Category Archives: Rant

When something really gets up my nose.

Bastardry: On protest and on fascism

2014 03 16 13 26 55

Outside the State Parliament in Spring Street Melbourne.

I attended the March in March protest against the current government of Australia yesterday. My legs still hurt. I’m sure that demonstrations were not so arduous thirty years ago.

I noticed that this was a privative demonstration. It was not about something so much as against something, and the something it was against varied by protestor. Some did the standard anti-government protests of thirty years ago – I’m looking at you, Socialist Alliance – but the range of signs was rather disconcerting. Some were against adoption, some against laws restricting abortion. Some held that the problem was the man Tony Abbott, our very conservative prime minister. Others that all political parties were the problem. One even attacked democracy, making full use of their democratic rights, such as they still are. A lot of people compared Tony Abbott and his ministers to Nazis.

There were the usual suspects, of course, but there were also many people who looked out of place, chanting and raising their fists. Elderly people, suburban people and people with kids and dogs. While I would not go so far as to say this was a sign of general disenchantment in Australia society, it clearly indicated a level of disenchantment that is, in my view unsustainable in a democratic society.

These particular protests, held around Australia and ignored of course by the mass media, were a sign of something, but what? And what is the solution?

Had I been asked by the absent media why I was marching (well, hobbling, really. Next time I take a walking stick), my answer would have been this: For thirty years we have been carefully crafting a fascist state, only without the overt symbols of the 1920s. Not a Nazi state, but definitely a fascist state. It all began, in my view, when we made The Economy the single most important aspect of our social fabric, under the neoliberal agenda adopted by the notional progressive, Paul Keating.

This statistical abstraction became more important than our environmental well being, than the rights of individuals, than the democratic order itself, so that now we think, in a country which had a welfare system that worked well and a health system that was the envy of the world, that the well being of financial institutions and companies, and of mining interests, is so important we will take away support for those who cannot find work in an internationalised labor market. We will take away health care in favour of a mixture of health insurance for the rich and the long waiting lists for the poor.

In 2012, I tore a ligament in my leg that connects the quadriceps muscle to the patella. As a result, my quadriceps cramped up in a knot in my upper leg. I was unemployed and had no health insurance. It too six months to get a doctor to examine me, because the emergency doctor, without examining me, wrongly diagnosed an anterior curate ligament tear. No doctor would even look at my leg while I was in excruciating pain and walking around at home on my backside because I couldn’t navigate the steps there.

I was put on a waiting list for “elective surgery” despite my constant complaints and requests. I was dropped from that list because, it appears, one way to trim the waiting lists is to see if people complain. Eventuallly, in the operating theatre where I was scheduled for an arthroscopy, the surgeon took one look at my leg and saw that it was not an elective nuisance, but a serious and urgent survey, and he did it then. Bless him.

My point is that this only happened because of the deliberate bastardry of the neoliberal view of government, with its user-pays principle, and deliberate defunding of the system to below a sustainable level (and then you claim that the system as broken is unsustainable, and defund it some more). Likewise, welfare support, not just for the young, nor for the unemployed, but for single mothers, the elderly and the disabled, has been deliberately dropped below a liveable amount. You simply cannot live on what the government provides you when you are most vulnerable.

And if you have mental health issues, then the system is designed to drive you away, with five hour waiting queues in the Centrelink offices, repetitive annoying “public service announcements” you cannot turn off, and a general level of low level nastiness from many staff, who treat welfare recipients as probably criminals. The system is designed to make you wait five hours each time, send you away with bad information, like that you must log online, except that you cannot because you first have to see someone to do X, where X is something nobody had mentioned, online or off.

I know one young person who has literally no money for food. She will not get any payments until she goes to an appointment they have set two months after she first applied for benefits. She spent six months before that living on her own money as she did not want to be a burden on the state. When she asked how she could live, they gave her a list of churches that hand out food. When I asked the same question last year, when it looked like I would lose my home, I was told to contact mens’ halfway houses; when I did they were all full. I got to the point where I was physically looking at bridges to live under, as I would have had to sell my car (my only possession after forty years of work).

This is not a civil society, and it has been deliberately engineered. The old commonwealth of Australia has become a plutocracy of Australia, where a decreasing percentage of the nation is able to access the resources needed to live, let alone live well. And the only beneficiaries are the already-wealthy; those who run and own financial institutions and property. Follow the money, and you will see who Australia is now run on behalf of.

