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Relying solely on empirical facts

Science-lovers are Nazis, redux

The sacking of Professor David Nutt (cf) from his role as chairman of the British government’s Advisory Council on the “Misuse” of Drugs has provoked much comment, but none, I think, so chuckleheaded as that by AN Wilson yesterday, in which he trots out Hitler and the Spanish Inquisition to prove that science is not to be trusted. His argument is not only cod-historical, however; it is methodological too:

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

Oh yes, that is the trouble with scientific arguments! Which is why we need a government that is, by contrast, superlatively “imaginative” and utterly contemptuous of “empirical facts” to save us from ourselves.

17


Copenhagen interpretation

It’s not my ‘interpretation’, it’s the truth!

Physicist Léon Rosenfeld in 1972, responding to a draft of an article entitled “The Copenhagen Interpretation” sent to him by Henry Stapp:

I would incline to prefer your March 31 title [“Quantum Theory, Pragmatism and the Nature of Space-Time”], the reason being that it does not contain the phrase “Copenhagen interpretation,” which we in Copenhagen do not like at all. Indeed, this expression was invented, and is used by people wishing to suggest that there may be other interpretations of the Schrödinger equation, namely their own muddled ones. ((Quoted in Jeremy Bernstein, Quantum Leaps (Cambridge, Mass., 2009), p78.))

In our terms, Rosenfeld is complaining that “Copenhagen interpretation” is Unspeak. There are other cases in which names for scientific ideas have become hostage to fortune — see, for example, this discussion of how Jerry Fodor thinks there’s something fishy about “natural selection”.

I was also reminded that Einstein had the phrase “relativity theory” more or less forced upon him: in private correspondence, he preferred to call his special theory of 1905 “invariant theory” or Invariantentheorie, and referred grumpily to “so-called ‘relativity theory’” for six years, until it was obvious the cause was lost, and a zillion dodgy metaphors were launched.

Other examples, readers?

4


Science fascist

‘Postmodern’ persecution complexes

The preposterous Steve Fuller ((Author of a risibly poor book called Dissent over Descent, which I reviewed here.)) denounces the recently deceased mathematician Norman Levitt as a “science fascist”. ((Via Ben Goldacre.)) Is a science fascist someone like Josef Mengele? Apparently not: Levitt’s crime was merely to have argued strongly against the “postmodernists” (among whose number Fuller counts himself) in what are sometimes called the science wars. ((In particular, Levitt called one of Fuller’s books “a truly miserable piece of work, crammed with errors scientific, historical, and even theological”. Fuller now claims that Levitt’s criticisms were “so badly off the mark” that he “never deemed it appropriate to respond formally”: a curious turn of phrase since, formally or otherwise, Fuller did in fact respond in the same forum that printed Levitt’s original review, and Levitt responded to the response. Readers may judge for themselves who came out better from that exchange.)) Lest we imagine that Fuller is merely abusing the term fascist in the well-known manner of lazy idiots everywhere, ((See Unspeak, p.150.)) he goes on to round out his devastating historical analogy:

I believe that Levitt’s ultimate claim to fame may rest on his having been as a pioneer of cyber-fascism, whereby a certain well-educated but (for whatever reason) academically disenfranchised group of people have managed to create their own parallel universe of what is right and wrong in matters of science, which is backed up (at least at the moment) by nothing more than a steady stream of invective. Their resentment demands a scapegoat — and ‘postmodernists’ function as Jews had previously.

You may charitably suppose that for a comfortably employed academic — one perfectly free to make a monumental fool of himself in his books, in courtrooms, and on the internet — to arrogate to himself and his “postmodernist” colleagues ((Many of whom, of course, are far more intellectually respectable than Steve Fuller.)) the kind of suffering historically experienced by Jews is merely a tasteless slip. Not at all! When challenged in comments, Fuller expands upon the “idea” still further:

I did not have the Holocaust in mind, since as far as I know Levitt didn’t even succeed in exterminating an idea, let alone an entire population. (I may be disrespectful but I’m not crazy!) You may recall that the Nazis scapegoated the Jews for all sorts of problems besetting Germany for nearly 20 years before exterminating them. It’s that orchestrated Anti-Semitism that is the basis of my comparison with the treatment of postmodernists, who ever since the end of the Cold War have been scapegoated for every public and policy ill that seems to have befallen the scientific community. ((Personally, I will never forget how, when the Large Hadron Collider broke down last year, the fascist cry went up around the world that it was all the fault of the postmodernists.)) I actually think the comparison is very apt.

