Notes and Comment Blog


Aug 10th, 2003 9:20 pm | By

Yet another enthralling Start the Week, this one from June (I don’t listen to them in any sort of coherent order, rather I listen to the ones that sound most interesting first, in case I get run over by a bus before I get a chance to listen to them all). It’s interesting in general, but especially for the moment when, after everyone else has expressed great enthusiasm for a film about a charismatic Los Angeles preacher at a gospel church, Norman Finkelstein dissents from the general applause. He thinks it’s all an irritating exercise in white primitivism, and that the preacher in question is an embarrassment. It takes a bit of nerve to say that!

Translation 2

Aug 9th, 2003 2:13 am | By

Another thing irrationalists like to do is translate. Well I suppose all arguers translate, but irrationalists are especially fond of doing it. But then that’s not surprising, is it. Irrationalists are woolly by definition, so naturally they think one word is as good as another, vague approximations of meaning will do well enough, clarity is not necessary between friends.

One translation that’s especially popular – I may even have droned about this in a N&C before, I don’t remember, it certainly comes up a lot – is from evidence to proof. They seem to think the words are interchangeable – only they never say evidence instead of proof, no, it’s always the other way around. I suppose they have themselves so convinced that skeptics and secularists and atheists are claiming greater certainty than we in fact are that they just take it for granted we’re talking about proof and certainty even though we never use the word.

So that’s how it goes. I say something like ‘Why should we believe something if there is no evidence for it?’ and the irrationalists earnestly assure me that ‘the so-called scientific method of rigorous proof is a myth,’ and then go on about light’s being both wave and particle or quantum mechanics. But the ‘so-called scientific method of rigorous proof’ is a red herring, scientists don’t talk about proof, they talk about evidence. Proof is the province of math and logic, not science as a whole, and I didn’t say proof in any case. I said evidence. Evidence. Evidence. But confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and they apparently can’t hear me.

Let’s Redefine Evidence, Shall We?

Aug 8th, 2003 8:31 pm | By

Well to be sure it is a waste of time arguing with irrationalists, but on the other hand I did find out something I’ve been wanting to know, which is what they mean when they say that rationalists and atheists define evidence too narrowly. That seems to be a fashionable thing to say, I keep hearing it and seeing it, but the discussion always seems to go off in another direction before I can pin down what they mean by it. But this time after I asked about fifteen times, the irrationalist (who claims to have a PhD in cognitive science, which I hope is a bit of Walter Mittyism) finally said what he meant: ‘In terms of “evidence”… it can be non-material, non-phenomenological, but impinge upon an individual’s consciousness.’

Oh that. Is that all. Wanting to claim that something that happens inside my head (or your head, or X’s head) is evidence of something, not in my head, but in the external world. That’s what broadening the definition of evidence amounts to; I see. ‘I really really feel that Jesus loves me, therefore Jesus exists.’ In short, a piece of pure Humpty Dumptyism: words can mean whatever I want them to mean. It’s a question of who’s to be master, that’s all. If we can all decide that anything we can dream up in our own dear little minds constitutes evidence, why, what a fun world we can all create. Of course, that will mean we’ll have to come up with a new word which means what ‘evidence’ means now, and then the irrationalists will hijack and redefine that one too, so that we’ll have to come up with another one, and –

This could go on awhile.

Derrida and the WTO

Aug 7th, 2003 9:20 pm | By

Now, hang on. Surely one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist to have some doubts about the WTO. Well no, one doesn’t, because I do and I’m not. QED. But there seems to be some confusion on the matter.

This week in Montreal, there was an anti-globalization riot in which windows were broken in protest against a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. But the Habermas-Derrida declaration praises the WTO and even the International Monetary Fund as part of Weltinnenpolitik…Yet it is not much of a stretch to claim the young anti-globalists as disciples of postmodernism and Derrida, who has hitherto been a foe of “logocentrism” (putting reason at the centre), “phallologocentrism” (reason is an erect male organ and, as such, damnably central) and Eurocentrism (the old, old West is the homeland of all of the above).

Well I think it is indeed much of a stretch. Not only does one not have to be a postmodernist, one also does not have to be either young or an ‘anti-globalist’ (whatever that means) to be a WTO skeptic. There are real, concrete, specific, non-woolly problems with the WTO and how it operates, but you’d never know it from about 95% (rough estimate, to be sure) of the media coverage. It’s not all about staying as sweet as you are and nostalgia for tiny farms with little plumes of smoke rising over the old farmhouse, it’s not about hating Starbucks, it’s not about anti-Eurocentrism or primitivism. It’s really rather simple. The tribunal is made up of appointed, unelected, unaccountable trade representatives who have the power to overturn (or at least penalize) any legislation that they claim interferes with trade. Environmental legislation, labour legislation, consumer safety legislation, truth in advertising legislation. This is not some kind of fuzzy-headed made-up grievance, it’s a very dangerous system. It’s ludicrous to lump doubts about the WTO in with postmodernism. Apples and oranges, Starbucks and Burger King.

