Author Archives: Rupert Read

Environmental philosophy conferences: To fly, or not to fly?

Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?
First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly, the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.
The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead. Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen for that big famous failure of a climate conference, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.
And we need to show that another world is possible: we need to model doing things differently. (E.g. insisting on video-conferencing more, as I increasingly do; and helping to make this work.)
Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?
One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery. It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?
There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing. One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.
Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world. Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.
So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.
I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences. I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past. Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?
But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously
Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this. To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.
Two summers ago I had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.
On the plus side, I will soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Copenhagen (yes, the very same Copenhagen!) where I will be giving a talk on environmental governance, just as 2 years ago I spoke ‘at’ a Conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’ (though on that occasion the skype malfunctioned and we were reduced to a video-link). And last year, I organised a very successful multiple-person video-link with a Conference at UEA, and an equally-successful Skype lecture beamed into UEA by Hilary Putnam.
The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance two years back at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity. The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I went to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?
There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.
To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.
But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?
My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.
Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.

[[This is an updated version of a piece that appeared in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE a couple of years ago.]]

Religion as helpful precaution

http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management
Colleagues may find this article of mine, co-authored with Nassim Taleb, of interest. Suitably-provocative, perhaps, for philosophers, who are often inclined to think that religion is for morons, and that we are outgrowing it. Our case is that religion is probably on balance helpful to all of us (even philosophers: it is an absurd rationalistic delusion, an utter fantasy, to suppose that everything ought to be thought through from the beginning on every occasion, as some philosophers seem to suppose is an ideal), and that it might well be essential for species-survival / for the avoidance of ruin.

(I address the standard criticism – that lots of religion has been bad – here: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf , and in my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE.)

GM Food: Three Essential Considerations: Framing, Evidence, Precaution

[This article was co-authored by Phil Hutchinson myself. It appeared earlier this summer in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE. For those of you who missed it in print, here it is belatedly online.
Note: in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, there are what might be described as ‘follow-up’ articles by myself and (in a looser sense) by Nassim Taleb. Articles on precaution and uncertainty. [Advt.]]

We’ve moved on from “Frankenfood” scare stories. Haven’t we? Indeed, might we talk of GM food having its “Nuclear Power moment”? Just as prominent environmentalists such as Monbiot and Lynas took a decision to move from principled opposition to nuclear power to, along with Lovelock, promote the technology on pragmatic grounds, leaving their former activist fellow travellers feeling somewhat bewildered, and in some cases betrayed, one might be forgiven for believing that the same is now happening with GM crops. We will not here say anything further on the nuclear issue, though one might ultimately generate a position on this from what we propose below. However, on GM crops, Mark Lynas has certainly been very vocal in championing the GMO cause over the past year, both in the promotion of proposed new trials and in the criticism of those who oppose these. The rationale can appear, on the face of it, to be similarly pragmatic: population growth and climate-change related reductions in harvest yields will lead to increasing food shortages and food price-rises. Higher-yielding crops and crops with enhanced nutritional value are one, obvious, way to respond to such problems, and if GM crops might deliver higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, then it would seem sensible to forego principled, or certainly ‘knee-jerk’, objection to them and explore their potential. Right?
Would that it were so straightforward!
There are a wealth of considerations which should feed into our judgment on the proposed/alleged pragmatism of adopting GM crops. It is these, here, that we wish to focus on, and in particular those on which philosophy can shed some light. So, we will not here dwell, for instance, on the corporate dominance of most GM-research: on the profit-motive impelling the likes of Monsanto to gamble with our commons inheritance. There are powerful political arguments against GM, in connections such as this; we will largely leave these aside, in the present piece. We will divide the considerations that we shall focus on here into three categories: Framing, Evidence and Precaution.

Framing
Here’s the problem:
Global population growth + human-influenced climate-change-related lowering of crop yields = food crisis.
Framed this way it seems obvious: To solve the conundrum, we need to change the equation, so as to elicit a different outcome. We need to restrict population growth or reverse the crop yield decline such that it will compensate for the population growth.
But do we need to accept the equation? We would argue not. Indeed, it is the propensity to simplify the problem in a manner akin to this equation that is a key part of the problem. The equation prejudices one’s view of the problem by framing it in a particular way, because, while the global population does continue to grow, that population’s eating habits are also changing, becoming more western and meat-based. This is significant driver of food scarcity: feeding a cow maize and eating the cow is a very inefficient use of land, maize and water. The more meat we eat the more planets we require to provide our food, and extra, suitable planets are hard to find… . Moreover, while human-influenced climate change will affect crop yields, we can take steps to slow down that change rather than simply thinking in terms of adapting to the change as if it were inevitable.
The way ‘our’ equation frames the issue, if invoked to justify a pragmatic argument in favour of GM food, implies a false dichotomy: it implies that there are no other ways to enhance crop yields, rationalise food markets and supply-chains, radically reduce food waste, and rationalise consumption habits. Put another way, the proposed GMO solution to our problem can seem obvious and natural, or the most pragmatic one, because of basic liberal and individualist assumptions about the undesirability of seeking to change people’s (individuals) eating habits (desires, such as the desire to eat more meat). People have a right to eat what they want. Don’t they?
We can, and should, challenge the frames. At the very least, we should be cognisant of the way in which the argument tends to be framed, so that we might then subject that framing to rational scrutiny: is it obvious that when there is increased food stress, we should be handing more and more crop-worthy land (and food crops) over to beef production, all because we respect the ‘rights’ of consumers to buy more steak (or we respect the ‘market’)? Should we hand over more land for the growing of biofuels, because we (incorrectly) believe that will help us meet carbon targets and achieve energy security without infringing on the ‘rights’ of drivers as we allegedly would if we were to cap fuel/carbon emissions or to allow fuel prices to continue to escalate?
One of Lynas’s refrains, when pushed in a certain direction on these issues, is to respond to his disputant that they are advocating veganism; this response, delivered with a tacit sneer or an explicit chuckle, is sometimes accompanied by him ‘wishing them luck’ with that project. Changing eating habits, or simply trying to reverse recent global trends in eating habits, is just not seen as worth considering. We want our cake and we want to eat it, even if that means it is made with GM wheat.
Our response is to move beyond the hegemony of liberalism as a political philosophy. We urge that, at this point in history, it is particularly vital to challenge the cultural dominance of the idea of the ‘individual-as-consumer’ (home economicus), and of the alleged sacrosanctness of their choices and of choice itself.
In short: We need new frames. Only their illicitly-presumed absence can make GM look like a no-brainer.

