Where There Were No Doors

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Science and Conservative Commentary

This is one of those blog posts that talks a bit about other blogs. I try not to do too much of that kind of stuff. Mainly because I don't find it all that interesting, so I can't see a reason for you to. But actually this post is more about particular issues raised on another blog (the nature of 'science'), so it might be worth at least scanning it...

The blog in question is called Conservative Commentary. It's by Peter Cuthbertson; right-wing politics student and member of the Tory Party. Once in a while you catch glimmers of genuine intelligence, but he has an awful habit of playing to the house... so for every article that provokes thought, there's nine piles of tabloidesque garbage. Your basic rabid right-wing rhetoric lacking even an echo of compassion. Y'know the kind of thing... deliberately using inflammatory language which can only obscure an issue.

Remember folks... the only political writing worth shit has humanity in it.

I understand of course that so much political and philosophical discourse is about exerting one's ego. And so little about learning. It's not about exchanging ideas, but about imposing them. We enter the discussion with unshakeable views, and refuse to ever give ground on them. Even admitting an obvious factual error becomes a huge issue, a point-scoring opportunity for someone.

What distinguishes a smart person from a moron (and in one sense this is the real distinction) is that the smart person will - at some stage - test their preconceived ideas against the opposing arguments they've heard. And if they're a very smart person, they'll have the intellectual honesty to shift position when the situation calls for it.
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
- William Blake
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
I'm not certain I've ever seen Peter over at Conservative Commentary shift position significantly on an issue. This does not bode well. It either means he's been right about absolutely everything since he began his blog (a period of years). Or that he's not being very smart. Another alternative is that he could actually be an incredibly dedicated discordian. I like this explanation. Hail Eris! All Hail Discordia!

I could cite you a myriad examples of me shifting position... but the longer one spends on this subject, the shakier the ground becomes. Eventually some smartarse is bound to ask... "So you're saying smart people can be identified by the fact that they're wrong a lot?"

So moving swiftly on... the other point with Peter's blog is that he has unaccountably got a very large readership and sometimes gets mentioned in those rare occasions that the "proper press" discuss political blogging in the UK. The Guardian claims that a number of politicians and pundits read his blog. Which gives his writing additional resonance as it is seen by some as representing the acceptable face of the new right wing. Whether it does or doesn't isn't really here nor there. Well, who knows...

I found his blog via a comment he posted to another one I read - BeatnikSalad. It sticks in my mind because it was the first of the two occasions on which one of Peter's comments sparked a massive argument between myself and Oliver Kamm (another right-wing blogger, and a very humourless man). The first argument resulted in Kamm calling me a Nazi-apologist, and the second in him banning me from his blog and stridently demanding an apology for calling Milton Friedman a kook. I also wrote a bad parody in which Milton Chimpman and Alan Chimpspan were laboratory monkeys in an experiment demonstrating the absurdity of market economics. I doubt Kamm thought much of that. Especially after the "kook" remark.

(By the way, I only like retelling that story because it provides the opportunity to reconnect Friedman with the word "kook"... and that's never to be passed up).

Aaaaanyways, as I was reading Peter's blog the other day, I encountered his line about how "science continues more and more to confirm traditional social norms" and it made me laugh out loud. You see, I had just finished reading Albert Einstein's 1936 essay "Physics and Reality" only a few minutes before encountering the statement (aside: you'd imagine that all of Einstein's essays would be available online somewhere... but I can't seem to find the text of Physics and Reality anywhere. It's in Ideas and Opinions which is a wonderful book). And in this essay Einstein goes to great lengths to explain why statements such as the Peter's are absurd. This synchronicity... reading Einstein (of all people) explain the irrationality of a statement, and then within moments reading someone make just that statement... I think most people would have laughed aloud.

Einstein was very clear on the distinction between a hard and a soft science... actually, more than that; he felt that it only made sense to use the word "science" with reference to the hard ones. That there are certain defining characteristics of scientific research, which differentiate it from other areas of enquiry. I am a follower of his on this matter. He acknowledges, of course, that there are problems at the epistemological level.
Now we first remark that the differentiation between sense impressions and images is not possible; or, at least it is not possible with absolute certainty. With the discussion of this problem, which affects also the notion of reality, we will not concern ourselves but we shall take the existence of sense experiences as given, that is to say, as psychic experiences of a special kind.
- Albert Einstein
(Physics and Reality, March 1936)
But once that has been acknowledged; once an "objective universe" has been assumed, then we only need the notion of causality which he develops beautifully (read the essay; it's not very long; and this was never meant as a summary of it) and we have what Einstein describes as the greatest of all mysteries.
The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility... In speaking here of "comprehensibility", the expression is used in its most modest sense. It implies: the production of some sort of order among sense impressions, this order being produced by the creation of general concepts, relations between concepts, and by definite relations of some kind between the concepts and sense experience. It is in this sense that the world of our sense experiences is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.
- Albert Einstein
As Einstein points out, this isn't exactly an original idea. It was Immanuel Kant who first drew attention to this fact... that any conception of an external world is absurd without this comprehensibility. But more than that; that this very comprehensibility implied an objective universe. Einstein uses the axiomatic nature of geometry and mathematics to demonstrate this implication, and succeeds where Kant's talk of "final categories" failed.

