Tag Archives: society

Needles, motes and beams

Zeitgeist is tricksy stuff. The problem is that it is impossible to tell how much of what one thinks is just the brainwashing of the times one lives in, and how much is actually what one thinks.

Something someone said the other day reminded me of Sir Isaac Newton, the gravity guy. A difficult, reclusive and distinctly odd man Sir Isaac, who was capable of challenging the simplest of assumptions:

Why do things fall?

Because they are heavy. Obviously.

Yes, but what is it about being heavy that makes them fall?

It is almost impossible to imagine the clarity of thought that’s needed to challenge presuppositions and assumptions to that degree. As well as identifying gravity and developing calculus, Sir Isaac invented the cat-flap which is rather endearing. One starts to realise something of his oddness when one discovers just how far he was willing to go in his ruthless search for the truth: he stuck blades and needles into the socket of his eye, between the ball and the bone, in order to distort the retina and thereby understand more clearly the difference between what there is to see and the act of seeing.

So here we have a man who is capable of turning all sorts of assumptions and follies on their heads and of discerning intellectual and practical truths, who then lets himself be swept along with the follies of his times. You see, Sir Isaac was an alchemist, and they were a pretty rum lot. They were good at chemistry on a mechanical level, but based their theories on, well, on theory; and because their theories that lead could be transformed into gold were wrong, a lot of them stooped to deception and trickery in order to present their ‘truth’ to the world. (I can’t be bothered to make cheap comparisons with the Bush & Blair Governments, although the attempted legerdemain of Rumsfelt’s comments about the Guantanamo suicides being “an act of war” springs to mind).

Alchemy became chemistry in the decades after Sir Isaac’s death, when practitioners started questioning assumptions, challenging axioms, and generally being scientists and iconoclasts rather than propogandists and hypocrites. But the thing that I come back to again and again, when considering Sir Isaac, is that if someone as capable of thinking for himself as he was could be swept along by the zeitgeist, then what hope is there for the rest of us?


PS – I’ll be far away from the Internet this Wednesday, but I’ll be back on Friday, so just two posts this week.


9/11 – Five years on

Like everyone else I guess, I’ve spent a lot of the past week or so trying to take some sort of stock of the last five years, so I looked up something which I posted in a largely British and American web community on the 12th September 2001. I remember it as being incisive and insightful, but re-reading it now, I find that it was over-punctuated and over-blown. However, it did contain some interesting analysis.

It is useful to have even 5:5 hindsight, so here are the main points, annotated, re-punctuated and mildly paraphrased:


The cry goes out “how can these evil people kill innocent victims?” but Muslims everywhere are being threatened and attacked in response, and those angry responses show us how come innocent people get killed. I am not a Muslim …but I do remember events like Tripoli, and the innocent people killed there. As a direct result, NYC and DC have been attacked, and MORE innocent people are killed. … the dead of yesterday were not the first, and neither will they be the last. (Statement, not threat).

Hardly prescience, but even so I’m astonished and shocked by the estimate of 72,265 dead as a direct result of 9/11, which has been reported in The Independent.

The next section discussed some unsympathetic reactions from Brits who were referring to our long history of Northern Irish terrorism, and it is curious how irrelevant these comparisons now seem. The most interesting part of it reads:


… The other thing that Ireland and the shift from Imperialism since 1945, has done to us is made us aware that we are not inevitably and inviolably correct just because we are British…

That is a lesson that the current American regime, and I suspect a majority of the American people, have yet to learn about themselves. Ach, there are only so many apocalyptic visions I can manage in one evening, particularly when I’m comparing those of five years ago with those I have now; please feel free to insert your own here.

The next section is worryingly prescient:


There is a difference between saying … “the US has been arrogant, and responsible for … atrocities…” and saying “the US deserved to to be attacked in retaliation for those atrocities”. Some people are hearing the former, when often what is being said is the latter…

It feels like fewer and fewer people are hearing words clearly, which is increasingly worrying considering the laws designed to monitor and control us which have been introduced since 2001.

