Nov 1st, 2005 12:27 am | By

Back to Emptier I mean Fuller. From the morning session this time.

It is, in fact, very easy, as it were, for
things to fall out that, in a sense, the boundary
between science and non-science isn’t something one can
ever take for granted. It is actively being negotiated
at all times because there are all kinds of people who
are trying to make claims that what they’re doing is
scientific. Insofar as science is the most authoritative body
of knowledge in society. So in that respect, there’s a
kind of policing, you might say, and an occasional
negotiation of the boundary that takes place.

Yes, very true. There certainly are all kinds of people who
are trying to make claims that what they’re doing is
scientific. And there are also all kinds of people who amuse themselves by trying to create suspicions about the whole arrangement via words like ‘policing’ and ‘boundary’ and ‘authoritative’. (No doubt the next generation of Science Studies whizzers will be talking in terms of handcuffs and cells and torture and lethal injections. Why not.)

Q. Does the text Governance of Science speak to the
role of peer review in science?

A. Well, yes. And one of the things that it says is
that, while the scientific community is nominally
governed by a peer review process, as a matter of fact,
relatively few scientists ever participate in it. So if one were to look at the structure of
science from a sort of, you might say, political science
standpoint, and ask, well, what kind of regime governs
science, it wouldn’t be a democracy in the sense that
everyone has an equal say, or even that there are clear
representative bodies in terms of which the bulk of the
scientific community, as it were, could turn to and who
would then, in turn, be held accountable.
There is a tendency, in fact, for science to be
governed by a kind of, to put it bluntly, self-perpetuating elite.

Now what I want to know is, why would one want to look at the ‘structure’ of science from a political science standpoint? Is science supposed to be a form of politics? Is political science a relevant way to study the structure of science? It doesn’t seem very relevant to me – at least not in the usual sense of political science. I can certainly believe there is plenty of ‘political’ maneuvering and manipulation in science, as in any vocation, profession, workplace, group of people; and that that kind of thing is eminently worth looking at. But is that what’s meant by political science? I don’t think so. I think political science is about governance, and government. That’s a different subject. (So we have here another example of mission creep, and of changing the subject.) And that matters, because the reality is that science isn’t supposed to be ‘a democracy in the sense that everyone has an equal say’. For obvious reasons. Scientific results aren’t supposed to be reached by a vote; scientific questions aren’t supposed to be decided by majority rule. (Except on juries. Which can be a real problem…a problem which illustrates the problems with the basic idea.) Mistakes don’t turn into non-mistakes simply because a lot of people think they should.


Nov 1st, 2005 12:25 am | By

What does ‘X works’ mean? What does it mean to say that something ‘works’? It means different things, which need to be sorted out, and it’s not ground-shifting to say so. It’s not ground-shifting to make necessary distinctions and to clarify definitions. It’s just not. It’s an essential requirement for critical thinking and for coherent discussion, not ground-shifting. Look at Steve Fuller’s testimony (which I will be doing more of later, if I can steal the time) for example after example of fuzzy language allowing someone to make absurd claims – absurd claims that could do their bit to sabotage the education of a lot of students. Fuzzy language does that kind of work all the time; it is far from a trivial issue; and it is not ground-shifting to make an issue of it. That’s why there is a new dictionary of euphemisms and obfuscations on B&W, only it’s invisible.

Alister McGrath likes the word – as theists and their admirers so often do. Theism ‘works,’ you see.

Hopelessly overstated arguments that once seemed so persuasive – such as “science disproves God” – have lost their credibility. Anyway, our culture’s criterion of acceptability is not “Is it right?” but “Does it work?” And the simple fact is that religious belief works for many, many people, giving direction, purpose and stability to their lives – witness the massive sales and impact of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Atheism, already having failed to land the knockout punch by proving that God does not exist…

Hopelessly overstated arguments that no one but silly people made in the first place. Non-silly people don’t say ‘science disproves God’ so that’s a straw argument. Try to do better. But that’s a separate issue; the question here is about ‘works.’ ‘Our culture’s criterion of acceptability is not “Is it right?” but “Does it work?”’ Boy is that ever debatable, and boy does it depend on a lot of fuzzy words. Our? Culture? Acceptability? Right? And especially ‘work’?

McGrath does implicitly say what he means by the word – ‘it’ works in the sense of giving direction, purpose and stability to the lives of many many people. True. But the fact that theism (for theism is the it that McGrath has in mind) works in that sense does not mean that it is true. So if McGrath means ‘true’ when he says ‘right’ in that sentence, then he’s wrong – but no doubt that is exactly why he was careful to say ‘right’ instead of ‘true.’ That’s how fuzzy language does its work. That’s how it ‘works.’

Simon Blackburn tells a joke that also hinges on the word ‘works.’

It concerns a friend of mine, who was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the panellists all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And he thumped the table and shouted: ‘No! It’s not a question of it if works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!’

And they all said: ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’.

Same thing, you see? It works for you. Great. It’s all bullshit, of course, but it works for you.

Okay, it works for you. It’s useful for you in some narrow sense – but that is not the same thing as saying it’s true.

It’s also not even the same thing as saying it’s right, but that’s another and large subject. Later.

Fuller Transcript

Oct 30th, 2005 1:20 am | By

More Fuller. I’ve been reading the transcript (and so has Stewart, see his comments on I Employ Methods). It’s time to share.

A. Well, you might say as a philosopher I’m
professionally dissatisfied with all explanations that
claim to be final. And so there is going to be a
special suspicion sort of drawn toward the
taken-for-granted theories in any given discipline.

Q. So you’re not saying that intelligent design
is the correct or the better explanation for
biological life?

No, I’m not. I’m certainly not. They’re
not – they haven’t developed it enough to really be
in a position to make any kind of definitive judgment
of that kind…I want to see where
intelligent design goes, frankly. I mean, you know, again, it’s hard to make a judgment. But I do think
that when you get to a situation in science where one
theory is very dominant and so taken for granted that
people don’t even feel they have to, you know, defend
it anymore, then that’s kind of bad news
epistemologically, just generally speaking.

Well, it seems to me this (along with a lot of other places) is where the lack of expertise gets to be a problem. Which is no doubt why the plaintiff’s lawyer asked him about his expertise in some detail – got him to say No he’s not a scientist, not a biologist, not an expert on irreducible complexity, or on Behe, or on Dembski, or on complex specified information, not familiar with the textbooks that are being used, not familiar with Of Pandas and People. And this is where that shows up. The explanation doesn’t claim to be ‘final’. And then there’s the ‘it’s hard to make a judgment’. Well, yes, of course it is, because you don’t know anything about the subject! Therefore – therefore – you really ought not to be meddling in it. You ought not to be proffering your valueless opinions and hunches in a courtroom in a situation in which the vast majority of people who do know something about the subject think the side you are defending is utterly, bottomlessly wrong. That’s exactly why you should shut the hell up.

It says, Third, ID’s
rejection of naturalism and commitment to
supernaturalism does not make it unscientific. Did I
read that correctly?

A. Yes…But I do believe that ID is open
to supernaturalism. But it’s not exclusively
supernatural, it’s just with respect to this

Q. But it has a commitment to supernaturalism
and to introducing it into the scientific community?[…]So if it’s not naturalistic, what else could
it be?

