Notes and Comment Blog

Elephants Never Lie

Dec 20th, 2002 8:07 pm | By

Department of Amplification, as The New Yorker used to say. Allen Esterson takes issue with Jeffrey Masson in his new article on this site, so I thought I would recount a little dispute I once had with Masson at a book signing. The occasion was about three years ago, Masson was on tour with his new book that said dogs don’t lie about love, and a somewhat, shall we say, New Ageily-inclined friend of mine dragooned me into accompanying her. During the lecture phase of the signing, Masson was quite insistently dismissive of science and scientists. They were unimpressed with his ideas about animal emotions, they hung up the phone when he called, they were narrow-minded and prejudiced. So when he opened the reading up for questions, I asked one along these lines: ‘I have some doubts about all these sweeping attacks on science. Could it be that the scientists who don’t take your claims seriously actually have good reasons, having to do with evidence and so on, as opposed to just being narrow and prejudiced as you seem to be implying?’ He answered, ‘No. They were just being stupid and prejudiced.’ Later I asked another question: exactly how did he know that his dogs had the elaborate (human-like) emotions he was describing. He answered, ‘I look into their eyes.’ I have to admit I laughed a bit scornfully at that.

The depth of his insight into animal nature is perhaps revealed by an anecdote he told, admittedly by way of confessing his own naivete. He was once taken to an area where there was a herd of wild elephants (in Thailand or India I believe). He was so thrilled by their majesty that he walked up to one, talking to her in a respectful and admiring way. I used to be an elephant keeper in a zoo, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. ‘So she turned and charged and tried to kill you,’ was my thought, ‘and you’re bloody lucky to be here telling us about it.’ Sure enough–she charged and tried to kill him, he ran like hell and found some tall grass to hide in, and the elephant got bored and wandered off. He did say it was foolish of him. But that insight did not appear to have taught him to take his other insights with becoming modesty. An interesting evening at the bookstore, one way and another.

Her Left Foot

Dec 20th, 2002 4:53 pm | By

Oh honestly. Sometimes I want to exclaim with Lear’s Fool, ‘I had rather be any kind o’thing than a fool’. Only I would change ‘fool’ to ‘woman’. There are moments when it all just becomes too embarrassing. Such as when reading silly self-parodying nonsense in the Guardian. Who needs sexism or misogyny when women elbow each other aside to say fatuous things like that, eh?

One of the unnoticed casualties of late 20th-century feminism was that old enfeebled virtue: women’s intuition.

Oh really? Where is that exactly? Speaking of unnoticed. Has Bathurst not noticed that whole large branch of feminism which does indeed pride itself precisely on embracing dear old female ‘virtues’ like intuition and gut feelings and hunches and instinct and messages from the ‘heart’? If not, she hasn’t been paying attention. The sneering at science and statistics and logic is bang up to date, too, not the bold and paradoxical move Bathurst seems to take it to be. Perhaps her toe has misled her.

Having a Bad Argument Day

Dec 18th, 2002 7:37 pm | By

Here is an article by Oliver James in which he tries to argue for environmental explanations of sexual proclivities, in particular the male preference for very young women not to say girls, rather than or in addition to genetic ones. This is surely an idea for which a case can be made, but James makes a hash of the job here. Take this passage for example:

Evolutionary psychologists regard these facts as grist to their mill – youthful looks are a signal of fertility: get a young wife to get more children out of her, blah, blah, blah, ad nauseam. But they could just as well be explained by the fact that, whereas men can reproduce at any age, women’s clocks are ticking, so potential mothers are always in much shorter supply than potential fathers.

Er…am I missing something? Isn’t his alternative explanation at least arguably every bit as much of a ‘genetic’ or evolutionary one as the first? Aren’t they in fact the same explanation, worded slightly differently?

And then this one:

Men may be sex maniacs, but they are not completely thick. They can work out that if they want to have a baby, a pensioner is not likely to be much help; their attraction to youth could be a rational decision rather than a genetic script.

