The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Five Choices (5): The Experts vs the People

Part five of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

5 - Encaustic VioletWho can we trust to make the important decisions? We have a choice. One approach is to stand by the ideals of democracy and, one way or another, let the people decide for themselves. But what if they make the wrong choice? We could be committed to a terrible course of action causing immense harm to public health, political stability, or the ideals of civilisation. Can we afford to let that happen?

The alternative is clear - we can let the important decisions be made by whomever has the relevant expertise. The experts, having had the necessary training, are ideally suited to make decisions, and to abandon expertise would be reckless - especially in a time of crisis. But the nature of every emergency is that the facts are not always evident and prior training is no guarantee of insight into a novel situation. So we face the exact same risks here as in giving the decision to the people - what if the experts make the wrong choice? The risks here are no less grave than with the people, since a terrible mistake is just as disastrous when it is made the well-educated - and it may even be far worse, if only because of the tremendous difficulty experts have in admitting they made a mistake.

But it is here that all this construction of idealised choices as a rhetorical device comes to an end. As every pollster knows, we can mount options deceptively because every time a situation is simplified to a binary choice, we have necessarily abstracted away the context which gives that decision its true meanings. If we come at the question of who we can trust to make important decisions as a choice between either the experts or the people, it looks as if we have to side with the experts. But this is not in fact a choice we should ever face, for the way to get the people to make good decisions is necessarily to share with them the perspectives of all the experts, all of whom are also part of the people. There is no need to nominate a set of 'the experts' to replace the decisions of the people. We are all 'the people', no matter what expertise we possess.

When it comes to the important decisions, the only viable way forward is to discover ways to combine expertise with democracy - because we need expertise to help make difficult decisions, but we also need democracy to ensure accountability and legitimacy, for otherwise there can only be thinly disguised tyranny. Once we realise this, we might begin to appreciate that a crisis is not a time to abandon the people for a tiny subset of experts, no matter how comforting we may find the artificial certainty this provides. On the contrary, when the people cannot question expertise, the experts become as blind to the truth as any other despotic ruler, while the people robbed of discourse with expertise become a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Good decisions do not flow from limiting the availability of expertise, but from ensuring that everyone with relevant experience is allowed to speak. This requires that we not give in to the temptation of premature certainty (the risk of 'The Science'), that we never ignore the harms inherent to our tools and methods (the risk of 'technology'), that we do not eviscerate the immense complexity of good health (the risk of 'disease'), and most certainly that we do not undermine both scientific knowledge and civil rights by saying that anyone who disagrees must be silenced (the risk of 'censorship').

These five choices do not offer different visions of good scientific practice. They offer an understanding of what good scientific practice entails, and of the risks we face when we undermine the work of the sciences through our politics or our fears (if indeed those names refer to different things...). The attempt to make experts into a caste, a priesthood, robs expertise of the democratic foundation that alone can legitimise it. The experts and the people are not opposites at all, but one and the same thing. Only when we accept this paradox can we begin to discover how me might live together.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (4): Censorship vs Disagreement

Part four of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

4 - Encaustic BlueHow should we deal with misinformation? We have a choice. One approach is to accept disagreement, to let people share their perspectives even if they are wrong, and thus to tolerate arguments as an essential part of democracy and free speech. But if we do this, we run risks. People may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, or even that put everyone in danger. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions. People might even be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

We have a clear alternative: censorship. We can say that whenever the consequences are sufficiently severe, we are obligated to draw a line in the sand against disinformation and prevent it from being disseminated. We could form a media power bloc - say, a Trusted News Initiative - and get all the tech companies controlling social media, and all the major players in the journalistic media to agree to prevent the dissemination of misinformation. In short, we can unite the most powerful forces in communications technology to enforce censorship in order to prevent misinformation from being spread.

But this too carries risks. The nature of scientific process is built upon disagreements. Despite the simplistic orthodoxy of 'hypothesis, experiment, theory', the production of scientific knowledge is not a sausage machine that you simply crank the handle to reach conclusions. On the contrary, a fairer caricature of the process would be 'competing hypotheses, triangulation of evidence, validation of theories' - and in all three stages, disagreement is essential to success. In the absence of disagreement, we are in danger of drawing premature conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and thus treating provisional hypotheses as robust theories without the painstaking work required to assemble an accurate picture.

