Interesting BBC R4 Point of View this morning by Lisa Jardine.
[Fuller text in BBC Magazine article.]
Based on the telling by her father (Jacob Bronowski) of the Leo Szillard story of the flash of inspiration that led him to patent the neutron chain reaction idea as a source of energy in the name of UK Admiralty, and the subsequent UK and US development and use of first nuclear bombs.
Szillard (and Einstein and Bronowski and many others in science) raised many ethical objections to the use of such weapons as their reality became more certain. (Aside – Many previous references in this blog to the Einstein letter and to Durrenmatt’s play “Die Physiker“. Szillard is topical again thanks to recent work by Graham Farmelo, whose previous work on Paul Dirac has also been covered here.)
But Lisa’s point was really this. Being told that story was valuable lesson in ethics associated with science, even though the complex chain of events and reasoning quoted by, and told of, Szillard, as any one of the many individuals involved, was objectively suspect and in need of selective interpretation as history – a convenient narrative with an agenda. But none-the-less valuable to her (and to me).
The point I add to this is that a major – and dangerous – part of the problem is science conflating itself with many other domains associated with science, from basic philosophies of science and knowledge, to the technological exploitations of understanding scientific possibilities by the rest of humanity, of which science is a part but not the whole.
Science is not technology and the distinction matters – in the Szillard story, the subject was “patenting” the use of idea for its technological exploitation, not the idea itself. Furthermore – science is not humanity’s sole privileged access to knowledge, the distinction between the subset we call science and the whole of “rational” knowledge applicable to human decision-making, also matters. These distinctions matter because the ethics (and politics and economics) of best choices for humanity cannot be reduced to science alone. Not even (say) Anthropogenic Global Warming.
The use of science to solve the problems of and increase valuable possibilities for human society, both requires technology and involves value judgements – human value judgements in domains where science has no privileged view. Science is privileged in value-neutral domains, but not in domains where human values matter.
Science good; Scientism bad.
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The latest social work failure – child abused to death – being debated everywhere, is just another symptom of the underlying problem of scientific objectivity getting into too many places where it shouldn’t.
- “Politician” claims social worker seeing dog mess in room where child is kept (after long history of other visits and issues) should simply have the right to remove the child on the evidence of their own senses.
- “Professional” responds that only police can force entry and removal and only after court proceeding and only after sufficient “evidence” has been gathered and “due process” has been followed, etc.
Precisely the point. In appropriate cases the evidence of the social worker’s own nose should suffice as due process.
The reason why this is not accepted by the professional institutions, is the counter case. To indemnify against accidentally over-zealous action causing damage where there was none – the usual rights and responsibilities challenge. (The old Cleveland child-abuse scandal, for example.)
What’s missing ? The idea of wisdom. The idea that the individual social worker can (be able, be trusted to) make such a decision. Instead, the idea that evidence and justification is something scientific, to be “tested” by formal process. Well, beyond science it’s not scientific, nor even wholly objective. But sadly, the values of science are privileged, allowed to take precedence over values of humanity, in a social context, everywhere beyond the domain of science in fact.
Social workers need to be entrusted with wisdom and common sense. (So recruitment and training and work assignment, and management, assessment and sanctioning, etc, all need to be based on this. Human values and experience of humanity being at least (if not more in domains like social work) as valuable as formal “qualifications” and knowledge of application of formal procedures.
The reason we have the problems we have is because we don’t trust our social workers, or can’t trust them except through formal – objective, scientific – procedure. Another case of the measures devaluing the work, and tending the work towards lower value, the complete opposite of what is required. The balance of human rights and responsibilities is a value judgement, a human value judgement involving the humanities NOT science alone.
Science is immensely valuable in its domain, but destroys (human) value in domains where its use is misguided.
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Interestingly, just seconds after the previous post on the disservice done to science by the conflation of science and technology, Lisa Jardine also tweeted a link to this Sue Nelson piece on “BBC lads’ science” in the Telegraph. And, only hours after Jim AlKhalili had tweeted to “boast” (tongue in cheek) about acquisition of his iPhone5 - the “latest boys’ toy”. Man, what a tangled web.
[Hold - still trying to find 5 minutes also to comment on this "Round III" response by Pinker to Wieseltier on the interminable science vs the humanities debate in New Republic, tweeted by Tiff Jenkins.]
Where to start? Scientists, science journalists and science media-folk, do science a disservice, when they promote science wrongly. And, in doing so, that is also a disservice to the society they aim to serve. So what could possibly be wrong about the way science is promoted?
