Monday 14 December 2009

Libel reform

Just for once, I shall use this blog to promote a specific campaign. It is the campaign to reform Britain’s oppressive libel laws, which are used by the rich, the famous and some business interests to stifle free expression and debate. There is more information, and a petition to sign, here:

One might think that the Internet meant that such laws no longer worked. That is partly true. Information can appear on sites hosted anywhere in the world, and can be accessed anywhere which does not suffer under a regime that has built a firewall to restrict access. But if, for example, a specialist in a particular scientific field wants to contribute to a debate under his or her own name, so that the contribution is recognised as made by someone with special expertise, anonymous postings are no good. And do we want the UK to be known as a place where debate is limited by fear of legal action, often action on the flimsiest grounds? Anything that might lead anyone to lower their estimation of the claimant now seems to be a good enough ground.

There is another issue, that of the pre-publication injunction, which has now developed into the super-injunction which forbids reference to the fact that it has been made. Recent examples have concerned Trafigura and Tiger Woods. Fortunately, both promptly surfaced on Wikileaks, no doubt to the embarrassment of both the claimants and their lawyers. What do the judges think they are doing, when they are party to secretive “justice” with not the slightest justification for secrecy, either on the basis of national security or on the basis of the protection of children? There are no other respectable grounds. A regime in which you are not only required to obey the authorities, but are also required not to tell anyone about the orders that you are required to obey, is not a pleasant one.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Climate change and the publication of data

The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has been in the news recently. Data that had not previously been made available ended up on Wikileaks, along with some e-mails that are easy to interpret as evidence of some kind of cover-up, although that interpretation might well be mistaken.

I congratulate Wikileaks and whoever supplied the information. Wikileaks is one of the guardians of our liberty. The site has scored many other victories over those who would hide information.

I make no comment on whether this episode should change our views on climate change or on human beings’ role in it. But there is, as other commentators have noticed, an important point here about openness. If all data and all algorithms had been published, in full, as the research went along, there would not have been this embarrassing row. And we could have had more confidence in whatever conclusions were reached, because we would have known that the sceptics would have had every opportunity to make their case. There would have been other, smaller, rows as we went along, with specific results being challenged. But that would not have been a bad thing. If challenges are justified, then they should be taken seriously at the earliest opportunity. If they are not justified, then the weight of commentators will be enough to squash them.

Some people have, before this episode, spoken of researchers’ intellectual property in the data that they have collected, or in their algorithms. Excuse me? If the planet really is at stake, then it is simply immoral to put your intellectual property rights, or your chance to get to a significant result before a competing researcher, above the effective conduct of research.

How far should we take this call for openness? It strikes me that there are three main grounds for insisting that research data, methods and results be made public immediately.

The first ground is that something very serious is at stake. We increase our chances of getting the right answers if everyone can comment on data and results. And if a public response may be required, as with global warming, only complete openness is likely to build public confidence. Politicians are now going round saying that we should not be put off taking global warming seriously by the East Anglia affair. But public confidence has already been lost. It cannot be re-built merely by the pleas of politicians.

The second ground is that we will have to bear the consequences. This relates to research that is used to formulate legislation or government policy. New policies are often the subject of public consultation. But there are also the private data that are collected and that are used in the taking of policy decisions. Except where national security is at stake, the data should all be published, well before the decision is taken. The data may not give one as much confidence in a policy as the politicians who promote that policy suggest we should have. That strikes me as all the more reason to publish the data, along with full details as to how they have been used. It would do politicians good to have to admit that they take many decisions on balances of probabilities, sometimes quite fine balances. That could even help the reputation of politicians. We could better understand that it is inevitable that some policies will go wrong. Alternatively, we could argue that when things are finely balanced, the state should stay out of the matter and not have a policy at all.

The third ground is that the taxpayer has funded the research. I am not sure that this would justify a requirement to publish as one went along. But it could very well justify a requirement to publish, and to give a general and royalty-free permission to use the research and its results, within a short time after the end of each piece of work, or every three years or so if the project was a long-term one. In some fields, there is a counter-argument that the taxpayer can get his money back by having the results patented and licensed. That argument is to be taken seriously, at least if one believes that having a system of patents is a good idea. But in other fields that argument clearly does not apply, and free, open publication is likely to be the best way to promote the further development of our knowledge.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Films in reverse

When I wrote my last post, I did not have the foresight to know that I would be studying the film Memento, in order to teach a class on film and philosophy on Saturday. There are two interwoven series of scenes, the black and white ones which run forward in time from the beginning of the story to the middle, and the colour ones which run backward in time from the end to the middle. The central character. Leonard, has anterograde amnesia: he can remember everything up to a traumatic event, but can form no new memories of events since then. After five minutes, the past has gone for ever. So we, watching the colour scenes, are like him: we do not know what has just happened.