Evidence
Our second category is evidence. We are all now becoming familiar with the mantra, in policy circles at least, that one’s proposals be evidence-based.
Quite right. But “what counts as evidence?” is an important question to be asked. And “what, in addition to the evidence, are also important factors in our deliberations?” is equally crucial.
So, you might see our section on Precaution, below, where we argue that precaution should always accompany evidence in the policy decision-making process. And we would also suggest that one beware of “evidence” being used as a buzzword or as Unspeak . Like “Freedom” and “Democracy”, “Evidence” is a “Hooray word”. Surely no one would/can be against evidence! But here’s the rub; if a word is so unremittingly good then people will use it to cover-up the bad, or to pass-off the not so good as good. German Democratic Republic anyone? (i.e. democracy that involves very few recognisably democratic institutions; where the _demos_, the people, have no role in policy). Cato Institute style Freedom anyone? (i.e. freedom that transpires to be the freedom of corporations to deny freedom to all kinds of non-corporate groups.).
But let us here consider the evidence in a recent widely-reported and high-profile case. A GM company in Hertfordshire, Rothamsted Research, made a press release in late January 2014. They were all over the British media, from an early morning slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 24th, where they talked-up the health benefits to humans of Omega 3 enhanced crops, to reports in all the newspapers and on TV news bulletins. Mark Lynas joined the party, and promoted their press release via Twitter, while also working as a kind of tweet-tag-team with the Rothamsted publicity department.
There were two stories wrapped up in one: one was a story about Omega 3 camelina; the other was a kind of meta-story about this being an obviously good-news and game-changing story about GM; one that even the most dyed-in-the-(non-GM)-wool Monsanto-haters would see was good news. The Today programme pushed both angles. Rothamsted must have been pleased.
See how the second story kinda shows how the Rothamsted press release was just swallowed by the same media, as if it were an easy to swallow Omega 3 fish oil capsule? Should journalists not rather have subjected the press release to some scrutiny?
Well, what’s not to like? Everyone knows that Omega 3 is a wonder-oil, which prevents all kinds of health problems. Health gurus, magazine covers, newspaper articles, food packaging, even some medically trained celebrity doctors, have all been telling us for over a decade now that Omega 3 oil is important: it prevents cancer, heart disease, and both increases and decreases the aggression of prostate cancer (no, really). It increases intelligence, both in a person eating it and in a foetus through a mother ingesting it while pregnant, though we assume the claim is that it increases intelligence later in life, since foetus-intelligence is a young science. Moreover, Omega 3 has been claimed to prevent all kinds of behavioural conditions in children and adolescents, and make school boys and prison inmates less aggressive. You can even polish the screen of your widescreen LED TV with it and thereby increase your popularity with all the neighbourhood cats. Yet not everyone has a taste for, or can afford, to eat the oily fish in which it is most readily found. If we cannot grow fish on trees, then how about the next best thing: grow fish genes inside a plant. Eureka. Meow.
Well, what’s the evidence? We mean: surely we’re not here basing our enthusiasm on over a decade of food industry and supplement purveyors’ propaganda about Omega 3 rather than well founded data, are we..? Well yes, it does seem that we might be. One might, for example, read the chapter of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, where he discusses claims made for Omega 3. One might even conduct one’s own survey of RCTs, and even some meta-analyses of RCTs, on the claimed and widely assumed health benefits of Omega 3 oil supplements. Use Pub Med, etc. What one will find is the following:
a. There is NO conclusive evidence for health-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial when consumed separately from the fish, i.e. as a supplement.
b. Indeed, the evidence for it being beneficial when consumed as part of the fish is barely conclusive. Study after study notes something akin to the following: it is difficult to discern whether the good health of those studied emerges from the consumption of oily fish or from the overall diet and lifestyles enjoyed by those people who tend to eat a diet containing large amounts of oily fish.
c. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 (EPA & DHA) over and above that which our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3, which can be gained from things like flax, hemp, chia and green leafy vegetables, if we have a healthy diet.
In short: The past decade of Omega 3 hype has been market-driven, not evidence-driven.
Repeatedly, one finds there are good evidence-based reasons which count against GM-hype. Such reasons need to be developed specifically, in each case.
GM’s defenders will respond that there is at least scant evidence of harm from GM (unlike nuclear). This takes us to our next and final category of consideration. Absence of evidence of harm, even when genuine, is not evidence of absence of harm:

