Thursday, June 21, 2012

Please ... just don't

Twitter, marvellous as it is, is no good for explaining anything. And Twitter when you are cranky is no good for anything except making you look like a dill. So I thought I would come here and explain why I might get incandescent with rage at an article like this one, which includes a quote one might reasonably think I would be 100% on board with, "the rejection of science is arguably the most important social problem in the Western world". And I am - 100% on board with that sentence, that is.

But... if you are going to write an article lamenting the decline of reason, you should display some use of reason in writing your article. Otherwise, to supporters of reason, you are an unwelcome ally. You are like the local warlord who shows up in the middle of the tidy surgical strike to helpfully behead the police chief's extended family. Or the smelly unshaven hippy who shows up at the antiwar protest and helpfully starts chanting obscenities just as the TV cameras start rolling.

Okay. Mungo is impressed by Singapore. Singapore is impressive. True. Everyone who goes to Singapore is impressed by Singapore. There are things we can learn from Singapore. True. It also has the highest rate of capital punishment in the civilised world, draconian policies to keep out illegal immigrants, no political freedoms to speak of, and a social safety net that is worse than any Western country. Singapore works because it is small - and related to being small and ethnically different from its neighbours, a bit paranoid; because it has a culture of hard work; because it inherited the rule of law and some other good things from the British; and because it was lucky enough to have an authoritarian leader who was competent and principled. It is not a good basis with which to contrast a vibrant East with a decadent West.

Mungo says that overindulgence, monument building, and an increasing tendency to believe in the irrational are symptoms of a society in decline.

People in Asia who are working their way up don't have anything to overindulge with. Those who can overindulge are way ahead of us in terms of conspicuous consumption. Check out the business section of any paper anywhere. That's not East vs West, that's just people. The West is broke not because it is particularly overindulgent, but because it got rich enough to be in a position that everyone didn't have to work like dogs until they died, so we got out of the habit. At the same time we tried to spread the wealth around and give everyone a fair go, and didn't get the maths right. Similar things happen whenever people get rich, anywhere. It's all there in Ibn-Khaldun's Muqaddimat. 14th century. Check it out.

I don't know why Mungo threw monuments in there. Where are they building monuments nowadays? Nowhere in the West. It used to be the Sears Tower was the highest building in the world for a generation, now every time you turn around there is a new one in East Asia (built according to the best principles of Feng Shui) or the Middle East (built by absolute monarchs who reject evolution). Abraj-al-Bait? Three Gorges Dam? Show me anything like that being built anywhere in the West.

Finally, he gets to the bit of the article that the sub-editor thought the headline should be about, the part I should theoretically be on side with, but it is just a mess of disconnected ad hominem statements that might have been designed to press all my buttons.

But the second is far more prevalent and worrying: an increasing tendency to believe in, and rely on, the irrational. In Rome, this manifested itself in the proliferation of strange religious cults and a rejection of science which led, ultimately, to the dark ages in Europe. And the rejection of science is arguably the most important social problem in the Western world.

Is there really an increasing tendency in the West to believe in and rely on the irrational? I don't see any evidence of it. Almost people in almost all places believe in and rely on the irrational. There are plenty of indicators that could be interpreted as going the other way: for instance, the percentage of people identifying as 'no religion' in censuses. If you dig out a newspaper from a hundred years ago, you will find politicians making the same irrational arguments using rhetoric and emotion instead of logic. You will find the same quack cures and crazy religious cults. I don't see a trend. I just see people.

The dig about strange religious cults and the fall of Rome is just a cheap shot at about 2 billion people. Why would you want to get 2 billion people off side to score a cheap rhetorical point? Rome had no science to reject. They didn't have what we call science. They had engineering, they had philosophy, they had plenty of slaves to do the hard work: but they weren't a civilisation of 200 million rationalists. They were just as irrational in 753 BCE as they were in 476 CE. The official religion of earliest Rome was just as much a 'strange religious cult' as the latest heresy of Theodoric's time. Rome had lots of problems, but they didn't fall because they 'rejected science'. And by the way, technologically, the 'dark ages' were a period of continuing improvements - knitting, the stirrup, windmills, etc. Just saying.

Its epicentre is, of course, the United States, in which more than half the population reportedly rejects the theory of evolution in favour of a particularly batty form of Christianity in which an obsession with sexual morality is combined with the drug-induced fantasies of the book of Revelations, with more than a touch of astrology, numerology, iridology and you name it thrown in.

Now, I have argued a lot with Young Earth creationists. A lot. But it bugs me - probably on the purely thin-skinned basis of being of a particular cultural background - that practically the only people in the world that can be abused and slandered with impunity are the overwhelmingly goodhearted and hardworking people of American 'Flyover country'. Who have been practising pretty much this 'particularly batty form of Christianity' in pretty much the same proportions for the last three-hundred or so years. Read Mark Twain. Read H. L. Mencken. Somehow, during this time their country managed to become the world's leader in science. It is also interesting to note that this 'particularly batty form of Christianity' is pretty much identical to the religion followed by Isaac Newton. There is no trend to more irrationality here. It's just business as usual. And the 'drug-induced fantasies' dig is just another gratuitous, evidence-free statement to get 2 billion people off side. Why?

