Forget Starbucks

Seems Ian Angell is a Costa Coffee man. A man after my own taste. Actually, I prefer Cafe Nero, but either way, anything but Starbucks.


I first mentioned Angell when I heard him on Thinking Allowed discussing his book “Science’s First Mistake” with Laurie Taylor. I mentioned in the footnote there, the suggestion, gained from other essay’s on his web site, that sometimes his language suggests he’s less agnostic and more theistic that he claims, which led a number of people with whom I shared the Thinking Allowed link to react against him. This is not an isolated problem. Take the recent Anthropic Principle thread that spun out of PZ Myers blog. It’s impossible to point out flaws in any scientific response to non-science without being branded as “anti-science” – somehow representing “the other side” or “playing into their hands”. And of course this flaw is the whole “neurosis” of science to use Maxwell’s term.

Anyway, I responded to Laurie Taylor and exchanged a few emails with Ian Angell since then. I discovered, as Laurie did in this interview in the current edition of the New Humanist, that Ian is a man on a mission, who’s positively enthusiastic about using language intended to inflame scientists (or theists, who cares). The interview concludes :

Angell’s book is a fascinating read, a clever, insightful, philosophically persuasive account of the limitations of science. But this wasn’t the first time in the interview when I felt he’d been so outraged by scientific arrogance that he was prepared to employ some dubious logic in order to pursue his case. I wondered if it was his fury about the manner in which science had robbed the world of enchantment that led him into another strange assertion, the declaration that the world was safe from science because it was, in his word, “magical”.

“It is magical. It is wonderful. Don’t you wake up in the morning and think this is incredible? You know, since I stopped being scientific, nothing is drab or predictable. It’s totally astounding that every day is different and you never know what will happen. Science is drab. It’s not a humanist way of looking at the world. To me humanists have to believe in magic. Because life is magic. It is magic that we can actually operate at all. The fact that we can categorise is magic. All thought is sympathetic magic. And it is wonderful. Every day is a bonus. If tomorrow’s going to be the same as today, then why bother?”

This new-found enthusiasm for life was almost alarmingly evident as he led me across Kingsway to his beloved Costa coffee house. He greeted the baristas behind the glassed cakes as though they were old friends. When I insisted on paying he cheekily demanded an extra stamp on his own loyalty card and noticed as he did that the card was now complete. “Free coffee tomorrow!”, he cheerily boomed as we carried our lattes to a table.

Fun and Games

In one of his robust, no punches pulled email exchanges, he concluded:

I’m just having fun!
God is a comedian, but His followers have no sense of humour. And neither do Scientists.

He’s right of course, the outrage is scientific arrogance. And this reference to fun, and his “dubious tactics” put me in mind of Zizek’s use of the Lacanian “jouissance“. I’m reading (almost finished) his “Living in End Times”. It also put me in mind of another subject – I often get backlash against “game theory” suggestions, as if the whole idea is somehow discredited. One of my two criticisms of Maxwell’s excellent “Is Science Neurotic” was that there was no acknowledgement of game-theory in his Aim-Oriented Rationality processes of scientific progress. (My other criticism was overlooking what US Pragmatist philosophers have to say on the subject.)

Now the Lacanian “jouissance” is more than just fun and enjoyment, it has all the Freudian, sexual, phallic, orgasmic symbology you’d expect from a French PoMo. You know, pleasure (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). As a Lacanian, Zizek uses the term this way, but he also uses it as the point of “play” in general, in politics, in architecture, making progress in life in general – the pleasure principle. Pleasure is what we want, but too much pleasure hurts. In the interview above, Angell makes a remark about people who revel in their own misery and quips the question of whether this puts them at 2 or 8 on a 1 to 10 scale of pleasure. The point of the pleasure principle is that we need to play interactive games with ourselves and each other, and games involve psychological tactics, even dubious logic, to establish our optimum levels of pleasure. It’s what we do. It really is. And to deny it is … denial … Maxwell’s scientific neurosis.


Another reason I identify with Ian is that we share a historical route to our current positions (see my manifesto). I’m an engineer primarily, which naturally has scientific / technological underpinnings. Long before I became focussed on management per se, I had my doubts about the role of ambiguity in engineering management, but ever since the master’s study and wider management and consulting experience since, I am ever more convinced that mechanistic management tools are only ever a simplification over the underlying human reality. Of course the more interactive, social, story-telling approach to business management is no longer a novel idea. The point is this management problem really extends to all forms of governance in economics, politics, even science itself.

When things change, they don’t necessarily get better, they get more complicated.

We can use simplifying tools, but we mustn’t confuse this with believing we have simplified the underlying fun and games. The world does not reduce to science and simple choices.

[Post Note : Actually reading the book now. Noted this “real sociology” blog article too, linked to the original Thinking Allowed piece, which confirms the opinion that Angell may be reinforcing well established views on the scientific delusions of objectivity and causality, but comes across as

… quite angry … irritating …


2 thoughts on “Forget Starbucks”

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