Archive for April, 2017

Why do the right hate science? I

April 23, 2017

We all know that right wing governments and propaganda mills hate independent science. Science for war or corporate profit is ok, if still suspect, but independent science is considered biased and dangerous. Scientists should not speak, and they should have their budgets controlled by the righteous. We are told they are part of a world wide conspiracy to hurt ordinary people, or that they do research which is uncomfortable for the right only because of their greed for funding from largely unnamed sources and so on.

For anyone who has known scientists, this is obviously a load of rubbish. Scientists are lousy at organization; the idea that you could pressure 95% or more scientists to agree on something for money, especially when money is so available for disagreeing with that something, is just ludicrous.

So why has science become problematic?

I will argue that this largely has to do with the inevitable failure of neoliberal ‘free market’ policies over the last 40 years, the need to distract people, and the need to lead them away from any real knowledge, or even converse with people who might have knowledge.

The argument proceeds by considering

a) Uncertain social science
b) Medical and climate science
and
c) Religion

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A Defence of PoMo in Politics

April 19, 2017

I’ve seen a few articles recently in which people seem to be blaming Postmodernism for ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump, and for a departure from Enlightenment principles into ‘darkness’. This seems rather a stretch to me.

One of the problems with this position, is that it sees both the enlightenment and post-modernism, as single movements, when they are quite pluralistic: Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault for example, do not have a common project, other than in the sense that people writing at the same time in a similar tradition have commonalities.

I would further suggest that many apparent tenets of post-modernism actually share similarities with people in the enlightenment, and come out of other recognisable modernist sources such as anthropology, linguistics, physics and so on. Cynically, post-modernism as a whole has little interest in the British Enlightenment, because it makes it seem less original as a movement.

Many of the movers of the British enlightenment, which is the Enlightenment I am most familiar with, after a lot of arguing came to what I would claim is the entirely justifiable conclusion that ‘Reason’ was not enough, and that reason without reference to the real world could lead to complete fantasy. If your axioms/assumptions and obvious statements where wrong your conclusions would be wrong. Hence ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘alchemy’ moved into what we call science, in which, as far as possible, statements had to be checked against reality in front of trustworthy, knowledgeable and critical witnesses.

It’s position is we cannot assume things to be true in advance. That will mislead us.

Now, let’s move to a patch of Foucault arguing with Chomsky:

“… you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should — and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. ”

Foucault’s remark is entirely within keeping with these mainstream British Enlightenment Principles – where are these ‘rights’ that people keep talking about? Are they not enshrined in, and derived from, particular political structures – which as Adam Smith, no less, pointed out are there to defend the propertied and the powerful? It may be that the discourse is not entirely consistent, and can be turned against itself. But that does not mean ‘rights’ exist. You would need to show Foucault a historical example of this in action before he might agree to the process working. We are all familiar with the remark attributed to Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – this is more concise and more general than Foucault, but the meaning is similar. We need to change our reason to solve problems.

Likewise Foucault insists that knowledge is intertwined with power. Who is going to argue that Religion has not been intertwined with power and challenges to power and the same seems true of science and economics? We know that commercial science is not always as accurate as independent science. That is why some of us fight for academic funding to be determined by academics rather than corporations, and why others want funding and work conditions to be determined by corporations or corporate principles. To deny this relationship between power and knowledge, seems to be to deny a basic political truth, of which Voltaire and Diderot were not unaware.

I’d also argue that power is intertwined with ignorance, but that is another argument, but it should lead us to caution. Burke’s ‘conservative’ defense of British Tradition against revolution and ‘free markets’ is based upon a distrust in reason, and a trust in the empirical complexity of reality. We may not perceive everything which is going on, or how it all interacts and hence the system needs tending carefully not disrupting ‘reasonably’ according to our fancies. The same kind of proposition is found in functionalist anthropology acting as a defense of ‘native’ societies against colonial disorganization – it foreshadows systems theory, which is vital for understanding ecologies and social interactions with ecologies.

Now as it happens, both Hume and Berkeley disrupted this empiricist stand by showing from empiricist principles that we have no direct access to reality, only to our imagining and habits, or to the imagining done by God in Berkeley’s case. Of course there was the ‘common sense’ reaction to these positions, but it was always within this wider framework as discussed. Reason is not supreme. And a belief in the supremacy of reason leads you to serious misunderstanding of human social functioning.

Derrida further illustrates how this failure of reason and understanding can occur through language. One of his main claims to fame is the infamous argument that there is nothing outside the text. For me, this seems to be saying that humans give things meaning immediately – we treat things as ‘texts’. I don’t know why people get upset with this proposition. To some extent, science is about trying to remove the meanings we give things immediately and giving them meanings which are more in accord with their nature. But we are always prone to bend them to our inner psycho-cultural meanings. And the more obscure, or threatening, the science the more this bending will occur.

Derrida also takes the ‘context dependence’ of meaning seriously. Meaning is delimited by context. That is a fairly standard linguistic understanding. Context is unstable. Different people bring different contexts to the same ‘texts’, consequently meaning is unstable. Add difficulties of cross cultural understanding, historical shifts in the meanings of words and so on, then this becomes even more of an issue. We may be reasoning from assumptions which are mistaken interpretations of some previous work. This is fairly obvious to literary critics. Any relatively complex text will have an almost infinite number of interpretations; although it may not have every possible interpretation – as I commonly say the number of people who seriously argue that Hamlet is about the mating habits of African elephants is remarkably small. However, no valuable text is exhausted of meaning by any particular reading. I also don’t know why this proposition often seems to be considered a terrible thing, as it seems necessary to any kind of understanding.

Indeed one of the problems with understanding Trump and the Trump movement, is that the contexts brought to bear on understanding it’s statements are extremely different; they are so different that people in the same cultural group cannot understand each other. Refusal to accept context dependence, means that much commentary is framed in terms of the stupidity of others, and such statements help to further the separation and lack of understanding and communication.

These positions seem, to me, to be fundamental starting places for political analysis, along with understanding how economic and political ‘truths’ get propagated through organs of power, and they are not hindered by post-modern thought.

Righteous Policy

April 8, 2017

As I’ve said before, right wing policy is simple:

Nanny the rich
Kick ordinary people
Keep polluting

That’s it. Nothing more. Once they have proposed cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting wages or services for everyone else, and supporting polluting industries, they have no ideas at all.

Possession

April 8, 2017

I’ve been in Queensland and have just finished reading the last week of the Murdoch owned Courier mail – which may well be the only local daily newspaper for the whole state. Lots of stuff on the massive cyclone, the devastation and the spirit of Queenslanders.

Hardly any mention of climate change. Except to denounce the Greens for exploiting the tragedy for political gain and for dissing Queenslanders, and quoting Bill Shorten, leader of the Labor party, agreeing that the Greens were indeed terrible. So much for the ‘obstructionism’ of the mainstream left.

However, there was Lots and Lots of stuff about how wonderful the Adani mine is going to be for jobs and development, and suggesting that any opposition is from privileged city folk and racists…. They also spent many column inches denouncing a small Melbourne Council who was going to remove its funds from Westpac, because that bank was funding the Adani mine. Most of the denouncing focused on how small this council was. Yes even what they perceive as the smallest dissent, really upsets the Righteous.

They did cheer for the Queensland Labor government allocating Adani unlimited water access and use, at the cost of farmers and rivers all the way down to South Australia. Only recently 87% of Queensland was declared drought affected, but that must not stand in the way of…. whatever this mine is doing. Some Federal Minister said if this mine can’t go ahead then no mines anywhere in Australia will be successful. There is nobody living out there…. News to the local aboriginal people I would suspect and, as usual, devoid of any sense that local events can produce wide range catastrophe. Coal mining does produce poisons and threaten the common water table for the whole state. Coal is burnt and the atmosphere is shared, whatever he might want to the contrary.

There is a kind of total weirdness going on here. A real threat to ‘colonial civilisation’ in Australia is being deliberately shunted to one side, in favour of extremely dubious short term benefits, which will probably not be delivered.

We sell our coal, and get nothing for it, except a dead barrier reef, dispossessed locals, poisoned water, and less than 2,000 jobs. Royalties and taxes will be unlikely to be paid to cover the costs or even repay the loans from the government – Adani’s tax arrangements are legendarily complex. The profit does not even go to a local company, or even a reputable company. We do not help relieve poverty in India, because there is no grid in the poor areas (people cannot afford it).

There seems to be a madness infesting the right, a possession by an ideological machine, which blinds, deafens, numbs and rips out the smell centres of its possessed, and clatters on without any direction other than destruction. Nothing must stop it. It chants away that resistance is useless.

It would be nice to think not, but what is the alternative?