Applying censorship to active scientific research topics is not a way of defending scientific knowledge, it is a method of completely preventing its production. You simply cannot stop the spread of misinformation without knowing what the true state of affairs is, and you cannot know this without permitting the disagreements that allow the sciences to conduct effective research programmes. And given that every theory in the sciences is provisional until all objections are eventually resolved (a process that typically takes decades), there is never a viable point at which censorship could plausibly be in the service of scientific truth.

If you resort to censorship, you make it impossible to know the true state of affairs. As a result, people may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, even that put everyone in danger, such as prolonging widespread panic. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions, such as reneging on civil rights agreements. People may be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences, such as whether or not they have taken a vaccine. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

Next week, the final part: The Experts vs the People

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (3): Health vs Disease

Part three of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

3 - Encaustic GreenHow should we try to look after ourselves? We have a choice. On the one hand, we can choose health, and therefore try to find ways to maintain and encourage good health in all those we share the world with. This is the difficult process of finding ways to balance whatever gives us pleasure and enjoyment with whatever harms are associated with it. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation; even if I know that I need exercise, companionship, and sustenance, what works for me in this regard need not work as well for someone else. Living for good health means wrestling with situations as complex as humanity itself.

Fortunately, there is a far simpler approach to the problem of living: we can declare war on disease instead. If we call 'disease' whatever causes harm, the problem of how we should live becomes far simpler, since all we have to do now is minimise disease. Unlike good health, which requires us to think about humans in the context of their minds and lives, minimising disease seems amenable to a simple calculation - does this cause more disease, or less? If it causes less, that is the option we must choose. All other considerations can be rescinded, or at least brushed under the carpet - even the impact of this choice on other diseases is all too frequently ignored once the order to charge is given.

But this negative policy of disease is a chimera. Disease is always hiding in shadows, and it is never as clearly defined as when it is painted by those who insist we are obligated to wage war against the invisible enemy. 'Disease' is a book of names that is always open for additions, but the naming is not the problem. It is the presupposition of disease that we might question, for once we commit to replacing the problem of good health with the Sisyphean task of fighting diseases, every problem becomes deceptively simple. Here is another disease, what can we manufacture to fight this disease...?

Alas for proponents of this infinite medical crusade, good health is not merely the absence of disease. At best, limiting disease is a component of good health - and how great a contribution it might make we certainly shall not discover by treating disease as a war we are obligated to fight on all fronts. For unless a battle, a disaster, or an accident claims your life you will eventually die of disease - to think otherwise is merely to deceive yourself. As long as you approach the problem of life from the presumption of arresting disease, failure is inevitable.

There is another way: to choose to pursue good health and thus enter a strange and ambiguous world whereby your physical and mental well-being are yours to claim and discover. Paradoxically, committing to fighting disease is not a path to good health at all, but merely a means of escaping thinking about it. For as we always knew, disease is not another name for health, but rather its diametric opposite.

Next week: Censorship vs Disagreement

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (2): Technology vs Sciences

Part two of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

2 - Encaustic YellowWhere should we place our trust if we wish to help humanity flourish? We have a choice. One path is to commit to scientific practice to give us means to evaluate our options for living. Through the laborious work of investigation, disagreement, and eventual consensus, the sciences give us means to parameterise the options available to us. We can, for instance, compare different treatments for a particular kind of cancer in order to determine what is effective in comparison to no treatment - and this latter option is much more important than we sometimes recognise, since from the point of view of scientific work, taking no action must always be compared to taking action if we want to be sure that the conclusions we are reaching are valid.

There is an alternative path - technology. We have tended to think of the relationship between science and technology as akin to cause and effect: first we conduct The Science, then we build The Technology. And there is some truth to this understanding, for revisions and expansions to our knowledge attained by the meticulous work of researchers do indeed open up new possibilities for creating tools. But technology, as Martin Heidegger realised, is not just a name for our devices but rather an enframing philosophy of instrumental means. We back-project the name 'technology' onto windmills and ploughs, but when we evoke this name today we are ordering the world to our purposes. Through our commitment to technology, all things become resources for our exploitation.

To think of technology and the sciences in tension feels strange, given how we have learned to view one as a consequence of the other. But if the core philosophy of the sciences is to patiently construct the truth of any situation, the core philosophy of technology is to produce superior means for exploiting all available resources - including humanity. Have you never wondered why so many organisations can name a department, without a trace of irony, 'Human Resources'...? The vital question becomes whether exploiting humanity and the world as resources can indeed serve human flourishing rather than, say, rendering it impossible. Technology offers us an alternative to human flourishing: ever greater technical power.

