Category Archives: Essays and talks

Essays and talks written by Tim Harding

A joint response to Gary Bakker on scientism and philosophy

By Tim Harding and James Fodor

Introduction

In the last issue of The Skeptic (December 2017, pages 56-59), Gary Bakker criticises an essay from the previous September issue of The Skeptic by Tim Harding. This essay is headed ‘A Step Too Far’ (pages 32-35), and argues against the relatively recent advent of the ideology known as scientism, which in a nutshell claims that science is the only legitimate domain of objective knowledge. At several points, Tim’s essay cites and quotes an earlier essay by James Fodor in the Australian Rationalist magazine (December 2016, pages 32-35) titled ‘Not So Simple’, which was also criticised by Bakker. That is why we have prepared this joint response to Bakker’s article.

We think that it is incumbent on a critic to understand and come to grips with what one is criticising. A failure to do so is a recipe for misrepresentation of the arguments one is attempting to refute. In this case, Bakker has not only misrepresented many of our positions and arguments, but more fundamentally he has misrepresented the nature of the topics we are arguing about, including science, scientism, rationality and philosophy.

One of Bakker’s major misunderstandings seems to be about philosophy. To characterise philosophy as what happens at amateur ‘Philosophy Cafes’ is disingenuous, highly misleading and frankly absurd. It is like defining psychology as what is discussed in amateur pop psychology or self-help groups. Philosophy is a serious academic discipline which is taught at almost all of the world’s leading universities. The main sub-fields of academic philosophy include logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science. While logic is of course used by many disciplines including science and mathematics, the study and development of logic itself is actually a branch of philosophy. Until only a few hundred years ago, science was also a branch of philosophy, known as ‘natural philosophy’. Experimental scientific methods were initially developed by the English philosophers Robert Grossteste and Roger Bacon in the 13th century, as explained in an essay by Tim in the June 2016 issue of The Skeptic. Since the branching off of science from philosophy beginning around the 17th century, philosophers have been quite happy to leave empirical observations and experiments to the scientific domain. As such, any competition between philosophy and science exists only in the minds of scientism advocates. The imagined competition stems from a lack of understanding of the nature of philosophy by scientism advocates like Bakker. In particular, philosophy of science does not attempt to undermine or replace science, but rather seeks to understand the nature of science and how and why it works as well as it does.

In the present piece, we will critically analyse the arguments made by Bakker in his article. We will begin with an examination of how Bakker has misrepresented our arguments, and failed to understand what we were actually arguing. We will then discuss three key issues raised by Bakker: how moral and ethical questions should be resolved, the justification of science as ‘what works’, and the notion that philosophy has never made any contributions to human knowledge. In each case we argue that not only does Bakker fail to provide convincing reasons for his contention, but also that he faces powerful objections that he fails to address. In discussing each of these specific topics, we also hope to illustrate that the only way Bakker could hope to respond to our objections is by engaging in philosophical argumentation, which would thereby critically undermine his main thesis that such discourse has no value.

Misrepresenting our arguments

Throughout his article, Bakker consistently misstates and misrepresents our arguments. He begins by characterising our writings as exemplary of what he terms ‘small r rationalism’, which according to Baker entails ‘agreement with Immanuel Kant who argued that knowledge can be innate, can be acquired through pure reasoning, and that philosophical enquiry and argument alone can answer the Big Questions’. This entire concept is a red herring since neither of us is a Kantian, nor are we defending a rationalist as distinct from empiricist approach in our writings. Furthermore, it is logically invalid to infer our wider philosophical positions from two specific essays we have written about narrow topics. In particular, any attempt to characterise us as anti-empiricists is a bit rich given our backgrounds in science and skepticism. This ‘small r rationalism’ is contrasted with ‘capital r Rationalism’, which Bakker says is defined by the Rationalist Society of Australia as holding that ‘knowledge is best acquired by use of the scientific method, which is an inseparable combination of reason plus observation or experiment’. However, Bakker does not provide any reference for his definition of ‘Rationalism’, and we cannot find his quoted definition on the Rationalist Society of Australia website. It remains unclear, therefore, where Bakker’s concepts of rationalism (small or capital ‘r’) have come from.

Later in his piece, Bakker castigates James for his critique of ‘crude positivism’, which Bakker says ‘sounds like a straw man’, and asks ‘why not critique “refined positivism”?’. In his original article, however, James explained that the reason he discusses ‘crude positivism’ is because he wanted to address the ‘patchwork of overlapping ideas and perspectives’ that in his experience seemed quite prominent in rationalist/skeptic/freethought communities. Neither of us criticised ‘positivism’ as such in our essays – another red herring on Bakker’s part. A response to more sophisticated philosophical accounts of positivism would require much more space than available for James’ short article, and furthermore such accounts have already been written elsewhere. All this should have been clear enough after a careful reading of our essays, where we both outline clearly what James means by the term ‘crude positivism’. Consulting ‘Mr Google’ is no substitute for carefully reading the argument one intends to respond to.

James also does not say that scientism claims that ‘the humanities should adopt the scientific method’, and even though this appears in quotes in Bakker’s piece, this phrase is not present in either Tim’s essay or James original essay.  So this is an actual misquotation by Bakker – even worse than a misrepresentation. The closest statement to it was one by Prof. Tom Sorrell who was cited on page 33 of Tim’s essay using different words, albeit with a similar meaning. Rather, what James in fact argued is that ‘if the superior status of the natural sciences is based on their superior adherence to a particular set of epistemological principles, then it is those principles themselves that are the true bearer of the superior status… applying these same principles to any disciple should yield knowledge justified to similarly rigorous standards.’ James’ point here was simply that the principles of sound inquiry are broadly applicable across all disciplines. Thomas Huxley expressed this idea well: ‘the man of science simply uses with scrupulous exactness the methods which we all, habitually and at every minute, use carelessly’.

Finally, Tim does not equate ‘science’ with ‘the natural sciences’ in his essay. This comment by Bakker appears to be a misunderstanding of a statement by Prof. Tom Sorrell that Tim cites on page 33.

Bakker on ethics

Bakker attempts to give an account as to how ‘moral and ethical questions’ can be answered without recourse to philosophical argumentation. He argues that we should resolve these questions by the following procedure:

  1. Realise that moral questions are not ‘answerable by reference to some absolute, transcendent set of rules’.
  2. Instead, focus on what principles and laws ‘best achieve society’s goals’.
  3. Engage in systematic observation of ‘what human beings are actually found to value’ (as individuals and as groups).
  4. Determine (empirically) which codes of law, ethics, and mores will work best to achieve these goals, and implement those.

The first point appears to constitute an endorsement of moral anti-realism, the position that there are no objectively existing moral states of affairs. This is a philosophical position that stands in contrast to many forms of moral realism, which affirm the existence of objective moral facts while differing on the form that such moral facts take. Bakker not only fails to notice that he is making a philosophical claim, but also offers no reason at all to accept his assertion. His second point appears to be an endorsement of some form of cultural relativism, the view that what is good or moral is dependent upon the goals and standards of a particular culture. Later though Bakker also mentions ‘the goals… of humanity’, so he may not be a cultural relativist, but providing an account of what it could mean for ‘humanity’ to have goals, let alone what such goals might be, is not even attempted. Either way, these are philosophical positions that require defence, and cannot simply be asserted without argument.

Aside from the lack of substantive arguments for his position, several critical objections can be raised against his views. For example, in cases of genocide or slavery, societies have determined that their goals are best met by engaging in actions we would regard as immoral. On what basis, in Bakker’s account, can we say that they are morally wrong in doing so? Bakker’s account also renders apparently very important questions about what goals we ought to have as unintelligible, since on his view this would trivially amount to asking whether having a certain goal would help us to achieve that goal. Perhaps Bakker’s account can be rescued by developing sufficiently rich concepts about what is meant by a ‘goal’, how competing goals within a group are integrated, what kinds of goals are most pertinent, etc. All of the extra conceptual work and articulation of distinctions and giving of reasons for one’s positions, however, is precisely what one does in doing philosophy. The poverty of Bakker’s ‘solution’ to the problems posed by morality and ethics points clearly and directly for exactly why we need philosophy.

In response to Bakker’s third point, even the notion of determining empirically what people actually value is not the straightforward scientific exercise Bakker implies it to be.  It sounds like he is advocating some sort of populist opinion poll or focus group approach to ethical questions. Whilst these might provide opinions about particular ethical issues, they are unlikely to result in more generalised frameworks or principles that can be applied to other ethical issues. Anybody who has seriously studied ethics will be aware that some ethical problems can be very complex, and not conducive to solving by public opinion surveys.

Science and pragmatism

Bakker defines science with prime reference to ‘what works’, arguing that ‘[science] is a method of inquiry, and it is the only one we have found so far that gives us reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-backed, applicable knowledge, in any “field of inquiry”. In fact, this is so almost by definition. If a process – a particular method – works, we include it in the scientific method’. In our earlier essays we raised the objection that this is an insufficient basis for defending the superiority of science, since some scientific theories that ‘worked’ and were ‘useful’ nevertheless have been shown to be incorrect. Bakker responds that this is not a reason for doubting pragmatic justifications of the superiority of science, since no disciple outside of science can do any better. As he says: ‘no other method has ever shown a scientifically-derived explanation that works to be wrong’.

The problem with this response is that it ignores most of James’ argument. In his argument he explained that there are two main ways of understanding the goal of science. One view, realism, holds that science attempts to arrive at accurate (albeit usually approximate) descriptions of the way reality actually is. If this is a key goal of science, then obviously there is more to good science than just being ‘useful’, as demonstrated by the fact that many useful scientific theories have nevertheless turned out not to accurately describe reality. Bakker, however, doesn’t seem to be persuaded by this, so perhaps he is an instrumentalist. Instrumentalism holds that science does not attempt to tell us about the way the world really is, but merely to deliver useful models and descriptions that make predictions and/or serve practical ends. Like other advocates of scientism, however, Bakker has also claimed that ‘all meaningful philosophical problems are actually scientific problems’. This seems to pose a problem since a great many philosophical problems relate to claims about the way the world is, while under instrumentalism science has nothing to say about the way the world actually is beyond providing useful models. Thus, if scientific instrumentalism is correct it seems that philosophical problems cannot be scientific questions. The only way to reconcile these views would be to assert that all philosophical questions relating to how the world actually is, are in fact ‘meaningless’. Yet this would entail that even questions like ‘is slavery morally wrong?’ or ‘does God exist?’ or ‘what is knowledge?’ are actually meaningless. Even if one is dubious about whether philosophy has provided useful answers to such questions, it is quite something else to assert that the questions themselves are meaningless. To us this is clearly absurd – such questions may be subtle and multifaceted, but are not ‘meaningless’. As such it seems that Bakker is caught in a bind – either he must embrace scientific realism and thereby abandon his purely pragmatic conception of science as ‘what works’, or else he must instead embrace scientific instrumentalism and thereby (given his other views) hold that all philosophical questions are meaningless.