Australians have not yet gone to the this extent, but we are definitely moving in the same direction. The trend manifests itself in a variety of fringe groups – opposition to vaccination, fluoridation, and other scientifically proven public health measures is apparently on the increase.
So-called "alternative" (a synonym for untested, irrational, unscientific) medicine is embraced with growing fervour by otherwise sensible citizens.

This is okay. So far as I understand these trends exist. And I don't like them at all. Mungo also puts in the word 'apparently' once, which is a sign that he is moving towards rational argument instead of throwing down dogmatic unverified statements. Good.

Religion, already based on faith rather than reason, is becoming either totally dumbed down (the happy-clappy churches) or reinvented in ever more bizarre sects and cults involving everything from the worship of trees to the channelling of archangels.

Again, I am no big fan of the Evangelical churches. And like I said, I have argued a lot with Young Earth creationists. Personally, I agree that they are 'dumbed down' compared to a lot of other religions. But whether they are 'happy clappy' or 'unhappy unclappy' is surely irrelevant: whatever sort of liturgical practice brings a believer closer to God and doesn't involve sacrifice of kittens has to be good, if you think there is any good to religion at all. Worship of trees? Channelling of archangels? Didn't that go out with the 70s? And, isn't that the sort of thing most associated with the sort of 'Deep Greens' who are most likely to agree with Mungo on his next point... ?

And then there is the clearest indicator of all, denial of climate change.

The problem with a catch-all statement like 'denial of climate change' is that it telescopes a long and rickety chain of questions and answers into a single stick to beat your opponents with. Some of the questions are scientific questions with straightforward answers susceptible to experiment and data collection: some are social and economic questions that need to be legitimately - and rationally - debated. None of the science is as 'settled' as real 'settled science' is. All the social and economic questions are open questions. Don't trust me, I'm just some guy on the internet. Don't trust me because I'm a scientist. Look things up for yourself. Think.

In the past, this was the domain of those with a vested interest, such as coal owners, and the barking mad, such as Cardinal George Pell and shock jock Alan Jones, each of whom has his own reasons for believing in fairy tales.

Well, this has never been true. There was a wave of hysteria at a time of sharply rising temperatures that carried practically everyone away with it - briefly. I don't know anything about Alan Jones. But Cardinal George Pell has a perfectly rational, well-thought-out position on climate change that is motivated by Catholic social teaching about not screwing the poor [see Footnote]. 'Fairy tales' is another pointless dig at some billions of people.

But doubts (for which there is no basis at all) are now spreading among the general public, to the extent that Julia Gillard (and Tony Burke, when a petty-minded opposition will let him go) will appear at the Rio Summit with their own well-thought-out measures to deal with the problem (the carbon tax and their marine parks network, for starters) both deeply unpopular within their own country.

'No basis at all' is bogus. There is a reasonable, not huge, basis for doubt at the very beginning of the ladder of questions and answers 'Q1: Are human activities warming the Earth?'; and a vast raft of unexamined assumptions and an overwhelming basis for doubt by the time we get to 'Q#: What are the measures we should be employing to address this problem?' The carbon tax and marine parks network are not well-thought-out measures. There is no evidence whatsoever that they will do 2/10 of stuff all to stop the climate from changing. They are just sentimental, tokenistic, expensive measures that we can't really afford.

And Rio, of course, has already been marked down for failure: the West, in particular, is more concerned with saving itself from decline and fall than with the preservation of the planet. And yet it is precisely this selfishness, this short-sightedness, and yes, this overindulgence and irrationality, that has got us into the mess in the first place. Over to you, Asia.

And Asia is just so into controlling carbon emissions, innit? *cough* China (where the uncertainty in carbon emissions is apparently as large as the entire greenhouse gas output of Japan) isn't exactly going out of its way to 'preserve the planet' at the expense of its own economic development. Nor is India. Or Malaysia. Or Tajikistan. Or the Maldives. Or anywhere in Asia. It is just a few of the navel-gazing decadent nations of the West that are shuffling in that direction.

Edit 28th June: 
Footnote added, the key bit of Cardinal Pell's Global Warming Speech of 26th October 2011:
"I support the recommendation of Bjorn Lomborg and Bob Carter that, rather than spending money on meeting the Kyoto Protocol which would have produced an indiscernible effect on temperature rise, money should be used to raise living standards and reduce vulnerability to catastrophes and climate change (in whatever direction), so helping people to cope better with future challenges. We need to be able to afford to provide the Noahs of the future with the best arks science and technology can provide. In essence, this is the moral dimension to this issue. The cost of attempts to make global warming go away will be very heavy. They may be levied initially on "the big polluters" but they will eventually trickle down to the end-users. Efforts to offset the effects on the vulnerable are well intentioned but history tells us they can only ever be partially successful. Will the costs and the disruption be justified by the benefits? Before we can give an answer, there are some other, scientific and economic, questions that need to be addressed by governments and those advising them. As a layman, in both fields, I do not pretend to have clear answers but some others in the debate appear to be ignoring the questions and relying more on assumptions."

No comments: