There is a religion which oppresses women, which is enthusiastically adopted by marginalised groups, which hates democracy and which has declared the modern world to be a heresy they call “Americanism”. This religion, which is run entirely by men, demands of its adherents loyalty to a small group of clerics overseas, in a pseudostate set up by extremists. Its doctrine, to be sure, is hardly consistently adopted by many of its followers who have adapted to democratic civil society, but taken at face value that doctrine requires a theocracy imposed upon all who live under its rule. It has underlain many wars and atrocities, and collaborates with dictatorial states so long as they support its interests, although it has been known to turn on them too, when the chance arises.

Adherents of this religion are often accused of being terrorists and disloyal to their home nation. They are said to follow a legal system that they put above the laws of the land, and to undertake religious wars in the name of justice. Secularists have often attacked this religion in the name of modern society, and egalitarianism, which this religion opposes. It has generally rejected attempts at cross religious dialogue or tolerance for nonbelievers. It opposes secular education, and has set up schools run by clerics and religious authorities to ensure that its next generation is unaware of alternative views. It has media figures that attack everything they hate and wish to impose their views upon those who are not part of its society.

Clerics in this religion attack socially progressive viewpoints and proponents as going against the will of God, and insist that the only way to live is theirs, and so they justify horrible atrocities like killing Jews, stealing children, and prohibiting medical treatment of various kinds because it offends them as a way to “make the world just”.

What is this religion? It is Catholicism.

Any student of recent history (for a historian, the last 200 years are recent) knows these things about Catholicism. As recently as my childhood (granted, that is a long time ago in dog years) people were declaiming that the Catholics would outbreed us all (us being Protestants, and in my suburb, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and throwing stones at their children.

Ask yourself, gentle reader: do you fear the coming Catholic takeover of your democratic society? Sure, the various popes and archbishops (and one cardinal in particular) say fundamentally indecent things about how the rights and welfare of women and children are to be subordinated to the interests and dogmas of the Church, and if they had half a chance they’d block abortion even in life or death situations for mothers, but secular societies have forced the rank and file to accept that they are not in charge, and that they must live by the laws and mores of a modern society. Most Catholics in western societies even think contraception is acceptable, and more than half agree divorce and abortion are okay as well.

So why don’t we scream in the streets that Catholics are a threat to our values, way of life, and safety? Because they have changed how they live, and in the process, changed their religion as well. In the short space of a century (and believe me, in the lifetime of a religion, that is very short indeed) we have gone from the Catholic Church arrogating to itself the role of theocratic arbiter of what is right in every country to it being one among a plurality of religions, viewpoints and ways of life. More remains to be done, but it happens.

The same thing will happen with Islam. Indeed, Muslims have been enthusiastic adopters of secularism in many countries (pre-revolution Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Indonesia) already. Most of the extremists are from the countryside, and rural peasants always are more conservative than urbanites, no matter what the nation, ethnicity or religion. But there’s another concern here: the sacrificial lamb, to use a religious metaphor.

Jews know this. They were used to justify every grab for power and money from Richard II to Hitler, and to denigrate every nation from Spain to America. They were a nice distraction from the real issues facing a political elite. Problems with the economy? The Jews. Problems with employment? The Jews. Terrorist acts by (in recent years) Muslims? The Jews set it up.

Muslims have a large number of extremists, to be sure, among their ranks. I suspect, however, this has more to do with dislocation, dispossession and marginalisation than it does with the admittedly awful doctrines of Islam, just as it did with Catholics before them. Dislocate, dispossess and marginalise any group at all, and they will become extremists. Workers in Europe before the Third Reich were the same (and unions were a convenient whipping boy for the Nazis also, as they are in rapaciously capitalist America). Kick a group long enough and it will try to kick back.

