I’ve written on identity politics before, and most recently called the BBC Gender pay gap “mythical”. Also frequently written on freedoms of speech NOT including a right to offend, even though no-one has a right not to be offended. Recently in the PC-Pinker debate the key point is that the freedom to risk offending is coupled with a duty of care – to be careful not to offend where possible and to care enough about potentially offended persons to resolve the offence. It’s why PC was invented, the problem is when PC becomes a censorious taboo (or worse, a physical ban) on even mentioning terms and ideas.

My main underlying thread is that ideas are memes. Thoughts, patterns of thought and argument, and even thinking itself are simply memes upon memes, memeplexes and meta-memes. Our thoughts and thinking tools have evolving lives of their own as they are repeatedly used within and cycled through the brains of humans via our mouths and ears. Ideas coevolve with humanity.

Currently the most problematic meme is the polarisation fetish. The idea that simple statements are right or wrong, true of false. That rational discource – critical thinking – involves questioning based on disagreement and doubt that attempts to show the other guy to be wrong. It’s how objective science makes progress, so it must be the best way to progress thinking and ideas. It’s scientism in fact. It’s a problem because conflict sells media, attracts clicks and eyeballs. If it bleeds it leads and this adversarial Q&A or argument and counter-argument debate meme feeds this drive by reinforcing disagreement, reinforcing the meme that creates it. Polarisation begets polarisation. People being “owned” by their opponents is the most grotesque form. Pure trolling. Oh, how we all laughed.

It is the antithesis of progressive dialogue.

Well, It Happened Today

Jack Kishere brought Jordan Peterson to my attention. I’d been vaguely aware of his controversial views causing a stir out there in the ether – but there’s no shortage of that, so I’d never looked too closely. Jack pointed out a trend in common with Sam Harris (and others), that in the podcast environments they are in control of (“safe spaces” or “intellectual dark web”) conversations and dialogue on contentions non-PC topics seemed to be making progress and taking on a life of their own – and generating audiences. I was always a bit sceptical of Sam Harris intellectual credentials – too pat, to arrogantly scientistic in the God vs Science wars but had noted several times that he seemed to have a hidden long-game riding on his notoriety and book-sales. “What is Sam Harris game?” I questioned at one point. Later, starting with his spectacular falling-out with erstwhile horeseman compatriot Dan Dennett and subsequent kiss-and-make-up podcast conversations with Dan and with Maajid Nawaz, I noted that Harris seemed to be somewhat “chastened” – prepared to be been seen to have been wrong and changing his mind in the course of dialogue.

Today Joseph Ratliff shared links to the recent Channel4TV interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman. A fair bit of it is on gender inequalities. Initially people were sharing a very short clip of Cathy lost for words – accompanied by all the usual predictable misogynistic, anti-mainstream-media hatred. accusing Cathy of some lefty PC agenda and so on. In fact the whole interview is very enlightening. Cathy does follow the journalistic “Paxman” meme of adversarial questions aiming to find fault with Peterson’s case. I’d guess even if she done extra-special research into Peterson’s real arguments beforehand, she’d have had trouble re-inventing the Q&A, summarising points of disagrement style, in one interview the following day. That meme is pretty much engrained in the schedules, standard practices and our own expectations. Hence Jack’s pointing out the alternative “intellectual dark web” where the rules can be, have evolved to be, different.

What we really need is this evolution to happen in mainstream media where journos and channels are judged on public clicks and eyeballs and where the prevailing meme (in the brains behind our fingers and eyeballs) is the adversarial Q&A. It’s that public meme we need to evolve. There are several points in that typically adversarial interview where despite his provocations and her over-simplistic (erroneous) counter summaries, Peterson very good-naturedly points out where they are agreeing and they both exhibit smiley body-language. Moreover when lost for words (where the hate-selected clip ends) Cathy does continue with the admission “you got me” and the interview continues a while longer with good humour and ends mutually respectfully. Result.

I reckon Cathy learned something. You can too. Then we can have the proper dialogue we all need.

I’ve never been a programming geek, though I share some of the early Basic and Fortran experience in engineering and earlier BBC Micro interest of Eben Upton and Jim AlKhalili, as well as extensive information systems experience subsequently.

As the inventor of the Raspberry Pi, Upton is obviously centred on the hardware understanding of computer functionality. Interesting however, that the original abortive intent to work with BBC as an educational project has been maintained in ongoing computer science education including supporting teacher-training resources. A great potted history of this basic hardware and programming educational project on today’s Life Scientific.

