Wednesday, February 28, 2007

That explains it...

Via Norightturn a funny and succinct explanation of the arguing techniques used by denialists of all shape and hue.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Panel Beaten (Oh for a higher caliber of right wing nut)

So picture this: there I was last Friday driving home over the Rimutakas, my blond hair streaming in the wind, humming the Beach Boys to myself*. Somehwere about the summit, as I was getting a bit horse, I decided to turn on 'the Panel' on National Radio and see what the airwaves had to offer (the audio links will break after a few days, sorry).

Now my expectations weren't high to start with. The Panel has never really done it for me; it's just a series of snippets of thoughts, unconvincing arguments and softball interviews. Or, at least, what I've heard of it is.

So I wasn't hoping for much and I lowered my expectations even further when I heard that the guests were Michael Basset and Jane Clifton. Still I thought, "what the hey, I've just had a fun day surfing, I'll be able to handle it."

Silly, silly me.

Michael Basset is really something else.

First up he wrote-off Section 59 repeal as a way of punishing decent parents when the real problem was "ferals" who only care about the welfare money that their children bring in. how does that explain countries such as Sweden that have more generous welfare states than us, have long repealed their own equivalents of section 59, and which also have considerably lower rates of child abuse. Oh well.

His next opportunity to place some air between himself and reality was when discussing Telecom and broadband speed. After starting off by noting that broadband in New Zealand was rather slow he then went on to perform the sort of double-think that must win medals in North Korea, and argue that current government and commerce commission action against Telecom was "meddling". Mercifully, one of the guest interviewees (a chap who had the unfair advantage of actually knowing what he was talking about) was able to very eloquently slap Basset down at this stage. Not that Basset appeared convinced mind you- he just exhausted his non arguments and retreated into non-funny jokes about Labour MPs.

About 10 minutes later he was back at it though, this time quoting approvingly an oped from the Herald where the author claimed that we had high rates of criminal recidivism in New Zealand because our prisons were too cushy. By this stage I was spluttering at my radio. Yip righty-oh Michael, that must explain countries like Brazil that have prison systems which are universally regarded as hell on Earth and which also have stratospherically high crime rates...I mean, honestly, has the guy ever actually read anything on the causes of crime.

Shortly afterwards I had to switch the radio off in the interests of road safety when Jane Clifton made a credible attempt to prove that she could play crazy with the big boys and suggested that prisoners currently suing the government for rights violations (abuse that occurred while they were in prison) were a product of New Zealand's 'grievance culture'. Something that stemmed, iteself, from....wait for it...our ACC system. Nice effort Jane, and if it weren't for the fact that I suspect you were just trying to fit in, I'd point you in the direction of the United States, that wonderful country with no ACC and a 'grievance culture' that has lawyers chasing ambulances for a living. I'd also note that maybe the prisoners were just pissed about having their rights violated - rather than hoping to get a bit of the good ol' ACC that they'd heard so much about.

Anyhow, the last thing I heard as I reached for the dial was Michael Basset enthusiastically agreeing. Which brings me to the point of this post. I don't mind right wingers on National Radio, not at all, the station ought to be giving airtime to all sides of our political debates. But couldn't they, for God's sake, find someone slightly less rancid than Michael Basset. Someone who realises that naked prejudice isn't a substitute for reasoned argument. Someone who wouldn't actually be a danger to their own well being if they ever got anywhere near power (and a natural monopoly) again.

If for no other reason than the future of poor, impressionable Jane Clifton I beg National Radio to try and do better.

*This bit's a lie: I'm bald and can't hum to save myself

Late Evening Chuckles for Irredeemable Statists

Via Span's 'Linky Love', 'Volume 5' we have Pandragon's: How to Explain Things to Libertarians.

Which makes for a good evening chuckle if you are an evil statist like myself.

I suspect it's only because I hate freedom but I found this comment particularly chuckle-worthy:

Am I the only person on earth who has read Ayn Rand and not been able to find a philosophy in it? Atlas Shrugged should be famous only for being the world’s worst porn.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Conspiracy Continues...

In comments on this post John Doraemi (nice pseudonym by the way) asserts:

Not so interested in the facts then?

Crimes of the State

Mr. Monbiot has taken the standard media attack approach: conflate the internet film "Loose Change" with the subject of September 11th US government complicity. How brave to redo the same smear that has gone around for several years now focusing on the easily challenged claims, and ignoring the full breadth (and breathtaking amount) of evidence.