Promote science as an enterprise of wonder in its own right, and as as a route to understanding the wonders and workings of the world. Go for it, surely the core aim of science.
Promote science as the source of understanding, discovery and development of enabling technologies that underlie the sustainable advancement of human society in the cosmos. We’d be mad no to. Remember, a flint hand tool, whose development depended on recognising cleavage planes in otherwise continuous naturally occurring hard material, was new technology once, as all technology is.
By promotion, I’m talking about informing and educating society about the above, to attract interest and resources – individuals to join the enterprise, and funds to support their work and their organisations, both commercial and institutional. All valid, laudable and indeed essential to the enterprise and to society itself.
But let’s not confuse promotion with education, and let’s not confuse education about science with science education. Sure each contributes to the other in a self-reinforcing virtuous-circle. Education that actually achieves understanding in the topic, also promotes effort towards achieving more of the same. Some aspects of education are part of that valid promotion. But education that inspires interest without actually achieving understanding, nevertheless also achieves the promotion objectives, so it is important to recognise that science education is more than science promotion.
The success of celebrity scientists – and celebrity honorary-science-supporting comics – in TV and Radio does a great deal to blur that distinction. If this played only into the virtuous-circle of promoting science (and technology) it would be OK, but through ever more ubiquitous public and social media debates on the biggest science-related issues of our times, the blurring of debate about and understanding of science issues is far more dangerous to the future of humanity.
The “lads’ science” of Sue Nelson’s piece reflects part of this. The very fact that “boys toys” technology and engineering media like Top Gear can be rolled into the same breath as the more explicitly “science” light-weight media of the likes of O’Briain, Fry, Ince and Cox is part of the conflation of science with its technological products.
Personally (as a bloke) I can take or leave “boys’ toys”, and the fact that these are obsessions of laddish males reflects well on the fairer sex IMHO – vive la differance (*). But science should not taint itself with such crass commercialism. Science – even when promoting itself publicly, commercially – needs to maintain blue-water between its gender-neutral self and the technology / life-style marketing of boys’ toys.
Maintaining boundaries – between science and technology in this case – is not just about agreeing to disagree about the distinction – that’s only ever a temporary cease-fire. In fact it never needs to be about “warring” at all. Boundaries reflect evolving definitions of the domains either side, where fences make good neighbours. The science / technology boundary is problematic enough itself, as described by the Sue Nelson piece, but a mere trifle compared to the wider science vs humanities debacle dangerously rail-roading wisdom out of the world at large.
[More on the science / humanities distinction - and the ongoing Pinker / Wieseltier dialogue - later.]
[(*) More on the positive value of real gender differences - not in science, but where they matter - in this dissertation.]
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Lisa Jardine tweeted a link to this piece by Alice Bell, on BP funding of the International Centre for Advanced materials with the comment “More please.”
In so far as the emphasised conclusion is not to simply object to, or place demands on, industrial funding of “science”, but that the public debate should aim to ask questions, I’d wholeheartedly agree.
But it raises two issues for me, about the questions that need to be asked.
One is that science itself should also remember that it’s main job is to ask questions.
Technology or applied science, unlike science itself, concerned with applications of sufficient potential value to attract industrial funding. Still research, still risk money, but quite different to science research. One may have ethical doubts as to “strings attached” to research funding for science itself, though clearly it does happen successfully, and clearly the funding and activity of the technology also supports the activities of science too, but it’s important to notice the distinction.
Science’s job is to ask the questions of knowledge quite independent of their potential for technology applications.
Secondly, the piece, like the research centre and its funding, concerns science & technology, but conveniently uses the topic “science”. Blurred for easy reading and digestion, and of course, blurring to ease the spin-off funding into science itself. But this is part of a trend of privileging the position of science in society, treating science as the catch-all, the superset of all things, to which science relates – which is most things one way or another. Science is science, and applied science or technology is both science and its application. Application of science is neither science nor a subset of science. Application involves many more human values than are found in your science.
Constantly blurring this important distinction – science over-reaching its remit – is one source of the interminable science vs dogma wars, where many supporters of science do science a disservice, by ignoring values between the dogmatic extremes.
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Tiff Jenkins in The Scotsman today, writing on the problem of the “Quantified Self” movement. Short, sweet and to the point, so no excuse not to read. A reflection of the danger of applying new app / tech possibilities to exaggerate the slippery slope of giving privilege to those aspects of life that can be objectively quantified.
