Category Archives: Social evolution

Science outreach: A conversation

From the Freethinkers Blog Con:

With PZ Myzer and Aron Ra.


by | February 2, 2014 · 10:41 am

How to argue with silly thing believers

Orthodox apocalypse

The apocalypse in an Orthodox church. Source: Wikimedia

[Apologies this took a while; I’ve been rather sick]

So, given all this [Why believers believe silly things, why they believe the particular silly things they do, and the developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition], how can you change a believer’s mind? It is tempting to say that you cannot, or to take a more rationalist perspective and think that more argument is all that is needed, and both views are often put. But, as we might expect, the situation is a bit more complex than that.

First of all there are two distinct questions here. One is the individual question: how can we change a particular individual’s beliefs? The other is the communal question: how can we change the overall reasonableness of a given group or population? These are different questions with different answers.

The individual question has no general answer: it depends upon the individual’s belief-set, and how coherent it already is, and whether or not they are sensitive to experiential challenges (that is, if they are in a crisis). A believer who has a relatively well-cohering set of beliefs, with no real internal conflicts of note, but who is in no personal position of challenge by experience, is relatively immune from rational argument. If they face empirical challenges (their beliefs do not match with the world they are experiencing, as in the classical study of the failed millennialists by Leon Festinger and colleagues (Festinger et al. 1956)), one solution is to deny the facts, another is to to reinterpret the peripheral or less weighted beliefs to save the core beliefs, and a third is to reinterpret the core beliefs so that they are not challenged by the facts. All three strategies can easily be found. For example, global warming denialists will challenge the facts. Creationists will allow some facts but reinterpret them or the ways they are handled by creationist thinkers. And my favourite case of core reinterpretation is the reaction of the Catholic church to Daltonian atomism and chemistry: change the interpretation of a core belief in substance in the doctrine of transubstantiation from a physical reality to a metaphysical reality (thereby partly conceding to their Lutheran critics of 400 years earlier).

When these things happen, believers will usually deny that they have happened (Schmalz 1994), like the historical revisionism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state goes to war with a new enemy and now tells its pliable population that “We have always been at war with Oceania”. These three strategies are increasingly schizoid. Reinterpreting the core beliefs to accommodate new facts is a healthy response to the world, leaving only questions of group identity marking (we do not agree with those Lutherans, they are heretics!). The Church has accepted (belatedly) the scientific virtue of Galileo, Dalton and Darwin.

The revision of peripheral beliefs is more strained. When [honest] creationists spend time trying to accommodate the facts of biogeography, biodiversity, genetics and dating techniques, they may find their “hypothesis” dying what Flew called “the death of a thousand qualifications”, but so too do defenders in science of outmoded hypotheses, and there is no threshold at which it becomes irrational to hold those beliefs. Nevertheless, like pornography, we can recognise irrationality when we see it. The rationalist approach to argument, however, behaves as if there is, or ought to be, a line that one should not cross. This leads to interminable “debates” of claim and counterclaim, which rarely result in any resolution.

The third approach is to simply deny the facts. This can be achieved by adjustments to the reliability of those who we disagree with (ad hominem attacks, for instance, on the probity of climate scientists). Both believers in pseudoscience (like Bigfoot or homeopathy) and anti science (such as creationism or anti-vaccination) find methods of calling into question the facts themselves.

Now as the response becomes less grounded in the empirical, reasoning becomes much more difficult, until you reach a stage where no reasoned argument is possible. But this is determined by the strategies adopted by the believer, not by the subject or belief they hold. Homeopaths can be argued out of homeopathy, and Catholics can still hold stubbornly onto the view that the Host really is blood and flesh, and that chemists are just anti-Catholics. So it depends upon the individual. If the core beliefs are cognitively entrenched, then they are less likely to undergo any kind of rational or empirical revision. [As a side note, one often anecdotally hears of a believer in homeopathy or some other “complementary medicine” who abruptly adopts empirical medicine when it is their child or loved one who is suffering. This is a very personal crisis. However, it can also drive the believer deeper into the silly belief, as Festinger noted.]