The other aspect of James’ argument about the status of science that Bakker ignores is the fact that appealing to ‘what works’ is a far too amorphous and generous criterion to grant science the superior status Bakker wants for it. This is because many other fields of inquiry and human endeavour also ‘work’. For example, one goal shared by many people and societies throughout history is to understand their purpose in living and find meaning in life. For the large majority of such people, belief in a supernatural being or spiritual agencies beyond this material world has ‘worked’ to provide them with answers that they find compelling and meaningful. We could even point to a variety of psychological studies indicating that such spiritual beliefs and practises actually do lead to better outcomes along a range of metrics of interest, such as life satisfaction, physical and mental health. Yet we would not wish to thereby grant supernatural belief the status of being a science, no matter how well it has ‘worked’ for many people over human history. Perhaps, however, we are not to understand what ‘works’ in this case as referring to achieving social or personal goals (though Bakker does use the term this way in his discussion of morality), but rather as to being uniquely able to generate ‘reliable, reproducible, consensual, evidence-backed, applicable knowledge’. In this case, however, the criterion still clearly fails, since (as Bakker himself seems to acknowledge), history, social science, detective work, jurisprudence, and other fields can also deliver this sort of knowledge. So it remains unclear what exactly is supposed to place science in the uniquely privileged position that Bakker attempts to carve out for it.

Philosophy and knowledge

One of Bakker’s primary concerns in his article seems to be in arguing that ‘philosophy… as a truth-seeker… has been a dismal failure’. The only reason he gives for believing this, however, is that ‘in 3000 years it has confirmed for us not one answer to any of the Big Questions’. We interpret this to mean that philosophers have not been able to agree upon an answer to any of the Big Questions. This, however, seems to be a completely misplaced criterion. To say that philosophers have not yet agreed upon a final answer to any of the ‘Big Questions’ is simply to say that philosophy is not yet complete. This is hardly unusual in academia – theoretical physicists also admit that their work is incomplete. It does not follow that philosophers have not produced any useful knowledge or insights pertinent to the ‘Big Questions’. Bakker seems to think that philosophical knowledge is all or none – either a question has an established, agreed upon answer, or it does not. Philosophy, however, attempts (among other things) to explore and articulate key concepts that underpin human thought, such as ‘causation’, ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘mind’, ‘rationality’, ‘knowledge’, ‘good’, and ‘meaning’. This process of conceptual exploration and refinement is not all or none, but a gradual accumulation of new arguments, models, comparisons, and analytical frameworks, of that sort that can be found in any introductory philosophical textbook or handbook.

Another aspect that Bakker overlooks is that once a widely agreed upon answer or framework for thinking about one particular question is arrived upon, the field ceases to be regarded as philosophy and becomes an established science.  As we mentioned earlier, modern physics was originally called ‘natural philosophy’, and most of the other fields of natural and social science likewise branched off from philosophy at various times. This was not simply because researchers decided to use ‘the scientific method’, but was in part the result of conceptual refinements and theoretical developments (as well as technological advances) that allowed the discipline to reach maturity as a science. We note that much of the subject matter of philosophy of mind is currently in the process of being transformed into the purview of the emerging field of cognitive science. Thus, the only way Bakker can argue that philosophy has been ‘a dismal failure’ as a truth seeker is first, by ignoring all of the important historical contributions that philosophers and philosophical reasoning has made in providing the foundation for modern scientific disciplines, and secondly by imposing an implausibly rigid and simplistic criterion for what philosophical knowledge should look like.

Finally, Bakker ignores the many demonstrable contributions that philosophy has made to increasing human knowledge and wellbeing, of which we will now give a few examples. Our first example is that of Galileo, who drew his conclusions about falling objects using logic and reason rather than experience or observation. On page 58 Bakker draws a distinction between reason and logic, yet he seems unaware that reason is the application of logic, which is a sub-field of philosophy rather than science.  How on Earth could Galileo have experienced objects falling in a vacuum? Our second example is that of the democratic principles and safeguards embodied in the United States Constitution, which were significantly influenced by political philosophers such as William Blackstone, John Locke, and Montesquieu. Science had nothing to do with it. Our third example is the work of a number of philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and Alan Turing, who developed the foundations of logic and computer science that underpinned the development of modern digital computers. Our final example is the development of the ethical principles of informed patient consent, which were developed by judges and bioethicists. Prior to this, there were some notorious cases in the first half of the twentieth century where informed patient consent had not been obtained for certain clinical trials. We argue that informed patient consent is primarily obtained for legal or ethical reasons, and not for purely scientific purposes. We could supply further examples of the practical usefulness of philosophy, but space in this magazine is understandably limited.

Concluding remarks

Bakker’s article exemplifies the pitfalls of crude positivism and the folly of scientism. There seems to be an inverse correlation in such writings between the disdainful dismissal of non-scientific disciplines like philosophy and the level of understanding of what philosophy actually is. In particular, the fundamental flaw of Bakker’s argument is that, in arguing for the unique superiority of science and the uselessness of philosophy as a field of inquiry, Bakker is himself doing philosophy. Because of his rejection of the value of philosophy and refusal to engage with relevant philosophical literature, however, he also does it very badly. Philosophy addresses many of the most fundamental questions that underpin all aspects of human endeavour, including law, politics, ethics – and even science. It is therefore not something we can simply avoid doing or pretend doesn’t exist. It can often be difficult and even frustrating when agreement and final resolution is often so hard to achieve. Nevertheless, we believe that as intellectually responsible skeptics it is vital to take philosophical issues seriously, and reject the easy but misguided notion of ‘crude positivism’ that science is the only form of human inquiry worth taking seriously.

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How to startup and run a local skeptics group

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this article was published in The Skeptic magazine,
December 2017, Vol 37 No 4)

This article about local skeptics groups is intended to complement those elsewhere in this issue of the magazine by Eran Segev and Tim Mendham.  After having been a co-organiser for nearly seven years of the successful Mordi Skeptics in the Pub, I would now like to pass on 10 tips for people thinking of starting up a local skeptics group in their area.

As Tim Mendham writes, the Skeptics in the Pub (SitP) movement has been quite successful with over 100 groups worldwide, including 11 in Australia.  The Mordi SitP now has over 700 members, although probably only around 10% of these come to the meetups (the rest are social media members).  I think the key to this success is the idea of meeting in a social setting over a few drinks and the possibility of dinner as well. This can help overcome the usual objections to boring meetings that we get enough of in our day jobs.

Tim Harding introducing visiting US speaker Susan Gerbic
to the Mordi Skeptics, 2015

  1. Choose your venue

The obvious first requirement is the availability of reasonably priced drinks and meals.  Next is adequate parking and close proximity to public transport.  Although most groups start off meeting in a public lounge area, it’s best to choose a venue that has private rooms, if and when you want to have guest speakers later on.

  1. Choose a local name for your group

There are three main advantages to having an identifiable local geographical name for you group, such as your local town or suburb. First, it helps potential members know where you are.  Second, the venue you choose is likely to be impressed by your local name. Third, local MPs are more likely to take you seriously if you want to lobby them about some skeptical issue.  (Don’t name your group after the venue, because you might need to change venues and keep your name).

  1. Promote your group via social media

Once you have your venue and group name, the next step is to announce your existence via social media. At Mordi Skeptics, we found the Meetup web site (www.meetup.com) very useful, both in attracting members and in operating the group. The Meetup web site enables you to effectively operate the group online, without any need for those tedious organisers’ meetings that put busy people off.  But Meetup.com costs money to use, for which collecting a couple of dollars from each meetup attendee should be adequate.  Establishing a Facebook page and a Twitter handle is also a good idea, and doesn’t cost anything.

  1. Select a small number of organisers

SitP groups are best run informally, with a small number of organisers – at least 3 and no more than 5.  Organisers should be selected by invitation rather than elected at a meetup. Elections require constitutions and other time-consuming formalities you will want to avoid.  There should be no need for an informal local group to incorporate, which would require an AGM and lots of tedious paperwork. Also, you are bound to find a few anti-skeptics in the audience, who would relish an opportunity to put their hand up and sabotage your group.

Work out what tasks are needed to run the group effectively, divide these tasks up between the organisers and let them get on with it.  Such tasks include speaker wrangling, social media webmastering and liaising with the venue management.

  1. Develop a good relationship with the venue management

One of the most important tasks is to develop a good working relationship with venue staff member responsible for table and room bookings.  This task should be allocated to one of your organisers who should initially meet this staff member personally (rather than just talk over the phone) and get familiar on first name terms.  Explain what the group is on about, and how you would like to co-operate with the venue to your mutual benefit. Ask them how many members on average would need to dine and attend meetups for the venue to allocate you a private room for free on a regular basis.  (The cost of hiring a room will probably be prohibitive). The minimum number will probably be in the order of 10 for dining and 20 for attending the meeting (at which members are expected to buy a drink – even just tea or coffee).

If the venue is not prepared to give you a private room for free, you might need to look elsewhere if you want have guest speakers. Let the venue know how many members you are expecting at each meetup and the timings (including a mid-presentation drinks break) to assist them in room allocation and staffing plans.

  1. Consider your audience

We found that there were three categories of people who attended our SitP meetups.  First, there are the committed skeptics who want to advance the cause. These are likely to be in a minority, at least initially.  Second, there are people who would like to have interesting discussions in a social setting. Third, there are people who would like to meet like-minded people with a view to possible friendship or even ‘romance’ (these people are usually more interested in the dinners than the presentations).  You need to try and cater for all three categories of people, although the skeptical cause must remain paramount.  After all, you don’t want your SitP group to be just a lonely hearts club.

  1. Have clear aims and stick to them

The organisers should develop a simple and clear set of aims or purpose, and publicise these via social media.  Allow comments on these aims via social media, but don’t allow them to be debated at the actual meetups.  Otherwise you run the risk of your group being derailed by anti-skeptics.

One thing I would recommend is keeping scientific skepticism as your central focus.  For example, you will find that some people confuse skepticism with atheism, with denialism or even conspiracy theories.  In particular, just as not all skeptics are atheists, even less atheists are skeptics. Both groups are more likely to flourish by being kept separate. It’s not as if people can’t join more than one type of group.

On the other hand, don’t let your scope get too narrow. The traditional skeptical topics of paranormality, quackery and pseudoscience can be become a bit boring after a while. Any topic that promotes rationality and demotes irrationality is possibly suitable.  We usually found that talks about real science were the most popular.