In summary – outsourcing (value) judgement to (quantifiable) calculation – doesn’t make judgement any easier, rather it bypasses, disconnects judgement from real empirical experience – making it easier to shirk the personal responsibility for applying judgement. What we should really be doing is making it easier for humans to connect to reality and take responsibility for it. Log personal “data”, sure, but treat it as audit / reality check for that human, not as an independent app, or a competitively shared “game”. Judgement is not a popular-voting – bean-counting – democracy.
Guidance of the wise, enslavement of the foolish comes to mind, again.
[Reminds me of the two cases noted earlier, of the UK MP and US Representative, counting the tweets in their inbox before voting on house motions. And - listening to BBC R4 Today interviews by Sarah Montague at the Tory conference - as old as the 20th century (and probably more) - the "cost of living" being objectified - something we can reduce to an index, as one interviewee warns - it's not some free floating "object". What matters can't be measured, etc. Turning "objectives" into "measures" destroys their value .... and a thousand more.]
[Post Note : Another response here.]
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The need to blog is fairly intense at the moment, not just many interesting things happening in the world to comment on, and significant things happening in my world to write upon, but also multiple communication initiatives that look like opportunities to turn talk into attention and opportunities into progressive action:
I am a fully-fledged grown-up adult,
I’m trying to make a dent, I’m trying to get a result
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite,
with tequila to drink and avocado to eat.
[Loudon Wainwright III]
My Left Knee – the story of my knee replacement surgery. [Truly inspiring life experience - to me anyway - in which I have been fortunate to come into contact with many wonderful individuals making the NHS work - and it ain't over yet. In draft based on text notes and name-checks.]
Where Soul Meets Body – a stream of consciousness vignette within the above. [Based on the anaesthetic-and-morphine-fuelled immediate post-op euphoria, paying attention to the music collection on my Android phone whilst exercising my leg under the covers in fearful anticipation of the true pain level kicking-in. Rolling like thunder - that's why they call it the blues - is not in that playlist, but much Roy Harper in there. Draft in chaotic notes.]
Leadership – an essay on what is really missing from society’s decision-making structures. [Prompted by a Facebook exchange with Martin. Near complete draft; a bit rambling and losing it's way towards the end. Needs at least one good editorial session.]
Greatest [Currently Most Famous] Thinkers – revisiting the April 2013 Prospect Magazine poll on World Thinkers. I’ve expressed disappointment before, more than once, at the popular confusion between famous scientists and great thinkers, but thought it worth analysing the comment thread on the original article, in the light of the recent Comments in Crisis piece on the destruction of valuable debate. Also want to dig up that piece on how far most readers get beyond the headline – if at all – yet still immediately comment, share, like, link, embed, you name it. Meme’s in action. [Draft in mind only.]
The Cyprus Connection – transitioning from reading Sir Ronald Storrs’ Orientations – where he ended up as the first British governor of Cyprus, having been the first such governor of Jerusalem and Judea / Palestine post-Balfour pre-Herbert Samuel – into Mak Berwick’s Langkawi Lair, whose opening scenes witness an atrocity associated with the 70′s Makarios revolution in Cyprus. [Draft in mind only.]
‘Twas Ever Thus – the latest in a series of dozens, in which I often quote Horace explaining the impression, reported at least as long ago as 4000BCE, whereby ubiquitous and continuing aspects of human enterprise, are invariably dressed up as the latest problem “of our times”. Here goes ….
Prompted by reference to Terrence Rattigan’s falling out with John Gielgud – a topic on BBC R4 Today this morning – when “Johnny” elected to play the Dickensian anti-hero Sydney Carton, rather than appear in a production he’d already been working – fully cast and rehearsed – with “Terry”. An archetypically camp Cambridge gay set lovers’ tiff. Quite sweet to hear contemporary recordings of the luvvies actually, and I’m a fan of Rattigan, but the conversation brought up how significant Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was, still is, to our times (yet again).
Tale of Two Cities is apparently my mother’s favourite book, or was until she started reading the Russian classics more recently. And, it’s a book I know I should know. It’s been on my reading list for ever. I’ve owned a copy for years. It’s been on the bedside cabinet and the desk beside me where I work, dozens of times before. I’ve read the opening chapter, and got up that muddy south London hill in the horse-drawn coach more times times than I can count, made the Dover meeting and the channel crossing several times, I’ve even got to meeting the heroine’s father in the Paris garret a once or twice, but …. I’ve still not got through it. No idea why.
Anyway, It’s one of those books – like Anna Karenina, similarly I’ve never completed – with mythically famous opening lines. So famous Sylvia and I lay there trying to recall them as we listened to the radio. Nope? OK …
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
And, in one long sentence, it goes on, ….
