 8:55 am | By

More travel news.

That Dream Again

Oct 18th, 2004 6:05 pm | By

I just wanted to call your attention to this post on Normblog. It’s his reaction to yet another of those helpful lectures on how impoverished and pathetic secularism is and how we have to give up and admit that we ‘need’ religion. Of course, as always, the writer makes the case by 1) pretending that religion is the only possible source of things like meaning and solidarity, and 2) by redefining religion. Okay. At that rate – if there’s enough taking away combined with enough redefinition – I could be brought to agree with that idea too. But what of it? Of what use is it to assume that secularism is something it isn’t and that religion isn’t what most people take it to be? Of what use is an argument that depends on a bunch of fictions?

Enabling dreams of Paradise, a world where swords will be beaten into ploughshares, a counter-reality which glimpses an alternative republic of heaven on earth, where peace is built on justice rather than conquest… this, not virgin births, second comings, holy wars and infallible books, is the real stuff: hard-core religion in action. And we have a basic need for that, even if we know the need can never be wholly satisfied, the itch never healed.

No it isn’t. That is not the real stuff of religion. Religion has no monopoly on dreams of peace and justice, and plenty of religion has nothing whatever to do with peace and justice. I do wish if people are going to try to make a case for religion they could manage to do it honestly.

Real Life

Oct 18th, 2004 8:38 am | By

Travel news.


Oct 13th, 2004 8:30 pm | By

I love this. There are those who think that people like me who insist, whether petulantly or earnestly or flintily, that Shakespeare (as it might be) is quite a good writer and better in many ways than quite a few other writers, are ‘elitist’ and snobbish and mindless enemies of all of popular culture. But ’tis not so. It’s just that I insist in the same kind of way there too – some of it is better than other of it, that’s all. I don’t love all of popular culture. But then I don’t love all of the putative ‘canon’ either – some of it I think is over-rated. Gatsby, for instance.

But one bit of popular culture I do love, though I hadn’t given it much thought for some years, or decades, is Pogo. This article in the Boston Review attracted a post at Crooked Timber and the post has attracted fans, fans with more knowledge and better memories than I have, and both the article and the comments have made me all in a sweat to read it again. It’s hilarious stuff, and very American – but in a good way. Not the usual sappy mushy silly goggle-eyed irony-free way that people seem to think is so typical of us – no, in a Twainish, Menckenish, W C Fieldsish, Grouchoish, Ring Lardnerish, self-mocking way. Not bad for red paint.

Key Thinkers and Canons

Oct 12th, 2004 7:38 pm | By

Now that’s funny. Made me do one of those loony blurts of laughter at the computer screen that solidify one’s feeling of creeping insanity. No but really, it is funny. The Guardian has a really exceptionally irritating smug knowing comment in a leader on our debt to Derrida. My point is not to quarrel with the late Derrida, whom I haven’t read; my point is to quarrel with this particular remark in this particular rather silly piece in the Guardian.

What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a “western canon” who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.

Sterile? Sterile?? Sterile in what sense, you, you [takes deep breath, starts over]. For one thing, there is no ‘western canon’, that’s a straw man. Yes yes, I know, Harold Bloom called a book that, but that’s because of all the people droning about the sterility of this non-existent western canon. There is no fucking canon. Okay? There isn’t. What there is, is a lot of reading lists for university literature surveys, especially in the US where people don’t get much of the kind of thing in secondary school. But that’s not a ‘canon.’ That’s a pejorative people came up with to get people to stop reading Shakespeare and read other people instead. Reading other people is fine, if they’re good (and if they’re not, if that’s what you want to do), but actually discouraging people from reading Shakespeare, by sneering about canons, is another matter. For a second thing, if there were a ‘western canon’ (which there isn’t), why would it be sterile? What’s sterile about reading, say, Homer and Euripides and Thucydides and Montaigne and Byron and Austen and Hazlitt? Eh? And for a third thing, what does ‘could sit alongside the Brontes’ mean? Anything? No, but it implies something – that thanks to Derrida, we now get to think that Mary Elizabeth Braddon is as good as Emily Bronte (not ‘the Brontes,’ since they are two different writers, after all, not a unit). Well guess what – she isn’t. Not even close. I haven’t read Derrida but I have read some Braddon, and she is mildly entertaining, but she is not within shouting distance of the author of Wuthering Heights.

The funny bit is that I was going to do a N&C to say exactly that, and then I saw that A C Grayling had got there first. Good.

Your leader express a gratitude to Jacques Derrida for impugning the idea of a literary “canon” (October 11). What deconstruction and its postmodern allies, in theory, actually do is abandon standards of judgment, describing these as tools of snobbery and exclusion, and thereby making it a criterion of excellence that a work’s author (his or her intentions, of course, aside) has an appropriate gender, ethnicity, or geographical origin.

The good reasons why these latter considerations should count in giving a hearing to traditionally suppressed voices should not be confused with the question of what constitutes the highest critical standards: it is part of the damage done by Derrida and his kind that the latter have been replaced almost wholesale by the former.

Exactly. The bit about snobbery and exclusion is what really gets up my nose. That’s the bit of cultural work that word ‘sterile’ is doing – that’s what I mean by ‘discouraging’ people from reading Shakespeare. It’s false, it’s stupid, and it’s harmful, and I wish people would knock it off. It is not ‘elitist’ to read or to like Shakespeare, and the sooner that idea gets drummed out of the ‘canon’ of right-on ideas, the better. Go, Anthony – tell ’em!

It was also amusing to see the Guardian’s idea of key thinkers. snicker, snort. Alain de Botton and Julie Burchill? gasp, wheeze.

Anyway, when I spotted the article, the first thing I thought was, I wonder if that Baggini fella we keep running into is one of their key thinkers. So I hit the down button, and sure enough. He’s everywhere, that guy. Even here.

Update: You know the best thing about Derrida? People who read him learn not to be so dogmatic! So they tell us, anyway.

A Paradigm Shift

Oct 12th, 2004 6:37 pm | By

My colleague and I have been talking in an inconclusive back-and-forth way about the subject of certainty, the revisability of scientific claims, the difference between in principle and in reality or in practice or in fact, transcendence, labeling, rhetoric, the difference between what can be imagined and what is a live possibility. We’ll talk about it further in a couple of days (well, three) when we’ll be able to do it with the useful accompaniment and assistance of gestures, grimaces, thrown objects, slaps, pinches, what my brother always called as he administered it to me an ‘Indian rope burn’ but which must be called something else now but I don’t know what, table-thumping, brow slapping, eye rolling, hair tearing, and food throwing. That is our rigorous and aerobic notion of collaboration. It has always been liberally laced with insults, taunts, mockery, and rude suggestions, and physical violence will be a welcome addition and enrichment of this tradition.

It comes up of course because of this book we’re writing, and because of thinking about the claims of people like Bloor and other Strong Programmistas. It’s impossible (naturally enough) to think about such claims without thinking about epistemology, and of course it’s impossible to think about epistemology without immediately getting lost in a bog of Yes but how do we know we know we know? and similar penetrating questions. Which is why people like Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus made such big names for themselves and why Montaigne inscribed ‘que scais-je?’ into the roofbeam and why Hume woke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers and why Derrida expanded on the point and why Rorty and Fish enjoy irritating everyone and why Douglas Adams thought of the mouse experiment and 42 and whoever thought of The Matrix thought of The Matrix. It’s not as if they’re wrong, it’s not as if there’s nothing problematic about knowledge. What one does with that thought is another matter, but the thought itself is a real thought.

My colleague’s real thought has to do with the fact that science is revisable in principle but, about some things, not in reality. That scientists may say that all scientific knowledge is revisable but there are plenty of things about which they don’t actually believe it. They don’t really believe that the fact that the earth goes around the sun is revisable. I’ve been putting up an argument. I think either that they do believe it, or that the fact that they don’t doesn’t really have any particular force. Or both of those – that they’re the same thing. They do believe it’s revisable, provided there is evidence. The difficulty of imagining what that evidence could be and how it could be reconciled with all the other evidence does make the belief very thin, or formal, or ‘merely’ verbal, I suppose – but then that’s how it is. That particular ‘if’ is a very big if – but some ifs are very big ifs. That’s the nature of ifs, and thought experiments and counter-factuals in general. So we argue about transcendence and certainty. Is it reasonable to say that some of science’s truth claims are in fact transcendent, or certain, because of this difficulty of real belief in revisability? Well, yes, in a sense, I suppose, but it’s also true that such words are used in rhetorical contexts and for rhetorical purposes – to attribute much greater certainty, and smugness and blindness and refusal to question, to science and scientists than they in fact have about a lot of their own work. They know from daily practice, from life at the coal face, how tentative theories can be, so…it seems to me that that’s enough to foster the kind of uncertainty and awareness of revisability that’s required. But then I’m the one writing this Comment, so I’m giving myself the last word. Followed by a few thrown apple cores.

Actually not. Jerry S typed and sent this extract from E O Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (pp 319-20) by way of commentary, so I’ll give that the last word.

I picked Hamilton’s paper out of my briefcase somewhere north of New Haven
and riffled through it impatiently. I was anxious to get to the gist of the
argument and move on to something else, something more familiar and
congenial. The prose was convoluted and the full-dress mathematic treatment
difficult, but I understood his main point about haplodiploidy and colonial
life quickly enough. My first response was negative. Impossible, I thought:
this can’t be right. Too simple. He must not know much about social insects.
But the idea kept gnawing away at me early that afternoon, as I changed over
to the Silver Meteor in New York’s Pennsylvania Station. As we departed
southward across the New Jersey marshes, I went though the article again,
more carefully this time, looking for the fatal flaw I believed must be
there. At intervals I closed my eyes and tried to conceive of alternative,
more convincing explanations of the prevalence of hymenopteran social life
and the all-female worker force. Surely I knew enough to come up with
something. I had done this kind of critique before and succeeded. But
nothing presented itself now. By dinnertime, as the train rumbled on into
Virginia, I was growing frustrated and angry. Hamilton, whoever he was,
could not have cut the Gordian knot. Anyway, there was no Gordian knot in
the first place, was there? I had thought there was probably just a lot of
accidental evolution and wonderful natural history. And because I modestly
thought of myself as the world authority on social insects, I also thought
it unlikely that anyone else could explain their origin, certainly not in
one clean stroke. The next morning, as we rolled on past Waycross and
Jacksonville, I thrashed about some more. By the time we reached Miami in
the early afternoon, I gave up. I was a convert, and put myself in
Hamilton’s hands. I had undergone what historians of science call a paradigm

‘The Plan’

Oct 12th, 2004 5:14 pm | By

Speaking of poetry – Norm has a poem by Sophie Hannah. It’s brilliant. I’d quote a bit but that would spoil the effect; read the whole thing.

Poetry rocks.

Blore Moor I Mean More Bloor

Oct 9th, 2004 8:51 pm | By

A little more Bloor for you, in case you’ve been missing him.

The law which is at work here appears to be this: those who are defending a society or a subsection of society from a perceived threat will tend to mystify its values and standards, including its knowledge…[T]he variable of perceived threat operating upon underlying social metaphors explains the differential tendency to treat knowledge as sacred and beyond the reach of scientific study.

This is interesting stuff, because what Bloor means by ‘beyond the reach of scientific study’ is ‘not considered amenable to substantive analysis by people who are not trained in the subject.’ That is, he is claiming (in great detail, e.g. via an extended comparison of Popper and Kuhn and their relationships to the Enlightenment and Romanticism respectively) that scientists treat knowledge as sacred and beyond the reach of ‘scientific’ (by which he means sociological) study – because said scientists are not, for the most part, convinced that sociological studies can analyze the substance of, say, physics or geology or neuroscience. This lack of conviction is labeled ‘mystification’ and attributed to perception of threat. The far more obvious explanation for such a lack of conviction is not discussed.

After a brief discussion of history and its way with knowledge, he returns to the mystification theme:

The case is quite different for conceptions of knowledge which seek to cut it off from the world and which reject the naturalistic approach [by which, again, he means sociological study of the content of scientific research]. Once knowledge has been made special in this way, then all control over our theorising about its nature has been lost.

‘Made special.’ ‘seek to cut it off from the world.’ Again, what he means by those rather paranoid phrases is simply failure to agree that sociologists have something useful to say about the substance of scientific research. In other words, what would appear to be the quite natural opinion of geologists and astronomers that non-geologists and non-astronomers are, pretty much by definition, not likely to be able to judge the content of geology or astronomy, is labeled ‘making it special’ and ‘seeking to cut it off from the world’. Stark staring nonsense. It’s so basic. You don’t know about a subject unless you know about it. I don’t know how to fix a car or a computer unless I learn, do I (and I haven’t learned, and I don’t know). Some subjects take more learning, more time and effort, than others, and most if not all scientific subjects are at the high end of that scale. This is not exactly a secret, is it! It’s why people don’t study the subjects in huge numbers (except perhaps in Germany), it’s why science teachers are rarer than, say, Theory teachers or Media Studies teachers. The stuff is hard! There’s a lot of it and you have to learn it, you can’t fake it by spinning words. So why would we expect people who haven’t learned it to be able to say anything relevant about it? (‘It’ always being understood to mean the actual content, not the social conventions and institutions around it or the methodology or the rhetoric of the reports.) Why would we pretend that it’s ‘mystification’ to think that non-physicists don’t know a great deal about physics?

