Saturday, December 23, 2006

Have yourself a PNAC little Christmas...

Interesting to see the Beeb linking to and analysing the PNAC:
"George Bush is about the last neo-conservative standing, Cheney as well maybe. Bush is not an analytical person so he just adopted the neo-cons' philosophy.

"It fitted into his Manichean, his black and white view of the world."
There are, of course, big debates over why the PNAC standpoint failed, which would take many years to go over in depth, I suspect. Still, the question remains - was it the "implementation" (by which not just the details of the Afghanistan/Iraq invasion is included, but also the people involved in the administration) that failed, or has the world changed considerably - sufficiently - since Reagan? Have people learnt lessons, and put "structures" in place that handle imperialist intervention more efficiently?

Again, I suspect it's nothing so "black and white". Invading two countries at the same time - the second because the first is drawing too much media attention - is a dumb idea. Invading Iraq and assuming that people will welcome you with open arms is a clear case of forgetting/ignoring your history. Links beween insurgency and surrounding Middle East regions should certainly be assumed too.

Whatever the mix, it feels like a good Christmas if the end of PNAC is being talked about. Have a merry one :)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reality is dead anyway.

BBC NEWS: Viewers fooled by 'Belgium split'

Funny, with so many fears around being used to coerce people into chasing particular policy, it turns out that there's some kind of "reality tv" line that can be crossed after all... Is an imaginary reality only acceptable as long as it's purely imaginary? If so, why do we keep insisting on makin choices based on it?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happiness is a warm league table

Via Mind Hacks, Slate has a quick article on happiness and economics. The move towards "positive psychology" and new evidence to counter the tradiitonal economic idea that choice = happiness (yadda yadda) are apparently getting some influence in government circles.

Except, of course, this is crap. For many reasons.

1. Governments, well, the UK one at least, equates happiness with having things. Or, rather, getting things, which is different as it's a process, rather than a state. But here's the paradox, the vicious circle: progress then gets fed off unhappiness. 'Happiness', as defined, depends on more things. More things depends on people wanting to be 'happy' (note the magician's sleight of hand trick there), which means the entire system gets defined in terms of non-happiness. See previous ranting, elsewhere for arguments/discussion.

2. The question 'are you happy?', apart from being rather subjective (dependent on how you experience and remember life) and according to what just happened, is rather like asking 'are you asleep?' You are, if you are happy, generally quite unlikely to think about the question, or think to yourself 'OMG I'm so Happy yay'. This is because happiness, even defined as a calm sense of comfort and satisfaction, is a state of being. When you're scared, you don't (without training) ask yourself "am I scared?" - you're too busy being scared, and acting/reacting accordingly. The same thing is true of happiness - why bother to ask the question if you're feeling too good?

This, I suspect, leads to a very dangerous operation in terms of measuring happiness. When the UK government not only wants people to be 'happy', but also a) determines what happiness is, and b) determines how to measure it, for their "happiness league table" purposes, they are thereby killing the whole "definition", the whole meaning behind happiness. (This is in much the same way that they try to measure "intelligence" by giving tests, producing individuals that are good at, uh, passing tests, but not necessarily thinking.)

Alas, with our rationalist, measure-happy way of doing everything these days (happiness through drugs is still the easiest way to gauge things), expect more floundering and scratching of heads over something that is, in reality the simplest thing we can possibly do.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What be these air monsters you climb inside the belly of?

My pledge failed some time ago, so I'm glad to discover a similar Flight Pledge idea. This one breaks it down into 2 tiers, for "no flying" (save emergencies) and "max of 2 return flights" too. And you actually get a certificate, apparently.

Will have to think about signing up. Currently, I'm invited to go to Norway, so I'm trying to work out if going by train and ferry is feasible/desirable...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Has science shot itself in the foot?

I'm currently skimming over an article from 2001 by Svein Sjøberg entitled "Science and Technology in Education: Current Challenges and Possible Solutions". He sets out a bunch of possible reasons why students aren't taking science as subjects. (Incidentally, when Brown talks of "Britain's future economic competitiveness", that basically means "we need more progress!".)

As an (ex?) scientist, I'm interested in hearing more about other people's - especially non-scientists' - relation with the area. As Sjøberg notes, everyone is extremely happy to use and to follow what science produces, but few actually want to do it. If anyone's reading this, why didn't you take science? What puts you off? Is it just something that "somebody else" does?

