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On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism: part 1 – what is science?

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Massimo Pigliucci, who seems like a nice enough bloke…


I’ve written a couple of posts on scientism (all references below), which is for some reason a topic that always gets me exercised. So a recent brief interview with the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, on the Point of Inquiry podcast, has set me back on the wagon. This blog post will be a piece by piece analysis of (some bits of) the interview. 

I’ll begin with the Point of Inquiry host Kavin Senapathy’s intro, in which she gives a definition of scientism as:

this idea that the scientific method is the only worthwhile way of answering questions, and that any question that can’t be tackled using science is therefore unimportant or frivolous, and this often seems to apply to areas of social or political concern. In practice, those with a scientific approach try to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science. So this is really an ideology

So scientism is an ideology (and Pigliucci agrees with this later in the interview). I must say I’m skeptical of both terms, but let me focus for now on ‘ideology’. I once recall, during a meeting of secular and religious humanists, an old bloke beside me describing atheism as an ideology. The term’s often abused, and almost invariably used as a put-down. Only the other day, our former PM, John Howard, not known for his scientific literacy, complained that the recent federal election was marred by ‘climate change ideology’, by which he clearly meant the view that anthropogenic global warming is an issue. 

More important here, though, is the attempt to define scientism, which makes me wonder if scientism is really a thing at all. The problem for me here is that it’s obvious that any area of ‘social or political concern’ will benefit from rigorous thought, or inference, based on various forms of evidence. Whether you want to call it science or not isn’t, for me, a major issue. For example, a state’s immigration policy would best be based on a range of concerns and analyses about its population, its resources, its productivity, its degree of integration, its previous experience of immigration, its relations with neighbours, the needs and aspirations of the immigrants, and so on. These factors can’t simply be intuited (though politicians generally do base their decisions on intuition, or ideology), but whether such analysis rises to the level of science doubtless depends on how you define science. However, it would clearly benefit from science in the form of number-crunching computer technology – always bearing in mind the garbage-in-garbage-out caveat. 

So, it’s not about ‘colonising’ – it’s about applying more rigour, and more questioning, to every area of human activity. And this is why ‘scientism’ is often a term of abuse used by the religious, and by ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘new age’ aficionados, who are always more interested in converts than critiques. 

Returning to the interview, Pigliucci was asked first off whether it’s a common misconception among skeptics that there’s a thing called ‘the scientific method’: 

Yes I think it is, and it’s actually a common misconception among scientists, which is more worrisome. If you pick up a typical science textbook… it usually starts out with a short section on the scientific method, by which they usually mean some version of… the nomological deductive model. The idea is that science is based firstly on laws…. the discovery of laws of nature, and ‘deductive’ means that mostly what is done is deduction, the kind of inferential reasoning that mathematicians and logicians do. But no scientists have ever used this model, and philosophers of science have debated the issue over the last century of so and now the consensus among such philosophers is that scientists do whatever the hell works….

(I’ve ‘smoothed out’ the actual words of Pigliucci here and elsewhere, but I believe I’ve represented his ideas accurately). I found this an extraordinary confession, by a philosopher of science, that after a century of theorising, philosophers have failed abysmally in trying to define the parameters of the scientific process. I’m not sure if Pigliucci understands the significance, for his own profession, of what he’s claiming here. 

I have no problems with Pigliucci’s description that scientists ‘do what works’, though I think there’s a little more to it than that. Interestingly, I read a few books and essays on the philosophy of science way back in my youth, before I actually started reading popular science books and magazines, and once I plugged into the world of actual scientific experimentation and discovery I was rarely tempted to read that kind of philosophy again (mainly because scientists and science writers tend to do their own practical philosophising about the field they focus on, which is usually more relevant than the work of academic philosophers). I came up, years ago, with my own amateur description of the scientific process, which I’ll raise here to the status of Universal Law:

Scientists employ an open-ended set of methods to arrive at reliable and confirmable knowledge about the world.

So, while there’s no single scientific method, methodology is vital to good science, for hopefully obvious reasons. Arriving at this definition doesn’t require much in the way of philosophical training, so I rather sympathise with those, such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who are targeted by Pigliucci as promoters or practitioners of scientism (largely because they feel much in the philosophy of science is irrelevant to their field). But first we really need to get a clearer view of what Pigliucci means by the term. Here’s his attempt at a definition:

Scientism is the notion that some people apply science where either it doesn’t belong or it’s not particularly useful. So, as betrayed by the ‘ism’, it’s an ideology. It’s the notion that it’s an all-powerful activity and that all interesting questions should be reducible to scientific questions. If they’re not, if science can’t tell you anything, then either the question is uninteresting or incoherent. This description of scientism is generally seen as a critique, though there are some who see scientism as a badge of honour.

Now I must say that I first came across scientism in this critical sense, while watching a collection of speeches by Christians and pro-religion philosophers getting stuck into ye olde ‘new atheism’ (see the references below). Their views were of course very defensive, and not very sophisticated IMHO, but scientism was clearly being used to shelter religious beliefs, which cover everything from morality to cosmology, from any sort of critique. There was also a lot of bristling about scientific investigations of religion, which raises the question, I suppose, as to whether anthropology is a science. It’s obvious enough that some anthropological analyses are more rigorous than others, but again, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over such questions.

But the beauty of the scientific quest is that every ‘answer’ opens up new questions. Good science is always productive of further science. For example, when we reliably learned that genes and their ‘mutations’ were the source of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution, myriad questions were raised about the molecular structure of genes, where they were to be found, how they were transferred from parents to offspring, how they brought about replication and variation, and so forth. Science is like that, the gift that keeps on giving, turning ‘unknown unknowns’ into ‘known unknowns’ on a regular basis. 