The issue of refugees is another one of the hot button topics at the rally. Once upon a time, Australia was a country where genuine refugees could make a new life; much of the country was constructed by them. In 1992, a supposedly progressive minister in Keating’s Labor government, Gerry Hand, instituted “mandatory detention” for refugees who had arrived in the country. In effect, not a quarantine (which would have made sense) nor a processing of credentials, but punishment for those who managed to make it here. When PM John Howard said in 2001 that “we” decided who came here, the racism was unleashed and uncontrolled. Nearly all “debate” in the media and political forums about refugees is a racist dog whistle and appeal to fear of the others. We have institutionalised racism. That a few score thousand people around the nation still care enough to protest that is a sign that we still have some common decency left in Australia.

Now, let me sum up what the protests were against:

  • The predominance of The Economy
  • The beneficiaries are corporations and the rich
  • A nationalistic racism
  • The valuing of the State over the citizenry
  • A failure of care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unfortunate

If that doesn’t look like fascism to you, then you do not know much history.

Back in the supposedly radical 70s I used to ignore or mock those who said we were heading into a fascist society, and at that time I do not think we were, but the radicals scared a lot of people, worldwide, and vested interests began to fund opposing movements. These ranged from the obvious (tobacco public relations) to the subtle (founding of “think tanks” that legitimised points of view). But notice that this kind of fascism is bi-partisan. Both sides adopt the same strategies. Much of the damage to the common weal was done by the Labor party. Once done, the conservatives built upon it, because the convention that government has a duty of care had been disrupted by the “progressives”.

And this is why most Australians are fed up with the present political alternatives. They know, either intuitively or explicitly, that a choice between two corporatist quasi fascist parties that merely serve different forms of corporate interests (unions, big business, financial institutions, the military*) is not a democratic choice. That is why that group wanted to “fuck democracy” – only they did not see that what they rejected wasn’t even close to democracy. It was careful management of the populace. It is fascism.

Political parties are clearly not the solution, but it is not clear what is. We cannot disrupt the political constitution of the country any further, because further disruption since the conventions that made it work were destroyed will only have even worse effects. We cannot therefore expect that violent revolution, even if it were something Australians would engage in, will resolve this. Nor can we “work from within” because the system that exists in practice now is self-sustaining, and merely ramps up the expectations to the pout that genuine reformers will not survive from long “within”.

And we cannot “opt-out”; in order to even have money these days, you must have a bank account, and that means you have “opted in” to the financial system, the oppressive degree of licenses and qualifications and identification that fifty years ago would have been seen as what we had fought against in the second world war.

So what? All I can think of, and I have a poor imagination for these things, is civil noncompliance, the kind that Saul Alinsky pioneered.

Go to the voting booths, but return blank votes. Do as little of what you are asked as possible; fill out the forms to the minimum, make the services offered to you do as much work as you can force them to. Show no enthusiasm for anything except what you value. Drown “the system” in apathy. But do not let it be taken advantage of. If they start relying upon apathy, become activists. Make the system, or rather those who the system now benefits, take the back foot. Insist upon all your rights, as a worker, as a citizen, as a parent or partner. Set things up so that the best solution for those in control is to give us what we should have in a decent society.

And then take away their power to give us rights. We should have rights because the entire society assigns them, not because the rich and powerful give in or make them available at their whim. If most Australians want equality of marriage laws, and they surely do, there is no justification for the political parties, the churches that represent less than a quarter of the population or the media that is run by people who dislike homosexuality, to withhold it from us. If they can to this sort of bastardry to one group of Australians, they can do it to everybody, and the evidence is they will.

As Aldous Huxley said

All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings. ["Pacifism and Philosophy" (1936)]

The word “war” is no longer necessary. Here is a longer quote from Huxley, in 1958, shortly before Eisenhower wanted against the “military industrial complex” we now see as reality about us in every western and developed nation:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
… In “Brave New World” non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it.” [p43]

and

This Power Elite directly employs several millions of the country´s working force in its factories, offices and stores, controls many millions more by lending them the money to buy its products, and, through its ownership of the media of mass communication, influences the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually everybody. To parody the words of W. Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by few. [p26]
[Brave New World Revisited]

The first novel I ever read was Brave New World, when I was eight. I did not expect that we would ignore these warnings and enthusiastically set up the dystopias described in this and similar books. I was wrong.

*Australia is building up its military at a time when we face no threats. Why?