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we are all going direct to Heaven,
we are all going direct the other way
in short, the period was so far like the present period,
that some of its noisiest authorities insisted
on its being received, for good or evil,
in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Sound familiar ? Plus ca change, ’twas ever thus.
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Interesting piece tweeted by Medium Picks.
Not fully digested. But my view of unmoderated comment threads on every news story or campaigning web page going is that these are always skewed by the cynical who believe that taking the hard line on any topic is the way to get noticed and failing that sarcastic ridicule will do instead. They wouldn’t think of themselves as trolls by any technical definition, but that’s what they are, driving intelligent and balanced debate – faster than greased lightning – off the very pages where they would be most valuable. It quickly ends up as polarised lowest common denominator stuff, a race to the bottom.
There’s more in this piece, but I agree with this gist:
A single format will no longer serve
for the multiple contexts
where comments once made sense.
Serious web media need to think about how to marshal different comment environments for different motives, and as I said many times, ensure any moderated threads associated with their specific pages adopt a level of “respect” that involves reading, understanding and constructive synthesis before disagreeing, criticising and worse under cover of rhetorical games. Or, ultimately treat all reactions as correspondence – letters to the editor – to be subject to the site’s own editorial policy. It might not be so bad, but the success of celebrity comics – and celebrity scientists who wish they were – on twitter and facebook and comment-is-free seems to reinforce the idea that everyone thinks it’s their job to be cruelly witty on ever topic, whereas that’s a job for the professionals. As I always say, we can’t all be court jester at the same time, we’d get nothing worthwhile done.
(Quite different for any media channel where fun and provocation are designed for public reaction and amusement or “gossip” and “hits” – good luck to them – but any channel with serious communication objectives needs to consider the “comment crisis”. Building engagement is more than a numbers game – quality matters.)
Two other significant points in there – Popular Science being one of the on-line journals seeing the need for proper moderation, and the idea of an independent moderation service to apply your policy, ie doing it right is worth significant effort – Polygon Guideline Enforcers – your rules of engagement as I’ve called them before.
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I expressed hope for DiCanio when he was appointed at Sunderland, and repeated my admiration for his passion and honesty when he was sacked. He’s someone whose ethos I’ve always liked, since he was a player in his West Ham days.
Reason to post today is reading this piece from Frank Keogh. He’s dead right. DiCanio’s approach worked at Swindon and the reason it didn’t work at Sunderland is that highly paid premiership players don’t take kindly to their bubble being burst by being asked to turn up with personal passion for the club, so they troop into their paymaster’s office to object. In the premiership – with only a few exceptions - it’s just not about that any more. Better luck next time Paolo, that bubble needs bursting, if this football supporter is ever going to value the premiership over the championship.
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It’s probably been said, but getting beyond the grief and heroism angle, we do need the Kenyan authorities to come clean on what happened. Somewhat confusing statements so far on arrests and deaths and “missing” amongst the terrorists, in the centre, under collapsed parts of the centre and/or at the airport or elsewhere. Putting 2 and 2 together I’m guessing:
Most of the gang scarpered in the original confusion and escape – hence the early (but no doubt too late) shift of attention to the airports and borders on day 2. Most of the days 3, 4 and 5 mop-up has involved (very) few who remained with or without few (if any) hostages, and booby-trapping / time-wasting by the remaining few.
We need some facts.
[Post Note : I see journo's are asking the same questions.]
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Lisa Jardine was briefly on BBC R4 Today this morning on the need for science to have proper conversation with the pubic about its work. Not sure even top class journalists like Justin an/or Evan got what Lisa meant my a proper conversation, but her point is very important.
In these days of ubiquitous mass communications, it’s easy for science to bypass the media entirely, or more likely collude with media science-desks, in getting the attention grabbing “news” out there. The meme, the 15 minutes of fame, the public imagination, the headlines. Promoting the value of science itself as an enterprise is a valid motive, and there’s a lot of that about too, but in the rush to communicate the “value” of the particular science news, the social value, its value to the society of humanity in the cosmos at large – the 140 character sound bite forces a cut to the chase, a conflation of the science and its value, into whatever message grabs the headline (and justifies the next round of funding, of course).
It’s wonderful and indeed essential that science and scientists concern themselves with value to society, but totally wrong to assume that science and value are one and the same thing, that science itself describes value, that one can be reduced to the other, or that they are otherwise closely bound. Science – specific content of science as opposed to the politics of the enterprise of science – is about understanding the world and that requires conversation – even amongst scientists, let alone with the public.
When science is talking about science content – unmediated conversation adds value to all the mediated channels, the more varied and direct formats the better, it’s about education, education, education. Go for it.
When science (and science journalism) is talking about the value of science to humanity, this absolutely must be mediated, moderated, tempered, shared with a balance of humanities disciplines as well those of science, with wider human wisdom.
Science, like Lisa, is magisterial, but the two magisteria of science and the humanities need mutual respect for and understanding of the porous boundary or overlap between them. Being “popular” doesn’t give a scientist the right to cross the border unmediated, without creating enemies – that’s the dreaded scientism. Ironically, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, Lisa’s father Jacob Bronowski was one of the very few to earn their colours in both camps, and hence earn that respect necessary to speak for both.
So science, please don’t confuse popularity with respect in the domain of humanities, and more importantly, don’t forget your main purpose to communicate the science itself. More conversation, less headline-grabbing war please.
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Time for this debate to focus on the real issue.
It’s about social mores having authority over individual freedoms when it comes to sexual modesty.
- Yes some religions, and more to the point some sects of some religions (Islam for sure, but don’t forget sects of Judaism, Christian Amish and Orthodox and the like), apply more extreme traditions on what counts as immodest. Hijab, niqab, a whole range of head-scarves, hair-styles, unflattering dress and cosmetic codes, applied to (mainly) women at different stages of sexual and marital maturity.
- And yes, some religious social traditions are more dominated by male patriarchal authority. In some extreme cases, that domination amounts to total suppression of women, but here the focus on female modesty is from the male hetero-gender perspective, and there are social codes for male dress too. The sexes are different – get used to it.
- And yes, some less secular and counter-intuitively more religiously-tolerant secular societies (like the UK), privilege some religious over other social traditions. A price for tolerance.
- And yes, in most “western” societies we see the eyes and face generally as part of trust in society’s interactions – personal identity sure, but more subtle than that. Some societies the eyes are a big enough window on the soul, in some we prefer the whole facial body language. (BTW as a counter-example I’ll let you into a secret, my secret stash of hard-drive “porn” includes a fair number of sexy-eyes-through-the-veil images – purely in the interests of research you understand.) But don’t forget, males in crash-helmets or black balaclavas entering some institutional contexts make us nervous too.
I heard a very interesting interview with a selection of UK Moslem women, with reassuringly varied views on their own “preferences” for head-wear, and takes on how much this had to do (if anything) with respect for their religious social traditions – I think on BBC R4 Sunday ? What was intriguing was how quickly amongst the diversity of opinion, the debate converged on “the woman’s right to choose” vs “authority”. Sadly the journalist involved didn’t pick up on the main point.
Yes, in free societies, individual freedoms are very precious, but “paramount” is fashionably over-used rhetoric. All our individual freedoms are quite rightly limited by appropriate social mores. Social mores that may have quite murky traditional histories, religious traditions or otherwise and with dubious if complex Darwinian origins and mechanisms. Modesty of pubescent single females, and male rites of passage are common aspects of such moral traditions. Think school dress codes, think sloppy underwear-exposing dress fashions, think both genders.
Modesty is a good thing. If overly-modest dress gets in the way of interpersonal identity and trust, then both parties need the good manners to respect the other. I think this is one reason why even moderate but passionate Moslems get so frustrated at the individual freedom argument being added to the polarized anti-religion debates. The point about “good manners” is being missed and people with good manners may be too polite to point that out. Think FFS.
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Good to hear the latest climate change publication – heavily vetted and verified before publication.
My position remains totally unchanged – Anthropogenic Global Warming is common sense, so anything we can do to minimise our negative impact on the cosmos the better, so recycle, reuse, minimising resource waste, minimising energy degradation, etc is good – as it always was.
The good thing about the latest publication is the same; the fact that it’s reception may damp down the total waste of the scientistic vs political dogma wars. The wasteful war far outweighs the value of the science involved – real and valuable science, but let’s nevertheless maintain a sense of proportion.
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A post primarily to recommend a read I’ve not yet completed: Orientations, the autobiography of Sir Ronald Storrs, described by T E Lawrence as “The first of us …. always first, and the great man among us.” Conversely, Storrs a man with as good a handle on the flawed genius – “my little genius” – that was Lawrence as any could.
I’m reading it after Lawrence In Arabia by Scott Anderson, another highly recommended read for anyone with any interest in the 20th century history of the middle-east. Frankly, is there anyone in the 21st century not interested?