I’ve read countless books of ‘popular’ science – actually many of them, such as Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, James Gleick’s The information, and Oliver Morton’s Eating the the sun, are fiendishly complex, so not particularly ‘popular’ – as well as a ton of New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos magazines, and no mention has been made of ‘the scientific method’ in any of them, so Pigliucci’s claim that many scientists believe in some specific method just doesn’t ring true to me. But let me turn to some more specific critiques.

When Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape…he wrote in an endnote to the book that by science he meant any kind of reasoning that is informed by facts. Well, by that standard when my grandmother used to make mushroom risotto for me on Sundays, she was using science, because she was reasoning about what to do, based on factual experience. Surely that doesn’t count as science [laughing]… Even if you think of ‘food science’ as a science that’s definitely not what my grandmother was doing. It’s this attempt to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science…

In my view Pigliucci disastrously misses the point here. Making a delicious risotto is all about method, as is conducting an effective scientific experiment. It’s not metaphorical to say that every act of cooking is a scientific experiment – though of course if you apply the same method to the same ingredients, MacDonalds-style, the experimental element diminishes pretty rapidly. Once someone, or some group, work out how to make a delicious mushroom risotto (I’m glad Pigliucci chose this example as I’ve cooked this dish countless times myself!) they can set down the recipe – usually in two parts, ingredients and method – so that it can be more or less replicated by anyone. Similarly, once scientists and technologists work out how to construct a functioning computer, they can set down a ‘computer recipe’ (components and method of construction) so that it can be mass-produced. There’s barely any daylight between the two processes. The first bread-makers arguably advanced human technology as much as did the first computer-makers.

I have quite a bit more to say, so I’ll break this essay into two parts. More soon.

References – apart from the first and the last, these are all to pieces written by me.

Point of Inquiry interview with Massimo Pigliucci

Discussion on scientific progress and scientism, posted April 2019

A post about truth, knowledge and other heavy stuff, posted March 2013

politics and science need to mix, posted August 2011

On supervenience, posted January 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist ‘fashion’, posted January 2011

a critique of Johnathan Ree’s contribution, posted January 2011

Marilynne Robinson tries her hand at taking on ‘new atheism’, posted January 2011

After new atheism: where now for the god debate? Talks by Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Jonathan Ree

Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2019 at 11:50 am

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.


Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am

on the preliminary report into the future of the NEM – part 1

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Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who also happens to be a regular columnist for Cosmos, Australia’s premier science magazine, of which I’m a regular reader, has released his panel’s preliminary report on our national electricity market (NEM), and it has naturally received criticism from within the ranks of Australia’s conservative government, which is under pressure from its most conservative elements, led by Tony Abbott amongst others, who are implacably opposed to renewable energy.

The report confirms that the NEM is experiencing declining demand due to a range of factors, such as the development of new technologies, improved energy efficiency and a decline in industrial energy consumption. It makes a fairly reasonable assumption, but one unwelcome to many conservatives, that our electricity market is experiencing an unprecedented and irreversible phase of transition, and that this transition should be managed appropriately.

The NEM has been in operation for over 20 years, and the recent blackout here in South Australia (late September 2016) was its first real crisis. The issue as identified in the report is that variable renewable energy (VRE) sources are entering and complicating the market, which heretofore has been based on the synchronous generation of AC electricity at a standard system frequency. VRE generation is multiform and intermittent, and as such doesn’t sit well with the traditional system.

There are a number of other complicating issues. Improvements in building design and greater public awareness regarding emissions reduction have led to a decrease in overall energy consumption, while high peak demand on occasion remains a problem. Also the cost of electricity for the consumer has risen sharply in recent years, largely due to network investment (poles and wires). It’s expected that prices will continue to climb due to the closure of coal-fired power stations and the rising cost of gas. Interestingly, the report promotes gas as a vital energy source for this transitional period. It expresses concern about our overseas sales of gas, our low exploration rates, and negative attitudes to the fuel from certain states and territories. Rooftop solar systems, numbering more than 1.5 million, have further complicated the market, as the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) understandably finds it difficult to measure their impact. System integration, which takes solar and wind energy system contributions into account, is clearly key to a successful NEM into the future.

The report also stresses Australia’s commitment to emissions reductions of 26-28% by 2030. It points out that business investors are turning away from fossil fuels, or what they call ’emission intensive power stations’, and financial institutions are also reluctant to back such investments. Given these clear signals, the report argues that a nationally integrated approach to a system which encourages and plans for a market for renewables is essential. This is clearly not what a backward-looking conservative government wants to hear.

So the report describes an ‘energy trilemma’: provision of high level energy security and reliability; affordable energy services for all; reduced emissions. More succinctly – security, affordability and the environment.

In its first chapter, the report looks at new technology. The costs of zero-emission wind turbines and solar PVs are falling, and this will maintain their appeal at least in the short term. Other such technologies, e.g. ‘concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, ocean, wave and tidal, and low emission electricity generation technologies such as biomass combustion and coal or gas-fired generation with carbon capture and storage’ (p13), are mentioned as likely technologies of the future, but the report largely focuses on wind and solar PV in terms of VRE generation. The effect of this technology, especially in the case of rooftop solar, is that consumers are engaging with the market in new ways. The penetration of rooftop solar in Australia is already the highest in the world, though most of our PV systems have low capacity. Battery storage systems, a developing technology which is seeing cost decreases, will surely be an attractive proposition for future solar PV purchasers. Electric vehicles haven’t really taken off yet in Australia, but they are making an impact in Europe, and the AEMO has projected that 10% of cars will be electric by 2030, presenting another challenge to an electricity system based largely on the fossil fuels such vehicles are designed to do without.