I think at this point it's wise to acknowledge the atmosphere in which Einstein was writing this essay. As a jew recently escaped from Hitler's Germany he had watched as the Nazis attempted to co-opt science. He'd heard his work denounced as "Filthy Jewish Science" and seen his books burnt because they espoused theories which clashed with the great traditions of Greater Germany. He was forced to resign from the various German academies and found even many of his close friends turning their backs on him. He wanted to stay longer, to help organise a peaceful resistance movement within Germany... but those who loved him persuaded him of the folly of this. Einstein was possibly the most famous jew in the world just then. He simply had too high a profile to remain in Germany long after Hitler's ascent to power in 1933.

This fact may well explain some of the vehemence with which he decried those who tried to mix science and morality. Those who tried to show "scientifically" how one set of values is inherently superior to another. Or how one set of 'traditional norms' was the correct or natural one. This, he felt, was no less than an attempt to strip the objective world of its comprehensibility. Attempts to objectify values with science did; he believed; the precise opposite... and rendered both the science and the values meaningless. Literally absurd.

He despised all attempts to apply his theory of relativity to non-physical systems (such as culture). Einstein was a moral absolutist. But the idea that those morals could be scientifically justified was abhorent to him. Morals and values came from elsewhere. "Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love!" he would bellow when people asked him about the limits of science.

Science is a tool of the intellect. And a powerful tool at that. But it can tell us nothing about values. It can tell us nothing about moral imperatives or social goals. It describes the physical, objective universe. It is most branches of physics, chemistry and biology. And it exists in many branches of other disciplines as blends of physics, chemistry and biology... geology, for instance... and it can even be found buried in the corners of archaeology.
The aim of science is, on the one hand, a comprehension, as complete as possible, of the connection between the sense experiences in their totality, and, on the other hand, the accomplishment of this aim by the use of a minimum of primary concepts and relations, and seeking logical unity in the world picture, i.e. paucity in logical elements.
- Albert Einstein
That is what I mean when I use the word science. And that is what I hear when someone else uses the word. And it's important to understand that when a physicist uses the phrase "experiences in their totality" that there are no temporal limits being set. In other words, science can predict the future. E was equal to mc2 long before 1905 when Einstein first brought it to our attention. It still equals it now. And E will equal mc2 long after everyone reading this is dead.

"Science" is an important word. And it is an important concept. And I believe our civilisation needs to keep track of that fact. Science has a weight of authority behind it, as well it should. But that authority does not, and should not, ever extend to matters of culture or politics. It is a different kind of authority. And it is significant that Orwell points out... "In Newspeak there is no word for 'Science'".


Blogger L said...

thank you --I do get a little tired of the other kind of blogger...

Did he ever truly clarify what he meant by science supporting "traditional" social norms?

Maybe he meant the latest science "news" about how male and female brains work differently. The Christian conservatives are foaming at the mouth on this one... interpreting "they're different" as "female brains don't work as well, so the little dears need to stay home and pop out babies instead of trying to work or get involved in politics"

21/2/05 02:55  
Blogger merrick said...

No no no, 'science' doesn't mean any of that waffly twaddle at all! That was written in the 1930s, when it was all steam trains and wind-up telephones, it has no relevance any more.

'Science' actually means high technology that maximises profit for the patent holder.

The advent of profit-maximising high technology is as inevitable as it is good, it is the only real meaning of the word progress.

Those who resist it are unrealistic Luddites who might as well complain about the movement of the tides and who selfishly want all the world to be denied the right to have such high technology.

Don't you know anything, you leftist wack job?

21/2/05 11:47  
Anonymous David Duff said...

Best sit down, Jim, with a large scotch - we agree! Well, let's not overdo it, yours was a long essay and there may be parts of it which we might debate, but the main thrust of your argument, pointing out the danger of confusing scientific propositions and theories with political/social notions, is well taken.

