Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The future belongs to the editors of anthologies

Not much to say about this week's; opinions differ (see comments below), but I find it hard to read it other than as a missive from Dave to his younger, more hot-headed protege and erstwhile deskmate, Nick. Sort of like Luke and Obi-Wan in the Decent version of "The Empire Strikes Back". Exhibit One would obviously be "good, sensible people are beginning to say stupid things about Islam" (which NC backed up with this slightly incoherent outburst, directed at one of the bruschettaboys), although it is hardly the only example of the genre. Exhibit Two is that no sane man could refer to Rod Liddle as someone "who I esteem as a companion"; either the Times subs have misspelt "cunt" or this is a coded reference to Nick. Dave has noticed that the Spectator is heading damnably close to outright fascism with respect to nos amis les Muslims; Nick is approvingly quoting Theodore Dalrymple. While it might be possible to argue that Nick's vision (in the Handsworth article linked above) of a Britain divided into warring ethnic camps by the Blair/Liberuls axis of "faith schools", is saner than Bat Ye'Or's Eurabia, it isn't and Dave is clever enough to see that it isn't. All in all I think that the circumstantial evidence is quite strong here.

But that isn't what struck me. I ended up taking most note of one of the asides, toward the end, after Dave had written his column, made his point and had nothing else to do for 100 words than to hang around like a chav in a hoodie, throwing bits of litter at passing liberals. So we have:

the relativism of sections of the intelligentsia on the one hand, who cannot say the words “Western democracy” without a sneer

"Cannot say the words 'Western democracy' without a sneer". It's a lift from Orwell of course; I can't be bothered to do the heavy work of finding the exact reference, and maybe those exact words don't appear in that exact order in any of Saint George's pubished output, but the sentiment is definitely from that source, so it's a lift just like "play it again, Sam" is a lift from Casablanca. I'm sure any reasonably well-educated reader will have picked up the reference and it's a nice turn of phrase, except ...

... except that it's not really representative at all. As we know, Aaro came to Orwell late in life, and thus almost certainly through the Penguin Collected Essays. Which is not a criticism of Aaro; how the hell else would one read Orwell these days? Except that ...

Well except that, because of long hours in a reference library with a copy of the unabridged complete works by my elbow to break the tedium, I happen to know that the Penguin edition is really very unrepresentative of Orwell's politics. The most famous collection of Orwell's writings, it contains two or three references to the kind of people who can't say "western democracy" without a sneer. If it was all you read, you'd find it hard to understand why Orwell was, actually a Communist. In actual fact, he spent a lot more of his time, effort and written work talking about the much greater danger posed by the kind of people who can't say "Western democracy" with a sneer. By chance (or rather, not by chance; this sort of thing kept happening to Orwell and he complained about it throughout his life and of course, it's the main theme of 1984), these bits didn't end up in the mass market paperback that got sold to American schools.

It just makes me think, what will history make of us? If someone puts together a Collected Columns of David Aaronovitch in fifty years time, will any of us recognise the Aaro of 2005 in it? Or conversely, if we were operating George Orwell Watch back in the 1930s and 40s, what kind of a Watch would it be?

.... anyway, enough of that. Did anyone manage to listen to Aaro on Resonance FM? Did he mention our blog? I was planning to listen, but they were playing Morton Feldman's string quartet and I nodded off during the quiet bit before the interval (joke).


Blogger Simon said...

The Resonance FM thing might turn up here.

11/15/2005 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschetta Boy said...

apparently on the same page as an interview with someone from "Sense About Science"! (I'll take "slightly sinister Furediite front groups" for £100, please Les)

11/15/2005 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

What is it about the Decent Left and MMR, btw? Not that they don't (broadly) have the right side of the argument, but I don't remember many hawkish Blairite journalists making this sort of noise when the controvery was an actual controversy as opposed to a more or less settled debate. I suppose "enlightenment values" might play their part, but it doesn't explain why they've homed in on this one issue.

11/16/2005 01:35:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschetta Boy said...

It falls into the category "Issues where the vast majority of the British public and media was wrong and our political masters, acting on information which they could not share with us, ought to be trusted", which is otherwise a bit threadbare.