The management of these new and variable technologies and generators may involve the evolution of micro-grids as local resources become aggregated. Distributed, two-way energy systems are the likely way of the future, and an Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap has been developed by CSIRO and the Energy Networks Association to help anticipate and manage these changes.

In chapter 2 the report focuses on consumers, who are becoming increasingly active in the electricity market, which was formerly very much a one way system – you take your electricity from the national grid, you pay your quarterly bill. With distributed systems on the rise, consumers are becoming traders and investors in new forms of generation. The most obvious change is with rooftop PV. The national investment in these systems has amounted to several million dollars, with the expectation that individual households will be generating electricity more cleanly, more efficiently, and also more cheaply, notwithstanding the traditional electricity grid. Developments in battery storage and other technologies will inevitably lead to consumers moving off-grid, likely creating financial stress for those who remain. The possibilities for developing micro-grids to reduce costs will further complicate this evolving situation. Digital (smart) metering and new energy management software empower consumers to control usage. And while this is currently occurring mostly at the individual level, industrial consumers will also be keen to curb usage, creating added pressure for a more flexible and diverse two-way market. The report emphasises that the focus should shift more towards demand management in terms of grid security. One of the obvious problems from the point of view of consumers is that those on low incomes, or renters, who have little capacity to move off-grid (or desire in the case of passive users), may bear the burden of grid maintenance costs at increasing rates.

Chapter 3 deals with emissions. In reference to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has been ratified by Australia, the report makes this comment which has been picked up by the media:

While the electricity sector must play an important role in reducing emissions, current policy settings do not provide a clear pathway to the level of reduction required to meet Australia’s Paris commitments.

The current Renewable Energy Target does not go beyond 2020 and national policy vis-à-vis emissions extends only to 2030, causing uncertainty for investors in an already volatile market. Clearly the report is being critical of government here as it has already argued for the primary role of government in developing policy settings to provide clarity for investment. The report also makes suggestions about shifting from coal to gas to reduce emissions at least in the short term. The report discussed three emissions reduction strategies assessed by AEMO and AEMC (Australian Energy Market Commission): an emissions intensity scheme, an extended large-scale renewable energy target, and the regulated closure of fossil-fuelled power stations. The first strategy is basically a carbon credits scheme, which was assessed as being the least costly and impactful, while an extended RET would provide greater policy stability for non-synchronous generation, so adding pressure to the existing grid system. Closure of coal-fired power stations would reduce low-cost supply in the short to medium term. Base load supply would be problematic in that scenario, so management of closures would be the key issue.

Chapter 4 looks at how VRE might be integrated into the system. It gets a bit technical here, but the issues are clear enough – VRE will be an increasing part of the energy mix, considerably so if Australia’s Large-scale renewable energy target is to be met, along with our international commitment vis-a-vis the Paris Agreement. However, VRE cannot provide spinning inertia or frequency control, according to the report. Basically this means that they cannot provide base load power, at a time when coal-fired power stations are closing down (nine have closed since 2012) and eastern states gas is being largely exported. The Hazelwood brown coal power station, Australia’s largest, and one of the most carbon intensive power stations in the world, will cease operation by April next year.

The difficulty with non-synchronous, distributed, intermittent and variable energy generation (e.g. wind and solar PV) is that these terms seem to be euphemisms for ‘not effing reliable’ in terms of base load, a problem currently being encountered in South Australia and likely to spread to other regions. The report identifies frequency control as a high priority challenge.

Frequency is a measure of the instantaneous balance of power supply and demand. To avoid damage to or failure of the power system the frequency may only deviate within a narrow range below or above 50 Hertz, as prescribed in the frequency operating standards for the NEM.

It’s likely that this narrow range of frequency proved a problem for South Australia when it suffered a blackout in September. I’ll look at what the report has to say about that blackout next time.

national electricity consumption - apparently on the rise again?

national electricity consumption – apparently on the rise again?

Written by stewart henderson

December 22, 2016 at 7:15 pm

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.


A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

women in science, solutions, and why nobody reads my blog, among other things

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Okay I’ve written facetiously about getting rid of men, or seriously (but facetiously) reducing their proportion of the populace, but in future I want to look at real solutions to a problem that I think is already being addressed but far too patchily and slowly – the problem of male power and dominance. The general solution, of course, is the ascent of woman, to paraphrase Jacob Bronowski via Darwin, and how to promote and quicken it. (Incidentally I’ve just discovered that ‘The Ascent of Woman’ is a four part documentary on women’s history, recently produced for the BBC by Dr Amanda Foreman – look forward to watching it).

However, before continuing I want to issue a plea for help. My blog, which I’ve been writing for many years now, has never had much of a readership, due probably to my inability to network, or even communicate much with others (I’d rather not think it’s anything to do with my writing skills). However, last month even that minuscule readership virtually collapsed, as I recorded my lowest number of hits since my first month of blogging. I’ve soldiered on, but now at the end of September I find this month’s numbers even worse. I feel I need to make a decision about the blog’s future – How do I increase the numbers? Does the blog need a makeover? Can I blame the attention-span of others? I find if I write short pieces, they don’t really cover anything in depth, but I know also that the in-depth pieces, the ones I work on hardest, often get the least attention. Should I just give up and go back to journal writing? At least that way I won’t be faced with the world’s indifference…

Anyway, enough about me – it’s interesting that when you start focusing on an issue, you hear about it everywhere, everybody seems to be talking about it. Today, listening to a podcast of the ABC Science Show, I heard that teenagers are our biggest killers, worldwide, predominantly through motor vehicle accidents. And of course we’re talking largely of male teenagers. The researcher announcing this was female, and, typical female, she was complaining about us tackling this old problem (this has been the global situation for some sixty years) in the same old piecemeal way, rather than though global collaboration in researching and trying to figure out workable solutions to what is clearly a global problem. It was clear from this passionate speaker (and mother of teenage children) that with more females leading research in this and other fields, we’ll get more collaboration and quicker and more effective solutions. And when Robyn Williams, our honourable Science Show anchor, asked the researcher a double-barrelled question – is this teenage problem a male one, and should teenage boys be banned from driving? – her honourable response was ‘yes, and yes’.