Yes, but the thing here is, what
supernaturalistic boils down to — I mean,
supernaturalistic just means not explainable in the
naturalistic terms. Right? It means involving some
kind of intelligence or mind that’s not reducible to
ordinary natural categories. Okay?
So that’s the sense in which I’m using
supernaturalistic. I’m not saying, you know, they’re
committed to ghosts or something. See, I’m not sure
what exactly — but that’s how I — I understand
supernaturalistic in this fairly broad sense…Well, as not naturalistic, given what we
take to be naturalistic now in science. Because in
the past, things that we now consider to be
naturalistic in science were not regarded as such.
Right? So that’s the basic point I’m trying to make

But that’s not supernatural, you fool. That’s ‘not discovered yet’ or ‘not understood yet’, which is a completely different thing. As surely you know! You an expert in the rhetoric of science – surely you know perfectly well what ‘supernatural’ means. It means above, beyond, outside natural, it doesn’t mean natural but not fully understood yet.

Q. The goal is to have a supernatural designer
considered as a possible scientific explanation?

A. Well, it’s intelligent designer, and I think
the idea here is that intelligence is something that
cannot be reduced to naturalistic causes. Right? So
there is a sense in which the idea of intelligence
itself is taken to be somewhat supernatural here.

But ‘intelligent’ is just an adjective to apply to a process that, to the ID crowd, looks deliberate and planned and intentional – and ‘intelligent’ – instead of like a dull algorithm of reproduce, change, select, reproduce, change, select. But it seems pretty circular to take that adjective – ‘intelligent’ – that is the crux of the disagreement, and say that it’s something that cannot be ‘reduced’ to naturalistic causes. Why can’t it be, and how do you know, and are you sure you’ve looked hard enough? Maybe there’s some very ‘intelligent’ entity hiding somewhere that you just haven’t found yet. Go back and look some more and then come back – say in nine hundred years or so – and tell us what you’ve learned. In the meantime, get out of our school systems.

I Employ Methods

Oct 28th, 2005 9:11 pm | By

Steve Fuller. I’ve been browsing in some of my books, leafing through indexes, consulting bibliographies. Steve Fuller.

Here is a passage from Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense pp. 97-98:

Let us read it as a methodological principle for a sociologist of science who does not himself have the scientific competence to make an independent assessment of whether the experimental/observational data do in fact warrant the conclusions the scientific community has drawn from them. In such a situation, the sociologist will be understandably reluctant to say that ‘the scientific community under study came to conclusion X because X is the way the world really is’ – even if it is in fact the case that X is the way the world is and that is the reason the scientists came to believe it – because the sociologist has no independent grounds to believe that X is the way the world really is other than the fact that the scientific community under study came to believe it. Of course, the sensible conclusion to draw from this cul de sac is that sociologists of science ought not to study controversies on which they lack the competence to make an independent assessment of the facts, if there is no other (for example, historically later) scientific community on which they could justifiably rely for such an independent assessment. But it goes without saying that Latour would not enjoy this conclusion.

The passage is about Bruno Latour, you see; the ‘it’ in the opening words refers to Latour’s Third Rule of Method: ‘Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome – Nature – to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.’ (Science in Action) They add a footnote to the observation that Latour would not enjoy this conclusion:

Nor would Steve Fuller, who asserts that ‘STS [Science and Technology Studies] practitioners employ methods that enable them to fathom both the “inner workings” and the “outer character” of science without having to be expert in the fields they study.’

Is that not hilarious? Oh do they! They employ methods, do they?! What kind of methods would those be then? Magic? Electro-mesmero-polycrypto salutations de mains? Pyramidal veridical saltations? Hyperosperical croptyflangial resonical fleering? No matter. No problem. We’ll just take their word for it. They say they have methods, so they must have methods, right? Of course. Because they wouldn’t say they have methods if they didn’t have methods – therefore they must have methods. Right? Right. So we’ll take their word for it. Same way, if some academics come tripping down the pike saying they have methods of resurrecting Shakespeare or turning back copies of the New York Times into gold necklaces, we’ll take their word for it, because why not? That’s what I call Sociology of Science.

Could be another sweatshirt slogan. ‘I employ methods.’

An Unblemished Record

Oct 27th, 2005 9:13 pm | By

Bush is being especially irritating today. No he’s not, he’s always this irritating, but there are a lot of examples of that around today and recently. I feel like gathering a few of them together.

He didn’t get to appoint his friend to the Supreme Court – no fair.

Harriet Miers, the US president’s nominee for the supreme court, announced today she had withdrawn her name from consideration. Ms Miers, who is George Bush’s former personal lawyer, had been facing growing opposition amid questions about her qualifications and claims of cronyism.

Gee, I can’t imagine why. Just because she’s never done any judging. Just because she’s totally unqualified, and wouldn’t be nominated for even the smallest localest judicial post if she weren’t friends with Bush (just as Bush wouldn’t be elected lunch monitor if he weren’t his father’s son), and refuses to tell Senators what they need to know on account of how that would violate executive privilege – that’s no reason!

Both Mr Bush and Ms Miers said that the decision to withdraw followed a concerted attempt by senators to gain access to internal papers about her work at the White House…Mr Bush, who has insisted publicly in recent weeks that he did not want her to step down, said today: “It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House, disclosures that would undermine a president’s ability to receive candid counsel.

No, senators would not be satisfied, and why should they be?! What are they supposed to do, just take Bush’s word for it? ‘She’s nice – I like her – she’s an evangelical.’ ‘Oh well in that case, no further questions.’ If he didn’t want senators asking to see the papers, it wasn’t very smart of him to nominate – of all the possible lawyers in the country – his own lawyer, was it! Ridiculous crybaby.

Then there’s the reinstatement of the Davis-Bacon Act. Remember last month, when we were treated to outraged diatribes on the subject of Davis-Bacon and the minimum wage? Oddly, even some Republicans found Bush’s suspension of Davis-Bacon a bit much. Even some Republicans don’t feel like stooping that low.

The White House yesterday reversed course and reinstated a key wage protection for workers involved in Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, bowing to pressure from moderate House Republicans who argued that Gulf Coast residents were being left out of the recovery…Conservatives strongly backed the waiver. But a group of moderate Republican members of Congress – many from districts in industrial areas populated by blue-collar workers – lobbied the White House and the congressional leadership for the prevailing-wage provision to be reinstated.

But – no such luck for the minimum wage.

U.S. senators – who draw salaries of $162,100 a year and enjoy a raft of perks – have rejected a minimum wage hike from $5.15 an hour to $6.25 for blue-collar workers…The minimum wage was last increased in 1997.

And, finally, Bush covers himself with glory by seeking an exemption from a ban on cruelty to terrorism suspects for the CIA.

The White House wants the CIA to be exempted from a proposed ban on the abusive treatment of terrorism suspects being held in United States custody. The Senate defied a threatened presidential veto three weeks ago and passed legislation that would outlaw the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone held by the US. But the Washington Post and the New York Times, both quoting anonymous officials, said the vice-president, Dick Cheney, proposed a change so that the law would not apply to counter-terrorism operations abroad or to operations conducted by “an element” of the US government other than the defence department.

Impressive, isn’t it. Impressive how very seldom he does anything even minimally admirable – impressive how consistent he is. Make the rich richer, keep the poor poorer, appoint hacks to important government jobs, and seek to abuse suspects. Lovely fella.

Fuller and Deeper

Oct 27th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

Well great. Janeya Hisle of the Pennsylvania ACLU took extensive notes on Steve Fuller’s testimony, so we can explore his linkage of social constructionism with creationism more thorougly. Thank you Janeya Hisle.

According to Dr. Fuller, scientific methods are inherently discriminatory and designed to shut out alternative ideas. For example: peer review. The reviewers are rarely a representative group but a “self-perpetuating elite.” By evaluating a scientist’s track record and publications, the process discriminates against young scientists with new or unpopular ideas. Dr. Fuller said that these same scientists might also have unequal access to grant funding. He suggested that an affirmative action program for scientists with alternative ideas might be one way to address this economic bias.

