Category Archives: Reblogs

Book Review – Science September – The Impact of Science on Society by Bertrand Russell

Vishy's Blog

I got ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell at a secondhand books sale a few years back. It was an old copy and the individual pages were coming off. I finally took it out of my bookshelf and turned the pages delicately and read it.

I was expecting the book to be about how science is important to society – on how we all need to have a scientific temper, how we should follow the scientific process and method and use facts and logical analysis to arrive at conclusions. This book, interestingly, was different. It was about how society evolved from ancient times, when people believed in received information and words of wisdom and how this changed in recent centuries after the advent of science. Then Bertrand Russell touches on how science has impacted everyday life and work and the economy and war and how…

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Fighting words

Yes you can, no you can’t! Tim Mendham takes a brief trip through the history of free speech.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
June 2019, Vol 39 No 2. Reproduced here with permission)

Everyone knows the famous statement on free speech by the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s an oft-cited quote that is used to justify the liberalisation of expression, and a view that is typical of Enlightenment thinking.

Only, like a lot of our understanding of free speech, it’s wrong.

The statement was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (aka SG Tallentyre) in 1906. She coined the sentence in a book called The Friends of Voltaire, an anecdotal biography telling the stories of ten men who were contemporaries and friends of the philosopher. The sentence appeared in a chapter entitled Helvetius the Contradiction – about Claude Adrien Helvétius, author of De l’Esprit (On Mind) – and was supposed to indicate the sort of approach Voltaire may have had, not what he actually ever said.

Like the famous love-and peace prose poem Desiderata (“Go placidly amid the noise and haste etc”) that first appeared in the 1920s but achieved fame in the 1960s and 70s when purported by some to be a document from the 17th century, the Voltaire ‘quote’ has the imprimatur of a history that it does not deserve. And like Desiderata, reality is a lot more complicated than that.

As is the notion of “free speech”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “free speech” as “The right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint”, and Macquarie Dictionary as the less absolute “The right to express oneself and impart one’s opinions in speech or writing or any form of public media”.

Of course, dictionaries don’t always live in the real world, and it would be unlikely that any society would give free rein to any and every statement by any and every member, regardless of content, intent or impact. Free speech comes at cost.

The Olden Days

Older civilisations have often taken a simplistic view of human rights and free speech: don’t rubbish the ruler and you’ll be OK.

According to the New Internationalist, “China did not develop an idea of rights that were inherent and natural to the individual as had arisen in Western Europe. However, the ideally organised Confucian society was supposed to provide social welfare and just treatment. People were expected to know their place. … The powerful were expected to behave with benevolence, and failure to do so could result in forfeiture of power.”

On the other side of the world, Republican Rome was witness to several cases where political speech was suppressed by violence. The most infamous case was the murder of the reformer Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE by the leaders of the Senate. However, the killing was not done legally or by the Roman state – it was essentially aristocratic mob violence. The Republican state never created the legal tools to formally censor political speech.

This changed with the arrival in Rome of the Emperors, beginning with Caesar Augustus in 27 BCE. When supreme power is invested in a single person, they tend to be more sensitive to criticism from their subjects. Libel – and by which we mean libel against the Emperor or his government – was prosecuted as treason under Augustus, and by all following Emperors. Book burning – or people burning – was par for the course and continued well into the Middle Ages.

For instance, as the ‘menace’ of printing spread, more governments attempted to centralise control. The French crown repressed printing and the printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546.

A few years earlier, the first editions of the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) appeared, not in Rome but in Catholic Netherlands (1529); Venice (1543) and Paris (1551). The Church continued to publish the list until it was discontinued in 1966.

At the peak of its empire, Venice had rules that punished anyone who criticised not the government but the city state itself, such was the pride the citizens showed towards “la Serenissima”, no doubt amplified by the city’s tenuous hold on existence both geopolitically and geologically. Foreigners who maligned the state were exiled; locals were imprisoned, if not murdered.

But while free speech against the Venetian state was outlawed, free speech against individuals of the public was not. Gossip, innuendo and scheming were a currency in Venice – the term “imbroglio” refers to a part of the Piazetta off St Mark’s Square where people gathered to elect their leaders and where they could share the latest dirty laundry. If they weren’t gossiping, they were accusing others of crimes by dropping notes into the bocce di leone, sort of post boxes that were scattered around the city with a slot in the mouth for the accusatory notes.

19th Century Developments

In the 19th century there began a more nuanced approach to free speech and the responsibilities that that entailed. The concept extended beyond criticism of the powers-that-be, whether monarch, government, or church, to statements that impact on the broader community.