There are many points of contact with philosophy. There is the obvious connection with the memory criterion for personal identity, with the twist that Leonard is at all times psychologically rooted in the unchanging memories of his pre-trauma life. There is the fact that Leonard takes notes and photographs to help him to keep track of things. If we take Andy Clark's line that our notepads should be thought of as extensions of ourselves, rather than merely as external tools, then Leonard plus his notes and photographs can be seen as an organism that does have a continuous memory. And there is the fact that Leonard is used by others, in ways which mean that they would certainly not have agency-regarding relations with him in Carol Rovane's sense.

But for me, the most striking thing was something that was not there. When I watched Cinq fois deux, which presents five scenes from a relationship in reverse order, I found that scenes shown later seriously upset my interpretations of scenes shown earlier. The person who appeared to be in the wrong, turned out not to be (until the next scene). There was no such upsetting of interpretations with Memento. Perhaps this was because it is an action movie, rather than a film about a relationship.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Forsyte speculation

Engrossed in The Forsyte Saga, an excellent series of novels, I ask myself why a Hindsight Saga would be of no interest. Why is the unexpected so important in novels? Why would it not do for the characters to know what was coming, to be as well-informed about how things would turn out as they would be with hindsight? (This is quite different from the reader's not knowing what is coming, an ignorance that may be important on a first reading, but the later lack of which does not make re-readings a waste of time.) I think that the main reason is that they would not be leading our kind of life, a life in which we do not know what is coming, so that we could not identify with them.

Kierkegaard famously remarked that “It is quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward” (Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, volume 2, edited by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et al., JJ:167, page 179). But that makes the lack of foresight sound like an accidental handicap, rather than a deep feature of our way of life. It is amusing to speculate on how much would change if we were endowed with reliable foresight. I suspect that our social institutions would change just as much as if we were endowed with the power to read one another's minds.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Segregation and disapproval

Jim Fitzpatrick, a British Member of Parliament, has been in the news. He and his wife went to a Muslim wedding to which they had been invited. They found that male and female guests were to be seated in separate rooms, as happens at some but not all Muslim weddings, so they left.

Comments have centred on issues such as good manners and multiculturalism. I think that given that he wished to register his disapproval of the custom, his conduct exemplified exactly the right approach.

We should not ban such practices, or the ugly prison that is the veil. But freedom to engage in such things must be matched by freedom to criticise, to say out loud that what lies behind them is a religious tradition that perpetuates the oppression of women, and freedom to campaign hard to get people to change their ways. The tradition exists in several traditionalist forms of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. They are all the same on this point. The point with the veil is obvious. But segregated weddings and other social gatherings tend to locate community political power in the men's half, an equally oppressive practice.

Mr Fitzpatrick's reaction makes the strong criticism that it is perfectly appropriate to make, without calling for any kind of ban. This is, I think, the most appropriate way forward. There is a large area where criticism but not legal restriction is appropriate, in between the morally neutral and that which should be illegal. Critics may fervently hope that the practice they criticise should die out, but that hope is quite different from a desire to prohibit the practice.

The identification of this large area is anathema to those who wish to give religious codes of conduct the force of law. They think that the immoral should ipso facto be illegal, and their supposed direct line to God gives them entirely unjustified confidence that their view of morality is the correct one. That is why it is so dangerous when religion (as opposed to people who happen to be religious) gets its hands on political power.

Postscript added on 19 August. There is an excellent piece in the Independent here. As well as making important general points about the evils of enforced segregation, it refutes the claim that segregation at the wedding in question was the couple's personal choice and makes it clear that it was intrinsic to that venue's interpretation of Islam.

Friday 31 July 2009

Creationist exams

Here is a story which, if true, is horrifying.

The National Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) have advised that a qualification that appears to contain creationist codswallop is equivalent to international A levels.

On the NARIC website, there is a news section, and an item there gives more information. To quote from that item:

"Using the NARIC benchmarking methodology, these qualifications have been closely examined in terms of their learning outcomes, assessment frameworks, underpinning quality assurance mechanisms, mode of learning and delivery. ...

This exercise continues to show how useful the NARIC benchmarking methodology is, it can really make a significant difference for less well known qualifications."