I have personally known many urbane, sophisticated, secular and science-based Muslims, working at a medical research institute for a decade. They came from the Arabian peninsula, from Pakistan, Turkey and other nations. All that mattered for them to be medical researchers was that they adopted the science. Likewise, all that matters for a Muslim to be a good citizen of a secular democratic nation is that they adopt our laws, civic values and practices. And they are. But marginalise them, exclude them from public discourse, and take away their citizenship, and you get what you should expect.

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]


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?

There are many kinds of undue and harmful discrimination in modern society, all of which collectively tend to privilege a few. Women are treated with less respect and given fewer opportunities than men; heterosexuality is privileged over “deviant” forms of sexual identity and the alphabet community (currently LGBT and variants) has fewer rights than the heteronormative community; racial discrimination is rife in places like Australia, America, India, Malaysia, China, and so on; ethnic nationalism is on the rise worldwide; and mental illnesses are consistently caricatured in the general community; religious and freethinkers are considered less than human; and the poor are treated as moral failures and a burden on society. I sometimes think that if you removed all the discriminated classes of people from society, you’d be left with a dozen or so individuals. Worldwide.

Generic culture is framed by the media and political classes in such a way that these which form a majority in society are pictured as exceptions instead, and so most people find a way to ignore their own deviance and pretend or aspire to being “normal”. Much ink has been used on the topic, so I won’t belabour the point. But I would like to note a kind of discrimination that is rarely if ever discussed even by those who advocate for equal rights in the other cases. It is ageism, and I want to also point out a form of it that is not usually talked about even when ageism is.

Ageism is general thought to be discrimination against those who are old. I have certainly suffered from this: despite my academic achievements, I do not even get invited to interview for jobs, because I got my doctorate at 48, rather than 28, since I studied while working full time and raising a family. Hence it took me 24 years from my entering tertiary education (at 24; I was kicked out of high school, long story) to getting my PhD. I was lucky enough to get a postdoctoral fellowship with the estimable Paul Griffiths, who saw past my age, but since then I have not been so lucky. And I am one of the luckier ones. The number of people who are unemployed in their 50s, who are unable to get regular or even any work is rising. In Australia alone, there are over 140,000 unemployed older people who do not qualify for the aged pension, and even if they get it, cannot live on just that income.

But that is not what I want to discuss now. Despite it being my condition, it is one of two kinds of ageism. The other is ageism against young people. Recently the British minister for employment, Esther McVay, said that young people do not want to work and are unwilling to turn up on time. In short, it is their fault.

In an interview with the Mail, she admitted that young Britons are less prepared for the world of work than foreign migrants and need to learn the basics, such as turning up on time.

But she insisted that those who want to work hard can succeed if they are prepared to learn the ropes and ‘be realistic’ about their abilities.

The most recent figures revealed that 941,000 people aged between 16 and 24 are out of work, while 282,000 under-25s have been jobless for a year or more, the highest level since 1993.

Miss McVey, 46, vowed that tackling youth unemployment will be her ‘top priority’ but said that those looking for work have to be prepared to get a foot on the ladder before expanding their horizons.

Asked if they should be prepared to take ‘entry-level jobs’, she said: ‘Absolutely. You could be working at Costa. But in a couple of years’ time you might say, “I’d like to manage the area” or might even want to run a hotel in Dubai.’

Last year, more than 1,700 people applied for eight jobs at a new Costa Coffee shop in Nottingham, which paid between £6.10 and £10 an hour.

But the minister said many young people have unrealistic expectations about what jobs entail, and it is only when they start do they realise it can take years to become proficient.

She said: ‘Everybody says, “That’s what I want to do,” but I think you’ve got to realise the hours, the years [needed] to be able to do that job. When you see your first piece of work and compare it with who you want to be, all of a sudden you realise what skills you don’t have.’ [Where else? The Daily Fail]

One wonders if there are 941,000 jobs at coffee shops in the UK. Similar comments are made in Australia, where youth unemployment is 50%, although it seems that widespread attacks upon the young themselves is yet to begin. Moreover, there are often comments about how badly young people behave: they are portrayed as violent, rude, criminal and unprincipled. I can safely say, having been involved in education for around the past ten years, and seeing young people (under their mid-20s) give me seats when I was on crutches the year before last, when fit young business types would raise their newspapers as they sat in the disabled seats on trams to pretend they hadn’t seen me. I believe that young people today are exemplary human beings most of the time (subject to the 95:95 rule), and generally behave much better than their elders-but-not-betters. If I have any criticisms of the young, it is that they are too nice. A bit of bolshevism wouldn’t go astray. But that’s not their fault. They have been encultured to behave and toe the line.