Storrs interacted – corresponded, met and worked – with everyone – the list of royalty, aristocracy, premiers, politicians, generals, diplomats, adventurers, artists and thinkers is a name-droppers who’s who of 20th century history, worth the read for that alone – but Storrs is no name dropper. Tremendous wit and insight. By way merely of example, a wonderful exposition of his equally wonderful relationship with the much-maligned Kitchener. In our context here you need to know he was in 1917 the first British Governor of Jerusalem (and the putative Palestine, after Balfour, but before the British Mandate) immediately after Allenby had ended 80 years of Turkish rule there. The holy city of the holy land shared with the three Abrahamic religions. Fancy the job? But Storrs had similar periods of responsibility, not to mention power, in London, Cairo, Baghdad and Cyprus too.
Fascinating career, of a fascinating person, in a fascinating period of history – in his own words.
Local petitions were no less ingenuous. I had been appointed not three days before I received from an Orthodox [Christian] Arab an appeal clearly intended to combine a recognition of British conventions with a delicate personal flattery. “I do beseech Your Excellency to grant my request, for the sake of J. Christ, Esq. : a gentleman whom Your Honour so closely resembles.”
So many good anecdotes in the historical narrative. Go read.
I recall where and when I first saw a copy of Orientations, and dipped into it.
I was working in Alexandria and the hotel, like many do, had a small library in the guest lounge. And, also like most such libraries, it was in general not very inspiring, a pretty random collection of donated travel guides and fictions, new and old, English, French and Arabic, but hey, this was Alexandria the home of libraries, where the new Alexandria library was nearing completion.
As a sometime amateur Lawrence scholar, I noticed the name Storrs on the spine of one blue-bound volume, though to be honest at that time I didn’t really appreciate the depth and significance of the connection. The aristocratic and clergy Cust / Storrs family heritage in the early chapters didn’t initially inspire or trigger much further connection to my interest, despite checking that the index did indeed include many Lawrence references later, one amongst the enormous list of names (see above).
I had noticed the book just a couple of days before the end of the assignment, and snatched only a couple of brief introductory reads, but with the promise of the later references, and being the kind of random hotel library it was, I thought – I may as well take it, might be interesting, they probably wouldn’t miss it. However, the staff had been so good to us, I felt just taking it wasn’t the thing to do. So I asked at reception if they’d mind if I took it, or if they wanted I could pay for it, add it to my bill as it were. “No sir, he replied. We have so few worthwhile books in our library so far, we really wouldn’t want to let it go.” Oh well, I thought no more about it.
Until I came across all the Storrs / Lawrence references in the Anderson book.
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Just a holding link to this piece by Julian Baggini, where both head and heart are needed to recognise the value of something arithmetically expensive. (Hat tip to David Morey on FB a week or two ago. Significant on balance because Julian is one I’ve criticised before, but increasingly I see I can agree with him.)
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I’ve adopted the term “scientism” for the subject – the problem topic – of my agenda here in maybe the last 5 years or so? Previously I’ve called it scientific fundamentalism, or maybe obsessive objective reductionism, Maxwell’s scientific neurosis, things of that ilk, since I started this blog 13 years ago. Before that I never really gave it a name – it was just a nagging doubt that there was a deep problem going unrecognised in the whole of human life, well beyond science. A problem I had difficulty even articulating, until the blog gave me a vehicle in which to practice. Scientism’s become the fashionable term for the problem, particularly since the more “shrill” new-atheist humanists – supported by celebrity scientists and comics – turned it into a front-page and social-media war. Amen to that.
Interestingly it was one of those “wow” moments of revelatory epiphany where I first used the term in 2008. (Good guess, 5 years ago.) I was actually using the term against myself, having previously been pursuing the problem of science within science, and recognising that as the error in itself.
This piece “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wieseltier in New Republic I first looked at when tweeted by Tiff Jenkins a couple of weeks ago, and tweeted a positive holding response. Decided to do a thorough read again today. Essentially I agree with every word in Wieseltier’s piece, and have only one reservation.
As Wieseltier says, Pinker’s (baseless, and breathtakingly arrogant) argument can be summed up as:
There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix.
[And, my later references to Pinker's piece, here and here.]
Wieseltier says a lot more – both assertions and reference arguments – so I’d recommend a thorough read and digest by anyone taking the debate seriously. As I say, I really have only one reservation – Wieseltier’s idea of casting humanities and science into distinct “domains” is too much like Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” much rejected by Dennett (with whom I mostly agree, like I mostly agree with Pinker and Harris). The boundaries of science and the humanities are indeed porous and open to cross-border investigations, as the definitions of the border evolve on both sides. Good fences make good neighbours, they say, so yes “working” definitions of boundaries are useful if not essential, but simply drawing them up as some kind of cease-fire line is not the solution, an agreement to disagree about the value of the other. Mutual human respect must be shared well into “enemy” territory both sides of the line. (A large part of Wieseltier’s argument is to point how little science seems to actually respect the wisdom, intelligence and intentions of those on the humanities side of the divide.)