One only has to think of the Fascist misunderstanding of Darwinian theory! However, I would suggest that in a political/social discourse, it should be possible to use scientific propositions as an *illustration* (not a proof) of a point. For example, using Darwin to demonstrate the *opposite* of the Fascist interpretation that survival of the fittest meant that only the strong can survive, by pointing out that in natural history, the relatively weak and cowardly do very well, thank you very much!

Einstein had his own problems with 'objective' science and reality. As I am sure you know, he was the last of the classical physicists, and his famous law of relativity contained nothing with which Newton would have complained, despite the very weird outcome. But quantum mechanics (QM) blew a very large hole in the idea of an objective world 'out there', indeed it seems to show that it is the exact opposite and Einstein was never reconciled to it.

"What we are proposing is that there is probability all the way back: that in the fundamental laws of physics there are odds." - Richard Feynman.

"QM is very impressive but I am convinced God does not play with dice." - Albert Einstein

21/2/05 17:38  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Oooh leave Kamm well alone Jim).
Great post, Einstein was right to point out that set of morals are axiomatic (ie arbitrarily chosen), they are outside of the realm of science.
I like your point about people trying to appropriate themselves the authority of science, a theft of authority. Very common.
David: You can always inspire yourself from science to devise a set of morals, or illustrate them as you say, but they are not _proven_ by this.
Merrick: hehe!

21/2/05 18:04  
Anonymous Peter said...

I wasn't saying science confirms traditional social norms to be moral. I was saying science is confirming traditional social norms to be deep-rooted aspects of our natures. This post is all very well, but not what I was writing about at all.

21/2/05 18:48  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...


I'm at a loss. You completely failed to understand what I wrote. You claim:
> science is confirming traditional
> social norms to be deep-rooted
> aspects of our natures
How is it doing this Peter? Bearing in mind the definition of science I've just arrived at.

21/2/05 22:18  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Anonymous: You're right of course. Poking fun at Oliver is a little like shooting fish in a barrel.

I think the appropriation of science is incredibly frightening. It is by falsely portraying itself as a science that economics has gained such a sway over humanity. And as long as people are putting the same sort of faith in the pronouncements of economists as they put in the words of physicists, everything will continue to go tits-up.

Let me provide an example which should make the blood run cold of any person whose ever dabbled in rationality. It's from the field of petrogeology, but isn't nearly as dull as you'd imagine...

The International Energy Agency (IEA) was established by the OECD countries after the oil shocks of the early 1970s. It's up to them to keep an eye on of fossil fuel supplies. They keep track of how much oil and gas is left in existing fields, and how much production can be reasonably expected from them. They also make an estimate of how much oil and gas may be discovered in the near future based upon historical discovery rate.

They advise all EU governments except Norway (who have their own independent agency) and share both data and methodology with the USGS (who fulfill the same role for the United States). Basically, the IEA numbers are the basis upon which policy is set by most major governments. OK?

Imagine what a shock it is, then, to discover that perhaps the most important set of numbers they produce is a complete fabrication. No really. I'm not overstating this for effect. They say so themselves.

I'm talking now about their forecast for oil production over the next two decades. And this forecast illustrates - chillingly - the difference between a scientific approach, and an economic approach.

If asked to provide an estimate of oil production in 2015, the scientific method (simplified) would be as follows:

How much oil is in the ground now. How much will we use between now and then. Subtract the two, and add our estimate of the oil to be discovered in the next 10 years. You arrive at a number; X. We know that with reserves of X, in fields of known age and condition; we can expect roughly Y million barrels per day in 2015.

Read it through a couple of times, I think it makes sense. It's very simple and leaves out a lot of variables (they are known values for any given time though) but that is how a rational person would go about estimating oil production in 2015. Right?

That's not how the IEA do it.

Because they got economists to do it for them.

The IEA (remembering who bases policy on their numbers) does it like this:

How much oil does the global economy consume now? X. How much more will it need in 2015? X+20%

So the IEA makes sure the graph gets drawn with the "production forecast" line passing through X+20% in 2015.

That's the kind of fricking lunacy you get when mysticism like market economics co-opts the authority of science! How do they justify this? Well, they literally invent a new category of oil; "Unidentified Unconventional Oil", which miraculously rises from zero in 2010 to 19 Million Barrels per day in 2020! That represents about 25% of current global oil production.

Get your head around that!

21/2/05 23:24  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

David: Well, I think you may have misunderstood a lot of Einstein's work if you feel that Newton would have been at home with it. Einstein was not the last of the classical physicists, but the first of the new lot.

