This site is supported by Nobility Studios.
  • entries
  • comments
  • views

About this blog

Entries in this blog

“ It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible ” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray Continuing my archaeology of the present, I headed out of Geddes Quadrangle toward Small’s Wynd where, closely encroached by other structures stood…

View the full article

I’ve been reading about the NIPS Experiment. Calm down at the back there. NIPS stands for Neural Information Processing Systems. It’s all very serious and you can read about the experiment [url=""]here[/url] and [url=""]here[/url].
In essence, the experiment aimed to examine the process by which papers are accepted or rejected by peer review committees for conference presentation. Obviously, it’s all to do with scientific quality and the scientific community is built around a common understanding of what that means. Or is it?
The NIPS experimenters split their panel of conference peer reviewers into two committees. Most of the papers went to one committee or the other for review, but 10% of them (166 papers) were reviewed by both committees without the members knowing which papers they were. It was then possible to see how similar the two committees were in their evaluation of those papers. A full write-up of the results is still to come, apparently, but [url=""]Eric Price has revealed the essence[/url].
The committees disagreed in their evaluation of 43 of the 166 papers. Naïvely, you might think that’s not too bad. They disagreed on 25.9% of cases, so they must have agreed on 74.1%. However, Eric Price points out that the committees were tasked with a 22.5% acceptance rate which means that the number of disagreements was larger than the number of acceptances each committee was expected to make. This means that most (more than half) of the papers accepted by either committee were rejected by the other.
Price considers a theoretical model which treats the peer review process as a combination of “certain” and “random” components. He assumes that there will be some papers that every reviewer agrees should be accepted (acceptance is certain) and some that everyone agrees should be rejected (rejection is certain). For the rest, Price’s model assumes that committee members make their decision by (metaphorically at least) flipping a coin. This is the random component and the level of randomness in peer review is the proportion of papers that get this treatment. The divergence in reviewing committees’ decisions seen in the NIPS experiment imply that there is quite a lot of this coin-flipping randomness in peer review; perhaps more than most people thought.
Is this “randomness” in reviewers assessments a cause for concern? Price points out that “consistency is not the only goal” and, indeed, it can arise for reasons that are not necessarily welcome. For instance, unanimously accepted papers may simply be feeling the benefit of appearing under the name of well-connected authors that reviewers favour for reputational reasons. Conversely, papers that reviewers unanimously reject may just be suffering the penalty of pursuing unfashionable research topics that reviewers see as a drain on funding for more popular topics. It may well be that it is precisely in the “random middle” – between the certain acceptances and certain rejections – that we see peer review at its best.
But how can it be any good if it’s random? The truth is, it’s pretty implausible that it really [i]is[/i] random. I don’t see much reason to believe that peer reviewers actually flip coins and as [url=""]humans are not good random number generators[/url], it seems unlikely that conceptual flipping of imaginary coins would produce genuinely random results. What really goes on in this middle zone is not random at all. Rather, it’s a process of deliberation where each reviewer considers a variety of factors and makes a decision on the basis of balancing those factors. Even having made the decision, the reviewer probably still feels a fair degree of uncertainty as to whether it was the right one.
Because reviewers are usually allowed to decide for themselves which factors to consider in their deliberations, there is a good deal of variation between reviewers as what factors they consider. Putting it more formally, the [i]weight[/i] they give to each factor is not prescribed. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that even individual reviewers will attach the same weight every time: the same reviewer could reach different conclusions about the same a paper considered under different circumstances.
In short, the degree of “randomness” seen in the NIPS experiment undermines one of the cornerstone assumptions of the peer review process – that reviewers share a coherent common notion of what qualities to value in a paper. Instead, it suggests that the criteria that reviewers use in practise are quite divergent. If this is the case, it is hard to see how peer review could possibly be “fair”. Certainly, steps such as making reviewers comments and identities open to authors would seem to miss the point. What is more in order is a dialogue over the criteria used to evaluate research in the first place and whether traditional peer review has any useful role to play in this. [img][/img]


I posted a rather lengthy comment to a post at the Aguanomics blog. It discusses “the power structures that affect our lives” in terms of centralized vs. decentralized (what I might prefer to call dispersed) and coercive vs. free, each portrayed as a dichotomy. I don’t know if my comment is under review or if…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

View the full article

Tt is no doubt a good thing that we hear of scientific fraud, academic plagiarism and medical malpractice in the name of research, but we would do well to remember that these are just sophisticated names for age-old theft and assault. Can we really hope for better science if we can't hope for better people?