Wasting One’s Breath

Aug 7th, 2003 8:31 pm | By

What a chump I am. I’ve frittered away a lot of time and energy on a discussion board, arguing with someone who disagrees with my ‘Science and Religion’ In Focus article but can’t come up with a convincing argument. Sigh. Same old bollocks. Atheism is a belief, theism and atheism are exact equivalents, you’re defining evidence too narrowly, I can’t prove god is there just as I can’t prove I love someone, blah blah blah. Can’t they do better than that? Well no, of course they can’t, that’s the whole point. Can’t come up with better arguments and can’t see how lame their own are, apparently. Right, I’ll just give us a quotation or two by way of refreshment.

I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. [Steven Weinberg, ‘A Designer Universe?’]

Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion…The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religion rely on faith. These approaches are irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet. [Neil deGrasse Tyson, ‘Holy Wars: An Astrophysicist Ponders the God Question’]

Grammar School

Aug 6th, 2003 7:53 pm | By

I find this article very interesting, in a slightly queasy and guilty way. Queasy and guilty for a few reasons – one of which is that I’m not very keen to agree with Roger Scruton about anything. But then I promptly feel queasy about that thought, too, because it’s the basic principle of B and W that facts (and where possible ideas and opinions) should be judged on their merits rather than by association or ideological affiliation. That is to say, I’m almost obliged to acknowledge that a conservative isn’t automatically wrong about everything. But then will I end up agreeing with Rush Limbaugh about something? Oh please no –

Well, we all know the feeling, I suppose. Our Shanghai correspondent David Stanway said much the same thing in his blog on Monday (scroll down to August 4).

Reading another of Mark Steyn’s masterpieces in The Spectator , I am forced to admit that the idealism of youth is no longer an option, particularly in West Africa. I am also forced to admit the ineluctable truth that one becomes more right-wing as one gets older. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t even have looked at The Spectator.

Just so. Mind you, I usually manage to tell myself that I’m not becoming more right-wing, I’m just becoming more skeptical or observant or wised-up or nuanced or some such flattering spin. Then again other times I can’t help thinking I’m simply becoming more misanthropic and choleric and short-fused and scornful. But those are good things to be!

Ah well, never mind. I know there are some limits. I’ll never admire George Bush or Ronald Reagan, I’ll never rejoice over tax cuts for the rich, I’ll never join Scruton in getting dewey-eyed about fox hunting, I’ll never, ever become a god-botherer. That will have to do for now.

But another reason I feel a bit torn about the Scruton article is that I always feel torn about this subject – the competing goods of egalitarianism and meritocracy in education (and elsewhere). I would like everyone to have an education like the one Scruton got at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School. Yes and I would also like pigs to have wings and the land to flow with milk and honey. Even if societies were willing and able to spend the money that would take, there wouldn’t be enough brilliant teachers to make that possible. So…I’m just stuck with feeling torn, as always. Such is life, I’m told.

Ibn Warraq

Aug 3rd, 2003 11:43 pm | By

I’m pleased to see that the well-known blog burchismo has nice things to say about both David Stanway’s article about the Three Gorges and Ibn Warraq’s deconstruction of Edward Said (July 31 and August 1). Not that I comment every time someone mentions us, in fact I never do, but it seems worth mentioning Ibn Warraq (and David too of course!). If you haven’t already you should take a look at Ibn Warraq’s remarkable site, the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. Read this article on ‘honour killings’ for example, or this one, a witty and irritated look at Muslim-American intellectual life, which asks the probing question, ‘what school of Islamic jurisprudence holds that pork is haram (impermissible) not just for humans but for dogs-and not just for dogs, but for fictional ones?’

Ibn Warraq’s article on Edward Said is all the more timely, since Said has just written an article in the Guardian plaintively noting that the Pentagon pays more attention to Bernard Lewis than it does to him. His argument is not as throughly consistent as it might be. In a paragraph near the beginning he says this:

There has been so massive and calculatedly aggressive an attack on contemporary Arab and Muslim societies for their backwardness, lack of democracy, and abrogation of women’s rights that we simply forget that such notions as modernity, enlightenment, and democracy are by no means simple and agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find like Easter eggs in the living-room.

And in one near the end he says this:

As Roula Khalaf has argued, the region has slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what the US is really like as a society. Because the governments are relatively powerless to affect US policy toward them, they turn their energies to repressing and keeping down their own populations, with results in resentment, anger and helpless imprecations that do nothing to open up societies where secular ideas about human history and development have been overtaken by failure and frustration, as well as by an Islamism built out of rote learning and the obliteration of what are perceived to be other, competitive forms of secular knowledge.