The question is – would a law specifically targeting boys/young men as drivers ever be implemented? Of course, many males would describe it as discriminatory. And of course it does discriminate, because the statistics are clear. But why, a young male might ask, should I be treated as a statistic? I’m not like other young men.

It’s a valid point, and I can’t see an obvious way of screening out the potentially safe young men from the potentially dangerous ones. So all we could acceptably do is raise the driving age for all, preferably globally, which would effectively discriminate against the statistically safer drivers, the females. Still, I like the idea of a push, led in the main by women, for a discriminatory driving age policy backed by science. It would raise the profile of the issue, bring women together in an excellent cause, potentially save lives, and feature as another small episode in the ascent of women.

Of course it wouldn’t solve the terrible wee problem of young kids stealing cars and killing and maiming others and themselves for pumped-up kicks…

Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2016 at 8:39 am

does this change everything? Paris, Naomi Klein, extractivism and blockadia

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Canto: Well I’ve just managed to finish reading Naomi Klein’s great big book about the politics of climate change, This changes everything, and since this more or less coincides with the recent political decisions made about tackling climate in Paris, I thought we might spend this session, or even a few sessions, on the future of clean energy, the fossil fuel industry and so forth.

Jacinta: Ah yes, the Paris conference, can you fill me in on that? All I know is that the outcome is being touted as a turning point, a watershed moment, but I presume none of it is enforceable, and I can’t really see the fossil fuel giants giving up the ghost, or considering anything much beyond business as usual…

Canto: Okay, the UN climate change conference in Paris ended on December 12 2015, having run for about 3 weeks. The principal outcome has been the Paris agreement, which was a more substantive agreement on emissions reduction than has been achieved in the past. It apparently represents a consensus drawn from some 196 national representatives.

Jacinta: And I seem to recall the figure of 2% being bandied about. What was that about?

Canto: Ummm, I think you might be referring to the plan, or hope, to limit global warming to 2 degrees, through zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the second half of the 21st century, globally.

Jacinta: Wow, that’s some hope.

Canto: Well the hope is to keep the warming to well under 2 degrees C, preferably aiming for 1.5, which would entail substantial reductions well before 2050, but of course this is all promises, promises.

Jacinta: So what about enforcement, and how is this going to be achieved nation by nation, considering that some nations are huge emitters, and some nations, like India, are still developing and industrialising?

Canto: Right so there are all these semi-commitments and promises, but crunch time starts in April 2016, from which time the relevant parties are asked to sign up to the agreement – that’s 197 parties in all, including all member nations of the UN, the European Union and some not-quite-nations like Palestine and the Cook Islands. They have a year to sign up, and the agreement will only come into force if 55 countries that produce 55% of global greenhouse emissions sign up.

Jacinta: Wait, does that mean all of the top 55 greenhouse gas emitters, or any 55 that together emit 55% of the greenhouse gases emitted by humans?

Canto: Uhhh, I’m not sure but I think it’s the latter.

Jacinta: Great, so Australia doesn’t have to sign. Quel soulagement!

Canto: Funny that, because the Wikipedia article on the Paris agreement, specifically mentions the climate change ‘skepticism’ of our conservative government…

Jacinta: Wow, what an honour.

Canto: Time to lobby our environment minister. Of course there are a lot of people protesting that this agreement doesn’t go far enough – not so much in the targets as in the voluntary nature of it all. I mean, it may not even come into voluntary force if nations don’t sign up to it, and of course there’s no enforcement mechanism. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the situation:

The Agreement will not become binding on its member states until 55 parties who produce over 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas have ratified the Agreement. There is doubt whether some countries will agree to do so. Each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction, but the amount will be voluntary. There will be [no] mechanism to force a country to set a target by a specific date and no enforcement if a set target is not met. There will be only a “name and shame” system or as Janos Pasztor, the U.N. assistant secretary-general on climate change, told CBS News (US), a “name and encourage” plan.

Jacinta: Well I think it’s definitely a positive development, which will add pressure to the fossil fuel industries and their supporters. I notice that one of our green pollies was castigating the government the other day about the expansion of the Abbott Point coal terminal, citing the Paris agreement. That’s going to be a much repeated dagger-thrust into the future. So how does this all connect with Naomi Klein’s book?

Canto: Well I think you’re right to accentuate the positives. I mean, how can you seriously police or enforce such an agreement without interfering with the ‘national sovereignty’ that so many nations bellow about – especially when there’s a hint of criticism from the UN? So the first real positive coming from this confab is that all the parties are in agreement about the imminent threat of AGW, and they’ve actually managed to come to a broad agreement over a target and a goal. That’s a big deal. The second positive is, as you say, the impact of that consensus on the battle against the cashed-up fossil fuel industries, and the mostly conservative governments around the world that are still into science denialism, including our own government. As to This changes everything, Klein sees the AGW issue as a possible game-changer for the politics of global capitalism and free marketeering, which is rather ambitious, but she puts her faith in the protest movements, the indigenous rights movements and other grassroots movements who are, as she sees it, rising up more than ever before to create headaches for the business-as-usual model. She calls this grassroots approach ‘blockadia’, probably not an original coinage.


