The original guide to writing for games returns! Every chapter has been revised and expanded, and there are new chapters covering storytelling for MMOs, urban narrative, interactive script formats, and the different kinds of relationship players can have with a game's story. Available from Bloomsbury now as a paperback, hardback, or ebook!
This piece continues from last week's Which Deaths Matter?, and contains discussion of death statistics some people may find distressing.
The principle that every cause of death matters is not, and cannot be, a scientific concept. Indeed, the idea that any death matters cannot be a scientific claim, because from the point of view of the sciences, at least in terms of research communities striving for 'objectivity', nothing could strictly matter since it takes a being (not an object) for anything to matter. Assertions of a required detachment are prevalent in the contemporary sciences, but it would be implausible to assume that this detached point of view was necessary rather than merely traditional. Indeed, as this entire philosophy of science 'campaign' has served to stress, the risk of continuing to pretend that the sciences can be pursued in a 'value-neutral' stance is that this is a blatant self-deception, and one that leads directly or indirectly to the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience.
If we were to attempt to construct a scientific value for death, rather than a scientific understanding of a specific aspect of dying, it would surely have to be that we do not increase our understanding on any topic by ignoring any of the data. Thus, to scientifically explore causes of death, we must know what the key causes of death are. We may find it helpful to categorise these causes, and having done so we are then in a position to collect data and report upon those causes of death. This, in fact, is one of the primary functions of the World Health Organisation, and very nearly the sole purpose of providing shared diagnostic categories for disease (which the WHO facilitates) is that it permits us to build a global perspective on causes of death, so that, for instance, we can know (as discussed two weeks ago) that 3 million of us die globally each year from respiratory diseases.
We do not, as it happens, 'die of old age' in the eyes of conventional medical logic; rather, old age leaves us vulnerable to various causes of death of which heart failure and respiratory infection are by far the most common. We could approach this differently; it would not be unscientific to do so. But at the moment, 'disease' is the preferred framework for medical thinking, and that sets the agenda for scientific thinking about death. The landscape of death that the WHO reports upon annually would look radically different if we were to separate out these kinds of end-of-life diseases from other causes of death that affect young and old alike, and to do so would not be unscientific but merely require different values to be incorporated into the scientific communities, which is always permissible provided these assumptions are kept clearly in view.
Therefore, while 'every cause of death matters' cannot be scientific, since it is a principle based upon values that are not inherent to scientific practice, the sciences could incorporate this value, if that is what we wanted. Prior to 2020, I would have thought that this actually was a value that all scientists shared, indeed, that it was a value that could be inferred from the Hippocratic oath for doctors. One of the most revelatory aspects of the global debacle that was the response to SARS-CoV2 was that it revealed that there are many people working in the sciences who do not believe that every cause of death matters. I find this hard to understand in many respects, but it is also undeniable, since (for instance) UK scientific advisers could not have acted as they did if they did not reject the maxim that every cause of death matters, or (at the very least) were temporarily lured away from it.
This principle does not mean that we are wrong to care about some causes of death more than others - on the contrary, it would be reckless to replace it with a principle that 'every cause of death matters equally'. A man in New York state was killed in 2001 when an oxygen cylinder was magnetically pulled into an MRI machine, fracturing his skull. That's tragic, but it is not in anything like the same league as the 9.6 million global cancer deaths each year that the MRI can help in diagnosing. But even a freak occurrence leading to a fatality such as this matters, it matters in this case because a metallic oxygen tank must be kept away from a giant electromagnet like an MRI because otherwise someone might die.
However, what 'every cause of death matters' should mean, if it is accepted, is that we cannot dismiss a cause of death from consideration without any attempt to place it into a wider context - a world and a way of life where that cause of death takes on a meaning for either certain people, or for everyone. We violate the principle that ‘every cause of death matters’ whenever we exclude, by accident or design, certain ways of dying from holding any importance, or accept one cause of death as entirely dwarfing the significance of all others to the point that they can simply be ignored as trivial in comparison. In pushing back against this, I do not seek to impose some singular set of values on other people - this is the exact opposite of my purposes. Rather, I am merely making a call to resist the dismissal of those causes of death we are lured, fooled, or distracted into ignoring.
The Shield of Normalcy
The late Mary Midgley, who was the closest to a mentor I had in philosophy, made the point that we’re acutely aware of injustice ‘above us’ - billionaires, royalty etc. - but we barely notice injustice below us - sweat shops abroad making cheap clothes for us, immigrant poverty etc. This shield of invisibility conceals not only economic disparities where we are the beneficiaries, but also causes of death where we are just as likely to be the victim yet cannot imagine this actually happening. This is because exceptions are glaring as long as we can place ourselves into the comparison, but norms go unnoticed. Hence our dismissal of cars as an important cause of death, hence our ignoring the ongoing massacre of poor, non-white people in barely-noticed countries by a nation that was once the founder and standard bearer of human rights, both of which were explored last week.
For many years now, I have bit my tongue in shocked disbelief that self-proclaimed advocates of social justice felt their political voice and time was best spent complaining that their entertainments didn’t feature the right mix of approved diversity. Does representation matter? It certainly can. Was film, TV, and videogame representation the burning issue that needed immediate redress? That’s rather harder to believe, and I would love to know what assumed principle of action made this appear to be so. It is fashionable to talk of privilege... can there be any greater privilege imaginable than to be free to bitch about how we are entertained while others die from our nation’s action or inaction? I consider myself just as guilty as everyone else in this regard, and every excuse I have feels woefully inadequate.
Last week’s piece engaged with a number of different causes of death - the novel coronavirus, the killing of George Floyd, drone assassinations, civil war in Yemen - to try to demonstrate the that the principle 'every cause of death matters' is not only just, it is a requirement for justice. What COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death have in common was that both stories were picked up by journalists and reported as news. That’s fair, because they both warranted reporting. But it is also highly problematic because much less attention was given to drone assassinations, and almost none at all to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, both of which were directly or indirectly attributable to the actions of the US as a nation.
Given that ‘the news’ is the collection of stories with the apparent sole power of determining where political action might be taken, and given the penchant of journalists for doom propheteering, what are we to make of the millions dying each year as road fatalities, the seven million deaths attributable to air pollution, the grotesque transformation of warfare into grim extermination, and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen that we all share a collective responsibility for, but about which neither news nor political action intersects? If journalists excuse themselves from responsibility in this regard on the basis that their audience isn’t interested (and I have indeed heard this sincerely lamented by people who work at the BBC), what are we to make of the news except that it is merely another form of entertainment, another way of distracting ourselves from asking about what matters?
Every cause of death matters.
It’s a simple idea, but it’s also a revolutionary one, because it asks us to stop saying ‘this cause of death matters, but this one does not’. I do not believe this change requires political reform, but it does require either journalistic reform or the creation of a new avenue for the exchange of perspective that is neither news nor entertainment. This is unlikely to be our current academic systems, since these have also disastrously failed, although academics could be among the people to facilitate what is required. Perhaps all that is needed, as the piece on doom propheteering foreshadowed, is a different relationship between universities and news media. Or perhaps both need to be entirely reformed.
As one small example of what might help address this problem, consider a weekly, monthly, or even daily ‘death report’, akin to the weather forecast, that compares national and international causes of death. Such a report would be difficult to produce because statistics on causes of death are slow to propagate, and complicated by many deaths having multiple causes - as well as being open to political gerrymandering by redefining categories for counting deaths. But without some means of putting all causes of death into our consideration, we will continue to focus disproportionately upon small details, and consistently fail to see the big picture. Perhaps we are not even willing, or indeed able, to take it all in. But we could certainly try.