Science was originally conceived as nature by those natural philosophers that pre-date science itself and the human pursuit of knowledge has gone hand in hand with the evolution of science . And indeed human nature is by definition part of nature, but that does not make the humanities in any way a subset of science as if science were by definition an explication for the whole of nature. Science simply has no privileged position when it comes to knowledge of humanity within the cosmos, not even the overview of all applied empirical knowledge. In my view rather than seeing science and the humanities as mutually exclusive domains, they must be seen as complex interlinked patterns in the whole of nature. That whole may never be a single unifying theory of everything, certainly not in any causally reductive sense. To be unifying any “theory” needs to encompass more than science.
Particularly interesting, taking the topic beyond any science vs humanities “defensive” debate, well beyond any science vs religion “offensive” war, is that amongst the enlightened, the problem of scientism is recognised within scientific academia itself. Some scientists may believe that the philosophy of science is dead, without value, and that science is self-describing toward potential completion, but philosophers of science see that what science is missing are “values”. Ditto in hard to classify realms like economics. We all do well to remember:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
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Interesting that the press cynics are taking the line, once they’ve got over the concept that Russia may be sincere, is that securing Syria’s chemical weapons might not be “feasible” anyway. Mad thinking. If it weren’t feasible to locate (most of) them with any (reasonable) certainty, then how would any kind of targeted strike have been any more feasible, without significant risk of accidentally releasing them in collateral damage. Keeping stockpiles, like civilians, near likely targets would have been Syria’s greatest deterrent.
Anyway, full marks to France, Russia, and now UK & US falling into line, in taking the “securing and removing / disposing of the chemical weapons” proposal to the UN. Gaffe? How dumb do the press think international diplomats are? The politicians may says things off agreed scripts, but the ideas will be in real discussions. It’s win, win, win, win, lose, win. As good as it gets.
Putin gets to be the hero.
France gets to repair relations with US.
US and UK get their objectives, both moral and self-interested, without needing to take credit (or responsibility for the consequences).
The plan gets proper UN airing, even if debate can never reach reach unanimous agreement, allied majority is seen to have done right thing before attempting tough action. Being hard to achieve doesn’t make it wrong.
Syria gets message, takes note and makes public statement (and actions) of its responsibilities to comply.
World gets action with minimal WW3 risk, but can escalate if cooperation stalls or mission fails.
UK and US (and France) were right to (a) threaten a forcible strike against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and (b) right to try to get government buy-in to exercise that right – both of which are quite separate from the actual order to act, if and when needed. Even talking softly, the diplomats need their governments to carry a big stick, one that will actually be used if attention to responsibilities waivers.
[Beyond Doubt][Bashing Heads Together]
PS – John Humphreys is past his sell-by date on BBC R4 Today. Just not up to “grown-up” politics and 21st century living.
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OK, so there is some element of faddish fashion in here, but more variety is a good thing. And we need to get the facts straight is it “high fibre, protein rich and gluten free” or is it “pure protein” compared to (say) rice or wheat? Guess it depends on the form – whole-grain, milled, ground, etc. Clarity would help. But, the issue to highlight is the international economics intervention angle, not actually mentioned. Juts a thought, given this example.
So market opportunity for producers (anywhere) and sellers to cash in on. Good? But, the market price for South American produced quinoa means the poorer locals can no longer afford what used to be their staple food. Bad? Even if increased production closer to consumer markets brings the cost down, the price will still be at the consumer market production-cost prices. So what to do? Ban exports from original producer countries? No.
It’s an opportunity to make the original economy wealthier, provided interventions (say subsidies, incentives and levies in pricing and importing) simply regulate the transition until the locals can work up the benefits of having a valuable crop on their hands, in their own purchasing ability, as well as their export production capability. Meantime, anywhere else that can and wants to grow it, does so at global market supply and demand conditions.
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Syria continues to be the main story. Glad to see Putin has stepped up to it too. And, confirming Russia is not averse to supporting physical action, with UN processes, provided the case is “beyond doubt”.
Not forgetting what may be lost in translation, “beyond doubt” is not realistic, it’s scientistic (*). There needs to be a judgement based on what evidence can be trusted. Beyond reasonable (*) doubt surely. Talking of which, the Assad regime needs to do more, to take the chemical weapons seriously. If they deny direct intentional responsibility for the attack, they do need to be seen to act responsibly in addressing what actually happened. Denial is no case to be trusted, quite the opposite.
