All entries by this author

Meet Me at the Volcano *

Dec 28th, 2002 | Filed by

A sportswriter and race car driver discovers aliens speak French, starts new religion.… Read the rest



Raelian Bishop Announces Cloned Human *

Dec 27th, 2002 | Filed by

Clonaid, connected to Raelian sect who say aliens created all life on Earth through genetic engineering, claims it has followed suit.… Read the rest



Do We Define Ourselves By Way of our Tastes? *

Dec 26th, 2002 | Filed by

Red wine or white? Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter? (Hang on, where is ‘neither’?)… Read the rest



Open the Door

Dec 24th, 2002 11:25 pm | By

This is an essay that talks (among other things) about the convergence of two subjects (if not more) that keep coming up here: the fashion for biographies of intellectuals–poets, philosophers, historians, scientists–that dwell lovingly on prurient personal details and skip lightly over the ideas and thought and books that are why the people are interesting to begin with; and the dominance of identity politics over every other kind.

The fixation on biography, particularly when it is mixed with interpretive suspicion, suggests a retreat from philosophy’s aspiration to truth; we wallow in the particular and revel in salacious detail, whether it be Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, A. J. Ayer’s promiscuity, Foucault’s “sadomasochistic” experimentations in the gay subculture, Dewey’s sexual shyness, or Hannah Arendt’s

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Gossip Displaces Ideas *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Shallow misunderstandings of Arendt, Heidegger, Foucault and others by writers more interested in laundry-inspection than analysis of thought.… Read the rest



Is Religion Adaptive? *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Perhaps, or perhaps it’s a spandrel or a virus, instead, says biologist David Sloan Wilson.… Read the rest



Catholics Here, Protestants There, Please *

Dec 24th, 2002 | Filed by

Plan being considered to split Scottish school into two, one Protestant one Catholic, has local people worried.… Read the rest



Quantum Foolery

Dec 23rd, 2002 7:53 pm | By

Here is a very silly essay from Slate. Note the rhetoric, for one thing, the talk of atheists ‘trumpeting’ their beliefs, and the truculent demand for an explanation, as if atheism required more explanation than theism does. Note the failure to define what is meant by ‘God’. Note the default assumption that belief is normal and that it’s unbelief that requires justification. Note the circularity of the argument that non-believers have some ‘splaining to do because Garry Wills doesn’t agree with them. And note the resort to the often-cited ‘cosmic deists’ such as Paul Davies. Holt doesn’t trouble to point out that Davies is very much in a minority among physicists in drawing deist conclusions from his work. And … Read the rest



Competing Goods *

Dec 23rd, 2002 | Filed by

Should conservation trump treaty rights, or the other way around?… Read the rest



Confused about a Virgin?

Dec 22nd, 2002 8:46 pm | By

Confused and unfounded guesswork. Crude and offensive speculation.

So says the RC Bishop of Portsmouth, the Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, about a BBC documentary focussing on the life of The Virgin Mary.

But, alas, the really not right at all, Mr Hollis, is not talking about the nonsense of the virgin birth, the resurrection, Angels, wise men and talking snakes, but rather the questioning of these things.

Confusion indeed.… Read the rest



Fundamentalists and Flexibles

Dec 22nd, 2002 7:06 pm | By

Rhetoric everywhere. You can’t let your guard down for an instant, no rest for the wicked, hypervigilance is the price of accuracy, and so on. Just tweak one or two little words and you can guide your readers so very subtly in what they’re meant to think, without having to come right out and tell them. This is a story from the Observer about genetics.

The nature versus nurture debate revived from the Sixties, when it had revolved around IQ and had bitter, racial overtones. This time around, it was less to do with race but no less bitter, with genetic fundamentalists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins arguing that ‘the answer lies in our genes’. Opponents, such as

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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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