View the full article

In May 2010, Science magazine published an article by Philip Kitcher, in which he reviewed a selection of books relevant to the science and politics of global warming. These included books by climate scientists expressing their frustration at the reluctance of successive American governments to take up strong policies on climate change. This reluctance is taken to be one example of a series of cases (health effects of tobacco smoke being another) in which eminent scientists pushed American government policy away from the path indicated by scientific consensus by casting doubt on the evidence on which that consensus was based. This they did, apparently, without themselves being active as researchers in the relevant field.

Kitcher starts his article by presenting contrasting views on the relative value of free and open debate on the one hand and reliance on expert opinion on the other in guiding democratic decision making. In favour of open debate is the view that truth alone will withstand questioning and criticism and that open debate can therefore be relied upon to indicate the ‘correct’ decision, given enough time. A frequent criticism of that view, however, is that in the real world decisions have to be made urgently and the time available for debate is limited. Under such circumstances, unscrupulous parties may express endless trivial or frivolous doubts about any proposal they dislike to ensure that their own proposal is the only one that still looks strong when the time comes to decide. Open debate then becomes an open door to the ethic of might is right. Limiting the debate to those judged to possess comprehensive and impartial knowledge and understanding of the relevant facts is seen as a way of obtaining a much more controlled debate that can lead to the best possible decision in time-limited circumstances.

Kitcher doesn’t directly express his support of one view over the other and sometimes it’s not altogether clear whether his statements are his own views or what he takes to be those of the authors of the books he’s reviewing. Nevertheless, one might reasonably come away with the feeling that his bias is toward reliance on expert opinion. Here are a few quotes:

“genuine democratic participation in the issues can only begin when citizens are in a position to understand what kinds of policies promote their interests. To achieve that requires a far clearer and unmistakable communication of the consensus views of climate scientists” (p2)

“Serious democracy requires reliance on expert opinion.” (p2)

“messages have been distorted and suppressed because of the short-term interests of economic and political agents” (p2)

“They have used their stature in whatever areas of science they originally distinguished themselves to pose as experts who express an "alternative view" to the genuinely expert conclusions that seem problematic to the industries that support them or that threaten the ideological directions in which their political allies hope to lead.” (p2)

“It is an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters” (p3)

On reading these, a number of questions occurred to me:

  • Why would citizens have difficulty understanding their own interests and the policies that promote them?
  • Why would understanding one’s own interests depend on understanding a consensus among scientists?
  • What is “serious” democracy (as opposed to mere democracy) and why would it have to rely on expert opinion?
  • Is there any reason why calling interests “short term” would make them any less worthy of respect?
  • Is there any reason why the interests of “economic and political agents” would be any less worthy of respect than those of any other social entity?
  • Why would the pursuit of citizens’ interests necessarily have to boil down to technical matters?
  • How, except through special pleading, would it be established that climate scientists’ messages are more objective or more relevant to the common good?
  • How would the public tell real experts from those who merely pose as experts?

In articles to follow this one, I want to look at the role of experts in democratically accountable decision making. The decision making issues around climate change make for a particularly interesting context in which to have this discussion because the stakeholders include practically everyone and their interests are therefore highly disparate; the scientific evidence, although extensive, is still contentious; the need to act quickly may be acute; and the potential for useful unilateral action by any individual actor is extremely limited. The problem therefore refuses to stay within the norms of any established political system or subculture.

In his personal blog, TGL member Praj asks if scientific thinking is like reading comprehension. He gives the example of a paragraph about American football. Being British and not a follower of the game, but nevertheless (I believe) fully literate in the English language, I can confirm that understanding the example is not merely a matter of general English comprehension. Some of the jargon terms such as "receiver", "training camp", "running back", "season", "backup" and "offensive line" may evoke some kind of sense to any reader of English, but one really has to know about football to fully understand them in this piece. Likewise, some of the slang terms of American reportage, such as "get off the ground", "getting on track" or "banged up" have literal or conventional meanings in general English usage, but are used metaphorically here.

