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The Rise of the Info-Novel

May 15th, 2003 | By Peter Lurie

What was it you wanted from that big new novel? If you’re looking for an education
about Victorian brothels, Dante studies during the 19th century,
iconography and iconology in art history, the structure and function of railroads,
the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, British scientific expeditions in the Himalaya,
Bobby Thomson’s Brooklyn-crushing dinger or any number of other subtopics in
history, philosophy, business or law, then you’ll likely find it satisfying
enough. But if you’re looking for the promise of invention, for a world created
and set in motion, for characters who grapple with ethical and moral dilemmas
that radically transform their perspective – the elements that make a great
and true novel – you’ll be disappointed.

I’m not arguing … Read the rest

The Optimist’s Slaughter

May 13th, 2003 | By Christopher Orlet

Early on every thinking man makes the conscious or unconscious decision whether
to view the cup of life as half full, or dry as the Garagum Desert. Those whose
cup is half full are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas and the kind of people
to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties. In America they are, according
to Gallup, the majority (64 percent). These are the same folks who wave flags,
join the PTA, bet on the Cubs, and get caught in thunderstorms without an umbrella
and hopefully catch pneumonia. Pessimists, by my estimate, make up about 10
percent of the American population. The other 26 percent couldn’t care less,
and were probably too busy watching professional wrestling to … Read the rest

Poetry and the Politics of Self-Expression

May 8th, 2003 | By Barney F. McClelland

You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung.
‘Twere politic to do the like by these;
But was there ever a dog that praised his fleas?

William Butler Yeats

Some years ago, a mentor of mine put forth the argument: “Would you try to build a cabinet when you did not posses even the rudimentary woodworking skills or knowledge of the tools necessary to build the cabinet? Of course not, then why do so many people think they can write poetry without an iota of preparation?”

Still, many do. “Pop vocalists pose as opera singers. Important art museums exhibit installations that the cleaning staff mistakes for trash. Obscenity-riddled recitations, imposed over rhythm … Read the rest

Anti-realism – what’s at stake? An interview with Jonathan Rée

Apr 24th, 2003 | By Jeremy Stangroom

There is a certain caricature of philosophers which has it that they spend
their time arguing about whether things like tables and chairs exist. This is
just a caricature, but nevertheless there is an element of truth in it when
it comes to the debate about realism and anti-realism. Put crudely, realists
– or, more precisely, external realists – think both that the world exists
independently of our perceptions of it and thoughts about it, and that we can
reliably know about the world. Anti-realists, for a variety of reasons, doubt
both these propositions.

The philosophical debate about realism and anti-realism – which involves arguments
about, for example, sense experience, language, and the nature of knowledge
– is complex and … Read the rest

SARS in a Wilderness of Mirrors

Apr 22nd, 2003 | By David Stanway

There is an old Chinese folk tale in which a fool
deposits 300 pieces of silver in a hole. In order to conceal his largesse, he
puts up a sign nearby to announce that “300 pieces of silver do not lie here.”
The moral of the tale was that the more you try to cover something up, the more
obvious it is that something is being concealed.

The Chinese government, fiercely vigilant when
it comes to any manifestation of press freedom, are learning this lesson the
hard way with regard to the viral condition known as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome. It used to be thought that in China, the only way of confirming if
a story was true … Read the rest

Shiva the Destroyer?

Apr 16th, 2003 | By Thomas R. DeGregori

Postmodernist anti-science thought was once primarily associated with European
and North American academics in the humanities. Now not only has its influence
become international, but it has become integrally intertwined with a number
of other issues such as anti-globalization, anti-transgenic technology in agriculture,
and conservation. Nobody can fault the prevailing internationalism of postmodernists
and their respect for different cultures and peoples (except for the culture
of those who are committed to modern science/technology and its benefits). Nor
can we fault their argument that all of us have biases, though they fail to
comprehend the vital role that scientific method plays in helping to overcome
the limitations which personal and cultural biases impose. Their belief in the
worth and dignity of … Read the rest

Life’s Lethal Quality Control

Apr 15th, 2003 | By Geoff Watts

One day in 1995, biologist Armand Leroi walked into Manhattan’s Strand Bookshop
and made a remarkable discovery. He came across a rather plain-looking remaindered
volume bearing the title Cancer Selection . The postdoc student had not heard of the book or its author, James
Graham. But, Leroi recalls: “I’m a sucker for odd theories of evolution, so
I bought it.” It was an impulse decision that was to have profound implications.
For buried in the book was a bold new idea that has become a muse to the young

The book was lying on a table in front of him when I visited his South London
flat. Leroi, a reader in evolutionary developmental biology at London’s Imperial
College, is … Read the rest

Don’t Bury the Bones

Apr 7th, 2003 | By Tiffany Jenkins

A committee has met behind closed doors in London over the last two years to
decide the future of old bones in British cultural and scientific institutions.
Their deliberations and decision will have consequences for all of us. The skeletons
in the closets could tell us about history, humanity and our health, if only
we would let them.