  1. Select speakers carefully

Obviously you need to select speakers consistent with your aims or purposes.  Ask for recommendations from other skeptics groups.  Always have one or two backup speakers in case your scheduled speaker becomes ill on the day, or has some other unforeseen and unavoidable reason for not being able to speak.  Your own members would be the most reliable source of such backup speakers.

  1. Network with other skeptics groups

There are obvious mutual advantages in networking with the big skeptics groups such as Australian Skeptics Inc. based in NSW and the Australian Skeptics (Victorian Branch).  These state-based groups have significant resources, experience and expertise.  Amongst other things, it is worthwhile applying to them for not only guest speakers but possible grants or loans for such vital resources as a video projector.  You should also network with other local skeptics groups in your state, by attending their meetups and inviting their members as guest speakers.

  1. Have fun

Above all, SitP meetups should be enjoyable – they should aim to provide leisure-time pleasure rather than be some sort of obligatory burden.  If the latter, people will eventually become tired or bored and stop coming.  In my view, the growth of local skeptics groups is the future key to expanding the worldwide skeptical movement.

Tim Harding is a former co-organiser of the Mordi Skeptics in the Pub group, in a southern suburb of Melbourne.

References

Mendham, Tim, ‘Pint-Sized Fun’, The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.22-23.

Segev, Eran, ‘Group Thinking’ The Skeptic, December 2017, Vol 37 No 4. pp.26-29.

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Why did slavery decline earlier in the North than in the South of the United States?

by Tim Harding

There were enormous differences in the timing of slavery abolition in the North of the United States compared to the South.  The gradual state by state emancipation of slaves began in the North soon after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Yet there was no legislated emancipation of any slaves in the South until 1865, after a bloody and destructive Civil War against the North.  Why was this so?  Was it simply due to geographic differences in the levels of racial prejudice against black Africans?  Or were there, as I intend to examine in this essay, more complex and relevant cultural, political, economic or religious differences between the North and the South?

In terms of the abolition of slavery, the dividing line between the North and the South was the Mason – Dixon Line, which separated free Pennsylvania from slave Maryland, Delaware, and what is now West Virginia.  This essay focusses on the internal North/South differences during the emancipation of slaves, rather than the abolition of the importation of slaves to America via the Atlantic slave trade, which affected both the North and the South.

During the British colonial period, African slaves were imported and distributed to all colonies to replace the dwindling supply of white indentured labour,[1] who were not arriving in sufficient quantities to replace those who had served their limited term.[2]  On the plantations, escape was easy for the white indentured labourer who could blend into the free population, but less easy for black Africans.[3]  In the North, slaves typically worked as house servants and labourers, including on farms and on maritime docks in loading and unloading ships.  Some slaves worked in various skilled trades, such as bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and so on.[4]

Williams argues that the decisive factor was that the African slave was cheaper than indentured white servants.  The money that procured a white servant for ten years could buy an African slave for life.  He concludes that the primary reason for the use of African slaves was economic rather than racial; and that racial prejudice was a later rationalisation to justify economic facts.  Sugar, tobacco and cotton required large plantations and hordes of cheap labour.[5]  In America, these commodity crops were all grown in the South, as a result of climatic and topological differences from the North, where there were no such large plantations.

The first American plantation commodity crop was tobacco in the Chesapeake region, dating from the early 17th century.  Production of food crops – primarily maize – was usually limited to the requirements of self-sufficiency.  The switch from indentured labour to slave labour did raise productivity on the majority of plantations, just as the slave buyers had hoped.  Most of these efficient workers were Africans rather than Creoles, with slave women performing the same work as slave men.[6]

The American Revolution brought severe economic depression and social disruption to the Chesapeake region.  There were shortages of salt, medicine, shoes and cloth and slaves naturally suffered more than slave-owners.  Some slaves got to travel with their owners, where they learned what the Revolution was about, stimulating slave demands for consequential freedoms.[7]

Slaves picking cotton

Later on, after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the South and Deep South reshaped American slave life.  The slave population in Alabama and Mississippi grew sixfold, mainly as a result of a substantial relocation of 700,000 slaves from the Southern border states.[8]   Strong world demand for cotton kept prices generally high, enabling the purchase and relocation of slaves from higher latitudes.[9]  Slaves were even bought from Northern slave-owners in anticipation of the abolition of slavery in those states;[10] although there was a market preference for experienced Southern slaves who were more efficient in the ‘sleight of picking cotton’.[11]  This evidence helps to show that slavery was clearly the cheapest and most productive source of labour in the South.[12]

African slaves were also of economic importance to the North.  Whilst there were no large agricultural plantations like those in the South, slaves performed menial tasks that whites would otherwise have had to do.  For this very reason, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1828 objected to the colonisation of American slaves in Africa (which had been proposed as a solution to the perceived social problems that would arise from abolition).  The Senate Committee argued that colonisation would create a labor vacuum in the Eastern seaboard cities, increase the price of labor, and attract rural Africans and fugitive slaves to the urban centres.[13]

After the American War of Independence, there were several petitions by slaves to state legislatures begging for the abolition of slavery.[14][15]  These petitions largely fell on deaf ears at the time, although Vermont and Pennsylvania had already passed Acts for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1777 and 1780 respectively.[16]  All the other Northern states followed over the next decade or so, except for New Jersey in 1804.[17]  This gradualist approach is illustrated by the words of the key ‘Founding Father’ George Washington who in 1786 wrote:

‘I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by, which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.’[18]

George Washington, as a farmer with his slaves

The gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern states at first freed children born to slave mothers, but required them to serve lengthy indentures to their mother’s masters.  As a result of this gradualist approach, New York did not fully free its last ex-slaves until 1827, Rhode Island in 1840, Pennsylvania in 1847, Connecticut in 1848, and New Hampshire and New Jersey in 1865.[19]

In stark contrast, none of the Southern states abolished slavery until after the American Civil War, when in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in all states, except as punishment for a crime.

The original Constitution of the United States included several provisions regarding slavery.  Section 9 of Article I forbade the Federal government from completely banning the importation of slaves before January 1, 1808; although some states individually passed laws against importing slaves.  Section 2 of Article IV prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.[20]

In 1789, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, amongst other things, stated that no person (that is, a free citizen) shall be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation’.  Because slaves were property at this time, the Fifth Amendment was interpreted to mean that slavery could not be abolished without just compensation.[21]  The need to avoid expensive compensation payments may well have been the main reason why Northern governments opted for gradual abolition on an intergenerational basis.

Whilst racism was an obvious factor in the Atlantic slave trade,[22] there appears to be little evidence that racist attitudes towards Africans were more prevalent in the South than the North prior to the Civil War.  For instance, the minstrel shows in which white performers in black face disparaged and ridiculed Africans originated in New York.[23]  Most of these white minstrel performers were either born in New York or had lived in the city for long periods of their lives.[24]  Minstrel skits exaggerated racially distinctive features and behaviours to grotesque proportions.[25]  Together with newspaper cartoons and posters, Northerners were constantly reminding Africans of their alleged inferiority.  These racial stereotypes ‘hardly induced Northerners to accord this clownish race equal political and social rights’.[26]

Northern white workers protested often and bitterly against unfair competition from the far cheaper African slaves.  Founding Father John Adams observed that had slavery not been abolished in the North, the white labourers would have removed the African slaves by force.  In any case, white worker hostility towards the slaves had already rendered slavery unprofitable by lowering slave motivation and productivity.[27]

An alternative view is that the views of white workers held back emancipation in the North, through fears of labor competition from freed slaves.  White trade unions reinforced antipathy towards African labor competition.  They rejected racial unity as a way of achieving higher wages and vigorously opposed abolitionism.  To the trade unions, emancipation posed a serious threat of thousands of former slaves pouring into the North to undermine wages and working conditions.[28]  Although there were obviously conflicting views of white workers towards African slaves, they underscore the central importance of economics to the debate.

On the other hand, Litwick suggests the need to balance economic arguments for the North/South differences with consideration of cultural and ideological influences.  He suggests that political leadership was a factor in drawing attention to inconsistencies between the Enlightenment principles used to justify the American Revolution and the continuation of slavery.[29]  For instance, the Northern Founding Father John Jay (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) wrote:

‘To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused.  Until America ridded herself of human bondage her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious’.[30]

John Jay (1745 – 1829)

Another cultural difference was that the leading antislavery religious movement, the Quakers, were much more active in the North than in the South.  Abolitionist sentiment in Pennsylvania, for example, resulted largely from early and persistent Quaker opposition to slavery as inconsistent with ‘the true spirit of Christianity’.  Following the lead of Pennsylvania, annual Quaker meetings in other Northern colonies adopted similar condemnations of slaveholding.[31]

In 1785, the New York Manumission Society, with John Jay as its president was also politically influential.  In 1799, John Jay as Governor of New York signed a bill providing for the gradual emancipation of New York State’s 21,000 slaves.[32]

As a counterbalance to these explanations, Davis argues that the Southern states also had antislavery political leadership from the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, St. George Tucker, Patrick Henry, Arthur Lee and John Laurens.[33]  Yet there were no legislated moves towards the emancipation of Southern slaves, gradual or otherwise.  For example, the Virginian judge St. George Tucker despairingly wrote in 1795:

‘If, in Massachusetts, where the numbers are comparatively very small, this prejudice be discernable, how much stronger may it be imagined in this country, where every white man felt himself born to tyrannize, where the blacks were regarded as of no more importance than the brute cattle, where the laws rendered even venial offences criminal in them, where every species of degradation towards them was exercised on all occasions, and where even their lives were exposed to the ferocity of their masters;’[34]

This is not to say that there were no slavery abolition movements in the South – there were many, but they had little influence compared to those in the North.  According to Davis, in 1827 the number of antislavery organisations in the South outnumbered those in the North by at least four to one.[35]  Since 1794, Southern and Northern antislavery societies had met periodically as the ‘American Convention of Delegates from Abolition Societies’.  The number of states represented varied from year to year, but the consistent presence of the Pennsylvania and New York societies gave them a dominant voice.[36]

Slaves celebrating emancipation

The abolitionist sentiments in the South were vastly outweighed by the huge economic incentives to grow commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton at minimal labor costs.  Whilst there was some difference in the antislavery religious leadership of the Quakers in the North, there were insufficient differences in political leadership to account for the eighty year delay in Southern slave emancipation.  Nor is there sufficient evidence of differences in racial prejudice between the North and the South, at least until after the Civil War.

So we are left with a conclusion that the dominant differences between the North and South in terms of slavery abolition were economic ones.  On large Southern plantations where labor costs were crucial, African slaves were much cheaper than indentured white servants, not to mention free white workers.  There were no such plantations in the North, where white workers resented and agitated against unfair competition from African slave labour.  The emancipation of Northern slaves was most likely done gradually on an intergenerational basis to avoid governments having to pay compensation for the loss of slaves as property.