Praj worries about whether or not "scientific thinking" necessarily requires scientific knowledge, particularly in relation to "the issue" of global warming. I think you need to start by being clear about what you mean by the issue of global warming. I can see at least five distinct issues here:

(1) the issue of how much reliance we can place on data that indicate global climate has changed rapidly in recent decades;

(2) the issue of how much reliance we can place on climate models that predict the implications for future climate change;

(3) the issue of how much confidence we can have in the efficacy of any policy designed to reverse or adapt to such predicted climate change;

(4) the issue of how well we think we understand the economic and political consequences of such policies or their failure;

(5) the issue of how people in whose name such policies are made value the presumed benefits of the policy as opposed to the presumed risks of any alternative.

I'd say that issue (1) is essentially scientific. To know what the measurements actually represent and the practical limitations of the measurement techniques used, requires specialist technical knowledge. When that is drawn from a shared pool of individual experiences of related technical knowledge, then you could call it "scientific thinking".

Issue (5), on the other hand, isn't scientific at all. Any individual or group of individuals is equally entitles to make a judgement against what it autonomously sees as its own interests.

Issues (2), (3) and (4) make a gradual transition between those two positions.

For the policy maker, the problem is to assess the need for a policy which takes into account (1) and (2), consider all technical possibilities for a technical response (2, 3 and 4) and then prioritize those for policy adoption (4 and 5).

Taking all those various (and even contradictory) interests into account to come up with a solution that is sufficiently acceptable to a sufficient number of parties to stand a chance of actually working, is the policy makers job, and I don't envy them it.


This is a lawsuit filed by Wayne State University cancer researcher Fazlul Sarkar making claims of defamation against the authors of anonymous posts published on the PubPeer online journal club website. It’s quite a read. Ivan Oransky has published a commentary here. Meanwhile, PubPeer has been sent a notice of subpoena to produce evidence that would allow the authors of the PubPeer comments to be identified.

The lawsuit claims that the comments, which largely concern the origins of gel images appearing in papers from Sarkar’s lab, effectively accuse Sarkar of research misconduct. Sarkar claims damages related to losses he suffered resulting from the decision by University of Mississippi to rescind a very lucrative job offer it had made to him.

As of this writing, Sarkar has never been found responsible for research misconduct. However, it’s hard to understand Mississippi’s decision unless the people there thought there was substance to the damaging implications of the PubPeer comments. Clearly, those comments have to be taken seriously as part of the literature of science whose effect (and function) is to blunt the confidence readers have in certain peer-reviewed papers.

Equally, as one intended function of Sarkar’s lawsuit must be to resharpen that confidence and thereby influence what people actually believe about science, it must also be regarded as another kind of scientific literature.b.gif?


Jet d’Eau

By Peter,

Falling unannounced into the city and armed only with a map from a hundred years ago, I set off, hoping to find in the city’s physical form clues to the origins of my own preferences and limitations. At the head of the rose angle, on stone plinths still bearing the stumps of railings long since…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

View the full article

This started as a comment on something davidm wrote in one of his comments on Hugo Holbling's blog post Doubt and Disunity, but it rambled too much so I just put it here.

Your comments are welcome!

I don’t know why we should think of the consensus in question as a political rather than a scientific consensus. I’m not sure how meaningful the distinction is anyway, given that we know that politics (and other cultural factors) play a role in science. But, to take a simplified example, if ten scientists get together and investigate whether the solar system is geocentric or heliocentric, and then at the end of their inquiry report that they have achieved a consensus that the solar system is heliocentric, how is that not a scientific consensus? Note also that these scientists would not be claiming that the solar system is heliocentric because they say so; they would be claiming that they have achieved a consensus on heliocentrism because that’s just what the best available evidence shows is most likely to be true.

If you took a group of scientists today and asked them to "investigate whether the solar system is geocentric or heliocentric", they might well tell you that the heliocentric/geocentric debate is outmoded. Modern cosmology places neither the sun nor the earth at the centre of the universe and, moreover, that in a proper analysis of orbital motion, each body orbits the common centre of mass, not one the other.

