Show Us Your Biceps, Mister

Oct 5th, 2004 7:00 pm | By

Time for another of those exercises when I quote a few passages from interesting (if eccentric) thinkers. Today’s examinee is David Bloor, one of the founding whatsits of the ‘Strong Programme’ at Edinburgh University. A few sentences from the opening page of his influential book Knowledge and Social Imagery:

Can the sociology of knowledge investigate and explain the very content and nature of scientific knowledge? Many sociologists believe that it cannot….They voluntarily limit the scope of their own enquiries. I shall argue that this is a betrayal of their disciplinary standpoint…There are no limitations which lie in the absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity.

That’s from the first paragraph. One, it’s interesting that he resorts to rhetoric right at the beginning, with the word ‘betrayal’ for example. And the subtle implications or innuendo behind that sentence about voluntarily limiting the scope of their own enquiries. Is ‘voluntarily’ really the right word? Or is it there to suggest things like timidity, conformity, obedience, lack of imagination and daring and scope, and the like. Is the limitation really voluntary, or is it more or less forced by the nature of reality? Is it perhaps the case that sociologists of knowledge who limit the scope of their enquiries do so because they think they don’t know enough about a given scientific field to explain its ‘very content and nature’? That seems quite likely, and not unreasonable. And note how Bloor leaves that explanation out of his list in the last sentence. He seems to mention it, but in fact doesn’t. His list makes a show of exhausting the possibilities, but in fact it doesn’t. The ‘absolute or transcendent character of scientific knowledge itself, or in the special nature of rationality, validity, truth or objectivity’ are not the only inhibiting factors that might make nonintoxicated (to borrow a trope of Susan Haack’s) sociologists ‘limit’ the scope of their enquiries; others would be the nature and complexity of the subject; ignorance, humility, knowledge of one’s own limitations; and especially evidence. The uninebriated sociologists might simply realize that they don’t know enough about the subject at hand to evaluate the evidence, and therefore don’t know how to differentiate between knowledge that is based on evidence and knowledge that is not, or is not completely. It’s not a question of any ‘special’ nature of truth or rationality, it’s simply a question of limited competence.

What is the cause for this hesitation and pessimism?…The cause of the hesitation to bring science within the scope of a thorough-going sociological scrutiny is lack of nerve and will. It is believed to be a foredoomed enterprise.

Lack of nerve and will. Hmm. That’s very reminiscent of that remark of Jamie Whyte’s I quoted the other day – ‘Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth.’ One just has to have the will and nerve to decide that one can discover anything, even about subjects that tend to require many years of training to understand. (Mind you, it doesn’t work the other way. Strong programme sociologists don’t often write books wondering why physicists and geologists don’t investigate the knowledge of sociologists.) All very Nietzschean, or at least Riefenstahlian. All it takes is will!

Which of course is why they call it the Strong Programme. I guess.

There It Is Again

Oct 4th, 2004 8:08 pm | By

A small point. But I’m going to make it anyway, because I think it matters. Just the other day (well, September 21, actually, I find upon looking) I was talking about that translation problem – when sensible people say ‘There is evidence/there is no evidence that etc.’ and their hearers translate that (apparently without even realizing that they are translating) into ‘That is proved/proved not.’ I’ve just noticed another example, in a teaser at Arts & Letters Daily (where you would really expect them to know better, frankly, since Denis Dutton is a bit of a shark about Bad Thinking himself).

Capital punishment. Janet Reno says it doesn’t cut murder rates, Orrin Hatch says it does. Who’s right? Easy question? No!

And here is what Reno actually said:

I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.

It’s really not a small point. It’s on journalists’ thinking such re-wordings are small and trivial and don’t matter that so much confusion and misunderstanding gets around. There just is a huge difference between saying ‘I have not found any evidence that X’ and saying ‘X is not.’ And if people are so blind to the difference that they make the translation without even noticing – well they just have no idea how anyone knows or thinks anything about anything, do they, which is an alarming thought.

Next Week?!

Oct 4th, 2004 5:46 pm | By

Well here’s a surprise – things are speeding up. The book is not coming out on October 28 after all, it’s coming out next week. It will be in all good bookshops (and, let us hope, in all bad ones as well, and mediocre ones besides, as well as adequate, so-so, okay, crapulous, and pathetic ones) for your viewing and buying pleasure. And I’ll be able to get off the plane and take my tiny red eyes into the first bookshop I see and there it will be (unless it isn’t). (Perhaps it won’t be because there will have been a rush and all copies will have sold out. Because people are finding it funny, you know. People at Smiths, for instance.)

And now here’s where you get to do your part. Not content with urging you to order it at Amazon, I have a further suggestion. This is what you do instead of subscribing or donating or looking at horrible adverts for low carb diets or sex toys. This is where you help keep the proprietors of B&W in bread and dripping for awhile longer. If you see the book at Smiths, you buy it. Here’s why: they’re starting small, at Smiths, and will only order more if the book actually sells. So if all our thousands upon thousands of regular readers grab every copy in Smiths, why, the nice people at Smiths will be running around the room squawking and slapping their foreheads in their urgency to order more copies. And that will be good.

This has been a public service announcement. Now back to your regular programming.

Education, Race and Culture

Oct 3rd, 2004 9:38 pm | By

Harry at Crooked Timber had an interesting post a couple of days ago on an issue that has been kicking around for quite awhile now: the issue of minority underachievement in school and what causes it. Another way to characterize the issue might be whether it’s just one thing that causes the underachievement or an array of factors, and if it is an array of factors, what they are and how significant each is, and whether and why some get more attention than others. Whether and why some factors are downplayed or ignored while others are exaggerated and overfocused on.

Harry puts it this way:

Our school district devoted another in-service training to the Courageous Conversations program; every employee (except the many who took sick days) had to participate…It’s a kind of involuntary therapy session — the kind of thing that my friends who used to be in obscure Maoist organizations report having gone through regularly. The pretext is a concern with minority underachievement, which the District regards as being caused by institutional racism, on which the day’s conversation focused. You might expect that a focus on institutional racism would look at the racism in the criminal justice system and the labor market, which deeply affect the prospects of minority males and, presumably, therefore indirectly effect their aspirations and marriageability (with predictable consequences for family structure). But: no mention of these things. It is all about the racism inherent in the schools, and particularly in the attitudes of teachers.