Yup – he’s right. Reviewers are rarely (at least I hope so, oh I hope so, oh please please please I do so hope so) a representative group. There’s a reason for that, oddly enough. It’s pretty much the same kind of reason that, when you take your car or computer or tv or cyclotron to the shop to be fixed, the people behind the counter don’t go out into the street and collar passers-by and drag them into the back of the shop to fix your toy. It’s because the odds are they don’t know how, and because if you’d wanted any old fool to fix your toy, you wouldn’t have bothered bringing it to the shop, would you. You’ll notice the same principle at work in a lot of places. Dentists. Surgeons. House builders. Electrical engineers. Now, I don’t know about Steve Fuller, but when I go to the dentist, I don’t sit around thinking how unrepresentative the whole arrangement is, and that it really ought to be more representative and democratic and anti-elitist, and that any schmuck with two hands ought to be in here messing around inside my mouth. No. Do we think Steve does? Not really, no. So why does he think it about peer review? Because he’s a berk?

But Dr. Fuller put the most emphasis on the innate tendency of scientific method itself to favor the most popular theory. He said that our current methods persuade scientists to move in a unified direction, eventually creating a small number of widely accepted ideas or paradigms that are only challenged when they begin to self-destruct. Dr. Fuller said that these paradigms in science are so strong that, in order for an unpopular or alternative idea to have a shot at validity, a scientific revolution must occur.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s read Kuhn. Read Kuhn and then run amok.

Dr. Fuller explained that the boundaries between science and non-science are constantly being negotiated and policed. In Dr. Fuller’s world, the words “a well substantiated explanation” should be stricken from the definition of scientific method and that instead we should think of science as “an explanatory conception of a range of phenomena” in order to validate newer, less established ideas.

He’s also read Andrew Ross. Oh, lord…

Testability, while important to the growth of scientific theory, should not determine whether or not an idea is science…ID is not currently testable but, according to Dr. Fuller, testability relates to the longevity of an idea and does not effect whether or not something is science. Regardless of testability, a new idea should still be presented to school children. ID is not testable, but Dr. Fuller specifically supports teaching it in classrooms because ID needs “new recruits.” When asked whether the ID movement has religious motives, Dr. Fuller replied that almost all science “has religious roots.”…Dr. Fuller is clear that the ID mindset assumes a creator exists. Yet, whether ID introduces a supernatural aspect or not is moot because the term supernatural refers both to things that are “above” observation (for example, God) but also to things that are “below” observation – like atoms. In short, he agreed that the ID movement’s motive was religious and that it may be considered “supernatural” in so far as it is not currently testable. But according to Dr. Fuller, that doesn’t mean it’s not science.

ID needs new recruits? And we need to give them to it? And atoms are supernatural? Oy, oy, oy…

According to Dr. Fuller, belief in genetic mutation and natural selection has a tendency to make people just “sit around and wait to die” instead of questioning, studying and testing ideas.

Excuse me? It does? On what planet?

The one that representative astronomers know how to find, I suppose.

Two Years for ‘Blasphemy’

Oct 26th, 2005 11:21 pm | By

And another thing. (I’m behind. I’ve had all these items burning a hole in my pocket, and I keep having to do other things, so the list keeps getting longer. You know how that goes.) And another thing: the horrible outcome of that trial of the editor of a women’s rights magazine in Afghanistan. Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, International Freedom of Expression exchange, are all on the case. Good luck to them.

Nasab was prosecuted for reprinting articles by an Iranian scholar criticising the stoning of Muslims who convert to another religion and the use of corporal punishment for persons accused of such offences as adultery. An Afghan journalist present at the 22 October hearing before a Kabul lower court told Reporters without Borders that Nasab was interrogated by the prosecutor and judges without any defence lawyer being present. The judges refused Nasab’s request for a further adjournment to let him prepare his defence, and refused to free him on bail. The hearing lasted only an hour and a half. He appeared haggard after weeks of imprisonment, as he had during earlier hearings starting on 11 October when he was subjected to a series of tirades from the prosecutor.

Great – prosecuted for reprinting someone else’s criticism (and very good luck to that scholar too) of the stoning of Muslims who convert to another religion and the use of corporal punishment for adultery.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the conviction of Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, editor of the monthly Haqooq-i-Zan (Women’s Rights), on blasphemy charges and the two-year jail sentence handed down by Kabul’s Primary Court on October 22. Judge Ansarullah Malawizada said that his ruling in Nasab’s case was based on recommendations from the conservative Ulama Council, a group of the country’s leading clerics. “The Ulama Council sent us a letter saying that he should be punished, so I sentenced him to two years’ jail,” Malawizada told The Associated Press. Police arrested Nasab, a religious scholar, on October 1 after clerics complained that he had published two articles that questioned harsh interpretations of Islamic law and were, thus, “offensive to Islam.”

Whereas the harshness of the laws themselves is not ‘offensive to Islam’ – that’s unfortunate.

When arresting Nasab…authorities bypassed Afghan legislation that states journalists cannot be arrested until the government-appointed Media Commission for Investigating Media-Related Offences has considered their case. The Media Commission met on October 18 to discuss Nasab’s case following a series of requests by Afghan media groups and international human rights groups. The Media Commission concluded that Nasab did not deliberately insult Islam in his articles and was therefore not guilty of blasphemy.

Well so much for the Media Commission. The clerics sent a letter saying he should be punished, so that’s that.

“The court’s decision to go against Afghanistan’s own legislation is a huge step back for both human rights and press freedom in Afghanistan,” said the IFJ president…Blasphemy laws remain the greatest threat to journalists in Afghanistan and the IFJ is concerned that Nasab’s sentencing will lead to increased self-censorship and an avoidance of reporting on important religious issues in the region. The prosecution called for the death penalty, accusing Nasab of apostasy (the abandonment of faith), leading observers to call the two-year sentence a compromise.

A compromise which might lead to increased self-censorship and an avoidance of reporting on important religious issues. Ya think?

House of Commons, please note.

Irritating Bluebottle

Oct 26th, 2005 10:42 pm | By

I trust you enjoyed that Christopher Hart piece in the Times. I liked it so much I thought I would revisit a few of the highlights, just for the pleasure of it.

The difficulty is rather that all the religions on offer are so patently preposterous, if not downright unpleasant. Judaism tells us in its most sacred text, the Torah, that a donkey once turned round and started an argument with its master (Numbers, chapter 22); and that the supreme creator took time out to instruct his chosen people not to carry dead badgers, pelicans, hoopoes or bats (Leviticus, chapter 11). Christianity, while accepting these texts as sacred, further believes that God manifested himself on earth in the form of an excitable and frequently ill-tempered 1st-century Jewish rabbi called Joshua (“Jesus” in Greek) who disowned his family and believed that the world was soon going to end. How do we know Jesus was Jewish? Because he lived at home until he was 30 and his mother thought he was God.

Excitable and ill-tempered – well of course he was, on account of not being allowed to carry dead hoopoes or badgers around. Wouldn’t you be? We are a luckier people in a happier time – we get to bring blue teddy bears and bunches of flowers and cards with messages to an alley where someone found a bit of premature chicken. Thus are religions born.

Enter new Labour with shining morning face, like some eager perfectibilian schoolboy, believing that with a few waves of its legislative wand it can banish cultural frictions and religious disagreements from the earth…If the bill is passed then the kind of things I have written at the start of this article – to my mind, perfectly reasonable, evidentiary and legitimately discomforting things – could well land me in Wormwood Scrubs. It is astonishing that any modern democratic government should be even considering such a law…This is a blundering bluebottle of a bill, inanely buzzing around our heads, a colossal nuisance with no sign of intelligence behind it whatsoever.

Yeah. Always beware of eager perfectabilians with shining morning faces – little bastards.