Also useful for fighting a proxy war against The Lancet, and hence the Iraq body count? And probably a Furediite influence in the background, "our risk-obsessed society" Dunno.

11/16/2005 06:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Backword Dave said...

I've just read that thread, and I wasn't the BB in question.

Does anyone know how I can contact Dan Hardie?

11/16/2005 04:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was the bb in question; I've got Dan's email address back at home. I'll send it over.

11/16/2005 04:38:00 PM  
Blogger Sonic said...

You get a link from their site here..


Did you see this BTW?


"Worst of all — and this is a shameful admission — I am addicted to looking myself up on the internet (a) to see what others have said about me"

Perhaps he should drop you a mail!

11/17/2005 12:08:00 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

I see they have Ben Goldacre coming up too. I quite like Ben Goldacre, but this more or less confirms the 'Enlightenment Values FM' thesis, I'd say.

11/17/2005 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmmm the politics do appear a bit on the "decent" side but I would thoroughly recommend the music and RFM is basically a music station.

I must say I agree with respect to Goldacre; he does good stuff but:

1) is it really necessary to be such a cunt? The use of the term "humanities graduate" as an insult was wanked dry by Dr Graeme Garden in the 1970s. As I keep telling people, scientists aren't supermen; lots of them are actually quite thick. They're just people who did a science degree.

2) Goldacre himself is actually guilty of the occasional howler - he's very, very weak on statistics and I have from time to time wondered about whether it would be a good idea to run an occasional "Bad Bad Science" blog. Specifically, on the central point at issue between him and Mad Mel Phillips over "What did the Cochrane Report into MMR prove?", it is embarrassing to report that MP was nearer the correct interpretation of most of the epidemiology than BG was (though they were, in fact, both wrong; epidemiological studies do prove conclusively that the risk associated with MMR is very low, but don't and can't pick up very small and rare conditions like the gut disease-measles virus-autism combination of indicators that Wakefield claimed to have identified in a few cases before he went off the rails).

11/17/2005 02:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Bagrec said...

Jeez, Simon, if only Resonance FM was "enlightenment values FM"!
One of the reasons we started our little show was to counter the wall-to-wall Chomsky lectures, post-modernism and that ridiculous 2 hour UFO/Conspiracy theory show, and the natural assumption that if you were a Resonance listener/programme maker you were obviously also a "stopper"/Gallowayan.

Anyway, I believe Neil should have the Aaro interview up later this afternoon. That's what I meant to tell you!

11/17/2005 02:35:00 PM  
Anonymous enlightenmentvalues.com said...

The David Aaronovitch Interview is now online.

11/17/2005 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

one of the things that's always intrigued me, and this is as good a place to ask it as any since we are in general a good tempered lot; why is "postmodernism" one of the things that always gets lumped in among with conspiracy theories, Chomsky, Galloway, Islamism and the rest as being inimical to the nature of "Enlightenment/Decent" values? There's really no connection for one thing, and for another, a lot of postmodernism has its roots in Enlightenment liberalism. Is it just because of a perceived connection with "moral relativism" and thereby a lack of a firm belief in a solid standing place from which to condemn Muslims?

(I always get a chuckle when female emancipation, racial equality and sometimes even toleration of homosexuality are counted among the "enlightenment values". We only got these ourselves within the last fifty years and already we're screaming at everyone else for not getting them yesterday. Oy, as they say in the southern part of the London Borough of Barnet, vey.)

11/17/2005 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Brooke said...

It's a good question. Maybe Decent Leftists don’t want the decency/indecency opposition to be deconstructed with any great care, as that would show the extent to which Decent Leftism can only be given content with respect to its excessive fixation on something that doesn’t really matter much, except to Decent and Indecent leftists, i.e., the far left in contemporary British politics (from which so many Decent Leftists seem to have come, once upon a time)?

On the last point you make, BB, that's pretty much something Aaro says in his interviw...

11/17/2005 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Brooke said...

People who are interested in what people argued during the Enlightenment, rather than in a certain crude idea of Enlightenment that gets kicked around by both the boosters and detractors of said crude idea, might like to read my old friend (and flat-mate's) book, Enlightenment against Empire, which is a super account of just how far-reaching the C18th critique of European adventures overseas went in the hands of Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant and others.

"Muscular liberalism" is very much the product of the post-Enlightenment 19th-century, with John Stuart "it's for their own good" Mill and Alexis "it's for our good, but let's not let that stop us in Algeria" de Tocqueville leading the way. People interested in that later period might want to look at another book, also by an old friend and former flat-mate, Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the rise of liberal imperialism in Britain and France, which should be in the shops before too long.

11/17/2005 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Brooke said...

Actually -- I'll stop in a moment, promise, as I have to go and visit a friend in the RI -- isn't open hostility to postmodernism one of those things the Decent Left shares with the most vociferous bits of the Indecent Left (see point about deconstruction, above). Stopper-in-Chief Alex Callinicos, after all, wrote a book called Against Postmodernism, and Chomsky isn't known for his pomo enthusiasms.

11/17/2005 06:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Neil said...

I only used the term "enlightenment values" because somebody else did here previously, and its obviously an unhelpful shorthand, but if I can comment on a couple of things;

I always get a chuckle when female emancipation, racial equality and sometimes even toleration of homosexuality are counted among the "enlightenment values". We only got these ourselves within the last fifty years and already we're screaming at everyone else for not getting them yesterday.

This is very true, but it was presumably "enlightenment values" that set us off on the path to these things, even if it took far too long to achieve them. Agree with the last part though, and we touch on this in the interview.

why is "postmodernism" one of the things that always gets lumped in among with conspiracy theories, Chomsky, Galloway, Islamism and the rest as being inimical to the nature of "Enlightenment/Decent" values?

My main gripe with Postmodernism is the idea that Science, or should I say "Science" is only one competing narrative with other ways of explaining the world. It seems obvious to me that some facts are facts, not "texts" with multiple meaning.

11/17/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

Sorry, I wasn't intending to insult Resonance FM as a whole - an acquaintance of mine has just started a show on there, and I've enjoyed Stewart Lee's shows in the past. I think it's a great station. I was referring to the 'Little Atoms' program specifically, which may or may not be any good (I haven't heard it).

11/17/2005 11:18:00 PM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

My main gripe with Postmodernism is the idea that Science, or should I say "Science" is only one competing narrative with other ways of explaining the world. It seems obvious to me that some facts are facts, not "texts" with multiple meaning

Yeh, but this is actually quite a small set and not at all obviously coextensive with "what they publish in science journals". To take a nice, noncontroversial example, the results of epidemiological studies are facts (in that the data was the data, and the calculations made on that data give the answers reported). Similarly, the results of a test for live measles virus in the gut of an autistic child are also facts; it's either there or it isn't.

A statement like "MMR vaccine is safe", however, is one which is ambiguous between a statement about the risk factor associated with MMR vaccination, and one about the possibility that live measles virus in the gut of a particular patient got there because of the vaccination and has caused problems. In other words, it's a text with multiple interpretations. It matter, obviously, because a) the truth conditions of these two statements are totally different, as is the evidence and kinds of evidence that one would bring to judge them and b) there is a massive temptation for scientists (by which I mean nothing more than people who hold down a job as scientists) to equivocate between the two, because they want to achieve a goal (mass vaccination) which is a *political* goal.

The more I think about it, the more I get to realise that it's likely that Ben Goldacre is probably saying what appear to me to be somewhat dodgy things about epidemiology because of exactly this epistemic confusion (and the characteristic unconsidered hostility to postmodernism) rather than anything to do with the actual maths.

11/18/2005 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous bruschettaboy said...

(just to extend on this; what the hell, this is now officially a non-Aaronovitch-related open thread and I want to be absolutely clear about what I'm saying about MMR because there are loads of people in this debate that I don't want to be associated with)

Specifically, Ben G has used to analogies in trying to support the "big claim" about the MMR epidemiology (that it supports not only a judgement that the risk associated with MMR is tiny, which it is, but that it also rules out the possibility that MMR caused autism in the 12 cases in the original Wakefield study, which might quite likely be true but I don't think epidemiology is going to show it).