One thing which concerns me in particular these days is the danger involved in using the word “understand” in the context of young radicalised Muslims being sickened by the war in Iraq. “Understand” means “comprehend”, but it is often assumed to mean “endorse”. I absolutely can understand the reasons why young Muslim men become radicalised – the mechanisms are fairly straightforward and could probably be replicated in a lab if one could still conduct unethical psychological experiments on students for $25 a day. They are broadly the same mechanisms which produced the inrush of foreigners to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I do not endorse the terrorists’ actions, but I do think it is vital we learn to comprehend them. The only way to deal with terrorism in the long-term is to make it irrelevant, and you cannot do that if you refuse to understand it.

The next section commented on double standards and perspectives but could not find any conclusions:


… The old joke about learning languages says: I am a freedom fighter, you are a member of the resistance, he is a terrorist. Let us be clear: the US has given … unofficial support to groups who have been considered terrorists…

The final section was the most important at the time, but the least coherent. It paraphrases down to:


[What the terrorists have done is taken the initiative, so that the only thing the American psyche is capable of is reacting to events; it is the terrorists’ game and the Americans are now playing by their rules.]

The best response would be to do something outside the world view of their attackers. Usually one only gets outside a world view by being outside the times: this is … ‘the historical perspective’ and it is easy to be wise after the event. But we are IN these events…. and … the only thing that will work is something the terrorists do not expect, but I do not believe that the US is capable of doing that.

So… five years on, my opinions have not really changed other than finding that Northern Irish terrorism has become irrelevant.

I am trying to assess whether or not the events of the last five years have been better or worse than I expected. There is a rule of thumb, though I forget who it is credited to, which says that we tend to over-estimate the short-term effects of a technology, and under-estimate the long-term effects. I think I fell into that trap. The final line of the piece I wrote five years ago presupposes a tactical nuclear response by the US, which was clearly an exaggerated prediction. But in the long-term our prospects are worse than even I thought, and the long-term has just begun.

I find the estimate of 72,265 casualties shocking in both senses; I’d have guessed the figure at 10,000 or so. It is clear that the West’s young Muslims are becoming radicalised even faster than they can blow themselves up, and I am disgusted by the exploitative cynicism of a leadership and a priesthood which can manipulate young men into committing suicide in that way, while the leaders and the priests carry on regardless. That is something which I find hard to understand.

What leaves me sick with fear is that we are still only a dozen yards or so down this particular Cresta Run, but there really is no way to slow down or stop. All this, and global warming too.

Lies, damned lies and ice-breakers

We had an ice-breaking exercise in a meeting at work the other day: we had to write down three things on a piece of paper, two of which were true and one of which was a lie.

I realised this morning that I messed it up completely: the thing I labled a lie was in fact true (it included a negative which confused me), and one of the truths was – well not a fib exactly – but with added fiber.

  • I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle, and seen the Midnight Sun
  • I’ve never been to Greece
  • I make my own curtains

I guess this means I am incredibly honest. (Oh, look – admirable me). Or incredibly incompetent at lying. (Silly me). Or just crap at thinking up interesting things on the spot. (Stupid me).

I do wish that I’d realised that the first one could be called a lie though: it was 23.15 when we were north of the Circle, and I had a long drive south so we didn’t stick around for the magic moment, but why spoil a good story?

So maybe I just don’t know when I am lying.

Sociopathic me.

Truth, stardust and comfort blankies

We should be able to do it now. We should be able rise above superstition, supposition and woolly thinking. We have arrived at the once-in-a-species chance to combine wisdom with knowledge and transcend both.

For the first time in our history we have the data. We really do know things. We have researchers and academics finding things out and publishing them as if their jobs depended on it.

We are also joining the gaps between these pieces of knowledge to some extent. Climatologists train as mathematicians and physicists first, but climatology also draws on the skills of botanists and archaeologists and palaeontologists and zoologists and lepidopterists and… well you get the idea. Not just climatology. Bristol University provides a taught Masters in Archaeology for the Screen Media. The list of connected specialities is huge.

And finally, we have methodologies. There were many seminal innovations in the 20th century: the internal combustion engine, flight, digital computing, penicillin, genocide, but the one without which none of the others would have had any effect is the development of methodologies. It was the development and application of manufacturing processes which enabled the Model T to roll out of the factories in Detroit in its hundreds of thousands. It was the development of a methodology for genocide which meant that six in every eight European Jews were killed in the 1940s.

The relevant methodologies though are the ones for generating information, for finding hard data and separating it out from theory, hypothesis and speculation. So, not only do we know stuff, we have reliable ways of sorting out true stuff and sifting out the plausible stuff, putative stuff, speculative stuff and down right wishful thing.

The ostrich-eye view

However we have not outgrown our comfort blankie. We prefer the warm cosiness of superstition and woolly thinking to the hard realities which face us and – and this is the really unforgivable thing – we tell ourselves we are looking at the evidence and drawing our own conclusions. We are doing nothing of the sort. We lie.

There are examples of this all the time. I once heard a taxi driver saying “75% of all cars on the road are red: if you think about it, it’s true”. The fact that he had failed to look through his windscreen and see that three in four cars are not in fact red was worrying enough. But the fact that he thought he had gone through a verification step pushed me off my mental cliff. What on earth did he think he was doing when he ‘thought about it’? What did ‘thinking about it’ mean to him?

This happens in commercial environments too. I recently distracted a meeting for five minutes by trying to understand if the statement “20% of balls are blue” meant “20 balls in every 100 are blue”, or if it meant “each ball is pie-bald and has a blue patch covering 20% of it”. Eventually the person I was asking the question of snarled “it’s just an expression” and I had to bite my tongue not to reply “no it’s not an expression, it’s a number”. I paraphrase, but I still say he was talking bollocks.

It is this intellectual laziness and moral cowardice that enables intelligent, educated and otherwise thoughtful people to believe in medieavalisms such as astrology or crystal healing or spiritualism or tarot cards. It’s incredibly simple to demonstrate astrology – just run the thing backwards. Collect data on people’s personalities and the events of their lives, and get an astrologer to tell you where the stars were when each person was born. You could limit them to a specific year if you felt generous. If astrology works, you should be able to run it backwards as well as forwards. You could take the same approach for tarot readings. If homoeopathy has more than just the placebo effect, then it should be demonstrable. It isn’t, and one has to conclude that it doesn’t.

Actually, homoeopathy is a case in point. The less a person engages with the methods and concepts of evidence based-medicine, or experimental and evidence-based science for that matter, the more likely they are to accept homoeopathy on trust. (Mind you, the only evidence I have for this is anecdotal and my argument is deductive – but this proves my point – we can now validate and categorise both the data we use and the conclusions we draw from it). What is worrying though is that the reasonably well-educated and predominantly middle class patients of homoeopaths believe that their faith in homoeopathy is worth as much or more than the evidence-based practice of medicine, despite the fact that medical science actually is curing more people year on year and this information is readily available. There’s none so blind as those who won’t see.

Stepping up to the line

By contrast, one of the most fascinating programmes on British radio at the moment is In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. Lord Bragg made his name in literature, humanities and the arts; he is nobody’s fool and no kind of intellectual slouch. However, he struggles with some pretty simple mathematical and scientific concepts whenever the subject is outside his own cultured fields. Fair play to him, he tackles the subjects and tackles them well. But it is astonishing to hear someone as polymathic as Bragg flounder in the midst of really very simple science. And then one realises just how innumerate and scientifically illiterate even the most educated and cultured of us are and – even more worryingly – that this is not seen as any kind of problem.

Almost half a century ago C P Snow argued that someone who does not understand the second law of thermodynamics is as uneducated and uncultured as someone who hasn’t read Shakespeare. He also says “if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”

The madness of crowds

On top of that, we don’t get it. We all feel entitled to an opinion in this democratic age. Like the taxi driver, we do not realise that we cannot think. We all feel that our opinion on – for example – evolution is as valid as the next person, even if the next person is a geneticist or an anthropologist or a palaeontologist and we aren’t. In fairness, the failure is in our education system where people are encouraged to ‘think for themselves’ without being taught how to think critically or being given the basic tools of analysis. This is the downside of democracy. We dumb down to our lowest common denominator. I am not going to argue against democracy: as Amyarta Sen points out, it is the only demonstrable safeguard against famine for a start.

Looking further up the slippery pole, we glimpse our leaders, chosen by us mainly from graduates who studied humanities or social science or business or law. It is not just that they are ignorant. The thing that gives me the great big hairy heebee-jeebies is that they believe that they are ‘informed’ and that being intelligent is enough. They do not accept that some subjects are too technical, too specialised or just plain too hard for the lay person, no matter how intelligent, to grasp, and that some things simply cannot be paraphrased. We are being led by people who just don’t get it, and who don’t actually know that there is stuff to get.

However, I do believe that responsible government requires our winsome elected leaders take and act on the professional advice of specialists even if we don’t like it. Interestingly Thatcher was the political leader in the 1980s most alert to the challenges of climate change. She was a scientist and understood the methodology, even if it had been decades since she’d actually done any chemistry.

Our bad

We are failing the great moral test of our times and retreating into the comfort of a new mediaevalism, surrounding ourselves with ideology and doctrine and the warm and righteous certainties of fundamentalism. We have the chance to rise above all this, to step into reality and claim our inheritance as intelligent and wise children of the stars.

Instead we are sitting in the dust, looking for comfort by casting runes, and that will bring about the ruin us all.

Once daily, thrice weekly

Newspaper columnists always fascinated me. In the dim and distant days of the 1970s there was one columnist per Sunday broadsheet – about four all told – and by and large the essays they wrote were interesting and some of them even bore re-publication. Then in the 1980s onwards, print media exploded and every paper had three or four columnists – the political one, the motherhood-is-wonderful-no-no-really-it-is one, the single-female one, and the barking mad one. And now, of course, with 2.0 we are all columnists because the attraction of writing a column, surely, must be the sound of one’s own voice.

I’ll make no bones that what I am doing here is trying my arm at think-pieces to see at what point I run out of subjects which interest me about which I have some degree of coherent thinking. I don’t aspire to daily originality. Daily coherence is hard enough.

Daily blogging has changed how I think about what I think. My attention is no longer drawn to a subject on the radio or in my reading or in daily events so that I can while away time musing aimlessly on it. Now I muse with attention and purpose. Which is in itself quite interesting from this side of my cranial cavity.

However, daily blogging is time consuming, and I am about to enter 10 week period when I must focus on more Serious Real Life efforts. I feel a mixture of relief and guilt at cutting my blogging back to three times a week. I feel like I am sneaking myself off the hook and masking it with falsely superior motives. But I could displace for my country, and blogging is the most entertaining displacement activity I currently have available. It beats doing the ironing hands down. But, since blogging will neither buy the baby a new bonnett nor get the days work done, I have to blog less.

Besides which, if I reduce the quantity, maybe I can improve the quality.


There’s a particular kind of sickening and envious delight I feel when I come across words, phrases or even entire poems, which I wish I had written myself. One couplet – written by a South African woman whose name I don’t know but who lives in Stroud – is a good example of this:

Mr Language-man,
let me lick your words…

I would have been shivering with delight if I had written that in my first language. She wrote it in her second.

Another example comes from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s new album Living with War:

Sister has her headphones on
She hears the music blasting
She sees her brother marchin’ by
Their bond is everlasting
Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963
Watching the flags of freedom flyin’

Now why couldn’t I think of placing a 21st century teenager in a situation where she’s “Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963”?

Because I’m not Neil Young, I suppose.