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Filed under Australian stuff, History, Politics, Rant, Sermon, Truisms

Rant: Old people

The Australian government is looking at extending the pension age to 70, so that older Australians, especially those in the Baby Boom demographic, will be free of the public purse for another 5 years over the present age of 65. Except that it is not the case that older Australians will work another 5 years, as there are no jobs for older Australians. Partly this is due to the unemployment level being at a long time high right now. But even more so, in my view, is that it is due to the inherent ageism of Australian employers.

I have been unemployed for most of the past three years. I am 58. I have applied for nearly 400 jobs in that time, and had precisely no interviews. I have skills in computing, management, design, lecturing, training, office management, and analysis of systems and procedures. Not one interview. I cannot believe that in 400 job hires, I have been the least qualified or that there are applicants who have all my skills and more. I have concluded, after much thought, that employers are ageist.

Now this is hard to prove, just as any other kind of discrimination, and although it is especially illegal in government-related hires, such as university employment, I can think of no other reason why I do not even get interviewed with my experience and record. I’m not boasting, I’m just being realistic. I used to manage a department of 12 staff with a $2 million a year discretionary budget. I have lectured at four of Australia’s biggest and most highly ranked universities. Not one interview.

And I am hardly the only person complaining about this, in Australia or overseas. It is endemic across the western world. Older people will not get considered for jobs if there are younger people who can apply for them, and they will not compete on a level playing field. So we will end up on unemployment anyway. All the fine rhetoric about experience, corporate memory and the like is just that, rhetoric. It is not even honoured much verbally any more unless somebody pushes employer’s federations or government spokespeople.

Given that this is against the Australian, and I warrant most western countries, law, why are there not attempts to police employment practices? I am not suggesting that there should be positive discrimination quotas, but any large enough employer who does not employ a fraction of old people in their hires that is roughly in line with the candidate field generally, should be asked to explain by those who enforce the law, and universities and other institutions that have a demonstrated youth bias (where “youth” < 40 years of age) should be fined the equivalent of what wages those older people would draw, in order to fund our unemployment benefits. That might give a reason to employ people based not upon how good their skin looks, but upon what they can do.

In the meantime, if you can offer an old man some cash, go to my Tip Jar above…

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Filed under Academe, Australian stuff, Politics, Rant

Degrees of religion

Larry Moran quotes Jason Rosenhouse disputing Phil Plait:

So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.

It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.

It is true that what most theists (usually very far from fundamentalists) of the nineteenth century objected to with Darwin’s view of evolution, or rather the popular version of it presented by writers like the anti-clericalist Haeckel, was the implication that evolution was, as Jason puts it, “a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought”. Basically the theist account of intellectual Christians presumed that humans were part of God’s plan, and so the idea that there was no purpose to our existence was, to put it mildly, a stumbling block for the brightest religious of the day. But it was not insuperable.

Almost immediately, theists appealed to a distinction that had a long history in theology: that of a distinction between primary cause (God’s actions creating and supporting the world) and secondary causes (the laws of nature acting as if they were basically mechanical causes. Some, like Asa Gray, argued that God intervenes to make the requisite variations occur (for the causes of variation in heredity were as yet unknown) so that natural selection, a secondary cause, would result in humans, like a cook who regulates the heat in cooking to ensure the right outcome, or as he put it

“that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Quoted by Darwin in his Variation under Domestication (1868) Vol. 2: 432]

Others held that God had foreordained the ways the mechanism of selection would work by choosing the right initial conditions. In effect, God chose this world to make knowing, as he must, that humans would be the result. Much appeal to Matthew 10:29 – that not a sparrow falls with God knowing it – was made.

Darwin, of course, rejected this interpretation:

There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.— I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head. Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated. But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. [Letter to Lyell, 1 August 1861]

and he repeated this argument in the Variations chapter above. But the point to be made here is that some religious were able to accommodate Darwinian blind evolution by natural selection as a secondary cause. Darwin is right, I think, to reject Gray’s irrigator model of a divine intervention from time to time to keep things on track. It is ad hoc and certainly not good theology. But Gray was no theologian. Both are scientists trying to do science (one in the context of prior belief; the other dismissing this as beyond a modified monkey’s brain).