His first analogy was here:

"To find a small, rare effect, like a small number of kids developing autism from MMR, for example, you need to take a big sample: then you look to see whether people who are exposed to the possible risk factor, in this case MMR, are more likely to develop the adverse outcome, in this case autism. Do you believe that smoking is bad for you? Yes. Because somebody took a hundred thousand people who smoked, and a hundred thousand people who didn't, and found that the ones who smoked tended to die younger, from heart problems and cancer."

Clearly this one can't stand up. Lung cancer isn't a small, rare effect; it was at the time the second most common cause of death. This is the sort of thing that epidemiology does a really good job on (though it should be noted it took decades to prove it!)

The second analogy (which now I've had a look wasn't actually BG but Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, there you go) was with thrombocytopenic purpura:

She echoes the mantra of anti-MMR campaigners that epidemiological methods are not suitable to discover an association between MMR and autism, when this is precisely the point of such methods. Epidemiology has successfully identified a link between MMR and the skin rash resulting from a sharp fall in blood platelets (thrombocytopenic purpura), a (generally benign) condition much rarer (around 20 cases a year in Britain) than the so-called epidemic of autism attributed to MMR."

Which also doesn't work unfortunately; TP is a rare condition, sure enough, but there are very very few cases of it that aren't caused by MMR, so the signal/noise ratio is much higher than it would be in autism, where everyone knows that there are lots of cases that definitely have nothing to do with MMR (which of course is something that Wakefield doesn't mention nearly enough).

My overall point here is not that the safe-MMR people are wrong; they're right. But the way in which they've set about winning the argument has involved a lot of arguments which, considered purely on the merits of the arguments rather than the merits of the proposition being argued for, are "bad science". Playing the man rather than the ball with respect to Wakefield (I'm thinking of that perfectly ludicrous conflict-of-interest charge here) was also "bad science". "Good science" people use "bad science" tactics all the time; the difference is that they are doing so in a good cause (of course, everyone thinks that they're the good guys).

The point I'm trying to make, as a part-time postmodernist (maybe I should write a "bad postmodernism" column) is that whatever the status of facts about the physical universe, the facts about a particular behaviour-pattern of a particular species of land-mammals which is called "science", are validly described in terms of texts and interpretations, as well as newton-metres and kilograms.

11/18/2005 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Brooke said...

Neil: My main gripe with Postmodernism is the idea that Science, or should I say "Science" is only one competing narrative with other ways of explaining the world. It seems obvious to me that some facts are facts, not "texts" with multiple meaning.

The core idea expressed here, though, isn't one you need to be a post-modernist to endorse: most of the philosophers we think of as just ordinarily "modern" present some version of it: John Locke thought that the world always tended to defy the (often scientific) categories we developed to try to make sense of it; Immanuel Kant thought there was no such thing as an objective empirical "fact" that somehow obtained independently of the rational agent perceiving it, and so on.

A lot of people seem anxious to reject "postmodernism" as something that has gone peculiarly wrong in the last thirty years or so, thinking that before "postmodernism" came along we all had great faith in the powers of the neutral, objective, impartial scientific intellect, and so on, and why can't we go back to that?

But that's far too simplistic: the most challenging philosophers over the last five hundred years -- Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Bayle, Hume, Kant, and so on -- all made arguments that were very powerfully shaped by scepticism, which stressed the limits of the human intellect (Kant's was, after all, a critique of reason), and which were generally quite open to the idea that reasonable people would disagree radically about what constituted the relevant "facts of the matter" in a large number of interesting situations.

Throw into the mix the fact that post-Enlightenment science also gave us scientific racism, the origins of sociology and anthropology as the handmaidens of the European colonial enterprise, the construction of the idea of the "homosexual" as a deviant subject for treatment through C19th sexology, and so bloody on and so bloody forth, and the claims of a modest postmodernism to encourage a bit of healthy suspicion towards the authority claims made in the name of science (as well as the claims made in the name of good old common sense) don't seem too outlandish, do they?

11/18/2005 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Brooke said...

Actually, I think that if I'm going to make a habit of commenting here, I really ought to do it under a different name, so henceforth please welcome the Couscous Kid to the correspondence columns of Aaro Watch (incorporating Nick Cohen Watch).

11/19/2005 12:50:00 PM  

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