As you may know, North Korea, the world’s most repressive nation, is about to test a new nuclear weapon. Within two decades, says the New York Timesin an article published today, the DPRK will have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons via intercontinental missiles. That means the U.S. will be in danger.
So far there’s no stopping that country. Weapons development has been faster than predicted, sanctions haven’t worked, and China doesn’t have the stomach to apply the pressure it should, perhaps because they actually want the U.S. to be threatened. Trump is making threatening noises, but really, what can he do? If he takes unilateral action, North Korea will simply destroy Seoul, only a few miles south of the border. There’s little doubt of such a reprisal, except that it will be a suicidal move by Kim Jong-un. But the man is not rational, so who knows?
Last week, with Anzac Day approaching, it seemed a good time to browse through Betty Churcher’s magnificent tribute to the artists who depict war. The Art of War was written to coincide with a TV program on SBS, produced by Film Australia, and I had not long ago stumbled on my copy at Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton. But the day after I started drafting this review, my father unexpectedly died, and I forgot about this post until tonight, the eve of Anzac Day 2017. So for now, I’m just going to focus on what I’ve read of the book, just Chapter One.
The Art of War is a paperback, but it is full-sized and printed on quality glossy paper so the reproductions of the paintings are superb. (You need to click the links to see most of them, because of copyright).
In the USA, a protectionist stance from policymakers and an increasingly inward focus have resulted in a restive public, giving rise to protest across spheres and sectors. This has sent ripples across the world, including in Australia.
While the practice of scientific inquiry is apolitical, science and technology themselves are a litmus test for a healthy political system. The ability to pursue science and technology freely and without favour serves as a measure of political freedom, and their applications provide the tools to preserve and enhance it.
In providing a universal language that transcends culture, science bridges communities across the globe. Its pursuit is impossible without collaboration and connection, and the benefits it yields serve our species as a whole. Consider transformational technologies such as the internet and smartphones, or the inspirational and pioneering recent discoveries of gravitational waves and liquid water on Mars.
Scientific research also allows countries to work together, and succeed together, in global arenas separate from political interest. It builds common ground and unites us against the common enemies of humankind – disease, hunger, poor sanitation, disadvantage and catastrophic threats to our environment.
Now, though, the international litmus test of policy and political support for scientific and technological advancement internationally is creeping dangerously towards the downside. It is vital that we do not forget the long list of advantages and benefits that come from collaborating internationally, from cooperating across cultures to learn, and from sharing our knowledge with the world – they far outweigh the risks or dangers.
Allowing free movement of researchers, empowering institutions and universities to attract the best and brightest from around the world, and allowing these women and men to conduct their work unimpeded by political machinations will benefit us all.
This isn’t the stuff of ivory towers. The potential for science to improve our health, wellbeing, and environment are recognised and supported by the average Australian voter. This week a poll conducted by the College of Arts and Social Science at the Australian National University showed that 82% of Australians want science to play a greater role in politics, and more than two-thirds say government funding is the best mechanism for this to occur.
On 22 April 2017, hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of people will take to the streets globally to March for Science. Whether they march or not, Australians should ask themselves if they will stand strong in the future to defend and support the positive impact science and technology has had in their lives. Science is not just for scientists.
If decision makers understand the value we place on science and technology, and the gifts we reap from their discoveries and applications, we can look forward to an exciting and productive future.
We’re standing at the crossroads, and science can’t be alone in taking the first step in defence of creating and applying knowledge. The Australian people must also step out and stand up for science, so that together we can forge a strong path towards a healthier, safer, more empowered future for our species and our planet.
Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General of the United States, which means he’s our chief law enforcement officer. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem to recognize that Hawaii is part of the United States, as valid a state as any other. Nevertheless, he didn’t seem to recognize that a Federal Court ruling in Hawaii, overruling Trump’s second executive order on immigrants, has the force of law. When Federal judge Derrick K. Watson of Hawaii issued the block, Sessions (who voted to confirm Watson) put his metatarsals in his mouth:
Sessions told “The Mark Levin Show” earlier this week that he was “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”
Called out on this gaffe, Sessions didn’t take it back:
The following article is adapted from a speech to be delivered at the Melbourne March for Science on Saturday 22 April, 2017.