Nevertheless, the stuff of astronomical science is still essentially what it always has been: observations about the position, brightness and shape of points or bodies of light in the sky at certain times when viewed from certain places. Nobody observes or measures "heliocentrism". Galileo's observations of the heavens broadly still broadly stand today, but heliocentrism is no longer a useful or interesting doctrine.

The coining of a word like heliocentrism (an "-ism") is a call to closure; an implication that we now know all we need to know and that no further investigation is required. It was part of the drive to resolve the question, is the Church of Rome the final authority on the physical constitution of the world or isn't it?

Now, what does any of that have to do with "global warming" or the subject of disunity and doubt in science?

Just as 16/17th century astronomers didn't measure or detect "heliocentrism", so today's climate scientists don't measure or detect "global warming". They measure the temperature, or the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air, or the amount of ice on earth's surface and other specific parameters at certain places at certain times. They try to identify trends or patterns in the data. They attempt to formulate models that describe those trends. The models, in turn, allow predictions that can drive further research. But those predictions can also be used to rationalize certain courses of action outside of scientific investigation. The political debate revolves around whose proposed actions (or abstention therefrom) should prevail and become policy.

Someone may discern an upward trend in temperatures over a certain period of time and decide that "global warming" is a good name for it. As a shorthand way of referring to such a trend, global warming is still a scientifically useful concept because it indicates further paths of investigation. However, just because it is a shorthand for the trend in historical data, it doesn't tell us anything about the future. It may precipitate or provide rationale for certain types of belief about the future, but it doesn't tell us anything.

Nevertheless, if we believe, for this or any other reason, that global climate is likely to change in economically damaging ways in the coming decades and we want to do something about it, we need rationale for the actions we propose. "Global warming" is only a strong rationale if it is a "fact". And those who are most motivated to instigate specific courses of action rationalized by global warming are most motivated to state that global warming is a fact. Of course, declaring that global warming is a fact in order to rationalize a certain type of action, is to call for closure to some extent - "We already know enough, let's get on and do something about it!" Invoking the unity or consensus among scientists helps rationalize that call. Of course, it is one thing for scientists to be in a state of consensus about (1) the basic observations on which the conclusion of global warming is based; another for that consensus to extend to (2) the trends that may be discerned in those data; yet another for scientists to agree about (3) how much reliance we may place in using those trends to make projections into the future; and then quite another again for them to be (4) in a state of consensus about what the broader economic consequences may be if such projections turn out to be correct.

It matters a great deal if scientists are not in broad agreement about (1). If the veracity of the data is in doubt, then hypotheses and conjectures cannot be supported (or refuted) by them. On the other hand, consensus among climate scientists with regard to (4) hardly matters since they are no more qualified in that regard than anyone else.

Scientists have an all-too-human tendency to not only report to the rest of us on what observations they have made of the world, but also to play at being 'masters of reality' with a monopoly on the interpretation of those observations. If we do not pay proper attention to the very different role of speculation in those two activities then there will be confusion about the importance and meaning of consensus among scientists.

When some subject attracts controversy, there is more to it than mere disagreement. Disagreement need not lead to controversy if the disagreeing parties understand and have learned to live with each other’s point of view. Controversy arises when there is some unresolved tension to be worked out.

The subject of ‘open science’ still attracts controversy because there is no settled coexistence of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ models of science. There is disagreement over just what the “open” in open science should be taken to mean and over what type or degree of openness is the best for science. Those who are enthusiastic about greater openness tend to focus on themes of transparency, accountability, fairness in getting research published and, of course, “free” access to data. Those who still feel skeptical about open science tend to focus on the need to maintain standards of quality and reliability. Because the open science debate largely remains one that is conducted by science professionals for science professionals, tension arises over the extent to which the opening up of science should be allowed to disrupt the established norms of professionalised scientific practise.

One area where the effects of this tension can be see is in attitudes to the opening of peer review of research reports. A recent high-profile retraction of scientific papers that apparently drove one of the researchers involved to suicide, led to calls to open up the processes of peer review[*], but the editor of the journal concerned said that, while this had been considered, “the disadvantages — which include potential misinterpretations and the desire of many referees to keep their comments confidential — have prevented the journal from embracing this”[*]. Clearly, there are conflicting motivations here. Regardless of the effects on overall research quality, a major barrier to opening up peer review is the perceived desire of referees to preserve the established norm of anonymity.