Most likely such a report would not be enough... It probably would not, for instance, help us to begin recognising automobiles as the major cause of death that in actuality they have been for more than half a century. We would simply see those deaths on the 'leaderboard' and continue to dismiss them as we always have. Neither would it be likely to illuminate how COVID-19 deaths compare to deaths from other respiratory diseases, and thus how stories that foreground these tragic deaths for dramatic, doom propheteering effect ignore comparable deaths from other, similar causes of death that we have traditionally chosen to entirely ignore despite causing a roughly similar number of deaths. According to a recent government report, 72,178 people in England died of "laboratory-confirmed COVID-19" in 2020; an alternative source reports 73,444 for England and Wales for 2020. This has been reported as a catastrophe. Yet the 71,674 English and Welsh deaths from respiratory diseases in 2019 raised zero headlines, caused no panic, no dramatic posturing by cowardly politicians about the "millions grieving", nor any attempt to seize unwarranted emergency powers to undermine liberty and criminalise protest.
It is true that there are millions grieving... this statement is heartbreakingly true every day of every year, and the majority of those loved ones were and are lost to heart disease and cancer, of which there were tragically even more deaths in 2020 owing to the disruptions and panic caused by long-term lockdowns. And it is becoming painfully clear that these extreme measures had limited effect on SARS-CoV2 mortality, which still killed roughly 0.1% of the population of every European country regardless of which interventions were deployed. This is not the same as saying we should have done nothing, but this should never have been permitted to become the nature of the dispute - 'do everything' versus 'do nothing' is about as far from sane thinking as could be imagined, and yet we not only made this the battlefield, we committed to it so fully that we became convinced that the specific insanity we chose was clearly the only reasonable choice. But neither of those choices was reasonable, because the important question was which actions could save lives when we consider all causes of death, and this discussion we have in fact refused to have, and continue to lie to ourselves about the ghastly things we have done as a consequence.
It is admirable that so many wanted to commit to the maxim 'we should do whatever it takes to save lives' - I truly wish we had been willing to engage with the scientific and political challenges in a way that made this laudable goal even remotely plausible to safely pursue. Instead, we politicised COVID-19 and dangerously nullified not only civil liberties, but the very ability of the sciences to investigate. Without these safety measures we were empowered to unleash rash cybernetic interventions that went on to destroy a great many lives and livelihoods, casualties not of a disease but of our collective madness in the face of a disease. Not to mention that for the first time in human history, our loved ones died without having a chance for us to say goodbye to them, making each and every one of those dreadful deaths far more anguished, desolate, and lonely than they needed to be. The disease was indeed terrible, but the catastrophe was not the disease but our response to it, a tragedy that happened because we were fooled into thinking that only one cause of death mattered.
Over the last year, dreadful things were happening. Never one to turn a blind eye on anything, I committed to using my skills and experience to study the literature and ongoing research on the interventions being proposed or deployed in order to be able to provide advice and insight that I hoped might be helpful. But, as they say, "a prophet is never welcome in their home town", and during this time I have been pilloried, snidely dismissed, treated as "one of them", told that "you're wrong because I have a friend who's a scientist", told "that may be what some scientists say, but its not what the science says", and other things equally bizarre and nonsensical, all by well-educated, compassionate people who have been acting as if they were neither of these things. In short, despite the care I have taken in my scientific analysis, despite my judgements being informed by the medical debates I have followed closely, despite my claims aligning with those made by eminent epidemiologists, I (and indeed they) have been told that this well-informed, scientifically-grounded perspective doesn't count because it doesn't align with the beliefs of those who zealously committed to "saving lives".
You cannot claim I don't care about saving lives; I have spent seven years trying to save the lives of those who die because of our current automobile designs, and the lives of those killed as 'collateral damage' in drone attacks. During this time I have been almost unilaterally dismissed via dozens of excuses that I have accepted, albeit with great sadness, because I accept everyone's freedom of speech and belief, and place this value above all others as the necessary foundation of all other freedoms. I grieve for everyone who has died, but I weep hardest for this politically-fuelled breakdown in discourse, for it has plunged us into a state of pseudoscience that has not only resulted in unnecessary deaths, it has savaged civil society and removed any ambiguity over whether we are still committed to human rights. It is precisely because I am committed to saving lives that I must speak out about the harms caused by the interventions chosen... I could be mistaken in my claims, errors are a perpetual risk in all scientific work. But there is no such risk for those who are defending a position based on political commitments.
Political battlefields destroy the work of the sciences because they polarise discussions in ways that preclude the evaluation and re-evaluation of evidence that is required for the slow and careful work of legitimate scientific enquiry. Once there are two vehemently opposed sides, evidence can either be converted into ammunition or dismissed out of hand. Yet whatever rubbish your "opponents" have said will not make your position magically correct, it simply feels that way because you have made it about "fighting an enemy" instead of uncovering the truth, as happens with every politicised issue. Complex issues are always rendered poorly when presented solely in polar extremes. So it has been with the claim that "public health trumps human rights" - an incoherent maxim that entails there are no human rights, since the very purpose of declaring such rights was that they were supposed to be inalienable, as the US constitution memorably puts the matter. And while we are living in a state of pseudoscience there is no legitimate public health either, just a string of dreadful mistakes divorced from all responsibility for their horrific consequences.
If you are willing to accept the proposition that ‘every cause of death matters’, you can at least do this one small thing: stop dismissing deaths. Stop treating SARS-CoV2 as a more significant cause of death than the inadvertently fatal measures rashly deployed against it. Stop pretending guns are a bigger problem than cars, when the latter results in six times as many preventable deaths. Stop acting as if unjust deaths inside our country’s borders are more important than those that our nations inflict abroad, when both ought to be wholly preventable and worthy of protesting. In short, just stop pretending that only some causes of death matter. Even dying peacefully in old age matters because this, after all, is how many of us would prefer that we eventually die. Whatever your values, whatever your commitments, if you care about anything, you ought to care about how we die. We can die with dignity and respect, or we can die horrifically and unjustly. The more we recognise that every death matters, the closer we will creep to a world worth saving.
The opening image appears to be a detail from a Dominic Pangborn painting, but I have been unable to source the title. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
My Spring social media break begins tomorrow, so please accept my apologies in advance for the slowness of my replies. Only a Game returns later this year.
Contains both death statistics and ideas that some people may find distressing. Please do not read it if you are of a sensitive disposition.
Which deaths matter? This is an odd question, because most of us have a sense that every death matters, at least to someone. But we do not act in ways that are consistent with the idea that we consider every death important. On the contrary, we are entirely accustomed to ignoring deaths - including a great many that we are partially responsible for.
To explore this strange situation, I want to draw against the ethical thought of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanual Kant. One of the most surprising aspects of his work in moral philosophy is the role he provides for maxims, that is, principles for acting or refraining from acting. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft and several other philosophers of the 18th century, Kant was responsible for helping to craft our thinking about what we now call ‘rights’ or ‘human rights’, and although his moral and political philosophy is far richer than this talk of maxims can do justice, when it comes to thinking about which causes of death matter, the question of the principles upon which we act might be crucial.
If, for example, we say we are acting on a precautionary principle - to take steps that might save lives - we may want to know more about when and how such a principle is to be applied, or if it is always to be applied, we want to know why it appears to be otherwise. Similarly, if we say that we act whenever human rights are violated, we may want to know whether this is for certain rights, or certain violations, and whether we mean in our country or by our government (which is not the same thing).
Now making precisely worded principles is not how we do our moral thinking - Kant knew this, but in his time, the concept of a maxim was a convenient shorthand for moral thought that his contemporaries readily understood, and he used this situation to help get across to his 18th century readership far more complex ethical ideas that helped transition us into thinking in terms of our shared rights. I believe it can still be useful to think about our principles of action in this way.
In the two thought experiments that follow, the idea is for you to attempt to formulate an approximation of the principles that underlie situations where I shall suggest that we are unreasonably focusing on some causes of deaths and not others. Unfortunately, the easiest way to get where we are going is to form crude pairs of death-causes - but to help defend against the risk of misunderstandings, I will in each case add at least one additional (unexplored) cause of death to show there are many others we could also have considered in each case.
Medical vs Environmental Deaths
The first thought experiment considers causes of death of two different kinds, and at first glance it may appear to be an entirely outrageous question to ask:
If the 1.8 million deaths globally attributed to the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus in 2020 required and continue to require extreme measures, why do the 1.4 million global road fatalities every year not require anything but tiny incremental actions? What principle of action warrants immediate extreme action with significant unpredictable side effects in the case of (say) lockdowns, but no action at all in the case of the most deadly environmental health risks? Or to put this another way, why do medical causes of death utterly overshadow environmental health causes of death? Should they? If so, what principle is it that informs us that environmental causes of death don’t matter, while medical causes of death require action, even in cases with severe health (and mental health) consequences?