There is a growing feeling amongst many in the museum profession that
old human remains should be returned to where they were originally found. Tony
Blair raised the issue of repatriation in 2000 when he agreed to increase efforts
to send back remains from Australian indigenous communities. The Department
for Culture Media and Sport subsequently set up a working group to examine … Read the rest

A Bluffer’s Guide to Science Studies and the Sociology of “Knowledge”

Mar 5th, 2003 | By Robert Nola

Ever since science became a going concern in the ancient world, people have
asked: “What is this thing called science?” An early answer was given by Aristotle
in his Organon, its focus being largely on the logic and methodology
of scientific reasoning. Even if its substantive claims are now no longer central,
it inaugurated a tradition of philosophical thought about science that has had
wide acceptance by many scientists and philosophers; in their different ways
recent philosophers such as Carnap, Popper, Lakatos and the Bayesians are all
within this tradition. It involves belief in, and the application of, principles
of logic, methodology and of rationality generally; on the whole such principles
have been instrumental in leading scientists, if not … Read the rest

Postmodernism and truth

Mar 2nd, 2003 | By Daniel Dennett

Here is a story you probably haven’t heard, about how a team of American researchers
inadvertently introduced a virus into a third world country they were studying.(1)
They were experts in their field, and they had the best intentions; they thought
they were helping the people they were studying, but in fact they had never
really seriously considered whether what they were doing might have ill effects.
It had not occurred to them that a side-effect of their research might be damaging
to the fragile ecology of the country they were studying. The virus they introduced
had some dire effects indeed: it raised infant mortality rates, led to a general
decline in the health and wellbeing of women and … Read the rest

Relatively Speaking

Jan 30th, 2003 | By Simon Blackburn

There are philosophers (‘absolutists’) who like to stress truth, objectivity, rationality, and knowledge. Then there are others (‘relativists’) who like to stress contingency, mutability, culture, historicity, situatedness. The first group think that the second group have no standards. The second group are accused of encouraging ‘postmodernism’, or the licentious thinking and bullshitting that goes on in some parts of the humanities. The second group think the first group are conservative and complacent, and that their words simply mark fetishes.

I like to illustrate the way these groups talk past each other with an anecdote of a friend of mine (I apologise to readers of my book Being Good, where I also tell this story). He was present at a … Read the rest

Claiming Darwin for the Left: an interview with Peter Singer

Jan 28th, 2003 | By Julian Baggini

Peter Singer looks a very tired man. It’s not
so much the early morning start of the interview, but the weeks of media scrutiny,
misrepresentation and criticism, which seem to have taken their toll.

Singer came to England to talk about “A Darwinian
Left”, but no sooner had he stepped off the plane than the Daily Express
was reviving the old controversy over Singer’s view that in certain circumstances,
it may be better to end the life of a very severely handicapped baby in a humane
way, rather than use all modern medicine can do to let it live a painful and
often brief life. Singer tried to defend himself on Radio Four’s Today
programme, but in such a brief … Read the rest

Psychoanalytic Mythology

Dec 19th, 2002 | By Allen Esterson

During the last decades of the twentieth century researchers showed that much
of the received history of psychoanalysis consisted of stories that were largely
mythological. Perhaps the most enduring of all these myths is that Freud postulated
his seduction theory as a result of hearing frequent reports from his female
patients that they had been sexually abused in childhood. In this article I
want to focus on this story, one that for most of the twentieth century was
taken as historical fact, and is still widely believed to be so.
According to the traditional account, in the 1890s most of Freud’s female patients
told him that they had been sexually abused in early childhood, usually by their
father. How the … Read the rest

The PC Tyranny

Nov 20th, 2002 | By Lou Marinoff

political correctness (noun): conformity to a belief that language and
practices which could offend political sensibilities should be eliminated.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

I’ve been invited to write about political correctness and philosophy
in the North American academy. What qualifies me? I’m a refugee
from political correctness. I emigrated from Canada to the USA because
of an insidious quota system, euphemistically called ’employment
equity’, which decrees that there are too many white male philosophers
in Canadian universities. The Nuremburg Laws excluded Jews from
Nazified German universities because we were ‘non-Aryan’; Jews are
now excluded from Canadian universities because we are ‘white’.
This is a compelling irony. It compelled me to get the hell out.