He also has an Op-ed in the Madison paper, where he makes this point among others:

The second assumption the Conversations approach makes is that what is explained by race can by addressed by making teachers face up to their own privilege and racism. The problem, in other words, is in the attitudes of teachers and other district employees. But we have evidence to the contrary. Analyses of the data from summer learning often suggest that the entire growth in the socio-economic class achievement gap each year occurs in the summer, when students are out of school. It looks as if out-of-school experiences, not in-school experiences, are responsible at least in part for that gap. In fact, our understanding of summer learning suggests that schools are truly remarkable places, in which, throughout the school year, the unequal effects of out-of-school experiences on achievement are held in check.

Other people make different though compatible points. Laban Tall collected some useful links on the subject last month, at the time of a conference on ‘London Schools And The Black Child’. There was BBC sports presenter and former Tottenham Hotspur striker Garth Crooks, for example, who told the conference ‘there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.’ There was a March 2002 article by Joseph Harker:

If, 10 years ago, you asked black people in inner-city areas what they most feared when walking the streets, they would probably have said it was police officers; today they’d reply that it’s loud, aggressive gangs of young black boys – who may or may not be criminals, but are deliberately trying to strike terror into those around them, living up to the gangsta-rap culture which has been imported from the US since the late 1980s. “We’re from the street,” they grunt, “we want respect” (expletives deleted). For a decade now, backed by the profane, misogynistic imagery of rap videos, these people have been given free rein to hijack black culture. Being black is all about music, sex, guns, drugs and living on “the street”, they say, and their message has been taken on board by too many impressionable youngsters. As Sewell said, education has been portrayed as “white” – what use is it when strutting the streets?

And an email debate between Tony Sewell and Lee Jasper on the subject, in which Tony Sewell put it this way:

Many black head teachers and black students are clear that underachievement can be due to the individual student, parents, community, peers and, of course, school. They don’t agree that poverty and institutionalised racism are the most important factors. I would go further and say that political correctness has avoided the real issue of an anti-school black masculinity that pervades not only our inner city but those black boys who attend schools in the suburbs. When it comes to the CRE challenging failing schools, its remit must be wider than just white racism. It must also challenge a youth culture that still thinks to do well in school is to “act white”.

And Jamie Whyte had a piece in the Times about the way the evidence was used:

In the 17th century accusations of witchcraft could be made on flimsy evidence: warts and buoyancy would do. In the 21st century accusations of racism can be made with no evidence at all, or even with evidence pointing in the opposite direction…Pupils were asked how strongly they agree with the following statements, from 5 “strongly agree” to 1 “strongly disagree”:

“Q14. My teachers expect me to do well at school. Q15. My teachers expect me to do my homework. Q16. My teachers care about my progress. Q17. Teachers listen to what I say. Q18. I am often in conflict with teachers.” The average answers of black and white pupils were the same: exactly the same for questions 14 and 15 and so close for the others that the difference is statistically insignificant.

Yet the opposite answer was somehow found – the school system was declared racist when the evidence indicated it wasn’t. That’s the kind of thing that makes one want to rush out and become a teacher, isn’t it.

Clearly there is a strong taboo against saying ‘the culture’ might be playing any part in the underachievement – no doubt it seems too much like blaming the victim. But is it going to be possible to correct the problem while ignoring crucial factors? One wouldn’t think so.

Walking Down the Runway in a Donna Karan Creation

Oct 3rd, 2004 8:43 pm | By

My colleague has been slaving over a hot stove for days, and at last the meal is just about cooked. And I must say I think it’s a triumph and worth the wait. Check it out. That’s TPM’s (The Philosophers’ Magazine Online’s) new look. Is that gorgeous or what. Look at the magical quotations thing. Look at the new section for News. Look at the bright clean colourful sparkle of it all. That’s what I call Web design.

And if you notice any problems (‘glitches’ I believe they’re called), don’t hesitate to comment or to email JerryS.

Assorted Cheeses

Oct 2nd, 2004 7:23 pm | By

This interview with Jamie Whyte is full of good quotable remarks. So I think I’ll quote some for your Saturday enjoyment.

It has always driven me mad to see people saying things that are well known to be rubbish. And I’ve never understood how they can bear it.

A good beginning.

The really big mistake comes when you treat people as authority figures when they are not expert but simply well known. There is a terrible tendency to treat people as reliable sources of fact when in fact they are simply “important” people or people who happen to be in the news. It is doubly perverse when you consider who gets counted as “important”.

Yup. We noticed that in connection with the ‘expertise’ of Juliet Stevenson on MMR, for instance, and Prince Charles on ‘alternative’ medicine.

Too many people see truth as just a game between groups, as a kind of tribalism. That is not rational. Far too many people are not prepared to say: “I don’t believe this and here’s my argument why I don’t.” They don’t feel they need to…These days, scientists are increasingly seen as part of various tribal groups, so when you read about their views the newspapers will go to great lengths to ask who they are working for, what their backgrounds are, and what are their political views are, and so on. Someone’s motives may reasonably make you suspicious that that person has an incentive to mislead you, but their arguments are no better or worse than the evidence put forward to support them.

Suspicion is one thing, and outright dismissal without argument is quite another. Good point, that.

What amazes me is that they like to set themselves up as having a slightly finer sensibility than you or me but in fact they are completely intellectually irresponsible. They used to come up with very bad arguments for their faiths but at least they felt that there was something they should provide. Now mere wilfulness has triumphed. This is what I describe as the egocentric approach to truth. You are no longer interested in reality because to do that you have to be pretty rigorous, you have to have evidence or do some experimentation. Rather, beliefs are part of your wardrobe. You’ve got a style and how dare anybody tell you that your style isn’t right.