I understand that there's been a lot of revisionism with respect to that issue and his rejection of quantum mechanics; but I fear it is being somewhat overstated.

I've read every biography written on the man, as well as all of his own writings (he's been a hero of mine for many years). What gave him such problems later in life was the fact that QM is implied by his own work in electrodynamics - and even by general relativity. Yet it didn't fit with how he personally believed the universe to work.

The revisionists are viewing Einstein's career as a physicist back-to-front. They are judging him by his subsequent philosophical rejection of his earlier scientific work. And that makes no sense (to me anyways).

His early work stands on its own two feet. It comprises the most significant series of scientific advancements made by a single person since Newton, and the only body of work to truly rival that of Newton himself.

But relativity is completely at odds with Newton's universe. From the fundamentals to the details. Seeing as how we're actually agreeing on something for once, it would be a shame to spoil it with an argument about Einstein. So I'll shut up now. But I do think that to see him as a classical physicist is to greatly misunderstand his work.

21/2/05 23:48  
Anonymous Peter said...

I understood you perfectly. The fact that you took five times as long as was necessary didn't impede me.

Your own definition of science is self-contradictory. It says science cannot get into the realm of values. And that science *should* not have authority in matters of politics and culture (an extremely ridiculous statement, by the way - just think what it would mean for environmental debates).

Anyway, I'll say it again - I wasn't writing about science confirming moral values. I was writing about the way it is confirming traditional social norms and showing their source in our natures. It is doing this primarily through evolutionary biology.

22/2/05 00:02  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

First of all, I'm afraid I can't apologise "for taking five times longer than was necessary". Because I actually took exactly as long as was necessary. Though it pains me that you feel otherwise. It means - I suspect - that you'll not be a potential customer for any book I might publish. Ah well, we clearly don't live in the best of all possible worlds after all. What you have to understand is that I don't only write because I want to convey an opinion; I also write to practice an art I enjoy. And because I'm under no illusions about earning a living from my art; it matters not a single iota that only one other person* on the entire planet actually enjoys it along with me.

On the matter at hand however, I should point out that "my" definition of science is actually Einstein's. And it isn't contradictory. The "should" you're referring to wasn't part of the definition; it was merely my own personal admonition. Einstein's definition explains why science cannot be applied to values or morals without being reduced to absurdity.

My point (I was taking his definition and running with it) was that we live in a world where vested interests are constantly doing just that. Making absurd claims about the future as though they have the authority of science behind them. And I was trying to say that they "should" stop doing that. I'm a moral person, Peter. I don't try to justify those beliefs with science though.

As for evolutionary biology... well, I grant you that there are some branches of the discipline which qualify as being sciences; but all that behavioral stuff...? I'm sorry but it's just like economics. It provides us with an accurate metaphor with which to view certain aspects of the past. But that's all. Social norms are not exclusively the product of biology. They are also shaped by the arbitrary values we adopt, and perhaps just as importantly, they are shaped by individual choices. And people are apt to make irrational decisions based upon their own weird interpretation of a combination of arbitrary values and existing social norms.

It'd all be very postmodern if it weren't so very old.

That Jesus bloke for instance. Imagine if he'd done the evolutionarily sensible thing and buggered off as soon as he heard the Rozzers were after him? Are you saying that his story having such a potently image-laden third act has had no effect whatsoever on our traditional social norms? How would European traditional social norms have developed without the influence of St. Paul? (If evolutionary biology were a science capable of "confirming traditional social norms" it could provide an answer to that question by the way). I'm no fan of organised religion, and visionary leaders can be real double-edged swords, but it's undeniable that individual decisions and plain random mad stuff have helped define traditional social norms. Or more broadly: traditional social norms are as much the product of accident, irrational decisions and arbitrary values as they are anything else.

And that takes them way out of the realm of "science"... that sacred Word of Power I'm trying to safeguard here.

Strict biological determinism is meat-puppet philosophy of the highest order. And that road leads to all manner of nasty shit that tries to appropriate science in its name.

So let us briefly flee from that threatening storm and instead take a moment to relive a moment.

Try to recall the very moment you first realised you were in love with a person. It doesn't have to be your first love, or your most recent... just try to conjure that moment. That point of transcendence and what it means to you. Those are yours alone... they are what Descartes describes as "privileged access". And they are what Einstein - the ultimate determinist - meant when he said that "gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love".

It is when people act upon those sublime moments, as they often do, that The Divine is permitted to leak into our universe.

(that last bit was poetry, not science, by the way).