Bibliography

Primary sources

Constitution of the United States, 1787. (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html) Viewed 14 September 2016.

‘Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780,’at Lillian Goldman Law Library (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/023.html)

St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Letter_from_St_George_Tucker_to_Jeremy_Belknap_June_29_1795) Viewed 15 September 2016.

George Washington to John Francis Mercer. Letter dated 9 September 1786.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. (http://www.gilderlehrman.org/collections/af0e9ed4-60d0-474e-8c7d-860434909242) Viewed 14 September 2016.

Secondary sources

Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005).

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968).

Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’ in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History, Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), 61-63.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961).

Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984).

Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993).

Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95. (http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/stable/30041672).  Viewed 14 September 2016.

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944) in David Garrioch ATS2110 Slavery: A History Unit Reader (Monash University, Clayton, 2016), pp. 56-60.

Endnotes:

[1] Lorena S. Walsh ‘Slave Life, Slave Society and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake, 1620-1820’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993), p.170.

[2] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University Of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1944), p.57.

[3] Eric Williams, p.57.

[4] Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery – the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961), p.4.

[5] Eric Williams, p.57.

[6] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.170-177.

[7] Lorena S. Walsh, pp.187-189.

[8] Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery – A problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life 2nd edition, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968)’, p.236.

[9] Steven F. Miller ‘Plantation Labor Organisation and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama – Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840’ in Cultivation and Culture – Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in Americas. Ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1993)’’ p.155-156.

[10] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.16.

[11] Steven F. Miller, p.165.

[12] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[13] Leon F. Litwack, p.156.

[14] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.76.

[15] Petition of 1778 by slaves of New Haven.

[16] Pennsylvania – An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780.

[17] Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World . (Routledge. Armank, 2015) p. xxxiv.

[18] George Washington to John Francis Mercer, 1786.

[19] Randall M. Miller and John David Smith. ‘Gradual abolition’. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997). p. 471.

[20] Constitution of the United States, 1787.

[21] Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris (eds), Slavery in New York (New York, 2005), p.117.

[22] Winthrop D. Jordan, ‘The Simultaneous Invention of Slavery and Racism’.

[23] William L. Van Deburg, Slavery & Race in American Popular Culture, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984), pp.39-49.

[24] Shane White, ‘The Death of James Johnson.’ American Quarterly 51, no. 4 (1999): 753-95.

[25] Van Deburg, p.42.

[26] Leon F. Litwack, p.99.

[27] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[28] Leon F. Litwack, pp.159-160.

[29] Leon F. Litwack, p.6.

[30] Leon F. Litwack, p.7.

[31] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[32] Leon F. Litwack, p.14.

[33] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975).

[34] St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, Letter dated June 29, 1795.

[35] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770-1823, (Cornell University Press, London, 1975), p.165.

[36] Leon F. Litwack, p.18.

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Consequentialism versus Justice

by Tim Harding

There are several objections to consequentialism as a basis for morality.  Some of these objections are of considerable scholarly interest to philosophers; but I think the most powerful objection is that adherence to consequentialism can in some cases result in injustice.  My thesis is that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I also intend to argue that the best response to this objection, which is to attempt to treat justice as an intrinsically valuable consequence of actions, is currently unworkable.

Consequentialism is traditionally a set of ethical theories where the morality of an act should be judged solely by its consequences.  An act is required just because it produces the best overall results (Shafer-Landau 2012: 119).  Two of the key words here, in my view, are ‘solely’ and ‘overall’.  Consequentialism solely takes into account the overall effects of an act on the population as a whole.  Specific effects on justice or the rights of individuals or minorities are not taken into account.

The most prominent version of consequentialism is act utilitarianism, where well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  The principle of utility states that ‘an action is morally required just because it does more to improve overall well-being than any other action you could have done in the circumstances’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 120).  Whilst utilitarianism is not the only form of consequentialism, for my current purposes I will regard an objection to utilitarianism as an objection to consequentialism.

In its broadest sense, justice may be defined as fairness: a proper balance between competing claims or interests (Rawls 1971: 10-11).  Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) says that to do justice is to respect rights, which is arguably similar in meaning to properly balancing competing claims or interests.

In stark contrast to act utilitarianism, John Rawls has described justice as ‘the first virtue of social institutions’ (Rawls 1971: 3).  He argues that:

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.  For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by other.  It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many (Rawls 1971: 3-4).

Indeed, according to Rawls (1971: 4) justice is uncompromising: an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.

The conflict between consequentialism and justice can be illustrated by some thought experiments, starting with the well-known trolley problem, the modern version of which was first described by Philippa Foot (1967: 8) as follows:

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.

Foot (1967: 8) reasonably asks why we should say that the driver should steer for the less occupied track, while most of us would be appalled at the idea that innocent man should be framed and executed.  Yet in both cases, the act is done for utilitarian reasons, to maximise overall well-being.  The interests or rights of the individual who is to be killed are rated no higher than anybody else in this scenario.  The dead individual is counted merely as a pro-rata contribution to the overall aggregated well-being.  Five lives are worth more than one life, regardless of the circumstances.  The end justifies the means.

This problem has been adapted and analysed in some detail by Judith Jarvis Thomson (1985: 1395-1415).  Thomson argues that whilst most people would say that is morally permissible to steer the trolley tram away from the five men on one track towards one man on the other track, they would not regard the killing of one person to save five as permissible in other cases with similar consequences.  For instance, Thomson (1985: 1396) asks us to consider another case that she calls the ‘transplant case’:

This time you are to imagine yourself to be a surgeon, a truly great surgeon. Among other things you do, you transplant organs, and you are such a great surgeon that the organs you transplant always take. At the moment you have five patients who need organs. Two need one lung each, two need a kidney each, and the fifth needs a heart. If they do not get those organs today, they will all die; if you find organs for them today, you can transplant the organs and they will all live. But where to find the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart? The time is almost up when a report is brought to you that a young man who has just come into your clinic for his yearly check-up has exactly the right blood-type, and is in excellent health. Lo, you have a possible donor. All you need do is cut him up and distribute his parts among the five who need them. You ask, but he says, “Sorry. I deeply sympathize, but no.” Would it be morally permissible for you to operate anyway?

Thomson (1985: 1396) asks why is it that the trolley driver may turn his trolley and kill a man on the other tram track, though the surgeon may not kill the young man and remove his organs?  In both cases, one will die if the agent acts, but five will live who would otherwise die – a net saving of four lives.  As the consequences are the same in each case, utilitarianism would allow both acts to take place.  The difference in moral permissibility in these two cases with similar outcomes indicates a serious problem with utilitarianism as an ethical theory.

Russ Shafer-Landau (2012: 144-146) identifies this problem as injustice, meaning the violation of rights, such as the right of the healthy young man in the transplant case to not be murdered for his organs.  On the other hand, I would argue that turning the trolley is not an injustice because unlike the healthy young man in transplant, the tram track workers on both tracks have implicitly consented to take the normally small risk of being hit by a runaway trolley. (There is also a difference between these two cases in respect for autonomy – the implied consent to risk in the case of the trolley track workers versus the explicit refusal of consent in the transplant case. However, that is an issue for another essay).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 144) in fact argues that injustice is perhaps the greatest problem for utilitarianism.  He says that ‘moral theories should not permit, much less require, that we act unjustly.  Therefore, there is something deeply wrong about utilitarianism’ (Shafer-Landau 2012: 145).

Shafer-Landau (2012: 145) strengthens the case against utilitarianism with some real historical examples rather than just thought experiments.  He cites wartime cases of vicarious punishment where innocent people are deliberately targeted as a way to deter the guilty; and exemplary punishment where random prisoners are shot to deter resistance or escapes.  Such punishments are now treated as violations of human rights and war crimes; but in earlier wars such punishments could have been justified according to utilitarianism.

Shafer-Landau (2012: 146-148) goes on to identify some potential solutions to the problem of injustice.  To assist in analysing and evaluating these potential solutions, Shafer-Landau formally states his Argument from Injustice as follows:

  1. The correct moral theory will never require us to commit serious injustices.
  2. Utilitarianism sometimes requires us to commit serious injustices.
  3. Therefore utilitarianism is not the correct moral theory.

One of his potential solutions is to say that justice must sometimes be sacrificed for sake of overall well-being.  I do not think that this would solve the problem at all.  Unacceptable injustices would still occur, and I support Rawls abovementioned view that justice is uncompromising – an injustice is tolerable only when it necessary to avoid an even greater injustice.  Another potential solution is to deny Premise 2 above, that is to deny that utilitarianism requires us to commit injustice.  Under this solution, adjustments will naturally be made to scenarios to ensure that maximising overall well-being produces a just outcome.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 148) regards this solution as overly optimistic, and I agree.

I think the best of these potential solutions is to attempt to build justice into the calculation of intrinsic value, alongside overall well-being.  In this way, the consequences of an action should try to maximise justice in addition to well-being.  Shafer-Landau (2012: 147) argues that sometimes a very minor injustice can be justifiably traded off in favour of an overwhelming increase in well-being.  However, giving roughly equal weight to both well-being and justice is problematic due to the lack of any principles for deciding between these two values where they conflict.  I support Shafer-Landau’s view that this solution is currently unworkable.

In this essay, I have endeavoured to show how consequentialism can sometimes result in injustice, by reference to some notable philosophical thought experiments, as well as to some historical wartime cases.  I have cited the work of John Rawls to argue that justice is an important factor that needs to be taken into account in ethical theories.  I have considered some potential solutions to the problem of injustice, and argued against what I think is the best solution to this problem.  For these reasons, I conclude that the injustice objection to consequentialism should be upheld.

References

Foot, Philippa. ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect’ Oxford Review, no. 5, 1967, 5-15.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2012. The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. 1985. ‘The Trolley Problem’ The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985), pp. 1395-1415.

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Skepticism, Science and Scientism

By Tim Harding B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2017, Vol 37 No 3)

In these challenging times of anti-science attitudes and ‘alternative facts’, it may sound strange to be warning against excessive scientific exuberance.  Yet to help defend science from these attacks, I think we need to encourage scientists to maintain their credibility amongst non-scientists.

In my last article for The Skeptic (‘I Think I Am’, March 2017), I traced the long history of skepticism over the millennia.  I talked about the philosophical skepticism of Classical Greece, the skepticism of Modern Philosophy dating from Descartes, through to the contemporary form of scientific skepticism that our international skeptical movement now largely endorses.  I quoted Dr. Steven Novella’s definition of scientific skepticism as ‘the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’

Despite the recent growth of various anti-science movements, science is still widely regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for the discovery of empirical knowledge, that is, knowledge derived from observations and experiments.  Even theoretical physics is supposed to be empirically verifiable in principle when the necessary technology becomes available, as in the case of the Higgs boson and Einstein’s gravitational waves.  But empirical observations are not our only source of knowledge – we also use reasoning to make sense of our observations and to draw valid conclusions from them.  We can even generate new knowledge through the application of reasoning to what we already know, as I shall discuss later.