At a group level, however, things are even more complicated. Here what counts includes the institutional structure of the belief-group. The plasticity of the group itself will help determine whether the group adapts or digs in further: the more authority-driven the group, and the more exclusionary it is to those who deviate even slightly from the approved belief-set, the less it will change. And another issue is group size. The Catholic Church, for example, while supposedly hierarchical (indeed, the very term hierarchy was taken from its military-style structure of command and constraint; it means “rule of priests”), has been very fluid in its interpretation of its core beliefs. In large part this is because the Church is not small and there are many de facto command structures apart from the clerical. The Jesuits, for instance, played a great role in adopting, refining and making viable scientific acceptance within the Church, even as others were pushing for a return to older, conservative, beliefs. Christian, Jewish and Islamic doctrine has been in various ways able to adapt to new science and new social conditions (as Harnack showed in great detail in his classic History of Dogma in the late nineteenth century).

But some generalisations can be made. One is, that the more a belief-group is reliant upon authority figures to tell believers what they should believe, the less fluid the tradition. This is, as I argued in the paper on rational creationism [mentioned in the last post], due to a kind of doxastic [that is, belief] division of labour. Most of us have little time to test and become familiar with the technical ideas of science, for instance, and so we rely upon authorities. But the authorities we select to rely upon depends a lot upon what belief-group we are in. We choose to believe our authorities over theirs. As I argued, this is because, evolutionarily speaking, they aren’t dead yet. Having their beliefs may have a cost, but that is offset by the benefit of savings in time, effort and resources of taking ready-made ideas off the shelf. We have a disposition to adopt the views of those we grow up around, because it is economic to do so, and adopting those views won’t likely kill us. Only when we reach a crisis state do we challenge those authorities, and even then we will tend to do so piecemeal until we reach a (personal) threshold of incredulity.

Another depends upon the degree of engagement we have with the wider society in which our belief-group is located. Even the Plymouth Brethren must deal with teachers, the media, and popular culture that is right there on the shelf in the bookshop. Messages that conflict with our belief-set can reach another (personal) threshold that we find challenges our core beliefs. When that happens, we may find a crisis that causes a rapid conversion (or de-conversion) in core beliefs.

This is why one of the major areas of battle between belief-groups lies in the control and amelioration of these challenges in education. If you can introduce some doubt about the strength of, say, evolutionary biology among younger children, it is rational (in a bounded sense) for them to stick with the core beliefs of their belief-group. Only if evolutionary biology (or whichever other topic is at issue) is presented firmly and without competing beliefs in educational contexts will it begin to undermine the authority structure of the student’s belief-group. As I argued in the creationism paper, sufficient challenges will tend to sway the average developmental trajectory of a believer away from the hard-core or exclusive belief-set of the belief-group. The population as a whole becomes more accommodationist.

This leads to my final point: herd immunity. In vaccination, when a sufficiently high number of the population has been immunised, the epidemiology of the disease being vaccinated against reaches a point at which the likelihood of infection among the unvaccinated (the very young, for instance) is very slight. Beliefs behave like pathogens (a metaphor that has been widely abused, in my view) in that since we take our belief cues from the experienced social norms, when those norms are reasonable ones, unreasonable beliefs tend to founder, and so this sets up a selection pressure in the evolution of beliefs for beliefs to be not too weird, or they isolate the believer too greatly from the social context in which they live. Sufficient education in reasonable beliefs forces many silly beliefs, or at any rate those that have real world consequences, to become less silly.

Anyone who understands population genetics will realise that this does not mean that the entire population will become reasonable as such. In genetics and in epidemiology, the ratio of beneficial to deleterious variants will reach a tradeoff point, called an evolutionarily stable strategy. In economics, this is called a Pareto optimal point. To increase one variety will lower the average fitness of the population, and so the two variants will remain in a set balance until external conditions change. It is for this reason, for example, that I do not think religion will “disappear” as many rationalists think it will. There are group benefits to religion, and even in the most secular society, until the costs of being religious exceed those benefits, religion as an institution will persist.

So in order to ameliorate the supposed evils of religion (or conservatism, pseudoscience, radicalism, etc.), the best strategy that those whose ideas are empirically based can take is, in my view, to resist attempts to dilute science and other forms of education. This sets up a selection pressure against extremist views. Similar approaches might be taken in what Americans call “civics” classes to deal with political extremisms, and so on.