How apt do you think the comparison is, readers?

17


A thoughtful audience

There’s a brand new talk but it’s not very clear

World’s greatest philosopher Alain de Botton, fresh from explaining the meaning of airports dentists’ waiting rooms, ((Yes, yes, I have “an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value”, but then again, who doesn’t?)) is going into the rag trade. Vogue reports:

One half of the Rodnik design duo, Philip Colbert, is getting set to take his talent in a more cerebral direction; launching a collection with famous Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton. […] The collection is named Smith & Rousseau, after a conversation between the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith and Swiss-born philiosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau; a reference to De Botton being Swiss and Colbert’s Scottish roots.

But away from all the theory

— yes please, my brain is already hurting from all this theory! —

what can we expect from the clothes?

Tell us!

“We are still very much in the development stages,” Colbert told us. “We’re looking at the pieces that are eternal in fashion — the perfect dress, the perfect jacket — pieces that define the perfect forms within contemporary clothing. It will be a capsule collection, mostly in black and white with a meaningful use of colour, for a thoughtful audience bored with the repetitive nature of fashion.”

It’s reassuring to know that de Botton and Colbert will be conceiving fashions for a thoughtful audience. Me, I have some of my best thoughts when I lend an ear to the bells of a jester’s cap delicately tinkling in the middle distance. What kind of clothes do you like to listen to, readers?

26


Jobs have been lost

Un(employment)speak

Thanks to the financial crisis and recession, a great many jobs have been lost, as the media likes to put it. There seems to be some kind of pandemic of carelessness afoot, all these poor jobs being mislaid by unidentified and unaccountable agents.

Of course, what is really happening is that either companies are going bust, or employers are choosing to sack employees. The latter is a case of an active verb that takes a human being as its object.

Even if we agree not to think about those human-being objects too hard, and continue instead with the more comfortable practice of describing what is happening to “jobs” in the passive voice, we should at least observe some symmetry of description. When businesses hire workers, it is said that jobs are being “created”. When they fire workers, it surely follows that jobs are being not “lost” but destroyed.

12


Scepticism

Clive James in the dark

Versifier Clive James is “sceptical” about anthropogenic global warming: ((Via Sarah Ditum.))

Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist. It’s a nasty word to be called, denialist, because it calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust.

On the word “denialist”, fair enough. But on what, pray, is James basing his own view?

I know next to nothing about climate science.

Oh! Well, shouldn’t James make the teensiest effort to find out a bit about it if he wants to write about the subject? It’s really not that hard. Of course, James didn’t say he knew nothing, only “next to nothing”. So what manner of microknowledge has got lodged in his warming cranial globe?

All I know is that many of the commentators in newspapers who are busy predicting catastrophe don’t know much about it either, because they keep saying that the science is settled and it isn’t.

That is all he knows about climate science! It’s not much! But wait, how does he know it?

I still can’t see that there is a scientific consensus. There are those for, and those against. Either side might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on that scale, you can’t call it a consensus.

In this way, compulsive chiasmist Clive James exhibits the curious asymmetry often found in protestations of “scepticism”: knowing literally nothing about the science, he finds himself able to be “sceptical” of positive claims about AGW, while being generously credulous of claims by self-described “sceptics”. (I note in passing that this works just as splendidly for “Intelligent Design” or for Holocaust denial: since there are people who propound those views, we must on James’s logic also be allowed to say that there is no “consensus” on evolution or the Holocaust, without bothering to find out the facts for ourselves.) As it happens, if one makes the seconds-long effort on google to check, one finds that 97% of active climate researchers agree that AGW exists. Can’t call it a “consensus”? Really?

But that’s not all; there is a general moral-philosophical lesson here too about the future of the human race!

Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it.

That’s an interesting example. Let’s imagine what James might have said when “modern medicine” was still in its infancy:

I don’t know anything about biology; all I know is that some people are insisting on this new-fangled germ theory of disease, and others say it’s nonsense? So really one ought to be sceptical of the existence of these so-called “bacteria”, and this proves my massive-brained love for humanity!

