Doom Propheteering

Contains discussion of death statistics that some people may find distressing.

Cheeseflick 2012 Chiwetel Ejiofor

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.


Fun with Fascism

A blog-letter to Chris Billows of The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. This letter contains discussion of death statistics which some people may find distressing.

Banksy.Flower ThrowerDear Chris,

Fascists! Fascists everywhere! They're after your jobs, they're after your homes, they're after your unborn children! They want to take away your rights, they want to take away your healthcare, they want to take away your very lives! Oh the terrible things they do, these fascists, and the worse things they want to do - we must rise up and force the State to come crashing down with all the power of the law and its enforcers so that the fascists can be quelled and dispelled. In short, we must become fascists or else the fascists will win!

Many thanks for your blog-letter, Too Comfortable to Consider Politics, which puts me back in dialogue with a rather old version of myself, 2006's younger model, who was still willing to write about Temperament Theory. Why did I stop...? It wasn't that I thought this model had lost its heuristic value, it is still a great tool for the kind of cartoon thought experiments that go on in Considering Politics, and I certainly don't consider Big 5 to have solved any of the methodological flaws that bedevil these kinds of personality inventories. But I came to realise that mainstream psychologists were very defensive of their territory - despite not really having worked out what that territory was, or what a 'mainstream' version of psychology might actually look like. I thought it best to pick other battles.

I began to write more and more about philosophy, because it satisfied my desire for more complex and subtle ways of thinking, and while I did not stop reading and writing about psychological issues, I did so mainly from the perspective of Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance and Paul Ekman's emotion theories going forward. These were the most secure islands in the stormy seas of psychology, and terribly helpful for understanding how and why we play games too. But I still have conversations in terms of Temperament Theory with others who share the terminology, just as I can still talk about God with a Christian or a Hindu, or riff on materialist themes with a positivist... what we say often needs to reflect who we are speaking with. 2006-me did not need to consider this; he just wrote what he was thinking about. In the interim I have become more focused upon why I am writing, and that changes what I write about too.

I believe you are broadly correct in your analysis of the role of comfort in Western Liberal Democracy, which ever since hearing eclectic French musician's Rubin Steiner's album Say Hello to the Dawn of Paradox, I have begun (in a somewhat impish fashion) to think of as 'Industrial Liberal Fascism'. But this 'F' word is one we cannot safely use to communicate, alas, because it inconveniently means different things to different people. Originally, of course, 'Fascist' was a specific political party in Italy, and the name descends from the Italian word 'fascio', meaning just 'group'. As a crude approximation, we might take Mussolini's doctrine for national government as consisting of three key elements:

  1. A dictatorship…
  2. …where violently repressive means…
  3. …enforce an inescapable role for the state

Depending who you talk to, you’ll hear Fascism talked about as a right-wing, ultranationalist movement, or you’ll hear how liberal political advocates in the 1920s secured the rise to power of Mussolini’s fascists (both correct, by the way). Liberals in the US identify ‘fascism’ with (1) and (2) in the definition above, and conservatives with (2) and (3), by substituting ‘ideologically repressive’ for ‘violently repressive’ or by associating ‘violence’ with different acts (abortion, for instance). As a result, ‘fascist’ is an insult that can be used against left or right with equipoise, with the inevitable result that the everyone in the US can become hysterical about the rise of fascism in their nation without ever once noticing their own complicity in bringing this about.

Your allegation is that political disenfranchisement occurs because people get too comfortable, and engaging in politics is "a form of social warfare" that therefore only happens because people are forced out of their comfort zone by the loss of welfare (both in the sense of well-being, and in the sense of government programmes for supporting citizens). But this analysis, while broadly correct, perhaps misses two subtle distinctions about 'comfort' and 'politics' that I should like to tease out in reply.

Let us start with 'comfort'. We are an imaginative species - indeed, the most imaginative species we know. It gives us almost everything worthwhile in human life, but it also inevitably causes enormous problems because we can imaginatively project ourselves into other situations that we do not understand without ever once noticing our lack of understanding. Thus, for instance, the rush to provide computers to so-called 'Third World' countries. These computers have caused tremendous problems for us, but we don't like to think about that, and we prefer to see them as a source of comfort, which of course they are as well. Therefore, anyone without those computers has missed out. We ought to send those poor people abroad computers. Or, to put it another way, having reorganised these geographic regions into vassal states of our seafaring empires and gearing their economies solely for exporting resources to the 'First World' we now want to sell them 'First World' technology and increase the power and influence of profit-centred organisations like Google and Apple that it is far from obvious can be trusted at home, let alone further afield.

Similarly, I am at a loss to understand why advocates for the Trans community in the US felt it necessary to try and wield influence in British politics. My trans friends in the UK were not, in fact, crying out for this 'assistance' (although I have no trans friends under the age of 30, so perhaps younger people were?). But as a result of this attempted political intervention, the trans community has lost a great deal of support on this side of the Atlantic, and in the past five years violence against trans people has skyrocketed (in the most extreme assessment, quadrupling in that period). Not to mention the verbal abuse that US trans advocates have piled upon British lesbians and their allies (and vice versa!)... a "form of social warfare" indeed. And a heartbreaking one; as a long-time supporter of the wonderfully eclectic rag-tag alliance that flies a rainbow as its flag, it has been devastating to watch the trans and lesbian communities go to political war against each other, bringing to a savage end a co-operation that may well have been the last gasp of the civil rights movements.

Yet this depressing turn of affairs has been dwarfed by the even more bleak and dispiriting events of 2020, when the worst respiratory infection pandemic in some fifty years or so was rendered far, far more destructive and damaging by the descent of the medical discourses into a state of pseudoscience. Thus, in strict contradistinction to the urging of both epidemiologists and the WHO, the UK government let loose its duplicitous war cry of "follow the science!" before initiating a string of draconian national lockdowns that have sacrificed an entire generation's mental health and prospects, and unleashed hardship disproportionately upon our poorer citizens - all against an infection that was arguably already endemic, and all without adequate scientific monitoring to determine the terrible effects of this brutal quasi-fascist experiment. And what do you know, the point of origin of the disruption of the very research networks that could have helped us make good decisions when they were desperately needed was once again the United States, where the political left and the political right argued between a conception of the pandemic that was wildly over-exaggerated and one that was utterly dismissive, with the net result that many people who would not have died last year did in fact do so, including those middle aged people with heart disease or diabetes who died at home rather than risk going to hospital and catching an infection that was quite unlikely to have killed them.

The tragedy of SARS-CoV2 is not just what it has caused in each country, although this is devastatingly sad, but also what it has prevented happening between countries. While we do not yet have the WHO's estimated global mortality statistics for 2020, we have already had a warning from Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, about what the disruption of the support networks for malaria treatments in Africa last year will ultimately mean - namely between 10,000 and 100,000 additional deaths on top of the 400,000 that die from this disease every year, the vast majority of them babies and toddlers. I fear we will completely ignore these casualties, brushed under the carpet as merely another unfortunate consequence of the COVID-19 situation. Yet we might just as well link these heart-breaking deaths to a lack of support from their former colonial oppressors, who were too busy arguing about face masks to prove to the world, rather than to their neighbours, that black lives really do matter.

Make no mistake, this entire debacle represents the greatest collective failure of world citizens and their governments since World War II - which, to be fair, was several orders of magnitude more tragic as a global event. It is also the greatest failure of the scientific community in my lifetime, and I cannot escape the feeling that those two points are directly connected to one another. And just as in the case of US trans advocates inadvertently making the situation worse for trans people in the UK by trying to help them, the additional catastrophe that was the response to COVID-19 - the myriad harms of which will take years to fully understand - seems once again to have been caused at root by the political dysfunction of the United States, where hatred of fascism has led to a worsening of those disparate conditions claimed by either side as fascism.

I have acceded to your point about 'comfort' lessening political engagement, but my counterpoint is that comfort is a product of our imagined circumstances, not our actual circumstances. The very place where comfort was most readily available in terms of shelter, food, and entertainment was also the place where tremendous political capital was expended in the urgent battle against the double-headed coin of duofascism, which paints all our political 'enemies' as fascists while ignoring the resulting fascist tendencies in our own political demands. Thus it is fear, as it so often has been throughout history, rather than loss of comfort per se, that has been driving political crusades in the United States that have had devastating effects elsewhere in the world, whether we are talking in terms of the hatred cruelly directed at trans people, the British government's descent into quasi-fascism powered by the collapse of scientific discourse, or the soul-numbing losses of hundreds of thousands of black children whose lives, it seems, did not really matter after all.

If I leave our discussion there, it would be to fail to learn anything from the disaster of a year that was 2020, and that I could not bear. So let us turn to the other subtle point I want to discuss, that in connection to 'politics'. When you describe politics as "a form of social warfare", you are describing what currently happens under this name. Duofascism - the fascist tendencies of both antifascists and their rivals - lies behind this grotesque alternative to democracy we are currently pursuing in those parts of the world fortunate enough not to have far worse, far more oppressive, far more convincingly fascist regimes in charge. It is what I have called 'politics as war', where the purpose of political action is to defeat your enemies. And this is one of the worst conceptions of politics we could fall for, since there is almost no point at all in having democracy if you are not going to use it to negotiate a good life for everyone in our political community, which requires us to understand their visions for what a good life might be.

Democracy presumes a common political identity, a demos, as the Ancient Greeks put it. I think they had an easier job because, in the first place, these original democratic communities were only cities and therefore orders of magnitude smaller political bodies than those we wrestle with today, and in the second place, they didn't in fact offer political voice to everyone but solely to their elites. On this latter point, we are fast heading the same way, if we did not in fact already arrive there quite a while ago. When there is an authentic political community, when we belong to a demos, we can talk to one another about our needs, wants, and fears, and we can disagree productively and hence negotiate how we can each make ourselves a good life without demanding of others that which causes intolerable harm to their hopes of making a good life for themselves.

Duofascism, if we set aside the histrionic denunciation of those other fascists that are nothing like us, rests on the demand that the State must do certain things our way regardless of the harms this causes to our fellow citizens. As such, it is anti-democratic because it prevents any possibility of forming a demos. But oh, the things the United States has been able to achieve whenever it can form a united political community! Let us never forget that it was citizens of the United States like Eleanor Roosevelt that were the driving force behind the original human rights agreements during that hopeful time after the second World War when, as Michael Moorcock reports of Britain after the wars, everyone seemed to be working together to build a better life for all. Just because that didn't last is no reason for us not to try again.

These are dark times, and not just because of this particularly nasty respiratory virus and the terror that scurrilous journalists have stoked about it. But the sole thing we need to get beyond the democratic impasse is a laying down of hostilities and a re-opening of the possibility of forming political communities together. We lose sight of this all too often because 'politics as war' is what we have become accustomed to, and so we are willing to become fascists to stop fascism. But it is not the only way, and it is not a good way, nor will any good come from continuing to pursue a politics based solely upon hatred of the other side to our disturbingly mirrored political coin.

Let us try something new, or rather, something old that we can make anew. Let us give democracy a try instead.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Only a Game will return later this year.


Concerning Your Opinion

The Last Messenger to Democracy.cropIt is perhaps surprising that corporations are so interested in our opinions of their products and services, given that simultaneously we contend that opinions don’t matter. Or at least, other people’s don’t.

We charge ourselves with the capacity to discern the truth, and also to know where our perspective should not expect universal assent. However, we rarely assume that other people have this same, basic power - at least until they show themselves capable of producing similar conclusions to us, and are therefore ‘of like mind’. To say that this reinforces our inflated impression of our skills at discerning truth from opinion is an understatement. It’s engrained. Other people’s opinions are, for the most part, merely something irrelevant we can dismiss.

Yet corporations spend large amounts of money collating opinions - if opinions are worthless, why bother? “Ah,” (we say with confidence), “they gather data and use scientific techniques to derive the truth.” It’s a plausible hypothesis as far as it goes, but it radically overstates the matter. Marketeers just need to know what people will pay money for, and to do that they need opinions, for there is no truth about what you must buy. If you want to know what people will pay for, you need to get at the truth buried in mere opinions.

But what if this description is only part of the truth of the matter? What if, in collecting opinions, the business world had developed a very crude way of successfully distilling the essence of opinions into truth. And what if there was a way for us to come at this truth for something more valuable than mere market knowledge...?

Wheat from Chaff

Over the millennia, a diverse set of philosophers developed our understanding of truth in ways that still influence how we think. Our current views come more-or-less directly from the Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanual Kant or Mary Wollstonecraft, who examined how it was that we grasped the reality of our existence. The Enlightenment philosophers contrasted thinking subjects to ‘inanimate’ objects, but in later years the subtlety of this philosophy was ground down into a an all-too-simple split between ‘objective knowledge’, which was true, and ‘subjective knowledge’, which wasn’t. From there, it’s just a short hop to tossing all ‘subjective knowledge’ in the trash as ‘mere opinion’.

Oh dear. How spectacularly this philosophy went awry as it fell into common usage and today’s philosophers largely withdrew from life to argue about minutiae with one another... We were left thinking we can effortlessly split objective from subjective, that we can focus on the truth provided by objectivity, as if we merely had to sort the wheat from the chaff. Trouble is, there’s nowhere near as much wheat as we like to think...

The Belgian philosopher and chemist Isabelle Stengers suggests objective knowledge, as the name alludes, is the knowledge of objects. The sciences devise methods of getting objects to reveal their secrets, through experiments. But the grain bins of scientists are not bursting and full, because the kind of knowledge we can tease from objects is rather thin. Atomic weights, boiling points, equations of motion, quantum mechanical relationships... we would be hard pressed to apply this kind of knowledge to anything more than making what we like to call ‘technology’.

Objective knowledge about our technology is similarly thin, and does nothing to warn us of potential dangers or abuses. Researchers can give us nuclear bombs, automobiles (by far our biggest killer technology in practice), mustard gas, social media, armed drones, crack cocaine, gas chambers... not only these, of course, other, less problematic technologies as well - but those involved in inventing our tools are rarely able to discriminate the harmless from the dangerous until it is too late. The same practices that give us new technologies do not provide any means of assessing them except in objective terms, which are generally inadequate for any important assessment. We can measure how much energy a nuclear warhead can give out - but that does not help us to make the important decisions about atomic weapons, like whether we should ever use them.

Objective knowledge is not only thinner and less impressive than we imagine, it is strictly meaningless. That’s because giving meaning is the activity of thinking subjects - and we threw away all that as chaff.

Now we are getting to the madness brought about by monomaniacal focus upon the objective. We were always deceived when we thought objective knowledge must be the sole thing that was important because importance could never be anything so thin and dry as objective knowledge. To determine whether something is important requires subjective knowledge - what knows the grain better than the wheat itself? We forget that before we ground it up, that worthless chaff was the wheat plant itself, the thing that mattered.

We focus on the grain because that’s what’s useful to us, since we can grind it into flour. The chaff does nothing. Yet before we got involved, the chaff was the thing that ought to have mattered - the thing that was alive. The same logic that rendered objective knowledge into all that seemed to matter fooled us into making life the thing we discard. From that one mistake, all the problems of the last century flow.

Importance and Being Earnest

If you knew every possible datum of objective knowledge you would still be entirely clueless about what matters. That’s because making a decision about what does and doesn’t matter requires more than dry facts. It requires the capacity that beings possess to assess what is or is not important, and how important everything is requires context, a world in which these kinds of questions take upon a meaning.

Even a plant can respond to importance; they twist and unfurl to face the sun - since for a plant, sunlight is important. Humans are capable of much more complex assessments of importance, but that doesn’t mean we’re especially good at it. Our intuitions about what is or isn’t important are routinely misguided, we latch onto things that feel important but aren’t as vital as they seem, and we entirely miss things that in hindsight are revealed as important. No amount of scientific research can solve this problem, for the sciences can only ask the questions and develop the methods for getting at objective knowledge, while judging importance is always the knowledge of subjects. Which means that when we assess importance, we are forming opinions, and therefore that opinions must, in fact, matter far more than we tend to think they do.

This inescapable truth, that importance is not and can never be objective knowledge, does not mean that the sciences cannot help us in making good decisions. On the contrary, they can be vital, and are frequently central to the decisions we make. But the worth of research towards providing a foundation for judgement does not change the fact that the judgement itself is never something as precise and flat as objective data. It requires skilled judgement. It requires opinions.

When we focus on the huge difference in degree between those few things we can establish as objective knowledge and the uncertainty of opinion, we become enamoured with the apparent perfection of certainty. But certainty is the wrong measure for judgements. We fret about whether our judgements are true, even though this isn’t something we can ever determine in advance. Even if we retreat to a weaker conception, such as how probable it might be that our judgements will pan out as expected, we’re still playing the same game of trying to assess the knowledge of subjects by the logic of objects. The relationship between our opinions and the truth is real, but we cannot access it directly (a point Kant brilliantly explored). So we need a different standard when we’re assessing opinions to the ones we might use to judge the work of the sciences.

Do we have these tools, these ways of judging our judgements? Yes, we do, and we’ve already seen a crude form of it - when a business surveys their market to establish whether something is going to sell. Their method works because the corporate world has learned to trust that with a suitably proportionate sample of earnest respondents, opinions can be synthesised into fair judgements. What’s more, there’s already a method for rendering political judgements in this way. No, not by referendums, which are merely polls designed to reach pre-defined conclusions (objective logic mistakenly trying to ‘tame’ opinion by its own dry standards), but by letting the governing decisions fall to anyone via the drawing of lots (sortition). Rather than a democracy of politicians who are chosen for their qualifying ability to win elections, this would be a democracy of anyone, even those with no qualifications, who are chosen solely at random. This is what democracy originally meant - rule of everyone and no-one.

If you recoil in horror at the thought of political decisions made this way, pause to consider whether the skills politicians require to win elections are likely to be those that help them render good judgements, and why, if we do not trust the opinions of strangers, we trust people’s lives to a jury of twelve random people when they are on trial. When it comes to assessing the relative importance of arbitrary matters, why should we not expect a suitable random sample to be up to the task? After all, a great many scientific investigations rely upon this very same technique, the collective judgement of a representative sample. It is as if we trust the opinion of others only when we call it ‘science’ but not when we call it ‘government’.

Collective Opinion

This resistance we experience when we confront the idea of democracy leaves us more than a few options for how to respond.

Firstly, we could dismiss democracy as too idealistic, and argue that the kind of rule by elites we have is the best we can do. This choice effectively rejects democracy outright, and sides instead with injustice as an alleged compromise. But there is nothing to compromise with. We have rejected democracy on this path, and chosen to lend our support to feudal capitalism instead.

Alternatively, we can make some attempt to rescue democracy through an imagined intervention that gives more power and influence to intellectual forces (most likely that nebulous catch-all ‘scientists’). And while it is wise to hope for a world where those making the governing decisions take the work of researchers into account, the danger of this compromise is to wish for a grand theocracy of science, where those who make objects speak through remarkable methods are falsely attributed a greater capacity to govern. This is to trade one set of elites for another whom we have no decisive reason to trust will do any better.

Eventually, when all the ways we can compromise and thus betray democracy have been revealed as only slight variations upon our voluntary oppression, we are forced to ask: how could we make democracy work? Only now are we in a strange new world where we can ask questions like ‘how many people is enough to render a fair judgement?’, ‘is twelve a good number for strangers trying to reach agreement?’, or ‘could sets of juries collate more representative decisions than a single group?’ Only then are we future advocates for democracy, capable of facing the truth about opinion... that it is enough, more than enough, to govern amidst uncertainty. Democracy should be at no greater risk of bad decisions in the hands of the unqualified than it is in the clutches of those whose only qualification is their bitter experience of the brutal battleground of opinion we have currently chosen - that is, the elections we have chosen instead of democracy.

Mary Wollstonecraft offered this advice to the reformers of her own time:

Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in. In every age there has been a stream of popular opinion that has carried all before it, and given a family character, as it were, to the century. It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.

Perhaps all this is too terrifying to contemplate. But I don’t understand why it should be, unless we’ve misunderstood what democracy means, what actually living as equals might mean. The truth is that our opinions matter, and need to matter more than we let them. We need to learn to disagree. We need to learn to live together. We need to remember that we are equal. The truth is important - but then, so are our opinions. Perhaps it’s time to take our opinions a lot more seriously than we have been.

The opening image is a detail from The Last Messenger to Democracy by Aramis Marchetony, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


How to Disagree

Klint.Svanen.croppedSo you want to learn to disagree... congratulations! There are very few of us interested in mastering this skill rather than, say, learning how to be right or how to be rich. Learning how to disagree is one of the most challenging undertakings any human faces - rocket science is easy by comparison (it's just medium difficulty algebra), and brain surgery is a doddle (you just learn to forget that what you're manipulating is a person). 

Now let me make it clear that phrases like "let's agree to disagree" are not any part of learning to disagree. That particular statement is more about avoiding disagreement, that is, not talking about disagreement. This is actually a great strategy because it's easier to avoid talking about contentious subjects than to learn to talk when you disagree, and a vast number of cities around the world have won centuries of peace from marking certain conversations as off limits. Our trouble is, we've rigged everyone up to a half-baked hive mind called variously 'the internet' or 'social media' (or some such) and consequently made 'not talking' practically impossible. When you can't avoid talking about things, you have to learn to disagree. But we haven't.

Why is disagreement so challenging? It's because everyone must proceed from the basis that they are correct about at least some proportion of what they think, or else be paralysed with uncertainty and anxiety. We learn to defer on some topics (e.g. few astrophysicists master plumbing) and to trust our own judgement on others. To put it another way, we develop a sense of where we can find truth and where we can trust someone else to do so. When we undermine our ability to deal with the truth, then, we also tend to get anxious - or else furious, since as mammals we can always fend off ours fears with anger. So the truth, no matter what it might be, is very important to our well-being.

You may have heard it said that we are now in a post-truth world. What rubbish! Truth is exactly as it always was: complex, unwavering, glimpsed only in shadows. What characterises our current situation is not an absence of truth, but an inability to disagree about it - and everyone is afflicted with this problem. That you can point to obvious examples of lies and deception is rather beside the point, as it only shows that (as always) ambiguities can be exploited by opportunists. If you're sick of the 'post-truth world', what's needed is a path through the cacophony of disagreement - not by dreaming that 'once everyone acknowledges the truth' (i.e. agrees with you) everything will be miraculously resolved, but by trying something rather more radical instead.

Three Principles of Dissensus

Back in December 2019, I posted a very short tweet that I always wanted to get back to. The tweet read:

Three Principles of Dissensus

1. You are allowed to disagree.
2. The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with.
3. Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation.

A consensus is when there is widespread agreement, while a dissensus is when there is widespread disagreement. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests dissensus is essential to anything we might call democracy, and I wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, I don't see any authentic way to claim democracy while also claiming that no disagreement is permitted. As a result, learning to disagree is not only essential for our understanding of truth, it is foundational to any conception of democracy, even the laughable kinds we're currently stuck with.

First Principle: "You are allowed to disagree"

This sounds so obvious you'd think it wasn't worth stating. But it's absolutely crucial, the cornerstone of disagreement, and it's very, very hard to accept this in practice. There will either be numerous topics upon which you cannot bear disagreement (abortion, war, taxes, gender/sex, declawing, meat etc.) or you will have already thrown in the towel on the truth and be unable to accept that any robust agreement is possible in any context - a problem Nietzsche warned us was coming, but that we didn't really understand, and still don't.

The biggest problem with learning to disagree is what psychologists call 'cognitive dissonance', the vehement rejection of something outside of our understanding, since our minds will work to reimagine those who disagree with us in ways that allows us to ignore their humanity (especially when we don't speak to these people face-to-face). Take any of the big political divides of our time (it won't matter which country you live in) and you'll find two main sides positioning themselves against each other, backed up with rhetoric that either claims their side of the non-debate is of especial importance, or denigrates the other side as somehow subhuman. 

Allowing people to disagree with you is difficult. I very much doubt that you are as good at it as you think you are - I've had to work for decades to get even half-way good at it, and I still feel like an amateur.

"But what about such-and-such" you say. Yes, you can still disagree about this. The Dalek wants to exterminate you and all non-Daleks, and while you certainly won't let that happen without a fight you can allow them to hold their wildly xenophobic views while still insisting, quite rightly, that they are not entitled to kill you or others, not to mention preventing them from doing so (although ideally not by exterminating them...). Even a Dalek could be part of a democracy, provided it could lay down its weapons. And that's what most of us are lacking: that willingness to disarm, to let other people disagree.

Second Principle: "The truth you find in your position is not necessarily evidence of the falsehood of those you disagree with."

Provided you can accept that other people are holding (at least some) valid-but-different views to you, the next problem is recognising that you both could be right but in different ways. We all find truth in a unique and unrepeatable fashion, but we don't necessarily need to doubt that we are all finding (some) truth. The trouble is, we consistently act as if a great deal of disagreements have a single answer... working from that premise, wherever you strongly feel the truth of your own position, anyone who doesn't hold that view must be wrong.

But that's not necessarily the case. Even someone who denies that 2+2=4 might be correct - for instance, while thinking about numbers in base 3, where 2+2=11.

Beware of assumptions founded on mathematics and logic, though - in what's called Boolean logic something must be either true or false, but that's solely because that's how those terms are defined in that particular mathematical system. But the situations facing us are never that simple, and even when we can model part of the world through numbers, getting to the truth of what those numbers mean is more complex than merely stating the mathematics. Even the algebra of physics involves interpretation, as the great twentieth century researchers discovered, and conversely even statistics, the most interpretative domain in mathematics, can successfully reveal aspects of the truth when it is deployed with care.

You almost certainly have part of the truth. What you logically cannot have is those other parts of the truth you haven't yet considered - and these are denied to you until you can allow for the possibility of discovering fragments of truth in viewpoints that appear wildly misguided to you. 

Third Principle: "Truth emerges through resolving discrepancies, and never from insisting on a single interpretation."

Both the Sufi and the Hindus tell a story of blind people describing an elephant differently based on the part of the animal they're touching - there is more wisdom in that story than we like to admit, but there's also a risk of us taking this tale too literally. We assume, for instance, that since we can find no way of reconciling rival claims to whatever we hold to be true, there is no conceivable elephant to be found. But imagine that what was being described is not an elephant but, say, a rainbow at a waterfall. This will provoke just as varied responses from those using touch and sound to encounter it - "a rainbow is wet", "a rainbow roars", "a rainbow is slippery". From the point of view of someone who sees the rainbow, it's impossible to understand why anyone would make such ludicrous claims, yet the people speaking are only mistaken about the name they are using for the thing they're describing.

Whenever we insist upon only one valid interpretation of a situation, we are shutting down the possibility of finding the truth. Instead, we are gambling that the interpretation we have already chosen cannot be improved... even though we have no way of knowing how much of the puzzle we have managed to assemble. By learning to find the truth held in other people's perspectives, we can resolve discrepancies that at first we will not even notice...

First, we have to be able to disagree, then we have to allow for the possibility of truth coming down apparently incompatible paths. Only then can we start to put it all together... and at no point can we be certain that there is not something else - something not yet revealed to us - that we will still need to take into consideration.

Learning to Disagree

Now if you've taken any of this advice seriously, you might be worried about the awesome challenge of being able to disagree with everyone. Fortunately, you don't need to disagree with everyone directly (in fact, you cannot, simply because there's so many of us). Besides, learning to disagree is a community endeavour, since everyone you can successfully disagree with becomes a part of your own community, now matter how distant their connection to you.

The challenge as I see it is to find those arguments where people cannot manage to disagree, and try to find new ways of approaching the conflict. Those arguing probably won't want to stop and listen to what others have to say - they'll likely be too busy trying to exterminate their own Daleks, or at the very least discredit them, and that will keep them very busy. Also, you probably won't know how you can help (and if you know with certainty how to help, you definitely need to reconsider the second principle, above).

So... just listen. And keep practising how to disagree until we all finally master it.

The opening image is a detail from Hilma af Klint's Svanen (The Swan).


The Journey Towards Trans Liberty

An open letter replying to Branwen at Branwen.me as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

Obaid.Traces of LibertyDear Branwen,

I write to you at this time as my closest friend in the trans community, among which I have made a great many friends over the past twenty years, and all of whom I hold dear. I write with great concern, because social media advocates for the trans community are currently engaged in actions that are extremely likely to hurt the trans community, the lesbian community, and women in general. And I also write with considerable difficulty: precisely because I dearly wish for liberty for the trans community, and indeed for everyone else, I feel great anxiety when the path that leads there has become obscured by a series of intersecting forms of hatred manifesting in the dark corners of these communities.

A short while ago, I consented to having my name added to an open letter addressed the University of Bristol asking them to ensure the freedom of speech of the British organisation, A Women’s Place. This group has been accused of a great many things by the trans community, including that they are espousing violence against trans folks and that they are TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). I can find no specific evidence to support the former claim, and have no particular interest in assessing the latter since ‘TERF’ is fast becoming the political equivalent of an ethnic slur (as with terms such as ‘libtard’ or ‘Remoaner’) and that seems as offensive to me as (say) purposefully deadnaming a trans person. I find both these situations offensive, but neither is illegal and, I would further suggest, neither should be.

A question I hear more often than I should these days is whether there should be limits to freedom of speech, which is otherwise taken to be a fundamental right. It seems to me that freedom of speech should not be curtailed, or else this right means nothing. Nonetheless, there is always an associated responsibility to take into account the outcomes of what someone says, and this mean that some forms of speech can be judged illegal, irrespective of freedom of speech. For instance, when Lawrence Burns was arrested in the UK for inciting racial hatred it was because such incitement was itself illegal. Indeed, inciting violence is illegal in the civil law of the vast majority of nations, and because of this it greatly matters what we construe as ‘violence’, a point I shall return to shortly.

As a historical matter, the very notion of ‘rights’ is grounded on the idea that the limits which should apply to everyone are those that serve to collectively defend everyone’s freedom. In his discussion of these issues in The Free Development of Each, Allen Wood lays out the conception of rights as they existed in the German philosophical tradition from which they originated. The German philosophical term ‘Recht’, meaning roughly ‘the condition of right’ or ‘rightful conditions’, entails having the freedom from having your choices constrained by the choices of others, such that everyone can experience freedom equally. In the centuries since Kant’s time, we have switched from talking about ‘the condition of right’ (Recht) and started talking about ‘rights’ instead, but the same considerations still apply. The manner chosen for addressing the condition of right at the moment is a set of legal statutes, agreed internationally (although not currently endorsed by all nations) and often modified nationally. It is these that we call ‘rights’, like the right to free speech, which (as for any such right) applies to everyone equally.

The problem we are now facing is that the trans community’s freedom from having their choices constrained by the choices of others has now come into conflict with other communities equivalent demands for freedom. These kind of disputes are an unavoidable consequence of trying to build a system of laws that sets as its goal equal liberty, since different conceptions of both equality and liberty must inevitably conflict as the attempt is made to balance the needs and demands of one group against another. Whenever this happens, there must be discussion about how to resolve the conflict – and no single party can expect its demands to be given precedence against anyone else’s as such disagreements are being resolved. The danger at the moment is that this necessary conversation is being obstructed by political pressure being applied by some trans advocates… and that’s a potential disaster for everyone’s liberty.

In the UK, these disputes have hit an impasse over a proposed modification to an existing law known as the Gender Recognition Act. Part of the proposed change would remove the current system of application for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a required step before legally permitting people to present themselves as a different gender to that officially recorded for them. I am not a supporter of the Gender Recognition Certificate process… it places a medicalised step into a system where it is not clear it is required, and where it can certainly be distressing. But I am unsure whether I support the currently proposed revisions to the Gender Recognition Act or not… that would depend upon how the new law impacts everyone, and not just the trans community. To establish that requires discussion – and it is this discussion that is currently being obstructed by certain trans advocates who are campaigning against groups such as A Woman’s Place who seek to participate in that debate.

It seems to me that a lot of the furore that has been directed at A Woman’s Place revolves around discussion of what is called the Gender Critical view. I can find no evidence that this particular organisation is committed to the ‘gender critical’ view, although it is certainly the case that some of the people involved with it do hold gender critical beliefs. I would like to provide a definition here of what ‘gender critical’ means, but any attempt to do so will be inadequate as a great deal is collected under this banner, not all of it accurately ascribable to those who hold this view. Broadly, however, being ‘gender critical’ entails firstly viewing gender primarily as a social construct, and secondly interpreting the female gender as relating to a specific model of power relations founded on control of the assumed innate reproductive qualities of female bodies. This viewpoint has become problematic in part because disbelieving gender also entails undermining trans people’s claims about their gender.  

You contend to me that espousing the gender critical view is violence against the trans community… this is a serious allegation, since under the system of rights that evolved from Kant’s philosophy, the State is justified in intervening against those who conduct violence against others, in order to preserve rightful condition. But it matters here whether we are talking about literal violence – the use of physical force or power against someone – or whether we are talking about figurative violence, which would be protected by the right of free speech unless it incited literal violence. The twenty eight members of the trans community in the US killed in 2017 were tragic victims of violence – and distressingly this figure has been climbing each year recently. The ‘corrective’ rape of Mvuleni Fana, and scores of other lesbians like her in South Africa is grotesque violence. The beating of transwoman Jayla Ware in Charlotte, NC, earlier this year was violence. The punching of sixty year old Maria MacLachlan at Speaker’s Corner in the UK last year because she had been branded a TERF was violence.

I assume the reason that you and others want to hold gender critical views as (figurative) violence against the trans-community is because such beliefs dissolve the concept of gender entirely and instead focus solely upon biological sex, in some cases leading to a denial that a transwoman is a woman or a transman is a man. The threat here is thus one of erasure, since if this view were to be widespread it would entirely eliminate even the possibility of being a transgender person. Believe me, I know how upsetting such situations can be, as I have already experienced a situation where others were espousing views that entailed the erasure of an important part of my identity, namely my religions.

When Richard Dawkins began to talk about parents who were raising their children within a religious tradition as tantamount to child abuse, I was incensed. This amounted in my case to a literal accusation against my own parents that they abused me, which was factually inaccurate and deeply upsetting. Furthermore, if Dawkins’ logic had become sufficiently widespread, it would ultimately have amounted to the erasure of religious children – which I take as entailing a complete nullification of who I am, since who I am depends upon who I have been. I felt such anger at this horrific view. Even at my furthest point from wanting to identify as religious, even when I held my most hostile attitude towards fundamentalist Christianity, I still accepted the positive role my parents’ Christianity had in shaping me. Dawkins polemic was figurative violence against me. And I was ultimately forced to accept that this was protected by free speech. You might be resistant to this analogy, but for me this is directly parallel to the relationship between certain gender critical views and the trans community, right up to the invocation of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’ as justifications.

We accept severe disagreements between people from different religious traditions because we acknowledge that different metaphysical (i.e. untestable) claims are entailed in each tradition. We are going to need at some point to accept that this is also true of sex and gender: there are facts about sex and gender, but none of them eliminate a need for individuals and communities to form their own metaphysical understanding of the meaning of those facts. This freedom of belief is crucial to liberty in general, and even extends to some degree to the facts themselves (if it did not, the sciences would be stagnant because there would be no room for new understandings to overturn old dogmas).

I share with you a commitment to the claim that ‘transwomen are women’ and ‘transmen are men’. But we cannot compel others to share those beliefs and still claim to be in support of equal liberty for all people. I share with gender critical feminists the view that gender is a social construct, just like other important things such as money, nations, personal identity, and human rights. I cannot share the view that a specific understanding of power relations entails denying trans folks the freedom to establish their own identities, since this seems against the commitment to equality and freedom that feminism was founded upon. But I cannot compel such feminists to give up those beliefs, even in such cases as they are hurtful to the trans community. I can and will oppose incitement to violence against trans folks, and every other human being. But figurative violence, no matter how distasteful, is protected by freedom of speech and must not be infringed, or the cause of liberty is hopelessly undermined.

I am astounded and impressed by the political power now wielded by trans allies as a result in large part of the connectivity of the internet. But I am horrified to find this power being wielded to bully and silence women and prevent conversations about the implications of a change in UK law with serious implications for all women, not just transwomen. When the cause of trans advocates risks encouraging organisations to bully their own staff because their beliefs do not align with a dogmatically enforced metaphysical status quo, the cause of liberty for all has run amok. When the trans community think it acceptable to advocate violence against women, as happens when people support concepts such as ‘punch a TERF’, we have gone far from redressing inequality and into a dark and distressing place where a desire for hateful vengeance is occluding the struggle for equality. That hatred and bullying can be found in the unpleasant corners of many political groups today, including feminists and radical feminists… but it is never justified in the pursuit of liberty.

The journey towards trans liberty has been difficult, and will continue to be so, but it is only a part of the greater journey towards equal freedom for all envisioned by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers such as the British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft understood that the condition of right necessitated a change in the status of women, and argued persuasively for this to happen. In her 1792 text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she wrote:

…if women are educated for dependence, that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop? Are they to be considered as viceregents, allowed to reign over a small domain, and answerable for their conduct to a higher tribunal, liable to error?

It will not be difficult to prove, that such delegates will act like men subjected by fear, and make their children and servants endure their tyrannical oppression. As they submit without reason, they will, having no fixed rules to square their conduct by, be kind or cruel, just as the whim of the moment directs; and we ought not to wonder if sometimes, galled by their heavy yoke, they take a malignant pleasure in resting it on weaker shoulders.

This caution applies to both the trans community and the feminist community, and to women and humans of all kinds, and holds a wisdom desperately needed at a time when social media technology is all too frequently undermining the cause of liberty for all. I worry whenever I see communities set into conflict that ought to be working together to support the common cause of freedom and justice for all, especially at a time when the entire notion of rights is under threat, if it has not already been irrevocably impaired. I am afraid, for everyone, when we lose sight of the path to liberty for all... but I never lose my hope that we will find our way back to it.

You will always have my love and respect, and I shall always strive to be worthy of yours.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

The opening image is Traces of Liberty by Omar Obaid which I found here at omarobaid.com. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


There's Something About Capitalism

Ursula Le GuinIn November 2014, at the 65th National Book Awards in New York, the late Ursula Le Guin (who died in January this year), gave an impassioned speech criticising the actions of book publishers who were profiteering from the work of writers and gearing the production of books specifically to sales rather than honouring the craft upon which the industry had been built. Near the conclusion of the speech, she made this remark:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

After her death, this quote appeared in a number of places, but always omitting that first sentence. This edit has a significance because Le Guin’s speech was about an industry whose values were becoming geared solely to making money, and it was to this industry that her remarks were addressed. Removing the first sentence makes it seem as if she was making a call for rebellion against what might be called ‘the capitalist system’; including the opening sentence makes it clear that it was a specific battleground that was her interest in making these claims. I want to argue that this difference might be one that makes all the difference in our understanding of ‘the struggle against capitalism’ – whether you view yourself participating in that struggle, or mocking it from the outside.

The essential problem with understanding our world as structured by capitalism (regardless of whether you are in support, opposition, or don’t care) is that coming at this problem with this concept already constructs a specific understanding of what we are dealing with. Although Marx did not coin the term ‘capitalism’, it is his critique of capital that leads to our contemporary usage of the word. In other words, we come to think about ‘capitalism’ because of Marx’s opposition to the philosophy of Adam Smith and his successors who associated liberty with free trade (as opposed to a mercantile system of restrictions and laws, like that that dominated in the late Middle Ages). It is worth remarking that Marx’s critique of capital is in no way diminished or affected by what might be called ‘the failure of communism’, by which is meant the political collapse of Soviet Russia. In point of fact, if we wanted to make an assessment of communism, we’d be forced to address not Russia but China, which remains communist, and is the world’s second largest economy. Wherever we come to discuss ‘capitalism’, I’m afraid, things are never quite what they seem.

One of the reasons that philosophy matters is that the work of those who have explored this domain of thought continues to structure the way we ourselves think, and the main reason we tend not to notice is that it is the work of philosophers from centuries ago that tend to be most deeply embedded into our patterns of thought. Thus on the topic of capitalism, the issue is structured by arguments discussed by thinkers from the 18th century, like Adam Smith, or the 19th century, like Marx. But even recognising this lasting influence, it would be a mistake to think that philosophers themselves were in any way in control of how their thoughts would come to be applied. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, once you set action in motion, it rapidly exceeds any capacity to predict or control:

The uncertainty of human action, in the sense that we never quite know what we are doing when we begin to act into the web of interrelationships and mutual dependencies that constitute the field of action, was considered by ancient philosophy to be the one supreme argument against the seriousness of human affairs. Later, this uncertainty gave rise to the well-known proverbial statements that acting men move in a network of errors and unavoidable guilt.

Thus Adam Smith failed to predict the industrial revolution, and his remarkable economic insights led to the strange manufacturing of needs that proliferates today that he could not have anticipated. Similarly, Marx would have been appalled that his attempt at the emancipation of the working class could lead to a totalitarian regime which hoarded capital in the name of communism. The structuring of our thought about economics – especially in terms of this assumed match up between capitalism and communism – descends from Smith and Marx, without either being responsible for our contemporary situation, which has involved a network of connections, both historical and material, far beyond individual control.

One of the reasons that those who would seek to overthrow capitalism are fighting a losing battle is that they tend to be attempting to fight against capitalism and not towards some alternative understanding. When Le Guin mentions the divine right of kings as a symbol of a previous power relation that was overturned, it is important to recognise that the absolute rule of the monarchy was not ended by opposition to kings and queens. In fact, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant who argued persuasively for human equality had to ensure that their work would not offend the nobility of his time. It was the 18th century philosophers of the Enlightenment like Kant who successfully shifted power away from divine right, but by arguing in favour of human equality (the same values of equality that would inspire Marx’s project, in fact, and this is not a coincidence).

While the mythic histories we encounter in TV and films love to tell stories of competing perspectives overthrowing another in direct conflict – there’s no shortage of rather misleading ‘evolution overthrew religion’ tales kicking around right now, for instance – the actual historical circumstances are always more complex and interrelated than the simplistic conflict stories present. This is especially the case when capitalism and communism are thought of as the competing forces, since this obscures the immense commonalities between these two mythic ideologies. Communism is typically taken as the ownership of the means of production by ‘the people’, rather than private ownership for profit: when ‘the people’ is taken as the State, the result is simply a kind of capitalism where a monolithic government takes the place of an oligarchy of corporations. Furthermore, this is precisely how communism has tended to operate on the international stage.

The entire situation appears radically different if we look at it in terms of scale instead of ideological systems. One of the things that makes the early twenty first century different to the twentieth century, and that made the twentieth century different from the nineteenth, is the scale of money that has accumulated within singular networks of influence – both by private individuals (billionaires) and organisations (multinational corporations). This is a trend that has carried on from feudal times, where the accumulation of capital (to use Marx’s term) was conducted by royalty in order to either fund wars, build grand architecture, or simply to relish it as ‘treasure’. Marx, indeed, recognised this continuity, and called this earlier period the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. Free trade, spurred on by Adam Smith – and indeed Kant, who maintained that trade was the best solution to the wars between nations that dogged his own time – pushed this process further, the industrial revolution further still, and now with the internet and the gigantic networks that it supports, we have reached what might be the apex of this process.

Yet there is a difference between the situation now and that facing Marx. The quality of life facing workers in the 19th century was abysmal, leading Marx to discuss two opposing poles: that of the rich and their accumulation of capital who enjoyed immense indulgence, and that of the poor whose suffering Marx identified as the shadow of that opposing pole of wealth. This was not Adam Smith’s perspective: he thought that the rich could only take what they needed to live, as in the famous quote concerning the ‘invisible hand’:

They [i.e. the rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

Both industrialisation, and the ever-growing size of the population mean that Smith’s claims here are now laughably untrue, and it is only necessary to look at healthcare in the US to see a clear example of the benefits (and greater consumption) provided by wealth. But, quite against Marx, the wealthier nations now successfully avoid the abject misery of the nineteenth century, either through the abundance of distractions, or (and particularly in European nations) through a combination of socialised services and distractions. More honestly, we might say that the industrialised nations like to push their poverty abroad where it becomes even easier to ignore. The reduction of the apparent tension between extremes of wealth lessens the possibility of a ‘revolution’ of the kind that Marx initiated. If it were not for the Occupy movements, there would be no sign at all that there was any spirit remaining for resisting the vast over-accumulation of wealth.

‘Capitalism’ is not something that we can oppose because it is only, to paraphrase Marx, a spectre… the name we put to the game of money, the financial network behind it, the property law that sustains it, and a finger we point in our discontent at those whose wealth is so vast as to disrupt democratic ideals and perpetuate a grotesque shadow of the feudal system. Yet Le Guin’s comments remain absolutely correct, and are worth reading again in full:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The inescapable power is that of money, of large accumulations of it, which Marx terms ‘capital’, and all that ‘capitalism’ can be is this coupled with the greed necessary to stockpile it. Le Guin’s solution is twofold: to recognise that artworks – not only books, but films, paintings, sculpture, games, dance and more besides – cannot exist solely to make money, and that when they do something vital in the human experience is lost. To value artworks as artworks, a virtue for which we lack a name, is to resist their reduction to commodities, and this is the first step on Le Guin’s path. The other is to make our own art a tool for change and not merely a means for profit. The vast merit of this plan is that it rests not on battling an ephemeral ‘capitalism’, but upon changing the one thing we truly have the power to change: ourselves.

For Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018, and evermore.


Crossing Patrols are Public Goods, Not Traded Services

Trafford Council recently announced a proposal to change School Crossing Proposals into 'traded services', effectively cutting the service while seeming to pass it onto the private sector. This is the letter I sent to Trafford Council on 27th November 2016 in response to this outrageous proposal, along with their reply, and my response to that.

Dear Trafford Council,

It has been just over a year since I wrote to you in defence of our local School Crossing Patrol Services, which you attempted to axe in 2014-2015 using rhetoric that was, as I outlined at the time, ill-founded, misleading, and immoral. Now, you have announced a new set of budget proposals in which you accept that these services “make a valuable contribution towards pupils’ safe and sustainable travel to schools” but then propose to make them into “a traded service” such that the costs can be pushed onto local schools and community groups. Are we to understand from this suggestion that Trafford Council believes that the children of rich families have a greater right to life, and thus that the children of poorer schools deserve to die in traffic accidents?

According to the Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT), road accidents account for half of the accidental deaths of school-age children, far more than any other kind of accidents. The risk is particularly great when living next to a dangerous road, such as the A56 between Altrincham and the city centre (Chester Road, Cross Street Washway Road etc.) where many key crossing patrols operate. Research conducted in 2001 suggests that children from poorer families were at least 20 times more likely to be killed as pedestrians than children from richer families.

Trafford Council’s proposal to treat crossing patrols as ‘traded services’ is an attempt to push the cost of essential safety services that protect the lives of our children onto the local schools. But the schools attended by those living in relatively poorer areas are already suffering from the effects of government mandated ‘austerity’, and are struggling to afford essential teaching services, let alone the additional expense of crossing guards. This proposal is a dishonest attempt to cut an essential safety service by seeming to transfer it. The schools that need these services cannot afford to pay for them, but the families cannot afford to lose them.

At root, the proposal to make crossing patrols ‘traded services’ is not even plausible, since a typical crossing patrol does not serve a single school. Considering just the crossing over Chester Road in Gorse Hill, children cross here to half a dozen local schools, and to reach bus stops on both sides of the road to travel to schools further afield, as well as to reach nurseries and other local facilities. There is no way to ‘trade’ the cost of such a vital service to a single school.

If the intent is to divide the costs between all the schools that the service supports, it would be necessary to create an intermediary to manage the complicated payment system required. But of course, we already have such an intermediary: Trafford Council. Indeed, the sole purpose for local government is the provision of public goods, such as road safety services. If Trafford Council intends to offload its duties as a provider of public goods, it might just as well do away with itself. Until such time as the risk from motor vehicle accidents has been thoroughly mitigated (and there is little sign of this happening), local councils have a moral duty to provide protection to the vulnerable members of the community at risk from road accidents.

The suggestion to treat crossing patrols as ‘traded services’ is a farce and an insult to every family who benefits from these essential public goods – not to mention implying that Trafford Council believes that the children of poor families are worth less than those of rich families. No doubt their own children are not the ones at risk. On behalf of everyone whose children’s lives Trafford Council are gambling with, I warn you that we will not take this affront lightly, and urge you to reconsider this unjust policy before it costs you your seats on the council.

Yours faithfully,

Dr Chris Bateman, BSc, MSc, PhD
Senior Lecturer, University of Bolton,
Visiting Professor, Laguna College of Art and Design, Los Angeles,
and proud resident of Stretford and Gorse Hill


This is their reply, received on the 7th December:

Dear Dr Bateman

Thank you for your correspondence dated 27th November 2016 in which you highlight your concerns regarding the Council’s proposal affecting the School Crossing Patrol Service.

The Council is currently undertaking a public consultation on its budget proposals for 2017-18. The provision of School Crossing Patrols is not a statutory duty for councils, although we recognise that they can make a valuable contribution towards pupils’ safe and sustainable travel to school.

However, the School Crossing Patrol Service National Guidelines clearly state that the responsibility for getting children to and from school is a parental one. It is also important to note it is not the purpose of a School Crossing Patrol to resolve poor driver behaviour.

Therefore, The Council is consulting on the proposal that School Crossing Patrols becomes a “traded service” offered to 3rd parties such as schools and/or community groups / private sector to fund. The Council will retain the accountability for school crossing patrols funded by 3rd parties. This includes the training, risk assessments and health/safety issues.

The public consultation will conclude on 16th December 2016 and we will consider all responses before determining which proposals to take forward. Your views will be included in the consultation process.

Yours sincerely

Phil Valentine
Environment Strategic Business Manager


I responded as follows:

Dear Ms Keogh,
Thank you for the reply from Phil Valentine.

Mr Valentine is correct that parents bear the ultimate responsibility for getting their children to schools, and that School Crossing Patrols are not responsible for poor driver behaviour. However, Trafford Council is responsible for all public infrastructure in the region and thus bears a tacit responsibility for the confluence of traffic where it intersects with the catchment areas of schools and presents a substantial danger to school-aged children. If the council withdraws its support for crossing patrols in these areas, it is derelict in its moral responsibilities, whatever its legal responsibilities might be, since it is denying its responsibility for dangers brought on by infrastructure conditions that it alone is in a position to affect.

What is more relevant here is that the proposal to make crossing patrols a traded service amounts to the claim that only wealthy schools should have the additional protections and assistance provided by a crossing patrol. This is severely problematic given that the places where these patrols are most needed are precisely the places which can least afford to fund them. This is the core issue raised in my letter. The proposal implies that Trafford Council believes that richer children have a greater right to life than poorer children. Mr Valentine's reply shows no evidence that he or Trafford Council care about this issue.

I appreciate that, as a Strategic Manager, responsibility for policy decisions does not fall upon Mr Valentine shoulders. I would therefore ask for the contact details of those at Trafford Council who were responsible for this policy decision that I might pursue this matter further with them.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Chris Bateman


The Scientific Age?

Density of StatesDo we live in a ‘Scientific Age’? What would that phrase mean, and how could we judge – scientifically – if it were true?

I recently read a piece in The Atlantic on free will that disappointed me. I’d already been checking up on the state of the art for this topic (see Is Free Will Too Cheap?), which has become particularly interesting in recent years. But nothing of that could be found in the piece in The Atlantic, which felt suspiciously more like a poor excuse for a Sam Harris interview. The article closed by tacitly declaring that we live in “the scientific age” – and that rather amused and annoyed me. Because if that were a fair characterisation of our time, would that not be blaming scientists for our rather dreadful global predicament? My sense of this, as a scientist by training, is that there is no empirical basis for such an attribution, and that rhetoric (rather than evidence) is what motivates such an assertion.

To properly explore this, we must first ask: what does it mean to characterise an Age? For the most part, the practice of defining Ages has entailed a historical or mythological assessment. Hence, for instance, the attribution of a Golden Age in ancient Greece, which was a mythic time before humanity messed everything up. The Age of Sail and the Age of Steam were likewise retroactive attributions, albeit in these cases based on historical rather than mythological considerations. It actually makes more sense to make these kinds of assessment after the fact, since only then can the relative competing factors be weighed carefully against each other – although even then, the choice to assign an ‘Age’ shows a bias in focus at the very least.

It is only with the twentieth century that we see attempts to characterise history in the present tense – and even these seem relatively dubious upon later reflection. The Atomic Age built upon fantasies about the future born of the New York World’s Fair of 1939, but as it happened nuclear energy did not characterise much of an Age, since it gave way within decades to the Space Age, which was equally short-lived. The frequent use of ‘space-age’ as a marketing adjective links both these science fiction tales to the flourishing capitalist production line – and indeed to their rhetorical deployment against the Soviet production line that was almost indistinguishable apart from its overriding mythology. Industry, either side of the Iron Curtain, was much more important than science, which was (and is) industry’s bitch.

This analysis is not scientific, of course, but rather historical and political. Our second line of enquiry must then ask: what do we mean by ‘scientific’? The usual invocation here is ‘the scientific method’, the cycle of observation, hypothesis, prediction, testing, and eventual theory. However, empirical observation of scientists at work has not validated this as a general method applied by researchers, and it appears to operate more as a catechism than as a practical methodology. (You would not get very far using solely this method as-stated for a research project!) A key problem is that observations are themselves theory-laden, and as the historian Thomas Kuhn observed it is never the case that observations alone determine how one theory replaces another. The wider philosophical questions here are not vital to the current discussion, however, only that ‘the scientific method’ is not a means of distinguishing what is scientific from its alternatives, regardless of its uses as an educational dogma.

Central to what is deemed ‘scientific’ is evidential reasoning, the process of taking evidence (observations, measurements) and then drawing conclusions from it. Theories form an indispensable element of such reasoning: the theoretical apparatus provided by the periodic table guides evidential reasoning in chemistry, for instance. But by itself, evidential reasoning can only exclude things that are clearly not scientific (such as divine revelation, or faith in free markets), it cannot positively identify a science. It’s notable, for instance, that evidential reasoning is core to the skills of historians, who are not often called scientists, and every branch of the humanities uses evidential reasoning in some role.

What distinguishes most things that are called ‘scientific’ from other disciplines that deploy evidential reasoning is the possibility of verifying judgements, a point discussed at length by Karl Popper. Evidential reasoning in the humanities invites a relationship between propositions and conclusions, yet the propositions themselves entail an element of judgement but not of measurement. Conversely, ethology (study of animal behaviour) entails judgements that are open to verification by further observation. This field, which does not resemble the archetypal ‘scientific method’ at all, nonetheless entails a substantial element of verifiable judgement.

Yet a grey area occurs. Some physicists insist, for instance, upon a quantum multiverse – the existence of which is essentially impossible. (Indeed, the word ‘existence’ has a questionable meaning in these kinds of context). We then might be tempted to extend ‘scientific’ to mean ‘asserted by scientists’, at which point the phrase will cease to distinguish anything useful. Many scientists will assert that George W. Bush was a fool, but that should not be mistaken for a scientific claim: that would require some means of verifying the judgment that was not merely anecdotal. We ought to be careful about this distinction if we value the work of scientists, since the credibility of the term ‘scientific’ is all too easily strained when we start deploying ‘Science says...’ as a form of prophetic persuasion.

Suppose we accept my provisional criteria for determining something as ‘scientific’. We can then ask: what would be required to scientifically judge our time as a ‘Scientific Age’? Immediately it should be clear that it will necessarily fail to qualify for this accolade; firstly because ‘scientific’ is not a criteria that could be applied on a scale beyond specific observations, methods, or practices, and secondly because the characterisation of an ‘Age’ is necessarily a historical judgement, and not one open to verification in the required sense. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the historical judgement in question – but it cannot be a scientific claim in any conventional sense of the term.

So what about the historical judgement? Here, we still have to meet the requirements of evidential reasoning and the evidence is not very convincing. We would presumably expect to see evidence of widespread evidential reasoning in culture at large – something that would be very difficult to produce. Where we do find it – in law, for instance – the trend goes back to before the aforementioned Age of Steam, indeed before the Age of Enlightenment, so using this to characterise our time seems to be extremely misleading.

Not a scientific judgement, not a historical judgement, what is the basis of claiming we live in “the scientific age”? Like the Atomic and Space Age, this appears to be a purely rhetorical move, presumably one intended to contrast our time with an ‘Age of Faith’. But characterising even the Middle Ages as an ‘Age of Faith’ would be a struggle for any honest historian, and until the late nineteenth century the development of the sciences was a quintessentially Christian endeavour (although it was also underwritten by earlier Islamic scholarship, which in turn carried on the work of the ancient Greeks).

The point of claiming that we live in a ‘Scientific Age’ appears to be to continue asserting the alleged war between ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’, and to further imply that ‘Science has won’. But this is simply bad evidential reasoning. As I explore in The Mythology of Evolution, the cultural conflicts that are being spun within this rhetoric occur both within the sciences (e.g. over different evolutionary theories) and between religion and non-religion (e.g. over the theological and atheological implications of said theories). Frankly, it is a hopeless task to treat the terms ‘Science’ or ‘Religion’ as unifying in anything beyond the sketchiest of senses, and even if these generalisations are accepted we ought to take note of Stephen Jay Gould’s objection that there cannot be a conflict between two almost entirely disjunct concepts.

I can find no evidence that positivists, those whose non-religious faith is invested in the sciences, are better or worse people than religious folks. But I can provide evidence that they are alike in many ways, including the example that I have discussed here. Rhetorical tactics such as asserting that we live in “the scientific age” are essentially self-betraying; they do not uphold the evidential values that positivists justifiably venerate. We can gainfully compare this to the reprehensible tendency of some Christians to endorse torture and war against Muslims, thus betraying the moral values of Jesus’ teachings, which they are supposed to venerate, or for a small minority of Muslims to betray Mohammad’s teachings by murdering innocents. If the latter cases are notably more extreme, it’s worth remembering that some positivists have also supported this kind of horrific brutality, it’s just that they are not being overtly hypocritical in doing so, ‘just’ morally repugnant. Every tradition, alas, has its darker side.

What positivists, Christians, and Muslims all have in common is that they are all human. As Charles Taylor argues in his epic tome A Secular Age, one of the most unique characteristics of our time is the sheer range of beliefs and practices on offer, having fractured and diversified in the wake of what he calls ‘the Nova effect’, forming an (all-too-real) phenomenal multiverse. However, as the examples I have given above demonstrate, we could rhetorically dub our time an ‘Age of Confusion’, an era when faithful adherence to the values of any tradition has become increasingly hard to find, while our critical faculties are frequently numbed by the easy appeal of emotive rhetoric – especially when we get to valorise ourselves while denigrating others. If, like me, you think the practices of the sciences deserve our respect, you owe it to yourself to uphold their core values concerning evidential reasoning and not slip into the cognitive biases that flourish as much today as in any other era of human history.

The opening image is Density of States by Dr Regina Valluzzi AKA ‘the Nerdly Painter’, which I found here on her Wordpress site, Nerdly Painter (used here with permission).


The Seduction of Facts

BHJ0XPWho doesn’t love a good fact? There is an entire genre of games dedicated to our ability to recall them, aptly entitled ‘trivia contests’ in English. Setting this form up in a box led to one of the most successful boardgames of all time, Trivial Pursuit, while dramatising the agonising uncertainties in the face of such questions gave rise to one of the most successful TV game shows of all time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly, we love facts. So what could be dangerous about them?

I have previously made the case that understanding facts as knowledge is misleading since all facts are the residue of the practices that produced and justified them, and further that it is better to understand knowledge as a practice, or rather, a collection of practices. Nothing in this arrangement gives us reasons to be suspicious of facts, since all I’ve done is change the context for understanding what a fact is, and cast doubt that someone who can repeat facts (who has ‘general knowledge’) is genuinely in possession of something that could be justifiably termed ‘knowledge’. Yet there is something significantly misleading about our love of facts whenever it emerges in a political context: facts are invoked as a means of ending discussion, and this is toxic to politics.

The problem is so subtle it would be easy to miss it, and rests with the way we have constructed the relationship between politics and the sciences, a topic repeatedly explored by Bruno Latour. Democratic politics, in the sense of the political practices of the ancient Greeks, was about every citizen having a chance to be heard and decisions being made in a manner that renders everyone equal. Contemporary democracy, needless to say, offers neither of these things. We vote for a representative based upon geographical criteria, and every citizen has the opportunity to speak, but only the famous or those accredited as experts have a chance to be heard, since we have largely eliminated public debate and replaced it with the circus of the abnormal we call ‘news’.

What facts offer to contemporary government is a means of circumventing politics, because where ‘the facts are known’ there is no need for discussion – or so the standing policy goes. This is a tremendously convenient state of affairs for politicians, because they do not need to engage in politics at all (at least, not with the electorate) whenever they have a convenient fact at hand to short circuit any discussions. To make matters worse, those in opposition feel compelled to act as if politics were only a matter of establishing the correct facts, and not about discussing the meaning of those facts, let alone taking into account the practices involved in producing facts in the first place.

Facts are seductive because they remove the need to think, or to talk, about anything. The policy conflicts over climate change circumvent any actual political discussion since it has been reduced to a simple ‘battle for the facts’: either human activity has tangibly affected the global climate (fact!) or climate researchers have misrepresented the data (fact!). It’s facts versus facts in the arena of public derision, and nobody seems to be quite aware how the focus on ‘which facts are true’ removes any productive discussion on the topic. We have successfully managed to turn politics into a game show, a sport – and the news, in its commitment to ignoring the familiar and reporting only the unusual, facilitates this narrowing of vision.

As someone who feels very strongly about our worrying relationship to our own world, I’ve spent a decade watching on in horror as ‘climate change’ replaces ‘global warming’ as a means of reinforcing a partisan conflict that is hugely effective at blocking any discussion of the problems of human exploitation of limited resources. To make climate change the issue is to pick out one conflict over the facts and fail to have a discussion about the interrelation of dozens of issues, such as fires in Indonesia that only Al Jazeera paid significant attention to, or the shocking rate of extinctions in our time, which doesn’t even qualify as news any more because it’s all-too-familiar.

I have suggested that part of this problem comes from continuing to think, as Plato did, about a single real world, when the vast range of knowledge-practices might better be understood as a multiverse, as many real worlds that overlap. Facts, in this understanding (the products of objective knowledge-practices), are what can be stabilised between these worlds, whether through the tremendous work of scientists to produce apparatus that resist objections, or though the deductive work of historians, forensic police, and many more practices besides.

Yet the meaning of facts is not objective knowledge, and never can be so. That ‘smoking causes cancer’ is not a reason to stop smoking in itself; you have to start bringing in moral judgements about death, or life expectancy, or perhaps economic judgements about healthcare spending before this fact acquires so specific a meaning. These meanings are not ‘mere opinions’ that the facts can simply brush aside. The vast open spaces of meaning are something we have to negotiate for ourselves, both individually and collectively, and this process is utterly separate from those practices that give rise to the facts. Part of this negotiation of meaning is what is, or should be, called politics.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I am against facts, that they don’t matter to me, or that I want to make all facts entirely relative. But I am actually intensely serious about factual knowledge, for all that I recognise that it is often, as the phrase ‘trivia’ implies, trivial. It annoys me when my son’s picture book mislabels a newt as a lizard, or his book about sea creatures has a picture of a red-eared terrapin, which only lives in fresh water. They got the facts wrong, and that bothers me. But it bothers me far more that we get politics wrong by thinking it is a solely a question of establishing the facts. The facts by themselves aren’t enough: we need to establish the meaning of the facts. And that is something that cannot be done on our behalf; we must do it ourselves.


Sounders of the Depths

Lead and LineWhat is the role of the philosopher? Discovering the truth? Forming theories? Conceptual plumbing? Or perhaps something more subtle, more humble. Perhaps the philosopher is the sounder of the depths.

I’m reading Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers’ Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell at the moment, about which there will be more anon, but right from the outset it presents an interesting alternative perspective on the role of philosophy. They compare what they are attempting to do in this book with the role of those who used to travel upon sailing ships with a plumb line, checking the depths of the waters and avoiding the risks of wrecking upon unseen reefs. Stengers is a philosopher with an acute sensitivity to the power of words, and uses them with care. Writing with fellow chemist, Pignarre, she offers this warning:

Sounders of the depths should not invent words that are to be understood as beyond division, as if they were authorised by a transcendence in the presence of which everyone must kneel: that is the role of the prophet, or his substitute today, the theorist. The words to be created ought rather to serve as antidotes to what transforms divergences into oppositions, what makes us dream of a homogeneous unanimity, of a judgement that will at last confer on history the power to recognise those who had seen correctly.

There is in this paragraph a rejection of the vision of philosophy offered by Plato, of the philosopher as the one who travels outside of the ordinary world to discover the truth and then return with it – and suffer the consequences of doing so. Stengers (if I may, by supposition, separate her from her co-author) is here aligning with her ally and friend Bruno Latour, in rejecting the legacy of Plato, suggesting that this makes the philosopher into prophet. Against this could be contrasted Mary Midgley’s suggestion that philosophy can be understood as a kind of ‘conceptual plumbing’, a view to which I am strongly drawn.

Intriguingly, Stengers and Pignarre also align the prophet with the theorist, and in so doing offer an additional rejection of the view of philosophy offered by Kendall Walton as ‘theorising after all the facts are in’. I have a great deal of sympathy for Walton’s view here, and it is important to recognise that the kind of philosophical theories that Walton deals in, such as the make-believe theory of representation, or the strange yet compelling idea that we ‘see through’ photographs, are not theories that result in action. There is a distinction, not often noticed, between those theories that give us new ways of seeing the worlds we live in, and those that enact or demand ways of changing those worlds. Here, we may see a distinction between philosophical theories (whether or not they are created by philosophers), technical theories (that may bankroll new kinds of technology), and political theories (which may initiate action, and all the dangers therein that Hannah Arendt warned of).

It is worth noting that a scientist can create both of the first kinds of theory – philosophical and technical – but not legitimately the third, and also that technical theories can have all of the impact and risks of political theories yet are typically treated as morally neutral. It is in this capacity that I strived, in Chaos Ethics, to offer a warning. I was, although I had not thought about in these terms, trying to be a sounder of the depths – but I fear that I fell too easily into stridency, into polemic. Although I was trying to resist offering a specific political theory, I perhaps did not sufficiently distance myself from the role of prophet. Perhaps I still managed to be a sounder of the depths… it is sometimes hard to be sure of the meaning of one’s own work.

What Stengers, Pignarre and I have in common is a sensitivity to the needs of the moment in which we are living. But where they succeed, and where I fear I have failed, is in resisting the easier rhetorics. They write:

Some people place their confidence in urgency, that of an Earth whose ravaging would force us to understand each other under pain of being destroyed. Others evoke opposition to a common enemy as sufficient to found the necessary understanding. We fear the confidence in the pedagogical power of catastrophes a great deal and the power given to the common enemy to unite us leaves us more than doubtful. That is why we feel ourselves bound to the position of ‘Sounders of the depths’, attentive to the danger of the traps that menace us: that of thinking that tolerance with regard to divergences ought to be enough; that of thinking that we can take shortcuts with regard to the practices that may tum these divergences into a force.

I find in this image of the sounder of the depths a renewed hope in the power of philosophy to make a difference in our worlds. But this capacity is a danger when it is not bound to the humility of one who must stand on the outside of the ship, and focus upon the risks, with no possibility of ever determining the course that will be set.