Quotulatiousness

November 16, 2016

Looking back on the “Golden Age” of political satire

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Maclean’s, Flannery Dean explains how making politics seem like entertainment may have contributed to the defeat of Hillary Clinton through encouraging apathy among her potential supporters:

The next evening, during his Live Election Night special on Showtime, Colbert quickly lost his taste for the political absurdity that has defined his success. When it was clear Trump’s victory was all but assured, the amiable host couldn’t summon up the heart to tell a joke. Trump as president “is a horrifying prospect,” he confessed. “I can’t put a happy face on that and that is my job.”

Cue the sinking feeling that you didn’t really know what was going on — all this time you thought politics was just a big joke that you shouldn’t take too seriously.

It was a Colonel Kurtz moment for Colbert, his guests, and the audience that had tuned in to be entertained by political humour and not troubled by its complete inadequacy in the face of seismic change.

You can hardly blame them for being caught unaware of the new dark zeitgeist, though. For the past 15 years, satire has become the preferred mode of left-leaning civic engagement. And The Daily Show’s tone — sarcastic, smug, chiding, and then creepily sentimental — has infiltrated mainstream media on TV, in print, and online (take this Nov. 11 story on Slate, for instance, that’s suffused with the adolescent eye-rolling that often accompanies troubling political information these days).

Given satire’s cultural dominance, it is not surprising that many may have naively assumed any real threat to American democracy had somehow been ridiculed into nullity by the likes of Stewart and Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee. But Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed the error of the mainstream faith in political satire as an effective form of political engagement. In reality, our prolonged love affair with cracking wise wasn’t a tonic that shook people out of their apathy — it was a symptom of it.

[…]

“The more liberal you are, the more you see Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives. But the more conservative you are, the more you see Stephen Colbert as a conservative skewing liberals.”

What did the Left see in Colbert’s murky mirror? Cute and kind of harmless hardliners — wind-up toys for them to play with. It’s hard not to see the mainstream media’s approach to Trump’s candidacy as being tainted by that dynamic: They were entertained by him, but few took him seriously.

That incredulity has legs, unfortunately. Many journalists and thinkers appear to be operating within the old zeitgeist still, assuming American politics is just another genre of entertainment, and that Trump is, at bottom, a soulless entertainer who was only pretending to be a racist, a xenophobe, and a despot in an effort to get elected.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

November 8, 2016

Voxsplaining Vox

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Nathan Robinson explains everything you need to know about Ezra Klein’s Vox:

For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”

Thus for Klein, the job of experts is not to give the public raw information, so that it can come to its own conclusions. The job of experts is to process the information themselves, and tell the public what it ought to have concluded. They are not here to help you figure out what you believe. You are a hopelessly irrational consumer. They are here, rather, to tell you what to think.

Vox therefore does not hesitate to make strong judgments. Its headlines frequently declare that “No, X is not what you think it is…” or tell you “Here’s the real reason why…” It promises to give everything you need to know on a subject, eliminating the need for further curiosity on the reader’s part. If you don’t know what the 18 best television shows are, Vox will tell you. (Quantification is its specialty; Vox builds trust by knowing the numbers, by having the data.) The Vox “explainers” say it plainly: about this, there can be no doubt.

Yet strangely, Vox staff would likely bristle at being called mere manufacturers of “opinion” or “commentary.” This is because when a Vox-er declares a scandal to be “bullshit,” he intends it as fact rather than opinion. There is no attempt to distinguish between the journalistic and the editorial. It all blurs together as “analysis.” Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mere expertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.

October 30, 2016

QotD: Hunter S. Thompson’s nihilism

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Of course in [Hunter S.] Thompson’s world the Big Darkness is always coming. Every day it doesn’t come means it’ll just be bigger and darker when it finally arrives. He’s the anti-rooster, bitching about the dawn: sure, it worked today, but one of these days the sun won’t come up, and then where will you be? Sitting on your nest popping out eggs like THEY want you to, completely unprepared for the Big Darkness! Which will be huge! And dark!

It would be funny if it was, well, funny, but it’s not even that. It’s just rote spew from the other side of the latter sixties. You had your Hopeful Hippies, the face-painters and daisy-strewers, convinced that human nature and human history could be irrevocably changed if we all held hands, listened to “Imagine” and realized that the war is not the answer. Regardless of the question. But the other side was the sort of dank twitchy nihilism Thompson spouts. It has no lessons, no morals, no hope. Imagine, Winston, that the future consists of a boot pressing on a face. Here’s the worst part, Winston — inside the boot is NIXON’S FOOT.

Thompson has less hope than the Islamists; at least they have an afterlife to look forward to. All we have is a country so rotten and exhausted it’s not worth defending. It never was, of course, but it’s even less defensible now than before.

