Monday, April 29, 2013

Pots and cats

It ain't necessarily so

I hate the term the New Atheists. I am fed up with the way it is used to sneer at a group of modern authors who are simply the latest in a long-standing intellectual tradition that rejects religion and religious thought. What distinguishes them is that they are good writers and have a large, receptive audience. They have not had to deal with the hostility and persecution dished out to Richard Carlile or G W Foote; instead they are read by many, well-rewarded and face ineffectual opponents using some of the sloppiest arguments I have seen.

Rambling articles describe atheism as another form of religious faith (presumably in the same way that all anti-Fascists are Nazis, anti-Communists worship Stalin, and anti-atheists … you get my drift) or think that without the moral code and sense of right and wrong that religion brings we will sink into a pit of cruel depravity. Max Dunbar demolishes one of the worst examples here.

But what strikes me is that the defence of religion being mounted rarely contains a defence of the existence of god. Instead, all the discussion is really about the sociology of religion. And this is the crux of the argument. The religious believe in the existence of one or more supernatural or spiritual beings, whilst us atheists find the whole notion preposterous. Rather than take on the empirical evidence or discuss theology, it is more convenient for a predominantly secular audience to shift the debate away from the literal truth of religion to the function it performs. Yet, really the argument is simple. And, as far as I am concerned, there is no god.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ignorance is not bliss

The measles outbreak in South Wales continues, with one death possibly attributed to the disease. It is the inevitable outcome of the dip in vaccination caused by the MMR scare. Much has been made of the role of the right-wing press, most notably the Daily Mail, in feeding the anxiety engendered by the claims of Andrew Wakefield that led him to be struck off the medical register. (The whole saga is explained simply in a graphic here). Yet, I was also taken by surprise recently when anti-vaccination sentiments were raised in another, more radical, setting. This shows that suspicion of science goes well beyond the hypochondriacs of the Mail.

Part of the reason why MMR gained such prominence is that a good controversy sells papers and part is that the default position of the populist press is distrust of what they see as the 'vested interests' of aloof experts on the make. They are driven by anti-intellectualism, see themselves as champions of 'common sense', popular wisdom, or, as it is also known, ignorance. This is where the radical left, especially in its counter-cultural moments, also steps in with its healthy scepticism of the powerful. This can be highly rational and understandable, though it sometimes leads to overreactions with unintended consequences. Yet, it can become a blanket judgement and when it comes to alternative health, this very scepticism of 'big pharma', again held with good reason, leaves people wide open to exploitation by the multi-millionaire retailers of quack remedies who pose as their champions. At one extreme scepticism becomes cynicism, and at the other, gullibility.

So who are we to trust? How can we be sure that we are being told the truth? The answer is actually quite simple. It lies in method. For scientists this is straightforward, there is a scientific method of research and evaluation that is integral to good science. One of its great champions in the blogosphere is David Colquhoun, the subject of an excellent profile here. But for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences, it does not seem so straightforward. Yet we too have methods of inquiry, rules of logic, a critique of rhetorical tricks and the tools to think clearly about causality and correlation. Subject the claims of quacks and conspiracists to proper empirical examination and logical analysis, and they crumble before your eyes. This is one of the main reasons why their propagators try and draw adherents into what effectively becomes a cult, part of a circle of "truth tellers', resistent to reality.

Critical thinking, just like scientific method, does not happen spontaneously. It has to be learnt. This is why I have always argued, not always successfully, for the teaching of study skills as a discrete, accredited unit as part of any course. Much of what passes for skills development is about how to write an essay to a set formula, whereas what I have advocated is that it should be, amongst other things, about clear thinking; giving the students the basis they need to spot self-serving bullshit a mile off. And Colquhoun's best throwaway remark in the Observer profile gives us a pretty good indication of why it is desperately needed.
... the lack of scientific education among politicians is scary. Can you imagine a minister of education referring to "Newton's laws of thermodynamics", or giving taxpayers' money to schools that believe in karma and gnomes? Michael Gove has done both.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hard sums and easy morals

One of my favourite quips about modern economic theory is that its reliance on mathematical models is bad economics, but even worse maths. That certainly has been brought home by the spreadsheet mistake in the influential work of Reinhart and Rogoff. So it was nice to see this piece by David Graeber arguing that:
After all, as I and many others have long argued, austerity was never really an economic policy: ultimately, it was always about morality. We are talking about a politics of crime and punishment, sin and atonement. True, it's never been particularly clear exactly what the original sin was: some combination, perhaps, of tax avoidance, laziness, benefit fraud and the election of irresponsible leaders. But in a larger sense, the message was that we were guilty of having dreamed of social security, humane working conditions, pensions, social and economic democracy.
And this is the paradox. We rather like a good dose of vindictive morality. Nothing gives a believer more pleasure than the thought of the wicked burning in Hell for all eternity. Yet the stern face of just retribution is not always wise, especially when delivered in the name of flawed institutions.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. 
Forgive us our debts rather than impoverish a continent. But that is no part of the great Austeritian faith of tough choices and harsh medicine. Even without indulging in the sentimental belief that economics is about ensuring the welfare of all, there is a utilitarian argument against the economics of austerity; it makes everything worse. Larry Elliott expands on a neat metaphor here:
The economist George Akerlof came up with a metaphor for the state of the global economy at an IMF conference on rethinking macro economics. "The cat is still stuck up the tree and we don't know how to get it down", he said. Keynes would suggest building a bigger ladder. Hayek would wait for the cat to jump down of its own accord. The European approach involves chopping the tree down.



and tame

Spring in Greece is special.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Love and marriage

Marriage destroys love through property.
Henry Seymour, individualist anarchist, 1888.
In the 19th century, the people who I write about were much taken with the idea of 'free love'. Those of us who came of age in the sixties and seventies are more likely to associate the phrase with the licentiousness of the 'permissive society', whose membership forms seemed so elusive at the time. In fact, the term referred to something else entirely. This was the idea that the law had no place in regulating human sexual behaviour, that 19th century marriage was an institution that dehumanised women by making them the property of men, and that marriage was not a free choice due to the social and legal coercion directed against those who chose to not to get married. Ending legal marriage was therefore seen as a process of emancipation.