To conclude, I should make the following point: I am not suggesting that I alone am ideologically pure and coherent in my beliefs. Anything I say in general must apply to me also (this is why one of the objections to Marxism is that somehow Marx exempts himself from false consciousness). So I assume that I, too, will have conflicting belief subnetworks, and so one of the reasons why I put these thoughts out here is to get the same kind of correction from the wider community that I expect those I have used as examples here require. I am a radical (increasingly as I age), conservationist, small-l liberal of the Millian variety, agnostic and very, very, pro-science. I expect I have more than a few of my own shortcomings. As a friend once said of me, I am like a hunchback who cannot see his own hump, but sees everyone else’s. I expect this. But I think this analysis is roughly in the right region.


Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis, MN, US: University of Minnesota Press.

Schmalz, Mathew N. 1994. “When Festinger fails: Prophecy and the Watch Tower.” Religion 24 (4):293-308.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, History, Journalism, Logic and philosophy, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Social evolution

Why do believers believe THOSE silly things?

If, as I argued in the last post, believers believe silly things in order to make the community cohere in the face of competing loyalties of the wider community, why is it that they believe the things they believe?

For example, you will often see Jews attempt to argue that kashrut (kosher, in Yiddish) dietary rules make sense in arid environments where trichinosis was rife[1], and so on, but what is the reason why you can’t mix fabrics, or get tattoos? The reason appears to be that these marked the Jews out from their competing cultures. An approach taken by recent Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) scholars adopts the “costly signalling hypothesis” formulated in evolutionary biology by Amotz Zahavi and applies it to the cultural evolution of these kinds of displays. Zahavi’s hypothesis supposes that if an organism is signalling its toxicity to predators or genetic health to potential mates, it can easily fake those signals. Evolution, however, is a hard mistress, and will weed out these easy-to-fake signals over the long term, as any variant predator or mate that tricks on a way to detect fakes will spread rapidly through the population, causing an arms race. So in the long term, signals of whatever property is being signalled will have to become hard to fake. Zahavi suggests that behaviours like stotting will have to honestly signal the fitness of the organism.

So there are several properties for a costly signal. One is that it costs more to fake than to simply have the right property. Another is that it must correlate with the right varieties. Another is that it must be arbitrary: it should not be a trait or behaviour that is selectively advantageous, or many different varieties or organisms will trick upon it, and it will not therefore correlate. So an honest, costly signal is an arbitrary signal.

CSR researcher Richard Sosis proposed that many of the doctrines and institutions of religions are such costly signals. Kashrut is arbitrary, because it has one function: to mark out, uniquely and honestly, Jews from their (genetically related) neighbours. This is not biological evolution, but cultural evolution – what evolves are institutions, rituals and behaviours. They function as what I call “tribal markers”. They include accents, languages, dress, diet, and a host of other things. Consider the ban on pork by Muslims and Jews: here is an easy to raise food resource that is foregone to identify themselves. It is hard to fake if food is not plentiful. Circumcision and scarification among various groups is another kind of costly signal. People can die from these rituals. That is the ultimate genetic cost.

So the reason why (or if you prefer a pluralist approach, a major reason why) religions have these silly beliefs is that they serve to honestly signal identity. But this doesn’t explain why they have these silly beliefs. And extending the argument to all kinds of belief-systems, it fails to explain why belief-groups settle on the particular beliefs they do as the tribal markers of identity.

One suggestion is that these are simply contingently adopted. For example, the use of some “shibboleth” like abortion or the use of tattoos or tassels may be a simple matter of an idea being proposed at the right time and taking off, as a fashion, so long as it involves all the right costs. There may be no other reason for it. “Shibboleth”, by the way, is an example from the Tanakh:

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the E’phraimites. And when any of the fugitives of E’phraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an E’phraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the E’phraimites. [Judges (Shoftim) 12: 5–6]

The word used, “shibboleth” means the seed or fruit bearing part of a plant. The specific meaning is irrelevant here, and it’s adoption is due to accent differences between the E’phraimites and the Jews, which has all the costly signalling characteristics: it is arbitrary, and hard to fake (as every American actor finds out when called on to do a foreign accent). Since then, a shibboleth has been a costly signal.