Precaution
Taking a gene from a fish and sticking it in a vegetable is reckless. It is to act in a way radically without natural precedent. Now, defenders of GM sometimes say that nevertheless there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. But: Even if this is true, it is not good enough. The burden of proof is on them, the GM engineers, to provide evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have, and what will be very difficult ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk. Because field trials expose the entire environment to the risk of contamination. They are not like controlled indoor laboratory trials.
There are powerful forces in our world today seeking to shift the burden of proof. These forces – which include the US and UK Governments — wish us to have to provide an ‘evidence-base’ against (e.g.) GM, an evidence-base of actual harm, before we act precautiously in respect of it. They wish, in effect, to abolish the Precautionary Principle and to replace it with a purely backward-looking methodology of ‘evidence-based’ interventions. Such an ‘evidence-based’ approach is valid when the stakes are not that high and when we can learn from tinkering and from study of the results. It is not valid when we may face ruin as a consequence. As is the case with GM (and also with geo-engineering, the next gamble that we will all soon be invited to embrace, on the extraordinary basis that there is as yet no evidence of harm from it!). One is cautious when one has reason to be so; when one has reason to believe there is a danger or a threat. The logic of precaution, we suggest, should be understood as follows: when what we do now has unpredictable though potentially catastrophic future consequences then we should exercise precaution. We are not exercising caution based on a perceived threat, but exercising precaution because we do not have good reason to believe there is an absence of threat, while also having reason to surmise that where a threat might materialise it would be significant.
Regarding GMO, we have not been provided with good reason to believe that there will not transpire to be a threat, even from field trials, much less a move to widespread farming, and that such a threat would be, should it transpire, be insignificant and reversible. These are then rational grounds for invoking precaution. While there is no directly-perceived threat to be cited in advance, we have no grounds for believing no threat will emerge, while having reasonable grounds for believing any such threat would be significant and probably irreversible. This is enough to rationally motivate invoking the precautionary principle.
We have a responsibility not to be blinded by science: to combat scientism. We have a responsibility to show the way beyond scientism, and to help science flourish in its true area of application. We have a responsibility to highlight the categorial distinction between science and technology: being pro-science, in its true sense, has no implications for whether one supports the social implementation of one or another particular form of technology or engineering.
We propose a more considered, rational approach, which resists the frenzy around ‘evidence-based’ approaches, when these are proposed separate from their frames and from rational precautionary considerations.
We have a responsibility to support responsible evidence-based methodology, where such methodology is appropriate: we have given an example of this above, vis a vis camelina. Another (not unrelated) genus of examples is the use of EBM to undercut the claim of various pharmaceuticals, as Ben Goldacre has helpfully done.
We have a responsibility to bring thought to bear on issues of framing, in the kind of way practiced by Lakoff, Poole, Crompton, and others. We have a responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom: e.g. the cultural ‘common-sense’ of liberal individualism in the West today. But not to carry such ‘scepticism’ into a deniallism about what science, in its correct area of application, teaches us: As Wittgenstein remarks in Culture and Value, the philosopher must avoid getting into the predicament of an incompetent (would-be) manager, trying to do others’ jobs for them.
Perhaps above all, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power concerning the would-be managerialist and profit-motivated replacement of long-term considerations of precaution with a covertly short-termist rhetoric of being ‘evidence-based’, a rhetoric that is ignorant of the philosophical issues around uncertainty and risk that are present and explored in the recent work of Nassim Taleb, among others (Cf. Read’s co-authored work with Taleb: e.g. http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management & http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf). And that underly the attitude of the likes of James Hansen to the climate threat facing our world at present: Philosophers and intellectuals more generally carry a heavy responsibility to not be tricked by rhetorics or ideologies of ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ into waiting to set out crucial warnings until it is too late.

On both evidential grounds, and precautionary grounds, the case for Omega-3 GM camelina is disastrously weak. To generalise: evidence-based thinking can undercut the case for GM, as well as sometimes supporting it. Precautionary thinking, a vital complement to (and more fundamental than) evidence-based thinking, will generally count as a heavy consideration against GM. When one adds in the power of reframing and of reflection on frames, as found initially in the work of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Lakoff and Johnson, etc, then one has a powerful cocktail indeed in one’s hands. Our recommendation is: to drink it. Or perhaps better: to throw it.

The real reason why libertarians become climate-deniers

We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. …But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.

Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.

Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.

But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.

Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…). In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)

This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…

Libertarianism likes to present itself as a philosophy or ideology that is rigorously objective. Wedded to the truth, and rationality. Ayn Rand called her cod-philosophy ‘Objectivism’. Tibor Machan and other well-known libertarian philosophers today place a central emphasis on reason as their guide. Libertarians like to think that they are honest, where others aren’t, about ‘human nature’ (it’s thoroughly selfish), and like to claim that there is something self-deceptive or propagandistically dishonest about socialism, ecologism and other rival philosophies. Without its central claim to hard-nosed objectivity, truth and rationality, libertarianism would be nothing.

But this central commitment is in profound tension with the libertarian commitment, equally absolute, to ‘liberty’. For truth, truths, truthfulness, rationality, objectivity, impose a ‘constraint’. A massive utterly implacable constraint, on one’s license to do and believe and think whatever one wants. One cannot be Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in a world of truth and reason. One cannot intelligibly think that freedom of thought requires complete license, or that moral freedom requires complete individual license, in such a world.

The dilemma of the libertarian was already laid bare in the progress of the thinking of a hero of some libertarians, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the great third and final essay of his masterpiece THE GENEALOGY OF MORALITY. Nietzsche can appear on a superficial reading of that essay to be endorsing a kind of artistic disregard for truth; it turns out, as the essay follows its remarkable course, that this is far from so; in fact, it is the opposite of the truth. In the end, taking further a line of thought that he began in the great fifth book of THE GAY SCIENCE, Nietzsche lines up as a fanatical advocate of truth: he speaks of drawing the hard consequences of being no longer willing to accept the lie of theism, and of “we godless metaphysicians” as the true heirs of Plato: “Even we seekers after knowledge today”, Nietzsche writes, “we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”

He contrasts his stance with that of the legendary Assassins, who held that “Nothing is true, [and therefore] everything is permitted”. He admires their ambition, but absolutely cannot find himself able to simply agree with what they said.