Jacinta: So she sees it as an issue to fight global capitalism, to replace it with… what? Surely the renewable energy industries are capitalist industries too?

Cant: Well yes, I think there’s a certain amount of idealism in her view, an old-fashioned back-to-nature ethic, and I don’t think she emphasises the solutions and the science as much as she emphasises the problems and the politics, but if you take the view that the fossil fuel industries need to be phased out, sooner rather than later, you’ll perhaps be as much inspired by the heroic and hard-working efforts to prevent mining and drilling – which, let’s face it, have caused huge devastation in many areas – as you will by the innovations and improvements in clean energy. Which brings me to the other term used a lot in Klein’s book – extractivism.

Jacinta: Which presumably stands not just for the fossil fuel industry but the whole mentality of ‘what can we extract from this entity?’, be it animal vegetable or mineral.

Canto: The ancient Greeks did it with their slaves, the British did it with their colonies…

Jacinta: And their slaves..

Canto: The tobacco industry are doing it with the resource of willing smokers in non-western countries, poachers are doing it with elephants in Africa, the porn industry is doing it with pretty and mostly impoverished girls in the US and Europe, multinational companies are doing it with cheap labour worldwide. Extractivism has always been with us…

Jacinta: Point taken but I think we’re getting a bit carried away here. I presume Klein was using the term in a more limited sense, though perhaps with a nod to broader extractivist tendencies. And I have to say, quite apart from the devastation caused by tailings and disasters like Deepwater Horizon, I’ve always felt there’s something not quite right about our recent cavalier exploitation of a process of incredibly slow transformation of once-living and evolving entities – our ancestors in a sense – into coal and oil. Doesn’t it seem somehow sacrilegious?

Canto: Well perhaps, but I’m not sure if ‘exploitation’ is the right word. People get exploited. Okay animals can get exploited. But dead matter turning into coal? All species do what they can to survive and thrive, and they don’t worry about the cost to others or to historical processes. Right now parrots are feasting on my neighbour’s fruit trees. They’re extracting what they can in one go, and they’ll be back for more unless someone stops them. My neighbours might consider the parrots a pest, but that’s only because they want to extract as much as they can from those trees, to make jam, or to add fibre and other nutritional elements to their diet. As to the fossil fuels I’m all for keeping them in the ground, but more because of the damage they do to our atmosphere than because it’s ‘nice’ and ‘respectful’ not to extract them.

Jacinta: Spoken like a true instrumental scientist, but I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than you say. But what do you think about the view that this is a game-changer for global politics? Klein subtitles her book ‘capitalism v the climate’, as if one or the other has to come out on top. Do you think that’s really the choice?

Canto: No I don’t, but I doubt that Klein really imagines, or even wants this to spell the end of capitalism. I’m no anti-capitalist of course, but then I see capitalism in much broader terms. Those parrots are capitalising on a resource previously unavailable to them, and they’ll continue to do so unless prevented, by netting or something worse. Fossil fuel companies have learned to capitalise on a resource previously unavailable to them, before we learned how to process and extract energy from such material, and they’ll continue to do so unless they’re prevented, by legislation, by blockadia, or by the availability of more attractive alternatives, such as the more effective exploitation of the sun. Or capitalising on the solar resource.

Jacinta: So you believe that all humans, or rather, all creatures are capitalists? Isn’t that a bit of a narrow view?

the capitalist menace

                                                                                  the capitalist menace

Canto: Well no, as I say, I think it’s a broad view of the capitalist concept. But of course you might say that this hardly accounts for blockadia. If we’re all capitalists at heart, how do we account for the amount of energy so many citizens put into blocking capitalist exploitation? But that’s easily explained by the parrots and fruit example. The parrots’ gain is the neighbours’ loss. The neighbours have gone to a lot of trouble cultivating the ground, planting the trees, watering and fertilising, and these pesky parrots have come along without so much as a by your leave, and devastated the crop. Similarly farmers who have put a lot of time and energy into cultivating their land, and indigenous people who have learned over generations how to fish and hunt in an area in such a way that stocks can still be replenished rather than devastated, are naturally outraged that these fossil fuel companies have come along and ‘poisoned the well’. The farmers and the indigenes are also capitalists, very effective capitalists for their own needs, but they’re faced with different types of capitalists with different needs. So, to me, it’s a matter of resources, needs, diversity and negotiation.

Jacinta: Hmmm, well I’m inclined to agree with you. Of course indigenous people, such as our Aborigines, like to talk of spiritual connections to the land and its bird and animal life, but I’m not much into spirituality. But I like the idea that even though they’re into hunting and killing those creatures in order to survive, they tell stories about them, and exhibit a great deal of respect and fondness for them. That seems healthy to me.

Canto: I agree completely. I’m not trying to say ‘all is capitalism’. There’s much more to life than that. The beauty of that story-telling and that affection for the land and its inhabitants and their ways is that it’s not a kind of master-race view. The Judeo-Christian view has been that all things, including all creatures, have been put here for our benefit. Of course modern Christianity has largely re-interpreted this as custodianship, which is an improvement, but I prefer the perspective that we’re all in this together, and we should look out for each other. Birds have to eat, and they like to eat fruit, and birds are fantastic creatures. They deserve our consideration.

Jacinta: Well that’s a nice note to end on. And what about the fossil fuel industry?