So let us return to Rosenhouse’s claim: that evolution, of itself, challenges religion. Secondary causes were discussed as long ago as Aquinas in the 12th century, and he did not invent the idea (Wikipedia has Augustine, in the 4th century, as the originator of this). His mentor Albertus Magnus, no mean naturalist himself, wrote:

In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass. [De vegetabilibus et plants l.2 tr.2 c.1. Some more on Albert as a scientist here: PDF]

This is very like what Darwin said in the Variation: science addresses how things occur by natural law, not by God’s direct intervention. And note that this rather modern view is seven centuries before the Origin. So it is at best rather anachronistic to assert that “religion” could not adopt evolution, when the intellectual resources were not only there in theology, but were in fact the “default” opinion even since the “One Truth doctrine” had been asserted against the Occasionalists and Averroes in the middle ages. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous for Jason and Larry to assert that religion necessarily contradicts Darwinian evolution. The use of this notion has even become the standard Catholic approach to the issue.

It is true that much of the debate about Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century was focused on God’s agency and purpose. However, usually the folk doing the debating were public intellectuals rather than theologians. Often they defended a theological perspective that was at best questionable even within their own tradition (as Dewey said, we do not solve philosophical problems, we get over them. This is uneven and cyclical even within a doctrinal community). And it is true that natural selection undercut the purposiveness of living things that was assumed by natural theology and similar traditions. But natural theology was dying out as Darwin wrote (and not because of him precisely) and even the “God of the gaps” theme now so beloved of exclusionists was invented by a religious writer dealing with Darwin. Henry Drummond wrote in his Ascent of Man (1894):

There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps – gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

If by the accumulation of irresistible evidence we are driven – may not one say permitted – to accept Evolution as God’s method in creation, it is a mistaken policy to glory in what it cannot account for. The reason why men grudge to Evolution each of its fresh claims to show how things have been made is the groundless fear that if we discover how they are made we minimize their divinity. When things are known, that is to say, we conceive them as natural, on Man’s level; when they are unknown, we call them divine – as if our ignorance of a thing were the stamp of its divinity. If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the disorders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. If God appears periodically, he disappears periodically. If he comes upon the scene at special crises he is absent from the scene in the intervals. Whether is all-God or occasional-God the nobler theory? Positively, the idea of an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology. Negatively, the older view is not only the less worthy, it is discredited by science. [333-4]

Drummond argues that science’s job is not to final moral purpose in the world; this cannot be done. But its job is to find how things have evolved.

So when we read this comment by Jason, I am left wondering what the reference class of the term “religion” is for him and Larry, and others. I am sure that they would not wish to adopt the parlour trick of Richard Dawkins and say “we are not talking about the god of the philosophers, but the god of ordinary religion” and then slip in conclusions applying to all religion based on arguments against that type only. That would be disingenuous indeed. Certainly that was not how Darwin or Huxley approached the matter.

“Religion” is one of the more slippery terms in modern discourse.The dictionary will not help, as dictionaries are maps to common usage, not a technical definition (unless they also give one or more such technical definitions). And being slippery, one can elide from a more inclusive definition to a specific, and back again, in one’s arguments. This is known as the fallacy of ambiguity. As religious anthropologist James Dowe noted

“Religion” is, in fact, a folk category in Western culture. Comparative analysis can flounder on efforts to use folk categories in scientific analysis. [A scientific definition of religion, p5]

and

Religion is a collection of behavior that is only unified in our Western conception of it. [p7]

To aver that religion is necessarily opposed to evolutionary theory, when there are so many instances of it not being, is a category error. Jason and Larry might reject the idea that this view is “religion” as they understand it. That would be to put the folk definition in a privileged position, when even the scientists who study the phenomenon do not. But allow that these philosophically minded views are part of religion, at least historically, and you find the claim untenable.

What we need to do is to specify the degree of religion that finds evolution impossible to reconcile with belief, for there surely is some, and a lot of it. I think of a particular religion as a series of concentric circles. At the most broad, one’s religion is label and a set of rituals (including statements of belief) that includes anything that falls under that rubric. “Christian” includes folk beliefs in demons and spirits as well as theologically refined views like Drummond’s or Aquinas’. But folk religion is rarely what the more educated people think, and so the superstitions of religion fall away as you move inwards. The average educated believer knows that somehow religion and evolution are not at odds, but they probably do not know how, and take it on faith the two are consistent. More refined thinkers find ways to reconcile the secondary causation of science and the primary causation of God. A few theologians, not all by any means, give the arguments; the extent of their approach is restricted, but logically coherent.