One of the most influential figures on personal liberties was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. His book On Liberty (1859) addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. His conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control. Not to say he always felt that way – his concern for liberty did not extend to all individuals and all societies. He stated that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.”

Nonetheless, for the non-barbarians, Mill opened up a landscape of liberties of expression: “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” (Chapter 2)

He adds: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

He is talking about “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological”. If liberty of expression is stifled, the price paid is “a sort of intellectual pacification” that sacrifices “the entire moral courage of the human mind”.

But he then raises an issue which has resounded through philosophical and practical debate on freedom of speech ever since – the “harm principle”.

Mill suggests that we need some rules of conduct to regulate the actions of members of a political community. The limitation he places on free expression is “one very simple principle” which states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

“[The member’s] own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. … The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

In other words, free speech is not an invitation to, as the OED says, “The right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint” – other members of society are involved and consideration must be given to them.

The Trans-Global Era

As politics and nationhood developed in the 20th century, in the times between and post wars, the era of international ‘interference’ in nations’ social programs began – first with the League of Nations, and then with that harbinger of the One World Government, the United Nations and its various offshoots.

Freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 as Resolution 217. Of the then 58 members of the UN, 48 voted in favour (including Australia), none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote.

Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

In December 1966, the ICCPR was adopted as a multilateral treaty by the United Nations General Assembly. It initially came into force from March 1976 – as of August 2017, the Covenant has 172 parties and six more signatories without ratification; Australia signed it in December 1972, and it came into force in November 1980.

The covenant commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial.

However, the version of Article 19 in the ICCPR amends that from the UDHR by stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

Freedom of speech and expression, therefore, may not be recognized as being absolute, and common limitations or boundaries to freedom of speech relate to (as Wikipedia puts it) libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labelling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, public security, and perjury. Justifications for these limitations include the harm principle proposed by John Stuart Mill.

These limitations – certainly those pertaining to incitement and fighting words – did not seem to be an issue for noted social critic Noam Chomsky, who said in a 1992 documentary based on his book Manufacturing Consent, that: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Dictators such as Stalin and Hitler were in favour of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

It is hard to tell whether he was being critical of freedom of speech itself, or those who would want to restrict it.

These restrictions were discussed earlier this century by the European Commission for Democracy through Law better known as the Venice Commission as it meets in Venice (that home of gossip and accusation).

The role of the Venice Commission is to provide legal advice to EU member states and, in particular, to help states wishing to bring their legal and institutional structures into line with European standards and international experience in the fields of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In 2006 the EU’s Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed Resolution 1510 on freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs, particularly the question of whether and to what extent respect for religious beliefs should limit freedom of expression. It expressed the view that freedom of expression should not be further restricted to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups, but underlined that hate speech against any religious group was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2016 the Venice Commission noted that “A democracy should not fear debate, even on the most shocking or anti-democratic ideas. It is through open discussion that these ideas should be countered and the supremacy of democratic values be demonstrated. … Persuasion through open public debate, as opposed to ban or repression, is the most democratic means of preserving fundamental values.”

But, as always seems to happen in debate on free speech since the days of Mill, there was a caveat: “The Venice Commission does not support absolute liberalism. While there is no doubt that in a democracy all ideas, even though shocking or disturbing, should in principle be protected … it is equally true that not all ideas deserve to be circulated. Since the exercise of freedom of expression carries duties and responsibilities, it is legitimate to expect from every member of a democratic society to avoid as far as possible expressions that express scorn or are gratuitously offensive to others and infringe their rights.”

What it comes down to is, yes you have freedom of speech, but no, you can’t necessarily use it. Yes, you have the right to your own ideas, but you can’t necessarily express them. And if you express them, others have the right to criticise your ideas (if not actually vilify you). And most of all, and despite any regulation or legislation or philosophising or Imperial decree, no-one has to take you seriously, and that’s their freedom.

Tim Mendham is executive officer of Australian Skeptics Inc. and editor of The Skeptic magazine.

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Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

Books & Boots

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts…

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More on my Quillette critique of David Gelernter

Why Evolution Is True

A while back I wrote a critique on this site of computer scientist David Gelernter’s attack on evolutionary theory, itself published in the conservative venue The Claremont Review of Books. Here’s a link to his original piece (click on screenshot):

My critique, as is usual with pieces on WEIT, was written quickly, so I didn’t bother to insert references to the many criticisms of Gelernter’s ideas, ideas that are taken without alteration from Intelligent-Design books by Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, and the usual suspects.