But there are other reasons why a tribal marker might be the thing it is. For example, it may be that the marker arose at a time of conflict between groups. Denial of global warming arose as an in-group identity marker when those raising the issue were seen to be challenging some core values of conservatives and those who benefited from the coal and oil industries (for example, employees of those industries and their friends and families). It was not arbitrary in that dispute, although the signal might have been something else. Once entrenched, the signal becomes a “frozen accident”; it is now entrenched in a developmental sequence of belief acquisition, and to remove it would seriously disturb the development of “right thought and action”, as the Buddhist tradition calls it in the Eightfold Path.

A third reason might be cynical intervention by rulers and thought leaders. For example, few think that reasonable conservatives (I would like to say here that I know many such beasts) have reasons for thinking global warming is a hoax now, least of all those whose personal interests are maintained by the offending industries. Yet many do. It may be that on the part of the majority of these people this is simply a matter of division of labour: authorities think that it is a hoax, and I don’t have the time to investigate the matter myself. So why do these authorities think this? Possibly they don’t, but it suits their social and economic interests to act as if they do. This is very old. Cynical manipulation of followers can be found as a strategy in Aristotle and Machiavelli.

Also he [the tyrant] should appear to be particularly earnest in the service of the Gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and has a reverence for the Gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and they are less disposed to conspire against him, because they believe him to have the very Gods fighting on his side.  [Aristotle, Politics. Bk 5, ch XI]

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. [The Prince, chapter 18]

Once a signal has been proposed, cynically or otherwise, then it will spread to the extent that it acts as a useful marker. That is, just so far as it identifies honestly a member of the in-group. Rarely (in my opinion), the marker or signal will be something that bears directly upon the core beliefs of the belief-group. For example, modern western conservatism has as one of its stated values the freedom of the individual from government intervention, yet many of the signals, such as abortion or marriage, involve direct government intervention in people’s private lives. Justifications are given that are post hoc and ad hoc. Likewise, commitment to free market economics are set aside when special interests benefit, through subsidies and interventions or tax exemptions of failing industries. Likewise, social progressives often adopt economic policies that serve the interests of industry rather than their putative constituency, working people.

So costly signals for in-group identity are often contrary to the beliefs the group holds most dear. Abortion, for example, was not a core issue for evangelicals until they made common cause with Catholics in the early 1970s (see Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God for an account of this). But once it took root, rational debate became impossible. And this is because it is not about the idea, but about the community. As Sosis noted about religion, it is not about God, but about us.

1. But this fails to explain why the neighbouring tribes did eat pork, since they lived in the same environment.


Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Epistemology, Evolution, Politics, Social evolution

Why do believers believe silly things? The function of denialism

Bishop Butler wrote in a sermon in 1729:

Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why, then, should we desire to be deceived? [Sermon 7]

It’s an interesting question. Why should we seek to be deceived about the consequences of our actions and the world? And yet, many people do. Current conservatives take it as a measure of ideological purity that climate change is either not real or something out of our control. They deny evolution. They deny the minuscule danger in marijuana and most drugs and ignore the major danger of tobacco and alcohol. What is going on here?

A long time ago I worked with a member of the Exclusive Brethren, a sect of the Plymouth Brethren, who are as fundamentalist as it is possible to be. I would try to talk to him about his beliefs, but he simply refused to engage. The Exclusive Brethren have withdrawn from all conversation with the secular world (which, in their view, includes all other Christians) except for business. I wondered at how a clearly intelligent person could believe what he believed, and then it hit me: he couldn’t speak to outsiders, because they just looked at him with their jaw open and shaking their head. His beliefs isolated him from those outside his community, and therefore, by implication, strengthened his involvement within the community. If you believe silly crap, then the only people you can talk to are those who have the same silly beliefs.

This might help explain why it is that no amount of reasoned argument with evidence can sway such folk. Think of this as a kind of investment: one spends a long period developing one’s beliefs and social connections. If you are challenged in your beliefs, you put at risk your social networks with those who use the silly beliefs you hold as a test of inclusion, and therefore risk your social connections. To start again will cost you time, effort and resources that could be better spent. It takes a real crisis of faith to be forced to reconsider these core beliefs. Few people will find themselves challenged when they are honest, costly and hard to fake signals of community inclusion.