1. The president of the United States, when informed that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center, continued to read about a pet goat.

Point one is followed by another 60 plus pieces of 'evidence' to support the claim that something resembling the official version of events on September 11, 2001 didn't take place.

Now I have to confess that I'm too busy to read all of the 'evidence' that Mr Doraemi provides so I have a request: John Doraemi, or any other conspiracy theorists out there, can you please (a) choose the best 5 points from the long list and point me to them and (b) can you try and provide me with a plausible, coherent, alternative theory of what happened on that day.

With regards to point (a) please limit yourself to facts that can be verified from credible sources and which don't contradict each other. And, most importantly, don't undermine your own theory.

This is precisely what point 1 does: if George Bush really planned the 9/11 attacks the least he could have done was script himself a decent role for when they occurred. Instead he froze in the headlights; just like you'd expect a slightly inept leader to act if caught by surprise.

Oh, and if anyone else out there does read through all the points, and finds anything offensive (particularly anything anti-semitic) please let me know and I will delete the comment.

Love is...

...a bond not an emotion?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Wisdom of Google...

...actually I'd say that the risk posed by Quad-rant is greater for the user than the computer, but hey, it's still a pretty good start for artificial intelligence.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Capitalism - can the world cope?

Timothy Garton Ash

Above all, though, there is the inescapable dilemma that this planet cannot sustain six-and-a-half billion people living like today's middle-class consumers in its rich north. In just a few decades, we would use up the fossil fuels that took some 400 million years to accrete - and change the earth's climate as a result. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today. However ingenious modern capitalists are at finding alternative technologies - and they will be very ingenious - somewhere down the line this is going to mean richer consumers settling for less rather than more.

Marx thought capitalism would have a problem finding consumers for the goods that improving techniques of production enabled it to churn out. Instead, it has become expert in a new branch of manufacturing: the manufacture of desires. The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but that it makes them want what it has to give. It's that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale. But are we prepared to abandon it? We may be happy to insulate our lofts, recycle our newspapers and cycle to work, but are we ready to settle for less so others can have more? Am I? Are you?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More Monbiot on Conspiracy Theories

I couldn't agree more.

And this snippet made me laugh:

'You did this hit piece because your corporate masters instructed you to. You are a controlled asset of the new world order ... bought and paid for." "Everyone has some skeleton in the cupboard. How else would MI5 and special branch recruit agents?" "Shill, traitor, sleeper", "leftwing gatekeeper", "accessory after the fact", "political whore of the biggest conspiracy of them all".

These are a few of the measured responses to my article, a fortnight ago, about the film Loose Change, which maintains that the United States government destroyed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Having spent years building up my leftwing credibility on behalf of my paymasters in MI5, I've blown it. I overplayed my hand, and have been exposed, like Bush and Cheney, by a bunch of kids with laptops. My handlers are furious.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sex Selective Abortions (a dilemma)

I'm pro-choice not because I believe that fetuses have no rights; nor because I believe that women have the absolute right to do what they want with their body. Clearly women don't: we don't let them exercise such a right in the case of drunk and driving; or assault; or murder.

The reason that I am pro-choice is because I believe that, up to a point, a woman's right to control her body and her future (neither of which are absolute) takes precedence over a fetus's potential right to life.

Of course this is hardly a novel position on the matter of abortion; and the only reason I raise it is to give you some perspective as to the following dilemma.

Ok, so I'm pro-choice: until the fetus's rights overtake those of its mother I don't think anyone - least of all the state - should be telling a woman to have a child or not.

The trouble is that sex selective abortion appalls me too. And it's a major issue in many parts of the world - particularly (but by no means exclusively) South and East Asia. Where it's something that contributes to the missing millions that Amartya Sen writes about.

Systematically discriminating against unborn women seems wrong to me, but the question that I struggle with is what is can be done.

Ethically, its hard to marry a belief that woman should be able to choose to bear child or not with one that suggests that it's wrong for her to make a choice on the base of gender.

Perhaps you could argue that the reason that you support a woman's right to choose is because of the major consequences of child birth and rearing. And you could argue that the whims of gender selection don't share this gravitas and so shouldn't be afforded the same protection. But this seems pretty darn tenuous to me. After all, the consequences of having a girl, rather than, a boy can be pretty devastating in some parts of the world (dowry's, beatings from disappointed husbands etc).