When Quillette asked me if I wanted to respond to Gelernter’s piece, I was a bit puzzled. First, I’d already written a response here, and second, Gelernter’s piece came out in May. It turns out that Quillette didn’t know I’d already addressed the piece, and the more recent interest in Gelernter’s piece was apparently because it got a fair amount of publicity from religious, conservative…

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Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

Today we have the last installment of wonderful photos from Bruce Lyon’s recent trip to Alaska. His photos of sandpiper chicks are about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Without further ado. . . .

St Paul Island; Batch 5

Here is the last in a series of posts about St Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands off Alaska. Four previous posts covered some of the 11 species of seabirds that breed on the island (herehere,  here, and here). Today we meet a shorebird with arguably the world’s cutest babies, a couple of songbirds, and the last two species of seabirds, one of which is famous for its puking self-defense behavior.

Rock Sandpipers (Calidris ptilocnemis) are everywhere on the island, breeding both on the tundra and grassy slopes. This species breeds only on islands in Bering Sea and a narrow…

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Readers’ wildlife photos

Why Evolution Is True

We have some animals and some astronomy today. First, three photos from reader Tim Anderson of Australia, who appeared in “photos of readers” two days ago. His notes are indented:

Last night [August 26] was an extraordinarly clear and still night here at the Manor to Which I Have Become Accustomed. I managed to get decent images of four of the glories of the southern skies. I will send them as separate emails in case their size overwhelms your inbox.

This is an image of the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC253). Sometimes it is nice to see a view of a distant galaxy in the context of its starfield rather than close up.

This is a composite of one hundred 60-second images taken with a Skywatcher Esprit 100mm refractor, ASI071MCPro camera, UV/IR cut filter, and an EQ8 mount

This is an image of the Centaurus A Galaxy (NGC5128). It is…

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A vegan claims that eating tofu is cultural appropriation

Why Evolution Is True

I’ve written a fair bit about accusations of cultural appropriation, and I do so for several reasons. First, these accusations are almost always totally misguided, mistaking admiring imitation for bigotry and theft. Second, they clearly show the folly of the Authoritarian Left, both its virtue-flaunting and its adoption of “actions” that are completely useless in changing society. Really, how much “inclusiveness” is promoted by picketing a show of kimonos at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts? Or the demonizing of white women who wear hoop earrings?

Finally, the claims often blend Wokeness with unintended humor, showing that many claims of cultural appropriation are almost indistinguishable from satire. The claim at hand is one of these near-satirical arguments, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. Or at least Yahoo UK thinks so (click on screenshot):

According to the article, this exchange appeared on a reddit site:

There we have it, ladies, gentlemen…

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Trump administration weakens Endangered Species Act

Why Evolution Is True

Everything the Trump administration does seems aimed in the wrong direction, but as a biologist, I’m really pissed off at this latest bit of stupidity. Read the NPR or NYT articles below (click on screenshots) to see the latest debacle:

NYT:

Here are some of the changes. The new regulations:

  • weaken protections for species listed as “threatened”: one step below “endangered”;
  • allow future listings to be based partly on economic assessments (the NYT says, “for instance, lost revenue from a prohibition on logging a critical habitat”) rather than on science alone. This is a first, and something the original Act aimed to avoid.
  • make it easier to remove species from the “endangered” list;
  • limit the nature and amount of habitats are considered when deciding whether a species is listed as “endangered”. Environmental groups claim that this will make it harder to protect species at risk from warming climates, which alters…

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A tidal wave of beneficent trends

by Martin Bridgstock

(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2018, Vol 38 No 3)

 

Some years ago Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Pinker 2012) made a great impression. In this book – using over a thousand pages of text and 100 diagrams – Pinker supported his case that, over the long run, human beings are becoming less violent toward each other.  There were exceptions to the decline in violence, but Pinker seemed to make a powerful case for his argument. In addition, he presented a list of factors which, in his view, led to this decline in violence.

Since that time, Pinker’s argument has been verified. Johan Norberg (2016), a Swedish writer and Angus Deaton (2013), a Nobel prize-winner in economics, have come to the same conclusion. The key finding, the long-term decline in interpersonal violence, has to be welcome to everyone. Its sheer magnitude sometimes takes an effort to grasp. For example, an Englishman living in the 1300s was twenty times as likely to die violently as an Englishman in the twentieth century (Pinker 2016:73). Overall, Pinker’s case for the trend away from violence seems to be well supported.