Most skeptics (with a ‘k’) see science as a kind of rational antidote to the irrationality of pseudoscience, quackery and other varieties of woo.  So we naturally tend to support and promote science for this purpose.  But sometimes we can go too far in our enthusiasm for science.  We can mistakenly attempt to extend the scope of science beyond its empirical capabilities, into other fields of inquiry such as philosophy and politics – even ethics.  If only a small number of celebrity scientists lessen their credibility by making pronouncements beyond their individual fields of expertise, they render themselves vulnerable to attack by our opponents who are looking for any weaknesses in their arguments.  In doing so, they can unintentionally undermine public confidence in science, and by extension, scientific skepticism.

The pitfalls of crude positivism

Logical positivism (sometimes called ‘logical empiricism’) was a Western philosophical movement in the first half of the 20th century with a central thesis of verificationism; which was a theory of knowledge which asserted that only propositions verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful.

One of the most prominent proponents of logical positivism was Professor Sir Alfred Ayer (1910-1989) pictured below.  Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in his bestselling 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic.  Ayer’s thesis was that a proposition can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical content, otherwise it is either a priori (known by deduction) or nonsensical.  Ayer’s philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and the 18th century empiricist philosopher David Hume.

James Fodor, who is a young Melbourne science student, secularist and skeptic has critiqued a relatively primitive form of logical positivism, which he calls ‘crude positivism’.  He describes this as a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, the three most commonly-encountered components of which are the following:

(1) Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.

(2) Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.

(3) Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it ‘works’.  Philosophy, theology, and other such fields of inquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

Somewhat controversially, Fodor classifies Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking as exponents of crude positivism when they stray outside their respective fields of scientific expertise into other fields such as philosophy and social commentary.  (Although to be fair, Lawrence Krauss wrote an apology in a 2012 issue of Scientific American, for seemingly dismissing the importance of philosophy in a previous interview he gave to The Atlantic).

Fodor’s component (1) is a relatively uncontroversial viewpoint shared by most scientists and skeptics.  Nevertheless, Fodor cautions that crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence automatically picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities.  In practice, however, this is almost never the case because the interpretation of evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory.  For instance, the raw data from most scientific observations or experiments are unintelligible without the use of background scientific theories and methodologies.

It is Fodor’s components (2) and (3) that are likely to be more controversial, and so I will now discuss them in more detail.

The folly of scientism

What is ‘scientism’ – and how is it different from the natural enthusiasm for science that most skeptics share?  Unlike logical positivism, scientism is not a serious intellectual movement.  The term is almost never used by its exponents to describe themselves.  Instead, the word scientism is mainly used pejoratively when criticising scientists for attempting to extend the boundaries of science beyond empiricism.

Warwick University philosopher Prof. Tom Sorell has defined scientism as: ‘a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.’  In summary, a commitment to one or more of the following statements lays one open to the charge of scientism:

  • The natural sciences are more important than the humanities for an understanding of the world in which we live, or even all we need to understand it;
  • Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore if the humanities are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it; and
  • Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

At the 2016 Australian Skeptics National Convention, former President of Australian Skeptics Inc., Peter Bowditch, criticized a recent video made by TV science communicator Bill Nye in which he responded to a student asking him: ‘Is philosophy meaningless?’  In his rambling answer, Nye confused questions of consciousness and reality, opined that philosophy was irrelevant to answering such questions, and suggested that our own senses are more reliable than philosophy.  Peter Bowditch observed that ‘the problem with his [Nye’s] comments was not that they were just wrong about philosophy; they were fractally wrong.  Nye didn’t know what he was talking about. His concept of philosophy was extremely naïve.’  Bill Nye’s embarrassing blunder is perhaps ‘low hanging fruit’; and after trenchant criticism, Nye realised his error and began reading about philosophy for the first time.

Some distinguished scientists (not just philosophers) are becoming concerned about the pernicious influence of scientism.  Biological sciences professor Austin Hughes (1949-2015) wrote ‘the temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

Prof. Hughes notes that advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself.  Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not.  He writes ‘as a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

Limitations of science

The editor of the philosophical journal Think and author of The Philosophy Gym, Prof. Stephen Law has identified two kinds of questions to which it is very widely supposed that science cannot supply answers:

Firstly, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual, rather than scientific or empirical.  They are usually answered by the use of reasoning rather than empirical observations.  For example, Galileo conducted a famous thought experiment by reason alone.  Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string.  Drop these linked objects from the top of a tower.  If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object.  But the linked objects together are heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This logical contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption about heavier objects falling faster is false.  Galileo figured this conclusion out in his head, without the assistance of any empirical experiment or observation.  In doing so, he was employing philosophical rather than scientific methods.

Secondly, moral questions are about what we ought or ought not to do.  In contrast, the empirical sciences, on their own, appear capable of establishing only what is the case.  This is known as the ‘is/ought gap’. Science can provide us with factual evidence that might influence our ethical judgements but it cannot provide us with the necessary ethical values or principles.  For example, science can tell us how to build nuclear weapons, but it cannot tell us whether or not they should ever be used and under what circumstances.  Clinical trials are conducted in medical science, often using treatment groups versus control groups of patients.  It is bioethics rather than science that provides us with the moral principles for obtaining informed patient consent for participation in such clinical trials, especially when we consider that control groups of patients are being denied treatments that could be to their benefit.

I have given the above examples not to criticise science in any way, but simply to point out that science has limitations, and that there is a place for other fields of inquiry in addition to science.

Is pragmatism enough?

Coming back to Fodor’s component (3) of crude positivism, he makes a good point that a scientific explanation that ‘works’ is not necessarily true.  For instance, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing ad hoc notions of the deferent, equant and epicycles to the geocentric model of what is now known as our solar system.  This model was completely wrong, yet it produced accurate predictions of the motions of the planets – it ‘worked’.  Another example was Gregor Mendel’s 19th century genetic experiments on wrinkled peas.  These empirical experiments adequately explained the observed phenomena of genetic variation without even knowing what genes were or where they were located in living organisms.

Ptolemy model

Schematic diagram of Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos

James Fodor argues that just because scientific theories can be used to make accurate predictions, this does not necessarily mean that science alone always provides us with accurate descriptions of reality.  There is even a philosophical theory known as scientific instrumentalism, which holds that as long as a scientific theory makes accurate predictions, it does not really matter whether the theory corresponds to reality.  The psychology of perception and the philosophies of mind and metaphysics could also be relevant.  Fodor adds that many of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are really applications of engineering and technology, rather than the discovery process of science itself.

Fodor concludes that if the key to the success of the natural sciences is adherence to rational methodologies and inferences, then it is those successful methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in, rather than the data sets collected in particular sciences.

Implications for science and skepticism

Physicist Ian Hutchison writes ‘the health of science is in fact jeopardised by scientism, not promoted by it.  At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response in other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism.  It taints science itself by association’.  Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science — scientism.  By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research.

The late Prof. Austin Hughes left us with a prescient warning that continued insistence on the universal and exclusive competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase in science denialism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.

References

Ayer, Alfred. J. (1936), Language Truth and Logic, London: Penguin.

Bowditch, Peter ‘Is Philosophy Dead?’ Australasian Science July/August 2017.

Fodor, James ‘Not so simple’, Australian Rationalist, v. 103, December 2016, pp. 32–35.

Harding, Tim ‘I Think I Am’, The Skeptic, Vol. 37 No. 1. March 2017, pp. 40-44.

Hughes, Austin L ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis, Number 37, Fall 2012, pp. 32-50.

Hutchinson, Ian. (2011) Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing.

Krauss, Lawrence ‘The Consolation of PhilosophyScientific American Mind, April 27, 2012.

Law, Stephen, ‘Scientism, the limits of science, and religionCenter for Inquiry (2016), Amherst, NY.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Sorell, Thomas (1994), Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, London: Routledge.

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Skepticism – philosophical or scientific?

by Tim Harding

(This essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in January 2017. An edited version was published in The Skeptic magazine Vol.37, No.1, March 2017, under the title ‘I Think I Am’).

Dictionaries often draw a distinction between the modern common meaning of skepticism, and its traditional philosophical meaning, which dates from antiquity.  The usual common dictionary definition is ‘a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something’; whereas the philosophical definition is ‘the theory that some or all types of knowledge are impossible’.  These definitions are of course quite different, and reflect the fact that the meanings of philosophical terms have drifted over the millennia.  The contemporary meaning of ‘scientific skepticism’ is different again, which I shall talk about later.

I should say at the outset that whilst I have a foot in both the scientific and philosophical camps, and although I will be writing here mainly about the less familiar philosophical skepticism, I personally support scientific skepticism over philosophical skepticism, for reasons I shall later explain.

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But why are these definitions of skepticism important? And why do we spell it with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c’.? As an admin of a large online skeptics group (Skeptics in Australia), I am often asked such questions, so I have done a bit of investigating.

As to the first question, one of the main definitional issues I have faced is the difference between skepticism and what I call denialism. Some skeptical newbies typically do a limited amount of googling, and what they often come up with is the common dictionary definition of skepticism, rather than the lesser known scientific skepticism definition that we Australian skeptics use.  They tend to think that ‘scepticism’ (with a ‘c’) entails doubting or being skeptical of everything, including science, medicine, vaccination, biotechnology, moon landings, 9/11 etc, etc.  When we scientific skeptics express a contrary view, we are sometimes then accused of ‘not being real sceptics’.  So I think that definitions are important.

In my view, denialism is a person’s choice to deny certain particular facts.  It is an essentially irrational belief where the person substitutes his or her personal opinion for established knowledge.  Science denialism is the rejection of basic facts and concepts that are undisputed, well-supported parts of the scientific consensus on a subject, in favour of radical and controversial opinions of an unscientific nature.  Most real skeptics accept the findings of peer-reviewed science published in reputable scientific journals, at least for the time being, unless and until it is corrected by the scientific community.

Denialism can then give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way of trying to explain the discrepancy between scientific facts and personal opinions.  Here is the typical form of what I call the Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy:

Premise 1: I hold a certain belief.

Premise 2: The scientific evidence is inconsistent with my belief.

Conclusion: Therefore, the scientists are conspiring with the Big Bad Government/CIA/NASA/Big Pharma (choose whichever is convenient) to fake the evidence and undermine my belief.

It is a tall order to argue that the whole of science is genuinely mistaken. That is a debate that even the conspiracy theorists know they probably can’t win. So the most convenient explanation for the inconsistency is that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to fake the evidence in specific cases.

