Thursday, January 8, 2009

A call to sensible conservatives who still think the enlightenment was a good idea

Warning: non stock post - just my usual diatribe against people who argue from falsehoods...  

I have always admired the Alan Sokal hoax.  I thought I was a long way to the left of centre – but then I discovered post modernism.  Post modernism was a denial of the enlightenment to the extent that it denied the existence of “physical reality”.  In the post modernist dialectic no knowledge was superior to any other except the knowledge that no knowledge was superior to any other.  Your lying eyes deceived you as to facts – indeed facts were “socially constructed”.  If you are not familiar with the Sokal hoax this is the article which was published – and this is the simultaneous article exposing the hoax.  It is VERY funny.

Anyway the post-modernist position is absurd.  As Alan Sokal points out anyone who doesn’t believe in physical reality is invited to jump off his New York high-rise apartment balcony.

Now the Sokal hoax had a purpose – which was to try and reground the social sciences in reality.  Post Modernism has just about self-destructed.  Mission sort of accomplished.  

But it is not only the left that departed from reality.  One of President Bush’s senior advisors derided his critics for being “reality based”.  The putative Republican vice presidential candidate in the last election was off with the fairies on evolution.  And the right has had its fair share of climate change deniers – long on rhetoric, short on science.

One of the homes of the climate change deniers in Australia has been Quadrant Magazine – the formerly intelligent home of the literate right.  I even used to subscribe.  Quadrant has been under the editorial control of Keith Windshuttle – a historian who has made the fairly common transition from doyen of the trenchant left to doyen of the trenchant right.  He has made a career of questioning other people’s research and particularly other people’s footnotes.  Windshuttle was a personal favourite of our esteemed former Prime Minister (John Howard), and Howard was a favourite of Still-President Bush.  

Well Keith Windshuttle has been hoaxed.  It was a clever little diatribe on genetic engineering which got him – by a bogus author with a bogus argument and little heed to facts.  You can read the hoax here and the exposure here.  The hoaxer’s identity is now public too - and her politics and her motives are far too left-of-centre for my taste...  

Keith Windshuttle has a few dodgy self-defences – one being that Quadrant is not a science journal – and it should not be incumbent on him to check scientific arguments.  In which case why does he publish diatribes on the science of climate change?  

The main difference I can see between the Sokal hoax and the Quadrant hoax is that in the Sokal hoax the hoax came from the left – and its goal was to remove the vacuous end of the left so that there can be rational debate.  Sokal is an old lefty who even taught physics in Nicaragua.  The Quadrant hoax came from the left with the goal of exposing the right as vacuous.  (PJ O’Rourke – we need a clever right wing hoaxer!)

This is a chance (another one) for the right to clean up its act – and remove the vacuous elements of the right and improving discourse for everyone.  Just as Sokal’s hoax improved the quality of left-leaning debate by discrediting anti-enlightenment stupidity – can the right take up the challenge of cleaning itself up?  

In Australia a first step would be to sack Windshuttle from the editor’s position at Quadrant.  But who to replace him with?  Surely the right in the Western world still contains sufficient quality conservative intellect.  Or maybe the Bush/Howard era has shattered too many...  

Sensible conservatives who still think the enlightenment was a good idea – your time has come…



Anonymous said...

I have to disagree, this is very different from the Sokal Affair. That came from a true scholar whose aim was to expose trendy gibberish masquerading as science. Mr. Sokal succeeded brilliantly as it showed that the Social Text editors didn’t care what was being said as long as it hit the right political notes.

The Windschuttle Hoax isn’t formally a hoax at all. It’s simply false journalism and that fails to prove any larger point at all.

Anyway, love the blog. Keep up the great work.

John Hempton said...

I agree that the Quadrant hoax is not of the same caliber as the Sokal hoax.

But the idea that a short article arguing that the insertion of human genes into a wide variety of crops would solve many problems did not strike Windshuttle as worthy of at least question is odd.

Sure the idea that mathematics should be subordinated to politics and that politics should be progressive is more absurd - and more a challenge to the enlightenment - but don't think for a moment that Windshuttle isn't guilty of ideology over facts too.