Well never mind trying to figure out which he means, just read Ibn Warraq’s article instead.

One Thought too Many

Aug 3rd, 2003 9:46 pm | By

Abdication of thought department, not to mention argument by innuendo department. Here is an opinion piece about a supposed conflict between two values, between inclusiveness and humane treatment of animals, between multiculturalism and banning cruel methods of slaughter.

But now a government-funded committee is expected to conclude that traditional Jewish and Islamic methods of slaughter are inhumane. The timing could not be better because, clearly, Britain’s Muslims are nowhere near alienated enough at the moment…This moral conundrum goes right to the heart of what it means to live in a multicultural society.

When you don’t have much of an argument, resort to sarcasm. What’s his point? That findings about which methods of slaughter are humane and which are not should be made on the basis of who will be alienated by them? Does that apply to findings and conclusions in general? If a government-funded committee concludes that foot-binding, or female genital mutilation, or child marriage, or child labour, or child military conscription, or slavery, or judicial torture is inhumane, will they be upbraided by columnists and hand-wringers for alienating British foot-binders or genital mutilators or judicial torturers? Does religion give people a right to torture animals without interference? If so, why? On what grounds? Does living in a multicultural society mean that one is not allowed to make trans-cultural rules or judgments? If so, is that not a recipe for chaos? Why should the wants of alienated Muslims trump the good of killing animals without causing them more suffering than necessary? Why does the columnist not even ask himself this question?

But the issue of halal meat is more blurred partly because, however the creature is slaughtered, we’re still talking about the moment of death, when surely it is the farm animal’s quality of life up to that point that is the bigger factor. We cannot call ourselves a multi-faith society and then only tolerate the aspects of other religions that match our western liberal values…If we are to be genuinely inclusive, we have to be certain before we go dictating our mix-and-match morality to other cultures. When it comes to what people eat, or how they prepare their food, we should let sleeping dogs lie.

That’s a very casual dismissal of the problem. Imagine, some people think animals raised for food should actually have both a decent life and a humane death. Some people also consider themselves secularists, and don’t call themselves ‘a multi-faith society’ at all, especially when they read people who fret about the alienation of religious groups and brush off physical pain and terror. If animals were Muslim too would he worry about them? And there’s the sly label ‘western liberal values’ for the goal of humane slaughter, as if it’s just some effete silly consumerist whim. Oh it’s all rhetoric – ‘genuinely inclusive,’ ‘dictating our mix-and-match morality,’ and then rushing past us ‘how they prepare their food’ as if we were talking about carrots or chocolate. When ‘their food’ consists of sentient, conscious beings, then yes, ‘how they prepare their food’ is the business of other people. And the dogs are not sleeping, that’s the whole point. They’re wide-awake, they can see and feel the knife.

Ibn Warraq of the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society writes eloquently about this subject in his book Why I am not a Muslim:

The British legislation concerning slaughter was passed for ethical reasons, in other words, any method of slaughter other than that recommended by these laws was considered immoral. And in giving in to Muslim and Jewish demands for their own methods of butchering we in effect condone behavior that we have previously judged immoral. We sanction immorality because of our respect for the religion of others. Cruelty to animals is all right as long as it is religious cruelty!

When in Doubt, Pontificate

Aug 3rd, 2003 1:51 am | By

What was that we were saying about certainty, and religion, and the Vatican? There just keeps on being more to say. There is for instance this lovely story about a Calgary bishop who announced that the Canadian Prime Minister’s eternal salvation is in jeopardy and that he could burn in hell. Oh well I suppose I could look on the bright side, couldn’t I. He didn’t say ‘The Prime Minister is definitely without question going to burn in hell,’ he said that he could. He said his salvation is in jeopardy, not that it’s already lost. Quite admirably flexible and latitudinarian, really! Or perhaps he is just (as we vulgar Yanks like to put it) covering his ass. Hedging his bets, in case he finds out sometime down the road that in fact Chrétien is not burning in hell. He doesn’t want to look foolish among the other denizens of the afterlife, now does he.

It’s interesting – now I know this is an obvious point, but it’s still interesting – how definite and positive and convinced and unwavering and certain the Catholic Church is that ‘To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral,’ even though they are helpless to come up with any actual reason such a law would be harmful to the common good, when they are so havering and wavering on the grave immorality of their own priests who grope children. They gesture at ‘scripture’ and they say homosexual unions are not remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family, but that just argues in a circle, obviously. People who don’t believe in the Vatican’s deity and consider the bible an interesting but not quite bang up to date book written by humans, are not going to find those convincing reasons, are they. So what else do you have, Vatters? Nothing. Nada. Bupkis. Except, apparently, a strong urge to protect your own followers even when they have in fact actually done some things generally considered harmful to the common good. And yet the Vatican doesn’t hesitate to get up there on its hind legs and order everyone about. Oh it’s enough to make a cat laugh.