Ancient Greek Skepticism

The word ‘skeptic’ originates from the early Greek skeptikos, meaning ‘inquiring, reflective’.

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Greek and Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman victory over Greeks at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BCE.  The beginning of this period also coincides with the death of the great philosopher, logician and scientist Aristotle of Stagira (384–322 BCE).

As he had no adult heir, Alexander’s empire was divided between the families of three of his generals.  This resulted in political conflicts and civil wars, in which prominent philosophers and other intellectuals did not want to take sides, in the interests of self-preservation.  So they retreated from public life into various cloistered schools of philosophy, the main ones being the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Skeptics.

As I mentioned earlier, the meanings of such philosophical terms have altered over 2000 years.  These philosophical schools had different theories as to how to attain eudaimonia, which roughly translates as the highest human good, or the fulfilment of human life.  They thought that the key to eudaimonia was to live in accordance with Nature, but they had different views as to how to achieve this.

In a nutshell, the Stoics advocated the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.  The Epicureans regarded absence of pain and suffering as the source of happiness (not just hedonistic pleasure).   The Cynics (which means ‘dog like’) rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, health, or fame, and lived a simple life free from possessions.  Lastly, there were the Skeptics, whom I will now discuss in more detail.

During this Hellenistic period, there were actually two philosophical varieties of skepticism – the Academic Skeptics and the Pyrrhonist Skeptics.

In 266BCE, Arcesilaus became head of Platonic Academy.  The Academic Skeptics did not doubt the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it.  They went as far as thinking that knowledge is impossible – nothing can be known at all.  A later head of the Academy, Carneades modified this rather extreme position into thinking that ideas or notions are never true, but only probable.   He thought there are degrees of probability, hence degrees of belief, leading to degrees of justification for action.  Academic Skepticism did not really catch on, and largely died out in the first century CE, with isolated attempts at revival from time to time.

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The founder of Pyrrhonist Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis (c.365-c.275BCE) was born in Elis on west side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula (near Olympia).  Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East.  He encountered the Magi in Persia and even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India, who were naked ascetic gurus –  not exactly a good image for modern skepticism.

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Pyrrho differed from the Academic Skeptics in thinking nothing can be known for certain.  He thought that their position ‘nothing can be known at all’ was dogmatic and self-contradictory, because it itself is a claim of certainty.  Pyrrho thought that the senses are easily fooled, and reason follows too easily our desires.  Therefore we should withhold assent from non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry about them.  This means that we are not necessarily skeptical of ‘evident propositions’, and that at least some knowledge is possible.  This position is closer to modern skepticism than Academic Skepticism.  Indeed, Pyrrhonism became a synonym for skepticism in the 17th century CE; but we are not quite there yet.

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 CE) was a Greco-Roman philosopher who promoted Pyrrhonian skepticism.  It is thought that the word ‘empirical’ comes from his name; although the Greek word empeiria also means ‘experience’.  Sextus Empiricus first questioned the validity of inductive reasoning, positing that a universal rule could not be established from an incomplete set of particular instances, thus presaging David Hume’s ‘problem of induction’ about 1500 years later.

Skeptic with a ‘k’

The Romans were great inventors and engineers, but they are not renowned for science or skepticism.  On the contrary, they are better known for being superstitious; for instance, the Roman Senate sat only on ‘auspicious days’ thought to be favoured by the gods.  They had lots of pseudoscientific beliefs that we skeptics would now regard as quackery or woo.  For example, they thought that cabbage was a cure for many illnesses; and in around 78CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote: ‘I find that a bad cold in the head clears up if the sufferer kisses a mule on the nose’.

So I cannot see any valid historical reason for us to switch from the early Greek spelling of ‘skeptic’ to the Romanised ‘sceptic’.  Yes, I know that ‘skeptic’ is the American spelling and ‘sceptic’ is the British spelling, but I don’t think that alters anything.  The most likely explanation is that the Americans adopted the spelling of the early Greeks and the British adopted that of the Romans.

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Modern philosophical skepticism

Somewhat counter intuitively, the term ‘modern philosophy’ is used to distinguish more recent philosophy from the ancient philosophy of the early Greeks and the medieval philosophy of the Christian scholastics.  Thus ‘modern philosophy’ dates from the Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries, although precisely when modern philosophy started within the Renaissance period is a matter of some scholarly dispute.

The defining feature of modern philosophical skepticism is the questioning the validity of some or all types of knowledge.  So before going any further, we need to define knowledge.

The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge is called ‘epistemology’.  The ancient philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as ‘justified true belief’, as illustrated by the Venn diagram below.  According to this definition, it is not sufficient that a belief is true to qualify as knowledge – a belief based on faith or even just a guess could happen to be true by mere coincidence.  So we need adequate justification of the truth of the belief for it to become knowledge.  Although there are a few exceptions, known as ‘Gettier problems’, this definition of knowledge is still largely accepted by modern philosophers, and will do for our purposes here.  (Epistemology is mainly about the justification of true beliefs rather than this basic definition of knowledge).

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There are also different types of knowledge that are relevant to this discussion.

A priori knowledge is knowledge that is known independently of experience.  For instance, we know that ‘all crows are birds’ without having to conduct an empirical survey of crows to investigate how many are birds and whether there are any crows that are not birds.  Crows are birds by definition – it is just impossible for there to be an animal that is a crow but is not a bird.

On the other hand, a posteriori knowledge is knowledge that is known by experience.  For instance, we only know that ‘all crows are black’ from empirical observations of crows.  It is not impossible that there is a crow that is not black, for example as a result of some genetic mutation.

The above distinction illustrates how not all knowledge needs to be empirical.  Indeed, one of the earliest modern philosophers and skeptics, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist and philosopher.  (His name is where the mathematical word ‘Cartesian’ comes from).  These three interests of his were interrelated, in the sense that he had a mathematical and scientific approach to his philosophy.  Mathematics ‘delighted him because of its certainty and clarity’.  His fundamental aim was to attain philosophical truth by the use of reason and logical methods alone.  For him, the only kind of knowledge was that of which he could be certain.  His ideal of philosophy was to discover hitherto uncertain truths implied by more fundamental certain truths, in a similar manner to mathematical proofs.

Using this approach, Descartes engaged in a series of meditations to find a foundational truth of which he could be certain, and then to build on that foundation a body of implied knowledge of which he could also be certain.  He did this in a methodical way by first withholding assent from opinions which are not completely certain, that is, where there is at least some reason for doubt, such as those acquired from the senses.  Descartes concludes that one proposition of which he can be certain is ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (which means ‘I think, therefore I exist’).

In contrast to Descartes, a different type of philosophical skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) held all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in ‘experience’.  In what has become known as ‘Hume’s fork’, he held that statements are divided up into two types: statements about ideas are necessary statements that are knowable a priori; and statements about the world, which are contingent and knowable a posteriori.

In modern philosophical terminology, members of the first group are known as analytic propositions and members of the latter as synthetic propositions.  Into the first class fall statements such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’, ‘all bachelors are unmarried’, and truths of mathematics and logic. Into the second class fall statements like ‘the sun rises in the morning’, and ‘the Earth has precisely one moon’.

Hume tried to prove that certainty does not exist in science. First, Hume notes that statements of the second type can never be entirely certain, due to the fallibility of our senses, the possibility of deception (for example, the modern ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis) and other arguments made by philosophical skeptics.  It is always logically possible that any given statement about the world is false – hence the need for doubt and skepticism.

Hume formulated the ‘problem of induction’, which is the skeptical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense.  This problem focuses on the alleged lack of justification for generalising about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class (for example, the inference that ‘all swans we have seen are white, and therefore, all swans are white’, before the discovery of black swans in Western Australia).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was (and still is) a major philosophical figure who tried to show the way beyond the impasse which modern philosophy had led to between rationalists such as Descartes and empiricists such as Hume.  Kant is widely held to have synthesised these two early modern philosophical traditions.  And yet he was also a skeptic, albeit of a different variety.  Kant thought that only knowledge gained from empirical science is legitimate, which is a forerunner of modern scientific skepticism.  He thought that metaphysics was illegitimate and largely speculative; and in that sense he was a philosophical skeptic.

Scientific skepticism

In 1924, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno disputed the common dictionary definition of skepticism.  He argued that ‘skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found’.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Modern scientific skepticism is different from philosophical skepticism, and yet to some extent was influenced by the ideas of Pyrrho of Elis, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Miguel de Unamuno.

Most skeptics in the English-speaking world see the 1976 formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in the United States as the ‘birth of modern skepticism’.  (CSICOP is now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI).  However, CSICOP founder and philosophy professor Paul Kurtz has said that he actually modelled it after the Belgian Comité Para of 1949.  The Comité Para was partly formed as a response to a predatory industry of bogus psychics who were exploiting the grieving relatives of people who had gone missing during the Second World War.

paul-kurtz

Kurtz recommended that CSICOP focus on testable paranormal and pseudoscientific claims and to leave religious aspects to others.  CSICOP popularised the usage of the terms ‘skeptic’, ‘skeptical’ and ‘skepticism’ by its magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, and directly inspired the foundation of many other skeptical organizations throughout the world, including the Australian Skeptics in 1980.

Through the public activism of groups such as CSICOP and the Australian Skeptics, the term ‘scientific skepticism’ has come to symbolise an activist movement as well as a type of applied philosophy.

There are several definitions of scientific skepticism, but the two that I think are most apt are those by the Canadian skeptic Daniel Loxton and the American skeptic Steven Novella.

Daniel Loxton’s definition is ‘the practice or project of studying paranormal and pseudoscientific claims through the lens of science and critical scholarship, and then sharing the results with the public.’

Steven Novella’s definition is ‘scientific skepticism is the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’  By this exception, I think he means religious beliefs that conflict with science, such as creationism or opposition to stem cell research.

In other words, scientific skeptics maintain that empirical investigation of reality leads to the truth, and that the scientific method is best suited to this purpose.  Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.  This is different to philosophical skepticism, although inspired by it.

References

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, trans. and ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hume, David.(1748) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding . Gutenberg Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1787) Critique of Pure Reason 2nd edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Loxton, Daniel. (2013) Why Is There a Skeptical Movement? (PDF). Retrieved 12 January 2017.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition London: George Allen & Unwin.

Unamuno, Miguel de., (1924) Essays and soliloquies London: Harrap.

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The Stoic theory of universals, as compared to Platonic and Aristotelian theories

By Tim Harding

The philosophical problem of universals has endured since ancient times, and can have metaphysical or epistemic connotations, depending upon the philosopher in question.  I intend to show in this essay that both Plato’s and the Stoics’ theories of universals were not only derived from, but were ‘in the grip’ of their epistemological and metaphysical philosophies respectively; and were thus vulnerable to methodological criticism.  I propose to first outline the three alternative theories of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics; and then to suggest that Aristotle’s theory, whilst developed as a criticism of Plato’s theory, stands more robustly on its own merits.