Now any religious community consists of many theological and philosophical traditions, and they are often at odds. A strand of the Christian community appeals to Aristotelian notions of causation and teleology against what they see as the soulless and mindless actions of natural law in modern scientific theories, to be sure. These thinkers strive to show that Darwinian selection is incomplete, or simply wrongheaded, and apply all kinds of arguments like irreducible complexity or design. But they are not the entirety of the tradition, nor are they, at least outside the United States and Turkey, the majority of religious thinkers. They use the resources of secondary causation to deal with things, and their problem is not whether or not natural selection works, but how it reconciles with providentialist theology (I wrote a paper on this very topic, by the way, giving at least one way this might be done, using Leibnizian multiple worlds). How they do it is not my concern, but the fact that they do do it is itself a counter instance to the claim Jason and Larry make.

Few theologians of any note are literalists, no matter what the tent preacher might assert. Nor is religion necessarily superstitious (unless one holds the a priori view that belief in any deity is superstition, a position I am not inclined to defend). At the least, there are varieties of religious belief that are not anti-scientific. Accommodationism is not yet dismissed. Evolution is inconsistent with some religious views, no doubt about that. But it is not inconsistent with “religion”. To say otherwise is to equivocate. Plait is right, and Jason and Larry are not.

I think this is due, in large part, to the media presence of the fundamentalists in north America, something that is not the same throughout the world. I have never understood why Dawkins adopted the “folk religion is religion simpliciter” approach in The God Delusion. He’s British, for Darwin’s sake! In Britain and other countries like Australia that noisy minority is, in fact a small minority, and forms of religion are not so straightforward as he made out. Larry and Jason I can understand. The “metaphysical purpose with a cup of tea” approach of British and Continental religions is rare there. I used to find comforting the older British style Baptists, and like Larry and Jason I decry the obsessive and combative attempts of the Southern Baptist style of fundamentalism to control public debate. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the majority of theists are not literalists, and they can rather easily find the resources to accept evolution, real evolution including unguided natural selection. It takes a while for traditions to change and catch up, that is all.

Mind, ask me about the problem of evil, and you’ll get a different answer. But we aren’t discussing that here.

Late note: I am mostly arguing against Larry, here, but Jason has cited a number of religious sources where authorities have attacked evolution, and historians have interpreted this. I am particularly fond of Artigas, who he cites, on Catholic trends. My argument, however, is that religions are not of necessity opposed to evolution. His argument is that the reason why evolution is problematic for religion is the loss of moral purpose in nature. We are both correct, and it is not Dawkins’ or PZ Misty’s fault that this happens. We are at one.

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Filed under Accommodationism, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Evolution, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Rant, Religion, Science

Education, Journalism and Science

My last rant was perhaps somewhat intemperate. Carl Zimmer, who along with Ed Yong I really respect as a science journalist, tweeted it with the line:

@carlzimmer: Man, @john_s_wilkins does not like newspapers. 

This is not quite true. I like some newspapers. I do not like the newspaper industry. I worked in various media positions for thirty years. In that time I have seen the best and the worst of journalism (and Carl and Ed are the best). The point of the Twain quote in the last post was that only one in fifty “newspapers of the average pattern” was a virtue. The standard justification for a free press is that they are mostly okay. They mostly aren’t.

But this does not detract from the very good work done on occasion or by good magazines like National Geographic. It is possible to report science without dumbing down or misrepresenting. Carl once interviewed me about a subject I spent ten years working on, species concepts, and his piece in Scientific American (a patchy magazine sometimes) covered the territory well and without distortion.

So what was I getting at? Very simply this: if you want an informed population, put not your faith in the mass media, but in education. No amount of good or ordinary science journalism will improve the public understanding of science. This is hardly a novel view, and it is largely the consensus view in science communication studies.

But let us first ask what legitimate functions science journalism does play, and how it can be done well. First of all, what is meant by the phrase “science journalism”? This covers, in my view, everything from garish front page stories about the latest “breakthrough” in cancer research and “genes for” this or that, through to well written books like Brian Switek’s Written in Stone, or Richard Conniff’s The Species Seekers, to name two recent excellent books. Carl himself has one or two excellent books, including his recent Evolution or A Planet of Viruses (still waiting for the review copy ;-) ). What differentiates bad from good science journalism?

In my mind, the difference lies between “gee whiz” and “this is why”. Science is not a list of discoveries or results; it is a process of discovery and getting results. There is reasoning and work involved, and if you don’t understand the principles behind the reports, you don’t really understand the reports. Any book that just says “scientists have discovered that…” is bad journalism. It tells you something, of course, but doesn’t give you understanding. Good journalism (in science or any other field) tells you why things are what they are and how they came to be that way. It involves narratives, of course, and I never said that narratives, where they are called for, are bad. But good journalists tell narratives where they are required, and not merely for the sake of having a narrative.