Radical Innovative Bollocks

Oct 26th, 2005 7:21 pm | By

Steve Fuller is a social constructionist, a Stong Progamme-ist. He says things like this:

So, what exactly do science studies scholars do – and why does it seem to bother scientists so much? We apply the theories and methods of the humanities and social sciences to the work of natural scientists and technologists. We study them as people, not minor deities. We observe them in their workplaces, interpret their documents, and propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them, given other things we know about human beings. This may sound like pretty harmless stuff, but it actually took a while even for sociologists to come round to it. Until the 1970s, the ‘sociology of science’ was based on a fairly uncritical acceptance of what distinguished scientists and philosophers of science had to say about the nature of science. To see what this means, imagine relying exclusively on the testimony of priests and theologians for developing a sociology of religion.

Propose explanations for their activities that make sense of them – yes – but what kind of sense? It’s possible to propose explanations that ‘make sense’ of things but are still inaccurate, or point-missing, or fantasy-laden, or tendentious, or all those. Strong Programme explanations of the activities of scientists tend to adduce explanations that have to do with status, financial interests, prestige, rivalry, and the like, while omitting explanations that have to do with evidence; thus they tend to ‘make sense’ of the activities they are considering, at the expense of leaving out major, central explanatory factors.

So maybe it’s not all that surprising that Steve Fuller would tell a US federal court that the theory of intelligent design is a scientific rather than a religious concept that should be taught to children in American schools. In fact maybe it’s not surprising at all. Maybe that’s where strict social constructionism gets you. If you think scientists are to science as priests and theologians are to religion, then no wonder.

Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, said that the theory – which maintains that life on Earth was designed by an unidentified intelligent force – is a valid scientific one because it has been used to describe biological phenomena…Prof Fuller, the author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Intelligent Design Theory, was called by lawyers for the school board. He said the scientific community was slow to accept minority views, but argued that introducing intelligent design might inspire students to help develop the theory. “It seems to me in many respects the cards are stacked against radical, innovative views getting a fair hearing in science these days,” he said. Citing the work of Michael Behe, a leading advocate of intelligent design and a previous witness at the trial, Prof Fuller said scientists have observed biological systems and inferred that a “designer” must exist.

Behold, a variation on the Galileo fallacy. The ‘scientific community’ is slow to accept minority views, the cards are stacked against radical, innovative views getting a fair hearing in science these days – therefore it’s a good idea to cite the work of Michael Behe. They said Galileo was wrong, they say my ideas are wrong, therefore my ideas are right. Einstein did badly in school, I did badly in school, therefore Behe has a point. Radical, innovative ideas are sometimes greeted with skepticism, scientists are skeptical of ‘Intelligent Design,’ therefore ‘Intelligent Design’ should be taught in schools. Let’s call that the Transgressive Fallacy, shall we?

Complicity with Complicity

Oct 25th, 2005 11:25 pm | By

A kind reader sent me such an interesting announcement – which included the injunction at the top ‘Please Circulate Widely’ – so I will! Nobody’s ever said I’m not obliging. (That’s an arrant falsehood, of course, but never mind.)

I should warn you though – this adventure took place October 20 – so that was last week – so it’s over. So you can’t go. So don’t get all excited, because you can’t go.

You’ll really wish you could, though, when I tell you where it was held. In the ‘Namaste Lounge’ – that’s where. I’m not making it up.

There was a ‘panel on the questions surrounding racialized sexualized politics within
the neoliberal political economy through an understanding of empire.’
Professor X’s work on ‘geographies and migrations aims to make
visible the relations of power within the production of knowledge, in
its disciplinary and interdisciplinary forms. It aims to locate these
processes with the larger geopolitical contexts of the production and
reproduction of empire.’ Professor X drew on a book in progress: Seductions
of Empire: Complicity, Desire, and the Insecurity in Contemporary World

Complicity – there’s that word again. It must be hot right now. I’ll have to remember to say it more often.

Of course, seduction(s), empire, desire, production of knowledge, and locate aren’t exactly stone-cold either. But complicity has that kind of shimmer to it…

The ‘colloquium utilize[d] a transnational feminist Marxist
analysis to examine the role that desire and desire industries have come
to play within the re-structuring of the neoliberal political economy,
with particular focus on racialized, sexualized formations within
“peripheral states.”’ The discussion aimed ‘to pose broad questions about the politics of
exploitation, violence and desire, and the role of transnational
feminist praxis, feminist International Relations, and cross bordered
social movements challenging the racialized, gendered violences of
transnational capitalism, neocolonialism and empire.’

Professor X ‘has published numerous articles on issues
of migration, reproduction and formal/informal economies, transnational
desire industries, decolonizing feminist methodologies, security and
militarization, and cross-bordered feminist interventions into the
neoliberal political economy. Her work engages in debates within the
fields of feminist and cultural studies, international relations,
international political economy and sexuality, human rights and trauma

There we have that omnicompetence thing again, that broad sweep, that modest willingness to take on – I mean, to ‘engage in debates within the
fields of’ – ten or twenty fields that other people spend whole lifetimes trying to learn about and contribute a little to just one of, or a fraction of one of. What is it about these exciting people in Complicity studies, Desire studies, Circulation studies, Knowledge production studies, Decolonizing Feminist methodologies studies, Transnational Desire Industries studies, and the like, that enables them to understand, engage in debates with, intervene in, write books about, and just generally get a grip on so much more stuff than the slow timid havering lily-livered people in the old-fashioned boring dreary disciplines? Is it like a secret pill or a tonic or an incantation? Or what? And why don’t they all just take over everything? Since they have this magical ability – wouldn’t you think they would want to use it to do more than take part in discussions in Namaste Lounges?

They’re probably just biding their time, until the moment is right.

Down With Communalism

Oct 23rd, 2005 7:31 pm | By

Well, this is where communalism and communal thinking and identity politics and endless repetition of words like ‘community’ get you.

A fourteen year old girl was alleged to have been raped ‘in an Asian hair shop, Birmingham, Perry Barr.’ Therefore –

The shop thought to be part of a chain called ‘Beauty Queens’ was one of many which were closed down in anticipation of the peaceful mass protest. The campaign was designed to raise awareness of the issue and expose the tendency of national media institutions to marginalise or ignore crimes perpetrated against the African British community. At one point many advocated boycotting all Asian businesses to place pressure on the community into breaking the wall of silence it had erected when asked for any information to confirm or denounce the allegations.

Boycotting all Asian businesses, because a rape was alleged to have happened in one Asian business. So – if a rape were alleged to have occurred in an African British business, would a boycott of all African British businesses be a good, or fair, or rational, or just, or useful, or sane idea? If the advocacy of a boycott of all Asian businesses were coming from the BNP, would Ligali think it was a good, or fair, or rational, or just, or useful, or sane idea? Would it have misgivings? Would it stop to wonder why an African British business in, say, Peckham was being boycotted because of an alleged rape in an African British business in, say, Inverness? Would it take a moment to ponder whether that might be a little unfair or not? Would it pause to think that idea smacked a little of lumping all people in ‘the African British community’ into one homogenous mass and then pretending that an action by one atom of the mass is an action by every atom of the mass? Would it hesitate long enough to notice that actually that kind of thinking sounds quite a lot more like Hitler and Streicher foaming about the Jews than it does like a progressive multicultural helpful way to proceed?

Calls for the boycott have now been limited to Asian hair shops where the alleged incident took place.