Likewise, you might argue on the basis of society's right to intervene in individual's decisions that have societal consequences. In China, for instance, gender imbalances are now of such a level that they have the potential to be destablising. So perhaps the Chinese government could claim the right to intervene in the name of the "greatest good for the greatest number." Now I'm a utilitarian (albeit something akin to a rule based one) but this creeps even me out. What's more I doubt that the overall good in this case is really great enough to justify such a fundamental intrusion into an individual's choices.

Another option might be to argue that the right to chose does not mean the right to discriminate; in the same vein that an employer's right to choose their employees doesn't grant them the right to choose who they select on the basis of gender or race. This sounds kind of plausible, but I'm not sure that it would really stand up to scrutiny.

And, finally, one could argue that the real problem isn't what women really choose, but what they are forced to choose by their families and partners, and patriarchal societies. And that what really needs to change is men's control over women. Get this right and sex selective abortions will disappear.

I think this view's mostly correct, but the trouble is what is to be done in the meantime (such changes, after all, take time to bring about). And sometimes - as is the case with homosexual law reform here in New Zealand and not hitting children legislation overseas - laws themselves can fast track changed mores.

Could these points possibly justify legislation against sex selective abortions????

I haven't got the faintest idea. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter...

What a wonderful world...

Ok - so insects are a lot cooler than I thought.


Life in the Undergrowth commences with the descendants of the first creatures to clamber out of the water and onto land—the scorpions and their relatives. They made the transition some 400 million years ago, long before plants or our ancestors left the oceans. If you have never thought of scorpions as remarkable, Attenborough advises that you try to pick one up, perhaps with a pair of very long forceps. Whichever method you use it will not be easy, for scorpions possess advance warning systems that sense where you are and what you are doing. Their six pairs of eyes are strategically positioned so as to leave no blind spot, and while lacking sharp focus they are capable of detecting the tiniest variations in brightness—and thus movement. Yet they cannot be dazzled because each one has its own built-in "sunglasses," composed of pigment granules, which cover the lens as light increases.

Before it sees you a scorpion will either have "heard" you through the minute hairs on its claws, or detected your advance through a slit-shaped organ on the upper part of each leg, which is so sensitive to vibration that it can pinpoint the footfall of a beetle a yard away. Or perhaps it will have detected you with its pectines. These comb-like organs have no parallel among other living creatures. They are packed with nerve endings and are probably capable of smelling or tasting minute traces of chemical compounds in the ground over which the scorpion passes.

When a male scorpion meets a female scorpion, his mind is very much on the ground under his feet. You can tell this from his pectines, which scan the earth while he shakes his body back and forth. He then approaches the female and stings her on the soft flesh in the joints of a pincer. This seems to relax her, allowing him to grasp her claw in claw, bring her face to face, and begin a scorpion waltz. In the laboratory, scorpion pairs have waltzed for two days. But in nature half an hour or so seems to suffice, with the dance terminating when the male locates a really choice piece of ground (the long laboratory waltz may occur because the male cannot find the right type of ground). Soil texture is important in scorpion sex because instead of a penis males have a detachable spike which must be firmly implanted in the ground if insemination is to occur. Once the spike is in place the male maneuvers his partner so that her genitals are atop it. As the spike bends under her weight two tiny valves open, through which the sperm is released.

It's difficult for human beings to see scorpions at night, but it's easy for scorpions to see other scorpions. That is because scorpions produce bright green fluorescent light, which is clearly visible to them but invisible to the human eye. These superb adaptations have been honed by 400 million years of evolutionary experience during which countless billions of individual scorpions with blind spots, less sensitive pectines, or poor fluorescence have been weeded out, until finally we are left with the seemingly per-fect, yet utterly alien, creatures here described.


Locusts are simply grasshoppers with peculiar habits. There are ten species worldwide, and they are characterized by their roving swarms, which can appear out of nowhere and can devastate crops over a considerable area. Each continent has its own locusts, and each species has evolved independently from less troublesome grasshopper relatives. The Rocky Mountain locust—the sole species recorded from North America —was the most numerous and devastating of them all. Some idea of its abundance can be gained from the size of a swarm that visited Nebraska in 1875. Known as Albert's Swarm (named for the Weather Service pioneer who documented it), it is estimated to have consisted of 3.5 trillion insects. That's six hundred for every person living on earth today.