Same again only more so. One, attraction to youth can still be both a rational decision and hard-wired, and two–the research that shows men preferring young women across cultures applies to all men, not only the ones who want to have children. Has Oliver James never met or heard of a man who in fact doesn’t want children but is still more attracted to young women than to old ones? Surely he can do better than that…

Listen Up, Sir

Dec 16th, 2002 10:12 pm | By

SciTechDaily gives us an item from the archive today: Richard Dawkins explaining to the future king why scientific reason is a better way of thinking about issues than intuition. As he points out (and it seems so obvious one shouldn’t have to point it out), Hitler and Saddam Hussein and the Yorkshire Ripper had their intuitions too. John Stuart Mill made, mutatis mutandis, the same point in On Liberty a century and a half ago.

Dawkins also points out that nature is not necessarily admirable or something humans ought to imitate in all respects.

No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, founded his ethics on a repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature.

A simple but very important point, and one often overlooked. The fact that biologists and evolutionary psychologists think there is good and ever-increasing evidence that there is such a thing as evolved, naturally selected human nature does not have to mean that they don’t think we should fight against our natural selfishness. Mind the gap.

Argument by Fashion

Dec 15th, 2002 12:00 am | By

There is a review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in the current American Scientist. It raises some reasonable objections to Pinker’s book, including a contradiction I have wondered about too: on the one hand Pinker rejects the “naturalistic fallacy” (also known as the fact-value distinction, or confusing “is” with “ought”), and on the other hand the whole book is an argument that a proper understanding of human nature undermines ideas about social engineering and utopian dreams. Fair enough. But then there comes a very odd paragraph.

At this point in the book I was increasingly struck by resonances with the intellectual conservatism of science warriors such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Pinker’s standard lists of blank-slaters (exponents of social constructionism, science studies, cultural studies, poststructuralism and the like) are eerily reminiscent of the singling out of enemies of science by Gross and Levitt and others. It would be a task beyond the present review to explore the connections, but the appeal to right-of-center middlebrow scientism is certainly similar and surely suggestive of a broader cultural tendency.

The intellectual conservatism? Right-of-center? Middlebrow? What is this, a fashion show? A game of Who is Hippest? Is epistemology identical with politics? Is intellectual conservatism even a meaningful concept? Is defending the role of evidence and logic in science and other forms of inquiry “middlebrow”? It may be conservative, in the sense that that is how science has been done for centuries, but does it follow that, oh dear, that’s getting a bit stale and tiresome and vieux jeu now and we really ought to do it the opposite way, via hunches or the I Ching or political preference? Surely not.


There is an article here from our sister publication The Philosophers’ Magazine about a debate between John Dupré, who wrote the review in question, and Dylan Evans, author of Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, chaired by the novelist Ian McEwan.

Identity What

Dec 13th, 2002 8:34 pm | By

There is an essay by Martin Jay in the current London Review of Books about “situatedness”, about speaking azza. Azza woman, azza Muslim, azza graduate, azza whatever. The subject is similar to that of Todd Gitlin’s Twilight of Common Dreams: the difficulties and limitations of what we like to call “identity”. As Jay points out, in reviewing David Simpson’s Situatedness: or Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From, it is difficult to decide which bit of our identity is relevant to any given discussion.

How can we know, for example, whether it is more important that a person is a woman, a baby boomer, a heterosexual, Asian-American, a Catholic, a breast cancer survivor, upper-middle class, a college drop-out, twice divorced, a fashion victim or second in birth order in her family in understanding why she campaigned for Ralph Nader in the last American Presidential election?

How indeed. In fact surely the possibilities are almost infinite. An introvert, a cat lover, a Buffy fan, a runner, a sloth, a Shakespeare fan–on and on it goes. Why do we think we have more in common with fellow women/whites/Muslims/gays than we do with fellow readers/knitters/cooks? Or do we think that. Probably not. We do tend to find our friends among people with similar interests and tastes, after all. And yet identity politics is about race/gender/sexualorientation rather than about interests and pursuits and even vocations. Balkanize this way but not that, seems to be the line of thought. One wonders why. One also worries about how parochial and narrowing and claustrophobic it all is, if some people don’t spend all too much time and energy thinking about their gender or sexual preference and all too little thinking about a larger world.