Ah – the alleged incident took place in several ‘Asian hair shops’ then? It’s one incident, but it took place in several – or perhaps all? – ‘Asian hair shops’? No, probably that’s not what’s being suggested. Probably what is meant is: because the alleged incident is alleged to have taken place in one ‘Asian hair shop,’ therefore there are now calls for a boycott of Asian hair shops in general, of Asian hair shops qua Asian hair shops. And these are ‘limited’ calls. Yes indeed, moderation itself. Again – if a rape were alleged to have occurred in one ‘African British’ hair shop, would calls to boycott all African British hair shops seem like a sensible idea?

Organisers in both Birmingham and London have repeatedly stressed that this is not about stoking the fires of a ‘race war’ between African and Asian communities. The principle focus of the Campaign is to acertain the truth behind the allegations and seek justice. However there is an additional focus on cultivating enough national support regardless of ethnicity, gender and social status…

Well organizers can repeatedly stress whatever they like, but calling for a boycott of all Asian businesses because of an alleged rape in one – repeat, one – Asian business is a pretty odd way of damping down any fires. And then the smug resort to the right-on phrase ‘regardless of ethnicity, gender and social status’ – is a bad joke.

That’s where communalism gets you.

Wake Up

Oct 23rd, 2005 1:15 am | By

People don’t pay enough attention. Maybe they don’t pay any attention. Maybe all those octagonal red signs just flash pointlessly in front of their eyes without being taken in. Maybe everyone is entirely made of wood. I have to wonder sometimes.

It’s this BBC item on Rowan Atkinson, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and others joining forces to urge the government to add three amendments to the religious hatred bill – ‘to ensure people can still ridicule and criticise religion.’

Opponents of the bill, which faces detailed scrutiny in the House of Lords next week, say it would outlaw jokes and criticism of beliefs. They argue that people can choose their religion, unlike their race and so should not be protected against offence or criticism. On Thursday, the alliance of writers, comedians, bishops and peers unveiled a series of amendments they want added to the bill.

Good, good. Hope they succeed. Would prefer (as they would) no such bill, but failing that, hope they get the amendments accepted.

Blackadder star Mr Atkinson said campaigners against the law backed the government’s alleged intentions. But he warned: “The prime motivating energy for the bill seemed to come not from communities seeking protection from bullying by the British National Party but more from individuals with a more aggressive, fundamentalist agenda.” He pointed to those who would have liked to use such laws to prevent Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Even if there were no prosecutions under the new law, it would create self-censorship by writers, suggested Mr Atkinson.

A lot of that self-censorship is already on site, I would say – in the form of all the hand-wringers who are always rushing to and fro urging everyone to ‘respect’ religion I do beg your pardon I mean ‘faith’ and not to ‘insult’ or ‘offend’ religious beliefs. But not to worry – according to an authoritative body.

But the Muslim Council of Britain defended the law, disputing claims that it would lead to a loss of free speech. “People like Rowan Atkinson have created a media frenzy by claiming that the proposed law will ban criticism of religious beliefs. It certainly will not,” said Sher Khan, chairman of its public affairs committee.

And apart from a perfunctory ‘Sure, we’ll have a look’ from the Home Office, the MCB comment is the last thing in the article. In other words, they get the last word. Also the only word from that particular ‘community.’ Okay – that’s the not paying attention part. Why is the MCB consulted? Why did the BBC rush to ask the MCB what it thought? Why is the MCB so readily – so downright automatically – treated as the authoritative body to consult on such questions? Why is it treated as some sort of ‘leadership’ or as ‘representative’ when a lot of people – emphatically including Muslims – have pointed out that they’re not leaders and not representative? Not to mention not elected and not even – what they are so often taken to be – particularly ‘moderate’. Especially after that ‘Panorama’ – and Panorama is a BBC show, after all. So…they’re not paying attention. That’s irritating.


Oct 22nd, 2005 7:10 pm | By

I’m not in a mood to be tolerant and accepting. As a matter of fact I’m in a foul savage mood; I’m in a mood to bite the heads off fluffy kittens. Have been ever since yesterday. I’m in the kind of mood where people suddenly rush off to live in the Arctic circle, or quit their jobs, or try to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle and disappear somewhere in Nebraska. So be careful what you say to me.

So I’m not in an accepting embracing mood. I’m not ready to have secular commercial establishments shoving unrequested religious messages at me. (Like, what? I’m ready for that kind of thing when I’m in a good mood? No. Okay, but I’m even more savage about it today. Humour me.)

Coffee drinkers in the US could soon get Jesus with their morning jolt as Starbucks plans to put a religious message on its cups next spring. The cups will carry a religious quote from the Rev Rick Warren, the author of the blockbuster self-help book The Purpose-Driven Life. Mr Warren said he had had the idea after seeing a quote on one of the store’s cups on evolution by the paleontologist Louise Leakey. [sic – they mean Louis. Duh.] His quote reads: “You are not an accident. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.”

Well how’s that for stupid? How’s that for a moronic, dribbling, slack-jawed, fatuous, blithering piece of dreck? Pretty good, I’d say. Scores pretty high on the dumbOmeter. Your parents may not have planned you, but Kramer did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by Kramer and for Kramer, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in Kramer do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny. That’s a lot of stuff to discover all in one place, isn’t it – our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny. Whoo-ee – that’s quite a package. Unless it’s just a string of big-sounding words thrown in arbitrarily to make it all sound Deep and Meaningful – could that be it?

While the religious inscription may be a first for Starbucks, packaging goods with a message from God has been done before. For the past 30 years Alaska Airlines has put prayer cards on food trays. The California-based fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger has long carried verses from the Bible on its wrappers.

Yeah – I got one of those wretched ‘prayer cards’ from Alaska airlines a few years ago. Boy did that piss me off. It’s not as if you can get up and leave, is it!

When the founder of the clothing chain Forever 21 and XXI saw them he included a quote from John 3:16 on his shopping bags, declaring: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The quotes were “evidence of faith”, a spokesman, Larry Meyer, told USA Today.

Well obviously. That’s where the slack-jawed bit comes in – because ‘faith’ as a euphemism for religion means believing things without evidence, and ‘faith’ in that sense is not a virtue. The quotes were ‘evidence of credulity,’ the spokesman might as well have said.

So – Oratory School please note.

Government policy on school admissions was in disarray last night in the wake of a ruling from the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly that a church school could carry on interviewing parents to select its pupils. Parents’ leaders and pressure groups claimed that the decision would open the floodgates to schools of all faiths to adopt the practice – thus paving the way for more segregation in schools…Ms Kelly’s decision gave the green light to the London Oratory School, where Tony Blair sends his three children, to carry on the practice. The school says that it uses the interviews to determine parents’ commitment to their faith, whatever it is.

Church schools interview parents to determine their commitment to their credulity – so presumably it’s only if they are (or appear) credulous enough that their children are allowed to attend. Strange criterion.

But maybe no stranger than thinking libraries should get over their stupid backward-looking interest in dreary old books.

In the debate about modernising libraries, for instance, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) advocates that the New Model Library should feature “cafés, lounge areas with sofas, and chill-out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on listening posts”. CABE accuses traditional libraries of being “caught in the grip of traditional notions of the book-lending centre”. Behind this anti-book approach lies a real contempt for teenagers who are cast as so shallow that they might be enticed into reading by a few gadgets and soft furnishings.

Not to mention cast as so shallow that they can’t possibly have any interest in books in the first place – that they can’t possibly go to libraries because they have an already existing interest in books and desire to read a wider range of them, and that that’s a stuffy boring ‘traditional’ (and of course elitist) interest for anyone to have. Yeah. The hell with books, secularism, rational thought, skepticism, and independent-mindedness, and up with sheeplike ‘faith,’ pious coffee cups and shopping bags, ‘faith’ schools, and libraries converted to sofa-filled tv-watching centres. Okay that’s it – Arctic Circle, I’m on my way.