Many wonderful trends

Now Pinker has returned with another book, titled Enlightenment Now (Pinker 2018). It is short compared to the other book – only 550-odd pages and 75 diagrams – but far more ambitious. He documents the evidence that the human condition is improving on more than a dozen important measures. And he has a single underlying theory to explain this.

Rather than list all the trends, I will put them in a separate table, with an example or two for each. Cast your eyes over the table. I suggest looking at the examples for Life, Wealth and Knowledge. Let me stress that in the hundreds of pages and dozens of illustrations which make up Pinker’s book, there are far more trends than I can list here. And all point in the same direction: the human condition worldwide is improving. Usually these improvements took place first in Europe and North America. However, the other parts of the world are improving too, and usually catching up with the leaders. 

Table 1. Major trends charted by Pinker, with selected examples

 Life. Life expectancy is increasing Around 1780, world life expectancy for humans was about 30 years. Today it is 71.4 years. (Pinker 2018: 53-4 )   Major diseases are in decline, often because of mass vaccination (Pinker 2018: 64).

Sustenance. The food supply per person is increasing and so childhood stunting and famine deaths are in decline (Pinker 2018: 70-71). The size of families is decreasing, too: apparently once parents are reasonably sure that their children will survive, they stop having large families (Pinker 2018: 125).

Wealth. GDP per capita is increasing worldwide and as a result extreme poverty is falling. In 1820, nearly 90% of the world’s population lived on US$1.90 (2011 dollars) or less. Today only about 10% live on so little (Pinker 2018: 87).

Inequality. Inequality may be increasing, but the general trend is for everyone to become richer (Pinker 2018: 120)

The Environment. Because of advancing technology, the risk of environmental catastrophe is receding, and most environmental indicators are improving (Pinker 2018:132-3).

Peace. The peaceful trends discerned in Pinker’s earlier book are shown to have continued (Pinker 2018: 157-9).

Safety. Steady reduction in vehicle accident deaths, plane crash deaths and most other forms of accidental death (Pinker 2018: 179-182).

Terrorism. Worldwide, deaths by terrorism are dwarfed by those from war and accidents (Pinker 2018: 192)

Democracy. Despite recent hiccups, Pinker cites the Polity Project as showing a steady advance for democracy in the world (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity1.htm) (Pinker 2018; 207).

Equal rights. A general rise in liberal values in nearly all areas of the world over the last 50 years (Pinker 2018: 227). A decline in racist, sexist and homophobic jokes on the internet (Pinker 2018: 218).

Knowledge. Great rises in literacy worldwide (Pinker 2018: 238). Back in 1475 20% or less of the people in European nations were literate. Today over 90% are, and the rest of the world is improving too.

Quality of Life. Decline in working hours in Europe and the USA, decline in housework hours, rise in useful household devices. Increase in leisure time (Pinker 2018: 249-256)

Happiness. Reported life satisfaction is correlated with physical wellbeing, and seems to be improving (Pinker 2018: 269-279)

Existential Threats. The worldwide stock of nuclear weapons is diminishing (Pinker 2018: 318), and doom-laden predictions have repeatedly been proved wrong  (Pinker 2018: 309)

The Cause of It All

However, Pinker is not simply a Pollyanna, exclaiming at how wonderful everything is. He has a theory as to what underlies all these wonderful trends, and he also thinks that there is a threat to the entire process. As the title of his book suggests, he regards the Enlightenment as being a key cause of all this human improvement.

What do we mean by the Enlightenment? Pinker concedes that, unlike the Olympics, there was no opening and closing ceremony: you can argue about it endlessly (Pinker 2018: 7-8). However, he distinguishes some features of Enlightenment thinking.  One theme is the use of reason, which leads to doubt and questioning. Another is the refinement of reason to understand the world. (Personally I regard this as an extension of reason, or using it in a special way.) Part of this understanding involves knowing ourselves, and how our minds and bodies work. A third attribute is humanism, involving a morality which privileges human welfare. Finally there is a belief in progress. Pinker stresses that these basic themes are not absolute: people are not completely reasonable, nor is progress guaranteed.

As he works through all the trends operating in the world today, Pinker tries to link them back to Enlightenment influences. For example, Enlightenment thinking values commerce because it involves free exchange and economic improvement. Although commerce can be tough at times, it creates wealth and is far, far better than war, destruction and murder. Again, Enlightenment thought leads to the questioning of cruel judicial punishments.