Truth in Advertising

Dec 12th, 2002 8:12 pm | By

Euphemism is a subject that keeps coming up on Butterflies and Wheels. That’s not very surprising, because much of what we’re talking about is education, writing, public debate. It’s all about language, and euphemism is a well-known and time-honoured way of trying to make one’s case by prettying up crucial facts. George Orwell was particularly good at pointing this out, but he was certainly neither the first nor the last. The tactic was the issue in three stories we linked to recently: the one about incitement to murder as free speech, the one about death threats as a personality quirk, and today, again, a commentary about about death threats as free speech or freedom of religion or piety.

Do we begin to see a pattern here? It appears that some people want to argue that free speech, or second chances for schoolboys, or piety, are of more value than forbidding or preventing incitement to murder. But if people really do want to argue that, then why are they reluctant to say so? Why do they in fact not say so, but say something else instead? Presumably because they know the non-euphemistic version will sound repellent. ‘We must respect the right of schoolboys to make death threats against their teachers.’ ‘We must respect the right of pious Muslims to make death threats against novelists or journalists who have said something they consider blasphemous.’ ‘We must respect the right of poets to say that a certain group of people should be shot dead.’ But is it only their audience that euphemisers are trying to mislead? Or is it also themselves. Perhaps if they put their own positions into unmistakable language, they would be able to think more clearly about what they are saying. Euphemism tends to confuse in all directions.

Different Personalities

Dec 7th, 2002 5:47 pm | By

Here is an interesting statement from a spokeswoman for Surrey local education authority quoted in yesterday’s Guardian:

“The schools are skilled in coping with pupils of all abilities and personalities and have excellent behaviour management practices.”

The context for this statement is the case of two boys who were expelled from Glyn Technology school for making death threats against a teacher, then reinstated by an independent appeals panel. The teachers at the school threatened to strike, Estelle Morris intervened to say the expulsion should stand, and the boys have now been placed at other schools, schools with the above-mentioned skills. It is interesting that a strike of teachers occurred this week at a school in France for precisely the same reason: threats by a student, expulsion, then reinstatement by a court. One of the striking teachers pointed out that the student in question was now a hero to some of his classmates, and what sort of situation would that create for the teachers?

But another interesting matter is the word personalities in the quotation. Pupils of all abilities and personalities. Ah. So making death threats is a personality quirk? Just one of those harmless little variations in human character that decent empathetic people learn to embrace and celebrate as part of the exciting multicultural pageant of life? Is that what that is? Does that apply to everyone? Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, every serial murderer and casual bomb-tosser out there? They’re all just a little moody, a tad difficult, having a bad hair day? Or is the problem perhaps a little more severe than that. If Surrey education authority wants to argue for second chances, well and good, but it ought to do so without resorting to euphemism.

When in Doubt, Claim Certainty

Dec 7th, 2002 2:59 pm | By

Is it possible to have absolute certainty about something that is unclear? Is it possible to have absolute certainty that something “bore almost no resemblance” to something? Is absolute certainty about something so vague even a meaningful notion? I would have thought not, but some opinion-mongers apparently (I’m not absolutely certain about this, mind) have easier access to absolute certainty than I do. Witness this remark in an article about anthropology, blood sample collection, indigenous people, and the Yanomami, along with James Neel, Patrick Tierney’s Darkness at El Dorado, and Tierney’s accusations that Neel deliberately sowed measles among the Yanomami:

“What exactly Neel told his subjects is unclear, but we can be absolutely certain that it bore almost no resemblance to contemporary notions of informed consent,” said M. Susan Lindee, associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

So that’s how it’s done. When you don’t know and don’t have the evidence, just announce that you have absolute certainty anyway. No doubt some innocents will be convinced.

Beautiful Facts

Dec 5th, 2002 8:43 pm | By

The wonderful Anne Barton has an essay in The New York Review of Books that is relevant to the creeping infiltration of gossip and story into areas where they do more to confuse issues than clarify them, that I keep remarking on. The relevance of this subject to Butterflies and Wheels may be remote, but it is relevance all the same. The reasons and motivations behind the novelization of biography, for instance, are probably closely related to those behind the long-standing quarrel between Literature and Science. And then it’s a popular move in Lit Crit circles to say that ‘everything is narrative’, very much including science, in fact science most of all.

