Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”

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The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Updating my blogroll

The blogroll is on the main page of my blog and links to various other sites that I consider worth reading. The sites which were on there were from many years ago and included several which I no longer read. When I noticed that, I saw that it was time to update it. Here’s a new list of blogs which are worth reading. Go check them out.

Animal Emotions

Animal Emotions is written by Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, United States and co-founder of the Jane Goodall Institute of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (ethology being the study of animal behaviour). The blog deals with various aspects of animal behaviour, welfare and ethics.

The Bowman Lab

This is the blog for the laboratory of Jeff Bowman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US. This is a blog that I started following more recently to get a wider view of microbial ecology. The Bowman lab works on different aspects of microbial ecology with many posts focussing on analytical tools as well as marine and polar microbial ecology.

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Overpopulation and the environment

It’s a weird feeling when you find people questioning something you would’ve thought was both obvious and widely accepted. That’s something that happened to me recently regarding the impact of human population on the environment, something we’ve been hearing is a problem from environmentalists for decades. That’s why I was surprised to read an article by Ketan Joshi talking about the problems in a recent film (which I haven’t seen) and being completely against the idea that we need to talk about population. In fact, he goes so far as to call population control “a cruel, evil and racist ideology.”

I had no idea how he had come to that conclusion, and I still don’t know how much of that was directed specifically at the film he was critiquing and how much was a general comment, but there was a Twitter thread by George Monbiot which is a good read and makes explicit a similar line of reasoning. His contention is that, although the majority of carbon emissions are by the, primarily white, ultra rich, people (particularly white people) prefer to blame population growth than the wealthy as it deflects responsibility from their own actions and that this is, intentionally or not, racist because those countries with the highest population growth rates have largely black or brown population. While I agree with several of his starting points, I think he makes several errors in reasoning as he builds upon them that undermines his conclusions and which I wish to address here. Continue reading

Final two books: Total anarchy

These are the last two books I’ve read this year and almost certainly the last I will read this year. I’m also happy to say that I have now read 13 books this year which is more than the one per month that I wanted as my minimum. Perhaps, next year I will do even better! The complete list of all the books I read in 2019 is here.

On Anarchism (2014) by Noam Chomsky

Following a fairly interesting read into anarchism with Peter Kropotkin, I thought I would try to learn a bit more about the topic. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Chomsky apart from hearing about him as a major figure in left-wing politics and thought it might be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the book is not great and did not deliver on its promises.

Despite being published in 2014, On Anarchism is a collection of previous works, many of which were written in the 70s. This does not mean the information is necessarily bad but it was still disappointing. Furthermore, the book is generally not well-written. Chomsky has fallen into the worst excesses of academic writing; choosing fancy prose which obscures understanding. This is made worse by the fact that, although it seems like an introduction to anarchism, it requires a lot of background knowledge with one section being extremely difficult to understand without familiarity with the Spanish Revolution.

In the end, I found that the various chapters were only tangentially related to anarchism but did not explain anarchism itself, were much older than I expected and were poorly written. I would advise against bothering with it.

Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide (2005, revised 2009) by Ruth Kinna

In contrast to the mess that was Chomsky’s book, Ruth Kinna delivered exactly what I was looking for. Anarchism gives an overview of anarchy including the definition, some history, general beliefs and how different schools of anarchist thought differ. Each chapter has its own list of links, further reading suggestions and references for anyone that wants to learn more.

This is the sort of book that should probably be read more than once. While it is written to introduce the subject, it does so topic-by-topic and contrasting different anarchist thoughts. This parallelism is compact but doesn’t have the linear flow that lets you easily build up a single idea. I felt, when I finished, that I had lots of concepts and ideas floating in my head but would struggle to sort them out into the different approaches. That said, it’s a highly-informative book which sets out the different ideas, arguments and thinkers. If you already have some idea of the different players, you will no doubt gain even more from it than I did.

There were two things in it that I found surprising. The first was very little discussion of the online space where I think anarchist thought is probably more common. It would’ve been nice to see a comparison to open source development, such as with Linux, and with the ideals of free software and decentralised software. The second is the sheer amount of overlap and influence between anarchism, communism, socialism and libertarianism. There seem to be many shared aspects but while the latter three are well-known, little attention is paid to anarchism. I suppose that’s because it’s the most threatening to those in power.