Despite juvenile incompetence of Cameron / Milliband, it’s good that western allies do establish their political case for authority to act – quite independent of specific plans to act.
It will be major progress (not just for Syria) if Putin genuinely tries to invoke UN here, and US recognise the value. Fingers crossed. I’m sure playing the hero fits Putin’s psyche to a tee. Go for it. [Update 9 Sept - as predicted ... Russia taking the lead in getting the chemical weapons out of the equation - force and/or verification, UN needed, but initiative from Russia is as good as any.]
[(*) Scientistic because that's my agenda, not war and politics. As the tag-line says, it's about what we "know" and how we make and justify decisions to act, everywhere in life. Reasonable doubt and certainty are matters of human judgement (trust and faith) not science, not arithmetic of naive democracy. Jeez, heard another politician, a US representative, saying his opinion was based on the weight of opposition in his mailbag - forget the maths, use your moral judgement.]
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The wisest strategy? Engaging in military attack against Syria to make the point about chemical weapons against civilians being unacceptable behaviour? The risk is hitting the Assad regime hard and giving the advantage to even less desirable terrorist rebels, maybe even allowing the weapons of atrocity to fall into their hands, right?
Make the objective to bash both heads equally hard, disable both their offensive capabilities with minimal human collateral and … if not entirely successful in one wave and the prospect of boots on the ground returns? … make the mission a smash and grab (Entebbe style) to seize the offending weapons (even one batch thereof, to show we intend to if we can) and get out fast. Leaving the chastened parties behind to “sort yourselves out like civilised humans”. If you have to redraw borders to satisfy religio-tribal family differences, get on with it – we’re still watching you.
We don’t choose sides, aim for a regime change, we simply level and civilise the playing field. And we can (should be) blue-helmets, not another imperfect nationally allied self-interest. Maybe we even suggest the Russians and/or Chinese do the smash and grab, with perhaps greater local cooperation ?
Hopefully Obama is already on the phone to Putin.
[And what's the worst that could happen?]
Time to get creative, not cowardly.
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Posted quite a bit on this recently, when we hear debates on what is in “our” interests – a shared first person plural – in politics, whether UK in EU or Rest of the world in Syria, etc. All that really matters is who “we” are. I’ve called it the multiple overlapping constituencies problem, and a tendency to contrast any one of “us” that takes our fancy in a given context with “them”.
Last noticed it when the Syrian ambassador suggested redrawing of national boundaries would be needed to find long term solutions – unusual for the incumbent “nation” to raise that suggestion. Roger Scruton’s point here is that nations need to be more like families. And I agree. The additional point being that families also respect and trust each other as families of man (*). Having no national borders is a utopian myth, but the best practical borders are those that delineate families (ie tribes) that can – in Roger’s words – share a first person plural. Politically, economic, expedient, circumstantial borders that artificially confine or divide “families” will always exhibit problems. Families have problems of course, but they generally see them as “their” problems, not someone else’s.
And looking at what “binds” nations as families, is where “religion” (that which binds us) and trust-based-on-love come into it.
[Good on Mr Gove. The way I see it the eastern Mediterranean is "our" shores. They are we. We are experiencing an atrocity. In which we discover that Sarah Vine is Michael Gove's wife - seen retweeted many times:
given the choice of humiliating David Cameron
or taking a stand against atrocity,
they chose the former. Nice.
This is why (counter-intuitively) numerical voting is the wrong approach in a democracy - people think it's about us winning over them and forget about the topic - clearly advertised by Cameron (credit to him) as "judgement". They're meant to be representatives, not delegates. I heard one MP justifying his vote in terms of the count of emails he'd received on one side. Talk about passing the buck of moral responsibility.]
[(*) The "Family" model works, because you not only have familial love within, you also recognise and "identify with" another family with its internal relationships and problems. A different family, but another family none-the-less, just like us. They are no different to we.
And, taking the US approach, currently in seeing evidence of atrocity and risk of future atrocity to be acted against as being in "our" interest. Yes the justification / rationalisation panders to selfish interest, but the judgement is enlightened nevertheless. It could be (have been) us - identifying with them - an enlightened inclusive indirect self-interest. The indirection matters. Self interest beyond the immediate vote Mr Milliband.]
[And tangentially connected - here another relevant example of the folly of focusing on the arithmetic. Austerity? Let's announce a cut. OK, now what? And talking of Milliband's juvenile incompetence, when the numbers do matter - his party funding - he shoots himself in the foot with his previous knee-jerk to breaking the default connection between Labour and the Unions. Talk about missing the point of Labour, disregarding history.]
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