Who knows. For something to do. For attention. For tenure. Whatever. Anyway, it’s nonsense.

Poetry Day

Oct 7th, 2004 8:51 pm | By

Chris at Crooked Timber points out that it’s National Poetry day in the UK, and gives his favourite Shakespeare sonnet. I don’t have one favourite, because there are too many, though if I did have to pick one I decided it would be either 116 or 29. Either ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment’ or ‘When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.’ But there are several other top favourites, which I shared with the lucky readers of CT, so I’ll share them with our readers too.

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore


When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced


Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea


No longer mourn for me when I am dead


That time of year thou mayst in me behold


They that have power to hurt and will do none


Alas, ‘tis true, I have gone here and there


O for my sake do you with Fortune chide


Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes

And if you like the Sonnets, and if you haven’t read Philip Sidney’s set, which preceded Shakespeare’s and influenced and inspired them, you oughta. Astrophil and Stella. Great stuff. Not the way the Sonnets are; on a different level; a different kind of level; but great stuff all the same.

Happy Poetry Day.

All That Ink

Oct 7th, 2004 7:38 pm | By

And sometimes I just waste my time. Inevitable, no doubt – but disconcerting when it happens. There I was this morning reading away at David Bloor, and making notes. Scribble scribble eh Mr Gibbon. I made a longish note about the way he uses the word ‘conventional’ and what a tricky word it can be. It implies a ‘mere’ but convention isn’t always mere. For instance, it’s true enough to say, as Bloor, and Barnes and the Strong Programme in general, do say, that the rules and criteria of science are conventional, but it doesn’t follow that they’re merely conventional. ‘One can have knowledge or findings,’ I pointed out sagely to myself, ‘that are conventional without being mere. In fact the “conventions” of science work (overall, over time, cumulatively etc) to make it more rather than less accurate – rather than to make it more acceptable.’ Fine. But then I turn the page and find –

To say that the methods and results of science are conventions does not make them ‘mere’ conventions.

I burst out laughing. Well fine! Just anticipate my objections! I don’t know why I bother!

Mind you. The objection is not entirely invalid anyway, because he does use the word that way in some places, even if he also does forestall the objection on page 44. That’s one way the whole Strong Programme works: by shifting around all the time, by using words one way in one place and another way in another. Fancy footwork, in short. Susan Haack talks about this in Chapter 7 of Defending Science. It’s rather exasperating. One minute they’re simply belaboring the obvious (people can believe true things but for irrational reasons), the next minute they’re deploying rhetoric to assert an absurdity, and the minute after that they’re saying something perfectly reasonable. And all this adds up to a Programme, and a mas macho one at that. ‘Strong’ may be not quite the right adjective.

Show Us Your Biceps, Mister

Oct 5th, 2004 7:00 pm | By

Time for another of those exercises when I quote a few passages from interesting (if eccentric) thinkers. Today’s examinee is David Bloor, one of the founding whatsits of the ‘Strong Programme’ at Edinburgh University. A few sentences from the opening page of his influential book Knowledge and Social Imagery:

Can the sociology of knowledge investigate and explain the very content and nature of scientific knowledge? Many sociologists believe that it cannot….They voluntarily limit the scope of their own enquiries. I shall argue that this is a betrayal of their disciplinary standpoint…There are no limitations which lie in the absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity.