In my view, the least convincing of Pinker’s arguments is the one over inequality. His chapter on this is largely a response to the French economist Thomas Piketty (2013). Using massive amounts of evidence, Piketty argued that western nations are becoming less equal. Capital, for several decades, has grown faster than wages, and this means that the top few per cent of the population are accumulating more and more wealth, while the bottom half are making almost no progress at all. Pinker’s counter-argument is that, in absolute terms, even the poorest people are better off than they used to be (Pinker 2018: 97-120). My personal view is that if some people are becoming poorer relative to everyone else, it is little comfort to learn that they are better off than previous generations. I suspect that events like the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit are at least in part an outburst against adverse economic trends.

Unlike the earlier book, Enlightenment Now has attracted a great deal of criticism. One reason is that Pinker focuses a good deal of scorn on western liberal intellectuals, who are overwhelmingly gloomy about society and the way it is going.  As Pinker points out, this gloom is not based on evidence, and again and again has been shown to be unjustified (Pinker 2018: 39-52). He has a series of explanations as to why intellectuals argue — wrongly – that things are getting worse. One explanation is the relentless focus of the popular media on violence: no matter what the overall crime rate, if there is a drug-crazed shooting or an atrocity, the media will focus upon it. This distorts our understanding because we use the ‘Availability heuristic’ (Pinker 2018: 41-2). When we readily remember an event, we assume things generally are like that event. So we may be disgusted by what has happened in Syria or the Yemen, or what was done to the Rohingya and regard these as characterising our age. As Pinker argues, however, in previous ages there were far more such atrocities, and they were accepted almost without comment. In addition, gloomy pessimism is often regarded as being far more profound than optimism – even when the optimism is supported by evidence and the pessimism isn’t.

Another reason why Pinker’s book has attracted criticism is because of what he calls ‘counter-Enlightenments’ (Pinker 2018: 29-35). The Enlightenment has suffered a series of reactions from religious and nationalist groups, and also from ideologies of the right and left. These movements do not accept evidence-based arguments and so are uncomfortable with the optimistic message of Pinker’s book. He makes this explicit when, partway through, he writes:

In writing the chapters on progress, I resisted pressure from readers of earlier drafts to end each one by warning, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Threatened it certainly is (Pinker 2018: 334)

Then he reviews the progress achieved in various fields, and points out that President Trump’s actions and words appear to oppose nearly all of it. In addition, the various nationalist outbursts in Europe could also threaten further progress. There is, Pinker stresses, nothing certain about continued improvements, and so the Enlightenment is well worth defending.

Science and Skepticism

Now the Enlightenment is the basis for two other important features of modern society. One is science, the other skepticism. Pinker (2018: 392-3) points out that science rests on two key ideals. One is that the world is comprehensible to our minds. This is borne out by the success of science. The other assumption is that we should allow the world to tell us what it is like. The traditional sources of belief, and the traditional authorities, are generators of error. Only by carefully formulating theories, and being willing to accept that the evidence may show them to be wrong, can we make scientific progress.

Skepticism, of course, stems from a similar set of ideals. Skeptics examine certain types of belief and question whether they are supported by evidence. It does not matter to skeptics who holds certain beliefs, or whether they stem from one ideology or another. The key question is, does the world tell us that they are true?

Is Pinker right?

Broadly, there are two different ways in which Pinker’s argument can be questioned. Is his evidence for massive, worldwide progress in a whole range of fields justified? And is his stress upon the Enlightenment as a key element in this progress justified? The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes. Pinker makes his sources of information clear, and it is easy to check them. He gets his facts right. The second question is more complex. Norberg (2016) for example, uses the same evidence as Pinker, but traces the improvements to free enterprise rather than the Enlightenment. My personal judgment is that the Enlightenment is a key feature in current progress, but not the only one: If we discard Enlightenment thought, we will suffer in the long run.

As a retiree, I have often worried about what kind of a world we are leaving our children and grandchildren. The short answer appears to be: with some exceptions, a lot better than the world we found. Provided we don’t lose sight of Enlightenment values, the future promises to be much better than the past.

References

Deaton, Angus (2013) The Great Escape. Health, wealth and the origins of inequality. Oxford and Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Norberg, J. (2016) Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. London, Oneworld.

Piketty, Thomas (2013) Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2018) Enlightenment Now.  The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London, Allen Lane.

Pinker, Steven (2012) The Better Angels of our Nature. London, Penguin.

(Reblogged with the permission of both the author and the Editor of The Skeptic).

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The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Books & Boots

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population)…

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