In the case of climate denialism, or creationism, it is not the content or topic of the beliefs that matters, but the fact that in order to hold them and assert them, you have isolated yourself from the external community as a show of faith. To abandon them simply because they are false would cost too much. And so you face up to the cognitive dissonance and rationalise your beliefs and the facts that challenge them.

What does this mean for practical purposes? How do we counter these false beliefs? There is no simple answer. In the short term we can insist that our functional bureaucracies and social institutions do not give credence, but that will only harden those who deny the facts in their beliefs. At best it will slough off the fence sitters, and reduce the core denialists to a rump. That is one good thing, but we want people to face reality when it really matters. A better, but longer term solution is to insist that education teaches not the facts, but the methods by which we understand those facts, in order that people can develop their cognitive stances appropriately. This denies the next generation of denialists their replacements, until they become at best an extremely small minority. Education is the solution, which the denialists well understand. This is why we have objections to even discussing these “controversial” matters in schools, and why the denialists (whether of evolution, global warming, or whatever) continuously try to insert their agenda into public education. An uneducated community is more easily controlled and manipulated.

The development of beliefs is not merely a metaphor: it is a literal developmental process. Just as an organism that has been fed a nutrient poor diet will not fully recover as an adult even if their diet is improved, neither will a conceptually poor education be entirely overcome once someone has reached a reflective equilibrium in their beliefs. If contrary core beliefs cause a crisis in a person such that they do abandon their silly beliefs, they are just as likely to replace them with other silly beliefs rather than more educated and rational beliefs. So the answer in the long term is to ensure that we do not educate people into the wrong beliefs.

As I said (and as I have argued in my paper “Are creationists rational?”) simply teaching facts, which are themselves seen as competing belief claims by the believers, will not do. They are just a matter of competing authorities. I will prefer my authorities over yours, no matter how credible they are in objective terms. Instead, we need to give developing minds confidence in the facts, and the way to do this is to show that the methods used, by scientists and other disciplines, work. The way to do that is to have the students do the work themselves and see that they work. After all, of all the inbuilt heuristics we have, we believe our own experience over the reports and instruction of others. Give developing believers confined that the methods work, and they will have confidence in the results of those methods.

I believe, from my own experience, that it would be best to simply make children observers and experimenters, and ignore teaching to tests until they reach mid-adolescence. If they don’t have confidence by then in the propriety of science, it will no longer matter, but if they don’t have that confidence at all, no amount of science education will change the silly beliefs. Nor will science communication (which, being a form of journalism, is largely about the manipulation of attitudes than information impartation), nor campaigns of this or that kind. The silly belief-holder can rationalise these approaches as being the preaching of a competing (and therefore false) religion or ideology.

Finally, note that the real reasons people hold the beliefs they do is rarely due to careful consideration of the facts and arguments. This is a form of rationalisation, that which Marx correctly called “false consciousness”, and it is usually a matter of social function serving the interests of those who hold the reigns of power. Parenthetically, Marx’s own solution was just as much a false consciousness as that which he critiqued. If we want reasonable people holding true beliefs, because things will be what they will be and we will all be bitten in the arse eventually by reality, then the real solution is to make rational people who can find out and think for themselves.

Late note:

I posted the following on PZ Miskatonic’s Pharyngula as a reply, which may clarify some of the things I have said here:

It wasn’t about the Plymouth Brethren as such. That was just how I came by the insight.

This is part of what I think of as the Developmentalist Hypothesis of Belief Formation (the capitals make it true). We do not just acquire our beliefs in one step, but accrue them as we develop into adults. There is a cost to this, and so to move someone from their core beliefs and values, you have to make it something that would outweigh the costs involved in acquiring and maintaining those beliefs.

Denialism has a strong function in making communities of those who hold a particular belief more cohesive. As such, one has to ask, why does that community exist in the first place? As a proto-Marxian I think the reason is about the social and economic functions such beliefs play. Those whose sociopolitical interests are served by denying the facts, either because some influential class benefit, or because there is a deeper underlying fear of modernity or change the community represents, need these beliefs to defend their own (imagined?) way of life. The reason, for example, why many conservatives vote against their objective interests, has to do with their loss of community and cognitive investment if they change. The “narrative” they have developed to justify their beliefs is what Marx called “false consciousness”, and so pointing out the harm they do to themselves will not be effective. If we want to shift what the population believes to make it more reality-based, simple engagement, as valuable as it is, will not be widely effective.