I love that bit. Because it’s so exactly what I think myself. I’ve noticed it over and over again – that wilfulness thing. And the finer sensibility thing – if I’ve heard that implication once I’ve heard it a million times. ‘I’m spiritual, I’m deep, I see into the mystery of things, and you’re just a shallow dull literalist. Therefore any old nonsense I decide to think is real, is real.’ And beliefs as part of the wardrobe, and style (or identity, which is another version we hear a lot), and how dare you. Yup.

And speaking of nothing in particular but I want to put it somewhere and don’t want to do a separate little comment for it – I was quietly listening to Front Row yesterday when imagine my surprise, that ubiquitous Baggini fella turned up along with John Sutherland and some other guy to chat about aphorisms. So if you want to hear Julian chat about aphorisms, here’s your chance. It’s the last item on the programme, so probably about twenty minutes in.

Not Galileo

Oct 1st, 2004 8:51 pm | By

I was reading a book by Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy, earlier this morning. He says some interesting things about people doing the Galileo thing. Page 101 for instance –

People who publish findings purporting to show that behavioral differences stem from matters of race or sex often portray themselves as opposing widely held views in the interest of truth.

And page 106 and 107 –

Prejudice can be buttressed as those who oppose the ban [on research into race differences in IQ] proclaim themselves to be gallant heirs of Galileo…So long as the conditions driving the argument are not appreciated, champions of the forms of inquiry that should be eschewed can always make use of the rhetoric of freedom to portray themselves as victims of an illegitimate public policy of stifling the truth.

Yes. One knows the kind of thing. One is in fact all too familiar with it. One ardently hopes one doesn’t fall into that oneself. One writes contracts and signs them in blood, vowing to give it all up and move to Topeka if one ever starts doing the Galileo act.

In that sense, Marc Mulholland had a point in that post the other day, with the bit about Valiant for Truth heroes of the Enlightenment and courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide and people imagining themselves as some kind of underground resistance. Of course, he certainly didn’t have a point if he meant us, because we are so humble and modest and unassuming and unpretentious and self-deprecating as well as sensible and reasonable and clever and good at standing on one leg. But for just that reason he probably didn’t mean us.

No but seriously. It is a real problem, and one that occurs to me often. It is very difficult to set up as some kind of general critic of some division of Bad Thinking or Silly Mistakes or Foolish Errors or Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Dunciadia or Conventional Wisdom or Received Ideas or Fashionable Nonsense or [Insert Variant Here] without running the risk of falling into ridiculous poses and attitudes, as if posing for a tableau vivant of Horatius at the Bridge or the Boy with his just never mind we’ve all heard that joke thank you very much. Ho yus, I’m Galileo, I’m Spartacus, I’m Thersites, I’m Quixote, I’m Lenny Bruce, I’m Swift, I’m Pope, I’m Voltaire, I’m Mencken, I’m a martyr for truth, blah blah blah. (Shakespeare was sharply conscious of all this, amusingly and interestingly enough. He has a lot of speeches in a lot of plays in which one character tells another ‘Yes yes, we know, you’re a satirist, you’re honest, you’re going to tell us what’s wrong with everything. Don’t bother, okay?’ Satire was very very hot in the late 1590s, it was The Fashion [and was eventually made illegal – no messing around in those days] and the presses were full of scathing satires by disillusioned young men about town. Shakespeare wrote some and also mocked the whole idea. Typical. Flexible bastard, he was. Negative capability.)

But then again. There’s only so much one can do about it. It’s no good deciding to be acquiescent and docile and uncritical and accepting about everything simply in order to avoid pomposity and posing and affectation, is it. And really it’s hard to engage in any kind of thinking or inquiry or intellectual activity at all without noticing some error here and there. So…one just has to lump it.

We could always get some business cards made up. Butterflies and Wheels: Humble, Fallible, Bashful Critics of Fashionable Nonsense. Galilean Airs Strictly Avoided. Office Hours Daily 6 a.m. to Midnight.

Under Discussion

Oct 1st, 2004 7:02 pm | By

Funny, that comment I did on Arundhati Roy was a catch-up item, as I said, left over from weeks ago, but I no sooner post it than there is a small flurry of posts on Roy because of an interview with her in Outlook India (which I hadn’t seen). She does say one or two woolly things there.

Mind you – to be fair, she also says some okay things. I may be unfair to her because her manner puts me off – and that’s not really a very compelling reason. She may not be as smug as she appears (just as I may not be as deranged and malicious as I appear – who knows). Though I am not the only one who thinks so. David Sucher of City Comforts had this to say at Harry’s Place:

Have you ever heard her speak? I found her foul: smug and self-satisfied, and certain of her own superior morality.

Yes, that is exactly the impression I got. But maybe she’s just shy. Anyway in the name of fairness here is one of the okay things she said:

Globalization, what does it mean? I keep saying, we are pro-globalization. It would be absurd to think that everybody should retreat into their little caves and continue oppressing Dalits and messing around the way they used to in medieval times. Of course not.

Good. Of course, some of the other things she says may give help to people who do indeed want to go on oppressing Dalits and women and other medieval messing around. But at least she’s aware of the problem.

The comment at Harry’s Place is worth reading. So is the one at Marc Cooper’s place and the one at No Credentials, which goes on to a different discussion, and a very interesting one. How does an academic who is avowedly not interested in facts go about ‘demonstrating’ something factual?

A Shakespearean scholar at the University of Oregon–a professor I actually like, which makes this more painful to report–will serve as my anonymous example. She wrote a well-received article using Foucault’s notion of geneaology to “demonstrate” that a noted historian’s view of anti-Semitism was poorly grounded, and that the “evidence” was in Shakespeare. I asked her, in all innocence, if she had ever thought about contacting the historian, or any other historians, to alert them to her discovery. It was my first term in grad school and I still hadn’t read a great deal of Foucault; I thought that–since he’s called a historian of ideas–his ideas were worth a damn.

She made an astounding statement; it went something like this: I know you’re interested in science, Rose, but I just don’t understand why people are attracted to the world of facts. That’s why I’m in literature; I love the imagination. If I wanted to do history, I’d do history.

This was in front of an entire class, and I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t say what I thought, which was, “But you say right here that you’ve demonstrated something. Doesn’t that imply something, you know, factual?”

One would think so. But of course that’s just petty empiricism, plodding positivism, sucky scientism. And yet…there are people who wonder what all the fuss is about. What postmodernism, they wonder. Who are all these people who say all these absurd things? I never hear anyone say things like that, they say. How odd – I hear them and read them all the time, not always even because I’m looking for them. But Marc Mulholland’s experience is different.

…post-modernism and multi-culturalism remains the favourite whipping boy of every ‘Valiant for Truth’ hero of the Enlightenment. I hardly ever meet post-modernists, only ever courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide of those who will reduce truth to narrative, bury sense under ‘hegemonic discourse’, defend atrocities on relativist grounds, and so bloody on. Post-modernism is the great straw-man that allows dull empiricists and purveyors of moral inanities to imagine themselves as some kind of underground resistance…

Really. Never read anyone in Science Studies (or ‘Strong Programme’ Sociology of Science and other variants) for instance? Never read any Andrew Ross? No feminist epistemology? Never browsed syllabi for university courses? Got no friends doing Open University courses?

The usual accusation is that relativism allows post-modernists to pretend that all human phenomena are equally to be welcomed. Perhaps one can find ‘theorists’ who say this, but I’ve never come across anyone who has seriously argued that, say, the back of cornflakes boxes are of equal literary value to Shakespeare. Could be that I’ve never found them because they’d have to be, more or less literally, barking mad? The idea that such notions rule the intellectual world! Puh-lease.

Puh-lease what? There are entire disciplines dedicated to problematizing the borders between ‘High Culture’ and Popular Culture (the scare-quotes because High Culture is a silly word that denotes a straw man, in my view, as is the word ‘canon’).

I was surprised once to come across the article that is, I gather, the source of the ‘Valiant for Truth’ brigade’s assertion that wicked relativists defend female circumcision. I was surprised to see that its reasoning followed the lines that, if western society permits all sorts of body modification for aesthetic and occasionally religious purposes, then why should female circumcision – under proper medical supervision – not be permitted in non-western societies? One might demur for various reasons, but a battle-cry for patriarchy, a rejection of civilisation?

Um – there’s more than one article on the subject? With more than one argument? People really do fret about interfering with other people’s cultures, and FGM is a frequent example? I’ve heard them with my own ears?

One is indeed sensitive about deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth. I don’t scream at first years that (a)theism is for idiots or that their support / opposition to the war in Iraq marks them out as some sort of criminal.

Straw man again. And squishy words with all too many possible meanings again, just like last time we got into this discussion, when the claim was that a ‘ramified mode of human expression’ deserves respect. Same problem here. I, for one ‘one’, am not sensitive about all ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth.’ I’m just not. Because that covers too much ground, is too blanket an amnesty. A lot of individuals (I know quite a few personally) have senses of self-worth that are very very closely tied up with their sense of superiority to other individuals – their sense of inherent, born, automatic, by definition, superiority. You’ll have guessed what I mean by now – I mean people who think others are inferior (have less worth) because of their sex or race or similar genetic category. They really, really, really believe that – their beliefs are deeply engrained. I don’t feel any need to be sensitive about that. (Well – I tell a lie – sometimes I do. I have been known to bite my lip in some situations, in order not to hurt someone’s feelings or cause feelings of foolishness and shame. Okay. I admit it. But then it should be phrased that way – as reluctance to shame people, not as sensitivity about ‘deeply engrained beliefs that go to the heart of individuals’ sense of self-worth’ – that language is just too flattering toward the possible beliefs.)

Blimey – this is long. How does this happen. I set out to write a few words and before I know it I have half a book. That’s enough of that.


Oct 1st, 2004 1:34 am | By


August ’04







January 2004

December 2003











January 2003

December 2002




Sep 29th, 2004 8:01 pm | By

Oh I don’t know…it’s just that it’s all such an effort, you know? I’m supposed to go to London in a couple of weeks (well not ‘supposed to’ – it was my own idea – but it’s planned and scheduled and so on). But…I don’t know…I have so much to do. I should tidy up the living room, and I should hang all my clothes up one of these days, and I ought to wipe the shelves in the fridge. It just all adds up. Plus there’s B&W, and a book to write, and one thing and another. And then a trip on top of that? You have to pack, and make sure you have everything, and go here and go there. And then there are all those hours and hours and hours in an airplane. Maybe I should just stay where I am and get the living room really tidy. There’s that closet, too.

Ahmed and Aaronovitch

Sep 28th, 2004 8:39 pm | By

Another interesting pairing. This piece by David Aaronovitch and this one by Ishtiaq Ahmed. They say some parallel things.


When the Muslim theologian was asked to give an example of where the secular concept of human rights might be seen as deficient by other societies, his immediate answer was: ‘Women’s rights.’ Did secularists not understand, he asked, that there were cultures in which women did not want equal rights? ‘How do you know what they want?’ I snapped at him. ‘Have you polled them?’…And this, it seems to me, is what it always boils down to…Why is it that when God speaks through man, he so resolutely demands that women are subordinate?…It is extraordinary how mainstream religions devote themselves to the unequal restraint of women, this restraint acting as the glue that holds their cultures together.

It is, isn’t it. And Ahmed:

This suspicion is confirmed when we remember that the Islamists almost never champion the rights of the exploited and dispossessed and spend most of their time giving vent to anger against the imagined liberation of women. It is alleged to result in laxity of moral standards and thus subversive of Islamic morals.

Women, Dalits, obedience, submission, tradition. It’s important stuff. People who have the whip hand are not always easily persuaded to give it up. And now that they’ve discovered the fine new dodge of calling it Multiculturalism and claiming the victim role themselves – why, their ownership of the whip gets perpetuated a good while longer…

Winterson, Roy, Nafisi

Sep 28th, 2004 6:56 pm | By

I saw something that made me laugh at Normblog this morning – I mean, I saw something at Normblog that made me laugh. I would never laugh at Normblog, or any other blog. I’m not that kind of person. Yes I am, but I pretend not to be. I am however the kind of person who would laugh at woolly novelists – would and does.