Lung cancer could be substituted for the novel coronavirus, as it causes 2 million deaths annually and this prompts a variety of interventions in most nations; air pollution could be substituted for cars; it contributes to the deaths of some 7 million people... although cars are, of course, a major contributor to this.
Let us start with some of the less plausible choices. We cannot approach this via the scale of the deaths caused, obviously, as the roads were far deadlier than the pandemic at the time extreme measures were being advocated, but we could potentially use projected deaths. But in the case of COVID-19, the projected deaths were wildly higher than what actually happened in nearly every single case I can find, and this seems to have been true of every pandemic in recent years to varying degrees. Apparently, the computer models of viral spread that have been created thus far do not actually consider anything like the circumstances by which real viruses spread, nor indeed the conditions under which they are fatal. What's more, if we are to formulate a principle for action based on projected deaths, we still have to explain why we would take no action whatsoever in regard to so many actual deaths with environmental causes. Some kind of principle might be possible here, but it would likely be rife with compromises.
Alternatively, we could attempt to distinguish between disease and accident. ‘We ought to take steps to prevent deaths from disease’ and (perhaps unstated) ‘we should minimize accidents where we can’. This amounts to claiming that causes of death we call diseases matter in a way that accidents do not. But ‘disease’ is just a catch-all term for a health risk, and road fatalities are also a health risk, specifically an environmental health risk. All approaches of this kind are tantamount to claiming that accidents don’t matter because if we were using the tools correctly there would be no cause of death to consider. This is a macabre form of legerdemain that conceals the fact that our most deadly tools (cars and guns) are inherently at-risk of 'improper usage' because of their current designs. We could (I would go further and say should) redesign cars so that they cannot exceed 30 mph (we could do this solely in residential areas quite easily, in fact, using only existing technology) and eliminate more than a million global deaths each year. We do not act consistently in this regard.
More plausibly, the exponential (or rather, logistic) aspect of virus spread invites a different maxim: ‘we must act where the cause of death risks growing non-linearly’ or ‘we must act when the scale of potential deaths rise with inaction’. There is something psychologically plausible about this approach, but in the case of principles of this kind: do we really wish to say that the millions who die on the roads each year don’t matter because roughly the same amount die every year? Perhaps we want to say that it is precisely the greater infectiousness of this recent virus that marks it out for special treatment. I cannot agree with this principle personally, but at least it provides a plausible reason for acting in this case. But even so, would it not be a more reasonable to suggest ‘exponential or logistic threats of death require swifter action’, that is, that we should not ignore environmental causes of deaths, as we have done this year and every other, and instead act to minimise fatalities from all causes of death wherever possible?
A crucial problem in identifying a principle of action for SARS-CoV2 is that we must explain why any lives saved by measures such as long-term lockdowns matter so much more than those lives lost as a consequence of long-term lockdowns, whether to heart disease, untreated diabetes, undiagnosed cancer, suicide, or to the fact that depression doubles the risks to all cause mortality. The measurements available for these collateral fatalities will not match the tragic scale of all the deaths attributed to COVID-19 itself, but as the evidence accumulates it seems ever more probable that the unnecessary deaths and health harms of long-term lockdowns will exceed any plausible reduction in fatalities when compared to voluntary measures, which seem to have been almost as effective. Countries like the UK, which locked down for most of a year, caused horrific public health harms in the pursuit of saving lives: that the lives saved by lockdown-type measures were primarily white and wealthy, while fatalities have disproportionately afflicted the poor and non-white, only adds to the painful legacy of these ill-judged policies.
I realise that a great many are still resolute that lockdowns were entirely necessary, and I have all but given up trying to reason with people over non-pharmaceutical interventions, the most disturbingly politicised medical issue since abortion. But as long as we have not fatally undermined the capacities of the sciences to assemble the truth on any given research topic, a reckoning of some kind over what we have done will eventually come. Until then, the challenge of this thought experiment stands regardless: why do those 1.4 million road fatalities every year not matter in the way that COVID-19 deaths matter...? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a single cause of death was given much greater importance than all others.
National vs International Deaths
The second thought experiment considers deaths of citizens at home, versus deaths caused abroad, and may also seem outrageous at first glance:
Protesters in the United States both honourably and understandably went out in mostly-peaceful protest of the brutal killing of a black citizen, George Floyd. This is far from the only example of brutality by some police forces in the US, a problem which disproportionately affects black citizens - hence the ‘Black lives matters’ mantra, which I take as being broadly the same as claiming 'non-white lives matter' (although this is open to dispute). But which black or non-white lives are we claiming matter? I would like the answer to be ‘all of them’. Yet the United States has killed at the very least hundreds (more likely thousands) of civilians in middle-eastern nations for nothing more than being proximate to people added presumptively to a CIA kill list. How are we to reconcile the justifiable and necessary protests in the wake of one awful killing against the hundreds or thousands of other horrific deaths that spark no protest, that get no mention, and are ongoing?
In place of the killing of George Floyd we can substitute any situation where police officers in any nation used deadly force without any need or justification; in place of the civilian deaths tangential to drone assassinations we can substitute the US sale of armaments to Saudi Arabia and consequent contributions to a quarter of a million deaths in Yemen - although, to be fair, US drones have also directly killed civilians in Yemen.
Here we have many more options for how to respond, in part because our overriding intuition is that deaths that governments bring about against their own citizens deserve greater attention since a citizen is expected to be protected by their government and its agencies - and indeed, is supposed to be so in both national and international law for most (yet not all) nations. But let us never forget that during the Obama administration, a US citizen was executed abroad by drone strike for presumptive status as a terrorist, with no judicial due process. Not to be outdone by the Americans, the British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, similarly disposed of an inconvenient British citizen by drone assassination. I made the point immediately - quite furiously - that our nations had withdrawn from their human rights agreements at that point, but mostly, nobody cared.
If citizenship does not provide a working basis for a principle of action in this case how about terrorism itself? Well, around the time I was first drafting this piece, President Trump declared Antifa a domestic terrorist group - I presume meaning that they can now be bombed by ‘precision strike’ like other terrorist groups. Ah, but there’s the rub, for doing so at home would not only provoke the same kind of justified outrage as the killing of George Floyd but also reveal the lie that ‘precision strike’ means something other than destroying entire buildings with automated missiles that are marginally more accurate than bombs dropped from airplanes.
I trust nobody is contemplating a principle that relies upon the claim that black lives are worth more than Muslim lives, or that the lives of US citizens are worth more than 'foreigners', although at times it does feel as if there is precisely this kind of grotesque pecking order at work. It is one thing to care for your own neighbours in preference to those people who live farther away, but it is quite another to condone the murder of strangers whose deaths we can not even be bothered to hear about, much less prevent.
When I raise my concerns about drone assassinations, a common retort is: "They were terrorists, so I have nothing to fear because I'm not a terrorist". Yet of course what made them a terrorist in both the above cases was merely the government deciding that they were terrorists. Literally no judicial process was involved at all, there was no possibility of appeal or review. Without enforcing human rights agreements, nothing prevents your government labelling you as a terrorist whenever you become sufficiently inconvenient. Thus any attempt to formulate a principle of action with respect to terrorism is going to risk permitting tyranny and state-sponsored murder to flourish. That many of the casualties of these attacks are people who have never been associated with terrorism, and who were merely the neighbours of those who were, makes it all the more despicable to hide behind the excuse that killing people accused of terrorism is permissible.
A more plausible approach might be to buy into the rhetoric of warfare; civilian deaths matter more than war deaths, even civilian war deaths. But I’m not at all convinced that all these expensive killings warrant the name ‘war’... We do not go to war against mice and cockroaches, we merely exterminate them as vermin - and the hateful rhetoric that justifies assassinating anyone presumed a terrorist without due process - along with every innocent bystander nearby - is all too akin to the logic of extermination. The law is not there solely to protect 'good people'. It protects everyone or else it protects no-one, and this is just as true in warfare as at any other time.