Any sentence that begins with “Young people of today” and does not end with something like “are fantastic human beings” indicates that the speaker is a perfect prat, one of the “normal” privileged. And they are the problem, not the youth.

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.



I try and try to stay out of the muck, but they keep pulling me back in! I saw what I thought was a careful and rather overly-documented critique by Edward Clint of a talk by Rebecca Watson against evolutionary psychology (EP). It was full of references and arguments, devoid of ad hominem, and well defended. So I linked to it on Twitter. I got these responses:

And off it went. There were some response articles by Stephanie Zvan (which PZ called a GOOD response), James Croft (the most measured response so far) and Greg Laden, but the raw nerves were on fire. Clint was accused of being an “MRA” (men’s rights activist – a term of abuse apparently, and one I hadn’t come across) and having evil motives against Rebecca. Others said that because evolutionary psychology was bad science, a post defending it must be wrong (I suspect that might be PZ’s underlying enthymeme) no matter what the arguments made were.

I also discovered that while I had linked to one post, I disagreed with Clint on his treatment of agnosticism (1 and 2). I am not recommending him as an Authority, but then I don’t do that.

I am not shocked (any more) that this has descended into partisan personalities. I have come to expect this. But I am interested in the arguments made. Stephanie’s post is not bad, but in the end Croft effectively says “It’s okay to equivocate and cherry pick if it’s for popular purposes”, and that I do not agree with. If it’s bad science, and we can attack antivaccinationists, homeopaths and creationists for popular bad science, then the wheel turns against us skeptics too.

Clint’s defence of EP as potentially good science and not at all to be attacked because of the bad examples and bad reportage is solid, I think. The problem is that EP has its defenders who will ignore all counter evidence and counterarguments, while the opponents will ignore all evidence and arguments in its favour. I want to do something here, which I have previously alluded to: announce my being a born-again sociobiologist – EP is a form of sociobiology.

The criticism of sociobiology and EP is largely cultural. It tends to privilege the power structures of the people doing the research. Henrich’s, Heine’s and Norenzayan’s recent essay on psychology focusing on WEIRD students (western educated industrialised rich democratic, if memory serves) points out that all psychology and social science tends to do this, by default. But we should try to remove that bias as much as possible in all science, so it is fair criticism of EP also.

But what some people, including (I know from personal contact) PZ and Larry Moran, object to about EP is what Gould called “panadaptationism” and “Just-So” storification. Here is where there is interesting and philosophical issue, and so here is where I am most compelled to comment. Forgive me in advance.

First of all, there is the issue of when it is appropriate to use adaptationist explanations. Clint cites the leading philosopher on natural selection, Elliot Sober. Now I often disagree with Sober, especially in the assumption of optimisation studies (and of course classification), but Clint is right to cite Sober here:

Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate ( Mitchell and Valone 1990).

Opponents, largely following Gould and Lewontin’s 1979 attack, tend to assert (often without consideration of the particular attempts to give adaptive explanations) that any and all adaptive hypotheses are cheap and to be avoided. This has the effect of basically eliminating natural selective accounts of anything. But we know that selection is the only process that results in complexity over any time, and the fact there are complex traits among organisms leads to the inevitable conclusion that we should be able to give selective explanations from time to time. I have argued before that we should think of adaptation as a viable hypothesis at all times; but being viable doesn’t make it true. The problem is not that EP or sociobiology makes adaptive hypotheses. They should. It is that they often make them without testing them.