According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, particulars are instances of universals, as a particular apple is an instance of the universal known as ‘apple’.  (An implication of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which presents a kind of paradox that will be discussed later in this essay).   Even the definition of the ‘problem of universals’ is somewhat disputed by philosophers, but the problem generally is about whether universals exist, and if so what is their nature and relationship to particulars (Honderich 1995: 646, 887).

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who hold that universals exist are known as ‘realists’, although they have differences about the ontological relationships between universals and particulars, as discussed in this essay.  Those who deny the existence of universals are known as ‘nominalists’.  According to Long and Sedley (1987:181), the Stoics were a type of nominalist known as ‘conceptualists’, as I shall discuss later.

Plato’s theory of universals (although he does not actually use this term) stems from his theory of knowledge.  Indeed, it is difficult to separate Plato’s ontology from his epistemology (Copleston 1962: 142).  In his Socratic dialogue Timaeus, Plato draws a distinction between permanent knowledge gained by reason and temporary opinion gained from the senses.

That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is (Plato Timaeus 28a).

According to Copleston (1962: 143-146), this argument is part of Plato’s challenge to Protagoras’ theory that knowledge is sense-perception.  Plato argues that sense-perception on its own is not knowledge.  Truth is derived from the mind’s reflection and judgement, rather than from bare sensations.  To give an example of what Plato means, we may have a bare sensation of two white surfaces, but in order to judge the similarity of the two sensations, the mind’s activity is required.

Plato argues that true knowledge must be infallible, unchanging and of what is real, rather than merely of what is perceived.  He thinks that the individual objects of sense-perception, or particulars, cannot meet the criteria for knowledge because they are always in a state of flux and indefinite in number (Copleston 1962: 149).  So what knowledge does meet Plato’s criteria?  The answer to this question leads us to the category of universals.  Copleston gives the example of the judgement ‘The Athenian Constitution is good’.  The Constitution itself is open to change, for better or worse, but what is stable in this judgement is the universal quality of goodness.  Hence, within Plato’s epistemological framework, true knowledge is knowledge of the universal rather than the particular (Copleston 1962: 150).

We now proceed from Plato’s epistemology to his ontology of universals and particulars.  In terms of his third criterion of true knowledge being what is real rather than perceived, the essence of Plato’s Forms is that each true universal concept corresponds to an objective reality (Copleston 1962: 151).  The universal is what is real, and particulars are copies or instances of the Form.  For example, particulars such as beautiful things are instances of the universal or Form of Beauty.

…nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful (Plato Phaedo, 653).

Baltzly (2106: F5.2-6) puts the general structure of Plato’s argument this way:

What we understand when we understand what justice, beauty, or generally F-ness are, doesn’t ever change.

But the sensible F particulars that exhibit these features are always changing.

So there must be a non-sensible universal – the Form of F-ness – that we understand when we achieve episteme (true knowledge).

Plato’s explanation for where this knowledge of Forms comes from, if not from sense-perceptions, is our existence as unembodied souls prior to this life (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-6).  To me, this explanation sounds like a ‘retrofit’ to solve a consequential problem with Plato’s theory and is a methodological weakness of his account.

Turning now to Aristotle’s theory, whilst he shared Plato’s realism about the existence of universals, he had some fundamental differences about their ontological relationship to particulars.  In terms of Baltzly’s abovementioned description of Plato’s general argument, Plato thought that the universal, F-ness, could exist even if there were no F particulars.  In direct contrast, Aristotle held that there cannot be a universal, F-ness, unless there are some particulars that are F.  For example, Aristotle thought that the existence of the universal ‘humanity’ depends on there being actual instances of particular human beings (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-8).

As for the reality of universals, Aristotle agreed with Plato that the universal is the object of science.  For instance, the scientist is not concerned with discovering knowledge about particular pieces of gold, but with the essence or properties of gold as a universal.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, there is no scientific knowledge.  By Modus Tollens, there is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real (Copleston 1962: 301-302).  (Whilst it is outside the scope of this essay to discuss whether scientific knowledge describes reality, to deny that there is any scientific knowledge would have major implications for epistemic coherence).

This is not to say that universals have ‘substance’, meaning that they consist of matter and form.  Aristotle maintains that only particulars have substance, and that universals exist as properties of particulars (Russell 1961: 176).  Russell quotes Aristotle as saying:

It seems impossible that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For…the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else; but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one thing.

In other words, Aristotle thinks that a universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things.  Russell attempts to illustrate Aristotle’s position using a football analogy.  The game of football (a universal) cannot exist without football players (particulars); but the football players would still exist even if they never actually played football (Russell 1961: 176).

In almost complete contrast to both Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics denied the existence of universals, regarding them as concepts or mere figments of the rational mind.  In this way, the Stoics anticipated the conceptualism of the British empirical philosophers, such as Locke (Long and Sedley 1987:181).

The Stoic position is complicated by their being on the one hand materialists, and on the other holding a belief that there are non-existent things which ‘subsist’, such as incorporeal things like time and fictional entities such as a Centaur.  Their ontological hierarchy starts with the notion of a ‘something’, which they thought of as a proper subject of thought and discourse, whether or not it exists.  ‘Somethings’ can be subdivided into material bodies or corporeals, which exist; and incorporeals and things that are neither corporeal or incorporeal such as fictional entities, which subsist (Long and Sedley 1987:163-164).  Long and Sedley (1987:164) provide colourful examples of the distinction between existing and subsisting by saying:

There’s such a thing as a rainbow, and such a character as Mickey Mouse, but they don’t actually exist.

A significant exclusion from the Stoic ontological hierarchy is universals.  Despite the subsistence of a fictional character like Mickey Mouse, the universal man neither exists nor subsists, which is a curious inconsistency.  Stoic universals are dubbed by the neo-Platonist philosopher Simplicius (Long and Sedley 1987:180) as ‘not somethings’:

(2) One must also take into account the usage of the Stoics about generically qualified things—how according to them cases are expressed, how in their school universals are called ‘not-somethings’ and how their ignorance of the fact that not every substance signifies a ‘this Something’ gives rise to the Not-someone sophism, which relies on the form of expression.

Long and Sedley (1987:164) surmise from this analysis that for the Stoics, to be a ‘something’ is to be a particular, whether existent or subsistent.  Stoic ontology is occupied exclusively by particulars without universals.  In this way, universals are relegated to a metaphysical limbo, as far as the Stoics are concerned.  Nevertheless, they recognise the concept of universals as being not just a linguistic convenience but as useful conceptions or ways of thinking.  For this reason, Long and Sedley (1987:181-182) classify the Stoic position on universals as ‘conceptualist’, rather than simply nominalist.  (Nominalists think of universals simply as names for things that particulars have in common).  In a separate paper, Sedley (1985: 89) makes the distinction between nominalism and conceptualism using the following example:

After all the universal man is not identical with my generic thought of man; he is what I am thinking about when I have that thought.

One of the implications of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which gives rise to what was referred to above by Simplicius as the ‘Not-someone sophism’.  Sedley (1985: 87-88) paraphrases this sophism in the following terms:

If you make the mistake of hypostatizing the universal man into a Platonic abstract individual-if, in other words you regard him as ‘someone’-you will be unable to resist the following evidently  fallacious syllogism.  ‘If someone  is in Athens, he is not in Megara.  But man is in Athens. Therefore man is not in Megara.’ The improper step  here is clearly  the substitution of ‘man’ in the minor premiss for ‘someone’ in the major premiss. But it can be remedied only by the denial that the  universal man  is ‘someone’.  Therefore the universal man is not-someone.

Baltlzly (2016: F5.2-15) makes that point that the same argument would serve to show that time is a not-something, yet the Stoics inconsistently accept that time subsists as an incorporeal something.

I have attempted to show above that Plato and the Stoics are locked into their theories about universals as a result of their prior philosophical positions.  Although to argue otherwise could make them vulnerable to criticisms of inconsistency, they at the same time have methodological weaknesses that place them on shakier ground than Aristotelian realism.  However, I am also of the view that apart from these methodological issues, Aristotelian Realism is substantively a better theory than Platonic Realism or Stoic Conceptualism or Nominalism.  In coming to this view, I have relied mainly on the work of the late Australian Philosophy Professor David Armstrong.

Armstrong argues that there are universals which exist independently of the classifying mind.  No universal is found except as either a property of a particular or as a relation between particulars.  He thus rejects both Platonic Realism and all varieties of Nominalism (Armstrong 1978: xiii).

Armstrong describes Aristotelian Realism as allowing that particulars have properties and that two different particulars may have the very same property.  However, Aristotelian Realism rejects any transcendent account of properties, that is, an account claiming that universals exist separated from particulars (Armstrong 1975: 146).  Armstrong argues that we cannot give an account of universality in terms of particularity, as the various types of Nominalism attempt to do.  Nor can we give an account of particulars in terms universals, as the Platonic Realists do.  He believes that ‘while universality and particularity cannot be reduced to each other, they are interdependent, so that properties are always properties of a particular, and whatever is a particular is a particular having certain properties’ (Armstrong 1975: 146).

According to Armstrong, what is a genuine property of particulars is to be decided by scientific investigation, rather than simply a linguistic or conceptual classification (Armstrong 1975: 149).  Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18) paraphrases Armstrong’s argument this way:

  1. There are causes and effects in nature.

  2. Whether one event c causes another event e is independent of the classifications we make.

  3. Whether c causes e or not depends on the properties had by the things that figure in the events.

  4. So properties are independent of the classifications that we make and if this is so, then predicate nominalism and conceptualism are false.

Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18, 19) provides an illustration of this argument based on one given by Armstrong (1978: 42-43).  The effect of throwing brick against a window will result from the physical properties of the brick and window, in terms of their relative weight and strength, independently of how we name or classify those properties.  So in this way, I would argue that the properties of particulars, that is universals, are ‘real’ rather than merely ‘figments of the mind’ as the Stoics would say.

As for Platonic Realism, Armstrong argues that if we reject it then we must reject the view that there are any uninstantiated properties (Armstrong 1975: 149); that is, the view that properties are transcendent beings that exist apart from their instances, such as in universals rather than particulars.  He provides an illustration of a hypothetical property of travelling faster than the speed of light.  It is a scientific fact that no such property exists, regardless of our concepts about it (Armstrong 1975: 149).  For this reason, Armstrong upholds ‘scientific realism’ over Platonic Realism, which he thinks is consistent with Aristotelian Realism – a position that I support.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show in this essay that the Aristotelian theory of universals is superior to the equivalent theories of both Plato and the Stoics.  I have argued this in terms of the relative methodologies as well as the substantive arguments.  I would choose the most compelling argument to be that of epistemic coherence regarding scientific knowledge, that is, that the universal is the object of science.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, then there is no scientific knowledge.  There is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real.