It has been said during the protests following the killing of George Floyd that if you stand by and do nothing you’re implicitly saying that this terrible event was acceptable - but this maxim would surely apply to the murder of people abroad as well as those at home. And except for a few immensely brave military veterans and their allies who have spoken out in the US against the replacement of soldiering with robotic assassination we have done nothing to protest the horrors that have been conducted against far poorer, far more marginalized, far ‘less white’ people slain in our name.
Unlike the first thought experiment, I am doubtful of any kind of plausible maxim in this case that explains to any reasonable degree why no mass protest against the murder of innocents and citizens-presumed-inconvenient ever occurred. The best hope might be to rely upon the distinction between home and away - but the idea that governments lose their obligations to their own citizens based on whether they are inside their borders or outside is not merely problematic, it is outright disgusting. More likely by far, journalists opted not to cover these stories because of the inherent (and readily understandable) bias of every news organisation, namely that what happens at home is news and that what happens abroad is filler, a maxim that at least seems to have the implicit endorsement of everyone consuming the news media.
But then, what if as well as the necessity of asserting that ‘black lives matter’ we ought also to be insisting that ‘non-white lives matter’, that ‘lives in other countries matter’, in short, that there are no lives that do not matter. I know all too well the scorn that meets those who say ‘all lives matter’, but that objection does not hinge upon this particular proposition being false, but rather upon the perception that this phrase is used as a denial of the ways the deck of justice is stacked against black citizens of the United States. It is indeed the case that these citizens suffer disproportionate degrees of injustice, and therefore it can be worth emphasising that ‘black lives matter’. But unfortunately, given the terrible actions of the United States and her allies around the world, even this simple attempt at justice runs a terrible risk of coming to mean something that ought to be false: that ‘American lives matter more than any other lives’.
The only just answer to the question ‘which deaths matter?’ must be ‘all of them’. But alas, we are so very far from accepting the moral implications of that principle that I can only weep at how far from the ideals of the Enlightenment we have already fallen.
Next week: Every Cause of Death Matters
This piece was originally drafted on 28th July 2020, in a longer form including material I have broken out into next week's post. However, I felt it was far too soon to run such a discussion. It may still be too soon. But it is also far too late. I could not in good conscience wait any longer to say what needed to be said.
Contains discussion of death statistics that some people may find distressing.
Suddenly, the scientist bursts into the room and announces to the shocked townsfolk that a meteor, or an alien monster, or a terrible disaster is about to strike and everyone's lives are at risk! It is the rallying call to action that the heroes need, and those who do not listen to the science are doomed to die in the coming apocalypse. This classic element of early science fiction movies never went away - even in the last decade Hollywood released disaster movies with this implausible and wholly unscientific plot element in it. Consider, as one magnificently dreadful example, Roland Emmerich's 2012, in which the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly wasted as a geologist warning that a planetary alignment has destabilised the Earth's crust bringing certain doom in the form of every natural disaster that the CGI special effects team could render.
Yet of course, this entire tradition of the scientist as doom prophet is another manifestation of magical science, the mythological distortion of the complex work of the sciences into sheer wizardry. Authentic scientific work almost never uncovers such clear cut omens of disaster, and even when it does there are protracted (even boring) stages of discussion, disagreement, and diversification of research projects that takes place before anything can even be provisionally settled. This process typically reduces the warning flag from urgently critical to disappointingly vague - thus, the news that humanity had triggered the sixth major extinction event in the vastly long history of our planet became, once sanded-down through scientific discourse, the much less evocative, potentially misleading phenomenon named 'climate change'. I have never stopped reminding people that the climate aspect of our environmental catastrophe is very nearly the least significant aspect - but for reasons unknown, only this name travels, only this conveniently-disputable concept is permitted to occupy space in the news cycle...
If the legitimate work of scientists should not, in actuality, manifest as doom propheteering, we might ask what exactly can science tell us about death or disaster? In the context of 'death', the answer is 'enormous grisly details' - provided our interest is post-mortem biology, the psychology of grief, or the sociological aspects of dying. The field that has picked up the name 'thanatology' (death-science) expressly has these diverse interests. But what thanatologists cannot do is establish any meaningful position in relation to death. These meanings are up to cultures and individuals to establish either collectively or personally, for no science of any kind has the capacity to leap from studying a subject area to drawing a conclusion about what should or ought to be done without bringing in values that are not inherently scientific.
Yet there is a persistent illusion that this is not so, that a lone scientist can make a pronouncement in connection with death or disaster that carries the authority to issue commands in order to prevent the meteor striking or the apocalypse being unleashed - in other words, that scientists are indeed empowered to be doom prophets. As I reflected upon in The Power of No, Mary Midgley repeatedly stressed that our metaphysical devotion to the sciences permits bias to be smuggled in under the guise of technical expertise - hence there are great dangers whenever we think that the task of integrating scientific work into the political realm is just a matter of asking any arbitrary scientist what we should do. This is a problem that, from quite a different angle, has been much discussed by the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, and it is not easy to solve.
How do we encounter doom propheteering? It is not from the scientists themselves unless we too are a scientist, or at least engaged in the discourses of the sciences (and even then, the journal system forbids honest discussion unless we pretend to be something other than human animals). No, the scientists talk to journalists, who are always eager to find that story which cuts through the familiar into the sensational. Indeed, in the era of print newspapers it was widely acknowledged that fear sells, and in the era of online news the updated formula that fear generates clicks is fundamentally no different. Death and disaster are the lifeblood of the tabloid newspaper and its heirs, and even more so for the perpetual rolling news cycle, that ever-present circus where misrepresentation all too often masquerades as information.
What could be better for the ailing news industry than a chance to engage in doom propheteering...? But not, of course, on a topic that authentically matters, like the sixth extinction event we have caused and that will end us as a species if we do not take charge of the problem within the next few centuries. No, that's too dark; people don't want to read about that. Doom propheteering is akin to an armageddon cult in many respects: disaster should be just around the corner, but it must be preventable by certain rituals such that we can then be compelled into performing those rituals, which in doom propheteering involves somebody making money off the disaster. This, I might add, need not constitute a conspiracy theory - those who are partial to conspiratorial ways of thinking routinely overestimate the power and influence of elites, just as those who delight in denouncing conspiracy theorists routinely underestimate elite influence. Rather than a conspiracy, doom propheteering is merely the social dynamics of combining the fragmentary state of knowledge that exists in every live research topic with a profit-driven industry like the news whose toolbox includes a rapacious appetite for fear-mongering.
The trick to evoking fear, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is ambiguity. We must be uncertain in order to be afraid, and the best monster movies have traditionally concealed the monster for as long as possible in order to take advantage of the dread of the unknown we are all at risk from. But there must, of course, be signs of its presence. First and foremost, somebody must die. Not everybody, or the story is over (that's another reason why our home-made extinction event is only barely newsworthy). There must also be implications of threat - scratches on the windows, howls in the night, macabre blood tests that reveal who is infected... Fictionalised doom is a game about impending death; actual death is only a part of this game in so much as it serves to emphasise the idea that anyone could be next!
But this need for ambiguity in order to evoke fear has a surprising effect when it manifests through the news. Because once you have made people afraid in what passes for reality, there are no closing credits to come and tell the audience that the horror story is over and you can breath a sigh of cathartic release that the calamity didn't really happen. No, once you evoke fear in non-fiction, you provoke action. Thus when the news media stokes fears it directly or indirectly advances a political agenda, and almost always one that aligns with a commercial interest. For instance, when tabloid journalists write about immigrants 'stealing jobs' (usually without mentioning that these are the jobs nobody wants, like manual labour, or that never have enough applicants, like medical servitude), the editorial line will advance specific causes of action such as crackdowns on illegal immigration, calls for stronger identity paperwork, or a clean break from the regional political framework that was allowing our 'foreign' neighbours to take advantage of us, all of which bring money to some group that wouldn't have had it otherwise.
