All posts by Psybertron

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.]

[Post Note: And the Cathy Newman / Jordan Peterson kefuffle came only a day later:

And, more from Afua Hirsch in mainstream media:

… causing a flutter, as did this recent cover of American Skeptic magazine:

Not sure what the message is, other than click-bait media selling ... fear of anti-intellectualism?]

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 whatever their gender. Sorry Carrie, Evan is right.]

[Post Note: The PWC report shows that the BBC Gender Pay Gap is indeed mythical better than most industrial sectors and any gender differences historical than bias. This version has the link to the full report.]

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.

I posted a holding post last month when Sean Parker – founding president of Facebook – publicised his concerns at the monster they had created and linked to a few other sources I’d gathered.

I see in the last couple of days Chamath Palihapitiya a former VP of Facebook added fuel to that same fire.

I’ve said it before, free expression is fine, but progress requires proper dialogue and that requires both attention and respect. Saddest aspect for me, is that many decent people who intuitively understand that, and are actively campaigning for human good, also fall foul of social media misuse. Below is an anonymised (false name) piece I sent privately to a friend in public science just two days before I posted the Sean Parker story:

Social Media Bollox:
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science.

Take my mate Joey.
He’s an engineer like myself, so his understanding of physical science (and human ingenuity, incidentally – that’s engineering) is surely well above your average Joe?

He also cares and is committed to the improvement of public understanding of science especially in how it affects society through politics and media. On that score he’s probably in the top 0.01% of the population. Despite being busy with actual domestic and professional responsibilities and travel, he nevertheless runs and participates in multiple groups in multiple physical locations as well as social-media sites often posting links to new articles and events late into the small hours. Hard to imagine greater care for and commitment to the issues.

Top man.
Yet, being busy across multiple commitments, when he does post something, we get the initial click-bait headline with maybe an initial observation or question, real or rhetorical, positive or negative.
Has he had time to read and digest the actual piece? We don’t know.
Was his initial observation or question considered in that light? We don’t know.
Has he noticed if any of his audience has responded, with their own observations and do we know if they actually read and considered the piece and his initial comment? Has he noticed that his real questions were answered, and/or additional links & references provided? Neither he nor we know.

Let’s be generous,
say in his busy schedule he spent an hour noticing and linking (say) four articles and events and posting their links with initial comments to (say) two different sites / threads. So, for any given 24 hours, what is sitting on the public web are (say) 8 instances of a click-bait headline each with a brief comment representing maybe a total of 8 minutes consideration. 99.5% of the web content, including the content he/we’ve contributed, is of this quality – bollox for short.

It is this bollox that 99.5% of passing browsers see 24/7, and give a few moments consideration to. It is this bollox that registers or conflicts with our existing mental models (memes) – more memes reinforcing or reinforcing their clash with other memes. Any subtle, creative, progressive content is crowded out by this domination.

It’s not that Joey doesn’t know or care enough.
It’s that posting web content without expressing initial careful considerations, or without constructive dialogue to some shareable points of new agreement or hold-point from which to continue, adds no value AND fuels prejudiced positions. Social media timelines and threads are ephemeral, if you haven’t time for the necessary dialogue when posting in real time it won’t happen, you won’t pick-up the thread, so don’t do it. The clue is in the name social. If you want correspondence-paced dialogue use mail / email or dedicated moderated sites.

No proper dialogue, no actual knowledge.
Social media spreads mostly total bollox when it comes to public science, unless in the context of real caring inter-human dialogue, no matter how good or well-intentioned the original poster.


Previous post:
The memetic free-for all – even when fun – is seriously damaging all our interests.

And: The feature that social media channels concentrate “not necessarily good” stuff in ways that should disturb us. James Bridle on “Something is Wrong on the Internet”. Clever meme in itself.


Post note:

The idea that memes have a life of their own beyond our “conscious” intelligence is clearly a “selfish meme” idea borrowed from Dawkins  via Dennett. It’s been central to my thinking on the evolution of human understanding since I started this mullarky with the interest driven by the web acceleration of the idea as communications are ever more electronic media enabled with fewer “real” dialogues. Basically,  the faster and more numerous our interactions without reflective conversation,  the more intensely degenerate the knowledge being propagated. It’s not a new concern, printing and telephone before email, forums and social media all caused similar “conservative” resistance to new media. No, what’s new is the pace and intensity of the effect. The web is making us dumber. We are ever more at the mercy of memes that reflect received wisdom, ideas that reinforce prejudices. It takes additional conscious effort to makes space for the reflective dialogue needed to assess new information on its actual merits. Knowing banter is no substitute for the real thing.