Political additions to my 2019 book list

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve finished two political books. They are being added to my 2019 book list.

And Yet… (2015) by Christopher Hitchens

COVER_1Published posthumously, this is either the second or third collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays that I’ve read. I do believe that I found the others more interesting. It’s not that the writing is bad but they often failed to catch my attention. Partly this is because the topics he writes about are often far from those that I am familiar with. On the one hand, that does make reading them good for growing my general knowledge but, on the other, with no framework to fit them into, they fade far more quickly from my mind than other pieces that I have read.

Two of the essays did catch my eye; both written in 2008 and both attacking Hillary Clinton. I don’t think I was paying all that much attention to politics back then but it was interesting how the essays could just as easily have been published far more recently. But I guess a lot feels like it’s just repeating itself these days. This year sees a new Godzilla, a remake of Child’s Play and a new take on Spider Man. That’s not even mentioning Disney’s, completely unnecessary and unwanted, remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King.

There was a third essay that I found particularly interesting. All the way back in 2004, Hitchens wrote about how we should embrace partisan politics and mudslinging and he lamented how big issues were ignored because no one wanted to be controversial. Given the way politics has shifted now, particularly in the US, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would still encourage polarisation.

The Communist Manifesto (1848, translated 1888) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

COVER_2The Communist Manifesto was originally published in German in 1848 before being revised and translated many times but the 1888 translation is, apparently, the standard English version. As it is one of the most influential political works – and very short – I figured I really should read it. On the whole, I found it disappointing.

It’s written in a rather strange manner. I didn’t find most of it to be particularly clear or relevant, especially as it often addresses events and situations which were contemporary over 100 years ago. The overarching theme is still relevant but I didn’t feel that they really made their future desirable. At best I had reserved agreement with some of their points but the way it was all presented was quite off putting.

To me, it was a huge contrast with The Conquest of Bread where Peter Kropotkin outlined his ideas of anarchist communism. While there were certainly some areas that were not completely clear, his message was for more positive and the ideal world that he described seemed far more desirable than that of Marx and Engels.

The Sagrada Família and why we need beautiful buildings

One of the highlights of my Mediterranean cruise at the end of last year was visiting the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. It was something I wanted to see because it always looked like an absolutely beautiful building in pictures and, it turns out, it is even better in person. I thought I would just share a few pictures that I took and some thoughts.

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2019 Book List

A new year means a new set of books. As in 2017 and 2018, I am recording the books that I read; partly for my own record and partly that it might help someone else find a book that sounds interesting.

24/03/2019 Added Black Leopard Red Wolf and The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution.

06/05/2019 Added In A Dog’s World and The Time He Desires.

27/05/2019 Added And Yet… and The Communist Manifesto.

27/09/2019 Added Dissident Signals and A Plea For The Animals

28/12/2019 Added On Anarchism and Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

21 Lessons For The 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari

Book1I got this one for Christmas. It’s a collection of essays, written by an Israeli historian, covering various topics, including truth, religion, terrorism, equality, war and education. Nearly all of the essays are interesting and raise many questions worth pondering. It’s a lot shorter on answers than questions but it certainly stimulates the mind.

One of the major topics that bothers him is what will happen when big data/AI and biotech combine. He sees the merger of the fields as likely creating an inequality that can’t easily be overcome. He fears that the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will allow them to modify their biology to be superior while AI and robots will mean that workers are unnecessary making the masses functionally and politically irrelevant. Aside from that there are many other great essays on important topics, such as how the current rise of nationalism is fundamentally incapable of tackling issues like climate change which affect many and require a widespread, co-ordinated response. Continue reading

Moving forward to freedom in the bedroom

Several years back, I wrote about the UK’s plan to block all pornography by default and, before that, mentioned their past treatment of BDSM activities. I can now say something positive about the UK as they have recently declared that several sexual acts, particularly BDSM related, are no longer classed as obscenity. This is a great step forward which resolves some oddities in UK law where certain sexual acts were fully legal to perform but illegal to show in pornography. It’s especially good as we should not be classing activities as illegal if they have no victim. It’s absurd to suggest that a legal activity becomes illegal once on film. Continue reading