The combination of uncritical faith in magical science with the fear-mongering that is all but inherent to news media is a dangerous cocktail to drink - and this is especially so because when a legitimate scientific report (say, of a respiratory virus with high rates of transmission) collides with the near-automatic practices of doom propheteering in journalism, the result will be commitments to a specific way of thinking that then undermine the capacity for the sciences to operate, which is the state of pseudoscience par excellence. And this machine's gears lock together rather too tightly. A legitimate scientific concern becomes, through the words of journalists, a cause of panic, the panic requires decisive action to allay the fears evoked, and the decisive action - being politically fractious - destroys the conditions by which the original concern could be scientifically investigated. This cycle has happened repeatedly in the last half a century, although never as disastrously as in 2020.
An especially worrying aspect of 2020 was that doom propheteering was in no way constrained to the tabloids; even the supposedly-respectable broadsheet newspapers fell prey of it. In the UK, left-leaning news sources (perhaps because their staff were moderately science-literate) jumped on some of the early guesses as if they were dogmatic truth and thus fell almost completely into the state of pseudoscience, abandoning any willingness to report on the very real, very urgent ambiguities of the ongoing medical research. Meanwhile, some of the right-leaning news sources (quite beyond my expectations) became the sole places championing liberty and human rights, perhaps desperately trying to fill the ethical void created by the left's abandonment of its traditional post as the defenders of freedom. And almost no journalist whatsoever seemed able to conduct the core tasks this role traditionally entails: investigative journalism did not investigate, and the necessity of a context to every reported fact was apparently swiftly eliminated as a requirement in favour of maintaining a pernicious solidarity of half-truths at all costs.
Thus, for instance, the shocking situation whereby death statistics could be reported without any viable basis for comparison. I understand how journalists can write with compassion about the plight of families whose loved ones are on their death beds because of a nasty respiratory infection, but I cannot comprehend how they can do so without mentioning just how many other people have been dying from other tragic causes, even very similar causes that are mysteriously not even worth mentioning. Thus if somebody reports the grim news that more than a million people around the world died last year from such-and-such a cause, that sounds shocking and scandalous. But if that megadeath is caused by a respiratory disease and you do not mention that 3 million people die from these kinds of infections every year, that is doom propheteering and not journalism. It's barely worth me mentioning that nearly a million and a half people are killed by automobiles every year, because in the seven years I've been harping on about this entirely avoidable tragedy all I have encountered is denial and dismissal, and the fact that these deaths are wholly preventable via methods entailing far fewer social and health harms than any intervention attempted in 2020 never even makes it to the table for discussion. Doom propheteering is far more effective than evidence in every conceivable way, because manipulating our fear of death motivates us in ways that actual data on deaths or species extinctions cannot. It's sad that the Northern White Rhino just went extinct in the wild, but what can we do about that...?
Similarly, it sounds dreadful that deaths in the UK in 2020 were the worst they'd been since World War II. Surely that's an undeniable sign of ongoing doom! But this convenient soundbite referred to excess deaths (a measure of deaths over and above averaged mortality), and as the BBC correctly pointed out, once you take the age-standardised mortality into account, death rates in the UK were merely the worst they'd been since the 2000s. In actuality, if you look at the total number of people dying, deaths have exceeded those from any given year in World War II for every year since 1972, because of the growth in population. Not to mention that, quite counter-intuitively, the proportion of British citizens who died in the Second World War was far lower than people tend to think. From 1939 to 1945, the death rate in the UK was between 1.21% and 1.46% of its population. Last year, it was 1.02%, up (by one tenth of a percent) from the 0.89% average over the 2010s, and slightly up (by one twentieth of a percent) from the average death rate in the 2000s of 0.97%.
What's more, even acknowledging all these complexities will fail to take into account that excess mortality in 2020 included a significant number of deaths attributable to the lockdowns, especially middle aged people who died at home from heart disease, a topic British journalists have been especially gun-shy about mentioning. To question how SARS-CoV2 has been reported is not to deny that this is a terrible virus, nor to suggest that no action should have been taken... it is merely to admit an unavoidable concern that the reporting on this topic caused more harm than good. The news services have somehow maintained the dogmatic view that the actions we have been taking are about 'saving lives', even while they cost people both their lives and their livelihoods. Apparently, we are now so afraid of dying that even monstrous curtailments of liberty can be enacted as long as we say they are intended to save lives. It is a painful reminder that while in World War II liberty was prized above life, in 2021 the priority of these goods is now sadly reversed.
After reading Latour's Politics of Nature, I was quite won over by his arguments and concerns about the difficulties of bringing the sciences into a productive discourse with politics. Yet it is only over the last year that I have lost my reservations in suggesting that the problem might not be so much with politics as with journalism. That's because the news media has almost all the power when it comes to the mobilisation (or neutralisation) of the electorate, and politicians largely respond to the electorate since they lack the courage to actively lead them in any tangible sense. The journalists themselves often seem to intentionally ignore this power they collectively wield, perhaps taking it on faith that their professional ethics purifies what is published of all sin (for the broadsheets), or else (for the tabloids) taking a jaded view whereby there is nothing they can do about the way things are so they might as well toe the editorial line and draw a paycheque at the end of the month.
Meanwhile, scientists - as nerds like myself - are generally so delighted that anybody is interested in their research that they gladly go on record with any journalist, without almost a moment's thought about what that might trigger in terms of misconceptions or outright misrepresentation of what they have to say. The idea that the sciences are value-neutral (which I have already exposed as nonsense) sometimes fools scientists into believing they do not need to take responsibility for the presentation of their research in the media... this is not so. Rather, the risk Midgley warned about - smuggling political values under the flag of scientific neutrality - becomes all the more urgent the greater the chance that news media can engage in doom propheteering with what is being reported. In this regard, a journalist who propagates bias out of their zeal for science is potentially more dangerous than one who inflates a crisis for dramatic effect, since they are far less likely to ever admit that they have acted recklessly.
In the movies, the ultimate fate of the doom prophet scientist varies.... sometimes they provide a means of escape or victory but have to sacrifice themselves for it to work; sometimes they fall prey of the threat they warned about; sometimes, as with 2012, they are even allowed to live to see a happy ending. In the world around us, however, doom propheteering almost always follows the same path. If the scientists involved are few in number and are shown to be wrong, they will suffer censor or career-ending derision; if there are many, the matter becomes closed for discussion with a mere shrug and a meek admission that the research moves on. Yet the journalists who opportunistically elevate always-ambiguous research into prophecies of doom are insulated from any consequence save minimalist retractions of factual inaccuracy, tucked away in a corner of a page somewhere. I fully expect that the vast majority of journalists will remain resolute that their actions 2020 in were right and necessary, despite having zealously championed bantamweight tyranny under the banner of public health while fatally undermining the capacity for medical science to actually serve the goals of public health in any honest capacity.
I find it hard to contemplate the behaviour of British journalists over the last year and square it against the idea that these are the actions of a free press. Either the journalists have been prevented from doing their jobs by an editorial line that required them to align with government dogma, even while the government's position diverged ever further from what the research communities were still debating (in which case they were not free), or else the journalists of their own volition decided to act in this way (in which case I question whether they can be considered press rather than, say, propagandists). A free press may well be a necessary cornerstone for a free society, as it is sometimes argued. But if so, we no longer have a free society, because it seems that we do not have a free press. The journalist as a defender of justice and a seeker of truth is an ideal worth defending, and we urgently need journalists who can live up to this image right now. What we have instead is the toxic purveyor of fear that is the true face of the doom propheteer.
"I believe in free speech," goes an archetypical conversation I sometimes have in the pub with people largely outside of any religious tradition, "but people shouldn't reject vaccination/evolution/science etc." Oh dear, I think to myself... how do I unpick this knot without offending them? Because these apparently innocuous statements run perilously close to saying "democracy is great, but I prefer theocracy". How can this possibly be...?