And this exposed it.


Charles Butler said...

The problem that the right has is that the only definition it has of itself, beyond that pertaining to provincial issues, is that it is anti-left (perhaps there being some universality with respect to certain sexual activities). The opposition, however, can at least claim some sort of coherence across cultural lines.

A very obvious example would be that the American right would be a champion of states' rights, whereas the Spanish version is wholly centred on maintaining strong central government at the expense of the regions. Similarly, the ideology behind universal health care is a non-issue for the right outside of the U.S., but core within.

One can't expect any sort of intellectual integrity to issue from a 'movement' whose only commonality is the existence of a shared enemy.

This all, of course, with reference to an economically predominant industrialized west - which may be less of a given going forward in any regard.

Happy New Year

JoshK said...

This is just a magazine, not a scholarly journal.

Anonymous said...

Sir -

I get the impression that your mind is so fixed on these positions that you will not countenance the possibility that someone disagrees with you for legitimate reasons. Surely, all of us who do not agree with you are irrational or evil.

Nonetheless, I'll bite on a response.

I look at financial models for a living and I have had the opportunity to review some climate models. Given the recent financial crisis, I've become a model skeptic.

In The Black Swan, Taleb cites an example from the mathematician Michael Berry to illustrate how complex a complete model can be, even for seemingly simple problems. Here’s Taleb:

"If you know a set of basic parameters concerning the ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry’s computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle of the universe, separated from us by 10 billion light-years, must figure in the calculations, since it exerts a meaningful effect on the outcome. Now, consider the additional burden of having to incorporate predictions about where the variables will be in the future. Forecasting the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table requires knowledge of the dynamics of the entire universe, down to every single atom."

The point is that modeling complex phenomenon is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. You'd expect to get an outcome with uncertainties so high as to be worthless. Apparently, that is what you find (see figure 4 here

You also brought up evolution. Unfortunately, both the right and the left are clueless about evolution. You've dealt with the right, so I'll address the left.

Leftism/Liberalism depend on the notion of an un-fixed human nature that is improvable. Unfortunately, evolutionary studies find 0 evidence to support this fundamental principle of liberalism. Further, in order to cling to equality, the left has embraced evolution only from the neck down. Since our cognitive abilities have to be equal, something must have stopped evolution in above the neck, according to the leftist theory of evolution.

Finally, you bring up the enlightenment. I hope to have briefly stated that it is possible to legitimately disagree about the science. Further, neither left nor right, which are ideologies will ever embrace pure, unadulterated science, since they are ideologies. If the right turned away from the enlightenment ideal of science, the left turned away from the enlightenment ideal of liberty and freedom. All freedoms are now subject to indefinable constraints - e.g. free speech is fine, as long as it offends no one.

Do us all a favor and stick to the financial blogging.

Charles Butler said...

Case in point concerning the intellectual capacities of the modern right...

If the right turned away from the enlightenment ideal of science, the left turned away from the enlightenment ideal of liberty and freedom. All freedoms are now subject to indefinable constraints - e.g. free speech is fine, as long as it offends no one.

Aside from the fact that you managed to define the indefinable in two short phrases, if memory serves, the yet-to-be-Republican-president Richard Nixon was a HUAC lawyer. Looks like cherry picking of right wing data points to me.

As an aside, I find it a touch offensive that you would use the first person plural to express your displeasure with the contents of this blog. In fact, this component of the 'grand we' would prefer that John continue to write about whatever the fuck he pleases.

John Hempton said...

Its funny - I started the post with a pretty indisputable dig at the loopy left. The Sokal hoax was accurate and funny.

The loopy right is pretty easy to take targets at.

But the right wing of my youth started with a fairly accurate appraisal of the human condition (utopian visions be damned) and a fairly defensible view that most things that governments try to do they stuff up.

The right wing of recent years believed that they could remake the middle east as a democracy by force - a view which makes anything that FDR did look modest - and were champions of "creation science".

I wish a sensible right would emerge so that we can have a sensible debate. The debate has been stupid for years now.


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