What does it mean to choose between technology and the sciences? It is the tension between exploitation of resources and answering questions about the effects of so doing. Thus if we choose 'technology' we can (for instance) claim that cars get safer as we add more safety equipment, whereas if we choose 'sciences' we can determine that 1.2 million people still die from road accidents irrespective of those modifications, while the environmental damage associated with their manufacture and operation remains unrelenting. If we choose the sciences over and above technology, we are obligated to look our cyclopean monster in its eye and can scarcely reach any other conclusion than that technology, far from saving us, has raised us up so high that we can see our own extinction from here.

Next week: Health vs Disease

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (1): The Science vs Research

Part one of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

1 - Encaustic RedWhere can we turn in these troubled times for solutions to the difficult problems? When it comes to empirical matters, we have a clear choice. One option is to turn to researchers to conduct investigations, but this takes time. Experiments and studies require planning and execution. While laboratory studies can be completed in mere days, substantial trials take months - years for longitudinal data. Then papers must be written, submitted to journals, peer reviewed (often, alas, under highly manipulative conditions), and even after that the scientific community does not treat a matter as closed. Other researchers and theoreticians will respond to the initial reports and conduct further research, either in support of or in opposition to the conclusions drawn in the original paper. All in all, reaching a firm interpretation of the evidence can take years - in some cases decades. Scientific research is slow.

Fortunately, we have a faster alternative - The Science. The Science works on an entirely different basis, because unlike the meticulous investigations conducted by researchers, the Science is always by definition true. Therefore, if you rely upon The Science instead of research, you are never wrong, and do not have to face the time, effort, or aggravating disagreements that happen whenever researchers strive to reach viable interpretations of the evidence. Once you choose The Science over research, you simply reach a conclusion - either instantaneously, on the basis of prior theory, or rapidly on the basis of the early guesses - and magically your work is done! You have your decision, and far faster and more easily than if you had committed to the painstaking process of assembling the truth via the work of researchers.

Precisely because The Science is never wrong, errors are simply attributed to specific scientists, which is to say, to mere researchers, further increasing the conceptual distance between these two alternative forms of knowledge production. The sciences and their researchers are not only slow and messy, they must be the site of all mistakes, because The Science, by definition, is infallible. That's why it commands such vehement commitment from its advocates: unlike research, The Science is never wrong.

This ideological idol we have built over the site of research practice works so effectively to usurp and undermine scientific work that we can brazenly dismiss all claims contrary to The Science as belonging to "just some scientists". Regrettably, in the last year we have intensified the power of The Science by permitting - nay, insisting! - that everything contrary to The Science must be excluded as dangerous. The Science is threatened by those who disagree with it, because it is necessarily true and therefore beyond challenge. Yet haven't we seen this pattern before, in other institutions that claim authority, and decry contrary viewpoints as blasphemy? The Science seems remarkably similar to precisely that which is claimed to be its opposite...

Next week: Technology vs Science

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Prelude: Five Choices

A preface to Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

0 - Encaustic - BlackAt a time when we are told there are no choices, that what must be done is known and certain, it is impish - practically blasphemous! - to suggest we have choices. But we always have choices. What we often don't have are good choices.

In the short serial that follows, Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge, I offer a series of five choices in how we approach the production of scientific knowledge.

Or do I...?

Reading each choice it may seem as if no reasonable choice is actually entailed, that if we accept my premises we must make the choice that, clearly, I am arguing for. And this is precisely the point - the trick, even. For given that on all five choices we already somehow chose the unthinkable choice, something must be seriously wrong with our collective thinking on scientific knowledge to have made not just one horrible mistake but five dreadful and ghastly mistakes.

And of course, the reason we choose the unthinkable choice in each case was precisely that it was not presented as this choice at all, but as another choice, a choice where there was no choice. An infernal alternative, as Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre put the matter: "Wherever an infernal alternative is constituted, politics gives way to submission, and even those who resist may be trapped, that is to say, may define their opposition in the terms fabricated by the alternative."

If I am successful in reconstructing these non-choices as non-choices of another kind - of a kind that reveals that there always was a choice and we merely made bad choices and called them unavoidable, it may hint at a secret path out of the political labyrinth we have found ourselves imprisoned within. Only it is not much of a secret... it is so blindingly obvious that, incredibly, we did not even consider it an option. We could choose to uphold our prior ideals, ideals we have been told remain important even while we are instructed that they have been completely trumped (pun intended) by urgent crises that require us to pack them away until that jam-tomorrow moment when these self-inflicted amplifications of catastrophe are over.

