29 March 2021

intellectual monopoly —> authoritarianism

For many people, doing 'research' in the humanities seems to mean: generating support for the answers they want to hear. The idea that research might be about truth, or providing a balanced picture, or at least maintaining a plurality of perspectives, has become passé.
   It is not clear whether unbiased, value-free humanities research is even possible. If it isn't, the ultimate answer may be for the state to stop supporting it. Why should taxpayers finance biased research? Especially when the direction of the bias is predictable: it is likely to reinforce the role of the state, and to favour increases in intervention.
   Until such time as the state gets out of the humanities, there is an ongoing need for alternative perspectives. Every year, billions of pounds/dollars/etc. are poured into the academic humanities, using money compulsorily collected from taxpayers. And the overall conclusions generated by all this 'research'? Subject to some minor internal variation, basically that:
- capitalism is bad,
- conservatism is bad,
- there needs to be more state intervention.
   By now, the academic humanities are, for all intents and purposes, an ideologically mono-cultured monopoly. Those who disagree with the ideology are derided, insulted and demonised. In one sense, this is not surprising. We know that monopoly power, once acquired, tends to be jealously guarded and not readily surrendered. Potential rivals can expect to be treated in a ruthless and underhand fashion.
   The humanities professors, facing no serious criticism from within their own ranks, and having authority on their side — after all, they are officially appointed representatives of authorised truth-institutions (universities) — can get away with intellectual authoritarianism. If you show signs of dissent, the professors are certain to call you out. That is now, it seems, their principal role: to monitor for ideological correctness, and to censure deviation.
   What about those who wish to present alternative viewpoints? They are forced to scurry around for private support outside the system (which is used by their critics as ammunition against them) or to rely on their own means. Private support for pluralist perspectives is in any case scarcely available. Billionaires have, it appears, have bought into the dominant ideology and don't see any need for a plurality of viewpoints; like everyone else, their priority has become virtue signalling. Any funding they contribute simply goes into reinforcing the monoculture.
   The dominance of Marxism and Marxist-style feminism in many areas of the humanities is a major contributor to the rot. Marxism doesn’t seek truth, it already 'knows' the truth; dissent is therefore wrong and to be discouraged. Culture must promote the right kind of social change — if it does not, it is sure to be what Marxists label as 'oppressive'. Anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy can therefore be presumed to be a moral villain, providing a convenient excuse for censorship.

16 October 2020


Due to a shortfall in external funding, this blog and associated articles are on hold until the new year.

02 October 2020

academia: is Politics a pseudo subject?

Four years ago, scanning Oxford University Press's Politics blog prior to the US presidential election, I was astounded by the level of partisanship of the posts (written by various humanities professors). The intellectual niveau may have been higher than that found in the left-wing broadsheets, but the sneering and contempt for Donald Trump was comparable. Did the academic establishment not realise how this might come across, to anyone other than those sharing their prejudices? I didn't look at many of the posts after the 2016 election but let us hope, for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy, that the blog did not go on to complain about the evils of attempting to interfere in other countries' elections via the pumping out of digital propaganda.
   This time around, the blog seems more restrained. The tone is pious pontification rather than aggressive derision. However, the bias is still in evidence. In each of the recent posts that mention Donald Trump, the attitude to the incumbent president is clearly hostile. One post contrasts Trump's America unfavourably with the virtuous leftism currently prevailing in Portugal; a second endorses a description of Trump's immigration policies as "cruel"; while the third argues that Trump's resistance to face masks can be compared to sex scandals because both phenomena "reveal who is able to violate the social norms in a society with little consequence".
   The obvious failure to keep normative values out of what is supposed to be objective analysis illustrates either the impossibility in principle of Politics as an academic subject, or the fact that academic neutrality is bound to fail when the political tastes of the academic elite are as homogeneous as they currently are (and diverge significantly from those of electorates). Either way, the OUP blog reinforces the impression that the status of Politics is that of pseudo subject. In other words, a bit of a joke — and not a harmless one.

18 September 2020

coming soon

New article in progress. Expected to be published next month.

Meanwhile, enjoy Social Mobility ‘Research’ (part 1) if you haven't already read it.