As a happily unmarried person, I have some sympathy with them. I have seen perfectly content partners turned into warring spouses due to the expectations and pressures that marriage can bring to bear. However, there are many other blissful and lasting marriages amongst my friends and acquaintances and who would deny them the right to celebrate and formalise their relationship through marriage? Well, quite a few if they were gay.

Whereas, many of the causes that those 19th century radical battled for have been won and the decision to enter into a legal relationship is mainly a free choice, the law still puts on its sternest face, not to force people to get married, but to deny them the right to do so if they choose. The arguments pitted against freedom of choice and equality before the law range from outright bigotry, through doctrinal rigidity, to elaborate sophistries; none impress. So, though marriage is not for me, I am delighted that New Zealand has at last made it available to everyone who might want it, just as the right not to get married remains.

Legislative assemblies can be forbiddingly formal places, but here human happiness intruded as a decision was celebrated to at last accept full legal equality for gay people. And what a touching scene it was.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tough choices

Sometimes it is a question of priorities.

Sue Marsh writes on the withdrawal of the Youth Premium that treats severely disabled young people who will never work as if they have full national insurance contributions. It costs £11 million a year. She writes:
In Westminster terms it would barely pay for the DWP's paperclips. It is a drop in the ocean of a welfare budget spanning 10s of billions. It only applied to a few thousand of the most disabled children in society (children just like Ivan Cameron, had he lived into adulthood.) But Lord Freud, failed investment banker and Minister for Welfare Reform, insisted that we could "no longer afford it" We could no longer afford to allow such profoundly disabled children lives of dignity and independence. No more security. No relief for worried families that they would be safe once they were gone. A cross-party consensus of decades, stripped away by ministers who didn't even know what they were doing.
This week, William Hague assures us we can afford £10 million for a ceremonial funeral for Margaret Thatcher.
Oh well. There now follows a party political funeral.

Friday, April 12, 2013

England, my England

First, Parliament is recalled at vast expense and ten million quid is quickly found from an austerity budget to pay for a funeral for a Prime Minister who left office over twenty years ago and who has become an icon of both the left and right for wholly contrasting reasons.

Second, Ding Dong the Witch is Dead is in the top ten.

Those acquainted with British social history should not be surprised.

The British state has always had a taste for pompous, and expensive, self-congratulation. The people have a long tradition of confronting it with raucous irreverence. In the eighteenth century the solemnity of the gentry was often met with a popular form of ridicule, rough music. Rough music was a cacophony of noise made by an exotically dressed mob to humiliate the target and puncture self-importance. Today it is the same. Except that a man with antlers on his head bashing a tin kettle has been replaced by Judy Garland. I suppose that's progress.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Letting go

It takes a huge amount of mental honesty to admit that you have succumbed and that the idealism has slipped away; understanding that "failure that begins with indifference". This article on disengagement from prison education is a lovely piece, though the author, Alan Smith, was incredibly lucky to be able to give up the way he did.

His final class, slowly winding down, gave him a series of "golden, other-worldly mornings". They were reading Chaucer. They loved it. As Smith puts it:
When we don't know about history and art and society we are adrift. Most of you reading this will never have had that experience, but many of the men I taught were ignorant of just about everything, and as grown men felt this keenly. Education was a relief, a route to self-respect.
And this is why it may be another time to give up:
For the most part, classes in the arts, social sciences and languages have been closed. There won't be much of my liberal nonsense in the future. The government has decided training for work is the way to go and for the most part education, beyond basic numeracy and literacy, has been abandoned. I can't see it myself.
I can't see it either. And I don't like the idea that a liberal education should become the expensive preserve of a pampered elite in a way it has never been before.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Beauty and bestiality

The most moving piece in the papers this week is Ed Vulliamy's superb account of the music composed and performed in the Terezín transit camp, the last stop en route to the gas chambers. There, music was allowed to flourish for a short time before a generation of Czech musicians and composers were exterminated.

The article is accompanied by this video account by a survivor, Zdenka Fantlova:

There is also an interactive guide available online.

Of the stories Vulliamy recounts, one of the most shocking is the way that the music was used for propaganda to fool the Red Cross about the nature of the camp, more shocking still is that the Red Cross were taken in. Please preserve us from the gullibility of the well-meaning. A propaganda film was also made in 1944 which included a performance of Hans Krása's children's opera, Brundibár, written before the war, but reconstructed in the camp. A clip of the performance is on YouTube. I find it unbearable to watch. Immediately after filming, the children were sent to Auschwitz to be murdered. Few survived.

Here is a modern performance, it is as exquisite as it is touching:

The main reason for posting this, apart from the quality of the article, is that it is at times like these that we should remember that fascism should be offered no respectability, no excuses, no understanding; it only ends in death.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Shock horror!

Big fall in mature students comes as shock to universities
They're surprised?  Run that by me again ... I suppose that they never guessed that closing adult education departments might actually reduce numbers. I mean, who would have thought it?


Hello Britain