Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Fish, on a fish out of water

In the NYT opinion section there's a post from Stanley Fish that tries to distinguish good and bad reasons for opposing a controversial university appointment: thoughtful as always. For example, here's a striking portrait of the plight of the outsider in certain special kinds of community:
he or she will lack the internalized understanding that renders the features of the enterprise intelligible, and in the absence of that understanding, the wanderer in a strange land will see only anomalies and mistakes that should be corrected. Items in a practice are not known piecemeal; you don’t learn them by listing them. You learn them by being so embedded in the practice that everything that happens within it has a significance you don’t have to strain for because it is perspicuous without any mental effort at all ...

Monday, 25 February 2008

Teenage boys are human after all ...

... according to a survey discussed in the NYT on the weekend. This reads like another of those studies that gets over-interpreted because its results are striking on their face, but the discussion in the article is interesting. A sample: after noting that the survey results --- which showed that boys were motivated by things other than sex --- had been greeted with derision by male bloggers, it's stated that
skepticism about boys in their teens isn’t surprising ... but it reveals more about what’s going on in the minds of adults, than of teenagers.

“Grown men often deny how dependent they are on women,” said Michael G. Thompson, a psychologist specializing in children and families and co-author of the book “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” “The idea that you could pine for a girl, and be devastated by a girl makes an adult man uncomfortable. It reminds them of how profoundly attached they get to women.”

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The science of pretty pictures

There's a great set of photos in The Week in Science at the New York Times, with links to the relevant articles (both in the NYT and in journals etc.)

Saturday, 23 February 2008

An enquiry concerning the proper use of scientific arguments, wherein our author loses his sense of humour

My mate Eb remarked, re that last post, about flame wars starting when people tried to "fix" something "wrong" on the Web late at night ...

... and he might as well have been talking about me. There was a post last week at nothing new under the sun, which has since been buried under a pile of long comments from yours truly. Byron has occasionally gotten a word in edgeways.

The original post concerns a Jared Diamond article on agriculture; the (ahem) "discussion" concerns the sciences, myths, their nature, and the proper use of scientific arguments in wider disputes. My point, in part, is that there are limits to what counts as a fair argument, even if the cause in question is Really Really Important.

I am sensible of the irony (if not the absurdity) of trying to establish this point using an extended series of posts to someone else's blog.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Four reactions to an apology

I guess even people outside Australia have noticed that on Wednesday the federal parliament passed a motion of apology to the nation's aboriginal people, in particular the so-called Stolen Generations: victims of policies of removal of aboriginal children from their families. Of almost equal symbolic importance was the speech by the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in support of the motion.

There has been a lot of talk on this during the week and in a sense I do not have much to add to it. But by chance it's my duty to offer prayers this morning, on behalf of the 10:00 AM congregation at my church, and so I have to reach some kind of publicly useful position on the week's business. On the one hand, this is dark history that (as the PM says) cries out for recognition and redress. On the other, it is a fearful thing to inject irrelevant polemic into a public prayer, and so I've been trying to understand to what extent this apology really is controversial. As a way of thinking through this, here are a couple of (very different) reactions I think should be rejected; and one, equally critical, that I think should be treated with respect. (Skip to the end if you want to get to the positive bit!!)

(1) Easiest to dismiss is Miranda Devine's statement in the Herald that the PM was fanning the flames of the "culture wars". Coming from a serial arsonist, this really was a bit much ... and if Ms Devine truly thinks (as she says) that Mr Rudd is taking up the approach of former prime minister Paul Keating, then her memory is worse than mine, or her imagination more powerful. I fully admit to having enjoyed Mr Keating's use of aboriginal rights and history as a cudgel to beat his political opponents: at the time, I also thought it was clever politics, a way of bringing the Labor Party in line to support land rights (after the initiative of the High Court) that it might otherwise have held at arms length. In retrospect he was wrong, and so was I. That polemical approach sowed the wind, and we then reaped the whirlwind for eleven-and-a-half long years: reaction that could point to what it reacted against, accuse it of partisan ideology and impracticality ... and be at least partly right.

So there, Ms Devine: I was wrong; so was Paul Keating, at least in this respect. As for the Labor Party, it is currently led by a dentist (figuratively speaking), a bureaucrat, a plain and uninspiring speaker (although his litany-inspired speech yesterday was, for him, unusually good) ... the kind of man who can say without irony that he is excited by establishing evidence-based policies. I take that as a token that the ALP is also willing, in this matter at least, to move on. Perhaps you could try it yourself. I understand that newspapers thrive on controversy, and on "debate" between "opposed" positions, and thus there's a kind of premium on taking a contrary view. But come on: this is important.