It’s a funny thing about novelists, at least some of them. The ones that have a certain kind of success, and get a certain kind of, what to call it, of cultural standing and credibility as a result. When I say ‘certain kind’ I don’t mean I know exactly what that kind is. Some combination of respectable critical acclaim (winning the Booker certainly doesn’t hurt) and notoriety and popularity. That will be our working definition of ‘certain kind’. Novelists in that category become omniscient. They become wise, and full of insight, and informed on all subjects, and equipped to set everyone straight. Because – ? They have a way with words and a talent for telling stories? I don’t see the connection, myself. It may be the case that some novelists really are well-informed and full of insight, but in the case of this category those qualities seem to be assumed in an odd way – that’s the part that I think is a funny thing.

And Norm’s comment is about a case in point.

But I have to say that even upon this terrain you can come across something so bloody funny that an uncontrollable belly laugh is impossible to avoid. Such is the following item from Jeanette Winterson, author:

I’ll never forgive them about the war. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a world issue. I am buying a place in Paris because I no longer want to be in the UK full-time. I want to be European, not a piece of the USA.

The war is about her, do you see? ‘They’ have let her down, and she’s jolly well ‘buying a place in Paris’. Byeeee!

That is pretty funny. ‘I’ll show them – I’ll buy a place in Paris! So there!’

And it reminded me of something I meant to comment on several weeks ago, and never got around to. It was about seeing, on two concurrent evenings, Arundhati Roy and Azar Nafisi on C-Span, and what different impressions the two of them made on me, and what if anything that difference is about. Probably nothing really, probably just a matter of personality on their parts and perception on mine. And yet…

The first one was a session of a conference of US sociologists, which for some fairly unfathomable reason was devoted to listening to Arundhati Roy give her opinions on stuff. I didn’t see the beginning (was merely channel-surfing as opposed to deliberately watching), but I saw quite enough of sycophantic admiration on the audience side and smug self-satisfaction on Roy’s. The whole thing was just very ‘I am buying a place in Paris.’

Nafisi was different. Mind you, I’m biased going in – I think Nafisi has something worthwhile to say, and I think what Roy has to say is more mixed (at best). But all the same, Nafisi wasn’t preening, she didn’t keep gazing around in a queenly way as Roy did. She was intense, urgent, impassioned – what she was saying was not about her, it was about what she was saying. Self-forgetful. Not a performance but an attempt at communication. The contrast was interesting.

Update: Martin Amis. He’s another one. I meant to mention him and forgot. Though he neglected to win the Booker – but maybe the early success is the equivalent and has the same effect. At any rate, he has that novelist’s omniscience, such that he feels it necessary to tell us that Stalin was bad, because we didn’t know that until he told us. And he’s a great preener. In fact his memoir has more preening in it than any other book of comparable size I can think of.

Let’s Not Debate Design

Sep 28th, 2004 3:01 pm | By

by Jeremy Stangroom

I’ve just been sent a review copy of a book called Debating Design. I don’t normally go in for book burning, but I’m tempted. It’s edited by Michael Ruse and, wait for it, William Dembski. It claims to provide a “comprehensive and even-handed overview of the debate concerning biological origins”. And, guess what, there’s a whole section on intelligent design written by the bastards – to quote Norman Levitt – from The Discovery Institute.

Maybe someone could explain to me why Cambridge University Press would publish such a book? If I decided to resurrect the theory of phlogiston, I wonder if I could persuade them that it warranted a book.

Perhaps more to the point, why did Ruse and the other scientists and scientific thinkers agree to particpate in such a project as Debating Design? I don’t entirely agree with the stance taken by scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones when they say that they won’t debate with creationists and their ilk. But given that part of the ‘wedge strategy’ of the intelligent design people is to establish the scientific credentials of their enterprise, why participate in a project which might so obviously go towards furthering that aim? That just seems very bizarre. Intelligent design is primarily a political movement, so why give them a political victory?

The Smith of Smiths

Sep 27th, 2004 6:08 pm | By

Okay so if you’re tired of reading about the Dictionary (the Fashionable Nonsense one) then just skip this post. Don’t read it. Not any of it, I mean – because that’s all this one is going to be about. So, fine, you’re still reading, so don’t come complaining to me that it’s about the Dictionary, because I did say.

Although I must say you’re very fussy and demanding if you are tired of reading about it. I mean after all. Look around you. Do you see any advertising? Any PayPal? Any donation box? Any subscription? You do not. Is this place all cluttered up and junky and slow to load like Slate because it’s so full of advertising? It is not. Here I am, all rags and darns and patches, wondering where my next meal is coming from, and you’re tired of reading about the Dictionary? That’s gratitude! Never satisfied, some people –

No no, I’m only joking. You know how I am. Anyway, the point is, the prospects for the Dictionary are looking quite good. We heard awhile ago, in the summer sometime, that it would be in all the branches of Waterstones. That seems like a good sign (as well as of course a good way for lots of people to be able to pick it up and open it and read a bit and shriek with laughter and buy it). Seems like a sign that someone at Waterstones thinks more than four people will find it funny. Okay so that was good, and then last week we heard it’s also going to be at Smiths. That’s an even better sign. Someone at Smiths must think more than eight people will find it funny. Actually what we heard, or what we think we heard, is that it’s going to be featured in one of Smith’s Christmas promotions. But that can’t be right. We must have misheard, we must have missed a ‘not’ or something. A ‘never in a million years’ perhaps. ‘The Dictionary is going to be featured in one of Smith’s Christmas promotions when hell freezes over and Madonna converts to secular rationalism’ – that’s what was said but there was a sudden burst of traffic noise along with machine gun fire, low-flying aircraft, and a blast of heavenly trumpets, just as the clause starting with ‘when’ was uttered – so we missed it. We’re a little bit deaf anyway, and then the sound effects came in. Or maybe it’s the Smiths bit we misheard – maybe the Smith in question is not W.H. Smith but one W.A. (Arnie) Smith who has ever such a nice little bookstall in Slough, along with another (a ‘branch’) that his nephew manages in Luton. Quite busy places, both of them; they get as many as fifteen customers a day sometimes. And they do lovely Christmas promotions.