This is no longer the case, at least not universally. Desmond Morris is long gone from the forefront of panadaptationist thinking, and we can start to deal with the more serious claims and studies made. As Clint says

Although there are always going to be some  flawed studies, researchers weeded out failed hypotheses and refined methodologies. The influence of evolutionary psychology has steadily grown. Evolutionary psychology theories once controversial are now accepted by mainstream psychology.

Mind, that isn’t a high bar to leap. A lot of psychology is still fairly simplistic (but not most, by any means). If there’s a field that is really well grounded in my subjective assessment, it is comparative psychology, which is cross-specific at comparing human cognitive development and our nearest relatives, the primates. And that gives us a constraint upon EP-style adaptationism. If it is shared across all primates, then it can’t be an adaptation to an ancestral environment not shared by all primates (not unless some massively unparsimonious evolution has occurred, in which case we can’t say squat about evolutionary history).

But something must have happened in our lineage to give us the traits we now have and it simply is not sufficient to say it could have been evolution by accident. Accident is an admission we cannot explain things. It is the background assumption of anything. And let us not forget that accident is the raw material of selection. Accident proposes, selection disposes. Accidental variation is the origin of things, not the reason why things are retained and built upon, at least, not always. If something can be acquired by accident, and spread through a population via drift, then it can be lost the same way. Nobody sensible would go so far as to say that there is no evolution by accident. But neither should anyone sensible suggest there is no evolution by selection either. The question, as the wit said to the society woman, is how much.

So sociobiology as a hypothesis is acceptable. It need not lead to Nazism, racism, sexism or US exceptionalism. So long as there is empirical data, testing the particular hypothesis at hand, it is and can be good science. It is not the final word. And as Twain said, I wouldn’t hang a dog on a newspaper report. EP like anything else can be misrepresented by various interests, just as evolution always has been.

This brings us to the formal and informal fallacies this whole subject seems to attract like things that are attracted to bad metaphors. If PZ is saying Clint’s post was bad because it asserts and defends something he knows without argument to be false, then that is question begging and displays massive confirmation bias. This is not a good trait in scientists. If, similarly, he approves of Zvan’s piece because it agrees with his belief that EP is false, then that too is confirmation bias. If he dismisses Clint’s defence because Clint is an MRA or has “issues with Rebecca”, that is obviously a fallacy of ad hominem, and a genetic fallacy to boot. His argument stands or falls on the merits of the case made (even if, and I can’t stress this highly enough, he is massively wrong about agnosticism!).

And no, Stephanie (see comments) James, it is not sufficient to accept a bit of exaggeration or cherry picking or equivocation when we do it because it’s entertaining or fun. It is false argument. If it’s wrong to do it when you are anti vaccination, then it’s wrong to do it when you are “skeptical”. This is called tu quoque in reasoning. Rebecca equivocates between a field and reportage or misuse of a field. She is clearly trying to poison the well. Similarly, Dawkins does the same thing with religion in The God Delusion. It’s simply dishonest argument, no matter how entertaining.

In the past I have been challenged by PZ and Larry Moran for saying “we are all subject to our own biases”. I know I am (and because they are mine I am not sure what they are, although in the case of chocolate I have suspicions), but Larry once said to me that I should show him his. Well he’s not engaged on this topic for now, but here is me showing some cognitive biases of some skeptics.

I initially thought Clint’s piece was overkill. Now I see that it will never be enough for some. No matter what his history or motives.

Late note: PZ has a post here and a promise of more to come.

Later note: The first of his ?EP series is here.

This series:


Gould, Stephen Jay, and Richard C. Lewontin. 1979. The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc R Soc Lond B 205:581–598.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3):61-83.

So asks this essay and gets the whole thing wrong.

Darwin’s theories (plural) are not controversial because they imply that species are mutable. This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.

Darwin was not controversial because he implied racist ideas about humans. He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.

Darwin was not controversial because he thought the age of the earth was large. This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.

Darwin was not controversial because his account of humans being animals contradicted the Bible. Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.

No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.