It’s easy enough to understand the wish fulfillment at work behind these ideas. If we can only do away with the difference between fiction and fact, then the world is our oyster: wishes are horses and beggars will ride. Facts are tiresome, interfering, unyielding, hard, cold things. They are indifferent to us, they don’t care what we think or want or need, they just are what they are. That’s why we hate them. In fiction we can shape the world to our liking with the swiftness of thought. And that’s a good thing, of course, it’s both useful and beautiful. But it’s not the only good thing. An acquaintance with that very adamantine unyieldingness of facts is also necessary, also useful and even beautiful. Moves to elbow facts aside in favour of stories are not good for clear thinking.

Narrative or Ideas?

Dec 1st, 2002 8:26 pm | By

A couple of ideas that we’re interested in at Butterflies and Wheels were the focal points of a discussion among three historians I saw on tv recently. The US channel C-Span put Eric Foner, Robert Caro and Edmund Morris together to talk about the differences between popular and academic history, which is one issue that interests us, and in discussing that they also touched on the question of how to avoid the distorting effects of ideology in writing history. Edmund Morris is a popular biographer, who got a lot of attention, much of it derisive, for inserting himself, Zelig-like, into his biography of Ronald Reagan.
He asserted, in an emphatic and even truculent manner, that some history is “thematic” but biography has to be narrative, it has to tell the story of a life and that that story is inherently narrative and chronological, this happened and then that. He then added that academic history has become divorced from popular history because it deals with (said in a tone of increasing scorn) institutions, statistics, abstractions, when what people want is a story. Eric Foner, academic historian and author of many books accessible to a general audience, politely but firmly pointed out that that abstract and specialized kind of history provides the building blocks for the kind of popular history that Morris writes.

Morris also said, with even more disdain, that ideology has a ruinous effect on history writing. He appeared to be perfectly confident that he had no ideology himself–that, for instance, his belief in narrative and stories is not an ideology but simple transparent truth. Foner again civilly pointed out that this subject is a perennial one, that he discusses it with his students all the time, and that he tells them it is not possible to be ideology-free and the only safeguard is to know what one’s ideologies and presuppositions are. He didn’t spell it out for us but the implication for Morris’ self-satisfied naivete was obvious enough.

The discussion ended before there was time to go into the larger question of why Morris was so sure that the reading public wanted narrative and nothing but narrative. There was an essay on Morris in The New Republic last year that took him to task precisely for the mindless story-telling of his Theodore Rex, the pointless piling-up of detail, the silly you-are-thereness, the absence of ideas and thought, the studied ignoring of all the interesting scholarly work on Roosevelt in recent years. What makes Morris or anyone so sure that a general audience is interested only in story? He seems to think the notion is self-evident, but is it? Is it perhaps more of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Story is all the general audience is given, so they are trained to expect it, and to be uneasy with anything else? And it may be self-fulfilling in another way, too: if the writers of history become convinced that either audiences or (more likely) publishers will insist on Story and nothing but Story, they may decide they can’t be bothered to write anything so dull and unchallenging, hence popular history will become ever more impoverished. The issue is highly relevant to Butterflies and Wheels, because questions of public attitudes to science, truth, epistemology, understanding are the questions we want to raise, and they are inextricably involved in public education in the broadest sense, in education via popular science books, popular history books, popular philosophy books and magazines, and so on. This is a subject we’ll be coming back to.

Permanent Correction

Nov 29th, 2002 9:42 pm | By

Fashionable nonsense is a perennial subject, almost by definition. Time passes and fashions change, therefore at any given moment there is likely to be some fashionable and/or conventional wisdom around that needs correcting. Alan Ryan’s obituary for John Rawls in today’s Independent reminds us that Rawls’ theory of justice was among other things a correction of the views of the logical positivists and the utilitarians. Those views were a correction in their turn, and so back and back it goes. Humans being what they are, it can’t really be any other way: we always make mistakes of one kind or another, all we can do is keep patiently correcting each other, trying again, taking it with a good grace when others correct us. As Rawls did, in Ryan’s account: “He rarely took on critics head-on, not because he was hostile to criticism – he much preferred criticism to praise – but because he liked to revise his thoughts with his critics’ assistance, trying always to get clearer and more precise about just what the theory of justice implied.”