Bibliography

Armstrong, D.M. ‘Towards a Theory of Properties: Work in Progress on the Problem of Universals’ Philosophy, (1975), Vol.50 (192), pp.145-155.

Armstrong, D.M. ‘Nominalism and Realism’ Universals and Scientific Realism Volume 1, (1978) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baltzly, D. ATS3885: Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy Unit Reader (2016). Clayton: Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

Copleston, F. A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome (1962) New York: Doubleday.

Honderich, T. Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long A. A. and Sedley, D. N. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1 (1987). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Plato, Phaedo in The Essential Plato trans. Benjamin Jowett, Book-of-the-Month Club (1999).

Plato, Timaeus in The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/timaeus.html
Viewed 2 October 2016.

Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition (1961) London: George Allen & Unwin.

Sedley, D. ‘The Stoic Theory of Universals’ The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1985) Vol. XXIII. Supplement.

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The Fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2016, Vol 36 No 3)

Australian Skeptics have tackled many false beliefs over the years, often in co-operation with other organisations.  We have had some successes – for instance, belief in homeopathy finally seems to be on the wane.  Nevertheless, false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation just won’t lie down and die – despite concerted campaigns by medical practitioners, dentists, governments and more recently the media.  Why are these beliefs so immune to evidence and arguments?

There are several possible explanations for the persistence of these false beliefs.  One is denialism – the rejection of established facts in favour of personal opinions.  Closely related are conspiracy theories, which typically allege that facts have been suppressed or fabricated by ‘the powers that be’, in an attempt by denialists to explain the discrepancies between their opinions and the findings of science.  A third possibility is an error of reasoning or fallacy known as Faulty Risk Assessment, which is the topic of this article.

Before going on to discuss vaccination and fluoridation in terms of this fallacy, I would like to talk about risk and risk assessment in general.

What is risk assessment?

Hardly anything we do in life is risk-free. Whenever we travel in a car or even walk along a footpath, most people are aware that there is a small but finite risk of being injured or killed.  Yet this risk does not keep us away from roads.  We intuitively make an informal risk assessment that the level of this risk is acceptable in the circumstances.

In more formal terms, ‘risk’ may be defined as the probability or likelihood of something bad happening multiplied by the resulting cost/benefit ratio if it does happen.  Risk analysis is the process of discovering what risks are associated with a particular hazard, including the mechanisms that cause the hazard, then estimating the likelihood that the hazard will occur and the consequences if it does occur.

Risk assessment is the determination of the acceptability of risk using two dimensions of measurement – the likelihood of an adverse event occurring; and the severity of the consequences if it does occur, as illustrated in the diagram below.  (This two-dimensional risk assessment is a conceptually useful way of ranking risks, even if one or both of the dimensions cannot be measured quantitatively).

risk-diagram

By way of illustration, the likelihood of something bad happening could be very low, but the consequences could be unacceptably high – enough to justify preventative action.  Conversely, the likelihood of an event could be higher, but the consequences could low enough to justify ‘taking the risk’.

In assessing the consequences, consideration needs to be given to the size of the population likely to be affected, and the severity of the impact on those affected.  This will provide an indication of the aggregate effect of an adverse event.  For example, ‘high’ consequences might include significant harm to a small group of affected individuals, or moderate harm to a large number of individuals.

A fallacy is committed when a person either focuses on the risks of an activity and ignores its benefits; and/or takes account one dimension of risk assessment and overlooks the other dimension.

To give a practical example of a one-dimensional risk assessment, the desalination plant to augment Melbourne’s water supply has been called a ‘white elephant’ by some people, because it has not been needed since the last drought broke in March 2010.  But this criticism ignores the catastrophic consequences that could have occurred had the drought not broken.  In June 2009, Melbourne’s water storages fell to 25.5% of capacity, the lowest level since the huge Thomson Dam began filling in 1984.  This downward trend could have continued at that time, and could well be repeated during the inevitable next drought.

wonthaggi

Melbourne’s desalination plant at Wonthaggi

No responsible government could afford to ‘take the risk’ of a major city of more than four million people running out of water.  People in temperate climates can survive without electricity or gas, but are likely to die of thirst in less than a week without water, not to mention the hygiene crisis that would occur without washing or toilet flushing.  The failure to safeguard the water supply of a major city is one of the most serious derelictions of government responsibility imaginable.

Turning now to the anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation movements, they both commit the fallacy of Faulty Risk Assessment.  They focus on the very tiny likelihood of adverse side effects without considering the major benefits to public health from vaccination and the fluoridation of public water supplies, and the potentially severe consequences of not vaccinating or fluoridating.

Vaccination risks

The benefits of vaccination far outweigh its risks for all of the diseases where vaccines are available.  This includes influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), measles and tetanus – not to mention the terrible diseases that vaccination has eradicated from Australia such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

As fellow skeptic Dr. Rachael Dunlop puts it:  ‘In many ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success, leading us to forget just how debilitating preventable diseases can be – not seeing kids in calipers or hospital wards full of iron lungs means we forget just how serious these diseases can be.’

No adult or teenager has ever died or become seriously ill in Australia from the side effects of vaccination; yet large numbers of people have died from the lack of vaccination.  The notorious Wakefield allegation in 1998 of a link between vaccination and autism has been discredited, retracted and found to be fraudulent.  Further evidence comes from a recently published exhaustive review examining 12,000 research articles covering eight different vaccines which also concluded there is no link between vaccines and autism.

According to Professor C Raina MacIntyre of UNSW, ‘Influenza virus is a serious infection, which causes 1,500 to 3,500 deaths in Australia each year.  Death occurs from direct viral effects (such as viral pneumonia) or from complications such as bacterial pneumonia and other secondary bacterial infections. In people with underlying coronary artery disease, influenza may also precipitate heart attacks, which flu vaccine may prevent.’

In 2010, increased rates of high fever and febrile convulsions were reported in children under 5 years of age after they were vaccinated with the Fluvax vaccine.  This vaccine has not been registered for use in this age group since late 2010 and therefore should not be given to children under 5 years of age. The available data indicate that there is a very low risk of fever, which is usually mild and transient, following vaccination with the other vaccine brands.  Any of these other vaccines can be used in children aged 6 months and older.

Australia was declared measles-free in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO) – before we stopped being so vigilant about vaccinating and outbreaks began to reappear.  The impact of vaccine complacency can be observed in the 2015 measles epidemic in Wales where there were over 800 cases and one death, and many people presenting were of the age who missed out on MMR vaccination following the Wakefield scare.

After the link to autism was disproven, many anti-vaxers shifted the blame to thiomersal, a mercury-containing component of relatively low toxicity to humans.  Small amounts of thiomersal were used as a preservative in some vaccines, but not the MMR vaccine.  Thiomersal was removed from all scheduled childhood vaccines in 2000.

In terms of risk assessment, Dr. Dunlop has pointed out that no vaccine is 100% effective and vaccines are not an absolute guarantee against infection. So while it’s still possible to get the disease you’ve been vaccinated against, disease severity and duration will be reduced.  Those who are vaccinated have fewer complications than people who aren’t.  With pertussis (whooping cough), for example, severe complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation) occur almost exclusively in the unvaccinated.  So since the majority of the population is vaccinated, it follows that most people who get a particular disease will be vaccinated, but critically, they will suffer fewer complications and long-term effects than those who are completely unprotected.

Fluoridation risks

Public water fluoridation is the adjustment of the natural levels of fluoride in drinking water to a level that helps protect teeth against decay.  In many (but not all) parts of Australia, reticulated drinking water has been fluoridated since the early 1960s.

The benefits of fluoridation are well documented.  In November 2007, the NHMRC completed a review of the latest scientific evidence in relation to fluoride and health.  Based on this review, the NHMRC recommended community water fluoridation programs as the most effective and socially equitable community measure for protecting the population from tooth decay.  The scientific and medical support for the benefits of fluoridation certainly outweighs the claims of the vocal minority against it.

Fluoridation opponents over the years have claimed that putting fluoride in water causes health problems, is too expensive and is a form of mass medication.  Some conspiracy theorists go as far as to suggest that fluoridation is a communist plot to lower children’s IQ.  Yet, there is no evidence of any adverse health effects from the fluoridation of water at the recommended levels.  The only possible risk is from over-dosing water supplies as a result of automated equipment failure, but there is inline testing of fluoride levels with automated water shutoffs in the remote event of overdosing.  Any overdose would need to be massive to have any adverse effect on health.  The probability of such a massive overdose is extremely low.

Tooth decay remains a significant problem. In Victoria, for instance, more than 4,400 children under 10, including 197 two-year-olds and 828 four-year-olds, required general anaesthetic in hospital for the treatment of dental decay during 2009-10.  Indeed, 95% of all preventable dental admissions to hospital for children up to nine years old in Victoria are due to dental decay. Children under ten in non-optimally fluoridated areas are twice as likely to require a general anaesthetic for treatment of dental decay as children in optimally fluoridated areas.

As fellow skeptic and pain management specialist Dr. Michael Vagg has said, “The risks of general anaesthesia for multiple tooth extractions are not to be idly contemplated for children, and far outweigh the virtually non-existent risk from fluoridation.”  So in terms of risk assessment, the risks from not fluoridating water supplies are far greater than the risks of fluoridating.

Implications for skeptical activism

Anti-vaxers and anti-fluoridationists who are motivated by denialism and conspiracy theories tend to believe whatever they want to believe, and dogmatically so.  Thus evidence and arguments are unlikely to have much influence on them.

But not all anti-vaxxers and anti-fluoridationists fall into this category.  Some may have been misled by false information, and thus could possibly be open to persuasion if the correct information is provided.

Others might even be aware of the correct information, but are assessing the risks fallaciously in the ways I have described in this article.  Their errors are not ones of fact, but errors of reasoning.  They too might be open to persuasion if education about sound risk assessment is provided.

I hope that analysing the false beliefs about vaccination and fluoridation from the perspective of the Faulty Risk Assessment Fallacy has provided yet another weapon in the skeptical armoury against these false beliefs.

References

Rachael Dunlop (2015) Six myths about vaccination – and why they’re wrong. The Conversation, Parkville.

C Raina MacIntyre (2016) Thinking about getting the 2016 flu vaccine? Here’s what you need to know. The Conversation, Parkville.

Mike Morgan (2012) How fluoride in water helps prevent tooth decay.  The Conversation, Parkville.

Michael Vagg (2013) Fluoride conspiracies + activism = harm to children. The Conversation, Parkville.

 Government of Victoria (2014) Victorian Guide to Regulation. Department of Treasury and Finance, Melbourne.

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