In practise, peer review is a process of negotiation between the authors of a proposed research report, editors of the journal to which it has been submitted and reviewers selected on the basis that they are well-informed representatives of the eventual audience for the report. Authors want to get their report published in a journal with a ‘brand’ reputation that attracts the right sort of reader (people who’ll cite the paper, basically). Editors want papers that will reinforce the journal’s reputation for bringing out quality publications of interest to its readership.

Peer review is widely identified as a cornerstone of quality assurance in institutional science, most people readily admit that it has very obvious faults. Review is entrusted to a small number of individuals whose competence and trustworthiness are judged only subjectively by the editors. While reviewers are supposedly chosen on the basis that they possess a strong understanding of what quality means in relation to the relevant field of research and have a commitment to seeing it maintained, they may have other motives as well, such as getting to see new research results before everyone else or even seeking to influence what results others get to see. Another effect of institutional peer review is that acceptance of a paper for publication itself signals to readers that the work described is worthy of their attention and that the conclusions drawn by the authors are respectable. Individual readers are free to take contrary views, of course, but by doing so, they risk marking themselves as outsiders or even cranks if it’s not evident that many others feel the same way. Even when a post-publication debate takes place on the significance of a paper, there is not usually any mechanism for making the content of the debate a necessary part of reading the paper itself. The interpretations negotiated during the peer review process and set out in the published paper remain the ‘official’ position unless it turns out that the paper contains errors or misdemeanours serious enough to warrant retraction of the paper.

No doubt, there are circumstances where complete retraction is appropriate, but in many cases a discussion of what seems wrong and what remains good about the research report might be quite possible. There are plenty of reasons to believe that far more papers are in need of this kind of evaluation than are ever retracted [*]). There is at least one online forum (PubPeer) that tries to provide this kind of facility. But, it is notable that the people who make PubPeer say they have collectively decided to remain anonymous in order to avoid “circumstances in which involvement with the site might produce negative effects on their scientific careers”[*]. Clearly, there is real tension over the idea of open peer review where just anyone can criticise a research report and be identified for doing so.

Perhaps this tension will only resolve itself when an ‘open’ model of science abandons the idea of authoritative research statements as represented by the ‘scientific paper’ altogether and instead sees results only as stimulus to imagination that engenders debate and motivates further research action.b.gif?


An ambitious project to launch a crowd-funded lunar mission was announced today. A British company, Lunar Missions Ltd., intends to send a probe to the south pole of the moon in 2024. Its mission will include drilling a borehole at least 20 metres into the lunar surface. It is hoped that it will collect lunar rock samples that have lain undisturbed by solar radiation or meteorite impact since the moon formed some 4.5 billion years ago. This may help us understand how the moon and earth were formed and shed light on the practicality of a permanent manned lunar base.

Perhaps more remarkable than this scientific mission is the funding for the project which is expected to come from voluntary public subscriptions. Lunar Missions’s initial funding round is being run as a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign that the company hopes will yield $950,000 (£600,000) in a month. At that point “we will know if the project can move forward”, says Lunar Missions’s press release. The initial funding will allow the company to establish a management team to take the project to the next stage which will involve further rounds of crowdfunding. To attract pledges, the company offers each subscriber their own “digital memory box” in a time capsule to be buried in the moon as part of the lunar mission. Lunar Missions hopes that 1% of the global population who can afford to will eventually support the project, yielding revenues of £3billion ($4.6 billion).

The Lunar Mission One lander will have to be designed during the project, but it is suggested that the launch vehicle could be a SpaceX Falcon 9. Given that subscribers will be able to send their DNA to the moon as strands of hair, the payload is likely to include two or three kilograms of human hair.

While the lunar mission itself is clearly still a tad speculative, Lunar Missions also intend to use pledged funding to develop an educational project. Billed as “one of the most exciting and ambitious academic undertakings in history”, this will be a digital record of life on earth as submitted by the public. Presumably that will come cheap.

Most important of all, Lunar Missions have the media angle covered with Brian Cox and Angela Lamont on board and a glitzy CGI video of what the space craft might look like once they’ve got round to designing it.

Lunar Mission One is a fascinating and very ambitious idea. It will be interesting to see how far they get. If an entire space mission really can be financed without government or corporate backing, it raises the question of why any other area of scientific research would consider such support necessary.b.gif?