That’s from the first paragraph. One, it’s interesting that he resorts to rhetoric right at the beginning, with the word ‘betrayal’ for example. And the subtle implications or innuendo behind that sentence about voluntarily limiting the scope of their own enquiries. Is ‘voluntarily’ really the right word? Or is it there to suggest things like timidity, conformity, obedience, lack of imagination and daring and scope, and the like. Is the limitation really voluntary, or is it more or less forced by the nature of reality? Is it perhaps the case that sociologists of knowledge who limit the scope of their enquiries do so because they think they don’t know enough about a given scientific field to explain its ‘very content and nature’? That seems quite likely, and not unreasonable. And note how Bloor leaves that explanation out of his list in the last sentence. He seems to mention it, but in fact doesn’t. His list makes a show of exhausting the possibilities, but in fact it doesn’t. The ‘absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity’ are not the only inhibiting factors that might make nonintoxicated (to borrow a trope of Susan Haack’s) sociologists ‘limit’ the scope of their enquiries; others would be the nature and complexity of the subject; ignorance, humility, knowledge of one’s own limitations; and especially evidence. The uninebriated sociologists might simply realize that they don’t know enough about the subject at hand to evaluate the evidence, and therefore don’t know how to differentiate between knowledge that is based on evidence and knowledge that is not, or is not completely. It’s not a question of any ‘special’ nature of truth or rationality, it’s simply a question of limited competence.

What is the cause for this hesitation and pessimism?…The cause of the hesitation to bring science within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny is lack of nerve and will. It is believed to be a foredoomed enterprise.

Lack of nerve and will. Hmm. That’s very reminiscent of that remark of Jamie Whyte’s I quoted the other day – ‘Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth.’ One just has to have the will and nerve to decide that one can discover anything, even about subjects that tend to require many years of training to understand. (Mind you, it doesn’t work the other way. Strong programme sociologists don’t often write books wondering why physicists and geologists don’t investigate the knowledge of sociologists.) All very Nietzschean, or at least Riefenstahlian. All it takes is will!

Which of course is why they call it the Strong Programme. I guess.

There It Is Again

Oct 4th, 2004 8:08 pm | By

A small point. But I’m going to make it anyway, because I think it matters. Just the other day (well, September 21, actually, I find upon looking) I was talking about that translation problem – when sensible people say ‘There is evidence/there is no evidence that etc.’ and their hearers translate that (apparently without even realizing that they are translating) into ‘That is proved/proved not.’ I’ve just noticed another example, in a teaser at Arts & Letters Daily (where you would really expect them to know better, frankly, since Denis Dutton is a bit of a shark about Bad Thinking himself).

Capital punishment. Janet Reno says it doesn’t cut murder rates, Orrin Hatch says it does. Who’s right? Easy question? No!

And here is what Reno actually said:

I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.

It’s really not a small point. It’s on journalists’ thinking such re-wordings are small and trivial and don’t matter that so much confusion and misunderstanding gets around. There just is a huge difference between saying ‘I have not found any evidence that X’ and saying ‘X is not.’ And if people are so blind to the difference that they make the translation without even noticing – well they just have no idea how anyone knows or thinks anything about anything, do they, which is an alarming thought.

Next Week?!

Oct 4th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

Well here’s a surprise – things are speeding up. The book is not coming out on October 28 after all, it’s coming out next week. It will be in all good bookshops (and, let us hope, in all bad ones as well, and mediocre ones besides, as well as adequate, so-so, okay, crapulous, and pathetic ones) for your viewing and buying pleasure. And I’ll be able to get off the plane and take my tiny red eyes into the first bookshop I see and there it will be (unless it isn’t). (Perhaps it won’t be because there will have been a rush and all copies will have sold out. Because people are finding it funny, you know. People at Smiths, for instance.)

And now here’s where you get to do your part. Not content with urging you to order it at Amazon, I have a further suggestion. This is what you do instead of subscribing or donating or looking at horrible adverts for low carb diets or sex toys. This is where you help keep the proprietors of B&W in bread and dripping for awhile longer. If you see the book at Smiths, you buy it. Here’s why: they’re starting small, at Smiths, and will only order more if the book actually sells. So if all our thousands upon thousands of regular readers grab every copy in Smiths, why, the nice people at Smiths will be running around the room squawking and slapping their foreheads in their urgency to order more copies. And that will be good.

This has been a public service announcement. Now back to your regular programming.

Education, Race and Culture

Oct 3rd, 2004 9:38 pm | By

Harry at Crooked Timber had an interesting post a couple of days ago on an issue that has been kicking around for quite awhile now: the issue of minority underachievement in school and what causes it. Another way to characterize the issue might be whether it’s just one thing that causes the underachievement or an array of factors, and if it is an array of factors, what they are and how significant each is, and whether and why some get more attention than others. Whether and why some factors are downplayed or ignored while others are exaggerated and overfocused on.