For example, there is a narrative, beginning with Arrhenius in the late 19th century, about how we got to understand global warming. But if the goal is to provide understanding of global warming, all that history and personal development is simply drama for its own sake. If you want to understand climate and the reasons why we think the earth is warming, instead focus on the models of energy sinks and sources, ocean transport, the hydrological cycle, etc. The story merely gets in the way. A good journalist will tell only so much of the story as is needed to explain these facts and inferences. A bad journalist will ignore the facts and inferences for the story and personalities, simplifying down to stupidity the actual science, or even just dropping it altogether. As Einstein once wrote:

Anyone who has ever tried to present a rather abstract scientific subject in a popular manner knows the great difficulties of such an attempt. Either he succeeds in being intelligible by concealing the core of the problem and by offering the reader only superficial aspects or vague allusions, thus deceiving the reader by arousing in him the deceptive illusion of comprehension; or else he gives an expert account of the problem, but in such a fashion that the untrained reader is unable to follow the exposition and becomes discouraged from reading any further. If these two categories are omitted from today’s popular scientific literature, surprising little remains. [Quoted in Fahnestock  1986: 276, from 1948]

So what must a good science journalist do? If they are not to write an academic tome, they must select and report what they think is relevant and important, but whatever else they do, they absolutely must report facts. There is no need to make them dramatic if they aren’t. The reader can be asked to do a bit of work. As Terry Pratchett once said, education is Lying to Children, simplifying and paring away complexity, and then adding it back later as the students advance. A science journalist must Lie to the Reader to an extent, but not by adducing opinions from the ignorant in order to maintain interest, nor by lazily using tropes like “gene for”, but by fairly and clearly reporting on the, you know, science.

The industry doesn’t support that. Few are able to make a living like Carl or Ed, researching, talking to the scientists carefully and extensively and not merely a ten minute chat to get some pull quotes to fit a story they already have written in their head, nor just topping and tailing press releases (often written by ex-journalists now posing as university public relations experts) and putting a byline on them.

How does education get around this set of limitations? In an ideal world, by building on increasing understanding of the processes – the methods and reasoning styles – of the actual science. Instead I see evidence that too many pre-university curricula are based around passing exams, which is to say, focussing on the results. However, we know how to educate, even if we don’t do it properly a lot of the time. Educators do not need my advice, but they do need me and everyone else who gives the policy makers their marching orders to support extra funds and resources to do it.

And there’s the problem right there. We have been so acculturated into expecting the media to educate us in an entertaining fashion that we have increasingly defunded and removed opportunities for good science education, and moved to “infotainment” and high technology in schools. We do not know how ignorant we are, and so we do not ask the policy makers to support education properly. Instead we think that by adding another computer based technique we can solve the problem amusingly, with drama, to pique interest.

Another rant I shall make one day is on the industrial nature of education today (shades of Illich!), but the point now is that we are misled by media to think media is the solution, when it is the problem. How to do this better? Stop thinking that communication is the solution to the misunderstanding of science. Start teaching better.

Next, I shall issue a solution to world peace…

Reference

Fahnestock, Jeanne. 1986. Accommodating Science: The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written Communication 3 (3):275-296.

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Filed under Education, Epistemology, Journalism, Rant

Drama, journalism and science

Recently the Jonah Lehrer scandal was raised again when he was paid $20,000 to speak on his journalistic dishonesty by the Knight Foundation. I cynically noted on Twitter that being honest and as accurate as I could be netted me exactly nothing in the way of honoraria (I think I got a bottle of scotch once, for which I was very grateful). The best discussion of the Lehrer affair is this one by Christopher Chabris, professor of psychology at Union College, in which he notes

When the allegations of plagiarism and fabrication came out, the story became one of “greatest science writer of his generation makes unthinkable mistakes,” and the analysis was mostly psychoanalysis of Lehrer’s motives or of the media culture. Entirely lost was the fact that Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs.

The Sun Life on Mars

Entirely lost in such criticisms, though, is that this is not only a failure of the entire field of science reporting, whether on blogs or in published outlets (or both), but of the very field and profession of journalism itself. What you read in the successful mass media is not factual, nor complete, but a story, a narrative. And narratives have to have conflict. They need to have drama, or they will not be published, and if they are, they will not be read.