To Silence the Blasphemer

Oct 21st, 2005 4:55 pm | By

Kenan Malik remembers the beginning. He was in Bradford to interview Sher Azam, president of the Bradford Council of Mosques and the guy who burned The Satanic Verses at a demonstration, and he encountered an old friend.

“I’ve been up here a few months, helping in the campaign to silence the blasphemer…No need to look so shocked. I’ve had it with the white left. I’d lost my sense of who I was and where I came from. So I came back to Bradford to rediscover it. We need to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs, and not allow anyone – ”racist or Rushdie” – to trample over them.” I was astonished. The Hassan I knew in London had been a member of the Socialist Workers party (as had I for a while). Apart from Trotskyism, his indulgences were sex, Southern Comfort and watching Arsenal. We had marched together, chucked bricks at the National Front together, been arrested together. I had never detected a religious bone in his body. But here he was in Bradford, an errand boy to the mullahs, inspired by book-burners.

An errand boy to the mullahs – there it is. Imagine what that would be like. Imagine you’re in Lynchburg or Boulder or Pocatello to interview Fallwell or Dobson about whatever the latest religiofascist move is – blaming feminism for September 11, for instance – and you encounter an old friend, a wine-drinking lefty – who turns out to be there not to mock, not to investigate but as an adherent. As an errand-person to the bible-bashers.

I transpose the terms because it’s obvious how disconcerting that would be to most first world lefties. But when it’s running errands for the mullahs rather than the bible-bashers, somehow the disconcerting quality is less obvious. There’s a tendency to confuse Islamists with freedom fighters instead of with Falwell-types. That is such a mistake…

Today, “radical” in an Islamic context means someone who espouses a fundamentalist theology. Twenty years ago it meant a secularist who challenged the power of the mosques. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition has played an important part in the rise of Islamic militancy in this country. Hassan embodied this mutation from left-wing activist to Islamic militant. He was not alone.

Just so. The expunging of that radical secularist tradition, and the replacement of it with its own opposite. It’s a horrible tragedy, and all the more so because it’s so confusing. There really are a lot of lost-in-the-fog types – including Guardian editors, apparently – who hear the words ‘radical’ and ‘militant’ and ‘activist’ and think they mean exactly what they did thirty and forty years ago – who simply haven’t grasped yet that they mean not exactly what they did, and not even more or less the same kind of thing with some inevitable modifications over time, but rather, the deadly enemy of the original meaning.

The Rushdie affair made me question my own relationship to the left. For the transformation of Hassan mirrored a wider political shift. It was a conversion from a belief in secular universalism to the defence of ethnic particularism and group rights. At one time, the left had been a champion of Enlightenment rationalism, of a common humanity and universal rights. Over the past 20 years, however, many key figures and organisations on the British left have promoted the idea of multiculturalism. “You have to treat people differently to treat them equally,” Lee Jasper, race adviser to Ken Livingstone, says. Or as Labour MP Keith Vaz put it, “Britishness cannot be imposed on people of different races, cultures and religions.” After Rushdie, I came to realise that tackling this “politics of difference” was as important as challenging racism…The roots of the politics of difference can be found in the new forms of radicalism that emerged in the 1960s. Radicalism came to mean the rejection of all that is “western” in the name of marginality or difference.

And the Other – don’t forget the Other, whatever you do.

Multiculturalism did not create militant Islam, but it created a space for it within British Muslim communities that had not existed before. It fostered a more tribal nation, undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders. It is true that since 9/11 and particularly since 7/7 there has been growing questioning of the consequences of multiculturalism. From David Blunkett to CRE chief Trevor Phillips, many have talked of the need to reassert common values. Yet the fundamental tenets of the politics of difference remain largely unquestioned. The idea that society consists of a variety of distinct cultures, that all these cultures should be respected and preserved and that society should be organised to meet the distinct needs of different cultures – these continue to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, anti-racist outlook. The lesson of the past two decades, however, is this: a left that espouses multiculturalism makes itself redundant.

It undermined progressive trends within the Muslim communities and strengthened the hand of conservative religious leaders – didn’t it just. So we hear a great deal from Iqbal Sacranie in the Guardian and on the BBC and nothing from Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian. So much for radicalism.


Oct 20th, 2005 9:41 pm | By

Consider dogmatism.

For instance consider Sign and Sight’s acid comment on Prospect’s list of Topp famous public intellectuals.

Who is on “top” has been decided purely by how famous they are. No one in their right mind can take this list seriously, not even the people who drew it up…Even those who are prepared to see in the Pope – a professional dogmatic – an intellectual, would have trouble getting him on the list. Benedict XVI has not got his intellectual status to thank for his number one spot, but his public office…

That’s exactly the question – can a professional dogmatic be an intellectual? I wondered the same thing in the teaser when I first posted the Prospect list, on September 22 – ‘Do popes and clerics qualify as intellectuals?’ A letter to the Observer made a similar point on October 2.

It is not just faith schools that encourage sectarian strife. The religious institutions themselves are the prime movers and schools, important as they are for young, impressionable minds, need to be reinforced by regular sessions of ‘worship’ in which ‘holy books’ are to be accepted without question.

Without question, you see – that’s where the dogmatism comes in. Authority, worship, holy books, without question – it all converges on dogmatism.

And Simon Blackburn also says it

But let us start with the tiny bit that is right. This is the association of religious belief with dogma, intolerance, and illiberalism, and the corresponding association of atheism and agnosticism with liberalism and toleration…It needs to be said, loudly, that it makes no more sense to talk of faith-based schools or faith-based education than it does to talk of superstition-based science or terror-based debate. There have, of course, been educated and enlightened people who profess faiths, but their education and enlightenment happened despite their superstitions, and not because of them. Faith is by its essence the enemy of education, which teaches people to base beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Just so. So much is faith the enemy of education that at its most threatened it sends ‘students’ to ‘Faith camp’ to learn how to resist education – how to resist basing beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Spend a couple of days at the workshop and it becomes clear that, for many of these students, college is fraught with peril…There is also the subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview. There are biology courses that ask students to accept evolution, which workshop organizers and most of the students reject as untrue and ungodly. There are literature courses that see any text, including the Bible, as open to multiple interpretations. And there are philosophy classes that view absolute truth as nothing more than an illusion.

We need another sweatshirt slogan, to join ‘Rootless cosmopolitans’ and ‘Faith is not a virtue.’ Dogmatism is the spawn of Satan – something like that. Entries on a postcard. No, wait – entries in a large envelope accompanied with a wad of cash.

Mission Creep

Oct 18th, 2005 7:34 pm | By

A lot of it just boils down to irrelevance. To changing the subject. To complete, utter, thorough-going abandonment of the work one is supposed to be doing in order to do another kind of work altogether. As if one should hire out as a French chef and spend all one’s time on the job carving ornate soap dishes out of driftwood. As if one should land a lovely job as a cardiologist and devote all one’s job time to training a turtle to recite poetry. As if one were a housing contractor who agreed to build a three bedroom house with a verandah and a library, and once on the site spent all one’s time knitting balaclavas for the troops.

Irrelevance and changing the subject are important categories for nonsense and bad thinking, you know. They’re a huge resource for people who don’t have very good arguments for what they want to believe. Why is ‘because God’ a good argument against allowing euthanasia in certain narrowly-defined circumstances? Oh well let’s change the subject to the sanctity of something or other. (That’s exactly why ‘suppose we change the subject’ is one of the punchlines to the turtles all the way down joke.) And it applies not just in verbal matters, in argument and debate, but also in actions. Like people in what appear to be literature departments giving guest lectures that cover everything from imperialism to identity to race to queerness to numismatics. Where do they get the omniscience, one wonders. Where does all this staggeringly wide-ranging expertise come from? Why don’t people in other, less ambitious departments have it?