I've put some of my thoughts below - including an explanation of this post's title - but just to summarise the Sjøberg article, here's a quick run-down of the 13 influences he puts forward:

  1. Irrelevant and dull, on a personal level

  2. Too difficult, too intellectual, especially in an age of anti-intellectualism

  3. Teaching is poor

  4. Alternative beliefs are more fun! (See #1. Also, are they more relevant to the individual?)

  5. The idea of of 'objectivity' is under 'attack' from more social-constructivist-style points of view (but is this relevant when choosing further education topics?)

  6. Scientists perceived as either geeky or mad

  7. Media portrays scientific debate as scientific uncertainty (Maybe see #5)

  8. Science is cold and uncaring - "unhuman"

  9. More distrust over science messing with the 'natural order'

  10. Science today is more to do with the military-industrial complex than personal curiosity (also see #4)

  11. Progress is now the 'norm', so we're less enamoured with it

  12. Other role models now compete, such as footballers and singers (assuming that scientists were role models previously...)

  13. A communication gap exists between scientists and the public, so less understanding of what scientists 'do'

I think a lot of these tie together, and we can extract a common thread that results in the idea that science has, in effect, shot itself in the foot. In many of these reasons (#1, #4, #8 especially), it is the fundamental objectivity of science that puts people off - the lack of humanity and subjective agency that most people, it turns out, actually quite like.

This sets up a split, which is amplified by the "necessity" in a globalised economy of sudden and rapid "mass production" of scientific expertise. On the one hand, rational and objective researchers are needed to conform to the philosophical ideal of scientific methodology. But on the other hand, you need less rational, more "empathic" people who also act as "messengers" for science and progress - the teachers, policy consultants, media consultants, etc. But this "mass production" movement - i.e. "we need scientists, and quickly!" - in conjunction with other anti-"intellectualism" factors, means that you end up with people who are, by nature, rational and objective doing the rational and objective jobs.

In other words, there is nothing to stop anyone from conducting a job in a rational, scientific manner, whilst retaining 'other' abilities of a more interpersonal, humanistic nature. What prevents it in this case is the ideas that a) training is expensive and time-consuming, so a natural 'instinct' for rationality is preferred, and b) as the population grows ever larger, specialisation becomes the norm, such that you are expected to conform to one or the other.

Thus, it can be said that in today's globalised and competitive culture, poor teaching and misperceptions about science are the natural result of the scientific area 'isolating' itself from what it means to be human. People like using and reading about science for its emotional effect, but science as a methodology deliberately rejects this as unimportant. It has, in effect, dug its own grave.

The re-integration of science with the 'soul' (see how I have to put that in quotes? this is the extent to which 'rationality' has permeated my language...) is something we need to face up to, and fast. Religion in its theological phase attempted (/attempts) to put science to work for the soul. Science in its objective phase rejects the notion of spirituality, yet the debates over "religion vs science" highlight the fact that this is an issue we are struggling with, and fighting to comprehend. Fighting badly.

What we need is much more of a "religion-with-science" debate, in which the definitions of both are re-assessed completely, and re-centred on the 'self' rather than on their polemic ideals. That's the only way I can see that we're going to get out of the mess we're in.

Feel free to leave all sorts of comments below.

Recommended reading: Promethus Rising, R. A. Wilson.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Control over Reputation

Hmm, I'm almost loathe to give publicity to this one, but it raises some interesting points. The FT has a (purchasers/subscribers-only) article today on a new 'e-Influence' service being offered to track companies' reputations amongst bloggers and "other opinion-formers on the Internet".

The opening line of the article states, in a typically overhyped way, that "Businesses are in danger of "losing control" of their reputations".

Doesn't this imply that, prior to more lubricated communication flows (blogs et al, if you like), reputation was in the hands of the suppliers? I love the way marketingspeak goes against all the 'rational consumer' theory of its economics grandaddy (a split representing, I suspect, the adherence to practical psychology that marketing relies on...). Bad product = pay less. Reputation is not branding.

Such reputation-tracking services will, I guess, fall into usage by two sorts of company: those that actually care what people are saying about them (at which point the mettle of the "independent" blogger is tested, as "sweetening" deals come their way...) and those that are out to sue (a practice which scientologists pioneered, of course).