Saturday, January 31, 2009

The importance of the nonexistence of magic part one: "Man like dog".

The intellectual foundation of the Enlightenment was as small and simple as its repercussions have been vast and complex. The world (and everything it is composed of) is susceptible to rational investigation. Perhaps this does not seem particularly radical to you. That we are able to examine things in the world, experiment upon them, reflect on the way that they behave and draw conclusions from this may seem to be essential to the human condition. How else did we ever get from seeing fire to making fire to building steam engines? How did we get from cracking someone over the head with a rock to the wergild to the criminal justice system? Surely human being are innately rational creatures, applying their understanding to experience and drawing conclusions?

On one level this is view of humanity is undeniable. All of us make rational decisions influenced by evidence every single day. I look out the window and pick up an umbrella, I look at my change and put back the crisps. These are self-evidently rational decisions, and we are the only species on the planet with the capability of making them. But this is the point where our view of man runs into difficulties. Innately rational animals though we are, we cannot escape our animal natures. We do this unique thing with our brains, but it was not all our brains are constructed to do.

Autonomic functions are vital of course, but we are also equipped to do a whole other range of things non-rationally. We judge distance, differentiate colour, brace ourselves for landing, experience pleasure and pain and respond to them too, we catch balls and dodge blows, we recognise faces and language. Of course, there is a rational element to most of these too. Maybe I only catch the ball because I want to get the batsman out, for example. And of course the question of the instinct for language, although empirically well-supported, raises fundamental and profoundly difficult questions about the "wiring" of our brains. The line between the rational and the non-rational suddenly looks very blurred, perhaps logically undefinable, in the same way as the exact number of hairs I would need to pluck from my head to consider myself bald is, or perhaps even non-existent as a line, with elements of rationality and irrationality included in all human behaviour.

Along these lines, I tend to believe that the reason animal behaviour so often seems like our own rational behaviour is less that animals share traits of our rationality, and more that we share elements of their non-rationality. The dog begging for food resembles me begging for money, not because the dog's behaviour has some element of rationality in it, but because my behaviour has so many non-rational elements.

All this is a way of explaining why we should not be surprised either at the existence and extent of Enlightenment project, or at the extent to which it is unfulfilled. To indulge in a little paradox: "Dog like man" is not true, even though "man like dog" is. Our approach to the world, and the rationality that is inherent in it, is grounded in the functioning of brains that necessarily make use of non-rational techniques and components, even to the extent that eliminating these components eliminates the possibility of rationality.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Woo is the enemy of science and philosophy alike.

Thankfully the anti "arts graduate" fever over at seems to have died off for a while. Ben Goldacre is still defending reason over woo, and the community of comment contributors is providing valuable arguments and links about his articles. But then the occasional real piece of work turns up who simply beggars belief. Andy Green, a member of the publicity company GREEN, or "Green Communications", or whatever he wants to call it.

Reading his initial post on badscience, I just took him for yet another troll. However, at the end of stating his piece, he explained that he was "the PR guy who is behind the Blue Monday campaign". He had spouted a lot of nonsense about "heuristics", "paradigm", "meme", "current reality" and the like, as if the way he used such terms meant anything. And this is what gets on my wick. Massively.

People like Andy Green, with whatever boring degree from whatever boring university and with whatever boring ideas in his head, misrepresent people who are attempting to deal with interesting and difficult concepts. The idea of a mediated reality, of debate about what we understand as "true", "justifiable", "useful" is not woo. To draw the most obvious example in this context, the Popperian model of scientific progress describes a way of dealing with data in order to evaluate their worth in particular contexts. This is a paradigm, a way of interpreting ideas and data according to a set of assumptions.

Whether paradigms change in the way that some theorists claim is up for debate. That paradigms are free-floating, free-for-all, free of explanatory conditions and free of logic, as Andy Green wishes to claim, is not up for debate. It's just bullshit. Everything that Andy Green is spouting out of his second class mouth is woo. Philosophy is not. The very reason that real philosophers don't tend to make much news is that they are generally either not able or not prepared to couch their ideas in simple or ambiguous terms. One thing is as true in the case of a philosophical concept or paper as in a scientific one: the simplification of a complex idea is, to a greater or lesser extent, a misrepresentation of it.

Andy Green is an example of the risks of academic conservatism of expression, of the failure of the media to represent ideas accurately, and of a lack of effective critical thinking skills in many people. Because there is insufficient understanding of either science or philosophy, Green feels free to misapply and misrepresent philosophy, and to use his paid psychology graduate Cliff Arnall to misrepresent the scientific method and to misapply mathematical symbols.

I'm not saying I've got a solution. I'm saying that we need to recognise that what we are dealing with is a general failure of critical thinking, and that inadequate mathematical skills to understand and interpret quantitative data are only a part (although I suspect a/the major part) of the current tidal wave of woo. And that Andy Green would describe Satan coming in his mouth as a valuable paradigm shift if someone paid him to spit the jizz through the right shaped stencil.

UPDATE: I just tried to order a copy of Green Communications' "Little Book of Values". All I can get is this message:

Not Found

Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn't here.