My pet project is education in “computation” over and above “computing” very much because as well as supporting bottom-up educational development towards computers and information systems, which Upton believes should address as wide a range of non-technical students as well, computation itself is fundamental to all natural human disciplines, with or without implementation in computer hardare or software. Everyone should understand this.

Should maybe join up with RaspberryPiForum and with MagPi?


Great edition of Start the Week with Tom Sutcliffe talking to Peter Carey, Afua Hirsch and Geert Mak.

Listening in the background, but clear message that difference – (historical, geographical, biological) – matters, it’s valuable. Words for “other” have evolved in context. Denying it is ignorant, simply insulting.

[Previously on Psybertron: Identity Beyond Politics and Good Fences. And recently on PC with Pinker.]

An important thread of mine is that scientism – the presumption that anything not-objectively-evidenced-as-scientific has no value – is the problematic meme of our times. And I mean that in everyday social, political and media life, not in academic philosophy and psychology.

The polarisation that has driven the god vs science wars has led those on the “new atheist” side of any debate to breathtaking levels of arrogance and extremism in dismissing anyone that begs to differ whilst at the same time attracting so many to the naively perceived “right side” of any debate. Even closer to everyday life, politicians and economists without objective evidence explicit to their every move struggle to make progress, without a kinda psuedo-objectivity invented just to play the game. And so much of that is getting built into our algorithms, mental as well as machine software, that filter the information and argumentation we are all exposed to.

It is an incredibly destructive and dangerous meme.

I was therefore very interested when I saw this new book co-edited by one of my favourite current philosophers, Massimo Pigliucci.

After querying, and agreeing, there really are no pros to scientism, I was intrigued to see what this collection of essays had to say, some of the titles do suggest support for the idea of science without limits. It is an new academic book, and priced accordingly, but early and/or unedited versions of some of the essays can be found on-line.

Obviously co-editor Maarten Boudry’s Why Science Does Not Have Limits looks to be the most “pro” and the two by Massimo Pigliucci and Mariam Thalos In Defence of Demarcation and Against Border Patrols look closest to my own “good fences” position. I have those 3 and Stephen Law’s Scientism! in downloaded on-line forms available to read. (In progress.)

As I say, my own position is clear. There is nothing wrong with the broadly-defined science-as-natural-philosophy view that everything “can” and will be explained by science, and that “everything” is indeed supervenient on the fundamental levels of our scientific model – kinda by definition in that metaphysics. But that’s a long way from practical reality that says things incompletely and speculatively explained by science now – by logical extension of objective evidence according to that model – must not give way to “better” psychological-value-based models in practice. As ever this is a semantic debate about “limits” and “values” when dealing with both the here and now reality and with the eternal model at the same time. Meta-limits. I’ll be back.


[Post Note: Of course one reason this immediately resonated and prompted me to comment before significantly reviewing the new content, is because my immediately previous post on Pinker and political correctness tied this to the fetish of scientism within more psychological human topics. Stuff that cannot immediately be rendered “scientific” is practically taboo in some would-be scientific fields, like psychology itself.]

[Post Note: And it’s an ever present topic, here Martin Rees being quoted.

Don’t generally agree with Rees’ modesty take – he is a theistic god-of-the-gaps kinda person – but topical.]

Misappropriation of political correctness really is a degenerate driver of liberal-left policy, and if we don’t find honest ways to debate it openly it will continue to fester. There is a serious Catch-22 in here.

Yesterday’s social media conversations were dominated by three related topics.

  • A secret series of eugenics conferences held annually at UCL.
  • Toby Young’s appointment / de-appointment to UK ministerial post.
  • Some selected remarks by Steven Pinker on PCness around racist / sexist topics in academe.

The secret UCL eugenics series suffice to say for now, the range of papers, presenters and topics is incendiary without careful interpretation wherever the individuals lie on the spectrum from actively eugenicist to free-thinking intellectual. Knowing this, the organisers attempted to operate in secrecy, which can only compound the impression that there was something to actively hide, rather than simply provide a “safe space” for tricky intellectual debate from which misrepresented misunderstandings might escape. (Lies and misunderstandings get halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on.)