Meaning for Nerds

Sep 26th, 2004 6:27 pm | By

I thought there were a lot of strange statements (assertions, even) in this review in the New Statesman of a book by some fella named Baggini. Never mind who wrote the book in question, in fact never mind the book itself, which I haven’t read. The point is these odd statements or assertions, which kind of stand alone (which is part of the problem with them, if there is one). They’re odd because Edward Skidelsky (for it is he) doesn’t say why they’re true, why he thinks they’re true, why we should believe them, and because one can instantly think of counter-examples that make them seem quite dubious.

We may be free to give our life any meaning we choose, but this meaning is “valid” only in so far as it is recognised by others. Not for us the insouciance of Bunyan’s pilgrim, who, secure in his love of God, could afford to “care not what men say”. We care desperately what men – and women – say, because there is no longer any higher court of appeal. Failure in this world is absolute. The checkout girl is just a checkout girl, the tramp just a tramp…The terrors of hell have been replaced by the terrors of social and sexual failure.

Well, hang on. Is that true? Who says? Is it really true that if we don’t believe in a deity as a higher court of appeal, we therefore care desperately what people say? And is it really true that we care more than people did who believed (and do who believe) in that deity? Is it really true that in more unquestioningly theistic times, people did not care about social and sexual failure? I can think of a few plays, poems, novels, philosophical dialogues, essays and the like from religious periods, written by believers, that would seem to indicate people cared quite a lot about such things at the very same time as they believed in a deity. The peasant was just a peasant, the servant was just a servant – the curate was just a curate, the doctor was a mere doctor, and so on and so on. Read a single page of Austen or Fielding or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Homer and then try to claim that caring about social status is a novelty.

Remove the transcendental perspective, however, and why should anyone want to be anything other than what society deems valuable? If value is not cosmic, then it is social. The alternative to God is not a world of self-creating Nietzschean supermen, but universal conformity.

Same thing. One, is that true? Two, does history offer any evidence that it’s true? If so, what?

Even apart from the historical question, I don’t see why it should be true. Sure, I can see why social status and What People Say is one source of meaning, but I don’t see why it should be the only one apart from transcendent ones, and Skidelsky never bothers to spell it out. Another case of taking something to be self-evident that isn’t, I guess. He’s convinced of it in his own head, maybe, and doesn’t realize that we might not be, that we might require something further by way of explanation or justification in order to see what he means and possibly agree. (Of course, that may be partly because I’m deeply nerdy myself and I really don’t care What People Say,* but what of that? The world is full of deeply nerdy people. It’s possible that all people are deeply nerdy. That’s sort of a version of the Other Minds problem. We all have the same problem [that’s why it’s a problem], and in that sense we all are nerds, aren’t we. So why not make the most of it and accept our own self-created meanings? Eh? No reason, and to a considerable extent we do.) What of sources of meaning that are neither conformist and status-anxious nor transcendent? What of politics, various kinds of reform, art, learning, sport, adventure, travel? What of philanthropy, the built environment, nature, agriculture, astronomy, engineering, medicine? Don’t people find meaning in all those activities and others like them? Do any of them necessarily entail conformity or status-anxiety? Do not many of them indeed entail their opposites? Independent-mindedness and carelessness of self come in handy for those things, after all.

None of this would matter particularly, except that reducing the possibilities in that way is (surely) one way of trying to persuade people that religion is necessary. And a rather bogus way at that. It’s that old false dichotomy we’re always having shoved at us – without God there is no morality/no meaning/no arbiter of truth/no motivation to feel guilt/no difference between right and wrong. That’s a bad way to argue about facts, as we know, but it’s also not true.

*Yes I know, JS, just never mind, writing doesn’t count, that’s a different kind of thing. Yes it is. Is too. Is.

Back to Front Thinking

Sep 25th, 2004 6:43 pm | By

I said I was going to say more about that Washington Post article and skepticism. So here’s some more.

It has to do with the first three paragraphs, which set up some of the recurring ideas in the article.

The Native Americans were not making her job any easier. “This is a very discouraging job, ethnologically speaking,” she began a letter to a friend. She went on to paint a picture that is almost a parody of bad anthropology: The natives just aren’t very interesting, or reliable, or trustworthy…there is “no way of checking whether they are telling the truth”…She cross-examines, bullies and all but calls her “informants” liars…

There. What on earth is he talking about? I would really like to know. I’m not an anthropologist, but I know a few, and I’ve read some anthropology (as who hasn’t), and I would have thought – I could have sworn – that the difficulties Mead cites are just utter commonplaces in the field. There is no way of checking whether one’s subjects and informants are telling the truth. Duh! That’s what makes anthropology difficult, isn’t it, that’s why anthropologists have to learn unfamiliar languages and spend years in the field and why even then they aren’t necessarily sure or even very confident that they’ve got everything right. Is that not both obvious and well-known? (And as I mentioned, isn’t that, amusingly enough, the very problem with Mead’s first field work that Derek Freeman wrote a [much contested] book about? Yes, it is. She didn’t check her informants, she didn’t learn the language at all thoroughly, and she lived with non-Samoans because she [understandably, but unfortunately for her work] didn’t want to live in crowded quarters and eat unappealing food. And she didn’t treat her own findings with nearly enough caution and skepticism in the light of all these limitations.) So why does Kennicott call Mead’s utterly unsurprising comments in a letter to a friend ‘almost a parody of bad anthropology’? Unless he’s claiming that anthropology is itself inherently bad, precisely because of these epistemic issues – in which case it should be all one word: badanthropology. That is a claim that gets made, of course, and anthropologists and the discipline as a whole do notoriously have bad consciences about the whole thing, for understandable reasons. (I don’t particularly want an anthropologist to come wandering in here and stand making notes on the way I type and the way I drink coffee and the way I emit a barely-audible whine when I’m trying to think.) But if his claim is that anthropology that takes such problems as unreliable sources into account is bad while anthropology that ignores them is good – that’s a different kind of claim. He’d need to define bad and good, for a start. Perhaps by ‘bad’ he means disrespectful, colonialist, unkind. It seems pretty clear that he does. But the trouble is, bad anthropology really ought to mean something more like anthropology that doesn’t do its job properly – anthropology that’s bad at doing anthropology, that’s bad as anthropology, as bad carpentry means carpentry that falls apart as opposed to carpentry that is unkind or impolite. Any branch of inquiry – history, biology, forensics – that does an inept job of finding out what it’s trying to find out is thus bad at its job. Other kinds of bad need to be specified and spelled out.

