All entries by this author

Hallelujah We’re Postmodernists

Dec 22nd, 2002 5:55 pm | By

Here is an interesting little item I turned up in my never-ending quest for material for Butterflies and Wheels. The author is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, which is a somewhat staggering fact in light of this article. He is also the author of a highly unfavorable 1997 review of The Flight From Science and Reason in the American magazine Science, which provoked such outrage that the book editor of Science resigned. So we know what to expect, and we get it. Rhetoric, rhetoric, and more rhetoric, and a procession of outrageous assertions. I am tempted to quote and quote, but you can read the piece for yourselves. Perhaps just one or two…

…the more sophisticated paladins of

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Simon Hoggart is Not Amused *

Dec 22nd, 2002 | Filed by

What is the Observer doing running an astrology column, even though it is semi-jokey?… Read the rest



Stories in Mind

Dec 21st, 2002 7:48 pm | By

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few days ago about the way the human mind constructs explanations for everything, frequently out of whole cloth. Mood shifts that are caused by diurnal changes in hormone levels are explained as job stress and evening relaxation or alternatively as job interest and evening boredom. Whatever works. Stimulate a piece of the brain electrically to cause a laugh, and the laugher will find something amusing in the environment. Tell Freud a story, any story, and he’ll concoct a sexual etiology for it.

The article is written by a therapist who frankly admits that therapists “are, after all, hardly exempt from the need to create satisfying cause-and-effect story lines. Quite … Read the rest



Economists Beginning to Learn: Humans Not Rational *

Dec 21st, 2002 | Filed by

The invisible hand is invisible, at least in part, because it is not there, says a winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in economics.… Read the rest



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 … Read the rest



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 … Read the rest



Don Boffin’s Cod Twin Study *

Dec 20th, 2002 | Filed by

Statistics, nature v. nurture, ethical considerations, Luce Irigaray: it’s all there.… 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



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

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Abductees Go to Harvard *

Dec 18th, 2002 | Filed by

Do we construct memories of sexual abuse the same way we construct memories of alien abductions? Harvard researcher finds the question is highly political.… Read the rest



Pseudo-investigation *

Dec 18th, 2002 | Filed by

A show of journalistic digging without the reality lets the powerful off the hook.… Read the rest



Scientists Against Boycott *

Dec 17th, 2002 | Filed by

The universality of science is too important to give up lightly, four Oxford professors say.… Read the rest



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

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Unprized *

Dec 16th, 2002 | Filed by

Historian de-prized after panel concludes he did “unprofessional and misleading work.”… Read the rest



Manipulation *

Dec 15th, 2002 | Filed by

The therapeutic and market world-views converge, when “personal well-being” is our only goal.… Read the rest



What Do You Mean, You Don’t Want Your Bones Back? *

Dec 15th, 2002 | Filed by

It’s not the indigenous peoples themselves who want their ancestors’ remains back, it’s caring academics who insist on returning them.… Read the rest



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

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The Persistence of Superstition *

Dec 14th, 2002 | Filed by

Magical thinking thrives when the other kind can’t perform miracles.… Read the rest



Secularism is Good *

Dec 14th, 2002 | Filed by

Hermione Lee admires Salman Rushdie’s chutzpah: extolling unbelief in a Sunday address in King’s College Chapel.… Read the rest



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

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