Young I have zero reason to defend. Apparently he actively participated in the UCL Eugenics event(s) but also has a long record of careless and provocatively bigotted public remarks on a whole range of race, gender and sexuality freedom issues. So much so that whatever he actively believes, he is unfit for any public office on grounds of not caring.

Pinker I have had plenty of reason to be critical of in the past. Mainly on his naive basis of bringing science and statistics to his main field of psychology. Specifically he’s sometimes out of his depth, but more generally he’s part of the scientism infecting many areas of would-be-science that fail to appreciate their limitations – limitations to the validity of their own interpretations as well as inherent limitations in reality. (I’m all for making any field as scientifically rational as it can be, but that also involves understanding where rational values lie beyond science as well as the science.) Also, although he writes well, Pinker has an awkward gauche manner when talking with attempted humour (I should talk) and his intent is easily misunderstood. I think he knows this, but is nevertheless sincere intellectually even when, in my opinion, misguided scientistically. (Seems Pinker also attended one of the UCL events too? Need to check.)

Anyway, I find myself defending the criticisms of Pinker’s recent remarks as neither bigotted nor even careless. Does he have a history of making unguarded non-PC comment in public media? I don’t know but Petra thinks so. Maybe he has been careless. All I can say is that the Spiked Magazine Panel – “Is Political Correctness Why Trump Won?” was an excellent debate. All four speakers, the moderator and the audience. Apart from Brendan O’Neill maybe being provocative for effect at times – a Brexiteer with history, and promotional interest in Spiked – I’d say all including O’Neill and Pinker took care to stick to the topic honestly and intellectually. Ironically and knowingly, Spiked refer to it as part of their “unsafe space” series. Pinker even uses the mock trigger warning at one point that what he’s about to say is “gonna sound ragingly controversial”.

Well trigger it did. Many people people I admire leapt on the “bigotted remarks from Pinker” bandwagon yesterday on the strength of statements selected out of the full context. It’s not a thin edge of a wedge to talk about such topics, merely to talk about them carelessly. Careless talk cost lives.

It would be a pity if people didn’t watch that whole debate. It was excellent and it was organised openly with care. Basic use-mention distinction in philosophy. If we can’t talk “about” controversial views, even listen to people “using” them in a controlled debate, all hope is lost.

(I for one will be following-up all the speaker’s contributions. “Most rejection of free-speech is psychological not ideological”. “PC as blasphemy for a secular individualistic age”. “Therapeutic justice”. “Caring and civility of human contact”. “PC gets in the way of having-it-out”. “PC as a proxy battle for economic ideologies”. Fascinating resource, the closing remarks alone.)


Post Note: Particularly worrying about those people I admire is how many made sarcastic Auschwitz gas-chambers “jokes” conflating both the Young and Pinker cases too as their main and final responses. I won’t share links. I know these people do care, but it is careless to leave such memes hanging as lasting misrepresentative impressions in the ether. Memes have lives of their own.

Post Note: This is an excellent piece on the scientistic PC-ness problem relating to mirsepresentations of Sam Harris, but also written after the Pinker misrepresentation story.

Post Note: And even Jerry Coyne leapt to Pinker’s defence (and I have zero time for Coyne’s opinions! I see him as part of the bigotted scientism problem, not the solution.)

[Post Note: And oh boy, PZ Myers weighing in, just as intellectually dishonestly, on the other side:

Hat tip to @JosephRatliff.]

[Post Note: And Baroness Warsi in defence of Young (@toadmeister)

I have no specific reason to doubt Young’s intellectual and ideological sense, as I say, the problem is the emotional carelessness in his history of inappropriate overtly bigotted public remarks, beyond any intellectual context. Not the stuff of public office.

And as Jeremy notes re Warsi statement – it really is marginal – a grey area – where intellectual freedom becomes bigotry:

Part of the reason discussion spaces need to be “safe” so that subtleties can be addressed before careless communication. PC is about caring, not censorship.]

[Post Note:

Exactly. It doesn’t say don’t mention the difference, it says take care – respect and empathy – when discussing it.]

Resisted entering the fray yesterday because, frankly, more power to Carrie Gracie’s elbow. Any moves to minimise unfair inequalities gets my support.

Her public letter indicates very specific struggles and experiences with management in her case and results in her own courageous moves to resign the one specific post where she saw “same pay for equivalent job”. I respect that and others in the #meetoo camp.