A Progressive Economic Agenda

James Galbraith has an interesting progressive economic manifesto for the US published in the Nation.

One little snippet on trade agreements:

Trade agreements pushing this agenda don't cost American jobs. The problem is that they are predatory. Thus a main effect of forcing open agricultural markets in Central America will be to displace small corn and bean farmers from the land, increasing migration: As food moves south, people move north. A main effect of the TRIPS regime--the international agreement on intellectual property rights--is that it has obliged poor countries to pay extortionate prices for medicines. A main effect of open financial markets is capital flight and tax avoidance. All of these are well worth opposing, without the crutch of a pretext, and a new agenda might start with this slogan: "Get the fraud out of free trade."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

An Ideological and Intellectual Wallace Line

A while back I jotted down what bugged me about neo-classical economics.

The first point I made was the fairly standard one about assumptions of rational self-interested decision making economic agents (that's you and me).

There's two points I'd like to add to this. First, just to be clear, (most) neoclassical economists don't actually believe that humans really are wholly rational or self-interested, what they argue is that humans display these tendencies to a significant enough extent that if you assume them you can create models that relatively accurately reflect human behaviour (or, at least, models which do so better than any alternative models you can construct)*. This - as I wrote - strikes me as not only wrong, but also as a way of tailoring assumptions to produce outcomes that, ever so conveniently, reflect political beliefs.

There is, I think, something else that I should have added when making this original point though. That is that, above and beyond the actual assumptions of human behaviour that neoclassical economists use, there appears to be a further problem in that human behavior is also taken as being inevitable and unchanging. In other words, we don't behave differently in different social models or in societies with different mores. Human nature is, according to neoclassicals, static.

Compare this with Marx, to whom the possibilities of social change were closely tied to the potential for human interactions to change in a fundamental way.

Even if you're no way as radical as Marx I'd say that, if you're a progressive, you probably still hope for a world where we treat each other slightly better. I know I do. And I also think that this isn't a vain hope.

So I'd like to suggest that we have a Wallace line here: a clear division between most neoclassical economists and most progressives. All to do with whether human nature can change over time and in different circumstances (or, to be more accurate, whether different social structures might enhance different aspects of human nature).

*Joseph Stiglitz has a funny little coda to this:

Among the more amusing results that have come out of experimental economics are those concerning altruism and selfishness. It appears (at least in experimental situations) that experimental subjects are not as selfish as economists have hypothesised, except for one group - the economists themselves.

Is it because economics as a discipline attracts individuals who are, by nature, more selfish, or is it because economics helps shape individu als, making them more selfish? The answer, almost certainly, is a little bit of both. Presumably, future experimental research will help resolve the question of the relative importance of these two hypotheses.

What Social Democrats Might Learn from Anarchists

Ok, so, as George Darroch notes, I can hardly call myself an anarchist. As I wrote in the original post, while I think that the ideology itself is appealing, I just don't think that it's practicable.

That being said, however, I do think that even dull (sortof) social democrats like myself can take something from anarchism. That is the ideal of de-hierarchyialising power. While the democracy component of social democracy is infinitely better than everything else we've tried thus far (to borrow from Churchill) it's hardly, truly democratic (in the sense of every citizen having an equal input in deciding either who represents them or, more directly, the laws they live under). Clearly, wealth and media access (not to mention a few other things) gives some people considerably greater say than others. So while democracy may entail less hierarchy than feudalism or dictatorship, it leaves much to be desired if your ideal is a society where political power is distributed in a way that treats us all as equals.

On top of this I think that a less hierarchical state would actually dispose its social functions better than the one we have at present. So there we go: social democracy that is not only more social and more democratic. If only we could tackle hierarchy.

It's beyond the scope of this sunny afternoon for me to explain just how I think this ideal might be enacted so for now I'll just end with four words - participatory democracy, deliberative democracy - and a promise to, hopefully some time soon, learn and write more about these tools.

post missing

missing i say

Saturday, February 17, 2007

They Just Don't Make Evil Toadies Like They Used To

Via the often good Aaronovitch Watch site, I came across this new addition to my blog-roll: Indecent Left. While I don't agree with everything written there - for example the author seems at one point to diminish the suffering of the Iraqi Kurds - it's well worth a read for its thorough fisking of things Decent.

Particularly fun is the trashing given to the ever tedious Oliver Kamm. And Oliver's patently disingenuous quest to discredit Noam Chomsky.