Gratifying here is the confirmation of the depth and extent of the real problem in play. Now we have not only the founding president and a VP of Facebook and the founder of the web itself voicing the same concern above, but I can now add Sanger, the primary editorial authority of Wikipedia, resigning over this issue of the unrecognised degeneracy of web-mediated knowledge.

Ironically in Sanger’s case is that one of his example cases is scientific establishment knee-jerk negative reaction to “intelligent design” science coming out of Discovery Institute and Templeton funded sources, prejudiced by reaction to the source, rather than by the content. Sure, these are people with theistic religious motivated agendas, but their science stands or falls as science on it’s own merits. It is central to my own agenda for “keeping science and (atheistic) humanism honest”.

Wake up peeps, and make space for honest dialogue, especially with those with whom you naturally disagree or agree on important issues. No need to take my word for it.

I have a string to my agenda I call “The Court Jester“. It’s not just about our “freedom” to mock, but also about how it is an essential part of progressive dialogue – dialogue towards human progress that is. Once we understand the limits to logically objective argumentation in human decision-making, proper dialogue is all we’ve got going for us and humour is an essential part of it. The court jester analogy reinforces the point that who mocks what and whom and in what context matters as much as the fact of the mockery and the freedom to do it.

Historically those who mocked were recognised as such and had the leeway to play the fool – the court-jester – and mock the powerful and in doing so express criticisms and prick concsiences publicly that might be politically incorrect or personally insulting if done directly by anyone else. The king is dead, long live the king, reinforces the distinction between human individuals and our social roles. For all its grotesque extreme forms, PC’ness really does have its place in separating valid criticism (including mockery) from personal insults to individuals. But this court-jester role-play aspect is just one of several reasons why the context and nature of humourous mockery matter.

In these days of instantaneous expression via social media and on-line commenting its all too easy for anyone to fall into the role of joker, even if they are not a socially recognised “court” jester such as Frankie Boyle (say, my archetype). In fact it’s almost expected, de-rigeur, and many threads are simply wags trading comic takes. All good fun.

Except, we do still need to be concerned at the public message left in the ether.

I do it myself, casually too, like this example this morning. Hopefully the irony is self-contained. The emphatic multiple God references in the original (US) tweet were already ironic. My additonal (UK) comment simply extended the ironic “thank God” meme, but in contrast to secular (UK) politics. The latter is self-contained in the 5 word sentence. I don’t think there is any other meme released into the environment beyond the original context?

And in this thread started by Tom, there is irony at several levels – in the originally science-fictional reference to the reported actual-scientific investigation story and in the XKCD cartoon version of my own response also added by Tom. But the final commenter at the point I snipped the clip below, adds two new levels worth discussing. Nothing personal, a very typical witty on-line comment, but worth unpicking.

Now, I have no doubt that Andrew was being ironically humourous in his remark, and at several levels intentionally. The “pray” is ironic contrasting religious hopes with the science content (if any, my original point) of the story. Lol. The second level is the hope (whether religious or simply human) that there is intelligence out there, given (unstated) that we don’t have enough of it here on earth. Chuckle, chuckle, ho, ho, ho.

But this leaves open ended the meme – however genuine or ironic – that alien or artificial intelligence is somehow going to be better for humanity than our own. And it leaves it open ended in a public thread outside any well-bounded court-jester context. Now that’s a scary thought, that anyone here and now might believe or hope that?

And why does this matter? – The very next post!


And lo and behold, tweeted later today from a couple of days ago New Scientist also questioning the context for jokey science. All good fun, except …. repeat as necessary (above) …. no-one wants to be a humourless kill-joy, humour is essential, but we have to care about – take responsibility for – the actual messages left out in the public domain.

And, how could I forget, even my previous post was prompted by a spoof scientific post and a comment thread that (a) failed to get the joke initially, and (b) therefore even now failed to recognise the actual point underlying the satire.


[Post Note 2018 –

Combining two UK political stories Toby Younmg and Carrie Gracie maybe ;-)]

[Post Note:

another un-funny science spoof.]