* Her name is Angelica-Maria Santa Dominguez Artouba. She's a 98 year old Peruvian woman who lives in the mountains just outside Ayacucho. One day perhaps I'll tell the amazing story of how her grandson, Jim, came to be named in honour of me.

22/2/05 04:07  
Anonymous David Duff said...

You wrote: "Seeing as how we're actually agreeing on something for once, it would be a shame to spoil it with an argument about Einstein. So I'll shut up now. But I do think that to see him as a classical physicist is to greatly misunderstand his work."

You also wrote: "..Einstein - the ultimate determinist.."

Newton was a determinist with his clockwork universe, and Einstein simply applied classical Newtonian physics to the problem of energy and mass - after all, he knew nothing else! The results were (and are) weird but Newton would not have disputed the logical progression that drove Einstein to his conclusions.

It is the random and arbitrary nature of QM that defies determinism. That is why Einstein, like Newton, a believer in a God (of some sort but different from Newton's Christian God), was apalled at a universe in which classical physics was turned on its head and which appeared to be run by a bookmaker!

22/2/05 18:34  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

I'm afraid I have to take serious issue with your interpretation of the work of Einstein, David. May I suggest, with no disrespect intended, that you are labouring under a misunderstanding. You state the following:
> Einstein simply applied classical > Newtonian physics to the problem
> of energy and mass - after all,
> he knew nothing else!
David, that's just not true. Seriously, you can't have the first clue about relativity theory if that's what you believe. It's difficult to know where to begin...

Firstly, how on earth do you square the above statement with the fact that Einstein demonstrated that the universe does not conform to Euclidean geometry? A notion absolutely central to Newtonian mechanics. The section of General Relativity which deals with Gaussian co-ordinate systems and their application to 4-dimensional spacetime is - without any doubt - the most difficult and mind-bending few pages I've ever read in my life. From the start of 'Gaussian Co-ordinates' (Chapter 25) to the end of 'The Space-Time Continuum as a non-Euclidean continuum' (Chapter 27) is 7 pages of text that took me more than a month to digest and comprehend.

Newton's universe has a huge problem with the notion of 'space'. And it's that which forced the introduction of 'the ether'. And that which forced Newtonian mechanics to be reliant upon four essential fallacies; 1. That "absolute rest" exists (i.e. that motion occurs with reference to a fixed Galilean co-ordinate system). 2. That 'empty space' conforms to such a fixed reference system. 3. That force at a distance is the mechanism by which the laws of inertia and gravitation work. 4. That time (and this is essential!) is non-relative.

Just think about it! Without "the ether" and "absolute rest", acceleration cannot mathematically exist in Newton's universe! In fact, the more I read your statement (cited above), the more bizarre it reads to me. It honestly doesn't read like someone who understands the physics or mathematics behind relativity theory. Because as a description of Einstein's work it's just plain wrong. Relativity theory is not "the application of Newtonian physics to the problem of energy and mass". It's the replacement of Newtonian physics by an entirely new mathematical and conceptual framework to account for those behaviours of energy and mass which demonstrated the inadequacies of Newton's work.

If you'd like to back up your statement with some evidence or a theory, please do. But it really does contradict a very large amount of reading that I've done. And if you do respond, I wonder would you let me know whether or not you are familiar with the mathematics of relativity physics? Because it may prove easier to illustrate some points in that way.

(In fact, if you are numerate to that level, you may wish to save some time and read the opening chapter of Part 3 of "Relativity" - Difficulties of Newton's Theory. In it he demonstrates using field-intensity equations how the entire mathematical basis of Newton's theories of forces is a fallacy; and I'll probably just end up reproducing that calculation should you wish to continue the debate).

PS: Your understanding of Einstein's relationship to Quantum Theory also seems a little fuzzy.

22/2/05 22:34  
Anonymous Rochenko said...

Political conservative victim of naturalistic fallacy? Who'd a thunk it?

23/2/05 11:41  
Anonymous David Duff said...

Jim, I am suffering with a stinking head cold and am even more incapable thinking coherently than usual.

I suspect we are not really disaggreeing with each other, merely misunderstanding each other. I am talking philosophy here, not mathematics (which you correctly divine is very definitely not my subject!). Both Newton and Einstein were determinists. QM blows determinism into, well, a field of possibilities and probabilities, in which the observer creates his own reality just by looking.

That is not to say that Einstein's theories did not force us all to view the universe in a completely different (and very uncomfortable) way. He and Bohr and their confreres were giants amongst men.

Did you see "Copenhagen", and if so, what did you think of it?

23/2/05 23:03  

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