(2) Criticism instead from the left, and (as it were) from above, comes from a guest-post by Scott Stephens at Faith and Theology: The apology and the moral significance of guilt, accusing the PM and Parliament of tokenism and empty spectacle and (his words) enlisting aboriginal people "to take part in a kind of emotional pornography for the benefit of thousands of white Australian viewers".

I find this kind of purism --- this apology does not go far enough, so it is worse than useless --- infuriating. One could take issue with the details of the argument: for example, if it's intention that matters, as Mr Stephens Kants, doesn't that count against the approach of Paul Keating? (Mr Stephens faults the PM's language for not being as robust as PK's storied Redfern Speech: "we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … we committed the murders … " and so on.) As mentioned, I loved the Redfern Speech and I love PK, but the man can barely open his mouth without at least incidentally swiping at his enemies, Redfern not excepted: surely this is intentional at some level, and thereby compromises the action? Or if one's vice has become so ingrained that it proceeds without any higher-level volition, is it thereby innocent? (Hint: The Christian answer to that question is "no".)

But such arguments are incidental: I just cannot see the merit in trying and convicting the Prime Minister of compromise, of judging the limits of achievable consensus --- of being a politician. This is not news. Nor is it criticism. It is self-indulgence.

And yet ... Mr Stephens is held in regard by at least some other people I respect, and I have learned from experience to be careful of dismissing someone where this is true. There's also something a bit suspicious in a scientist accusing a theologian of contrariety and self-indulgence: because I would say that, wouldn't I? Maybe my reaction against this sort of posturing is part of some Two Cultures problem, however I have, as Mr Darcy would say, not yet learnt to condemn it.

(3) Both Ms Devine and Mr Stephens appeal for support to Noel Pearson, the aboriginal leader whose fierce independence of previous debate has won him enormous authority in the wider Australian community. Read his reflections the night before the apology, and also shortly after the election last year, and you will see why. In fact, one could profitably skip the Devine and Stephens articles and read Pearson alone: the substantial points against the current bien-pensant consensus are all there, but they are set in the midst of an argument that is actually about the problem of dealing with this history, and the present, in political terms, rather than using the apology as a tool in some other dispute.

Mr Pearson is in two minds about the apology, and seems to feel no need to condense his views into a easily-repeated "reaction". I will honour that restraint by simply saying: read what he has to say.


(4) As for me, I have no plan to repeat the apology later this morning: that would be presumptuous and unnecessary. But I do want to use it as a starting point, or (perhaps better) as background: for how can one ignore it this week? And when will we get a topic more fitting for reflection during Lent? "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?", asks the hymn. The answer to the question is "Yes", but it is not a simple yes by any means, and some of the issues are the same.

At Good Friday services at the Lutheran church in Geneva --- it doubles as a kind of chaplaincy to visiting English-speakers, and (a little perversely) as a British Commonwealth get-together --- a striking hymn was sung in the nineties, adapted from a Zulu (and Xhosa?) protest song. It was powerfully used to invite reflection on the crucifixion, and on all human sin, especially sins committed in company: the simple chorus will stay with me all my life.

Senzenina --- What have we done? What have we done? What have we done?

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Two takes on the US budget ...

... both from the New York Times: one from the science pages, hoping that America's recent unilateral disarmament in Big Science may come to an end; and one from the editorial page, lamenting the fact that the budget as a whole is broken.

I am torn. If my own concerns were to take a hit as part of some reasonable, overall accounting --- a spreading-out of necessary restraint --- then it would be hard to object. But the process in the States at the moment is neither reasonable, nor global, nor an accounting. The Bush Administration is a long bad dream, defiantly resisting its wake-up call, and the new president is still a whole year away. (It is going to be a long year at that.) Meanwhile the Congress is in some kind of holding pattern.

A propos of the election: how strange is it that Hillary Clinton seems the least fictional option for president? An Obama v. McCain contest would resemble nothing so much as the final season of The West Wing, with John McCain playing Honest Arnie Vinick, and Barack as Matt Santos, substituting black for brown. If the junior senator from Illinois is considering an older man as his running mate, he would be wise to first insist on a visit to a cardiac specialist ...