Kennicott didn’t bother to do that. Why. Because he assumes it’s self-evident? Yes, probably, judging by the way he assumes it’s self-evident that the National Gallery ought not to talk about an artist’s way of painting instead of his opinions on race. And if so, that’s one place more skepticism and careful thinking is needed: in awareness that what one takes to be self-evident may not be.

But another and perhaps more important place is in the basic idea behind what he says – that skepticism about what people tell other people about themselves is reprehensible. That idea seems to me to be a blueprint for the very woolliest of wooly thinking. I mean to say – does the poor guy really think that people never tell other people lies about themselves? Or that they never shade the truth a little, or that they never hold anything back, or that they are never wrong about themselves? If so – well. His life must be one long series of big surprises. (And he really ought to read some Goffman and Trivers, among other people.)

But maybe he doesn’t actually believe it, maybe it’s just that he has made a principled decision to believe it, or to try to believe it, or to behave as if he believes it. For moral and political reasons. What he says does seem to imply that.

Once any outsider starts thinking like an anthropologist, it’s hard not to start asking those bullying Margaret Mead questions. How do you know the natives are telling the truth? Is something sacred just because they say it’s sacred? How do you know that they’re not snowing you with all that talk of the Creator and the power of place and all the happy animism that runs through the general discourse of native life? If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value. Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion — which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.

‘If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value.’ No. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise – he’s talking about two different things there. Come on, dude, pull yourself together. It can be perfectly true that only I can get at the truth about me, that only X can get at the truth about X, and still not be at all true that I am going to tell you or anyone else that truth. Look, I’ll demonstrate. I’m thinking about a piece of fruit. Only I can know what piece of fruit it is. And I’m not going to tell you. See how easy that is? It was an orange. No it wasn’t, I lied – it was a mango. But was it? There again, see how easy that is?

But even if the conclusion did follow, other questions would remain – such as whether one should decide such questions on moral and political grounds rather than epistemic ones. It is B&W’s position that moral and political grounds are the wrong ones for deciding factual claims. Kennicott is a pretty good object lesson in why – in what happens when one decides factual questions in advance of investigation and evidence. He simply decided that Mead was somehow bad and bullying to say that her informants might not be telling her the truth, while offering not so much as a breath of evidence to show us that they were. He obviously has no idea whether they were or not (how would he?), and yet he tells us it’s bad to think and say that they might not be. Thus he rules out caution and skepticism in advance. And that’s where that kind of a priori thinking gets you.

Grievance Indeed

Sep 25th, 2004 1:41 am | By

This is a highly interesting interview with Christopher Hitchens by Johann Hari. It’s discomforting in some ways – but discomforting things often are interesting, aren’t they. At any rate, Bush or no Bush (and it’s some of the people around Bush he respects, rather than the W-man himself, apparently), Hitchens says some outstanding things, things that need saying. And saying and saying and saying.

The world these fascists want to create is one of constant submission and servility. The individual only has value to them if they enter into a life of constant reaffirmation and prayer. It is pure totalitarianism, and one of the ugliest totalitarianisms we’ve seen. It’s the irrational combined with the idea of a completely closed society…I just reject the whole mentality that says, we need to consider this phenomenon in light of current grievances. It’s an insult to the people who care about the real grievances of the Palestinians and the Chechens and all the others. It’s not just the wrong interpretation of those causes; it’s their negation…Does anybody really think that if every Jew was driven from Palestine, these guys would go back to their caves? Nobody is blowing themselves up for a two-state solution. They openly say, ‘We want a Jew-free Palestine, and a Christian-free Palestine.’ And that would very quickly become, ‘Don’t be a Shia Muslim around here, baby.’

Nor, of course, an atheist – they’re the first to go.

He is appalled that some people on the left are prepared to do almost nothing to defeat Islamofascism. “When I see some people who claim to be on the left abusing that tradition, making excuses for the most reactionary force in the world, I do feel pain that a great tradition is being defamed. So in that sense I still consider myself to be on the left.”

And then this bit, which is just about word for word what I posted in a comment at CT awhile ago, when someone (not a CT-er) immediately after Beslan said that such extreme acts were a sign that the people who perpetrated them had very deep grievances:

Hitchens was on a TV debate with the leader of a small socialist party in the Irish dail. “He said these Islamic fascists are doing this because they have deep-seated grievances. And I said, ‘Ah yes, they have many grievances. They are aggrieved when they see unveiled woman. And they are aggrieved that we tolerate homosexuals and Jews and free speech and the reading of literature.'”

Exactly. Exactly exactly exactly. Of course they have grievances. Al Qaeda has grievances – feminist atheist women running their own lives, for example: that’s an enormous grievance, worth blowing up any number of people. It’s so elementary, isn’t it – a grievance is not necessarily a reasonable grievance, or one that anyone ought to respond to or sympathize with, or a sign that the person who has it is right-on and a brutha. Dang – how hard is that to grasp? Hitler was a mass of grievances, so was Timothy McVeigh (he was really pissed, man), so was the Ku Klux Klan, so were the guys who murdered Emmet Till, and the ones who murdered Medgar Evers. So the hell what. People can feel horribly aggrieved if they are prevented from pushing other people around, if they are unable to extort labour and obeisance from people they consider their inferiors, if someone looks at them without sufficient awe and submissiveness. So what. Grievance shmievance. Hitchens nailed that one.

Update: Normblog has a post on the Hitchens interview. Norm has some pointed things to say on the matter.


