Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On Science and Postnormalism

In my opinion, writing is mankind's greatest achievement.  The ability to write things down, to record our thoughts and researches for future generations to read and learn from is a thing of wondrous beauty.  It has enabled the arts and sciences, civilisation and humanity itself to reach pinnacles otherwise impossible to reach.  Bernard of Chartres was correct when he likened us to dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

If writing is mankind's greatest achievement, then, science is his greatest endeavour.  We have, through millennia of research, divined the existence of the atom, its structure and how its power may be harnessed; we have bottled lightning, walked upon the face of the moon, cured smallpox and myriad other ills, discovered how to cure the body by cutting into it, built machines that can carry great loads or travel across oceans and skies, found methods of cleaning water to make it safe to drink and are on our way to discovering the deepest wonders of the universe.  Each of us has benefited from this; not only can we expect to live longer than our forebears, but we enjoy a life of such luxury and plenty that previous generations could not imagine.  We can can travel in flying machines to all corners of the globe, and hold a conversation with someone on another continent as clearly and as easily as if they were in the next room.

How have we done this?  By century upon century if trial and error.  By someone noticing something and saying "That's funny..." and then having the curiosity and patience to find out why it was funny and what was going on.  By men and women of great intellect spending many patient years trying things out, making mistakes and achieving great results.  By these people formulating theories about why things happen the way they do, and when those theories are disproved, coming up with new theories.  An endless process of continuous revision, improvement, updating and above all testing, proving and disproving.

Scientific theories are developed that explain why things work the way they do, and - most importantly - make predictions about the results of experiments and phenomena before they occur, allowing the theory to be tested.  Of course, any theory must be falsifiable to be called a theory; you can prove it wrong if it is wrong - but of course, you cannot prove it right.  The closest you can come to that is to fail to prove it wrong.  And of course, before any scientific paper is published, it is subject to peer review - a process by which all other scientists working in the same field review the research, its methodology and findings, and even attempt to replicate those findings.  Damned fine icing on the cake, this last; stops time, money, resources and effort being wasted on blind alleys.

What a wonder and a glory is science!  Bernard was indeed right: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.

But there is a cancer eating away at the heart of the endeavour.  There are those that seek to invert its principles.  There are dwarfs who wish to kill the giants.

Two such dwarfs go by the names of Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz - long may their names be reviled.  What these poisonous homunculi thought up was a concept they called 'Postnormal science'.  The essence of this was that for cases where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent", they suggest that there must be an "extended peer community" consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it.  Regardless if those entering the dialogue know anything about the subject - they must be included within the peer review process.

Clearly, this makes no sense.  How can anyone who is not a peer - i.e. not a scientist operating in the same field of research - possibly able to provide meaningful insight?  I mean, could you have anything sensible to say on, for example, the altered expression of sialylated glycoproteins in breast cancer using hydrazide chemistry?  I know I couldn't.  Couldn't even tell you what it means.  But our dwarfs would claim that anyone with breast tissue - which is all of us - should be included within the peer review process, and our opinions should count equally as much as those who are experts in the field.


Now, the excrescence of Postnormalism was originally defecated onto the protesting face of science in regard to climate change. I shall not speak of this subject here - largely because I am ignorant of the science involved, but also because it is such an enormous subject that it is beyond the scope of this blog to comment upon.  The thought was that the consequences of man-made runaway climate change would be so catastrophic if true, that it would be best to corrupt the science behind any research to always show the result that it was true. To subjugate science to a political aim, in other words.  Lysenkoism at its very best.

This has spread to claiming that, when there is no proof either way, a 'consensus' of opinion is all that is required.  Let me reiterate that: under postnormal science, a scientific theory does not have to make predictions that are accurate, it does not have to disprove any alternative theories, it does not even have to be falsifiable (and therefore does not even need to be a theory).  All that need happen is that enough people - preferably scientists, but not necessarily, and not necessarily operating in the same field - have to say that they think the 'theory' is right (or wrong) and Presto Changeo!  The science is in, let there be no more debate.

And it is not just climate change that has seen this happen.  The theory of evolution is now open to challenge by those who like the idea of intelligent design.  The origins of the universe likewise.  In every field, the voluble, the ignorant and the obnoxious demand to have their voices heard, and for their ignorance to be assigned equal weight as another's knowledge.