Not Open Naming

By Peter,


I just saw this tweet from Brian Glanz.

‘We need to defend “#openscience” from misappropriation’ implies that while the term “openscience” may stand for openness, use of the term itself is not open. If it can be misappropriated, then it has been or can be ‘properly’ appropriated elsewhere. In effect, Glanz implies that the term “openscience” is itself proprietary.

Now I don’t suppose he wants anyone to think that it ‘belongs’ to some person or organization, but rather that when we see it used, we should reasonably be able to expect it to stand for certain things – a particular idea of open science. Of course, that idea has to come from some person or persons in particular and to have currency, it has to be an idea that is accepted within a particular community. Once they become accustomed to using it in a particular way, they may feel aggrieved when they find the term being used by others in contrary ways. Particularly so when that use appears to be an attempt by those others to gain credibility for themselves through using the term in a way that associates them with the currency afforded to the term by the community that established its use first.

It may well be that this is what was intended by the people behind the website that Glanz cites, Frustratingly, the site seems to be offline as I type this, but earlier viewings revealed it as a showcase for various ‘alternative’ science viewpoints. The only one with which I can claim any familiarity is that of Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake is a reminder that even among those with the trappings of “proper” scientists (Sheldrake has a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University and has published many research papers in plant biochemistry) there lurks a certain dissatisfaction with scientific materialism. While I wouldn’t put money on Sheldrake and his ilk knocking the materialist axioms of science off their cultural pedestal, I equally doubt that such heretical attitudes are going to disappear. Science as we know it (open or otherwise) is a product of our culture in our historical era. It reflects our preferences and prejudices at least as much as it reflects nature. Some day, humanity will abandon science, either because interest in material reality wanes to the point of insignificance or because new and presently unsuspected ways of relating to it are discovered.

Glanz’s own Open Science Federation site characterizes open science as “proper science” that is “by anybody and for everybody”[*]. Evidently, the anybody has to subscribe to somebody‘s idea of what is proper. The question is: who is that somebody? If it’s the same as the everybody, then there may (probably will) be disparate ideas of what is ‘proper’ science. Who adjudicates in any disagreement over that and from where do they get their authority?

By invoking the need to “defend the good name of science from pseudoscience”, Glanz has implied that the Open Science Federation represents just such an adjudicator. But why? If everything is to be open, everybody will have the information they need to decide for themselves what they should believe. Every hypothesis is grist to the mill. Only by investing time and effort investigating it can you know it’s not right. To be sure, there’ll be cranks who keep coming back with the same old discredited or unsubstantiated stuff, but even then, being reminded of some “crazy” idea in a new context may be the spark that sets someone’s imagination off in a fruitful direction.

Shoring up the boundaries between “scientific” knowledge or discussion and knowledge or discussion generally is not a fruitful way forward for open science. b.gif?


Timb Hoswell's "The Blake Feyerabend Hypothesis" is an intriguing work that makes a case for taking William Blake seriously as a seminal figure in the philosophy of knowledge and suggests an interesting synthesis with the philosophy of Paul Feyerabend.


I’m grateful to the fine folks at the Bubble Chamber for the pointer to this video of Susan Haack’s seminar “Six Signs of Scientism” at the University of Western Ontario:

The audio quality is not good, but her arguments appear to be largely the same as those she makes in this paper (thanks to “Adult Child” for that pointer).

Professor Hack has plenty of interesting and thought-provoking things to say. These include a nice discussion of demarcation and a quick history of the word “scientism” which was not originally pejorative. Like most people today, though, Haack does use the word pejoratively and her definition of scientism is a good one:

“a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science”

However, it’s a little different from the one I tend to:

“the idea that scientific progress requires the existence of current scientific institutions”

Then there’s the definition offered up at Wikipedia:

“the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life”

Maybe the differences are ultimately more linguistic than semantic, but if one feels the need to be pejorative, it’s probably a good idea to know what one is trying to be pejorative about. Would it be the presumed superiority of enquiry over other occupations; the presumed superiority of one method of enquiry over others; the presumption that enquiry is only valid if conducted by individuals with particular qualifications; or the presumption that those qualified to conduct valid enquiry should be treated as inherently more valuable than those who are not?