For more or less anyone reading this, theocracy will seem like the worst possible form of government. Indeed, a great deal of the tacit hostility that some today hold for the Catholic Church lies in the rejection of the idea that anyone should be placed in a position of arbiter of the truth, and thus in hostility towards theocracy, broadly construed. This is sometimes expressed in a conceptual rejection of the Catholic pope, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in their hilariously blasphemous South Park episode "Fantastic Easter Special", which ends with a rabbit being appointed pope and the claim that this was what God had always intended. This episode really interested me, as I believe it successfully captures Protestant Christians' prejudice against Catholics, from which the so-called "New Atheist" movement descended (all the prominent New Atheists began by rejecting Protestant Christianity, then expanded their dismissal until it encompassed all world religions). A similar theme also manifests in the Principia Discordia, the sacred book of the Discordian Society, which also aligns with elements of Protestant theology against Catholic theology, while softening the hard edges by cross-breeding (rather productively) with those schools of Zen Buddhism that embrace absurdity as a path to wisdom.
In Catholic parlance, the term 'theocracy' is seldom if ever used (although Vatican City can be understood as a theocratic nation - albeit a rather small one!). The official term for the authority of the Vatican is 'magisterium', meaning 'power of the office of magister', where 'magister' is Latin for 'master'. The magisterium is understood as the capacity of the pope and the bishops to render a judgement on the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, taken both in the sense of establishing an official interpretation to scriptural texts but more importantly in terms of guiding traditional practice, which encompasses an extremely broad range of human activities. Thus, when Pope Francis endorsed the idea in 2016 that Catholic churches could offer the sacraments to divorced Catholics (a controversial suggestion in some quarters!), he was exercising his official role in the magisterium.
The term was applied outside of Catholicism in 1997, when the brilliant evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that the alleged conflict between science and religion could be resolved by asserting 'non-overlapping magisteria' (NOMA). His proposal was to assign dominion over facts to the sciences, while religions (and non-religions) would have separate dominion over values. Gould's use of the term 'magisterium' was borrowed directly from Catholic parlance; as a palaeontologist coming from a Jewish family in New York, where 60% of the population is Catholic (and only 10% Protestant), he would have been quite familiar with Catholic terminology and thought. This proposal did not go down particularly well - those who would go on to align with the New Atheist movement unilaterally replied that there was no need for such a principle because science could claim authority over everything and there was thus no need to make concessions. In such situations, 'religion' is being rejected not over the idea of asserting a magisterium, but merely because the wrong magisterium is being asserted.
This is roughly where I see the problem with my friends in the pub claiming to support free speech, but placing its limit on topics that they consider to have been scientifically resolved, and thus beyond dispute. This position implies a magisterium of science, and in the same way that the presence of a magisterium in Catholic tradition implies a theocracy, any time someone unthinkingly singles out a scientific topic for special status (vaccination and evolution are by far the most common), they are also requesting or expecting something similar, if only implicitly. For it is solely in the presence of a magisterium of some kind that there could be authority to adjudicate what is or is not permitted as an absolute matter. The law, after all, is free to change when the people require it; only a magisterium is beyond dispute.
I think back to a very good friend of mine expounding his outrage in respect of a Creationist Museum somewhere in the United States that he had heard about. And I found this odd, because it sounded very amusing to me, and I could not see any legitimate cause for indignation here. "But it's not true," was his retort. But so what? It's not true that there is an inherent goodness to humanity, but I still choose to believe it, and if we are defenders of the so-called free society (and always assuming such a thing still exists) we should be able to accept that at least some of the things others believe are 'not true'. It seemed to me that a Creationist Museum was hardly likely to change anyone's opinion about anything, which means even if we accept that it's 'not true', the expected harms of such an establishment are rather limited.
Besides, who are we to call out other people's nonsense and not our own...? I have yet to meet a human who does not harbour strange non-testable beliefs of some kind, and I am perfectly happy for this situation to persist - because the alternative can only be a theocracy of some kind, or rather, I suppose atheocracy, in that it has become very possible to compose the kind of metaphysically-justified autocracy without any concept of deities. Besides, we make a mistake when we associate religions exclusively with positive theology (a concept of God or gods), since we are singling out just one aspect of the immense diversity of religious experiences and making it central. This is not entirely surprising, however. Christianity and Islam were too successful at making a theology of truth versus falsehood central to our thought via the creation and maintenance of libraries over a span of millennia. We never lost this habit of thought, we just switched from from theology to atheology and from libraries to corporate-managed online repositories while also ceasing to notice the change entirely.
The idea that truth is singular and that deviation from it is abhorrent is an artefact of the monotheistic religions that has been inherited by those who place their faith in 'science', as Nietzsche shrewdly pointed out in 1882. This desire for a magisterium for science is far more widespread than we tend to admit. Consider the political questions that have continued to erupt over gender and sex for the entire duration of the feminist movement (which is to say, since at least Mary Wollstencroft in the latter half of the 18th century). Feminists largely managed to avoid calls for anything like a magisterium on gender up until the end of the twentieth century. After this, the number of non-testable beliefs about gender required to meet everyone's emotional needs ballooned beyond any reasonable expectation. Problematically, tolerance between these different metaphysical conceptions has been extremely limited - remind you of anything? I can't be the only person who thinks that offensive labels like 'TERF' or the 'trans cult' are oddly resonant of older insults like 'heretic' and 'infidel' that came from others who were rather too certain about their beliefs...
No-one should be subjected to the arbitrary beliefs of others, and it does not matter to me one jot whether those beliefs are about God, or gender, or flying spaghetti monsters. However, quite unlike the South Park creators, I don't find a rabbit a desirable replacement for a human Catholic pope, especially one with such an uncommon passion for the oft-forgotten humility of the Christian tradition as Pope Francis. It rather seems to me that the problems with the Protestant Christian traditions I was raised in emerge precisely from the consequences of deciding that a rabbit would indeed be better than a human as a pope. As a Discordian, the absurdity amuses me; as a Christian, I am less convinced. The Catholic church may lag behind the western zeitgeist by about a century but it does eventually change its mind, whereas certain Protestant Christians seem to have an almost negligible possibility of changing their mind under any circumstances! Frankly, they are far from alone in this...
Here I should like to note that the Discordians have a different and altogether more hilarious conception of what it is to be a pope. In a move clearly inspired by the Protestant philosophy of the Enlightenment, Discordians claim that every human is a pope, and some Discordians like to give out 'pope cards' to certify people as such. Indeed, I was ordained as a Discordian pope by Robert Anton Wilson in the late 1990s, which sounds impressive but really is not, since there is no Discordian magisterium and if there were, Wilson would have excommunicated himself. The followers of this religion are almost universally anti-magisterium, and I hope that most if not all of my fellow Discordians would have the sense to never be caught arguing for a magisterium of science, although the golden rule of the followers of Eris is that "we Discordians should stick apart". As such, Paul Feyerabend's adage for capturing the realities of scientific practice, "anything goes!", applies far better to Discordians than to scientists, where suggesting that 'anything goes' is widely considered tantamount to blasphemy.
And here lies the awful truth of the idea that we can claim to be a supporter of free speech but place its limits at some scientific point of reference: the emotional framework that makes this possible is directly parallel with that of blasphemy. This word, after all, is only the name we have given cognitive dissonance when it occurs within a religious context. We must already have determined a necessary truth in order to wish to prevent dissemination of alternative views, and this implies that we secretly desire a scientific magisterium, the rejection of which would be tantamount to blaspheming. Yet free speech depends upon an absence of limitations, with the sole exception being the one proposed by Immanuel Kant: that we should only enact limitations upon freedom where they are necessary to protect a like freedom for others. It requires a real commitment to liberty for people to negotiate how to achieve such a balance, and alas for the most part we have decided not to bother.
Besides, why worry about being free to speak when the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, et al. and the search engine giants of Google, Baidu, et al. have conveniently provided their own magisterium of thought for us? Watch them with amazement as they merrily adjust search results and the relative visibility of what different people are saying, choosing on the one hand what should be read first, and on the other hand pronouncing which blasphemies must never be heard. Habemas papam, Cyberpope Google I...? I shudder to think. It is situations like this that ought to provoke the outrage my friend felt for a mostly harmless 'museum of ignorance'. Yet we apparently accept this gerrymandering of information without concern - some of our neighbours even advocate for this censorship, as the example from the pub at the opening of this piece foreshadowed!