It has reached the point that the website of Popular Science has even had to close all comments to all further articles. The ignorant and the foolish are so keen to spread their postmodern nihilism, to shit their foolish uninformed opinions into the ears of others, that the drawbridges are having to be drawn up.  Should this continue, science will become once again the preserve of the few, understood and mistrusted by the many who will prefer superstition and guesswork to reason and empirical evidence.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the age of the Endarkenment.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A Brief Note on Racism

Just lately I have heard the words 'racism is power combined with prejudice', although the word 'privilege' is sometimes used in place of 'power'.  Often, it is expressed thus:


as though making it look like an equation will somehow make it more convincing.  Certainly, it seems to be repeated like a mantra, as though many repetitions will turn a trite soundbite into a truism.

There is, of course, one problem with this little phrase:  it's a load of old bollocks.  Let me explain why.

I could invoke the dictionary definitions of racism at this point, which define it as being discrimination against a person on the basis of their race.  I'm not going to do that, though, as it is often the sign of a weak argument, not to mention being a logical fallacy of the argumentum ad verecundiam sort. No, no.  I shall leave such floundering to those that can manage no better.

Let us instead take a look at the thinking behind this sentence.

The idea is that to be racist, one must be in a position of power over the one against whom one is discriminating.  I have actually seen the belief expressed that it is 'impossible for black people to be racist', although this has had to be hastily amended to 'impossible for black people to be racist against white people', and then to 'impossible for black people to be racist against white people in Western countries' when it is pointed out who wields the power in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa.

But this whole idea, this way of thinking, is utterly flawed.  Let us presume that we are talking about the UK.  If a white person espouses opinions to the effect that all people who are not white are inferior and should be treated as such, that white person would be called racist, and their ideals held to be vile and execrable.

That's fine - I can get right behind that.

But if a black, Asian, etc person were to say the same thing about white people, that apparently would be fine and dandy.  Because white people, you see, have the power.  All of them, without exception. Yes.

You can see where the wheels are starting to come off this argument already, can't you?  If all white people are in a position of power, why are so many of them poor and disregarded by successive governments?

Well, now we must look at just what we mean by 'power'.  Being the majority, perhaps?  No, that won't work - no-one would have said that black South Africans under Apartheid had power, despite being the majority by a very long way.

Does it mean being in government?  Well it could; again, looking at South Africa under Apartheid, the government was drawn pretty much exclusively from the white population.  By definition, then, black South Africans now all have power.  All of them.  Even those that live in the townships and can barely scratch a living.

Seems pretty flimsy to me.

Is it perhaps a combination of the two?  Being of the demographic that forms the majority and forms most or all of the government?  It might do. It might well do.  But that's the norm in most countries, isn't it - that the indigenous population forms its own government?  I thought that this was a good thing?  Power to the people and all that.

Perhaps 'power' means being socially dominant?  Isn't that the same thing as being the majority?  Cultural dominance - same thing again.  Oh dear.  We have attempted to grasp what power means in this context, and it's like trying to grasp smoke.  It evaporates like faerie gold at sunrise.

Maybe it means not being subject to the same laws as other demographics within the overall population?  Yes, that might be it!  It would fit the word 'privilege' well too.  I think that we are onto something here.  A person who is part of a group, race or sub-culture - within a larger population - that is accorded greater rights and less responsibility than everyone else.  A group that is not required to observe certain laws that nevertheless pertain to the rest of the population.  A group that cannot be called racist or be prosecuted for racism when they actively discriminate against other races in that population?

Sounds like power to me.  The kind of power that a man on the street might have.

So, if a member of one race can discriminate against people of another race and not face censure of any sort, that person can be said to have power.  Which combined with their prejudice, makes them racist.

So if we examine the original equation-like argument above:

If you say that black people cannot be racist against white people, you are saying that black (or insert any non-caucasian race here) people are exempted from the laws, mores and manners of society with regard to discrimination.  Which means that black people have power.  Which, if one them exhibited prejudice, would by your very own argument make him racist.

If, on the other hand, you say that only white people can be racist, you are saying that they cannot escape censure for discrimination, which would mean that they lacked power.  Which would mean that they were not being racist.  Which would mean that they could not be accused of any wrongdoing.  Which would mean that they had power.  Oh dear.  What a very circular argument.

All of which is to say - the argument that racism equals power plus prejudice is bullshit.  Racism really is discriminating against people on the basis of their race.  Their race, mind - not religion (but that's a subject for another time).  Just that.  Doesn't matter what the make-up of the population is, if you discriminate against someone solely on the basis of their race, you're a racist.

Oh, before we go, two other things.

