Ages ago I decided to head all of my posts with quotes from my desultory reading, but typically I didn't keep it up for long. however, as there have been rich pickings of late I've decided to try again.
Science is often misrepresented as 'the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory'. Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
Jared Diamond, Collapse
In avoidance mode big-time re my studies, and of course it's that time of year when self-indulgence, even if only in the form of sluggishness, is permitted to come to the fore.
Tonight I watched Stephen Fry in the USA, travellin north up the Mississip, his arm all slung up, presumably due to the accident he suffered in Last Chance to See, which I also loved. I was jealous, because being famous and in demand allows you to do just this, meet all sorts of bods, quirky and weird and resilient and hospitable and optimistic and delightful. Anyway, experiencing all these folks in one-way-mirror TV land is way better than not experiencing them at all, so cheers to Fry and his open-heartedness and curiosity and self-deprecating humour and energy.
Hello everyone, I'd just like to address some brief remarks to you about the recent claim, by no less a personage than Joe Biden, the USA's President of Vice, that I am a terrorist, who runs a terrorist organisation. Now, you might think that Mr Biden, considering his position, would know a lot about vice, and I have no doubt that terrorism is one of the nastiest vices around, but I would ask you to consider carefully this claim. What is terrorism, and what is a terrorist? Well, I think that my own understanding of terrorism is an uncontroversial, mainstream understanding. Terrorists are people whose intention is to spread terror. That's why they're called terrorists, right? It's not rocket science, it's terrorism. And they spread terror through acts of violence, usually extreme violence. Murder, bombing, kidnapping - we all know the story. But unfortunately, the term terrorism and the term terrorist are currently perhaps the most abused terms in the English language today. Since September 11, and really before that, in the last ten or fifteen years in which terrorism has gained a much higher profile in the west, the term has been hijacked by rogue states wishing to silence internal dissent, by nations wishing to goad enemy nations, by political parties keen to denounce their opposites, and so forth. It is a tool intended, I think, to silence debate, but as always with such tools, the more it is used [or rather, abused], the more ineffectual it becomes.
Biden isn't the first US establishment figure to use the terrorism word against me - I believe Joe Lieberman has made a similar accusation recently. This surely should move us to ask - why is it that the US establishment in particular is so keen to abuse and denigrate me? And I hope you can see the humour in Biden's accusation, for in the very same interview in which Biden described me as a terrorist - that's to say, the most horrific and inhuman of arch-criminals - he told the interviewer that he had set a legal team to comb the legislation to see if just possibly they could find some charge they could lay against me. And no doubt they've been looking for months, and so far have found nothing to charge me with. So here I am, a terrorist, the most criminal of criminals, who hasn't broken the law.
So, okay, let's be serious again and ask ourselves, why all this nasty rhetoric? Well, I don't think it's all that difficult to explain. I'm not a historian, but I do have an interest in history, and I can tell you that every state that has risen to great power and prominence, now or in the past, has been ruthless, utterly ruthless, in protecting, and if possible furthering, its own hegemony. I make this historical point lest anyone imagine that I am some kind of rabid anti-American. Each of these powerful states - the USA, the Soviet Union, Imperial Britain, Imperial Rome - have tended very strongly to identify their own interests with the interests of their subject peoples, their client states, and the world in general. It is a natural enough fallacy, but it undoubtedly is a fallacy. And it's a fallacy which, when acted upon, as it so often is, can have terrible consequences, as so many of the people of Iraq, for example, have discovered to their cost.
One way in which the hegemony of powerful states is protected and enhanced, as we know, is by the manipulation of information. This is often done cynically, to gain advantage, with an 'ends justifies the means' mindset. Often though, it is done quite 'unconsciously', as with any individual who's instinct is to survive and thrive, often at the expense of those around her, without giving a great deal of thought to the matter. Again, in the recent case of the invasion of Iraq, we see, in my view, a combination of cynicism and unconscious motivation, which, while understandable - I don't condemn the USA, for I think any other nation in its position would do much the same - was highly regrettable from the point of view of many non-US citizens [and for quite a few US citizens]. Organisations like Wikileaks are trying to open up, as much as possible, to the rest of the world, the kinds of deals and deliberations that go on in the world of diplomacy and official international relations, a world which, I think, is overly elitist and arrogant in its treatment of the ordinary people most often destined to suffer from their high-handed decisions. Of course the establishment see this as a major threat to their assumed authority, and they will pound out the rhetoric accordingly. We should take this rhetoric with a generous measure of salt, but we should also note that these people have the power to 'act dirty' as well as to 'talk dirty', as Bradley Manning, and others I'm sure, have discovered. Their suffering should not go unrecognised.
I note in passing that the activities of the Wikileaks organisation, and their ethical implications have come under much scrutiny from the blogosphere and various online sites. Many of the commentators are professional philosophers and experienced political pundits, and I welcome their scrutiny. Some have expressed reservations about our activities, others have offered more or less qualified support. All have been far more nuanced, thoughtful and measured than the establishment figures in the US government and their staunchest allies. However, in spite of their rhetoric, and in spite of what they try to do to me personally, they will not be able to control this debate, nor will they be able to control the spread of information and knowledge which, horror of horrors, will not always be in their best interests. Lash out as they might, control of information will continue to slip from their grasp. Time for a rethink, ladies and gentlemen.
I should also say that I very much enjoyed Jason Rosenhouse's clear-minded critique of Michael Ruse here. Rosenhouse has done much to sharpen my own thinking regarding science, religion, conflict and compatibility, and it's a pleasure to see him back on that task again, after something of an absence.
Steven Pinker Lecture on Free Speech
1 hour ago