Filed under Accommodationism, Education, Epistemology, Politics, Science, Social evolution

The discrimination of the age

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.


Filed under Australian stuff, Politics, Pop culture, Social evolution, Truisms

Why anti science?

Over the past few decades there has been an increasingly negative attitude by governments, pundits, religiosi and faux philosophers against science. We have seen an increase in denialism about climate change (one of the most well supported scientific models of the day), vaccination, evolution, medical research in general, and the ancillary aspects of science like museums, education, and expert opinion. At the same time we have seen an increase (I believe) in the number of pseuodoscientists claiming scientific credentials they do not have, such as cancer quacks, non-members of the House of Lords claiming to be climatologists, and celebrities opposing this or that public health measure, along with Oprah-style “doctors” of medicine or psychology. What in the merry hell is going on here?

As Goldfinger once said “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.” Who is the enemy here? I think the answer has to be more than a few conspiracists or plutocrats funding astroturf campaigns. The answer has to do with the basis of modern urban society. It’s the money, honey.

Since the end of the second world war we have seen the freedoms and pro-education values of the time slowly but inexorably eroded. It has been known for a while that the majority of scientific research done in the United States, for instance, is done by the Department of Defence or allied organisations. We know that corporations are well involved in this – and the reason is that the money is to be found in military expenditure (the US spends more on its military and intelligence activities that pretty much the rest of the world). Corporations have but one motivation these days – to “maximise shareholder value” – and so they will employ any and all techniques to achieve this. If it involves science, then they will use science, but if it involves corrupting science, and it does, too often, then they will do that. At the same time the myth has taken root in the west that corporations must flourish for society to flourish (a deeply erroneous myth). So governments have followed the money trail, and taken many steps that promote anti science.

Some people are anti science for psychological reasons. I think of these as “anti modernists”; they fear the change that science will bring. Since science involves, of its very nature, a challenge to the status quo, those who are fearful of changes from the “”way things were” (i.e., in their childhood) will fear also science. These people tend to be those who benefit from the status quo; that is, they tend to be the ruling classes. If science tells us, as it does, that the use of oil and other fossil fuels is bad, the ruling classes who own much of that industry will object, and take steps overtly or covertly to destabilise science.

We have seen this in more than in science. Teaching on what used to be the “humanities” has been defunded. I was chatting to some people recently who were reminiscing about the days when European languages, history and philosophy were well funded university courses. Now there aren’t enough people in my city (Melbourne) to run a frequent seminar series on these topics. The problem is not that science alone is being treated so harshly, but that intellectual life is. Yesterday (and this is what inspires this post) I was told by the vocational counsellor appointed for me by the unemployment agency that “nothing that I know has any value”, meaning that I was unemployable as an intellectual.

What causes this is the focus, purely and simply, on money and its acquisition. The idea that we might take steps as a nation (in my case, Australia) that could in any way interfere with this economy of plutocrats is simply unthinkable to that class. Consequently, science, along with all the other intellectual activities we used to hold dear in a liberal democracy, are now otiose; they simply do not contribute to the Holy Economy. The minister for education in Australia, for example, has said he will personally decide which grants are “useful” when funding academic research. This follows the past thirty years since a notionally progressive government reduced all education to “vocational” education by collapsing the education system into one system, so that vocational education was now the main task of universities (previously, vocational tertiary education was done by non-university colleges).

We live now in a deeply anti intellectual world, at least in the west (there are other problems in the developing nations). It is not because the populace wants no intellectual activity – the many pro-science and pro-intellectual groups that spontaneously form on the internet show that. But instead of it being done properly, the plutocracy has made it into “infotainment”. Instead of shows that actually explain scientific processes and theories, such as we had int he 1960s, we now have Brian Cox or some other pretty face giving us “gee whiz” science, with no explanation or underlying principles at all. But we get some pretty graphics.