Contemporary libertarianism is stuck in a completely cleft stick: stuck wanting to agree with Nietzsche’s considered position and yet wanting to endorse something like the Assassins’ creed too. Libertarianism, centred as its name makes plain on the notion of ‘complete’ individual freedom, inevitably runs up, sooner or later, against ‘shackles': the limits imposed on one’s thought and action by adherence to truth. (Acknowledging the truth of human-induced dangerous climate change is only the most obvious case of this; there are many many others. )

This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”

This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself. . . Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.

The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.

To sum up. Libertarianism was founded on the love for truth and reason; but it is founded also, of course, on the inviolability of the individual. Taken to its ‘logical’ conclusion, truth itself is (felt as) an ‘imposition’ on the individual. The sovereign liberty of the self, in libertarianism, is at ineradicable odds with the willingness to accept ‘others” truths. And it is the former, sadly, which tends to win out. For, as we have seen, the denial, by libertarians, of elementary contemporary scientific truths such as that of the theory of greenhouse-gas-heat-build-up, is over-determined. When truth clashes with a dogmatic insistence on one’s own complete’ freedom of mental and physical manouevre, and with profit; when the truth is that we are going to have to rein in some of our appetites if we are to bequeath a habitable world to our children’s children…then the truth is: that truth itself is an obstacle easily overcome, by the will of weak only-too-human libertarians.

The obsession of libertarians with individual liberty crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their thinking becomes voluntaristic and contrarian for the sake of it. They end up believing simply what they WANT to believe. And, as explained above, they don’t WANT to accept the truths of ecology, of climate science, etc. . And so they deny them.

As Wittgenstein famously remarked: the real difficulty in philosophy is one of the will, more even than of the intellect. What is hard is to will oneself to accept things that are true that one doesn’t want to believe, and moreover that (in the case of some on the ‘hard’ Right) one’s salary or one’s stock-options or one’s ability to live with oneself depend on one not believing.

It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.

On Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: A new article of mine offering a ‘therapeutic’ ‘reading’ thereof

My latest film-as-philosophy effort has just been published, with SEQUENCE:
http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/sequence1/1-2-an-allegory-of-a-therapeutic-reading/

Two kinds of arguments against GM: evidentiary, and precautionary

The news hit the headlines this morning that genetic engineers in Hertfordshire want to trial plants that have been genetically-modified with genes from fish: http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/arable/rothamsted-trialling-gm-omega-3-plants/61696.article .

There are several aspects of the arguments around this that are of philosophical interest. They relate principally to the philosophy of rhetoric, the philosophy of science and technology (epistemology, methodological issues), and the philosophy and ethics of precaution/risk. I will explore these briefly in what follows.

My closest philosophical colleague Phil Hutchinson (@phil_hutchinson) has just had a mini ‘twitter-storm’ with Mark Lynas, over this latest GM business. Phil has been making the argument that the evidence does not support the need for fish genes to be put into plants in order to produce fish oil, because the evidence does not support the claim that doing so is beneficial and necessary.
This ‘mirrors’ the argument that my other current close philosophical colleague Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb) and I (@rupertread) have recently had on twitter with Lynas (Go back to Jan.5 if you want to see this ‘twitter-storm’ from the start). Taleb and I made the argument that (e.g.) taking genes from fish and putting them into plants is reckless, because it is unprecautious: it violates the Precautionary Principle. In other words, our argument was not evidentiary but precautionary.

It seems to me that the ‘evidence’ line against GM combined with the ‘precautionary’ line against it catches GM-apologists such as Lynas in a bind. In a pincer movement.

In outline, the full (the two-pronged) case then runs roughly like this (for references to back this up, if desired, see the material on Twitter):

A GM company wants to take genes from fish and put them into a plant: specifically, in today’s furore: they want to produce Omega three GM camelina.

In brief: There is first NO conclusive evidence for heart-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial separate from the fish, as a supplement. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 over and above that our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3 from things like flax.

To elaborate somewhat: We’ve had over ten years of hype from food manufacturers and supplement manufacturers about the heart-benefits of fish-sourced Omega 3 oil. But the evidence for benefits is still inconclusive, at best.

Basically there are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids that humans need: ALA (found in plant oils), EPA, and DHA (found in fish oils).

ALA is in flax seeds and hemp seeds as well as other veg (brussels sprouts for example). Our bodies convert ALA in to EPA and DHA.

Over the past decade or so all sorts of wild claims have been made for the benefits of consuming a diet high in EPA and DHA fatty acids. Goldacre has some sport exposing some of the nonsense hereabouts in Bad Science.

However, there are one or two RCTs that do seem to show some benefit of a diet high in EPA and DHA Omega 3 for heart disease, but, and this is important, only when eaten as part of a fresh fish which contains it. There is simply no evidence for EPA and DHA taken as a supplement being beneficial to health. So, the real kicker is, that they cannot say for sure that it is the EPA and GLA and not just the fact that those who eat fresh fish are likely to eat healthier diets in any case and be better off, socio-economically.

So, why would anyone assume that GM camelina with EPA and DHA would work better than the _ineffective_ supplements? No reason whatsoever. Indeed, as noted, while diets high in fish oil do seem to (in a few cases) have benefits, even there it is unclear this is because of some magical properties of the oil, but rather because of other factors that might be related to a diet rich in oily fish.