He can say what he wants. Drink what he wants. Drive where he wants. Do what he wants. He’s done okay in America. And he hates this country. Hates it. This appeals to high school kids and collegiate-aged students getting that first hot eye-crossing hit from the Screw Dad pipe, but it’s rather pathetic in aged moneyed authors. And it would be irrelevant if this same spirit didn’t infect on whom Hunter S. had an immense influence. He’s the guy who made nihilism hip. He’s the guy who taught a generation that the only thing you should believe is this: don’t trust anyone who believes anything. He’s the patron saint of journalism, whether journalists know it or not.

James Lileks, Bleat, 2004-05-17.

October 25, 2016

QotD: Viking weapons and combat techniques (from historical evidence and re-creation)

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.

For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.

Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.

Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.

Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.

As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…

Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.

October 17, 2016

Islam in Britain

Filed under: Books, Britain, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Samizdata, a look at a new book covering the Islamic communities of Britain:

In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.

Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.

For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.

Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.

Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.

I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.

October 2, 2016

QotD: Camille Paglia on what’s wrong with American feminism today

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. I am an equal opportunity feminist: that is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students’ social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. Too many of today’s young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. I call my system “street-smart feminism”: there is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.

Camille Paglia, “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia”, American Magazine, 2015-02-25.

September 28, 2016

“… first I have to explain the Tragically Hip. I apologize in advance.”

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Kathy Shaidle burnishes her street cred as the most anti-Tragically Hip writer of the year:

Foreign ears will likely mistake the Hip for a fairly capable R.E.M. cover band — very “Stuff White People Like,” nothing more. But up here during, yes, the 1990s, college students got maudlin drunk on this group’s unsingable songs, in part because the only words you can make out are Canadian place names and slang terms, and there will always exist a particular variety of parochial — the type who otherwise despises “patriotism” — who inevitably finds that sort of thing weirdly…I don’t know if “flattering” is quite the word, but it will have to do. It helps that, off stage, the Hip promote the usual “progressive” bunkum.

The Tragically Hip are hardly the Rolling Stones or the Who, or Smashing Pumpkins or Hole. The Tragically Hip will never make any Top 50, or even Top 500, Musical Groups of All Time List.

And yet, I’ve been duly informed, they are “Canada’s Band.” The announcement on May Two-Four that lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie had fatal brain cancer meant, for me, that (forget what I wrote last week) his gnomic lyrics finally had a pretext, and for everyone else, that the band was embarking on a national farewell tour.

The media covered every aspect of this cross-country excursion with that cloying, breathless boosterism normally reserved for the Olympics. Except even the Games’ critics are allowed to voice their dissent, and not a discouraging word was permitted as the Tragically Hip traipsed across the country all summer, their “songs” blaring on the radio even more than already demanded by CanCon.

The CBC broadcast their final gig live, calling it “an honour and a privilege.” Prime Minister Zoolander (later conspicuously absent from any 15th-anniversary commemorations of 9/11) attended, of course. Maclean’s put Downie on the cover of a special issue and devoted dozens of pages to the tour, analyzing each set list and quoting fans declaring the Hip’s songs “the soundtrack of our lives” and Downie “a genius” and a “shaman” and a “saint.”

I’d go on, but Canadian poet David Solway’s crabby take on this “orgiastic sobfest” cannot be bettered. (Not surprisingly, it was published by an American outlet.)

And then it was over. Finally.

Except until it wasn’t.

August 15, 2016

New sitcom works very hard to offend its audience, Millennials

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Lisa de Moraes explains why the cast and crew of the new CBS comedy are being attacked on social media for their insensitivity to the plight of Millennials:

War broke out today between millennial media and the cast and creators of CBS’ new comedy series The Great Indoors, in which Joel McHale stars as an adventure reporter who becomes boss to a group of millennials in the digital department of their magazine. […]

It started when EP Mike Gibbons, who noted that 40 is the new 80, mentioned that CBS focus-grouped the pilot, and the millennial in the group said he did not like it because of the jokes about millennials being coddled, too sensitive and thin-skinned. The woman running the focus group, Gibbons said, clarified: “So, you were offended by millennials being portrayed as too sensitive.”

A Millennial Media Member interrupted Gibbons. “I’m a millennial myself. How are we so coddled, and what about our overly politically correct workplace bothers you?” she asked, like she meant it to sting.

Stephen Fry, who co-stars as the charismatic founder of The Great Outdoors magazine, who is a world traveler, explorer and adventurer, jumped in to note there is “an element of coddling” and “an element in which you have it tougher than the generation before.”

[…]

Another media member, non-millennial, asked Gibbons if he was “worried” that the show would be dismissed as “middle-aged white guy complaining about his lot in life and having to deal with millennials.”

Joked Gibbons, “Our show is going to make America great again”.