This is why the “view from nowhere” so criticised by Jay Rosen developed. If you simply report the facts, people’s attention will wander and you will not sell advertising. So if there is no drama, create some. Find an “opposing” view to report, even if it means giving equal weight to the ignorant, the foolish or the simply insane, and if you can’t find a credible enough counteridiot, interview another journalist. Every time a journalist interviews a journalist, you are being offered theatre, not reportage.

There are a few, a precious few, science journalists who rise above this dramatic license, but even they are constrained by the medium. And let us understand the nature of the medium. Mass media are not, contrary to myth, designed to pass on information. They are designed to modify attitudes. This is because they must sell advertising, or, if they are publicly funded, they must compete for audience share with the media that are not so funded, and you don’t get audience share by deliver facts. You get it by engaging the audience. Humans are narrative driven, so facts take at best second place to a story.

Daily Express: Aspirin

The media have at most about a dozen narrative frames. In the field of science, these include The Breakthrough, The Imminent Danger, The Founder, and The Fraudster. Each of these is dramatic, and engaging, and lead to fear or the release of fear (which has usually been constructed in the first instance by previous frames). But anyone who actually works in the field of science, or more generally in an academic or professional field, knows that most of what is reported, even if it is accurate, is the ephemera or epiphenomena of science. The work that scientists actually do is much less dramatic, but by the same token it is far more important than the drama. To understand it takes effort, and to understand the importance of it takes analysis and care, and avoids the view from nowhere. And it is almost never reported. It is not dramatic enough.

Onion Science is hard

For this reason, when you actually study a field, there is little to no narrative. Of course the sciences themselves are not free of narrativity; every textbook tells a story (usually wrong or misleading) that purports to tell students how we got to the point the textbook relates. Historians then spend a lot of time trying to uncover the actual sequence and developments. Popular histories, though, are just another form of journalism, even if they are written by a Bill Bryson or a Dava Sobel, and they often mislead as to facts. This is unsurprising; they are there to tell you stories.

The field of science communication attempts to remedy these lacks by emphasising the need for accuracy and objectivity, but if the very domain in which science communication takes place is corrupt, and I regard it and all journalism as corrupt from its inception, this is papering over the cracks. Science communication is not the solution to the problem of the public misunderstanding of science. Education is. Scientists are not, and should not be, journalists, nor even historians (unless they turn to history of science as a profession, in which case they can often, with some training, be very good at it). They should do science, and the task of communicating their results to the lay public should be handed to those who can really get an understanding out of those willing to make the effort: teachers. Training scientists to be science communicators, as some insist we should do, merely makes them less active scientists, and they will remain unable to communicate science unless they, too, fall into the drama trap and modify attitudes. Facts are not dramatic. All the actual drama is in how people respond to facts, and that is no longer science, nor even science policy, but simple politics.

This has a number of implications. The most obvious is that we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public. The reason why textbooks and monographs are dry is that they do attempt to cover facts, and the different (actual) ideas and approaches, in order to initiate a critical analysis in the reader. You don’t do this with a breathless Dan Brown style of writing. So if we want a better informed populace, and it is vital that we have one, there is only one way to do it: teach the science to students in a non-partisan fashion, and stop making up drama, which is to say, conflict, where there is none. Evolution is not controversial in science, nor global warming, tobacco causing cancer, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers causing massive ecological damage. These are facts in any sense of the word, philosophical debates about factitude notwithstanding. All else is obfuscation for political drama.

Governments should therefore take all educational decisions out of the hands of politicians and pundits. That there should be a public debate is not at issue: this can go on and should do in the public sphere. But unless and until the scientific community is convinced that the objections raised in public are correct, scientifically rather than politically, no amount of noise in the media should have the slightest effect on what is taught.

Mark Twain, to whom all good bons mot not otherwise ascribed to Churchill or Wilde are ascribed, once said (it is claimed):

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.
- “License of the Press,” speech, 31 March 1873

I have said before that I think the greatest disaster for modern society was the invention of public relations and marketing. I include the invention of that particular PR called journalism. As Twain also rightly noted:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

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Filed under Education, General Science, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture, Rant, Truisms

More on reductionism

I am presently teaching in a history subject dealing with ideas of nature, and I notice that the historians we are using often refer to a distinction between reductionism and holism. The former is the Bad Old Science (“we murder to dissect”) and the latter is the New Improved Science. This is something often stated as if the issue were obviously resolvable. And it is, in my view, a complete myth.