Many others however, commenting on “same pay for same job” – not just absence of unfair inequality – seemed to be conveniently ignoring all subtleties of individual cases for a “principle” that really doesn’t exist. I too can envisage – am actively campaigning towards – “post-capitalist” economic models where income – basic income – is unrelated to employment, but it would take a centrally planned economy to establish a pay rate for every job totally independent of any supply and demand dynamics. The fact that idiots like Trump can do more damage with greater money-for-old-rope wealth doesn’t change the fact that some of us can do more good with the possibility of greater earnings – over and above basic income. Any income over basic – minimum or rate for the job – may need to be justified, but not necessarily transparently and certainly not by populist poll or the politburo.

Even if an editorial journalist post could come with a job description where the BBC could set a rate for the job, it would be ludicrous to see that job description as the whole story for any public personality fronting the role independent of the public history of the individual in the role and a whole basket of other subjective skills and qualities. It was Evan Davies @EvanHD twitter thread from yesterday (below), seen this morning, that led me to post this today. Yesterday I was tempted when I saw people using Jeremy Bowen (Mid-East Editor) as the example of same pay for same job in Carrie Gracie (China Editor) case. But it’s a ludicrously crass way to attempt an objective comparison. Orla Guerin in (say) Kate Adie’s footsteps maybe more useful cases.

Finally, simply casting any such “unfair” inequalities as a gender issue is itself crass. Purely political choice by the claimant. Simply more “identity politics”. Sure there are unfair gender inequalities, but these are mostly historical legacies of patriarchal domination in so many walks of like. I’m good with affirmative action to nudge cultural evolution away from such legacy, it is already happening, but legislation against any inequality here and now can only cover “basic” cases. History matters, and it’s not simply eradicated by wishful application of valid and well-meaning legislation. Transparency is over-rated. It may expose more problems, but may be counter-productive to progressive solutions.

Anyway the @EvanHD thread pretty much says it:

To which all I will add – I’ve said it many times before – is that Humphrys is probably the greatest barrier to progress at the BBC. It is (a) generally wonderful how so many women are making progress in production and front-line BBC roles, and (b) particularly wonderful that the BBC is active in analysing and criticising itself publicly as well as maintaining scrupulous self-interest and impartiality standards. All power to Carrie Gracie’s elbow, but let’s stick to the specifics and not reduce this to some gender pay equality myth. We’re better than that.


[And, the day after:

Smart cookie, Carrie.]

[And the Humphrys / Sopel off-air exchange:

Precisely, the dick-head here is John Humphrys – always has been – his retirement long overdue, and salary no doubt due to long-standing employment contract from days when these things counted for something. Sopel here is embarrassed, curt, wanting to get on with the business of the programme just about to start. Sopel is OK, as is Jeremy Bowen compared to Carrie Gracie (as I mentioned above). This has nothing to do with gender, other than the history of male domination in legacy positions, salaries & contracts. A dick-head is a dick-head even with gender-reassignment. Sorry Carrie, Evan is right.]

Konrad Zuse is a new name to me, picked up from twitter mentions by  @generuso and @rolyperera. Actually, like myself, an engineer rather than a scientist, but who apparently originally proposed a fundamentally information-based view of reality after considering causation from first principles.

Apart from the fundamental causation and information aspects that recur here on Psybertron, the chain of propagation at the quantum level put me in mind of Boscovich who had influenced Mach and many who came after him, but no apparent link there.

Conversely, I discover he was a source used by Jürgen Schmidhuber, one of my earliest sources of the idea of fundamental information. And, this sense of convergence is ever more reinforced by the fact of that post first linking to Schmidhuber is the same post I linked sceptical responses to Kurzweil when reviewing Dan Brown’s “Origin” recently. I see Schmidhuber has given many public talks, and that he practically leads with Zuse.

One interesting point from Schmidhuber is that he has the “efficiency” view of computation, same as others do coming from the entropy angle, that the universe and our intelligence within it has arisen the way it has because at some level it is inevitable to evolve in the most efficient direction. Seems however to hold only the trivial / tautological view of anthropic principles – the universe we’re in exists because it is the universe we’re in. The efficiency is also a matter of compression, just the most significant bit(s) – after Shannon – I noted “compression is key” the first time I came across Schmidhuber in 2009, but picked up on cognition as computation as compression with Gerry Wolff back in 2002. The sense of convergence may be mythical, but it is nevertheless natural.