Sep 23rd, 2004 9:30 pm | By

That discussion below in the comments on ‘Memory Tricks’ about memory and how reliable it is or is not, is highly interesting (I think) and suggests a number of other thoughts and subjects. There is for instance the matter of Elizabeth Loftus and her work and what it suggests: that memory is highly unreliable, easily manipulated and changed, a dubious source for evidence, testimony, and information-gathering generally. Not that that was completely unknown before Loftus’ work (defense attorneys have, I believe, long had a heightened awareness of it, for instance), but her research did add some new elements to the picture, and that at a time when memory and its fallibility were in the news, so to speak. That was the time of all those allegations of child abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories, etc etc etc – all those allegations that sent people to prison for very long terms on the basis of what seem likely to have been fabricated or reconstructed memories. That poor sad guy just sixty miles south of where I sit typing this, for example, who (it appears) invented a whole stack of memories of his own participation in grotesque ‘Satanic’ abuse of his own daughters, later expanded to include his son. It seems unlikely that any of it ever happened at all – but he was convicted.

And then there is the large subject of how memory plays into the matter of Freud – of Freud’s role in making memory and ‘recovered memory’ seem vastly more credible and reliable than it ought to be and otherwise would be, because so many people were raised on the idea that repression happens often and routinely and can be undone by the right kind of analysis, rather as one might rewind a videotape. Our friend Frederick Crews has an excellent book on that, Memory Wars.

So then there is the question of how belief works, and how skepticism works, and how the two interact, or fail to interact. I’ve been thinking hard about this lately anyway, because of a chapter I’m working on for this book JS and I are writing. I might talk further about this later. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about the fact that some people learn to be cautious about forming beliefs in the first place, while other people don’t, and that this difference is an important one. It is a good idea to be cautious about forming beliefs. It’s a good idea to be sharply aware that beliefs can always be wrong, that one, we, I, can always be wrong. One step toward that awareness is to recognize various ways that false or unfounded beliefs can be formed. One of those ways, is to have unwarranted confidence in one’s own memory. That’s one of the things I learned from reading Elizabeth Loftus – actually it’s two of the things: how easily we can get our own memories wrong, and how obstinately people refuse to believe that. It’s as if memory is somehow sacred. That’s understandable in a way – memory feels accurate, it feels real and like our own. But if one thinks a little harder, it seems to me, one can realize that that’s an illusion. For instance by comparing a fantasy with a memory, and then trying to specify how they differ. Surely the first thing one notices is that they don’t. And that being the case, how can we be sure we know the difference? We can’t, it seems to me. (Another way might be to consider all those experiments with the guy running into the lecture hall and doing something dramatic and running out again, and then the way everyone’s written answers to questions about the incident give different accounts. Ought to give one pause, that kind of thing. What – everyone else misremembers and only I don’t? Unlikely, don’t you think?)

So maybe it’s relevant that the guy who had such a predictable, generic, Identikit memory of conversations with Bush that took place thirty years ago*, is not a scientist or some other kind of inquirer but a professor in the Business school. Maybe it’s not, maybe I’m just being rude in saying that. But scientists and other empirical inquirers do get quite a lot of training and then experience in, at least, knowing that evidence is not transparent, that it doesn’t interpret itself nor offer the right interpretation of itself written in letters of fire across the sky.

Large subject, as I said. More later.

*Go on, remember a conversation you had thirty years ago, word for word, with some guy you barely knew. Go on, let’s see you.

My Dinner With No One

Sep 23rd, 2004 5:26 pm | By

Timing is everything. At least when it is, it is. I say that because in a few days my colleague is going to be in a place with several of our contributors and/or fans and supporters. People I have had energetic email correspondences with, people I admire, people who have a high opinion of B&W which they have conveyed to me with enthusiasm. I would love to be there. These are people I would really love a chance to talk to, to discuss ideas and events relevant to B&W with. In fact I would give a couple of limbs to talk to them. Meera Nanda, for instance, whom I have quoted here so often and who has written several brilliant articles for us. Alan Sokal, whose title we helped ourselves to and whose hoax is a permanent inspiration to us. Latha Menon, who told me about Romila Thapar and then wrote that wonderful article for us. Kenan Malik, who wrote an excellent review of Meera’s book as well as an article for us (roundly disagreeing with my colleague, who is therefore confidently expecting they will engage in fisticuffs). A.C. Grayling, who is the only one I don’t have an email acquaintance with but who is against FN and N generally, so a sort of ally all the same (otherwise he wouldn’t be there). And of course good old Julian Baggini, who writes Bad Moves for B&W and does one or two other things on the side.

And the final refinement of the torture is that if this confluence of people were taking place a mere three weeks later…I might be able to go. Though I might not, because, er, I haven’t been invited. But I could perhaps loiter around in the street and be able to chat with people as they left. Or I could perhaps just pitch a loud fit until someone invited me – I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, because it’s not taking place three weeks later. Timing is everything. In three weeks (near enough) I’ll be there, but for now I’m here, and that’s that. So let that be a lesson to you. Always be in the right place at the right time.

Memory Tricks

Sep 22nd, 2004 7:15 pm | By

Everybody’s favourite Rottweiler, Mr Leiter (maybe it’s Dr Leiter; then again…), cites some Harvard Law professor talking about his experiences of teaching G. W. Bush.

Here’s some of it:

[Bush] was totally the opposite of Chris Cox. He showed pathological lying habits and was in denial when challenged on his prejudices and biases. He would even deny saying something he just said 30 seconds ago. He was famous for that. Students jumped on him; I challenged him.

[In a discussion of government aid for retirees, Bush] “made this ridiculous statement and when I asked him to explain, he said, ‘The government doesn’t have to help poor people — because they are lazy.’ I said, ‘Well, could you explain that assumption?’ Not only could he not explain it, he started backtracking on it, saying, ‘No, I didn’t say that.’

Whatever memory-pill the Harvard Prof has been taking; I want some of it. I used to find it difficult to remember what my students had said five minutes previously, let alone thirty years after the event. Admitttedly, I didn’t encourage them to talk too much. Well, at all, really.

But, in the spirit of democracy and mass participation, here’s a task for you all.

Rearrange the following words in the correct order:*



*Okay, I don’t want to claim that these memories are necessarily false. But really, at least a modicum of wariness is sensible here. It’s all just a little too convenient…