So, no clear evidence at all that consumption of EPA and DHA as a supplement has health benefits.

When Phil made these points to Lynas and the GM company, they shifted ground away from talking about the alleged health benefits of omega 3 fish oil (to humans) to talking about the health benefits of feeding omega 3 fish oil to fish.

So: there really – clearly — is no clear evidence that we need EPA and DHA in any case, as our bodies convert ALA (from vegetable sources into those). Lynas et al, when pressed, concede this. They then say: this is about improving aquaculture by making fish food. But then we have the same problem: we have no reason to think that even if the GM splicing worked and they could get it into the seeds that this would work for the fish. Oily fish that are high in Omega 3 get it from the krill and shrimps they eat.

This is about salmon-farming! Not, as they tried to mislead us all this morning into thinking, about human health.

Human health would be better served by better balanced diets.

To sum up the case so far: there is no reason to see what the GM wizards are trying to put into the plant from the fish as useful for fish food if there is no evidence for the benefits of Omega 3 fish oil supplements. At this point, when forced into seeing this, the company replied that that’s allegedly why they need to do the research they are seeking to do… Which is close to a concession that there are (few or) no evidentiary grounds for thinking GM fish-omega 3 camelina will be beneficial: But of course, surprise surprise, that is not what their rep said on the Today programme this morning, nor what Lynas were arguing when Phil first responded to him.

The final phase of the argument (at the time of writing) is I think very telling. It runs thus:

Phil Hutchinson @phil_hutchinson

@Rothamsted @mark_lynas consumed as fish. Barely any conc. evidence for supplement benefits. Your version will be akin to consuming a supp.

Kate de Selincourt @Kate_de

But, @Rothamsted & @mark_lynas, since all livestock farming turns more nutrient into less, why not just eat the fish food? @phil_hutchinson

Mark Lynas @mark_lynas

@Kate_de @Rothamsted @phil_hutchinson That’s an argument for veganism. Fine by me, but hardly a realistic way to tackle overfishing.

‘Fine by me’. Lynas has essentially conceded the case. He prefers a problematic techno-fix which lacks evidential support to a behaviourial and political change that is perfectly possible (i.e. for humans to consume less (factory-farmed) fish (from which a profit can be extracted), and find their omega 3 in other ways).

That’s the evidence-based argument against GM (which has to be made in each individual case on grounds specific to that case (in other cases, the argument will be based on poor yield, or on the inputs to the GM-farming being unsustainable, or on alleged damage to human health, or on actual epidemics of superweeds, or on the desperately-problematic political economy of GM; etc etc), and can be made in each individual case I think, with the possible exception of some GM-cotton). The case benefits from a savvy understanding of the nature of evidence-based arguments, obviously, and thus from a sound philosophy of science and technology perspective. But it is essential an ‘empirical’ argument.

The precautionary argument is different. It is philosophical from the get-go. It is an argument about where the burden of proof lies.
This is in my view the deepest argument against GM: a precautionary one which shifts the burden of proof. It’s no longer about one trying to find a particular counter-argument to claims that GM-enthusiasts are making: it’s suggesting that the onus is rather on THEM to establish the safety of the technology that they are puffing.

The precautionary case against GMOs, in brief, runs thus: If we (for example) take a gene from a fish and put it in a plant, a move utterly without precedent in the whole of evolution, we are recklessly fiddling with and unavoidably changing a system we don’t fully understand and doing something novel whose consequences we cannot possibly predict. This is a reckless gamble, stupid in the short- to medium- term, unconscionably short-sighted and selfish in the long term, as we risk imposing a world of new danger on those who are yet even to be born. We are launching a vast uncontrolled natural (sic.) experiment. The consequences for superweeds, for damaging biodiversity, for creating dangerous mutations, and possibly directly for human health, are unforeseeable. There is a strong precautionary argument against GM, or at the very least in favour of keeping some parts of the world (e.g. an island-nation!) GM-free. IF GM could be properly safely researched to determine what bad ‘side effects’ it may have, then I would favour such research, in good empirical fashion. But it mostly can’t – because it can only be properly ‘researched’ in this way outside the laboratory. In this regard, it differs profoundly from most medical advances, for instance.
This is the terrible dilemma of field trials for GM: The more extensive they are, the more they resemble conditions in the real world, the longer-term they are, then the more reliable they are – BUT also, the more dangerous they are. The more likely it is that they will escape their confines, affect the broader ecosystem, produce unexpected and dangerous drift of genetic materials, etc. . One can’t get the evidence one needs to assess GM with without creating vast uncontrolled new risks.
If we in Britain as a nation contaminate our countryside with GMOs, then that can never be undone. Simple caution and commonsense enjoins – overwhelmingly – against such recklessness.
Defenders of GM sometimes say that there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. Even if this is true, it is not good enough. What the precautionary argument shows is that we need evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have. And what will be very hard ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk.
That is the point of the precautionary principle.