The Group

Nov 26th, 2002 6:02 pm | By

Malcolm Gladwell, in whimsical vein, writes in The New Yorker about the non-obvious connection between comedy-writing teams and groups that stimulate and encourage the creation of philosophy, psychoanalysis, art, ideas. He takes off from a book about the people who created the American tv show ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and then brings in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, about the group of thinkers and inventors around Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley in late 18th century Birmingham. Gladwell points out that one feature of group dynamics is that friends can encourage and provoke each other to take more extreme positions than they would on their own, and that this is generally considered a bad thing. “But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation.”

Surely he’s right, and group-think is yet another example of those tiresome, difficult, annoying phenomena where one has to say ‘Yes but’ all the time. Some of this but some of that; can be good but can also be bad; half full or half empty. Such things make it so difficult to generalise. There are groups like Aryan Nation and the National Front, and then there are groups like Monty Python or the circle around Emerson or the people who used to meet for dinner chez Magny in Paris in the 19th century. Groups of friends can encourage and embolden useful or beautiful new ideas, or vicious ugly ones. Moderation can be closer to truth or it can be just the tame conformist compromise that gets us nowhere. Extremism can be loony and absurd and futile, or it can reveal ideas and problems and solutions we need and want. It simply depends, is the boring truth of the matter.

Deference and its Discontents

Nov 23rd, 2002 3:00 pm | By

There are many tributaries that flow into the river of hostility to science, and some of them are ideas and thoughts that, used well, have much to recommend them. Used badly, they are another matter. Good ideas misapplied can turn silly in a heartbeat.

There is for instance the matter of deference. There is a bumper sticker/T shirt slogan in the US: ‘Question Authority’. Of course it’s obvious if you think about it for one second that that idea can cut both ways. To get it right the slogan would have to use qualifying language that would ruin it as a slogan. ‘Question authority but also bear in mind that authority may well know more than you do and knowing more doesn’t absolutely always equate to arbitrary and unjust privilege so–‘

No, it won’t do. But that’s why slogans aren’t much use, really, except to rally the troops, and sometimes the troops are rallied to dash off in the wrong direction. As with hostility to science. Of course, many scientific disciplines have vast social impacts and implications and therefore should be accountable, subject to scrutiny and second-guessing and probing questions from outsiders. But it doesn’t follow from that that science as a whole, the scientific way of thinking, the emphasis on evidence and peer review and replication, is fraudulent or sinister or accorded undue deference. In some quarters it is considered as hopelessly naive and retrogressive to think science is in general a good idea as it is to think the earth is flat, or possibly more so. After all, who told us it wasn’t? Consider the source! Question authority!

Free speech at Harvard

Nov 21st, 2002 7:59 pm | By

Two stories about Harvard in the Boston Globe in the last two days raise a lot of interesting if intractable questions. The first tells of a plan for a Law School committee “to draft a speech code that would ban harassing, offensive language from the classroom.” It is interesting that “another professor’s comment that feminism, Marxism, and black studies have ‘contributed nothing’ to tort law” is included by the reporter in a list of “racial incidents.” Is that comment, that opinion, really a racial incident? By what definition? But perhaps even more unnerving is the name of the new group: the Committee on Healthy Diversity. Oh dear. What sanely skeptical adult does not want to pack a bag and light out for the territory on being offered such a Committee? ‘Give me Sickliness any day!’ will surely be the cry. ‘I don’t want to be healthy,’ one hopes all those jaundiced overtired law students are muttering. But in this healthy climate, Randall Kennedy told Alan Dershowitz that his language was insensitive and that students should not be embarrassed (law students!) to answer. Dershowitz told Kennedy not to try to silence him, and in a very healthy moment Philip Heymann pointed out that teachers at law schools are supposed to challenge students to defend their opinions. “Making someone uncomfortable should not be prohibited,” he said. Indeed not. Perhaps Harvard Law needs another committee: the Committee on Instructive Discomfort.