For example, in the climate change “debate” I have never seen any mention of Arrhenius’ nineteenth century proof that the earth will warm. Arrhenius used what is now called a “single pixel” approach – treat the earth as a single system and measure the input of energy against the reflection of energy and show that there is an imbalance. What is debated now is the role that parts of that system, like the oceans, play in sequestering heat or recycling it, but the overall sum doesn’t change. We are and can only be seen to be, warming the globe. The rest if detail, and there is no damned debate whatsoever, just about the role different “pixels” play in the way it will happen.

But this is to explain the science, and the media doesn’t like that, because the proprietors, whether state or corporate, do not like that to happen. The reason we live in one of the most stupid of societies for generations si simply that it doesn’t suit the money makers. I have little hope we will oppose this in any way soon.


Filed under Australian stuff, Ecology and Biodiversity, Education, Epistemology, Freedom, General Science, History, Journalism, Politics, Pop culture, Science, Social evolution

On knowing the rules

The reader may have become aware of some examples of sexual harassment on the interwubs lately. I do not propose to get involved or to make detailed comment as I do not know much about the cases apart from what has been mentioned online. I take it as read these are echt cases of sexual harassment. What I do want to do here is to discuss the reason why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman.

A few years back, I was approached by a woman at a conference and invited back to her room. She knew I was married, but there was flirting and a clear indication that we could sleep together as we were both in countries other than our own. This was not harassment, for several reasons, the most obvious being that I am male, but also that we were effectively equals socially and professionally and neither had any power over the other. I did not accede, but I do not think that had I done so I would be a bad person, other than having “cheated” on my wife.

Therein lies the complexity: morals have changed in most western nations. Liaisons between unmarried (to each other) adults are no longer looked upon as immoral or illicit, so long as nobody is injured (in the legal sense of having some violation of their rights). As the Wiccans say, an it harm none, do as thou wilt. But much of the framing of harassment is based around ideas of propriety that, to be frank, are a little out of date. Not all: so long as the point of anti-harassment rules are that a person (male or female) is treated with respect because they are a person, the framing is fine. But often it is because someone is the partner of another that the harassment is considered wrong. That is, if I am married, I should not approach somebody else for sexual engagement because I am in a sense the property of my spouse.

If somebody is raised in the less Christian or traditional value system of secular society, they might think it wrong only to not tell and gain agreement from their spouse, not to ask for sex. And if the relationship is not an obviously clear one of power or authority or influence, one might think, what harm? Yet, there is harm even when the relationship is only informally one of power or influence (let’s face it, most relationships involve an inequality of power in one way or another). So here’s my question: given that some sexual contact is inevitable among adults, and even somewhat desirable for all, what are the rules? When does it not involve harassment, and when does it?

Some forty years ago, as I was shifting from callow youth to callow young adult, the agreed rules of behaviour (as portrayed in most 1950s and 1960s American movies) were in great flux. One might be attacked for opening a door for a woman, or for not, occasionally in the same encounter. It was hard to know when to ask a woman for sex, when some women were calling any such attempt a kind of rape, and asserting that only women had the right to ask, while at the same time the counterculture was treating women as mere sexual playthings. I’m not saying only men had trouble with this (women did and still do, being called sluts if they had sex and frigid bitches if they didn’t), but men did have trouble. The rules were inconstant and unclear as society became post-Christian, and to an extent, post-bourgeois.

So it is not hard to imagine some man attempting to get a woman to respond by discussing sex, and inadvertently harassing her. Note: I am not saying that she is not harassed or that the harassment is minor. I am saying that the male may not even understand there is an issue. We often don’t. The rules are unclear, variable and sometimes contradictory.

It is all very well to say: treat the woman with respect. Of course one should. One should treat all people with respect. To treat women with respect is to at the very least not make her feel unsafe, demoralised, afraid or demeaned. But what does that exactly mean, and how can we “court” to use the old term, if even attempting to establish an interest is occasionally taken to be harassment? I’d be very interested in your comments, since I really do not know.

Of course, most of the time there is no problem, especially when the space in which these advances are made is equal and safe (which precludes many professional contexts), but since some people only ever really get to know people in professional contexts, some clear rules would be helpful. So please, write them down below, and discuss them.


Filed under Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Social evolution