Friday, 29 July 2011

Merdophilia


Stephen Law linked to a curious review of his book Believing Bullshit in THE, by Martin Cohen. I've not read Law's book, but I may well do - I've enjoyed some of the snippets he's posted from it, and his blog is full of useful philosophy. So I was interested to read what Cohen, Editor of The Philosopher, the journal of The Philosophical Society of England, had to say. According to the Society's blurb:
The Society aligns itself with no particular school of philosophy, nor is it a cover for any political, ideological, religious or esoteric movement or interests.
Sounds good. The review presents Law's book as an uncompromising attack on religion, alternative medicine and anti-science. Doesn't sound too bad to me, but I'm aware that Law's philosophy is rarely so absolute, so it surprised me. Then he says that Law thinks the scientific method:
...was invented about 400 years ago and is this: "Scientists collect data by observation and experiment. They formulate theories to explain what they observe and where possible, subject these theories to tests." Now that's what I call bullshit!
Eh? It's a simplistic summary, for sure, but 'bullshit'? How so?

Cohen complains that there is no mention of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and so the alarm bells start ringing. No doubt their contribution to philosophy of science is considerable, but is it possible the reviewer is in thrall to unworkable post modern social science theories? Then Cohen says:
Law is one of the militant English atheists, led by His Holiness, Richard Dawkins.
Oh boy, the hallmark of the shallow thinker; 'cleverly' equating Richard Dawkins with a religious leader. Ironically, in a review of a book about believing bullshit, we are given a stream of classic examples from Cohen:
Take homeopaths, for example. Law complains that they swap anecdotes with each other about people who got better after taking the little sugar pills. No doubt this happens, yet if homeopathic remedies work for some people, then why the censorship?
Is it possible that this is some elaborate ruse by Law and Cohen to manufacture a review that highlights the problems detailed in the book? I mean, homeopathy? No harm? To the story covered at that link, Cohen says:
An "undercover" BBC reporter once asked homeopaths if they had alternatives to malaria pills. And they did! Scarcely surprising nor, I would say, particularly culpable.
The prospect of people using pills that don't work instead of pills that do doesn't raise any issues of blame for any resulting illness? Bizarre.

Stephen Law comments on the review a few times, and unsurprisingly is pretty livid at what appear to be misrepresentations. Cohen makes a risible defence of his statements, which in no way supports his review. And during the course of one point, in which he defends his accusation that Law is uncritical of the theory of natural selection by quoting Law on the theory of evolution (!), he says:
I argue that Law's book is uncritical of the theory of Natural Selection, which there are good arguments for considering to be unsupported by the 'evidence', whatever one may think about religious explanations for the universe.
This prompted me to berate him for commenting irresponsibly, as an academic (the use of scare quotes around 'evidence'). Water off a duck's back. The evidence for the overall theory is legion, even if many details are still debated. Law posts a comment detailing Cohen's completely inadequate response:
In short, I am baffled how Martin Cohen thinks any of the above supports his bizarre characterization of my views. As others have already spotted, it *very obviously* doesn't.
... which even Cohen can plainly see, since he posts a feeble follow-up:
You say the quotes don't show that you consdier (arguments for) belief in God to be 'bullshit', but I think it is reasonable to read this in. The second quote clearly implies Dawkins' work to be 'intellectually rigorous' and the views of 'theists' to be silly = you use value=laden terms to lead the reader into dismissing the 'theists' as people who use 'immunizing tricks'.
The quote he refers to has had Law's questioning of Dawkins' argument removed! Anyone's ghast should be flabbered by Cohen's effrontery.

Cohen's entirely inadequate data collection does rather point to the problems of folk who don't think that data collection in support of a theory (the very basics of science) has any value. What a sorry state we would be in if scientists like, say, Simon Singh, Christopher French and Richard Dawkins never bothered to check their data, and simply wrote about the impressions they, somehow, culled from the world, just as Cohen wrote about the impressions he, somehow, culled from Law's book.

But according to Cohen, that would be fascistic. Yes, in a masterful piece of Godwining even before the writing starts, Cohen is partly responsible for the website Philosophical Investigations, on which a page called British Science Fascists is prominent. Why Fascists?
But do they deserve to be called 'Fascists', after the 20th century political movement? The term is bandied about carelessly elsewhere. But we use it very, ah 'scientifically', as these reactionary thinkers share with the original fascists:

• a superficial and ideological commitment to Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, which they attempt to adopt for political ends
• an inappropriate and dangerous reverence for scientific 'progress', coupled with an unwillingness to accept an ethical dimension to science
• an objectionable version of the history of science
• an even more objectionable distinction between 'Rational Man' and 'irrational deviants', with an often vicious antipathy towards the latter.
• hair on their arms and legs
So far, so brainless (and so straw filled, apart from the hair on the arms and legs). Here are slagged off, in order:

Chris French: "In an article for... (where else) The Guardian he trots out merrily the usual scientifically ignorant and politically dangerous call for 'rational' thought to eliminate 'emotional' biases."

Ben Goldacre: "...when confronted with the self-evident notion that his belief system (clinical epidemiology, now pretentiously called 'evidence-based medicine' or EBM), a statistics-based hierarchy of facts, is exclusionary..."

Julian Baggini: "Baggini speaks down to the ignorami from his perch at... the Guardian."

Madeleine Bunting (!): "She has also argued that the Enlightenment is a ‘made-up’ pseudo concept, which it is. In fact, she doesn’t belong in this list, but just fell in her because of her popping up regularly to support her ‘colleagues’." (phew, that's better - didn't think this was right!)

Nick Cohen: "Columnist for the Observer... guess what! part of the Guardian newspaper group."

Richard Dawkins (about time): "Richard Dawkins has successfully combined his day job, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, with being the prophet of a new religion, the sole deity of which is Charles Darwin."

George Monbiot: "A columnist for the Guardian."

Simon Singh: "In a laughably bad 'investigation', Singh and others contacted homeopathic quacks, told them they suffered dangerous side effects from malaria tablets, and then asked what they should do? The homeopaths advised homeopathic treatments... Shame on them!"

Jeremy Stangroom (!): "Less influential, but tries to make up for it by the sheer venom of his pronouncements. Fails miserably."

Mark Lynas: "Guardian regular"

They don't like American scientists either! A number of themes appear. A paranoid distrust of science, so that one wonders how the compilers manage in everyday life. An antipathy to The Guardian! Well, it's not my cup of tea either, but I don't immediately consign its contributors to the bin. A slight obsession with CAM and climate change denial. They are keen to call into question the expertise of those mentioned, but it's not clear what expertise they have to talk about climate change, evidence based medicine and homeopathy. The website lists Samuel Hahnemann as a key thinker, for goodness sake!

All in all, the sort of sloppy thinking exemplified on the site plays out in Cohen's review and comments, as we see above. If this demonstrates the best thinking of the anti-science faction, then they are good examples of the unworkability of some theories of post-modernism and social science. I guess I'm in favour of science fascism.
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