Aug 1st, 2003 8:20 pm | By

We’ve been talking about certainty…haven’t we? Oh yes, I remember, it was in the comments on Comments (Notes and) last week, the ones that got tragically swept away in the server mishap. But then in some sense B and W is always talking about things like certainty; about skepticism and doubt, relativism and foundations, truth and truth claims, accuracy and error, and how to know the difference. So I always pay extra attention when people talk about certainty. Mind you, that’s been true for years, since long before B and W was even a half-formed idea in its founder’s mind.

A rather frightening Tory politician by the name of Ann Widdecombe was on Start the Week the other day talking about the need for de-secularization and re-imposition of religion. She was very emphatic about the value of certainty and how little of it most modern people have and what a lot of it she has herself, thanks to her religiosity. Another of the guests, the always brilliant Marina Warner, asked the obvious question: what do we do about all those other certainties? Ariel Sharon’s, George Bush’s? Widdecombe simply brushed the question off, but she certainly (yes, certainly) didn’t answer it. But what do we do about them? Not to mention of course Osama bin Laden’s certainties, and the Taliban’s, and the mullahs’ in Iran, and the Pope’s. The darling Pope (or the Vatican) has chimed in on the certainty front too, telling us that ‘There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family…Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.’ In the real world, you see, where we can only rely on evidence and our interpretation of it, rational people tend to be a little bit cautious in their pronouncements on matters like natural moral law. But people who rely on revelation and authority and tradition and a holy book have no hesitation whatever in telling the entire world what to do. Interesting, isn’t it. But as I say, frightening.

Our Mole

Aug 1st, 2003 12:18 am | By

How B and W does keep rising in the world. A couple of weeks ago we had our first plagiarist, and now we have our first mole. I’m very chuffed. A mole in the Open University, this is, who has discovered a little vein of woolly thinking there.

Students of the Open University current undergraduate course on Renaissance studies have to learn of “the occult sciences, and … their very great contribution to scientific developments in this period” – something which might raise the eyebrows of one or two scientist historians of science. But I think most scientists, and many philosophers, might question the assertion “natural magic is best thought of as an esoteric form of physics”. I did physics as a first degree and wonder how my professors from those days would react to this idea. Perhaps ‘natural magic’ is the answer to hidden variable theories of quantum mechanics.

This is all too credible, especially to anyone who’s ever read any Frances Yates. I did, ten or fifteen years ago, so well before Higher Superstition and the Sokal hoax, well before fashionable nonsense about science and epistemic relativism had the glare of unfriendly attention and publicity turned on them. I was intensely puzzled by Yates’ tone. She seemed to think Renaissance thinkers who were skeptical of alchemy and astrology and the like were not, as I would have expected, more shrewd and critical, better scientists than the non-skeptics, but on the contrary, bigoted and narrow and unimaginative. I can remember reading the pages over and over, trying to figure out what she meant by it. Now I realize, she was a sort of premature Bruno Latour.

And popular with it. I also remember discovering how bizarrely popular her book on Giordano Bruno was. Again, I was baffled at first. Eh? thought I. A book on a fairly obscure Renaissance ‘philosopher’? Why on earth? Then I realized it had to do with hermeticism and occultism and New Agery. And, oh dear, more painfully, I also remember asking a Renaissance scholar of my acquaintance, one I had always thought a sane and skeptical type, about the mystery of Yates’ credulous tone – and his agreeing with her. If he’d told me he’d become a Republican (US variety) I couldn’t have been more shocked. And only recently, he told me he didn’t agree with my definition of the Enlightenment in the Fashionable Dictionary. Oh dear oh dear, poor guy. He’s in Their Clutches.

What’s the Problem?

Aug 1st, 2003 12:17 am | By

There is a highly interesting article in the July Prospect on a subject that, not surprisingly, keeps recurring on B and W: the quarrelsome relationship between journalism and truth. We examined the issue via the tale of Jayson Blair and the New York Times, for example, and also the self-contradictions and one-eyed views of the Guardian.

It is, after all, an important matter, isn’t it. Journalism is of necessity where most of us get our knowledge of what’s going on in the world. Even the movers and shakers, even the people who make things go on in the world, get some of their knowledge from journalism, and the rest of us naturally get most or all of it there. What on earth do we know of Saddam Hussein or George Bush, of AIDS in Africa and SARS in Hong Kong, of civil war in Liberia or military dictatorships in Burma, of plutonium reprocessing in North Korea or walls under construction on the West Bank, unless we read of it in the newspapers or hear it on the radio or tv? Nothing. Not one thing. And since we (we who produce this site at least, and many who read it) live in democracies, since we are able to vote, it is as well if we do know something of these things. And for the same sort of reason it is as well if the people who tell us about them make some effort to get them right. If they know the difference between accuracy and its absence, and if they think the difference matters. It’s unsettling to find out that they don’t.

Throughout the conversation, irritable on my side, Wellington adopted the patient, weary air of one who is dealing, not for the first time, with an unreasonable complainant….Oborne’s style was confident, impatient of questioning and diversionary-he kept turning the question to other issues, including my own journalism….Walters, Kampfner and Oborne interpret political events for, at times, millions of people. The last two appear routinely on radio and television, and write widely for other papers. Yet in their replies to my questions, they seemed surprised, even indignant, about being challenged. They were evasive and unconcerned to find out whether they had indeed misrepresented the facts…

To be sure, one of the two pieces John Lloyd is discussing here is an opinion piece, and opinions of course have more latitude than facts. But does that translate to a blank check for bizarre leaps of logic and ruthless oversimplification?

Kampfner’s e-mailed reply addressed none of my points and merely asserted that he had been fair. The compromises I and others had made to support the war, he wrote, “required an attack on multilateralism, on the positions of the UN, much of the EU and obviously France/Germany/Russia… in effect the adoption, however uncomfortably, of a Rumsfeld world view.” It’s a contention difficult to believe as one seriously held by a prominent political commentator, as against a prominent witch hunter. (You believe that Iraq should be invaded. So does Donald Rumsfeld. You thus must believe all the same things Rumsfeld believes. Confess!)

Journalists like to run up onto the moral high ground when they’re challenged, to claim to be doing the public’s work, keeping the democracy informed, respecting the right to know, and the like. But those claims are not always absolutely convincing.

Democracy and its Tensions

Jul 30th, 2003 11:43 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading the chapter on democracy in Norman Levitt’s Prometheus Bedeviled. I’ve been pondering the tensions between democracy and science, public opinion and truth, elections and epistemology, for – well for years, really, but with renewed attention recently. The discussion of scientific literacy a few weeks ago, reviews of Fareed Zakaria’s new book on democracy, the naive surprise of so many of the good and great at the possibility (or likelihood) that democracy in Iraq might very well result in a fundamentalist theocracy, Julian’s latest Bad Moves on the democratic fallacy and majoritarianism, and more, have combined to show me or remind me that the subject is full of unnoticed pieties, assumptions, sentimentalities, untrue bromides, leaps of faith, and contradictions. Levitt’s chapter is a good place to find some open-eyed statements on the matter.

One point is that public opinion and the truth are two different things. Entirely. There is no law of nature, no provision by a kind and caring deity, that insures that their paths will ever cross. No mechanism ensures that sooner or later, eventually, in the end (whenever that is – there is no end, there is only now) public opinion will get it right. That’s how it is even in non-factual, non-scientific, fuzzy, opinion-based areas like morality and politics, and it’s certainly the case when it comes to facts and evidence and logic. No amount of public opinion can make it true that the sun travels around the earth. That’s blindingly obvious, of course, but people who want a ‘demotic science’ have to overlook or obfuscate it.

It is precisely because successful democracy needs a successful means of filtering evidence and theories that the political culture of democracy must acknowledge that science has created such a methodology, and that it is without counterpart in other areas of experience. To heap this kind of flattery on science is simply to recognize the role of logic and sound evidentiary principles in human affairs. This is what gives science its special social status as our chief instrument for dealing with a vast array of practical problems.

There are no short cuts. By all means, make science more democratic if that means more people being scientifically literate. But if it means demanding that scientists pay attention to public opinion no matter how ill-informed…that’s another matter.

Trust Me, I’m a Communicator

Jul 30th, 2003 10:54 pm | By

Oh, the hell with the Enlightenment project, you know? Screw all that stuff about education and rationality and informed consent and critical thinking. Nah. Too much trouble. We’ve got better things to do, we’ve got tv to watch and sports pages to read and an inner child to get in touch with. Don’t bother us with that rational argument and evidence and peer review crap. Just manipulate us, okay? Just make us feel good, make us feel empowered and participatory and noticed and brimfull of self-esteem, and we’ll do anything you want.

Research over the past decade has begun to question the central importance of knowledge in shaping public opinion about science. Instead of public education programs, argue some social scientists, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making, and that enhance public trust in science-as-an-institution.

Trust. That’s the ticket. And not reasonable, well-founded, justified trust, either. No, that’s sissy stuff, that’s for those pencil-neck geeks in the labs who actually want to understand what they’re trusting and agreeing to. Pedants! No, I just want to trust blindly, thanks, I want to trust anybody who opens the door and invites me to come in and doesn’t mind that I don’t understand one single word of what anyone is saying.

At least, that seems to be the thinking behind this bizarre article. Someone who is getting a PhD in communication wants us to know that public acceptance of science is all about communication (just as hammers want us to know that everything is all about nails). But this is communication of a certain kind, communication as hand-holding and inclusion, communication as rhetoric and public relations, rather than communication as education and elucidation and (cover your ears, children) enlightenment.

Many social scientists, for example, question the heavy emphasis on science literacy. Instead, these researchers insist that the scientific community has been too quick to blame the public. By “problematizing” the public, scientists assume too often that the science they produce is “unproblematic,” even though technologies such as genetic engineering raise a number of valid technical and moral concerns. As a result, when science knowledge and know-how is brought to bear in policy decisions or communicated to the public by scientists, the view from science is often privileged over differing public perspectives about the issue, thereby simply reinforcing any resistance. The “public engagement” perspective asserts that scientific institutions and scientists need to focus less on programs designed to inform the public about the facts of science, and should instead focus on programs that get citizens involved in science-related decision-making, with a goal of promoting public trust.

Okay, but if we’re going to blow off scientific literacy, how are all these ‘citizens’ going to know, how are they going to have the slightest clue, which technologies ‘raise a number of valid technical and moral concerns’ and just exactly what those concerns are and how they should be dealt with? How does ignorance help? Do we have some sort of in-born intuition about which technologies raise valid concerns and which don’t? If so, where does it come from, how does it operate, and above all, how accurate is it? Or are we just talking Yuk-factor again. Or to put it another way, is it really such a brilliant idea to ‘get citizens involved in science-related decision-making, with a goal of promoting public trust’ without educating those citizens first? Guess what! I don’t want ignorant ‘citizens’ – people like me, for example – making ‘science-related’ decisions, even if that heady taste of power does promote their trust. Let’s promote citizens’ trust in some other way. Maybe we could inscribe something about trust on the currency.

[Note: don’t be alarmed if this N and C looks oddly familiar. I first wrote it last month, and it’s one of the many that disappeared during our little server mishap last weekend. But I have a hard copy, so I just ploddingly typed it back in again, because it’s relevant to some matters I want to explore further.]

Behind the Scenes

Jul 29th, 2003 12:12 am | By

I heard something interesting on the US public radio show ‘Fresh Air’ last week. Peter Stotherd, a former editor of the Times (of London), has written a book called Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History, about Blair in the days on either side of the beginning of the war in Iraq. It’s all quite interesting, it’s a subject that interests me – for one thing, I was relieved to hear that (contrary to some reports I’d read) Blair has a business-like relationship as opposed to a friendship with George Bush. Absurd, isn’t it. What do I care, what business is it of mine? But there’s something so repulsive in the thought of a grown-up, intelligent man like Blair actually feeling friendship for such a proudly vacuous bully boy as Bush that it makes me queasy.

But that’s not the bit that prompted a Note and Comment. No, I’m still musing on this question of religion and the role it plays in the two countries (the two countries B and W originates from, the UK and the US). It’s well known that the US is far more fundamentalist and god-bothering than the UK – but then again the US does have an official, constitutional, written, explicit separation of church and state, which the UK doesn’t, and there are corners of Ukanian life where religion is allowed when it wouldn’t be in the US – in schools, for example.

Stotherd tells us that Blair badly wanted to say ‘God bless you’ at the end of a major speech on Iraq, but his colleagues wouldn’t let him, indeed were somewhat outraged at the idea. ‘It will sound like a crusade!’ they exclaimed. Yes, thought I, and more than that, it will sound so horribly American. Bad enough that he’s called Bush’s poodle (Stotherd had already discussed that nickname), what would they call him if he started sounding like Jerry Fallwell? For that matter what would I call him? I can’t stand it when presidents say that. And Blair’s colleagues must feel the same way, because Stotherd reports that they said ‘People don’t want that kind of thing forced down their throats.’ Blair was affronted, Stotherd says. ‘You’re a godless lot, aren’t you!’ he exclaimed.

And that’s the bit that irritates me. There we are again, you see. Indignation at people who are ‘godless’ on the part of the godfull. But what business do they have being indignant about it? Any more than they have getting indignant at people for not believing in the tooth fairy or the Great Pumpkin? Why do believers always think they have the right to upbraid the skeptics? Why is not the upbraiding all on the other side? Or at least why is the polite toleration not mutual. Why is non-theism not the default position? Why is the burden of proof not on the believers as opposed to the non-believers? No good reason, that I can see, apart from habit and contagion. Which is why there can be such a thing as too much toleration of religion.

They’re Out There

Jul 28th, 2003 6:42 pm | By

This is an alarming article. Hate mail ‘by the ton’, name-calling, character assasination, merely for doing research.