Mary Midgley, as ever, saw the risks of such bizarre salvation narratives when they become falsely associated with the work of the sciences. Writing in 1992, she remarked:

Science really is a wonderful thing, and human beings really are wonderful creatures. But there are other wonderful things and wonderful creatures in the world as well. To exalt science properly is to show it in its place among them, not to send it off to an unreal, isolated pedestal among the galaxies. The true value of science is something that is only insulted by tagging it with the offer of pie in the sky. Nor can that offer restore the meaning to life, if indeed meaning is lacking. If it was wrong for religion to make capital out of offers of this kind, it is no less wrong for science to do so.

I stand ready to escape from the oubliette. I hope some of you will come with me.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


A Magisterium for Science

Pope Peter Rabbit"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.


The Power of No

The Four Oxford Moral PhilosophersPerhaps 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.


A Case Study in Pseudoscience

Contains ideas some people may find distressing.

Microscopic Crystals

The science is clear! Masks save lives/don't work! But which is it, and even more importantly how can we know? To answer this wildly contentious question - one which so many on either side are utterly convinced is entirely settled - we first have to understand why this topic has not yet even been adequately debated, much less resolved beyond dispute. Join me, if you dare, on a disturbing journey through a scientific story from the United Kingdom in 2020, a tale that centres upon the world's second oldest university, Oxford...

First, however, a polite warning. This is a hot button issue, and therefore one with a high risk of triggering cognitive dissonance in those who have committed to a specific side...  But if we care about the sciences, we cannot simply consent to keeping our mouths shut rather than debating the ambiguities of a live research question, regardless of how much of a minefield it becomes. In so much as the truth about this topic is currently known, the only two certain claims I can ascertain are that there is not enough good quality evidence to settle the debate definitively, and there is no longer even anything that might be called a debate, since both sides are now intractably locked into their beliefs. This kind of situation is a paradigm case of what I have called pseudoscience, the collapse of even the possibility of productive scientific work occurring.

Our story begins relatively early last year, as thousands of armchair epidemiologists took to social media to declare what was or wasn’t true on a great many topics that were far more complicated than anyone seemed to realise. A great deal of that complexity comes from the fact explored last week, namely that the sciences are discourses, series of conversations via written texts. This has the unfortunate consequence that the act of interpreting the evidence is seldom as simple (as the armchair epidemiologists apparently believed) as sifting out the ‘good evidence’ and discounting the ‘bad evidence’ - and doubly so since the evidence that is rejected in such a procedure is very frequently cast out as a result of confirmation bias rather than for any sound reason.

Not long after the social media platforms began to descend even further into a verbal war zone, severe disagreements broke out in the United Kingdom between medical researchers and practitioners about a newly proposed medical intervention for COVID-19, namely community masking. It's important to make a distinction here: use of personal protective equipment in hospitals is radically different from asking the population as a whole to deploy face masks; there are disagreements about the former as well as the latter, but since our interest in this case study is not in resolving these disputes but rather in examining them, it will be helpful to recall that the question that was being debated in the UK was not 'are face masks ever effective?' but whether we should require the general population to wear face masks to help stop the spread of the SARS-CoV2 virus. It was over this discussion specifically that medical scientific practice almost entirely collapsed in the UK.

The crisis point can be traced to a pivotal moment in June. Two months earlier, Trisha Greenhalgh of Oxford University and half a dozen other medical professionals had argued in a piece for the British Medical Journal that while “direct, experimental evidence for benefit is not clear cut”, we should follow the precautionary principle and recommend face masks for the public all the same. Intriguingly (and this will be important later), they also made the following remarks:

...trials have shown that people are unlikely to wear them properly or consistently, which is important since prevention depends on people not repeatedly touching their mask, and on all or most people wearing them most of the time.... the trials cited above have also shown that wearing a mask might make people feel safe and hence disregard other important public health advice such as hand washing and social distancing...[these] arguments may have been internally valid in the trials that produced them, but we have no evidence that they are externally valid in the context of covid-19. “The public” here are not volunteers in someone else’s experiment in a flu outbreak—they are people the world over who are trying to stay alive in a deadly pandemic. They may be highly motivated to learn techniques for most effective mask use.

In June, Professor Greenhalgh and her colleagues returned to follow up on their original piece. There had been enormous swathes of comments in the meantime, and heated arguments about the risks that might potentially be involved, not to mention how this proposal could be justified in terms of the precautionary principle, which cautions doctors not to use unproven interventions about which there is a potential risk of harm. Surprisingly, in responding to their critics the authors did not engage with any of the concerns that had been raised. Rather, they declared the myriad objections colleagues had presented as “straw men” (misusing the term, incidentally) and announced that the UK ought to do what they had suggested anyway. A week later, the UK government mandated community masking by law, with escalating fines for non-compliance. This led the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine (like Greenhalgh, also based at Oxford University) to run an unprecedented opinion piece denouncing the decision as politically motivated and scientifically unsound. From that point on, the outbreak of pseudoscience corrupted the discourse and little productive discussion on this topic has yet re-emerged.

An interesting aspect of the CEBM’s rebuttal was that it was entirely couched in terms of how the research had been conducted up until the year before, and the lack of strong supporting evidence - including mentioning the calls that had been made for further research on the efficacy of different kinds of face mask after previous epidemics that had never been followed up. Even if the CEBM's response was marred by the kind of righteous outrage that also corrupted discussion on social media, it is clear that (at the very least) they understood the role of the discourse in validating scientific claims, and saw the risks involved in pretending there was no prior understanding on the topic that might have made certain advocates of community masking more cautious than they were. In the sciences, scepticism can be both a blessing and a curse, but the absence of adequate scepticism - or the refusal to listen to it - almost always heralds mistakes, and sometimes disastrous errors. It is why allowing disagreements is essential to the work of the sciences, and every attempt to prevent such arguments from taking place fosters pseudoscience.

It is worth pausing briefly to point out that when I claim the medical discourse in the UK devolved into pseudoscience over this issue (and a parallel argument can almost certainly be constructed for the US, but I have spent less time examining the discourse there) I am not making any kind of claim about the truth of the competing claims about community masking. From the UK perspective, one side came to the table with a hypothesis that this intervention would be effective at preventing the spread of a respiratory virus, acknowledged the evidence they had at the time was inconclusive, recognised some of the specific risks involved in pursuing this intervention but claimed that - as a precaution - we ought to adopt the community masking anyway.

The positive argument made for the intervention was essentially ‘it might save lives and we might avoid the known harms so we must do it’. Yet as a purely logical matter, this is poor reasoning, and as a medical question the precautionary principle could not plausibly be applied on this basis (as some pointed out at the time, it cautions the exact opposite of what was done). Thus right from the outset, the necessary discussion on the topic was on dangerous ground. But this certainly does not exclude the possible benefits of community masking; rather, what was indicated was an urgent need for trials to establish the balance of benefits to risks. In ignoring the ambiguous state of knowledge regarding the potential harms, the discourse failed and we entered the condition of pseudoscience.

If we had remained in a state of productive scientific discourse, what should have happened next was commissioning studies to gather evidence to resolve the ambiguities. Yet this did not happen, and still has not happened, and it is incorrect, as British evidence-based medicine practitioner Margaret McCartney shrewdly observed, to claim that the evidence could not be gathered because it would be unethical to do so:

Another argument is that large scale trials, say of face mask use in schools, are impossible, because of the belief that every child would need a guardian to consent, making recruitment practically impossible. But this is deeply problematic. This suggests that the government can choose and implement any policy, without requiring any individual consent, as long as it is not called a trial. For as long as this double standard is allowed to persist, giving less powerful results and unnecessary uncertainty, people may come to avoidable harm. Nor does valuable information come only from randomised controlled trials. Complex interventions require multiple disciplines and types of research for assessment. But where are they? [Emphasis added]

Furthermore, it is rather strange that Greenhalgh and her colleagues specifically identified a key risk associated with mask use (touching an infected mask - see the quotation above), but set this aside by claiming that the public would be “highly motivated to learn techniques for most effective mask use.” Yet the British government provided negligible guidance on effective mask use to the public. Considerable expense was put towards promoting the idea on television and other media that the British public should wear masks, but almost none at all on what good mask technique ought to consist of. Notes on the government website, however, did provide numerous important warnings - about not re-wearing used masks, about storing used masks in plastic bags etc. - none of which I have seen practiced by anyone but myself in months and months of government-enforced mask wearing. Nor were any studies conducted to even check the quality of the mask technique that was occurring in the community! Once the law was passed to mandate face masks, even those concerns openly acknowledged by the medical professionals who had called for community masking in the UK were simply ignored.

If you had suggested to me in 2019 that the British government was going to mandate a medical intervention on weak evidence and then commission no studies to verify either the efficacy or the safety of that intervention I would have at the least raised an eyebrow, and at the worst asked what you were smoking. Yet this is precisely what happened. The entire affair has caused me quite considerable distress, not because I know the truth of the matter (community actions are far more complex research subjects than most people seem to realise), but because I would never have believed in 2019 that it would take just eight weeks to disrupt the capacity for the medical networks of the United Kingdom to act as scientists, nor that anyone would propose to use the force of law to compel everyone into a medical intervention the case for which had never even been adequately debated, let alone investigated. It is doubly amazing to me that anyone can use phrases like “following the science” or, worse, “the science is clear!” in a situation where the truth is that the required scientific work has not yet been adequately conducted.

The concern I am raising here is rather independent of what transpires to be the truth about community masking if and when scientific discourse is restored. Even if future evidence did eventually validate the hypothesis, it would not change the fact that the British government acted improperly by enforcing penalties by law for non-compliance with an intervention they apparently had no intention of confirming was effective, nor indeed of ruling out the possible health risks suggested by earlier mask studies - perhaps most significantly that cloth face masks, improperly used, might increase the rate of infection (as the CEBM commentary points out, and as Greenhalgh and colleagues acknowledged was a risk). There was more than enough evidence in April to formulate a hypothesis, but nowhere near enough to settle the issue unequivocally - as indicated by the fact evidence-based medical practitioners in both England and Scotland publicly spoke out against both the lack of good evidence and the abject failure of the British government to commission any new studies to gather it.

I can think of no better name for this depressing collapse of the medical discourse in the UK than pseudoscience. This condition destroys the ability of the sciences to operate by undermining our capacity to disagree, which is fundamental to the pursuit of scientific truth. What's more, once this situation occurs, the problem is no longer constrained to the topic that initiated it, and alas creates ample opportunities for unscrupulous people to manipulate the truth for personal profit while the scientific networks are effectively disabled. Thus in November 2020, the British Medical Journal's Executive Editor Kamran Abbasi issued an unprecedented editorial about the suppression of scientific research in the UK's most respected medical forum declaring:

Science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. Covid-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health. Politicians and industry are responsible for this opportunistic embezzlement. So too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.

This is not some off-the-cuff remark by an armchair epidemiologist on social media, this is the Executive Editor of a major British journal issuing an editorial for the express purpose of lambasting the British government for "state corruption on a grand scale" and "opportunistic embezzlement", this latter point relating to the news story (reported in October by the BMJ) that the government had handed out contracts without tender for face masks and other protective equipment, some of which was not even fit for purpose. (I note for context that Abassi appears to have remained agnostic about community masking - although not about Facebook censorship over the issue). How curious that this serious breakdown in scientific discourse did not even warrant a mention in any British news source! But then, each of the channels, each of the newspapers had already picked a side on the face mask issue, so they simply ignored and discredited any and all contrary viewpoints... thus the journalists followed the scientists into pseudoscience too, if they did not in fact lead them into it.

Logically, if the US medical community had not descended onto this crooked path immediately beforehand, we would be hard pressed to explain how this could have happened in the UK at all (it is exceptionally unusual to argue to undertake a precautionary measure while admitting the evidence for it is still inconclusive, for obvious reasons). However, since I have not examined these earlier discussions in any great depth, I leave it open whether there might be some other explanation besides the most obvious one, namely that the UK's pseudoscience outbreak was caused by a metaphorical infection of human thought that spread from the other side of the Atlantic where political partisanship had already destroyed any possibility of clear scientific thinking at a time when it was most needed.

Hence the epidemic of armchair epidemiologists who dealt with every contrasting perspective by the expedient means of summarily discounting the views of anyone who disagreed with them. Yet for their chosen position to be in any way credible, these partisans still have to explain why they have needed to discredit so many people who are well-versed in the medical sciences. As this UK case study hopefully makes clear, whichever stance is taken in 'masks save lives/don't work', at least one senior academic at the prestigious Oxford University, plus hundreds more academics at other faculties around the world, will be on the other side. How far are you willing to go in your crusade of denouncements and discreditings just to uphold a specific interpretation of the still-ambiguous evidence as being both clear and irrefutable? Will you say that their political beliefs misled them, while yours miraculously had no effect on your truth-finding powers...?

Accepting this as an outbreak of pseudoscience, on the other hand, provides both an explanation for this otherwise incomprehensible lack of collective discernment, and a potential solution as well: restore debate over the key disagreements, and either conduct the required research or entirely withdraw the legal requirement for community masking in the UK (or wherever you happen to live). Without embracing dissent, there can be no legitimate scientific position on community masking at all, only the counter-productive war of bias-against-bias I have named pseudoscience. The sooner we accept this, the fewer lives we will lose to these two infections - the deadly SARS-CoV2, and the even deadlier outbreak of pseudoscience it has fostered.

As long as we pretend that this issue is resolved beyond further dispute, rather than trapped in a limbo where such resolution is impossible to reach, the more people will die who did not need to. Not because some people wouldn't wear masks, but because we have collectively destroyed the ability of the sciences to do what they do best: to investigate ambiguous situations and explore all the possible explanations for the evidence gathered thus far. The science is clear? No, it almost never is. But our guilt in undermining the work of the sciences is all too clear, and for this I fear we should all feel greatly ashamed.

Comments welcome, but please don't comment angry! If this piece enrages you, please wait a short while before replying.


Every Science is a Discourse

Einstein ReadingWe celebrate Albert Einstein as the greatest scientific genius of the preceding century, yet we tend to focus solely upon his theories in physics when we do so. In the 75 years since his death, we have continuously taken steps to place greater importance upon science and mathematics and to downplay the importance of the humanities. Yet Einstein himself would have cautioned against taking this path. He remarked, in a piece for the New York Times in 1952 (and please forgive his exclusive use of male pronouns, which at the time was entirely usual in English): 

It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings, in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to the community. These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not – or at least not in the main – through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the ‘humanities’ as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.

How fascinating that at the time he was writing, the danger Einstein saw was that only history and philosophy would be taught in the humanities! Today, neither subject is a priority at most universities, and the humanities as a whole have been relegated to a lesser status next to so-called STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects. Einstein, as this quote and others like it attest, was against this elevation of the sciences above the humanities, against the specialisation that has become the hallmark of contemporary higher education... he saw great danger on the path that we were already upon in the 1950s. We did not listen.

Today, even those of us who value both the humanities and the sciences for their unique contributions to human flourishing will tend to treat the former as worthy and the latter as useful. The impression is thus that the humanities are an optional extra, while the sciences are doing the real work in advancing human knowledge. Indeed, it sometimes seems that what distinguishes the humanities from the sciences is that humanities scholars merely ‘talk’ while scientists ‘do’. But this is an illusion brought about by the impoverished state of our philosophy of science. In actuality, every science is also a discourse. Not understanding this subtle point leads to a great many errors.

Giant Shoulders

The story we like to tell about Einstein's scientific work, and the tales we tell of Galileo and Newton as well, have a nasty habit of valourising these theoreticians and natural philosophers as lone heroes fighting for truth against the Church or some other orthodoxy (e.g. the ether, in Einstein’s folk history). Almost always, these tales are mythically exaggerated - even to the extent of falling into magical science, as previously discussed. Regarding Galileo, Paul Feyerabend is not the only historically-inclined philosopher of science to observe that it was the Church at that time who was more “faithful to reason” in the famous dispute. As Charles Taylor puts the matter: “If we look at the period we’re examining, we see that the mantle of sober scientists was often seized by the defenders of orthodoxy.” In each and every case, looking at what scientists came to accept afterwards is an inadequate way of understanding how they reached these new understandings, which always entailed disagreements being worked through by a community.

What I find particularly fascinating about the relationship between the sciences and their discourses is that contemporary scientists - quite unlike Einstein and natural philosophers like Newton - typically do not understand themselves as being in a discourse at all. I would suggest this shortcoming happens precisely because scientists today are trained in blinkered specialist degrees and do not receive a university education in the sense that Galileo or Newton would have understood, and that Einstein championed. For the natural philosophers, to go to university was to be prepared to understand the world as a coherent whole - a universe, hence ‘university’ (both terms coming from the Latin, ‘universus’ - whole, complete). There was no concept of humanities vs sciences for these scholars, and although there was for Einstein, he urged us to pursue both and considered the humanities to be so important that a good education ought to revolve around it.

A university education in the classical sense required you to understand, for instance, that Newton’s laws of motion spring from Newton’s writings, which were part of a mathematical discourse with his predecessors and peers. Not without good reason did Newton famously claim to be “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Conversely, while I was studying physics at the world-class physics department at the Schuster Laboratory in Manchester, every theory was presented to the undergraduates as if it had come from nowhere, just a magical free-standing edifice, a roof without walls to support it. Humanities scholars broadly understand their fields as sustained by their texts, while contemporary science students are taught misleading nonsense like ‘the scientific method’ instead (see the earlier discussion for why this is incoherent), although I note that, to their credit, no professor at University of Manchester ever suggested any such thing to me. Alas, a great many people today seem to foolishly believe that ‘the science’ speaks for itself, yet that it does so through them, as indeed oracles claimed of the gods that spoke through them (another manifestation of magical science, perhaps...?).

Every scientist is part of a discourse - and they ignore this to their (and sometimes our) peril, most especially because training in one field does not automatically give you expertise in all fields. Newton is not the only one who stood on the shoulders of giants, every scientist (every scholar in every discipline, in fact) necessarily does so, and every mythic image that conceals this poses risks to scientific practice. As much as I have dabbled with being a polymath since graduating, I have only ever managed this by committing to learning new discourses and being willing to both listen and talk to practitioners in those other fields - as I had to do in 2011 with aesthetics and 2012 with the evolutionary sciences in order to write about them for my first two philosophy books. To conceive of the sciences as uncovering truth without borrowing those giant shoulders is to deceive yourself. The sciences are community practices, and have always been so.

Einstein's Hope for the Future

We take Einstein as a scientific hero with good cause, but like his natural philosopher predecessors he did not associate knowledge with intense specialisation, but rather with co-operation within and between disciplines. Remember that Einstein performed no experiments to verify his theories (although he designed one experimental instrument, his “little machine”, which does not appear to have worked) - he didn't need to conduct his own practical research; he could count on the physicist community to be curious enough to want to consider all the possibilities with care, because of their shared commitment to determining the truth of each situation.

As much as I admire the sheer elegance of his mathematical derivation of special relativity, which I studied in high school, there is an Einstein quote that for me sums up his genius more than anything else:

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem – in my opinion – to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately for the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

The message here may not be immediately clear: it is not enough for scientists - nor indeed anyone seeking to serve humanity as a whole - to be siloed away in a specialism ‘perfecting means’. Yet because we have become so good at doing this, because our means (our technology) have become so powerful, we could easily achieve a state of near-universal human flourishing if only that was the goal we should wish to undertake. It was Einstein’s hope that we would. Yet we did not, and still do not, in part because Einstein’s generation of scientists were the last that learned their science as a discourse, and thus did not look down upon the humanities as somehow lesser, requiring the self-deceit that the sciences transcend human discourse to speak directly with the universe - or as Einstein would say, with God. Einstein would not have said that the moral truth was given by God, however, but discovered by us, through pursuing our disagreements in the humanities, which are at least as important as the sciences when properly understood.

The mission statement I take Einstein to be laying out here is not one I associate with spreading high technology indiscriminately around the world, thus bringing the community-rich ‘Third World’ down to the impoverished social state of our so-called ‘First World’, nor with dictating for all what a technological good life should (or worse, must) be. On the contrary, the safety, welfare, and the free development of the talents of all humanity will be quite seriously threatened by our technology if we do not change how we think about it, a topic I have explored in The Virtuous Cyborg. Rather, I take Einstein as participating in a prior discourse (a lowly humanities discourse...), that of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, whose major works Einstein had already read at age 16. I take it, therefore, that Einstein was proposing to work towards what Kant suggested was the “merely possible” future state where we can support everyone in pursuing their own chosen ends provided they do not prevent others from pursuing their own ends. Both pseudoscience and magical science disrupt our ability to do this, in part by obscuring the truth that both the humanities and the sciences are vital discourses we cannot afford to disrupt, a fact that has alas become obfuscated by this very division of human thought.

This schism in knowledge - a grenade whose pin was accidentally pulled by Kant in his rethinking of the university system - now threatens everything the Enlightenment strived towards. For me, the best reason to pursue philosophy of science - to take part in the discourse about the discourses of the sciences - is to help fulfil Einstein’s dream of ensuring the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all humanity, an ideal originally espoused by Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others like them. In so doing, I join Einstein, Wollstonecraft, and Kant’s discourse, without of course ever speaking to them. It is my hope, vain though it might be, that more might still follow us - but I fear this will not happen without a seismic shift in our understanding of the contributions both the humanities and the sciences make towards our collective knowledge, and with it a vast and long overdue improvement to our philosophies of science.

Comments always welcome.