This explains how NARIC reached their conclusion. They focus on everything except content. So what do we know about the content?

The curriculum on this webpage does not go into detail, but the page does contain these words: "If, as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, you believe that the Bible is the Creator’s reliable and trustworthy handbook to the whole of life, then you will be glad to hear that the ACE curriculum is written from the literal Bible creation base. In other words, we believe that God says what He means and means what He says."

So there probably is a good slug of creationism in there, along with perfectly sensible courses in mathematics, languages and so on.

I do not blame the perpetrators. They are entitled to their scientific illiteracy. But NARIC's action has exposed the weakness of an approach that disregards content and concentrates only on form. There is such a thing as factual error so gross that it renders the best possible form worthless. Would NARIC approve of a geography qualification that ticked all of their boxes but that taught flat-earthism?

The same point must be made about schools. In the UK, you have to get your child educated. The normal method is to send a child to school. Schools that follow this ACE curriculum may tick all the boxes for child welfare, discipline and so on, but the content of what they teach should lead us to ask whether sending a child to such a school satisfies the legal requirement to educate children.

It would be nice to see some gutsy response from our politicians. Will the Secretary of State for Schools and his shadows now stand up and say, in no uncertain terms, both that NARIC needs to change and that scientific illiteracy is not acceptable in schools? (NARIC appears to be funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but it is in schools that the real danger lies.)

Sunday 26 July 2009

Science and government policy

I have been away from blogging for too long, finishing a book (due out in February, under the title Deliberation and Reason, since you ask). But now there is again time for this blog.

There has recently been a bit of a fuss about the role of science in UK government policy-making, with concerns that the science does not have enough influence:

If there is a problem here, then it must be sorted. You cannot beat nature, and if the evidence is that a policy is not going to work, you should drop it, however great the headline that will thereby be lost. But I fear that this harsh message will not be fully accepted by ministers because they very often have to deal with human nature. The concern is with how people will respond to an educational programme, or to a change in benefit entitlements, or something like that. Human nature is known to be changeable, and ministers can then all too easily convince themselves that people will respond to new approaches or incentives in the ways that will make the policies succeed. Uncertainty about how people will respond leaves space for unwarranted optimism.

So what is the remedy? We have tried select committees, which are good but are easily ignored. When was a minister, or a senior civil servant, last sacked because a select committee found his or her policy-making skills wanting?

Here is my modest proposal. Any white paper that proposes new policies which rely for their success on people responding in certain ways must be written up with a full base of evidence, then the whole paper must be submitted to a couple of respected independent journals in the relevant field, which must each appoint a couple of reviewers who will go through the paper exactly as if they were peer-reviewing for publication in the journal. The reviewers' reports are then published.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Delia, happiness and achievement

The following paragraph is taken from an interview given by Delia Smith to the Daily Telegraph (21 February 2009). The topic is her religion.

Of late, the idea of silent contemplation seems to be having something of a renaissance, with the numbers called to monastic lifestyles reportedly on the up. Delia thinks the economic climate may have something to do with it, in the sense that material plenty tends to equate to spiritual poverty, and vice versa. “I think there may be an opening to God right now because of the pressures people are under with this recession. They may be realising that materialism can never make you happy in the end.”

I have no quarrel with the idea of silent contemplation. It can be very beneficial, with or without a religious element. But I am concerned about the suggestion at the end that religion can offer us something that materialism cannot. Religion can indeed do that, but that fact need not, and I think should not, be used as an advertisement for religion. We can undermine any attempt to use it that way by drawing on a long philosophical tradition to the effect that happiness, in the sense of a state of mind, is not what matters. Instead, it is achievement that matters, whether or not a contented state of mind follows as a by-product. Aristotle's eudaimonia is famously mis-translated as “happiness”, when “flourishing” would be nearer the mark. And Nietzsche, at the end of Also Sprach Zarathusta, has Zarathustra say “So do I pursue happiness? I pursue my work!”.

It might seem that because this response to the possible advertisement for religion depends on not focusing on one's own state of mind as the important thing, religion could claim the credit for the response because religions often tell us not to focus on ourselves, but on other people. But that would not be so. The philosophical tradition encourages us to focus on our tasks, which might or might not be defined by reference to other people. They might even be tasks, the performance of which would do nothing for other people but would enhance our own status, not a particularly selfless thought. There is both nobility, and an indirect answer to the true claim that religion can bring a happiness that is not available through material goods, in the motto that has been adopted by Reinhold Messner and others, “Ich bin, was ich tue”.