“So you are the Trump show?” Non-Millennial Media Member snapped back. “I’m just seeking clarification.”

“Irony comes through in print, right?” Gibbons quipped.

H/T to Small Dead Animals for the link.

July 19, 2016

QotD: The battle against superstition

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Religion, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. … They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. … What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925-09-14.

June 22, 2016

Kathy Shaidle wonders if the Pope is even Catholic

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Her latest column for Taki’s Magazine discusses her own journey away from the Catholic church and the current Pope’s own journey in a similar direction:

Such are the epochal times we’re living in that even timeworn truisms are at risk of obsolescence.

Take “Is the Pope Catholic?” Those of a certain age may prefer Steve Martin’s absurdist gloss — “Does the Pope shit in the woods?” — but the original has been every wise guy’s idea of a witticism for as long as I’ve been alive, and presumably longer.

But I’m not the first to wonder if the election of Pope Francis has rendered the phrase extinct. Great news for anyone whose taste in conversation veers away from the Runyonesque, but obviously not so great news for, you know, the Church.

Years ago, I would have cared more.

I spent much of my career as a semiprofessional Catholic. Besides working in Catholic publishing, such as it is, I’d called my first blog Relapsed Catholic. That was in 2000. When the American priestly sex-abuse scandals exploded shortly thereafter, I was in a uniquely helpful position: Canada had undergone an identical crisis the previous decade, and my blog posts about both found an eager readership. I encouraged others to start their own sites, and eventually an informal network grew up — run by priests, nuns, canon lawyers, laity — which I nicknamed “St. Blog’s Parish.”

I was then, as I am now, the resident brat. When, in 2002, America’s clueless cardinals called for a Day of Reparations — during which the laity would perform penance for what were undeniably clerical sins — I blogged that collective guilt was exactly one of the “trendy modern notions” (like the New Age “therapy” sporadically employed to “treat” pervert priests, and the diocesan deference to secular lawyers’ morally dubious advice) that had exacerbated the corruption. Jesus, I noted, had been bracingly clear on the topic of child abuse: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck.”

“Implicitly,” I blogged, “someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I’m delighted to volunteer.”

May 26, 2016

Terry Teachout on silent movies

Filed under: History, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:

None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.

Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).

As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.

[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.

May 19, 2016

QotD: A contrarian view of “Britain in decline”

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.

I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.

All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.

We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.

On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.

In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.

Matt Ridley, “Britain’s Best Years”, MattRidley.com, 2015-01-01.

May 16, 2016

QotD: The value of criticism

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Critical note — Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

H.L. Mencken, “Clinical Notes”, The American Mercury, 1924-01.

April 17, 2016

QotD: “Thought collectives” in science

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.

What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.

A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.

Ian Leslie, “The sugar conspiracy”, Guardian, 2016-04-07.

April 7, 2016

Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide”

Filed under: Books, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

A positive review of Alice Dreger’s recent book from Jesse Singal at New York Magazine:

I first read Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science when I was home for Thanksgiving, and I often left it lying around the house when I was doing other stuff. At one point, my dad picked it up off a table and started reading the back-jacket copy. “That’s an amazing book so far,” I said. “It’s about the politicization of science.” “Oh,” my dad responded. “You mean like Republicans and climate change?”

That exchange perfectly sums up why anyone who is interested in how tricky a construct “truth” has become in 2015 should read Alice Dreger’s book. No, it isn’t about climate change, but my dad could be excused for thinking any book about the politicization of science must be about conservatives. Many liberals, after all, have convinced themselves that it’s conservatives who attack science in the name of politics, while they would never do such a thing. Galileo’s Middle Finger corrects this misperception in a rather jarring fashion, and that’s why it’s one of the most important social-science books of 2015.

At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry.

[…]

There’s a risk of getting too cute here, of drawing false, unwarranted equivalencies. In a sense, my dad was right in what he was getting at — conservatives have done a lot of damage to sound science in the United States. It’s conservative lawmakers and organizations who have refused to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, who have rallied to keep evolution out of textbooks and comprehensive sex education out of classrooms, who have stymied life-saving research into stem cells and gun control.

But that’s in the world of politics and lawmaking, where conservatives often have a numerical advantage. In the halls of social-science academia, where liberals do, it’s telling that some of the same sorts of feeding frenzies occur. This should stand as a wake-up call, as a rebuke to the smugness that sometimes infects progressive beliefs about who “respects” science more. After all, what both the Bailey and Chagnon cases have in common — alongside some of the others in Galileo’s Middle Finger — is the extent to which groups of progressive self-appointed defenders of social justice banded together to launch full-throated assaults on legitimate science, and the extent to which these attacks were abetted by left-leaning academic institutions and activists too scared to stand up to the attackers, often out of a fear of being lumped in with those being attacked, or of being accused of wobbly allyship.

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