04 September 2020

biology: competition & cooperation

The idea that selfish competition is an essential part of evolution has sometimes been misrepresented. The fact that animals typically engage in intense competition for resources requires us to acknowledge that humans, like other animals, are probably hardwired to some degree for competitive behaviour. This should dampen any temptation to regard such behaviour as a vice, but does not mean we have to regard it as virtuous.
   More importantly, the fact that humans are social animals may require us to modify the simple selfish-gene picture. Cooperation in humans appears to go beyond kin selection (i.e. beyond cooperation between close relatives with many genes in common), though the evolutionary mechanisms for this have not been fully elucidated.
   Critics of sociobiology, however, seem just as capable of misrepresentation. In an introductory chapter to Blackwell's Companion to Ethics, academic philosopher Mary Midgley complains that sociobiologists
sometimes point out [that their use of the word 'selfish' is technical], but nearly all of them get carried away by its normal meaning and may be heard preaching egoism as ardently as Hobbes.
I don't have access to some of the references Midgley cites in support of this allegation, but neither E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology nor Hobbes's Leviathan can meaningfully be accused of "preaching egoism", in the sense of holding it up as a moral ideal.
   In the following passage, Midgley seems herself to get carried away to the point of preaching, albeit in the opposite direction.
It is essential to distinguish the mere fact of happening to 'compete' from the complex of human motives which current ideology endorses as fitting for competitors. Any two organisms may be said to be 'in competition' if they both need or want something they cannot both get. But they are not acting competitively unless they both know this and respond by deliberately trying to defeat each other. Since the overwhelming majority of organisms are plants, bacteria etc. which are not even conscious, the very possibility of deliberate, hostile competition is an extremely rare thing in nature.
   Moreover, both at the conscious and the unconscious level, all life-processes depend on an immense background of harmonious cooperation, which is necessary to build up the complex system within which the much rarer phenomenon of competition becomes possible.
   Competition is real but necessarily limited. For instance, the plants in a particular ecosystem normally exist in interdependence both with each other and with the animals that eat them, and those animals are equally interdependent with each other and with their predators. If there had really been a natural 'war of all against all', the biosphere could never have developed in the first place.
There may be some technical way in which this passage could at a stretch be defended as correct, but prima facie it seems misleading, if not plain wrong. Midgley seems to be (deliberately?) confused about the concept of competition, and she surely exaggerates the degree to which ecological interdependence can be interpreted as "harmonious cooperation".

Quotations are taken from Mary Midgley, 'The origin of ethics', in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, Blackwell 1993, p.9 and pp.5-6. Accordingly to Wikipedia, the late Midgley was the first winner of Philosophy Now's "Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity".

21 August 2020

COVID and the internet

The internet is a perfect example of the invisible hand in action. It has grown into a magnificent informational resource. I find it hard to sympathise with the naysayers who focus on misinformation; I rarely come across anything that might count as misleading, and when I do it usually has some fairly obvious markers about possible lack of reliability. (Avoiding Twitter may help.) As far as I can gather, the vast majority of individuals, including younger people, are perfectly able to perform the necessary discrimination between useful and seriously slanted.
   For most problems or questions about DIY, cooking, clothing, language, history, books, music, gardening, there is helpful free information available on the web. And I suspect that, for the most part, it hasn't got there because of altruism, but because its authors are hoping to get something out of their efforts — notoriety, approval, or financial rewards down the line.

An Atlantic article about COVID long-haulers deserves careful reading. The long-term aspects of COVID may turn out to be as important as the short-term ones, though initially they were largely ignored. I was not convinced, however, by author Ed Yong's invoking the usual line about insufficient state support:
These people are still paying the price for early pandemic failures. Many long-haulers couldn't get tested when they first fell sick, because such tests were scarce. Others were denied tests because their symptoms didn't conform to a list we now know was incomplete.
Perhaps what would have helped is not tests, but a body of individual reports about symptoms, so that people could draw conclusions from first-hand data and discussions of experiences.
   Unlike many other medical conditions, no internet discussion forum about personal experiences of COVID seems to have developed in the early months — at least none that came up on Google searches. I wonder whether this has something to do with people being ordered not to spread misinformation, and a resulting inhibition re setting up websites without backing from the medical establishment. Maybe the establishment being less arrogant about owning medical truth, or the media enabling this arrogance less enthusiastically, would on balance have been more helpful.
   Ed Yong refers to some doctors refusing to accept symptoms as COVID-linked and dismissing them as psychosomatic, particularly in the case of women and even more so for women of colour. Refusal to accept patients' stories at face value is a symptom of medical authoritarianism, which is discussed in The Power of Life or Death.

03 July 2020

19 June 2020


You searched for "microbiology".
Here are the results for "Game of Thrones".
(Search instead for "microbiology".)
Dear Amazon Music,
I should be grateful if you would kindly not give me search results other than those I have requested. For example, results for "Atlus", when I have typed "Altus". Especially since Altus is a well-known and well-respected musician with a string of albums to his name, many of which are actually listed in your own catalogue. Thank you.
Regards, etc.

Dear Google,
Some time ago you pursued the strategy of diverting searchers for "mediocracy" towards "mediocrity", even though the former word was a well-established member of the Oxford Dictionary. Although users were given the option of "search instead for mediocracy", the diversion is bound to have had some effect, statistically speaking.
   I note that, for some time now, the diversion from mediocracy to mediocrity has not been generated by Google Search. However, there are no doubt many other diversions currently in force, and these are likely to feed back on language, and hence on the thought processes of the millions who use your service.
Regards, etc.

Dear internet software giants,
By correcting users' search entries, you are having effects on the way language is used, and are influencing the direction of culture. While your strategy provides assistance to the differently abled — and happens conveniently to coincide with profit maximisation — you may wish to consider whether the effect is beneficial overall.
   One of the strengths of the internet has been to allow the representation of minority viewpoints and preferences via the Long Tail effect. (Sometimes those 'minority' viewpoints turn out to be less minority than had been thought.) However, the effect depends to some extent on respecting deviations from the popular option when entered into search bars.
Regards, etc.

PS. Bizarre but true: for several days at the start of 2017, there was a glitch in Google Search that caused clicking on "search instead for" to generate exactly the same page as before — as if one had pressed the refresh key.
Here are the search results for mediocrity. (Search instead for mediocracy.)
Here are the search results for mediocrity. (Search instead for mediocracy.)
Here are ...
So it actually became nigh impossible to search for deviant terms. A nightmarish situation that seemed like a cross between Kafka and Groundhog Day.