Until we have ultra-long-term large-scale trials which cannot contaminate the surrounding countryside, then GM must be considered unsafe. Such trials are at present impossible to carry out. They might one day be possible, though I doubt that they ever will be (this is the dilemma expressed above). If they ever were, then, rather than jumping in precipitously to make a quick buck (as is happening at Rothampsted today) we would then need to wait dozens of years for the results.
In other words, I have argued that one current impossibility is to adequately research contamination, possible damage to biodiversity, etc., without actually potentially causing limitless such damage. One somehow needs long-term (generations of ) trials, in the natural environment, but contained. Something like a huge part-permeable dome that somehow lets in what you want to let in (e.g. sun, rain) in an unaltered way without letting out the GM-crops, over an area of many square miles. Good luck with that…

I am sometimes accused of inconsistency, in making this kind of argument. For, as I’ve made clear in previous posts on this site, I am, like any reasonable person, a fan of climate science, which is vital to the survivability of our species, as we breach the limits to growth. So, why not of ‘GM science’? But this alleged parallel with manmade climate change is very weak. That is a matter of science; while GM is a technology.
Of course genetics is science, but genetic engineering, as the name suggests, is not: it is engineering, i.e. technology. GM is a technology, and so we should be very wary of GM-advocates dressing themselves up in the clothing of science. It is not ‘anti-science’ to oppose GM technology. There are strong empirical and precautionary arguments for doing so.

The parallel in relation to climate is with geo-engineering, not with climate science! And I’m no more a fan of genetic engineering than of geo-engineering, which involves perhaps the ultimate hubristic lack of precaution (or of ethics)… That is: It seems to me, as I’ve sketched, that there are profound philosophical reasons not to be a fan of either of these forms of engineering…

[[Big thanks to Phil Hutchinson for contributing very generously to the researching and writing of this piece, and for our ongoing joint work on 'evidence-based medicine'. Thanks also to Nassim N. Taleb for his influence on my thinking in this area, through the dialogue we are having on it and the arguments we are making against others over it. But responsibility for the piece is mine alone.]]

Thinkingfilm: announcement of new group-blog on film-philosophy

Colleagues; check out my new blogsite, http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/
This is a site for serious film-as-philosophy type stuff. I think a lot of you will like it.

[See also my earlier post there: http://thinkingfilmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/avatar-transformed-cinema.html]

If you have comments, probably better to leave them there than here.

Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating between Monbiot and Poole

 

Nature in the ‘anthropocene’ age?: Mediating Monbiot and Poole…

 

There has recently been a public spat between two public intellectuals in this country, a spat with considerable philosophical interest and underpinnings. Since both of the two concerned are friends of mine who I believe to each have an important contribution to make to thinking and action in Britain (and beyond) today, I am going to seek here to some degree to mediate their dispute.

Here is Steven Poole’s article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/06/nature-writing-revival

And here is George Monbiot’s response: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/08/philistinism-nature-scientific-ignorance-money

I think they both have good points. And that there are problems with what each of them has said.

Here is the main problem with George’s approach/remarks, in my view. George relies much too much, in his riposte to Steven, on rhetorical appeals to ‘science’.

Basically, as Phil Hutchinson has put the matter in correspondence with me recently: “George Monbiot’s Goldacre-Colquhoun-style ad hominem rhetoric against non scientists is problematic. The point is that the question as to “what “nature” is” is central to this debate and to George’s thesis and one can only claim that to be a scientific and not a philosophical question if one is dogmatically committed to some form of ‘cog sci’, whereby even conceptual questions become scientific questions (because we have (pseudo-)science of concepts). I’m not so committed. George may be, but he does not argue for this and it certainly cannot be assumed without argument. How we take “nature” is what frames the whole argument. George seems oblivious to the way in which he has assumed a specific conception of nature. I subscribe to his project, but it is a political project, not a scientific project. Claiming one’s political project, however worthy and emancipatory that project is, to be scientific (and not political) has unfortunate connotations.  It is to be authoritarian. Put another way, we might ask: is “nature” a natural kind term? I would argue not. George seems to assume it is.”

Agreed. Furthermore, as Phil Hutchinson implies in this recent piece of his, which could be read as a background-primer on the problem with George M.’s approach http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/what-have-philosophers-ever-done-for-us.html, there is a place here too for explicitly calling for a role for PHILOSOPHY, as against science-worship. (See my previous TP salient blogs on this: Especially http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6884 ; Also http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5837 http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 .)

In terms of Phil’s point that what nature is is central to the debate, framing it at a conceptual level: that is what I now wish to dwell on. Neither Steven nor George considers what I take to be the central argument which, if made, would in my view be an effective (rather than a scientistic) rejoinder from George against Steven (for it brings out the main problem with Steven’s remarks/approach): namely, that the point about rewilding is or should be that it is (or should be) a self-eliminating managerialism. (We philosophers might think here of the philosophical method of Sextus Empiricus, or of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, as analogous…) When one rewilds intelligently and completely enough, one (re)creates (eventually) something like a ‘climax’ ecosystem that then doesn’t need further (human) management.

Now, of course, we must all acknowledge that the human race is having such a vast impact on our planet that my environmental science colleagues at the University of East Anglia, where I teach, tell me that we have officially moved from the Holocene into a new era in our planet’s history: the ‘Anthropocene’. Whither nature, in the age of humans? Can one intelligibly now think our planet beyond managerialism? Is it intelligible – Steven P. suggests it probably isn’t – to think nature and rewilding without contradicting oneself?

In my view, there is still a strong role for the concept of nature in such dangerous times as we are living in (and this is the basis of my sympathy with what George is seeking to say, my political/philosophical subscription to his project, as Phil puts it). This is partly because the concept of nature is not one simple univocal concept.

As J. L. Austin would urge, the key question when the concept of ‘nature’ is invoked is: Nature, as opposed to what?

One opposed term is ‘the supernatural’. If one thinks that there actually isn’t any such thing as the supernatural (a stance that I find convincing), then everything is natural. There is an important sense then in which whatever we do is natural. Whatever changes we humans make to our world, we are simply changing nature ‘from within’. In this sense, ‘even’ Wittgenstein is probably a ‘naturalist’.