What do you think?


‘PeculiarPhilosopher’, a participant at the Galilean Library (TGL), drew my attention to this excerpt (pp. 88-100) of an article by anarchist Bob Black in which he berates Noam Chomsky for claiming to be an anarchist while not really being one.

Black’s main gripe with Chomsky is that Chomsky is a leftist and as such adheres to moral and ideological values that are barriers to anarchism. Some of the discussion at TGL focused on the contrast between Chomsky’s leftist pragmatism and Black’s – what is it? – idealism? However, I think the difference between Chomsky’s anarchism and Black’s lies more fundamentally in the type of anarchy to which they are supposed to lead. Witness their polarised attitudes to democracy: for Chomsky, anarchy is justified as the perfection of democracy. Chomsky seems to see anarchy as the ultimate realisation of democracy. An anarchist society would be a perfectly democratic one. Democratic institutions, according to Chomsky, provide starting points where people can work within the state to “build the institutions of a future society” that would “place decision-making in the hands of working people and communities”[1]. He sees the attempts of authoritarian government and the PR/advertising industries to influence and indoctrinate people as an undermining of democracy.

Bob Black, on the other hand, seems to see these things as facets of democracy itself[2]. For him, democracy is just another device used by the state to make the people more susceptible to the propaganda of powerful elites and is something to be superseded by anarchy: “anarchism should be the threat to democracy”[3].

In Chomsky’s anarchy, there will still be professors at MIT publishing books and papers in academic journals, but in solidarity with “working people”. In Black’s, there might be none of these things. People, “working” or otherwise, will each be living their own anarchy, freed from their statist addictions which include, in addition to opportunities to answer a few multiple choice questions distilled from the sanitized, prepackaged “issues” on which the elites have deigned to consult them, financial and medical care safety nets and MIT professorships.

Just as it is incumbent upon Chomsky to persuade us that there are effective strategies for working with the state to bring about its democratic dissolution, so it is incumbent upon Black to persuade us that just dropping out of the state to live personal anarchy right now will not simply lead to some dog-eat-dog hell.

Black chides Chomsky [3] for failing to acknowledge that by far the greater part of human (pre)history took place before the advent of states and that in those days everyone lived in anarchic societies. That we’re here today to know that proves that they worked, I suppose. But what do we know about those anarchic societies? While Steven Pinker used his survey of the evidence[4] to support a rather whiggish account of history, I’ve not heard that his data are too badly flawed. He would contend that, overall, a decidedly greater proportion of people in prehistoric anarchic societies died violently at the hands of others than is the case in subsequent state societies. The state may support elites, but it also provides means of negotiation between competing interests, hence it’s less violent. Of course, Pinker’s evidence is statistical. There may have been very nonviolent anarchic societies in the mix. But if Black cares about that, it’s incumbent upon him to show us what characteristics anarchic societies must possess to avoid becoming endemically violent. Yet to do that without heading toward the moderated anarchy he so despises in Chomsky’s account could be a tall order.

While I instinctively find Black’s fauve anarchism more appealing than Chomsky’s enlightenment version, I still need persuading that it could ever persist for any significant length of time. Unfortunately, I think the evidence of history is that in the great majority of cases where an anarchic society has been in head-to-head competition with a state, the state has prevailed. That’s why today, most people live in states and why what anarchic societies there are, mostly survive at the pleasure of some state or other.

By historicising the argument for anarchism, Black attempts to cast the state as an aberration and anarchy as the ‘natural’ condition of human society. However, the state is really just a human invention – a technology – introduced as a way to make human societies more prosperous. So far, it has been rather successful in doing that. Its development is now an empirical part of the trajectory of human evolution. The state may (probably will) eventually disappear, of course, but it will not necessarily give way to anarchy. More likely, it will evolve into something else that we can presently scarcely imagine and for which we will no longer find “state” a useful name. Chomsky’s form of anarchism is perhaps more likely to have an effect on that than Black’s.







I’m leery about the whole idea of “science communication”. While science communicators generally present themselves as educators, a lot of science communication is at least as much concerned with fostering favourable public attitudes to the quite particular private interests of professional scientists who want more funding for certain types of research, of political organisations who…b.gif?host=anglosaxonmonosyllable.wordpr

View the full article