So at the University of Oregon. There was this committee, see, and it came up with ever such a good idea to transform the university – the entire university, every bit of it, not just the studies departments, but all of it, math, physics, biology, all of it – from a pesky old educational and research institution into a wonderful caring hand-holding Make Everything Better device. Into a branch of mental health and/or social work. Super idea, no? Only…one wonders why not leave that to mental health and social work and similar organizations, in order to leave time and space for the university to go on doing what the university is (generally) supposed to do? On account of how it’s all tooled up to do that, and knows how, and has the equipment in place, and has the rules written down, and the staff hired, and the beds fitted up with sheets. That’s not to say it couldn’t do it better, that there’s no possible room for improvement, but it is to say that it seems a little wasteful to make it do a completely different job after it’s already gone to all that trouble. Unless of course we think teaching and research are just completely valueless, in which case it does make sense to recycle all those books and microscopes and libraries and lecture rooms into something else as best as people can. But do we think that? Have we decided that? Have we quite, entirely made up our minds that teaching and research are just boring effete pointless elitist preoccupations that should now make way for therapy and massage and bedwetting? Have we? I don’t think we have, quite. We may be stumbling and creeping in that direction, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

The plan proposes incorporating “cultural competency” into funding, hiring and tenure considerations, as well as “cluster hirings” of several professors each year to teach courses on topics of race, gender and sexuality. “Cultural competency” is not defined explicitly, but is understood to mean working with members of different ethnic and racial groups…Faculty members said that many of their colleagues were upset by the draft. Twenty-four professors signed a letter expressing their concerns about the draft. Of highest concern to many faculty members was the draft’s “Orwellian insertion of the undefined political notion ‘cultural competency’ into every aspect of administration, teaching and performance evaluation,” according to the letter.

Yeah, see, that’s the thing. That’s where the carved soap dishes come in. That’s where worries about changing the subject, permanently and from top to bottom, come in.

“‘Cultural competence’ is a vague term. Nobody knows what it means. To me, it’s devoid of content,” said Michael Kellman, a chemistry professor. “Making it the focus of promotion and salary decisions would be a huge distraction from the university’s job of teaching and scholarship.

Distraction. That’s another way of saying changing the subject, and irrelevance. It’s just not a good concept, to try to do one job by doing a different one altogether. Humanity has worked that out over a long long history of experiment and trial and error. If you want to get a piece of fruit that’s on a high branch, it’s not useful to dig a deep hole in the ground half a mile away. If you want to get out of the rain, it’s not useful to start looking for bits of leftover fruit in the grass. If you want to escape from that leopard that’s charging you, it’s not useful to grab the nearest conspecific and start humping. Breadth is good, wide vision is good, creativity and interdisciplinarity can be good, but there is a limit. That limit is called irrelevance.

Faculty members responded forcefully to the draft’s notion that a group be formed to evaluate “cultural competence” with regard to new hires and research funding. “Who do you think you are?” Boris Botvinnik, a math professor, asked. “You would like to tell us what to do in terms of research in mathematics? We’d like to have a nice atmosphere of diversity on campus. We hire the best people available, and this is the only way to keep the level of the department high.”

There it is, you see. ‘Who do you think you are?’ is another way of putting it.

Norm Levitt has an article on the subject at Spiked.

In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed ‘culturally competent’ if they openly profess the approved corpus of received values.

In other words ‘competent’ is (as one somehow sensed – there is something oddly patronizing in the word itself, that signals manipulation) a euphemism for groupthink. ‘Competent’ people are the ones who say what they are expected to say, incompetent people are the ones who unaccountably refuse to do that. It sounds disquietingly like those ed school phrases – life adjustment, attitude adjustment, social skills – that have been such perennially popular substitutes for actually learning anything of substance, in US educational schools. Go to teach in a university and gradually, through the tender ministrations of The Committee, learn to be Competent. What a glorious ambition.

Faith is not a Virtue

Oct 18th, 2005 2:06 am | By

What was that we were just saying about Thought for the Day? Thought for the Day and the kind of emetic bullshit offered up there by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? Who is, rumour has it, rather pompous, and a tad bossy. Now there’s a surprise.

Yes, Thought for the Day, we were talking about. So was Simon Blackburn in a lecture for the British Humanist Association a few years ago.

The debate in this country, and still more in the United States, too often aligns itself around a simple polarity. Are we to be religious? In that case, it is assumed, there are real truths, real standards, real values which we can use to guide our own behaviour and that of others. Or, are we to be atheists or agnostics? In that case, it is again assumed, there are no real truths or standards or values, and we fall prey to a variety of ailments: materialism, cynicism, nihilism, relativism. There is almost nothing that is right about this way of drawing up the issue, and the philosophical tradition has abundant resources to show that there is almost nothing right about it. Yet this tradition seldom gets its voice heard. It is not allowed on Thought for the Day, where bishops and rabbis and mullahs are given their daily, publicly-subsidized, advertising time.

It shouldn’t be called thought for the day at all, should it – not if real thought is actually ruled out. It should be called religious musing for the day.

Blackburn says a lot of good things in that lecture. He seems to have a habit of doing that, doesn’t he. Several people picked up that comment I wrote about ‘Religion and Respect’ the other day, and read and then wrote admiringly about R and R themselves – P Z at Pharyngula for instance. They find the article as target-hitting as I do.

I’ll just offer a brief sample of the good things for now, because I have to run off.

The first and all too often the last virtue of any of the monotheistic religions is faith, because it is faith that holds the flock together, and defines Us, inside, against Them, outside. But faith is not a virtue. Faith is credulity: the condition of believing things for which there is no reason. It is a vice, and it inevitably encourages other vices, including hypocrisy and fanaticism. It needs to be said, loudly, that it makes no more sense to talk of faith-based schools or faith-based education than it does to talk of superstition-based science or terror-based debate.

Yeah!! How many times have I said that, I wonder – faith is not a virtue. If I’ve said that once, I’ve said it several times. There’s another sweatshirt and bumper sticker and coffee mug saying for us – Chris put in a request for ‘Rootless Cosmopolitans’ a couple of days ago, which I strongly second; let’s add ‘Faith is Not a Virtue.’

Faith is by its essence the enemy of education, which teaches people to base beliefs on reason and on reason alone.

Precisely. Well that takes us all the way to page two – and I have to go. Read on.

Doing the Islamophobia Rag

Oct 16th, 2005 7:34 pm | By

‘Islamophobia’ in the news today. There is Nick Cohen’s piece on Maryam, and comments on that at Normblog and Harry’s Place. And there is a Times article that says Hizb ut-Tahrir is recruiting students ‘using an anti-racist front organisation’ called ‘Stop Islamophobia.’

Well there’s part of the problem right there – ‘Stop Islamophobia’ shouldn’t even be seen as the name of an anti-racist organization. It’s too late now, of course, the name is well dug in, but it never should have been allowed to get so well dug in – it performs exactly the deceptive maneuver its proponents want it to do: it conflates criticism of Islam with criticism of Muslims, opposition to Islam with opposition to Muslims. The word ought to be ‘Muslimophobia’ – in which case it still wouldn’t be anti-racist, since ‘Muslim’ is not a race, but it would at least be about group prejudice. But as it is it isn’t even that – it’s about dissent from and criticism of a particular religion – which ought not to be treated as in the same category as blanket criticisms of large groups of people. A religion is one thing, the people who adhere to it constitute another thing. The word ‘Islamophobia’ is just a trick to make Islam beyond criticism.