What's especially delicious about Indecent Left's Kamm-watching is that it hoists Kamm high upon his own petard. Kamm (who, if his not infrequent boasts are to be believed, has read essentially everything Chomsky has ever written) endlessly repeats several purported examples of Chomsky either excusing indefensible regimes or incorrectly/dishonestly citing other people's work. As Indecent Left shows, however, Chomsky's isn't guilty of the exculpations that Kamm alleges. And the only way that Kamm can make it look like he is, is to...wait for it...dishonestly cite Chomsky (and other's) work.

Now this isn't to say that Chomsky's never got it wrong in citing people but - for crying out loud - the man has written shelves full of books and articles, and given hundreds of interviews over his life. And has been submitted to extensive scrutiny not just from Kamm. I doubt that there's one politically engaged academic on Earth whose track record would be completely unblemished after all this. (Indeed, given the apparent obsessiveness with which Kamm has read Chomsky's work, the fact that he ends up relying on the same few examples time and time again in my opinion ends up proving much the opposite of that which Kamm sets out to.)

Kamm, on the other hand, has one book, his columns in the Times, some articles elsewhere, and his blog. And, as Indecent Left so clearly shows, even limiting oneself to the smaller subset of this corpus (the Chomsky files) it's fairly easy to find errors and distortions in his work.

Given that the sub-text of Kamm's fact checking of Chomsky appears to be that Chomsky's work is not worthy of consideration, what conclusions should we draw taking into account his own shoddy 'scholarship'?

None of this, I might add, should indicate that I am an uncritical fan of Chomsky - his world of black and white frustrates me, as does his apparent (and occasionally, but unconvincingly, disavowed) inability to appreciate that there are real differences within the American political mainstream. But, nevertheless, Chomsky remains essential in my opinion, simply because he has shed much light over the years on the unfashionable subject of the crimes of our own side. And Chomsky remains admirable to me because this task, by its very nature, is a thankless one.

Kamm, on the other hand, appears to have Chomsky's nose for power, but rather than seeking to hold it to account prefers, apparently, return with fervor it's rewarding embrace.

In short, while he does write the odd useful thing on people like Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir, he's a toadie. And, as Indecent Left shows, a pretty inept one at that.

Strange Times in the Middle of the Road...

Huh...Maia of Capitalism Bad Tree Pretty scored even lower than me on the what kind of anarchist are you test. Now I know that not all anti-capitalists are anarchists, and that these tests are pretty blunt tools but nevertheless I would have thought...

(and I have to admit that I am envious of her 0% score on anarco-primativism - I'd rather hoped I would get that, but failed)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

They Just Don't Make Fascists Like They Used To

Also via Bloggreen, this is hilarious from the Onion.

Things I Never Knew About Myself (1)

Ok, so pretty obviously I'm not an Anarchist. I think that, as far as utopian philosophies go, Anarchism is the most beautiful. And I can see where Noam Chomsky is coming from when he argues that Anarchism is the logical extension of enlightenment thought. But - as with all utopian philosophies - I just can't see it working.

Nevertheless, when I read about the 'what kind of anarchist are you?' test on Bloggreen I thought I'd give it a crack.

And, to my surprise, it turns out that I am anarcha-feminist:

You scored as Anarcha-Feminist. Anarcha-feminists put a strong emphasis on the importance of patriachy, arguing that all forms of hierachy can be traced back to man's domination over woman. Although associated with the 1960s, the movement has its roots in the theories of Emma Goldman and Voltarine DeCleyre.







Christian Anarchist






What kind of Anarchist are you?
created with

Which puzzles me because I'd always thought if anything I would be an anarcho-syndicalist. Not just because I thought the anarcho-syndicalists in Homage to Catalonia were cool, but also because I think that market socialism (worker run and owned means of production operating in a market environment) might plausibly work (although it would have to be state moderated market, market socialism).

Instead I turn out to be an anarcha feminist. Despite most definitely not agreeing with the central precept of the philosophy as detailed above (that all forms of hierarchy can be traced back to man's domination of woman). I guess that main reason I got the score I did is because, while I don't think it's the root of all hierarchy, I do believe that man's domination of women is an important issue.

So there we go...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Emails Galore...