Canto: I think it’s had its day. It’s time to move beyond it.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2015 at 8:45 am

group think revisited, or how to improve your mind

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Confirmation bias (and the benefits of social reasoning) in a nutshell:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? Luke 6: 42 New International Version


The argumentative theory of reason

The recent New Scientist collection, Being Human, includes an essay, ‘The argumentative ape’, by Dan Jones, which is worth reading and contemplating for any teacher involved in encouraging her students to think richly about current ethical or political issues. In my college, NESB students study ‘English for academic purposes’, which involves a lot of basic grammar and vocabulary at the lower levels, and academic presentations and essays at the higher levels. In these ‘discussion’ or ‘argument’ essays and presentations, students are required to examine the pros and cons of some chosen activity or decision, such as the proper driving age, the consumption of GM food, or even whether humanity has benefitted or blighted our planet.

However, there seems to be a contradiction in asking students to write, and be examined on, individually written ‘discussion essays’, when discussions and arguments are group rather than individual activities. More importantly, if we want to improve our students’ understanding of current issues, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on group discussion than on individual analysis.

This is hardly a new idea. The ancient Athenians, founders of democracy – decision-making by the people – built their city around the agora, a gathering place for public talk and argument. This design was quite deliberate, as all Athenian citizens were required to contribute to discussions from which civic decisions were made.

‘The argumentative ape’, however, provides contemporary evidence about the evolutionary importance of argument in human society. It describes a thesis put forward by European researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, that human reason evolved not so much to assist us in more clearly understanding our world, but to argue, to persuade, to convince others of our position, our right-ness. So, it evolved socially. And there appears to be some evidence for the more general ‘social brain’ hypothesis, in that a clear correlation has been found between the number of individuals in a primate group and the average brain size of that particular species.

Now one essential problem here should be obvious, as it was to Socrates in his battle with the sophists. The most persuasive arguments aren’t necessarily the best. So it’s natural that along with persuasiveness, skepticism would have developed, as humans sought to evaluate competing arguments.

Through scepticism we’ve identified many types of fallacious reasoning, and ways we have of convincing ourselves in the process of trying to convince others. Confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning, probably tops this list, as it is extremely pervasive if not universal. As Mercier points out, using confirmation bias seems counter-productive if you wish to arrive at correct results, for example in scientific research, but it can be highly effective in argument, as your bias commits you to garnering a multitude of arguments for your position while ignoring, and thus rendering insignificant, all arguments against. If we accept an argumentative theory of the evolution of reason, then, we will see confirmation bias not as a flaw, but as a device to strengthen our own arguments, and the ability to detect such biases would in turn be a device to undo or diminish the arguments of others.

how individual reasoning is affected by the larger group

Experimental psychologists have found many ways in which our reasoning can be affected or manipulated. Take, for example, the framing effect. It has been found, and regularly confirmed, that how the same problem is worded will affect our decision. Jones presents the scenario, used by psychologists, of a small village of 600 people threatened by a deadly disease. In scenario one, if Plan A is adopted, exactly 200 people will survive. If plan B is adopted, there will be a 1 in 3 chance that all will survive, and a 2 in 3 chance that none will survive. When this scenario is presented to subjects, the majority invariably choose Plan A. However when, in scenario two, Plan A is framed with the slight difference that exactly 400 people will die (with no change to Plan B), this is enough for the majority to flip over to Plan B. This consistent result has been explained in terms of ‘loss aversion’ – we prefer to avoid the explicit loss of life as expressed in the change to Plan A in scenario two. Significantly though for the argumentative ape hypothesis, this loss aversion bias is strengthened when we have to justify our decision to a larger group. We have a ready-made justification as expressed in the framing. It’s probable that we always have in mind what the larger group, or ‘society’ will think of our decision, but when this need to justify ourselves is made explicit, the ready rationalisation is more likely to be adopted.

Other effects of apparently faulty reasoning, such as the attraction effect and the sunk-cost fallacy, have been detected in psychological studies, and all have been shown to be enhanced when there is an explicit need for justification. The ‘argumentative’ thesis claims that we tend to choose the most easily justified option rather than what might be best.

Confirmation bias for me, scepticism towards you, and how it pans out

While this may seem a pessimistic outlook on our use of reason, the counterbalance lies in our ability, from clear evolutionary need, to identify and so counter the faulty arguments of others. This pattern follows a familiar evolutionary trajectory, in which a predator evolves a means to capture its prey, leading the prey to develop a defence mechanism to protect itself against the predator. Scepticism helps us to avoid being sucked in and ‘devoured’.

The result for group reasoning is that bias and the scepticism can balance each other out, leading to a greater recognition of the weaknesses in our own opinions and the strengths in those of others. And experimental evidence backs up this result. To quote from Jones’ article:

In one convincing study, psychologists David Moshman and Molly Geil at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at performance in the Wason selection test – a simple card game based on logical deduction. When thinking about this task on their own, less than 10 per cent of people got the right answer. When groups of 5 or 6 people tackled it, however, 75 per cent of the groups eventually succeeded. Crucially for the argumentative theory, this was not simply down to smart people imposing the correct answer on the rest of the group: even groups whose members had all previously failed the test were able to come to the correct solution by formulating ideas and revising them in light of criticism (Thinking and Reasoning, vol 4, p 231).

He also points to research indicating that groups are more creative in their thinking than individuals (see sources below).

Implications for teaching, or how to best facilitate the best group thinking

Evidence from a series of studies by Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania suggests that a group’s individual skills are not the best predictor of the group’s overall performance in problem-solving. These studies were designed to measure the ‘collective intelligence’ of the group, in something like the manner of IQ tests for individuals. She found that those groups who scored highest were the most inclusive, allowing maximal participation within the group. Sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others helped groups to score highly, and the best groups were those with the greater number of female members, presumably because females have a greater social sensitivity.