The simple act of conducting research into the matter struck some as an enterprise ”designed to cheer on child molesters,” as one anonymous letter writer wrote, ”and ridicules the suffering sustained by children who are abused as well as therapists who are knowledgeable about the effects of trauma on children’s minds and bodies.” Clancy was a ”bad person,” according to another letter writer, to question such reports. Yet another suggested that she was probably an abuser herself.

So Susan Clancy, the researcher in question, decided that ‘repressed’ memories of child abuse made for an excessively sensitive subject, and also that the fact that child abuse does actually happen tainted the research. She needed a less sensitive subject in which the memory was of an event that does not actually happen. Of course, that’s an oxymoron. The more it doesn’t happen, the more ‘sensitive’ (at least on their own accounts) the believers are likely to be.

”I thought, Thank God, man,” she recalls. ”With alien abductees, I’m never going to have to deal with the criticism that it might have actually happened.”

Famous last words, and enter John Mack, the Harvard psychologist who believes alien abductions are real events, and who has had a large if largely invisible influence on American culture in recent years.

Mack’s Harvard imprimatur jacked the credibility of abduction accounts into another orbit. Chris Carter, creator of ”The X-Files,” used Mack’s work to help sell his show to Fox.

One oddity of the article is that it never mentions Ockham’s razor or Hume on miracles or any equivalent – that is to say, it fails to make explicit the obvious weakness in the beliefs of the ‘abductees’ and (alas) John Mack himself. To wit: the abductees report being abducted by aliens. Excluding the possibility of lying for the sake of argument, there are two possible explanations: they really were abducted by aliens, or they hallucinated it. Given the inherent unlikelihood of intergalactic travel, the laws of physics, the absence of bug-eyed aliens roaming the streets [never mind the jokes, please], and the total absence of any genuine corroborating evidence whatsoever, which is more likely? That people really were abducted by aliens without the rest of the world ever seeing it or filming or videotaping it? Or that a number of people had hallucinations of a kind that is very familiar to science. And don’t ask Muldur.


Jul 27th, 2003 6:15 pm | By

We’re back, after an unpleasant little interlude caused by a hardware problem on the server. We’ve been toiling and slaving here to get everything back, and since one of us (and it’s not Jeremy) is not very computer literate, some areas look a bit odd. Not to worry, we’re getting to it.

Sunday update. JS points out that the server may go blooey again, also that pages will sometimes be slow to load. But also also, that we are changing servers entirely soon (that is to say, he is – I might as well stand around and wave a magic wand for all the use I am) and that will solve all the problems, but it could also mean another brief disappearance.

You will notice the comments have all disappeared. Sorry. That’s one item that didn’t get saved. Feel free to replace them or start over.

Which is Dominant?

Jul 23rd, 2003 2:06 am | By

Well, I’ve had some correspondence about the Science and Religion In Focus, which I suppose is not surprising. I thought I might as well discuss the issue a little more here, so that people can comment directly. To quote from Bill’s letter on the Letters page:

And aren’t these quotations reflective of a climate of opinion that is dominant in many quarters, notably (in my experience)in American academia? So dominant, in fact, that the viewpoint you deem right is pretty much taken for granted, hardly needing to be articulated–which condition you may be confusing with polite silence. In other areas, of course, including American electoral politics, the situation is rather different.

Well, maybe. It depends what you mean by ‘many quarters,’ for one thing. But in a great many other quarters, like for instance the mass media, that’s not the case at all. And that’s a change. All these angels cluttering up the place, for example – you didn’t see that kind of thing in my long-ago youth! And a good thing too. And yes indeed, American electoral politics (they do these things differently on the other side – Tony Blair is religious, but he doesn’t like to go on about it). And that is after all a rather important sector, wouldn’t you say? Worth talking about, worth criticising if you think it needs criticising?

I realize your view is a popular one. Susan Greenfield was saying a similar thing. But I simply don’t think religion is benign or harmless, so I think it’s a mistake to allow it to throw its weight about the way it does.

‘The Last Taboo’

Jul 20th, 2003 8:01 pm | By

As long as we’re talking about religion and science, the futility or non-futility of scientists, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, and secularists arguing with believers, whether or not people can change their minds, what kind of influence religion has in the public realm, and related matters, we might as well add this famous New Republic article by Wendy Kaminer to the mix.

Obviously, people carry their faith in God, Satan, crystals or UFOs into town meetings, community organizations and voting booths. Obviously, a core belief in the supernatural is not severable from beliefs about the natural world and the social order. It is the inevitable effect of religion on public policy that makes it a matter of public concern. Advocates of religiosity extol the virtues or moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages.