In biological science, people often suggest that reductionism is more than a mistake: it is in fact a morally dangerous position. Genetic reductionism is supposed to be the explanation of everything including behaviour in terms of genes. Many people have attacked it, including critics of sociobiology. And it must be said that genes function as a magic molecule in many people’s minds. But the problem is not that we give reductionist accounts of traits, but that we do so in terms of single genes. The error here is single cause explanations, not that we look for the properties of causal parts.

To reduce a domain to another, in this case behaviour to biology, is a virtue in science. Nearly all progress in biology has been made by identifying what causes observed properties of organisms and ecologies in terms of the parts of the systems being investigated. Cell theory in the 19th century, genetics in the 20th, and biochemistry throughout have shown us why organisms develop, react and adapt the way they do. The problem is not that we look for explanations in the parts of organisms, but that we do it hamfistedly.

Reductionism is supposed to look only at the parts, according to proponents of “holism”, when according to them we should look at the entire system and how it interacts. But I am hard pressed to find any reductionist who ever denied this. Instead we get methodological decisions to break systems into parts for the purposes of tractability. You simply cannot identify all the variables in a complex system, so scientists in general will attempt to model systems in ways that deal with a few aspects of the system, in order to see how much can be explained that way.

Reductionists believe several things: one of the more important is that the behaviour of a whole is explicable in terms of the properties of the parts that comprise it. Without this we would not have physics, chemistry, cell biology, or any other general science. But focusing on the properties of the parts has never made sense unless we consider how the parts interact. If you know that a cell produces a protein, to understand how it functions in the organism and its environment, you need to consider how that protein is distributed, and how other cells take it up and process it.

Likewise, in general, a reductionist account has to consider the interactions of the parts with each other. The properties of a single electron, for example, can be stated on their own, but how electrons interact with other subatomic particles depends on the properties of those particles, and so a “holistic” approach is implicit in the modelling of the electron itself.

So I get very tired of the general charge that reductionism is unable to understand the system-level properties of the parts. This is simply a rhetorical trick.

I gave my view of “pizza reductionism” before.

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Thoughts on gun control

There had been the Weapons Law, for a start. Weapons were involved in so many crimes that, Swing reasoned, reducing the number of weapons *had* to reduce the crime rate.

Vimes wondered if he’d sat up in bed in the middle of the night and hugged himself when he’d dreamed *that* one up. Confiscate all weapons, and crime would go down. it made sense. it would have worked, too, if only there had been enough coppers–say, three per citizen. Amazingly, quite a few weapons were handed in. The flaw, though, was one that had somehow managed to escape Swing, and it was this: criminals don’t obey the law. It’s more or less a requirement for the job. They had no particular interest in making the streets safer for anyone except themselves. And they couldn’t believe what was happening. It was like Hogswatch every day. [Night Watch by Terry Pratchett]

The Law of Unintended Consequences, aka Sod’s Law, rules supreme. An argument often made about controlling the availability of weapons is that if the law regulates weapons, only criminals will have weapons. Loathe as I am to disagree with one of my favourite literary characters, there are other reasons to regulate weapons. The disaster in Connecticut today illustrates one of them.

Generally, I believe, criminals do not shoot civilians (except in extreme situations like gang wars). The people who kill children and innocent adults tend not to be career criminals, but disturbed and occasionally just evil people who have access to weapons. Reducing and regulating weapons in a civilised society alleviates that. If Adam Lanza had not had easy access to guns, which are, let us recall, designed for the single purpose of seriously injuring and killing people, his mental issues need not have resulted in the deaths of 20 children and 7 adults.

And in any case the availability of guns to noncriminals does not result in them being safer. If anything, the deaths caused by civilian gun use exceed the cases in which people are able to “take down” criminals. I gather in one case that more people were shot by bystanders than by a gunman (but I cannot recall the case, so cavil at that if you like).

I live in a country that regulates weapons. No, it hasn’t made much dent on criminals having guns, largely because there was such a high number of weapons in the community when the laws were introduced that it can be expected to take time to have effect, but recent reports of criminals trying to import weapons or steal them from the military indicate that it is getting harder. But we have reduced the number of mad-gun attacks, and I feel things are better for the laws. Mind you, I would be happier if the police, who are responsible for an uncomfortable number of shootings, did not have them, or Tasers either. If you have a tool, you reach for it in every case. 

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