. neglect to check your emails for a couple of days and this is what happens:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What's the Matter With Mainstream Economics

As much as economics itself enthuses me - I like the way its axioms challenge my left-wingedness, and I like the rigidity as a constraint against woolie thinking - I still can't shake the fact that mainstream economics bugs me.

Here's why. But first I want to emphasise one thing: this isn't an attack on economists per se. And to emphasise this I've tried to note in brackets economists who have made similar points to my own or who are working in areas which incorporate the critiques made).

1. Rational, Self-Interested decision making agents. (Daniel Kahneman et al)
Oddly enough, such assumptions, I think, will get you quite a way in predicting human nature. The trouble is they're at their most wrong where it most matters: it's those elements of our lives where we don't act with naked self interests that are crucial to a functioning society. (call it Social Capital if you will - the sum total of all our unselfish acts). What's more, by ignoring the less cut-throat elements of human behavior certain economists have neatly used something akin to a tautology to smuggle in their political beliefs. If you believe that humans only act in their own self interest then it follows that you'll have system that venerates this. On top of this such thinking seems to me likely to create something of a self fulfilling prophecy. If you treat people in a certain way to an extent they will start acting that way.

2. (Related to 1) An apparent willful neglect of the impact of advertising/marketing on people to make decisions in their own interest. (John Kenneth Galbraith)
Actually, that's not quite true, some economists like Gary Becker haven't ignored this - they've disputed it. They are - in my not entirely humble opinion - wrong. Consider this. Businesses spend billions each year on advertising/marketing. If marketing really has no impact on consumer choice (no more than simple factual adverts) why do they continue to do so? Either businesses are behaving irrationally or consumers are. Given that businesses are subject to the fairly strict justice of the market, while people aren't exactly renowned for being able to calculate well between alternate utilities, my bet is that businesses are right.

3. A willful ignorance of power. (John Kenneth Galbraith)
From the subtle power of manipulation (as per 2) to the larger power of vested interests, wars and borders, many economists just don't seem to get it.

4. An unnatural love of markets
There's a lot to be said for markets and market mechanisms. But I honestly think a lot of economists are biased in favour of market solutions in the same way that scientists who study tigers are biased in favour of large, orange, stripy cats.

5. A Positivist Bias
Likewise, there's a lot to be said for empirical evidence and mathematical models. But there are other ways of generating knowledge. Now lots of economists are aware of this, but I'd hazard a guess that not many major economics journals public articles without maths in them. I suppose that an economist might argue back that maths is their stock, trade and comparative advantage. Fair enough, but better then that they leave some subject areas to historians and the like.

6. A tendency to ignore other social sciences
Hello, all you public choice people, ever heard of political science?

7. Underneath those paving stones - value judgments (Amartya Sen)
Contrary to what many economists appear to think, much of their work is not underpinned by laws of science but rather by political philosophy and value judgments. Should we go for the most efficient economic system or one that offers certain things to all? Is it better to give a dollar to a pauper or a millionaire? These are the sort of questions that don't seem to get debated nearly enough.

8. Diminishing Marginal Utility (Richard Layard)
This ought to be a no-brainer. It just amazes that there's even a debate on this, let alone a treasury department in my own country which appears to think the opposite.

9. An apparent unwillingness to consider that things other than GDP impact on utility (Richard Layard)
Or indeed that GDP might eventually (past a certain level) have little impact, while other things like inequality do.

Science and Society

Alan Sokal is famous as the scientist who perpetuated the so-called Sokal Hoax on the Post-Modernist academic journal Social Text. At the time he was combating an overstated but real trend amongst certain section of the academic left to dismiss science as 'just another world view'.

Times, as they do, have changed, and now a much bigger threat to scientific endeavour comes from the right: the Republican War on Science. Accordingly Sokal has an oped in the LA Times with Chris Mooney, the author of the book the Republican War on Science, defending scientific thought from its latest threat.

They also discuss the po-mo's though and I thought this little quote demonstrated succinctly the difference between sensible thinking on science and society and nonsense:

In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.

Thanks: Tim Lambert

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Thought for the day...

'Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.'

variously attributed to Plato, John Watson, and Bob Dylan's grandmother

George Monbiot Joins the Conspiracy

George Monbiot joins the conspiracy.