And it is useful to be clear of course that human beings are in this sense part of nature: this opposes crazy ideas (whether from traditional religion or from anthropocentric speciesism) of our alleged superiority to or separateness from the rest of nature. As John Gray has stressed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0rIqAYq5js ), a key inheritance of Darwinism is an understanding of the radical sense in which we are animals, part of nature, not separate at all.

But the term ‘nature’ can also be usefully opposed to other things: such as ‘culture’, or (similarly) ‘nurture’. Now, there is a sense in which culture is simply natural for humans (A sense indeed that I explicate in the first chapter of my PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-Life-Applying-Politics-Culture/dp/0826495605 ). But there is also such a thing as what happens when one lets nature take its course: think for instance of simply letting a wound heal, as opposed to bandaging it up and applying medicines to it, etc.

In this sense, there are plenty of things which (unlike the supernatural) exist but which are not natural, or at least not only or fully natural. In relation to ecosystems, one can distinguish for instance between those which human beings attempt to manage, and those in which nature takes its course. (Nature in this latter sense is sometimes called ‘wild nature’. That, roughly, is what rewilding aims to restore.)

I think it is important that we don’t lose sight of this meaning of the word ‘nature’. I think it is important that we don’t get overawed by the scale of our intrusion into the planet’s ecosystems. For, while it is true that there are increasingly few ‘natural disasters’ in which humanity doesn’t have a hand (it is becoming harder and harder to call hurricanes ‘acts of God’, for example, as it becomes increasingly clear that humanity’s hand is, sadly, present in strengthening and worsening hurricanes: see for instance http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/hurricanes-climate.html ), it would be a mistake to derive from that the conclusion that the dawning of the Anthropocene makes it impossible to talk about nature at all any more, except as opposed to the supernatural. In fact, arguably it makes it more important than ever. For, if we to row back from our calamitous and hubristic interference with our planet’s climatic system, we are going to need some sense of the direction to row back in. And part of that direction, crucially, is toward restoring rich biodiverse largely-natural ecosystems (See on this for instance the final chapter of http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/climate_geoengineering_web221208.pdf ). Genuine precaution, rather than the senseless multiplication of potential harms, recommends that we reduce our impact as a species, and engage less in ‘Promethean’ hubristic activities or ambitions which seek, hopelessly, to manage the entire Earth ecosystem.

As Nassim Taleb has argued, nature is wiser than us across a large range of cases (See for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSLaWVDyKRU ). To give it up as a lost cause would be catastrophic.

So; George Monbiot relies too much in his arguments against Steven on the alleged authority of ‘science’ – where actually it is politics and philosophy that matter. But; Steven Poole relies too much in his arguments against George on the alleged necessary managerialism that makes appeals to nature doubtful – where actually it is the creative self-destruction of managerialism that ‘going feral’ and restoring functioning ecosystems aims to midwife.

 

Is this – have I now offered — a way to reconcile what is wrong and right with what both have said in their spat? Does the present piece yield more light than heat? I hope so. Let the debate then recommence…

 

 

[Thanks, obviously, to Phil Hutchinson [ http://viewfromthehutch.blogspot.co.uk/ ] for vital input into this piece.]

Moralism and politics

Colleagues may I think be interested in a controversial book review of mine, just out in PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS.
Have a read, and do comment here with your reactions. I’m interested.
http://authorservices.wiley.com/bauthor/onlineLibraryTPS.asp?DOI=10.1111/j.1467-9205.2013.01483.x&ArticleID=1000795

Why Psychology Ain’t Science

Those interested in the post-NightWaves (http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ) debate raging on Twitter on this topic, may wish check out my ‘Rupert Read’ twitterstream (https://twitter.com/RupertRead ). In any case, here, for those interested, and between teaching (and so in very brief), are some more thoughts — in more than 140 characters, on this important topic…:

[Note: if you haven't heard the programme, I suggest you do that first, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r5ps2; go 35 minutes in.]

I see no reason to quarrel with Keith Laws’s claim that psychologists selectively handle, frame etc their data in order to present novel positive findings and that this way of doing their work is systemic and fits well with journals’, editors’ and reviewers’ worrying desire for novelty for the sake of it, etc. . So there is some bedrock agreement between Laws and I. But I am unsure as to whether Laws appreciates what the real – deep — differences are between psychology and disciplines like geology, astronomy and physics. And does he really have a good understanding of how such sciences operate, or is he wedded to a simplistic picture, namely a Popperian one? If one is making the claim that Psychology, it if adopted a ‘rigorously’ Falsificationist methodology, would be more like other sciences, then it would be helpful to be confident that other sciences had adopted such a methodology themselves! And I have zero such confidence, for reason I will explain.

It seems to me that Laws treats truth as the sole scientific virtue much as Rawls does justice with regards to institutions (see the opening of Rawls’s A THEORY OF JUSTICE – as critiqued by me for instance here: http://rupertread.fastmail.co.uk/Wittgenstein%20vs%20Rawls.doc (paper published in the Proceedings of the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Colloquium, a few years back)). Rejecting a theory as false can be called finding a truth, but is it an interesting, significant truth or is it a mere triviality? There is nothing scientific in piling up truth upon truth. More needs to be said about the content of psychology, about its problems and its concepts. As I pointed up in the programme: Kuhn would suggest that improved qualitative understanding is what serious scientific advance is about, and that Popperian Falsificationism is an almost-complete misunderstanding of how real science actually works (Because all theories are born refuted; because if science were as Popper insisted it should be, then it would (ironically) be more like much philosophy or ‘social science’ than real science (because scientists would always be tearing everything up and starting all over again, rather than progressing); because Popper missed the massive phenomenon of ‘normal science’; & crucially because science needs to be based in a shared qualitative understanding of science based normally in a widely-accepted breakthrough).