Firstly, isn't it racist to refer to black people as though they were a single homogeneous race?  You know, given that only 100,000 people originally left Africa to form the population of the rest of the world, and everybody else stayed in Africa.  Which is why there is far greater genetic diversity within Africa than outside it, and that there is therefore no such thing as 'the black race'.  There are a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples in Africa - lumping them all in together is orientalism, and arguably racist.

Secondly, please do bear in mind also that, if you wish to say that any ethnic minority or minorities within a country cannot ever be considered racist; if those minorities should be better represented in government to a degree disproportionate to their size within the general population; if you wish to grant any those minority groups greater power and control over the country - you are arguing in favour of Apartheid in South Africa. Doesn't matter if you are talking about the UK - you are saying that the principles of Apartheid are sound.

It also means that if you claim that 'black people can't be racist' - you are arguing in favour of Apartheid.  Either that, or you are saying that Apartheid wasn't racist.

Just saying.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

In absentia Dei, Ratione.

So I've just had an entertaining little debate on the joy that is twatter on the subject of religion, with a Christian and a Muslim on the opposite side. And it got me thinking.

It's not uncommon for atheists to trot out the argument that wars and murders have been carried out in the name of religion. Now, this is not a good reason to be an atheist.  The lack of evidence for god, that is a reason to be an atheist. The fact that of all the explanations for the existence of the universe, "God did it" is the least feasible - that's a good reason not to believe in god. But the shitty stuff done in His name - sorry, no. That's not a good reason. It's just sulking.

The crux of this argument was that the religious sorts were claiming that it was unfair to blame a religion for the nastier things done in its name. When it was pointed out by others (not me) that war and murder on religious grounds has been commonplace, and that no such thing has been done in the name of atheism, they began to flounder. The Muslim dropped out of the conversation, after asserting that Soviet purges were carried out for the purposes of spreading atheism, but the Christian chappy struggled on for a bit. 

His final point was that if nothing bad has been done in the name of atheism, nothing good had been done in its name either.

And there, right there, we find the fundamental misunderstanding of the religious mind. Because, you see, many religious people view atheism as a subsitute for religion. And it's not. It is the absence of religion.

Let's say you are a Christian.  It's feasible that you would go out and do certain things - good or bad, laudable or execrable - in the name of Christianity.  But you wouldn't go out and do things in the name of not being a Muslim, of not being a Hindu.

So why then would an atheist do anything in the name of not believing in god?

De Profundis

I don’t like what’s happening these days.

We seem to be moving towards some kind of socialist state, yet a quick sift through Twitter and the like seems to indicate that the lefties believe this to be some kind of Tory/right wing move.

New laws are passed with a monotonous regularity that consolidate ever more power into the hands of the state.  The government seeks greater and greater influence over our everyday lives, greater powers to watch us and intercept our communications, and to dictate the mores and manners of society.  Offence is now given, not taken, under law and the use of rude words online can result in arrest.

We are seeing the EU become ever more powerful as the sovereignty of the member states is eroded by the very politicians who are meant to protect it, and all the while the will of the electorate is willfully and deliberately ignored. Power is being passed into the hands of unelected bureaucrats and we are told that this is a ‘good thing’.

Meanwhile, war crimes are committed by our leaders and anyone who speaks of them is imprisoned. Green energy policies are introduced that will put energy prices up so high that they will soon be unaffordable. Gas burning power stations are being shut down while hippies protest against the idea (let alone the practice) of fracking for gas that we begin to lack the stations to burn, whilst a network of inefficient windmills are subsidised and provisioned with diesel generators as back up that will produce energy at a cost six times as much as that of the power stations being closed down.

We are told that there is the threat of Islamic terrorism, largely a result of the aforementioned war crimes, but we are approaching a state of dhimmitude at home because the authorities don’t want to upset Muslims and refuse to deport known terrorists.

The news is censored and only certain crimes are reported, and there is bias in what are supposed to be trusted and impartial outlets.  Even well-known individuals working for those outlets find themselves persona non grata if they express views or opinions that have not been officially sanctioned by the political commissars so firmly entrenched within the broadcasting corporations.

Our freedoms are being increasingly curtailed to ostensibly protect us from the very terrorists created by our government, terrorists who are then pandered and fawned to by the government. Access to the Internet and impartial information is being restricted in ways that were supposed to be impossible – the very reason for the initial creation of the Internet in the first place. Anyone caught telling you what the government is doing goes to jail for a very long time. Our every word is monitored, recorded and watched, our associations and friendships analysed and sifted.

And we are lied to. Lied to by the media, and by governments who lie so casually and so transparently that they must know we are not fooled. And all they do is lie about lying.

Can someone please answer me – what is happening and why?

This post was first published at kneejerk.