Before quitting Canada in 1994, I … Read the rest

Evolutionary Psychology and its Enemies: an interview with Steven Pinker

Nov 9th, 2002 | By Ophelia Benson

Steven Pinker has a new book out, The Blank Slate. We have been closely observing and reporting on the reception of this particular volume of science for the public, because that reception and the probable reasons for it are closely related to the subject matter of Butterflies and Wheels. Evolutionary explanations of human nature and behavior and ways of thinking make many people very suspicious and afraid, and hence willing to make some highly dubious arguments.

But as many people have noticed and pointed out in the last few years (e.g. E.O. Wilson in The Philosophers’ Magazine), the tide does seem to be turning. Pinker’s book has been getting a largely favorable or at least attentively respectful hearing, … Read the rest

Higher Superstition Revisited: an interview with Norman Levitt

Oct 30th, 2002 | By Ophelia Benson

Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition appeared
in 1994, rattled a good many cages, and prompted the Sokal Hoax. The book describes
a bizarre situation in American universities in which academics in various (mostly
new-minted) fields such as Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, and Science Studies,
plus a few more familiar ones such as Sociology, Comparative Literature and
the like, make a career of writing about science without taking the trouble
to know anything about it. Gross and Levitt have a good deal of fun exposing
the absurd mistakes perpetrated by people who rhapsodise about quantum mechanics
and chaos theory without having the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

But hilarity aside, there are serious issues involved. The … Read the rest

Postmodernism and History

Oct 22nd, 2002 | By Richard J. Evans

Postmodernism comes in many guises and many varieties,
and it has had many kinds of positive influences on historical scholarship.
It has encouraged historians to take the irrational in the past more seriously,
to pay more attention to ideas, beliefs and culture as influences in their own
right, to devote more effort to framing our work in literary terms, to put individuals,
often humble individuals, back into history, to emancipate ourselves from what
became in the end a constricting straitjacket of social-science approaches,
quantification and socio-economic determinism.

But this is postmodernism in its more moderate
guise. The literature on postmodernism usefully distinguishes between the moderate
and the radical. What I call radical postmodernism takes its cue from another
post, post-structuralism, … Read the rest

The Ancient World As Seen By Afrocentrists

Sep 15th, 2002 | By Mary Lefkowitz


At some schools and universities in the USA today students are learning a version
of ancient history that is strikingly different from what is being taught to
their counterparts in Europe.[1] This new narrative cannot be reconciled with
the traditional account, which is still being taught in the vast majority of
schools and universities. Advocates of the revisionist version ("the Afrocentric
narrative") claim that because of their inherent prejudice against Africans
and peoples of African descent, the traditionalists have ignored a significant
body of evidence. Advocates of the traditional version of ancient history insist
that their version ("the Eurocentric narrative") offers the best available
account of the known facts. Thus in the debate between the two groups there
is … Read the rest

Misunderstanding Richard Dawkins

Sep 1st, 2002 | By Jeremy Stangroom


Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is the kind of book
that changes the way that people look at the world. Its importance
is that it articulates a gene’s-eye view of evolution. According
to this view, all organisms, including human beings, are ‘survival
machines’ which have been ‘blindly programmed’ to preserve their
genes (see The Selfish Gene, p. v). Of course, extant
survival machines take a myriad of different forms – for example,
it is estimated that there are some three million different species
of insect alone – but they all have in common that they have been
built according to the instructions of successful genes; that
is, genes whose replicas in previous generations managed to get
themselves copied.

At … Read the rest

Science Wars: an interview with Alan Sokal

Aug 15th, 2002 | By Julian Baggini

Dennis Healey once compared a verbal attack by one of his parliamentary
colleagues to "being savaged by a dead sheep." I was reminded
of this remark when I met the physicist Alan Sokal, the man who,
along with mathematician Jean Bricmont, has caused outrage and indignation
among the French intelligentsia first with his spoof post-modern
article published in the journal Social Text, and then for
his and Bricmont’s book Intellectual Impostures, which
combines a catalogue of misuses of scientific terms by predominantly
French thinkers with a stinging attack on what they call "sloppy

Given this history, you’d expect Sokal to be more lupine than lamb-like,
but in fact, he is a friendly, chatty, effusive figure more interested… Read the rest