The mission posted on the March for Science international website states:
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest. The March for Science is a celebration of science.
To me, it seems the reason concerned people across the planet are marching today is that, at least for the major players in the English-speaking world, there are major threats to the global culture of science.
Why? A clear understanding of what is happening with, for example, the atmosphere, oceans and climate creates irreconcilable problems for powerful vested interests, particularly in the fossil fuel and coastal real estate sectors.
Contrary to the data-free “neocon/trickle down” belief system, the observed dissonance implies that we need robust, enforceable national and international tax and regulatory structures to drive the necessary innovation and renewal that will ensure global sustainability and a decent future for humanity and other, complex life forms.
In the USA, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 incorporates massive cuts to the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
And, though it in no sense reflects political hostility and deliberate ignorance, British scientists are fearful that Brexit will have a terrible impact on their funding and collaborative arrangements.
How does this affect us in Australia? Why should we care? The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere. NOAA records, analyses and curates much of the world’s climate science data. A degraded EPA provides a disastrous model for all corrupt and regressive regimes.
Science depends on a “churn”, both of information and people. After completing their PhD “ticket”, many of our best young researchers will spend 3-5 years employed as postdoctoral fellows in the USA, Europe and (increasingly) the Asian countries to our north, while young American, Asian and European/British scientists come to work for a time with our leading scientists.
The proposed 2018 US President’s budget would, for example, abolish the NIH Fogarty International Centre that has enabled many young scientists from across the planet to work in North America. In turn, we recruited “keepers” like Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, our first, resident Nobel Prize winner for physics and current Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU).
We might also recall that – supported strongly by Prime Ministers JJ Curtin and RG Menzies – the ANU (with 3 Nobel Prizes to its credit) was founded as a research university to position us in science and international affairs.
Not a done deal, yet
What looks to be happening in the US is not a done deal.
The US political system is very different from our own. The Division of Powers in the US Constitution means that the President is in many respects less powerful than our PM.
Unable to introduce legislation, a President can only pass (or veto) bills that come from the Congress. Through to September, we will be watching a vigorous negotiation process where separate budgets from the House and the Senate (which may well ignore most, if not all, of the President’s ambit claims) will develop a “reconciled” budget that will be presented for President Trump’s signature.
How March for Science might help
The hope is that this international celebration of science will cause US legislators, particularly the more thoughtful on the right of politics, to reflect a little and understand what they risk if they choose to erode their global scientific leadership.
There are massive problems to be solved, along with great economic opportunities stemming from the development of novel therapies and new, smart “clean and green” technologies in, particularly, the energy generation and conservation sector.
Ignoring, or denying, problems does not make them go away. Whether or not the message is welcome, the enormous power of science and technology means we can only go forward if future generations are to experience the levels of human well-being and benign environmental conditions we enjoy today.
There is no going back. The past is a largely imagined, and irretrievable country.
I don’t usually read military history, but I couldn’t resist this latest release in the Text Classics series. Tobruk 1941 interests me because The Offspring had a great-uncle who was a Rat of Tobruk. Uncle Doug Allan, who died in 1985, was a gentle, kind-hearted soul, generous to a fault and with the typical laconic Aussie sense of humour, but this apparently ordinary Aussie Bloke was also a hero, the like of which we’ll never see again.
Early in 1941, Australian troops captured Tobruk from the Italians: it was an important victory because it was Mussolini’s stronghold on the Libyan Coast. Bordered by pitiless desert, Tobruk was a strategic fortress because it had a deep-water harbour on the eastern Mediterranean. Rommel’s Afrika Corps quickly arrived to reclaim it and so began a 241-day siege beginning in April and not lifted until November of that year. Germany had successfully stormed through Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, and the Afrika Corps had never been defeated. Tobruk…
[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here. Note: this is the last entry in this 27-part series]
What do philosophers think of philosophy?
I am about to wrap up my tour of what philosophy is and how it works, which has taken us throughout these seven chapters to examine subjects as disparate as the Kyoto School and Quineian webs of beliefs, the history of progress in mathematics and the various theories of truth as they apply to the explanation of scientific progress. Before some concluding remarks on the current status and foreseeable future of the discipline, however, it seems advisable to pause and reflect on what philosophers themselves think of a number of issues characterizing their own profession.