Group thinking can, of course, backfire. Groupthink in fact has long been seen negatively, but this is because people with the same cognitive biases often congregate together, as with political parties and religious organisations, or gravitate towards similar professions, such as the police or the military. In such groupings it’s often the case that the group moves collectively to quite extreme positions. Where group thinking would be expected to work most effectively is precisely in a college for NESB students from different cultures and backgrounds, in which individuals are challenged by widely different but (hopefully!) cogent opinions.

As educators, we need to consider the best outcomes for our students. Clearly there is pressure, in an individualised results-based system, to push for individual skill in argumentation, with the resultant high test scores. However, the evidence for group interaction in improving students’ understanding of the many issues focused on in essays and seminars at the higher levels is clear. Of course the situation is complicated by the fact that many students at EAP2 and EAP3 levels still don’t have the  grammatical and lexical skills to present cogent arguments in English, so that it’s often hard to determine whether their difficulties are those of reasoning or of language. Even so, I believe it is vital to take advantage of the cultural diversity of students’ experience and knowledge (even within identical language groups) to encourage interaction that will challenge biases and create awareness of a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this will enliven their thinking both within the college and in their studies beyond Eynesbury.


Some sources are found in the links. Here are others.

D Sperber and H Mercier,”Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”, Behavioural and brain sciences: Published online March 2011. Mercer elaborates on the theory very interestingly in a video on this website

Williams Woolley, Anita, ‘Collective intelligence in human groups’, April 2012: Center for Collective Intelligence:

D Moshman & M Geil, 1998 ‘Collaborative reasoning: evidence for collective rationality’. Thinking and reasoning V4 issue 3:

Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2015 at 6:57 am

Is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

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Jacinta: Okay so here’s a topical topic. I was listening with baited breath – I can do that, I’m a multi-tasker – to Malcolm Turnbull’s post-election speech the other day, and along with the whole nation I heard him extoll three ‘roolly good things’, in his estimation. The holy trinity – freedom, the individual and the market. Did y’all hear that? And I thought, Jeez, the libertarians among us will be doing cartwheels right now. And I further thought ‘hang on a minute Malcolm, turn that bull around’.

Canto: I see, so you prefer slavery, group-think and state control?

Jacinta: Ah very good, but let’s prise ourselves out of the straightjacket of ideology and slip into something more comfortable, like reality. Of course freedom’s a good thing, but of course it has its limits. And of course individuals are great, but as any mathematician will tell you, all individuals are members of a set, that’s actually what makes them individuals, and the market..

Canto: That’s not a very good analogy, I don’t think – that one about individuals.

Jacinta: That wasn’t an analogy.

Canto: Well… maybe, but bringing maths into it isn’t very helpful.

Jacinta: Okay. Okay, let me focus on the individual thing, because that’s probably my biggest gripe – it all flows from a misconception of the individual, IMHO.

Canto: What flows?

Jacinta: The horrors of libertarianism. I’ve been bottling this up for years, now I’m going to let it all seethe out. And it just so happens that ‘All hail freedom, the individual and the mighty market’ is essentially the libertarian mantra. Of course I don’t take Malcolm’s mellifluencies too seriously, but libertarianism really shits me.

Canto: But really – politics? Can’t we talk about water on Mars? Or Homo naledi?

Jacinta: Well, there is world enough, and time…

Canto: Bullshit.

Jacinta: Ok I’ll try to be the soul of wit. Libertarians – and I know they come in all shapes, sizes and political colours – tend to believe in small government, minimal regulation and the invisible, wonderfully shaping and fixing hand of the market. I got my first dose of libertarianism years ago when I read – or tried to read – Anarchy, State and Utopiaby the American philosopher Robert Nozick. I could barely comprehend it, but I could see it was underpinned by a sacrosanct notion of rights, particularly the rights of the individual. It was also, I thought, an overly rational analysis of how individuals might aggregate. Or rather, that’s how I’ve come to think of it since. I had no idea what to think of it at the time.


Canto: So how do you think individuals aggregate?

Jacinta: No no what I think doesn’t matter, it’s more about what history and psychology and sociology tells us. And they tell us about families and extended families and kinship groups and trade affiliations, becoming ever more extended and convoluted as societies grow. And all this without any concept of rights.

Canto: Okay I think I see where you’re coming from. You think the individual shouldn’t be seen as the central human unit, or political unit, you’re wanting to emphasise social connections.

Jacinta: Of course! We didn’t get where we are now, the top predators of the biosphere for better or worse…

Canto: The fat controllers of the planet…

Jacinta: We didn’t get to this situation as individuals, we got here because we’re the most socially-oriented mammals around. Our language, our technology, our superior brainpower, these are all socially constructed. And our systems of government are just ways of organising and trying to get the best out of this dynamic, interactive, co-operative and competitive society.

Canto: So there are legitimately diverse views about the role of government. So what’s wrong with that? Libertarians just happen to lean towards the individualist, unregulated, small-government side.

Jacinta: Well, as I’ve said, I’m not so much interested in opinions as in what actually works to create the most effective society…

Canto: You’re trying to be scientific, but the question of what makes for an effective society will have different answers, not based on science. Some will say an effective society is one that looks after its minorities and its disadvantaged, others will say that diversity and dynamism is key, and this means inevitably that there will be winners and losers. How can there be an objective, scientific definition of an effective society?