The second story perhaps errs in the other direction. The subject is the reinvitation of the poet Tom Paulin to give a lecture, after the invitation had been rescinded because of protests over “an interview with an Egyptian newspaper that quotes Paulin describing Brooklyn-born Jews living in Israeli settlements as ‘Nazis’and ‘racists’ and saying that they ‘should be shot dead.'” Now the English department has “argued strenuously for reinviting Paulin and sending a message that the English department supported free speech, even if it is controversial or offensive.” Without taking a position on whether Paulin should be uninvited or reinvited, it is possible to note that surely saying people should be shot dead is something beyond merely controversial or offensive. Perhaps there is a good case to be made for the notion that a poet should be able to say such things, or that free speech depends on allowing even incitement to violence, or that the First Amendment would be fatally weakened by giving in to such protests. But the case can’t be made if the terms are fudged. If one wants to defend incitement to violence as free speech, then one has to call it what it is and not something else.

Fact and Fiction

Nov 20th, 2002 5:42 pm | By

A remarkably rich essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian is full of matter relevant to the concerns of Butterflies and Wheels. His subject is the difficulty and subtlety of distinguishing between fiction and fact, what he calls the border between the two, and the necessity nonetheless of making the distinction, of continuing to patrol that border, and resisting any postmodernist temptation to shrug and say it’s all the same thing. Garton Ash mentions Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, a fictional account that presented itself as a history until the end. “Schama suggests that history as storytelling, as literature, must reclaim the ground it has lost to history as science, or pseudoscience. I entirely agree; but from this particular literary device it is not a long step to the postmodernist conclusion that any historian’s ‘story’ is as good as any other’s.” I don’t agree with the history as science part. Historians examine, evaluate, and interpret evidence just the way scientists do, after all. History is also literature (but then so can science be), but it has to be accurate, self-correcting, open to criticism, just as science does. Perhaps the border between fact and fiction should be better patrolled whereas the one between history and science should be done away with.

Which is not to say that the job is an easy one. Garton Ash goes on to consider the unreliability of witnesses and of memory, the way the mind generates narrative to make sense of facts and experiences that perhaps don’t make sense in reality, the need for selection among the mass of events and facts in the world, the morality of truth, and the fact that we believe people who warn us not to believe them. In short he examines the paradox we all bump into many times a day, that truth is both elusive and necessary.

Question Which Assumptions?

Nov 19th, 2002 4:55 pm | By

There’s a dreary little story in today’s Guardian. Chris Woodhead, former head of the Office of Standards in Education, wants to question the assumption that more and more education is a good thing. He opposes raising the school leaving age to eighteen or nineteen. “Such proposals have more to do with massaging unemployment figures than the needs of the economy.” All right, but while we’re at it, let’s also question the assumption that education is a tool of the economy and not, say, the other way around. Let’s question the assumption that the only question to ask about more schooling is whether it trains the student for a job. Let’s question the assumption that education is an instrumental good and not an intrinsic one, and even more let’s question the assumption that people are the equivalent of tools or bits of machinery. Let’s think about what education is good for besides providing drones for the economy.

But the economy is the government’s business, and education as a good in itself is not, people will say. But it is not self-evident why this should be so. Questions of value are mixed up in all these areas, so we might as well make them explicit and address them. If education is not a good in itself but only a fancy name for job training, then what of critical thinking, clarity, getting it right, accuracy, truth? Why worry about them at all, unless we need them for our jobs? Perhaps we should decide that engineers and doctors and chemists should be trained to think well and the rest of us can just muddle along in a blur, believing whatever makes us feel good. But Butterflies and Wheels is dedicated to the proposition that that is not the case, and that surely entails thinking that education is an inherent good and that fourteen is too young to abandon it.