Roughly: Does psychology have a ‘paradigm’? It looks in fact that it has too many (viz.: psychologIES), or none, rather than one. (For explication, see the relevant chapters of my and Sharrock’s KUHN (Polity, 2002), and our shortly-forthcoming piece in Kindi’s edited collection marking the 50th anniversary of Kuhn’s STRUCTURE, on social/human ‘science’ vs. natural science. Cf. also what I said in my NightWaves appearance on the 50th anniversary of the STRUCTURE: http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html ).

Sure enough, Laws demonstrates that the formal requirements of statistical method are not adhered to in psychology and that in cases where they are they might still leave room for gerrymandering (Why they do so in my view takes us partly back to psychology’s concepts and partly back to the comparison to other sciences/disciplines – as I mentioned in my first remarks in the programme). But suppose these problems were in fact solved through enforced replication. Would psychology fare any better? Granted its house would be orderly in a sense, but would it be closer to being a science? My suggestion is that things might, ironically, then be even worse: because psychology would then look more like the scientific image of science, while not actually being any closer to being or being able to be the kind of discipline that Kuhn talks about, when he talks – on the basis, recall, of extensive work as a historian of science – of the nature of actual sciences. (For more detail on why, see my and Sharrock’s KUHN, and also (and especially) my recent WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIENCES. In particular, Part 2 of the latter dissects some claims on the part of psychologists to match what (in Part 1 of the book) I argue real science is: roughly, Kuhnian puzzle-solving within a research tradition, in a field that is not one that we construct and inhabit just by virtue (following here Schutz and Garfinkel and Wittgenstein) of being competent social actors. (Cf. on this also my, Hutchinson’s and Sharrock’s THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE.).)

If psychology were indeed a Popperian-style science it wouldn’t be a very good science – the operations which are designed to replicate (sic.!) the procedures of ‘genuine sciences’ are only pale imitations of their originals and the attempt to deliver ‘scientific achievements’ by means of ‘[allegedly] scientific procedures’ doesn’t yield any genuinely powerful findings, just vast and sprawling literatures and vast and weak databases. For, of course, wearing the outer trappings of science doesn’t make something into a science. But: psychology doesn’t need to be one – better understanding doesn’t only come from science. To think that it does is scientism.
My kind (and also Laws’s kind) of criticisms of our modern pseudo-sciences are regularly issued (and equally regularly disregarded) by the practitioners and methodologists and observers of those pseudo-sciences. To put the point polemically: Established Psychology is one of those juggernauts that Wittgenstein didn’t like, and rightly so. (See again the 4 programmes archived at http://rupertsread.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/me-on-radio3-on-science.html for my take on this, especially the NIGHTWAVES special on Wittgenstein and my recent discussion with Glaser on scientism and ‘Enlightenment’.)
Where Popper can be useful, as Nassim Taleb reminds us, is in a different way to that proposed by Laws and assumed by worryingly-many psychologists: Namely, in undercutting the pretensions of ‘social/human science’ to be able to model and predict the future. In opening our minds instead to the necessary presence in the human world of ‘black swans’.
A valuable exercise would be to follow the procedure of Lucas and of ‘Goodhart’s Law’ (implicit in 2.4 of my WITTGENSTEIN AMONG THE SCIE NCES, and cf. http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4367 ) and to look into the extent to which it is conceptually absurd to think of Psychology as a timeless body of knowledge, because of the extent of its historicity and of absorption of any teaching it has into what we know and do (and thus adaptation of our expectations etc, and undercutting of that teaching). What has been done for Economics needs doing for Psychology too, before the latter results in some analogue caused by the latter of the credit crunch/crash… . And hereabouts, as I pointed out in the programme (and on twitter), is then another severe limit on the extent to which Psychology is in principle scientifisable: The nature of human learning, and the way in which Psychology feeds back into our society, makes Psychology constitutively ill-suited to being genuinely scientific in nature and outcome (because psychology is inherently unpredictable; by which I mean: there are inherent limits on its predictability, limits far deeper than those present in (e.g.) quantum phenomena. Limits analogous to those sketched by Taleb vis a vis Economics.).
Ironically: the more impact Psychology has, the less like a science – the less like chemistry or astronomy, etc. – it can be. Psychology cannot be scientific because our psychology plays a dance with it (psychological subjects inherently resist (or sometimes, sadly, welcome – but again, actively) objectification – see on this Michel Henry’s BARBARISM, and Merleau-Ponty’s magnificent manifesto of anti-psychologism, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PERCEPTION), while in actual sciences there is a more simple dialectic of subject and object.
I could go on, talking for instance about why Psychology just ain’t in the head; but this is I hope sufficient for now, to indicate the bases of my disquiet, and to provide some sources.
In sum and in short, then: Laws’s are familiar problems to anyone who thinks about rather than buys into professionalised social/human science including psychology, and it is helpful of him to have raised them, and pointed out ways in which Psychology does not live up to its main corporate (Popperian) self-image. But this tells us nothing about whether such a self-image is actually desirable. Law’s paper doesn’t address the serious question – what does all this (i.e. what Laws tells us) actually tell us about the aggregate value of that vast multitude of studies already out there? I would hazard that that value is, unfortunately, far lower than most Psychologists would like us to believe. Laws and his friends are too concerned with the processing of Psychological work, and not concerned enough with the content of what’s being processed.

[With thanks to Wes Sharrock and Leonidas Tsilipakos for input.]