When I first starting thinking about 'science popes' and a magisterium for science - always in opposition of any such concept! - my concern was that there would come some kind of attempt to create a Council of Scientists that could attempt to act as magister and offer declarations of what was or was not scientifically valid and therefore permitted to be enforced. Then came 2020, when the World Health Organisation - to its own great distress! - found itself unwittingly appointed to this role in a new and disturbing medical magisterium that spread into almost every world government and swiftly ran out of anyone's control. The topics upon which adjudication was demanded rapidly and inevitably fell into that state of pseudoscience whereby disagreement was not permitted (and thus the sciences cease to function), and the medical magisterium that we collectively instituted immediately undermined its own credentials in a manner rather parallel to the idea that a rabbit would make a better pope. I will not say that a rabbit would have made a good replacement for the WHO, only that the WHO struggled to fulfil its role scientifically while it was also expected to act as magister.
It is an admirable thing to stand up for public health and say "what can I do to help?" It is far more problematic to stand up and demand that everyone must satisfy your chosen vision of public health. In a democracy, any such claim is valid solely while it is has the support of the people, and if we propose any intervention on scientific grounds (where the people may have to take it on trust that we are not mistaken), those acting must at all times be ready both to absorb any new evidence, and to remain open to even the most difficult debates about what it all means (which is never a scientific judgement). We are no doubt emotionally secure in our support for science, but it remains to be seen if we are intellectually secure in our support for the sciences. The test for this is whether we are indeed open to new evidence... whenever you no longer need to test your own claims because you know in advance that you are correct, it makes little sense to assert that what you are doing is 'scientific': you are just playing at magister.
We have a choice to make, between free scientific enquiry and a magisterium of science. Yet there is no viable magisterium of science that will not swiftly become an abomination, since it is only because scientists are free in their enquiries that they gain their cybernetically-enhanced power to secure whatever limited truths are available via various research methods. Without debate there can be no legitimate science of any kind, and since a magisterium of science necessarily declares an authorised truth to enforce it could never be scientific. Rather, these kinds of atheology (like so many brutal monotheisms before them) rest upon an ideological claim to a complete and final knowledge - a rather ugly conception that might truly deserve the name 'anti-science'. Inevitably, every attempt at a magisterium of science prevents discussion and therefore unleashes the state of pseudoscience where free research is impossible, thus destroying the very conditions for enquiry that make scientific methods effective.
Perhaps, if you have read this far, you have nodded sagely to everything I've said and thought it obvious. Yet the moment you step away from this train of thought, you will encounter the anti-vaxxers or the pro-maskers, the Creationists or the militant atheists, the 'TERFs' or the 'trans cult' or whatever else it might happen to be that throws you into a blind seething rage. And when you do, won't you still experience that powerful emotional upheaval that comes with encountering blasphemy...? Underneath it all, our desire for a truth that we can depend upon is entirely human, and the Catholic church's stumbling towards hopes of a good life via its magisterium are only one expression of our unquenchable desire for secure foundations to truth. The Catholic pope these days always has the moral defence that the magisterium of the Vatican applies solely to those of the Catholic faith. A magisterium for science demands more: it demands obedience from us all, and a silencing of all objections. This is not, and can never be, scientific, no matter what claims it defends, no matter what motives it evokes. This is the ghastly confusion at the heart of the terrible events of 2020. Yet all it would take to bring this mistake to an end is the restoration of free scientific discourse, of listening once more to all we have refused to listen to. If only any of us knew how we could go back to doing that.
Perhaps more than any other twentieth century philosopher, the late Mary Midgley understood that there were great conceptual misunderstandings emerging out of the deep commitments to the power of scientific thinking that began in the nineteenth century. She remarked that this confusion had permitted bias to be "smuggled in as if it were a technical matter only accessible to experts" - a warning written in 2003 that captures a great deal of what went wrong in 2020.
This extended role for the sciences where they are taken to possess an authority that could in itself never be scientific flows from the mythos of magical science I discussed back in January, and it is an entirely contemporary problem - indeed, I rather suspect it is the essential contemporary problem, of which others such as the environmental crisis (euphemistically concealed by talk of 'climate change') are only shadows and reflections. It is because so many have emotionally invested in the power of science, while so few have intellectually invested in understanding the intricacies of the actual workings of the sciences, that we find ourselves in strange places where nobody can say 'no' to even a ghastly mistake provided it is made in the 'name' of science.
To be responsible in relation to the work of the sciences, then, requires a certain vigilance to ensure that what we are doing when we invoke terms like 'scientific research' or phases like 'the science says' or 'scientists increasingly believe' is accurately reporting the state of research programmes, and not mistaking the findings of scientific research (which are always provisional) with specific doctrines that are neither a requirement for, nor a part of, the work of the sciences. As Midgley warned of such philosophical smuggling, a great deal of so-called 'anti-science' positions are reacting to these imported ideologies rather than the research programmes that are truly the activities central to scientific work. This is not only problematic because of the way it complicates all attempts to share scientific perspectives more widely, but also because these unnoticed doctrines "import irrelevant, inhuman standards into non-scientific aspects of life and lead people to neglect the relevant ones."
No philosopher has had greater influence upon me than Midgley, and this is not only because she was my first (and for a long time, my only) philosophical correspondent. I have always aspired towards - and all too often failed to reach - the clarity of language that Midgley was able to bring to bear on quite complex problems in her always-excellent books. For her, as she said to me in the interview I ran back in 2010, specialist terminology such as can be found in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech", and the essence of her work in philosophy was always written in a way that makes her far easier to read than Kant, or Wittgenstein, or any of the other staples of modern philosophy. Since I believe any philosophy excised from a general readership has sealed its own doom, I have always considered Midgley's philosophical methods exemplars for what a philosopher ought to be.
When it comes to my own work in philosophy of science, Midgley is more than just an influence, she is the foundation of my thinking. Again and again, she was able to return to the problems springing from the persistent illusion that a pronouncement made by a scientist carries with it an almost magical power to authorise (or de-authorise) certain actions. Yet this authority is not scientific, but metaphysical (non-testable); it is a faith of a very specific kind, and one that tends towards the same blindness that all human thinking is prone to: of excluding ourselves from consideration when it comes to the errors of thought we can see quite clearly in others. It is the clarity of her understanding of this point, and many others related to it, that makes Midgley the essential guide to the broader philosophical problems of the sciences.
Midgley was part of an exceptional group of four female philosophers who studied at Oxford University during the Second World War - from left to right in the photo above, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Iris Murdoch. Indeed, in my correspondence with Midgley while she was with us, she still could not resist calling one of her former classmates 'P Foot' in a way that felt like an in-joke from decades past. Recently, attention has finally been paid to these four astonishing women philosophers, a recognition that was long overdue - and there is even a certain gathering momentum to recognise them as collectively representing a movement. Rachael Wiseman tentatively suggests 'uncommon sense realism' or 'depictive metaphysics' as names for this philosophical school... I do not think these names will stick, but they are a solid attempt to capture the commonalities of these four astonishing thinkers.
Midgley associated the perspective shared by these four philosophers with the collective issuing of a resounding "No!" to the ethical currents of the early twentieth century. Writing in 2017, she remarked:
Did that make us four into a Philosophical School?
This is a loose term, but the point is worth discussing. We did not at once become a 4-headed unanimous squad of prophets. We each followed our own diverging paths in various directions. But what, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint 'NO!'. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.
These two elements of the prevailing dogma that Midgley singled out are important because they do indeed frame both the significance of these four philosophers and the disastrous trajectory of the twentieth century, from which we are still reaping ever more grotesque fruit.
The split of mind from matter is taken as rejection of Descartes' philosophy, but as I've discussed many times previously, it is actually a perverse commitment to it. Whereas Descartes sought to demonstrate the necessity of treating mind as distinct from matter, today we are committed to the same framework yet inverted, such that we now agree wholeheartedly with Descartes' cleaving of existence - but only in so much as it allows us to make 'matter' (and not mind) the important side of the equation. The power of No had to be placed against this because in reducing who we are as beings to merely the action of molecules, we simultaneously created an illusion of humanity (indeed, of all animals) as merely mechanistic machines, and fatally undermined the conditions for understanding what a good life might be.
Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, the attempt to divorce facts from values - a mistake that the Scottish philosopher David Hulme made in 1740 and then unsuccessfully retracted in 1758 - is perhaps the pivotal error of the twentieth century, from which so many other philosophical disasters have flowed. This is a mistake imported from moral philosophy, but the consequences of making it have bled out into everything, and especially into philosophy of science. Indeed, as the opening piece to this current philosophical 'campaign' already observed, the confused idea that the sciences can be 'value-free', from which the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience flows, emanates precisely from this horrible misunderstanding of both facts and values, to which the power of No had to stand up in opposition.
It is worth reflecting upon the contributions of Midgley's three friends at Oxford, and how they relate to this resistance against the orthodox philosophy of mid-twentieth century Europe. Elizabeth Anscombe is sadly most famous for being Wittgenstein's student, and although that connection with Wittgenstein is important (as Midgley attests) it is worth noting that the four philosophers rarely saw him, even though his ground-breaking philosophical work was instrumental to developing their ways of thinking about the world. Midgley speaks of how Anscombe handed out loose-leaf bundles of papers containing Wittgenstein's notes (what are now called 'the Blue and Brown Books', and would go on to become Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty)... it is hard not to be slightly envious of this chance to be personally connected to what would prove to be the most influential work of twentieth century philosophy. (Heidegger's Being and Time - the likely contender to this dubious crown - is read solely by philosophers; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was also taken up by psychologists, a rare honour for any philosopher!)
Anscombe, alas, had the misfortune of being too overtly influenced by her Catholicism, and thus was too easily dismissed by the philosophical establishment. Academic philosophy has tended to treat religious commitments as something that can be overlooked as an indulgence in men (it is routinely overlooked for Wittgenstein, for instance, despite its central place in his work as a philosopher), yet it is almost always perceived as a fatal flaw in women, for whom the path to being taken seriously was (and perhaps still is) to act and think as much like a man as possible. Nonetheless, Anscombe's paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" is perhaps the single most important critique of consequentialism ever written. This term 'consequentialism' marks the belief that what matters beyond everything else in our ethics are outcomes, and this specific name was invented by Anscombe and is still widely used by philosophers today - generally without even a passing reference to her work! She remarks of this narrow focus upon outcomes that this approach...
...leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, as long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them.
A more apposite summary of the disaster that was 2020 I have not seen.
Philippa Foot is known for being the creator of so-called 'trolley problems', and in an irony that is now so common that it will not raise any eyebrows whatsoever, her purposes in using these thought experiments was diametrically opposed to how they are now used today. As I have written about in Chaos Ethics and elsewhere, trolley problems have come to be deployed as a convenient way of fooling people into accepting consequentialist thinking as necessary by making the truths of mathematics seem to possess moral rather than merely logical truth, and thus a means of luring people into acting and thinking atrociously (as Anscombe clearly warned would happen, and as was already happening in the early years of the twentieth century). Foot could not possibly be blamed for this absurd misuse of her toolbox, and the lack of attention to her work in moral philosophy is unfortunate, since she insightfully engaged with the attempt to divorce facts from values in ways that are still well worth reading. I have been particularly struck by her concept that injustice can be understood as a kind of injury, and therefore we have rational reasons to avoid injustice - another idea that bears gainfully upon many of the grim events of 2020.
Iris Murdoch had the fortune or misfortune (depending upon how you wish to view the matter) of having succeeded in writing excellent novels, and therefore of enjoying critical and indeed commercial success - she even scored a 'Dame' in the Queen's 1987 honours list, something no other philosopher has ever achieved. This has allowed Murdoch's philosophical thinking to be roundly ignored, since novels are deemed too frivolous a form for philosophising; even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are only grudgingly accepted as philosophers these days, having chosen novels over treatises. The idea that a contemporary academic philosopher would choose a novel as their preferred medium is one that doesn't even need scoffing at - despite the self-evident fact that writing a novel allows philosophical concepts to propagate far more effectively than writing a series of impenetrable arguments for echo chamber journals.
Since she never developed any explicit moral theory, attempts to summarise her position will always be a simplification - although as the case of Philippa Foot demonstrates, explicit theorising is in fact no defence against this either. However, her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good, does provide an outstanding skeleton key for understanding Murdoch's moral philosophy:
The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. 'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.
Murdoch's intuition that there was an irreducible plurality to the moral 'fields of force' hinged upon the idea that there is a sense of unity haunting our thinking about ethics, and followed Plato in naming this unity 'good'. She too used the power of No that the four philosophers unleashed to tackle the crises they jointly perceived. But she did so through the methods of the arts because she believed, with good reason, that this was an approach with the capacity to wield the greatest influence. I hope and trust that through her novels she did in fact attain precisely what she set out to achieve.
As the twentieth century ended, the power of No has been increasingly taken up as a feminine power. The phrase "No means no" has become a commonplace, the meaning of which is that consent must necessarily be explicit because the risks of implying consent are too terrible to permit. Sadly, this is often meant to apply solely in the context of rape, since in truth the confused idea that we can consent to that which we are vocally objecting to has equal application in politics, whereby consent is all too often assumed to have been implied merely by election, and therefore that democracy is solely about choosing who should wield power and not about perpetually solving the recurring problem of how we should all live together.
But if I leave this discussion of the power of No and the four extraordinary women who choose to wield their philosophy under this unstated banner at this point, it will only further the feminist stereotype that women want to undermine and destroy. And this is a terrible misrepresentation not only of women and feminists, but also of what Midgley, Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch strove towards. It will foreground their opposition to philosophical orthodoxy and not what they were seeking to defend. For the true power of No is not in denial but in resistance, and all effective resistance is grounded in defence of the good, however that needs to be construed.
The four Oxford moral philosophers represented a defence of the good life as it had been articulated by the ghosts of philosophy past, and as it had yet to be articulated in the spirit of philosophy yet to come. They unleashed the power of No in order to resist attempts to simplify, obfuscate, and distort the nature of human existence and the moral decisions consequent upon it. Of the four, only Midgley took on this vital struggle upon the battleground of philosophy of science, and if I have tended to favour her work it is almost certainly because my own conflicted and tortured relationship with the sciences - which I love and therefore recoil in horror when they are distorted, yet also fear because the vision we have unthinkingly chosen for them flirts so blatantly with catastrophe.
Midgley saw with immense clarity the way that non-scientific dogmas and orthodoxies could corrupt and undermine the work of the sciences, and sited that discussion directly in the alleged conflict between science and religion because she understood, with an insight that far outstrips any of her contemporaries, the immense danger of this artificial split, which mirrors the misguided split between facts and values or between mind and matter. To claim facts and matter 'for science' is to attempt to subjugate values and mind, and therefore to gut democracy, freedom, and indeed truth. It reduces the sciences to dogmatic caricatures of their true beauty and worth, and affords to anyone willing to wield this tainted sceptre of "following the science" an authority they neither truly possess nor justly deserve. Tied up in this mistake is the demonisation of religion as 'anti-science' - rather than, as history shows us, giving birth to every science as we now understand this term. It is perhaps the quintessential mistake made by those who claim to love science, yet who deceive themselves by falling prey of what Murdoch warns we are all deceived by: ourselves.
Against any and all such attempts to flatten and oppress the beauty of human existence we can and must join together in raising up the power of No, again, again, and ever again, unceasingly, if we are to have any hope of defending what is good in this world. When we stop, when we decide that we should let injustice that has been misrepresented as necessity, or bias that has been misrepresented as unchallengeable truth, happen without resistance - whatever good reason we may claim for doing so - we betray the efforts of all those who came before us and cleared the way for us all to try to make a good life together. In this neverending project, these four women will be our invaluable allies, if only we are willing to listen to the immense and incalculable wisdom they have bequeathed to us.
Unattributed Mary Midgley quotes in this piece are from her 2003 book, The Myths we Live By.