Elitism, Egalitarianism, Passionate Attraction

Nov 15th, 2002 7:16 pm | By

An interesting article in the Guardian discusses the paradoxical way the discoveries of ultra-elitist Newton were found by Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, Jefferson and Adams and Franklin, Saint-Simon and Fourier, to be full of progressive implications. Gravity affects all people everywhere, which made Newton the supreme philosopher of equality during the French Revolution. Fourier connected the gravitational principle of “passionate attraction” with the free love of his Utopian communities. And oddest of all, “in the debate between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin over a unicameral or bicameral legislature, it was an appeal to Newton that resolved the dispute. Adams argued that only a system with both a House of Representatives and a Senate conformed to Newton’s third law of motion: that to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A fascinating detail, that. One thinks wistfully of the is-ought gap and wonders if Franklin (the friend of Hume, after all) thought to mention it.

But even more one wonders, not for the first time, what it is that people mean by “elitism”. It’s a handy term of abuse that gets thrown around a lot but seldom defined. In some circles it is quite popular, even mandatory, to call scientists elitist. But what does it mean? Does it just mean knowing something? Does it mean exclusion and exclusiveness? A belief that an elite (of whatever kind) should be in power and run things? Do we mean a Platonic belief in Guardians and Philosopher Kings? Or a belief that leadership in various kinds of organisations (hospitals and clinics, schools and universities, learned societies and businesses) should be allocated on the basis of merit or proven ability (however defined and tested and measured) rather than at random or by a popularity or beauty contest? Is it a belief that good things are better than bad things? That there are such things (however defined and chosen) as good books, ideas, paintings, theories, arguments, inventions, products, and also bad ones, and that it makes sense to prefer the good ones? Is it the belief that good books and ideas are better than bad ones but not (for instance) the belief that good athletes or rock stars or models or film stars or sitcom actors are better than bad ones? Or the belief that good books and ideas matter more than good film stars or sitcom actors? Is it the belief that a thing can be popular, even very popular, even almost universally popular, and still not be very good? Is it a sense of superiority to people who don’t share one’s elevated tastes? Is it some of these and not others? Is it all of them but at different times? Or is it all of them at all times. It is a word that could do with some defining, it seems to me.

18 to 34 Nirvana

Nov 14th, 2002 4:11 pm | By

There is a story in today’s Guardian about US newspapers competing to attract the ever-popular 18 to 34 year old “market”. Apparently they are crashing into one another and banging heads in a foolish way in Chicago, as each tries to be dumber than the other. The whole subject gives one a feeling of despair. It is so taken for granted that the point of the enterprise is for newspapers to insinuate their way into everyone’s wallets. It is made so drearily obvious that the actual dissemination or clarification of news and knowledge and understanding is just a kind of pretext for or prettification of the real work of delivering customers to advertisers. Is it any wonder that alien abductions and crop circles and energy-healing go down a treat while science and reason are looked on as killjoys and dull plodding wonder-challenged literalists.

Fantasy and Skepticism

Nov 12th, 2002 6:11 pm | By

SciTech Daily Review currently has a link to this highly interesting 1996 article from the Skeptical Inquirer. It cites studies by George Gerbner and others that say people who watch a lot of television are more likely (than those who don’t) to be hostile to science and friendly toward pseudoscience, including after controlling for education and other variables. It then goes on to detail the way science and skepticism are the bad guys in several movies and tv shows, while nice, regular, credulous people are the goodies. Of course, this has been true as long as the ghost story has existed (which is probably as long as humans have), because it’s such an excellent device, to have a lot of skeptics around scoffing until the Monster comes along and bites they tiny heads off and nibbles on they tiny feet. Think of Horatio in Hamlet, saying “Tush, tush, ‘twil not appear,” when of course it does. It’s all part of the game of the flesh-creeper, the hair-raiser, the spooky story. But all the same, things that are just part of the game can have consequences.

It’s hard to imagine what to do about the problem though. Perhaps everyone who watched one hour of Alien Abducters Are Coming up the Stairs could be required to follow it with an hour of Critical Thinking Skills for X-Files Fans. But who would enforce such a thing? Perhaps all the tv sets in the world could be so programmed. But then what of Magic Realism? Every time Salman Rushdie put a radio up someone’s nose or Harry Potter learned a new game, would we all have to read a corrective? And then would we all have to listen to an army of literary critics and novelists and therapists telling us why imagination is essential? No, it’s unworkable. And yet it probably is true that all the Dumb Skeptics stories do shape people’s attitudes to skepticism. What can one do, other than start a new website…