Exactly so. Most of us who read the words of Susan Greenfield or Wendy Kaminer live in democracies, after all. We live in places where majority opinion is, as de Tocqueville pointed out a long time ago, very powerful indeed. Is it not obvious that we all have good reason to want that opinion to be well-founded, to be based on evidence and reality rather than wishful thinking and the supernatural? Is it not self-evident that the intellectual habits of the electorate are very far from being a merely private matter?

Would a resurgence of skepticism and rationality make us smarter? Not exactly, but it would balance supernaturalism and the habit of belief with respect for empirical realities, which should influence the formulation of public policy more than faith. Rationalism would be an antidote to prejudice, which is, after all, a form of faith.

Again, exactly so. Far from being a waste of time, the defense of rationalism is our only defense against the theocrats.

Conflict of Interest? Surely Not!

Jul 20th, 2003 7:16 pm | By

Well I feel vindicated. I read an article in The American Prospect a couple of weeks ago that I thought made some staggeringly stupid remarks based on some even more staggeringly stupid assumptions. I almost wrote a Note and Comment about it, but then got too busy with other subjects and so let it slide. But now there is a review in The Washington Post of a book by the same author, pointing out some of the flaws I noticed and some others besides – in particular, the fact (which the Prospect did not make clear enough) that Danny Goldberg is an entertainment industry executive, so his enthusiasm for popular culture has considerable financial interest behind it. There I was thinking he was a political commentator saying all those silly things…

As Washington pundits start analyzing potential strategies for Democrats in 2004, there has been little or no discussion of ways to win back the youth vote, or, for that matter, how to craft a message for people of all ages who process information through the language of popular culture (as distinguished from the much smaller elite who are devotees of the political news subculture).

What on earth does that mean? ‘Process information through the language of popular culture’? Like what? Music? Sit-coms? The latest exploding-building epic at the multiplex? What ‘information’ does one get that way? And what does one process it into? And then even more ridiculous, the notion that there’s something invidious (note the use of the devil-word ‘elite’ – always a dead giveaway that someone is doing some manipulating) about getting one’s information about politics from ‘the political news subculture.’ God almighty – it’s no wonder the US still doesn’t have a national health system: we’re encouraged by anti-intellectual messages like that to ‘process’ our ‘information’ via Harry and Louise ads instead of bothering to read a good newspaper (if we can find one) or magazine.

And it gets even worse:

One obvious flaw in the culture of Democrats is the elitist language. While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carefully researched the impact of various words to demonize his congressional opponents and George W. Bush told his advisers to make a speech on Iraq so simple that “the boys in Lubbock can understand it,” national Democrats routinely go on TV and use phrases that resonate only with political insiders. What percentage of Americans understood Sen. John Kerry’s recent references to Tora Bora or Gore’s incessant mentions of the Social Security lockbox?

Words fail me (that’s another reason I didn’t write the N and C at the time, words really do fail me: I find that kind of thing so disgusting I’m afraid I may begin to rend my own flesh). The elitist language. It’s ‘elitist’ to talk about the actual specifics of policy and potential legislation. Oy veh. Listen, dude, we live in a democracy, people can vote here, don’t you think they have some responsibility to find out about things like Social Security? Do you think we should all just vote on the basis of which candidate is prettier or tells funnier jokes or is most ‘comfortable in his own skin’? Because I don’t!

There’s plenty more, but you get the idea. I do agree – emphatically – that Joseph Lieberman is far too conservative, and the Democrats need to be different from the Republicans, not as like them as possible. But that’s all I agree with him about. Now here’s what The Washington Post has to say:

Some will admire Goldberg’s energetic activism, but unfortunately he is not the best representative for the cause. It’s difficult to differentiate high-minded principle from self-interest here, seeing as how Goldberg is a record-industry man (“chair and CEO of Artemis Records”). When he talks about helping “adolescents who loved and helped create the culture that was under attack,” he is drowned out by the ring of cash registers.

Yes, and those cash registers indicate an even deeper problem, one endemic to US politics:

Goldberg’s problems aren’t just due to entertainment industry prejudice or sloppy analysis. In fact, his book highlights a broader problem on the left. He never squares his libertarian faith in the “free marketplace” with his argument for regulatory politics. Libertarianism and regulation are like oil and water for progressive politics. For instance, the ACLU has opposed many efforts at campaign finance reform. Why? Because reform infringes upon the rights of individual candidates to spend money how they wish. This is just the tip of the iceberg. For how can Goldberg expect health insurance companies to accept regulation for reformist purposes when he is so busy fighting government to keep it from trampling on his own profits?

It’s too little remarked how neatly populist posturing and shouts of elitism dovetail with respect for piles of cash. Lots of people pay lots of money to see Movie X or buy CD Y, therefore Movie X and CD Y are by definition good and anyone who says otherwise is a wicked elitist. What a useful rationalization for an entertainment excutive.