This, I think, is bang on:

People believe Loose Change because it proposes a closed world: comprehensible, controllable, small. Despite the great evil that runs it, it is more companionable than the chaos that really governs our lives, a world without destination or purpose. This neat story draws campaigners away from real issues - global warming, the Iraq war, nuclear weapons, privatisation, inequality - while permanently wrecking their credibility.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Alliances of Convenience

In comments at Harry's Place (you'll have to scroll down sorry, they don't seem to have a comment permalink facility set up) David T, who is generally regarded as the sanest Harryhead, writes:

There is a trot, stopper and "Islamofascist" alliance of convenience, but I think it only really has hold in parts of the New Statesman, parts of the Independent, parts of the Guardian (but less, post Maddy Bunting/Seaumus Milne) and lots in the London Review of Books.

By which he's arguing, I think, that the reason why the left doesn't see radical Islam for the threat it is, is because the left (and it's not just the Trots: he's including Madeline Bunting who is surely a liberal not a socialist) has made a conscious decision to ignore the uglier aspects of Islam in the search for allies against the hated USA and Israel.

And you know what?

I really don't think this is the case at all.

For what it's worth, I think that the alliance of convenience stretches about three quarters the way from Socialist Workers Party to Respect (and trust me, if you life outside the UK, you realise that distance is even less significant than that between the Euston Manifesto and the Henry Jackson Society).

Once you get beyond this, you find plenty of people on the left, who see Islamic fundamentalism as a threat, but less of a threat than that posed by the leaders of the world's sole superpower actively campaigning against multilateral institutions, efforts to stop global warming, and attempts to curtail nuclear weapons proliferation.

I don't like fundamentalist Islam but a multi-polar future (hello China and India), with more nukes, and droughts and unraveling ecosystems, and no credible international institutions strikes me as a somewhat larger threat. Which is why I expend more time opposing Bush et al than the local Imam.

On top of this though, I think that the alliance of convenience that Mr T (hey!) sees has more to do with progressives struggling to negotiate the phenomenon I described a few posts ago as 'the liberal dilemma'. For progressives the 'clash of civilisations' isn't the simplistic narrative of secular democracy and its brave leaders against evil fundamentalism. It's more like a genuine threat of fundamentalism on one side; overly militaristic (for all the wrong reasons) leaders along with demagogues and racists on the other; while in between there is us (and I include David T in the us here), most Muslims, and - for the time being - most other English/French/Kiwis etc.

Now navigating this isn't simple. You are going to find yourself dealing with issues like how do you defend people from racism who are racists themselves? do you reach out to popular moderates who still hold repugnant views (but at least are adamantly opposed to suicide bombing)? etc.

And I honestly think that the worst that can be said about progressives is that they sometimes trip up on these issues (just like - I might add - the Harryheads have tripped up spectacularly in their support for neo-conservative foreign policy).

But making mistakes in the tricky reality of modern politics is hardly he same as forming an alliance of convenience.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Defence Of Christianity

I'm not religious, nor am I an atheist (and certainly not an anti-theist), I'm just another agnostic* muddling through and pretty confident that I'll never find an answer that convinces me one way or another of the existence of god

Yet I'm about to offer a defence of Christianity here. Not in the attempt to try and win any of you out there in blog reader land round to this particular religion, but as a way of explaining in part why I'm not convinced by atheist arguments that organised religion is all hogwash.

My thinking on this has been informed by discussions with a very smart (religious) Jewish friend of mine and another friend who is atheist (or maybe agnostic) but the son of devout liberal Christians.

I'll offer my defence as a dialogue, which won't be elegant but it will be easy - which is good as I am tired and my back is starting to hurt.

Atheist: You just have to look at something like the problem of hell to realise that the bible can't in any way literally be true.
Muddling person: Granted, but I can still be a believer in some form of deity, some larger power.
Atheist: Yes, but why call yourself a Christian when as you've just admitted some central parts of that belief system just can't be right.
Muddling person: The reason why I can still call myself a Christian is because I think god is bigger than reason, bigger than comprehension, and I've been raised in a Christian culture - so this is my particular window into the larger entity that is god. I don't believe everything in the bible but I find strength in its messages of love and forgiveness and I find a framework in which to house my belief.
Atheist: hhhhmmmm...ok but if, as you say, we can't understand the mind of god, we certainly can't appeal to him/her/it to when creating rules and laws.
Muddling person: No of course, the belief can only be a personal one.

*Occasionally, on a good day, when everything seems just sparkley in the universe, I do have moments of pantheist belief.


Timothy Garton Ash has a very sensible column on multi-culturalism.