Thus has laugher-at-Japanese-people Clive James provided, for all our mental relaxation, a beautiful general method of asserting one’s moral superiority without ever having to trouble one’s intellect. As long as one is content to wallow in unashamed ignorance, one may continue to congratulate oneself on being caringly “sceptical” about everything under the sun.

What are you sceptical about, readers?

97


Domestic extremists

The enemy within

What do you suppose a domestic extremist is? A person who covers every surface of his apartment in microbicidal spray seven times a day? Or an “extremist” who is more cuddly and loyal, more domestic, than his fellows in the wild, and to whom you can feed processed meat-derivative chunks in a tasty jelly? Neither, exactly. Instead, domestic extremists is the new term for British citizens who take part in “political meetings and protests”, according to the Guardian:

Senior officers say domestic extremism, a term coined by police that has no legal basis, can include activists suspected of minor public order offences such as peaceful direct action and civil disobedience.

The report explains that you can now be secretly tagged and en-databased as a domestic extremist if you are part of some “‘extreme leftwing’ protest groups, including anti-war campaigners” (of course, not to support a war is by definition an “extreme” view), or indulge in “‘environmental extremism’ such as Climate Camp and Plane Stupid campaigns”. In other words, police units tasked with keeping tabs on domestic extremism now cover “anti-war and environmental groups that have only ever engaged in peaceful direct action”.

So, via the label domestic extremists, non-violent protesters are now semantically associated in the law-enforcement mind with those who commit acts of mass civilian murder, viz., violent extremists, and departmentally thus associated too: the cop platoons on the hunt for domestic extremists “are run by the ‘terrorism and allied matters’ committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers”.

To recap: if you are unhappy with an official bombing campaign or climate policy, then you are an extremist; and to express that dissatisfaction publicly is an “allied matter” to that of terrorism.

I think this sets a new high (or low) for the paranoid style of official dysphemism in home affairs! Are you all domestic extremists too, readers?

8


Sleazy

Moir can’t stop digging

Jan Moir’s unapologetic apology ((For a tedious defence of the concept “unapologetic apology”, see here.)) for her gay-hating blurt hardly improves matters:

I would like to say sorry if I have caused distress by the insensitive timing of the column

That at least makes clear the extent of Moir’s apology: if she has, on the other hand, caused distress by the lurid and utterly speculative bigotry of the original column — which she has — Moir is not sorry at all. Indeed, there is something barely credible that she still maintains:

I still maintain that to die on a sofa while your partner is sleeping with someone else in the next room is, indeed, sleazy, no matter who you are or what your sexual orientation might be.

I had to read this three times to make sure it was saying what it seemed to be saying. Even now, I can’t quite bring myself to believe it, but there it is in the unambiguous syntax of the sentence: “to die […] is […] sleazy”. Yes, how sleazy it was for Stephen Gately to die! It was somehow his own fault after all!

Moir’s own writing, of course, wholly merits being described as sleazy, not only in the modern sense of sordid, squalid and morally corrupt, but also in the old sense of “flimsy, unsubstantial” (OED 2.b.). Double-sleazy is a particularly apt epithet, as it happens, for the mouth-breathing imbecility of what follows:

My assertion that there was ‘nothing natural’ about Stephen’s death has been wildly misinterpreted. What I meant by ‘nothing natural’ was that the natural duration of his life had been tragically shortened in a way that was shocking and out of the ordinary. Certainly, his death was unusual enough for a coroner to become involved.

Yes, and what the coroner had already determined before Moir’s original column was that Gately had died of “natural causes” (namely, acute pulmonary oedema). As best as I care to bother to reconstruct Moir’s manifestly cretinous thinking in the above, it seems that she continues to believe that Gately’s life had a “natural duration” much longer than its actual duration, and therefore that “natural causes” could not possibly have cut it short.

It follows from Moir’s surprising medical-longevity theory that no one ever dies before old age except in cases of either: a) external trauma (violence, infectious agent, insufficient environmental oxygen or the like); or b) “sleazy” circumstances. This is conclusive proof that Moir is an idiot as well as a bigot, isn’t it, readers?

6



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