Jacinta: Okay, I concede your point that there are a range of legitimate views on this, but I would be guided by what works, and that would reduce the range of legitimacy. Extreme libertarianism – of the ‘there is no society, only individuals’ kind – seems to me to be paradoxically an outcome of the success of certain societies in educating and empowering their members, so that they start to fantasise about themselves as ‘self-made’ and owing nothing to anyone. It’s delusional and would result in scrapping all history has taught us about the communities of language and shared knowledge and values which have shaped us. It’s an ahistorical ideology which has never been instantiated anywhere. Not to mention its arrogant (and ultimately self-defeating) selfishness. Of course the other extreme is also unworkable, that of communism with an equal share of communal goods, which would stifle innovation and diversity and would have to be imposed from above.

wtf? Most people don't give a tinker's toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

wtf? Most people don’t give a tinker’s toss about the state when they act. But they do think about the consequences for others

Canto: Which would be self-contradictory because in communism, there is no ‘above’, presumably absolute equality is just meant to happen naturally…

Jacinta: There’s no perfect or perfectly fair society, just some are fairer than others, and it’s an endless balancing act, it seems to me, between encouraging the freedom to develop ideas and ‘get ahead’, and protecting others from being exploited and done down. So to me it’s a matter of pragmatism and endless adjustment rather than gung-ho ideology. Individuals are pretty well infinitely complex so you would expect society to multiply that complexity to to a new level of infinity.

Canto: But I notice that many libertarians tend to avoid going on about ‘society’, they prefer to focus their ire on ‘the state’, as if it’s the enemy of society.

Jacinta: Oh yes, good point, the rhetoric goes that the state is this abstract, inhuman monster that steals our money, stifles our initiative and makes a mess of everything it touches. Insofar as it consists of people, it consists of really dumb or power-mad types who haven’t seen the light and just don’t realise that society functions better either without the state or with a minimalist one. They’ve never been able to point to any evidence to support their claims though. Essentially, the libertarian ‘state’ has been trialled in the real world even less than the communist state, its polar opposite, has been.

Canto: So how is it supposed to work?

Jacinta: Well, clearly there are libertarians of many different types and degrees who would argue endlessly about that. But many of them seem to think it would grow ‘organically’ through adherence to certain basic principles, one of which has to do with the primacy of private property, though I’m not sure how to articulate it. Another is that no law or imposition should be applied that interferes with an individual’s liberty, the idea being I think, that you’re free to do what you like as long as it doesn’t interfere with everybody else’s right to do what he or she likes, which when you think about it is a recipe for disaster, because who decides between competing claims – for example my right to enjoy the peace and quiet of my own residence versus my neighbour’s right to play shite music all night with the volume up to eleven?

Canto: Aww, is that neighbour still bothering you Jass?

Jacinta: Fuck off. Actually what really bothers me is the obsession with private property and ownership. Coming from a pretty impoverished background, I was always more fond of the ‘property is theft’ mantra. And that reminds me of a story from my youth. I was living in a share-house very close to the spacious grounds of Saint Peter’s College, the biggest and most exclusive private school in South Australia. It must’ve been school holiday time, and we decided to take our racquets and balls and have a hit around on one of their tennis courts. There was no fence or anything, we just walked in and started playing. There was no net either, so it wasn’t a particularly serious hit-out, but we were absorbed enough not to notice a fellow scurrying across the greensward to tick us off. The look of outrage on the face of this fellow was unforgettable, it was as if he’d caught us pissing on the altar…

Canto: Which is exactly what you were doing mate.

Jacinta: His get-up was unforgettable too, he had this bright orange cravat, and sort of pantaloons with braces as I remember…

Canto: You’ve forgotten the candy-striped jacket and the Old Boys’ cap…

Jacinta: No, it was too hot for that. Anyway, I remember his words, more or less. ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is private property!!’

Canto: Ah yes, a defining moment in the Great Australian Class War. So you made mince-meat out of him with your graphite, carbon-fibre and kevlar weaponry?

Jacinta: Well, we were just teenagers. I remember we stood our ground for a while, more out of shock than anything. So he went on haranguing us about our outrageous behaviour and threatening to call the police, so we wandered off. But I was so infuriated when I realised what was happening. I wish I’d confronted the guy, and I ran though imaginary narratives in my head many times afterwards. It was a defining moment for me, actually, it crystallised for me my attitude to private property…

Canto: Which is?

Jacinta: Well, it’s never been very important to me – I mean, as part of his harangue, this guy said something like ‘how would you like it if someone came into your garden and started..’, and my honest answer would’ve been that it wouldn’t have bothered me, certainly nothing like the way it bothered him. And the comparison was odorous anyway, I didn’t own any spacious grounds, I wasn’t born into that world. The way this guy mentioned private property, as if it was his Lord and Master, to be protected and fought for with life and limb, it just sickened me.

Canto: You were outraged?

Jacinta: Yeah, I suppose our intellectual positions are just post-hoc rationalisations of some basic feelings.

Canto: Reason is but the slave of the passions and all that. Anyway, I’m keen to get on to some of those more interesting topics. So let’s get back to the original question – is Malcolm Turnbull a libertarian?

Jacinta: Well the correct answer is that he didn’t say enough, in that first Prime Ministerial speech, for us to make that inference. He believes strongly in freedom. So do I, of course. He believes in the individual. So do I, and I believe individual expression and effort should be nurtured. He believes in the market or markets. I most certainly do too, as sources of exchange, cross-fertilisation, community and growth. The devil or delight is in the detail. I mean, I’ve called his statement a libertarian mantra, which it is, but it’s also classical liberalism. In the end, though, we need to judge governments on their actions, not their words. We’ll have to wait and see.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2015 at 10:06 am

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:



The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm