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.

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