All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.

Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us (although, as I have argued, a deity might choose this universe because we evolve in it). The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.

So I’ve been busy with work, and finding a flat and preparing to move. Larry’s been busy tearing strips off those who argue that the ENCODE data shows the genome is mostly functional (only if you think that doing anything happens to be functional). But I hadn’t forgotten his latest claim that methodological naturalism is an undue restriction on science, nor his tweets that “scientism” is just an insult. I owe him a reply.

Let’s begin with the term “scientism”. I take it to be a descriptive term, roughly meaning someone who thinks that all conceptual legitimacy must derive from science. It is usually pejorative. So is “conservatism” when used by those who think it is a false political ideology. However, I use that term to denote a number of political attitudes and ideas (with which, as it happens, I mostly disagree); I don’t mean to use it as an insult; nor do I with “scientism” or any other philosophical position.

Yes, you read that rightly – scientism is a philosophical position. It is better given its historical name: positivism. In the early 19th century August Comte wanted to replace traditional theistic religions with a secular religion, because he thought (as many still do) that religions made for better communities. So he called the kind of scientific religion he wanted positivism, because it was a kind of positive knowledge. He claimed to have discovered a “great fundamental law” of human knowledge, that it passes through three stages:

The law is this :—that each of our leading conceptions—each branch of our knowledge-passes successively through three different theoretical condititions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive. In other words, the human mind, by its nature, employs in its progress three methods of philosophizing, the character of which is essentially different, and even radically opposed: viz., the theological method, the metaphysical, and the positive. [Harriet Martineau’s 1868 translation.]

What makes something positive knowledge?

In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws—that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts, the number of which continually diminishes with the progress of science.

In short, science replaces theology and philosophy, and nothing that is not reasoning and observation is knowledge. This is exactly what Larry and those who attack philosophy think. In the early 20th century, a version of this known as logical positivism was the ruling philosophical view among Anglophones; replaced only when it was shown by philosophical argument that it was self-defeating. Positivists thought that metaphysical claims – any claim not based on observation and reasoning – were literally meaningless nonsense. They may as well have been noises. The claim that “metaphysical claims are nonsense” (let’s call that sentence M), however, has not been observed, nor is it a reasoned inference from any observations (you cannot observe metaphysical claims). So the core claim of positivism, M, is nonsense, by their own lights. [In philosophy this is called a tu quoque, or “you too”, argument.]

There are various versions of this but they all have one thing in common: whatever M is in a positivist perspective is not itself positive knowledge. It’s like the famous passage in Hume’s Enquiry:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. [Enquiry Sect XII, Part II, Para 132]

And yet Hume’s own work contains neither mathematics nor experimental reasoning. He must have been aware of the irony. The positivist/scientistic tradition seems oblivious to the irony, however.

Now I am not saying that if somebody thinks that science is the best way to gather knowledge they are a positivist. I think that, for example, and I am no positivist. Nor is it the claim that all knowledge is like science, which I also think. Instead it is this: the view that one can rule out any nonscientific claim out of court. You do not even need to consider it. If it is nonscientific, it is nonsense. Philosophy, as I understand it and define it, is nonscientific (that is, it is not done the way science is done; it is not necessarily in contradiction to science, although much of it can be). It is therefore nonsense, to be replaced by science. This is how recent scientists have treated philosophy –

Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. [The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Mlodinow, page 5]

The physicist philosophers who I know would be surprised to find that (i) they had not kept up with modern physics, despite their many publications on it, and (ii) that they ever held the torch of discovery, or any philosophers in the modern era. But let’s leave this silliness to one side and consider what it indicates about this scientism: it is profoundly positivistic. It presumes something like the claim that only science matters when considering issues. Science most certainly matters. But is it all that matters? Asking that very question is not a scientific question. QED.

Now let’s consider methodological naturalism.