Which is more important, a fact or an opinion on any given subject? It might be tempting to say the fact. But not so fast…
Lately, we find ourselves lamenting the post-truth world, in which facts seem no more important than opinions, and sometimes less so.
We also tend to see this as a recent devaluation of knowledge. But this is a phenomenon with a long history.
As the science fiction writer Issac Asimov wrote in 1980:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.
The view that opinions can be more important than facts need not mean the same thing as the devaluing of knowledge. It’s always been the case that in certain situations opinions have been more important than facts, and this is a good thing. Let me explain.
Not all facts are true
To call something a fact is, presumably, to make a claim that it is true. This isn’t a problem for many things, although defending such a claim can be harder than you think.
What we think are facts – that is, those things we think are true – can end up being wrong despite our most honest commitment to genuine inquiry.
It’s not only that facts can change that is a problem. While we might be happy to consider it a fact that Earth is spherical, we would be wrong to do so because it’s actually a bit pear-shaped. Thinking it a sphere, however, is very different from thinking it to be flat.
Asimov expressed this beautifully in his essay The Relativity of Wrong. For Asimov, the person who thinks Earth is a sphere is wrong, and so is the person who thinks the Earth is flat. But the person who thinks that they are equally wrong is more wrong than both.
Geometrical hair-splitting aside, calling something a fact is therefore not a proclamation of infallibility. It is usually used to represent the best knowledge we have at any given time.
It’s also not the knockout blow we might hope for in an argument. Saying something is a fact by itself does nothing to convince someone who doesn’t agree with you. Unaccompanied by any warrant for belief, it is not a technique of persuasion. Proof by volume and repetition – repeatedly yelling “but it’s a fact!” – simply doesn’t work. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Matters of fact and opinion
Then again, calling something an opinion need not mean an escape to the fairyland of wishful thinking. This too is not a knockout attack in an argument. If we think of an opinion as one person’s view on a subject, then many opinions can be solid.
For example, it’s my opinion that science gives us a powerful narrative to help understand our place in the Universe, at least as much as any religious perspective does. It’s not an empirical fact that science does so, but it works for me.
But we can be much clearer in our meaning if we separate things into matters of fact and matters of opinion.
Matters of fact are confined to empirical claims, such as what the boiling point of a substance is, whether lead is denser than water, or whether the planet is warming.
Matters of opinion are non-empirical claims, and include questions of value and of personal preference such as whether it’s ok to eat animals, and whether vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. Ethics is an exemplar of a system in which matters of fact cannot by themselves decide courses of action.
Matters of opinion can be informed by matters of fact (for example, finding out that animals can suffer may influence whether I choose to eat them), but ultimately they are not answered by matters of fact (why is it relevant if they can suffer?).
Backing up the facts and opinions
Opinions are not just pale shadows of facts; they are judgements and conclusions. They can be the result of careful and sophisticated deliberation in areas for which empirical investigation is inadequate or ill-suited.
While it’s nice to think of the world so neatly divided into matters of fact and matters of opinion, it’s not always so clinical in its precision. For example, it is a fact that I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate. In other words, it is apparently a matter of fact that I am having a subjective experience.
But we can heal that potential rift by further restricting matters of fact to those things that can be verified by others.
While it’s true that my ice cream preference could be experimentally indicated by observing my behaviour and interviewing me, it cannot be independently verified by others beyond doubt. I could be faking it.
But we can all agree in principle on whether the atmosphere contains more nitrogen or carbon dioxide because we can share the methodology of inquiry that gives us the answer. We can also agree on matters of value if the case for a particular view is rationally persuasive.
Facts and opinions need not be positioned in opposition to each other, as they have complementary functions in our decision-making. In a rational framework, they are equally useful. But that’s just my opinion – it’s not a fact.
As some of my readers know, I have an unusual background. I began my academic career as an evolutionary biologist (Master’s at the University of Rome; Doctorate at the University of Ferrara, Italy; PhD at the University of Connecticut), switching to philosophy (PhD at the University of Tennessee) later on. A number of people, even recently, have asked me why. Here’s the answer, which I offer not (just) as a self indulgent piece of personal biography, but as a reflection on the academic world and the role of serendipity in life. It may be of interest to some, especially young students who are considering a career in either field.