Nick and Maryam sum up the problem well:

After years of hearing this postmodern twaddle, Namazie flipped. Why was it, she asked, that supposed liberals always give ‘precedence to cultural and religious norms, however reactionary, over the human being and her rights’? Why was it that they always pretended that other cultures were sealed boxes without conflicts of their own and took ‘the most reactionary segment of that community’ as representative of the belief and culture of the whole. In a ringing passage, which should be pinned to the noticeboards of every cultural studies faculty and Whitehall ministry, she declared that the problem with cultural relativism was that it endorsed the racism of low expectations. ‘It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?’

I suppose you’ve seen the ridiculous Islamophobiawatch. It’s so classic, so typically typical, it’s tempting to think it’s a joke. But it probably isn’t.

At least it sometimes has useful links or extracts. This from on offline article in Tribune by Joan Smith, for example:

I haven’t opposed religious reactionaries all my life to suddenly go soft on people who argue that calling for a ban on ‘adulteresses’ being stoned to death is a bit too radical for Islam at the moment (yes, I do mean Tariq Ramadan). It’s time they took an honest look at where they may be heading and I don’t just mean the restoration of the Caliphate.

Dear me – she seems to be a religious reactionaryphobe. How very shocking.

Cosmopolitanism Forever

Oct 15th, 2005 9:07 pm | By

Roger Scruton (yes, Roger Scruton – he’s not always rhapsodizing about the joys of fox hunting) makes a good point.

The danger that democracy will degenerate into a tyranny of the majority was clearly expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. Both of them recognised, however, that democracy is not some kind of new departure which repudiates all that had gone before, but a system of government built upon a specific legal inheritance. Barnett & Hilton rightly refer to the rule of law and individual rights as the first of their principles of democratic government. These were historical achievements of the European legal and judicial systems. They preceded democracy and have not been replicated everywhere. Until they are in place, the introduction of elections may merely let the majority loose upon whatever minority provokes its indignation.

There you go. The rule of law and individual rights are not an automatic or inherent part of democracy; they preceded it and have not been replicated everywhere – to put it mildly. Unless and until they are in place, democracy can simply let the majority impose a theocracy on everyone; unless and until they are in place, democracy can simply let the majority take away the rights of – a majority, to wit, women, as well as various minorities, to wit, various ethnic groups, heretics, infidels, gays, weirdos, nonconformists – you name it.

I don’t agree with all of what Scruters says next though.

The crucial point in all this is to recognise secular government as the sine qua non of democracy, and theocracy as its natural opponent. And secular government depends upon finding some other focus of communal identity and solidarity than religious faith…Our political culture is a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and the faithful. We are brought up – or were brought up until recently – on a conception of national history and national identity which promoted mutual trust and solidarity between neighbours…That kind of territorial patriotism has suffered erosion…from a culture of repudiation among intellectuals who, for a variety of reasons, not all of them bad, have tried to discard national loyalty and to replace it with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. The problem, as I see it, is that cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite and will never be shared by the mass of human kind.

I like the first sentence of that, but not the rest of it. Especially the last sentence. Why? Why will cosmopolitan ideals never be shared by the mass of human kind? How does he know, and why is it true? I don’t see it. He could be right, but it seems to me far from obvious that cosmopolitan ideals are inherently (as opposed to contingently) the property of an elite. And I don’t trust appeals to communal identity and solidarity. I see why they are appealing (and that appeal is probably why Scruton thinks cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite), but I don’t think that appeal should be trusted, or encouraged, or fetishized. No, I prefer Simon Blackburn’s take.

And as far as toasting some particular subset of humanity goes, I also wish people were not keen on separating themselves from others, keen on difference and symbols of tribalism. I don’t warm to badges of allegiance, flags, ostentatious signs of apartness, because I do not think they are good for the world.

Ditto. I can see that they promote solidarity and the like, but they do that at the cost of the opposite of solidarity toward everyone else, and that is too high a price to pay. Way too high. I think cosmopolitanism, however lukewarm it may be, is preferable to the hot bonds of solidarity plus hatred.

If you want to take a look at some hatred, you could check out Nick Cohen’s new website which has (in solitary splendour for the moment) his New Statesman article on anti-Semitism on the left. And what do you know – someone (anonymous, of course) obligingly ambled by and dropped a richly anti-semitic comment. As if to help Nick make his point. So helpful.

The either/or polarity between believing in an orchestrated worldwide conspiracy or disclaiming any possibility that bands of Jews act together in their shared ethnic interests is a strawman dichotomy. Everybody knows that Jewish power and influence are vastly disproportionate to their numbers in Britain and the USA, that they hold leadership positions in influential areas of public life, and that they frequently try to suppress criticism of their concerted actions by squealing about ‘antisemitism’. That does *not* make you an ‘antisemite’, only a realist about evolutionary psychology. You may still think that only Jews should be allowed to criticise other Jews in semi-privacy, but not much of the rest of the world is impressed by this double standard any longer. Jews are a rich, powerful little ethnic group which, like any other, acts to preserve itself and further its material interests, and can be devious in so doing. Big friggin’ deal, tell us something we couldn’t have guessed.

And so on. Staggering, isn’t it.

I think cosmopolitan ideals are all we can possibly hope for, the only possible alternative to this kind of dreck. They’d better not be the property of an elite.

Medievalism Rampant

Oct 14th, 2005 6:54 pm | By

Polly Toynbee says it.

The bishops have no right to restrict our right to die…This week’s debate on Lord Joffe’s bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill turned into a remarkable battle between the forces of the enlightenment and a barely disguised medievalism. Who rules here? God or man? How loud the voice of religion sounded in this, the world’s most secular nation. So much religious thinking still permeates every aspect of public life as, somehow or other, the religious occupy disproportionate positions of power wherever you look – from prime minister and half the cabinet to the head of the BBC.

That’s one reason pious cant about ‘ceremonial theism’ won’t fly. It’s never safe to assume that ceremonial theism actually is ceremonial – it can always go from ceremonial to deadly earnest in the blink of an eye when somebody wants to force other people to stay alive when they don’t want to or to bear children when they don’t want to. Ceremonial theism, ceremonial fascism – not safe toys.

The tone of the Lords debate was set in a joint letter from leaders of the nine major faiths, beginning: “We the undersigned, hold all human life to be sacred.” It was thunderingly reiterated alongside the Bishop of Oxford’s refrain – we are not autonomous beings. Extraordinary how many religious speakers repeated this odd mantra.

Extraordinary, except that that’s the whole point, isn’t it. We are not autonomous beings; we are subject to the will of bishops. Because all human life is ‘sacred’.

Atheists did mention God. What was the creator’s view of the sanctity of human life in the tsunami and the ruins of Kashmir or New Orleans? Lord Gilmore mocked the Archbishop of Canterbury’s saccharine view that everyone was wanted and that every life was valued to the very end; he (Lord Gilmore, that is) would hit anyone who said that while leaving him suffering in agony on his deathbed.

Same here. I certainly hope I have a cosh handy for the purpose, and the strength to swing it good and hard. [makes mental note to self: keep cosh handy for deathbed] Why do people think it’s fine for their putative God to wipe out people in wholesale lots but it’s not all right for us to make a quick exit? Where is the sense in that? Why are we supposed (and expected) to have such reverence for the cruel sadistic bastard that we have to stick around for purposeless pain on his account? Why don’t they make themselves sick, saying things like that? I would really like to know.

The religious view distorts all reality to squeeze into its own dogma. It was shocking to hear a number of (religious) doctors claiming every death could be eased and painless these days…The Bishop of Oxford harrumphed in the Lords at this week’s Guardian leader that said the bishops “should be listened to with respect – and then ignored”. But he didn’t explain why we are obliged to listen to them at all within parliament. It is, says the National Secular Society, the only legislature in the west with ex officio religious lawmakers…

Ironic, isn’t it.