The term has been around for a long while; if you have the notion of naturalism, it’s no great stretch to add adjectives like “methodological”, but in the sense used here it is fairly recent. The project of naturalising epistemology, which is to say to make the gathering of knowledge a purely natural (biological?) process rather than a Cartesian special outcome of logic and observation, hit its stride in the latter half of the century, especially as Quine baptised it in a chapter so entitled.

But the current use– that science is restricted to observing, explaining and describing only natural things and events – is fairly recent. It took off largely from 1990, when Philip E. Johnson, the lawyer who promoted intelligent design, published his book Darwin on Trial. Johnson wanted to contrast methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism, and argued that science is committed to neither. Now there was a perfectly good series of terms for the latter: materialism until the 20th century, and physicalism during it (not everything in physics is material, as most educated school kids could tell you these days. Most stuff is energy or fields). And “methodological naturalism” as Johnson and those who took it up meant it also had a name: scientific method.

I’ve often noted that there is no such single thing as “scientific method”, a view that has been a consensus in philosophy of science since at least the mid 70s when Feyerabend forcefully put that case (but which had been put before him, of course; all good ideas have been put before). But there are several things that science does that are worthy of the name: the use of observational evidence, the use of abductive and inductive reasoning to generalise and explain, and the use of deductive reasoning to winkle out the implications of the foregoing. Terms like “theory construction”, “disciplinary matrix” and “research program” are fancier ways to say just this, and what Larry rightly notes as many do, this is what we do when we do something else that is much wider than science and which also has a pre-existing name: learning. Scientists learn just like the rest of us do, from experience, only they are much more careful about doing it, and try not to mix in their own expectations, and they report in often excruciating detail to others so that the rest of us don’t have to learn the way they did. It works, bitches. But what scientists do is what anyone does when they learn by experience, in spades.

Calling it “methodological naturalism” is like calling driving “vehicular autonomic control”; it adds nothing but the illusion there is something strange going on. Science is not constrained by methodological naturalism. Science just is methodological naturalism. Anything scientists can observe reliably and intersubjectively, and which behaves in a regular enough fashion, is investigable. Anything that can’t be or doesn’t, isn’t. So if God or art or poetry can be investigated that way – if we can learn about it by experience – then science can investigate it.

The problem is not that science is somehow forbidden to do this. The problem is that moral and theological questions often (not always) are not investigable by their nature. Either there’s nothing to observe (like moral prescriptions or obligations), or they fail to behave in a regular fashion (a reason why I doubt there will ever be a true science of economics). Those parts of theology and ethics that can be investigated scientifically, should be (but again, there’s a principle that cannot be!). We can disprove many claims of non-natural beliefs. Religions that think the world is 6000 years old or extends only to the sphere of Saturn, or moral systems (like libertarianism) that predict empirical outcomes that are contrary-to-fact are falsified when investigated (by science or just by someone who is learning less formally). But there remains a residual and indefinitely large number of beliefs that are, as I have previously called them, “empirically inoculated”. The facts do not fix all the solutions.

So when a philosopher considers a case like Sober’s target, whether a god could intervene in evolution without leaving an empirical trace, this is not to support theism but to, as I said, stress test ideas. If it turns out that the concept is neither logically nor empirically contradictory, then you may not like the idea, but you cannot say with justification that science disproves it.

The argument is not all about disproof, though. Larry and others (like Victor Stenger) argue that science gives us no reason to think these ideas are true. This is right. Science gives no reason to think that there is a God, contrary to the asseverations of many theologically inclined science writers and popular philosophers. However, neither does science give us any reason to think that only what science gives us reason to think should be thought. These are outside methodological naturalism and enter into the vast, crafty and occasionally surreal halls and dungeons of philosophy. You don’t need to enter those places of the mind. But I don’t see how you are justified in attacking those who do, so long as they don’t deny fact or logic.

I’ll end this with a quote from Cicero that I saw on Twitter, from Tim Dean:

“If the man lives who would belittle the study of philosophy, I quite fail to see what in the world he would see fit to praise.”

I don’t know if it is truly his saying, but I have to say I think it right.