Harry puts it this way:

Our school district devoted another in-service training to the Courageous Conversations program; every employee (except the many who took sick days) had to participate…It’s a kind of involuntary therapy session — the kind of thing that my friends who used to be in obscure Maoist organizations report having gone through regularly. The pretext is a concern with minority underachievement, which the District regards as being caused by institutional racism, on which the day’s conversation focused. You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market, which deeply affect the prospects of minority males and, presumably, therefore indirectly effect their aspirations and marriageability (with predictable consequences for family structure). But: no mention of these things. It is all about the racism inherent in the schools, and particularly in the attitudes of teachers.

He also has an Op-ed in the Madison paper, where he makes this point among others:

The second assumption the Conversations approach makes is that what is explained by race can by addressed by making teachers face up to their own privilege and racism. The problem, in other words, is in the attitudes of teachers and other district employees. But we have evidence to the contrary. Analyses of the data from summer learning often suggest that the entire growth in the socio-economic class achievement gap each year occurs in the summer, when students are out of school. It looks as if out-of-school experiences, not in-school experiences, are responsible at least in part for that gap. In fact, our understanding of summer learning suggests that schools are truly remarkable places, in which, throughout the school year, the unequal effects of out-of-school experiences on achievement are held in check.

Other people make different though compatible points. Laban Tall collected some useful links on the subject last month, at the time of a conference on ‘London Schools And The Black Child’. There was BBC sports presenter and former Tottenham Hotspur striker Garth Crooks, for example, who told the conference ‘there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.’ There was a March 2002 article by Joseph Harker:

If, 10 years ago, you asked black people in inner-city areas what they most feared when walking the streets, they would probably have said it was police officers; today they’d reply that it’s loud, aggressive gangs of young black boys – who may or may not be criminals, but are deliberately trying to strike terror into those around them, living up to the gangsta-rap culture which has been imported from the US since the late 1980s. “We’re from the street,” they grunt, “we want respect” (expletives deleted). For a decade now, backed by the profane, misogynistic imagery of rap videos, these people have been given free rein to hijack black culture. Being black is all about music, sex, guns, drugs and living on “the street”, they say, and their message has been taken on board by too many impressionable youngsters. As Sewell said, education has been portrayed as “white” – what use is it when strutting the streets?

And an email debate between Tony Sewell and Lee Jasper on the subject, in which Tony Sewell put it this way:

Many black head teachers and black students are clear that underachievement can be due to the individual student, parents, community, peers and, of course, school. They don’t agree that poverty and institutionalised racism are the most important factors. I would go further and say that political correctness has avoided the real issue of an anti-school black masculinity that pervades not only our inner city but those black boys who attend schools in the suburbs. When it comes to the CRE challenging failing schools, its remit must be wider than just white racism. It must also challenge a youth culture that still thinks to do well in school is to “act white”.

And Jamie Whyte had a piece in the Times about the way the evidence was used:

In the 17th century accusations of witchcraft could be made on flimsy evidence: warts and buoyancy would do. In the 21st century accusations of racism can be made with no evidence at all, or even with evidence pointing in the opposite direction…Pupils were asked how strongly they agree with the following statements, from 5 “strongly agree” to 1 “strongly disagree”:

“Q14. My teachers expect me to do well at school. Q15. My teachers expect me to do my homework. Q16. My teachers care about my progress. Q17. Teachers listen to what I say. Q18. I am often in conflict with teachers.” The average answers of black and white pupils were the same: exactly the same for questions 14 and 15 and so close for the others that the difference is statistically insignificant.

Yet the opposite answer was somehow found – the school system was declared racist when the evidence indicated it wasn’t. That’s the kind of thing that makes one want to rush out and become a teacher, isn’t it.

Clearly there is a strong taboo against saying ‘the culture’ might be playing any part in the underachievement – no doubt it seems too much like blaming the victim. But is it going to be possible to correct the problem while ignoring crucial factors? One wouldn’t think so.

Walking Down the Runway in a Donna Karan Creation

Oct 3rd, 2004 8:43 pm | By

My colleague has been slaving over a hot stove for days, and at last the meal is just about cooked. And I must say I think it’s a triumph and worth the wait. Check it out. That’s TPM’s (The Philosophers’ Magazine Online’s) new look. Is that gorgeous or what. Look at the magical quotations thing. Look at the new section for News. Look at the bright clean colourful sparkle of it all. That’s what I call Web design.

And if you notice any problems (‘glitches’ I believe they’re called), don’t hesitate to comment or to email JerryS.