an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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a bonobo world 30: touching on science, and adversarial systems

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I love this quote from Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand ‘provincial’ who became one of the most brilliant experimental physicists of the turn-of-the century physics revolution:

… experiment, directed by the disciplined imagination either of an individual, or, still better, of a group of individuals of varied mental outlook, is able to achieve results which far transcend the imagination alone of the greatest philosopher.

from Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, p225

We’ve far transcended the bonobos in our experimental and tool-making skills, and in our varied mental outlooks, but it seems to me the teamwork is lacking, or at least it’s often outdone by over-competitiveness and mutual suspicion. Science, the bid to find the best explanations for our own workings and the working of the universe around us, and the best way forward for our species and all that connects with us, has long struck me as the best activity to unite us as Homo sapiens. Of course, the scientific community, being human, is driven by competition and personal glory to a large degree, but the smiles I see on the faces of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose images are all over the internet at present, would hardly strike anyone as smug or self-congratulatory, and they’re clearly happy to share the glory and to educate anyone prepared to listen about the meaning of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing breakthrough, and to give all credit where credit is due to their collaborators and precursors. 

I’m not being naive here, methinks. Having read Venki Ramakrishnan’s Gene Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, and knowing of the battles over atomic theory which may have led to Ludwig Botzman’s suicide, I’m well aware that scientific competition can be pretty fierce. However, I don’t believe it’s anywhere near as ideological as politics or law. Generally the goal of science is something all scientists have in common – that best explanation. That is not the case with many other fields of activity. Here is what I wrote in 2011 about what I call ‘macho’ adversarial systems that continue to blight human society. 

1. Politics.

Some thirty years or so ago I read a book which had as profound a political influence on me as anything I’ve ever read. It was written by the Roman historian Livy and it bore the the title The history of the Roman Republic or something like that [in fact Livy’s monumental history, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Chapters from the Foundation of the City’ covered the whole ground from the myths of Rome’s founders to the early empire under Augustus, in Livy’s own time, and the book I read was presumably a translation of the first half or so]. What astonished me about the book, much of which was made up of speeches from political leaders [a trick he clearly learned from Thucydides] was, to me, its modern relevance. It told the story of two political factions or sides, or perhaps parties, the Patricians and the Plebeians, and of how political power swung from one side to another on a regular basis. However, as is the case in modern politics, this regularity wasn’t particularly regular. Depending on the persuasiveness and charisma of particular leaders, and on external pressures [and corruption of course also had a role], one side might hold sway for an extended period. Many of the issues discussed – taxation, wealth and land ownership and/or redistribution, security and military expenditure, had a familiar ring, and some approaches struck me as profoundly socialist, some two thousand years avant la lettre. Naturally all this made me consider the modern left and the modern right from a more interesting ‘longitudinal’ perspective. But another thing that struck me was the quite viciously adversarial world Livy described. When the political pendulum inevitably swung against them, those who were ousted from power were, equally inevitably, accused of treason, corruption, and/or both, and driven into exile or, probably more often, summarily executed or forced into suicide. Yet quite often their policies were followed by their successors, in spite of much rhetoric about ‘winding things back’. It all left me wondering why anybody in their right mind would pursue a public, political career under such circumstances. It may well have been that civic virtue, or the kudos gained from serving the public in the role of consul or quaestor, was regarded so highly that the inherent dangers were swept aside, or even seen as a worthy feature of the job [think of a career in the armed forces – heroism always has its appeal].

Domestic politics isn’t quite as threatening as it once was, but it still seems sometimes pointlessly adversarial. Notably, in many of the areas where a sensible person might expect a bipartisan approach, such as immigration and climate change, the parties are most determined to be at loggerheads. Maybe it’s because they’re so close together on these issues that they can see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, and this drives them into a frenzy of acrimony. It’s true that Tony Abbott appears to be a climate change ignoramus, but he’s also a pragmatist, and he knows that, if he finally gets in, he’ll have to come up with some sort of scheme to tackle climate change, and it won’t be heaps different from Labor’s. The rest is just spoiling, and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. As for the asylum seeker issue, it should be a minor one considering the numbers involved, but the opposition has whipped and frothed it up for all it’s worth, not caring about the fact that one day they’re complaining about the government’s softness, and the next day they’re decrying government inhumanity. As long as they get to hurl abuse. I know I’m not the only one who finds all this childish and patently dishonest, but most people seem to just consider it a political game that has to be played. I wonder why? Is it so that we can feel superior to all those dishonest pollies? Or is it that this really is the best way to forge policy and to make reforms, in the teeth of vehement opposition. Maybe being collaborative makes for worse policy, I don’t know. There just seems so much expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

2. Law

Again, I’m never sure if I’m missing something, but the adversarial legal system has always struck me as weird. I felt the same way about debating clubs as a kid – I had no interest in finding clever arguments for a position I didn’t believe in, I wanted to argue for what I believed, and to listen to others and gladly concede to them if their argument went deeper and uncovered things I hadn’t thought of. Getting to the truth, or to the most convincing and evidence-backed account, that was the thing. But of course there are other serious considerations with this approach to law. Some lawyers are more skillful, experienced and convincing than others, and lawyers can be bought. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand how a lawyer can do all in his power to defend or prosecute someone whose guilt or innocence he isn’t sure of, out of a ‘professionalism’ from which all moral qualms are removed, if that’s possible. This is probably naive of me, and I know that in these matters almost everyone is compromised by vested interest – the police want to see their arrests vindicated, the victims and their families want revenge, the lawyers want to improve their win/loss ratios, the accused want to get off, etc. Only the judge [and/or jury] is expected to uphold some sort of claim to objectivity, thus becoming the target of all the persuasive powers of the defence and prosecution teams, who seek to take advantage of every quirk and tendency they might perceive in the judge or the jurors. All of which makes me feel not quite right.

I know that in some countries a non-adversarial judicial system has been adopted, but I’m completely vague on the details. I do know that it’s a system heavily criticised by the proponents of the adversarial system, on what grounds and with what legitimacy I’m not sure. I’ve also heard that it hasn’t necessarily produced better or fairer outcomes. I’m also at a loss as to how such a non-adversarial system is financed, without accused persons being able to pay top dollar for the best lawyers. However, I can’t help but intuitively feel that a non-adversarial, collaborative system, in which everybody has the same aim, to uncover the truth surrounding a particular crime or alleged crime, would in principle be a better approach.

3. Work

I presume that ever since we began to divide labour – that is, from the beginning of civilisation – work and power have been intimately related. In fact, it’s only in recent times, with the growth of the idea of universal human rights and the notion of inherent, individual human dignity, that we’ve come to see that people shouldn’t necessarily be devalued according to the type of work they do. The otherwise brilliant Aristotle notoriously wondered whether slaves were capable of consciousness, and this, I would guess, was not due to their inherent status [he knew well enough, surely, that today’s battalion commander could become tomorrow’s slave to forces victorious over him], but to the menial work he or she was forced to do. Similarly when the novelist V S Naipaul [whose work and character I’ve always loathed] recently declared himself to be a superior writer to every female who has ever taken up a pen, he based this ‘knowledge’ on female work, as he saw it. Women, or women writers, had never been estate managers or big bosses or whatever, and so could never see things from a superior male perspective.This idea that employers were inherently superior to ‘underlings’ has only gradually faded with the advent of the union movement and its ability to articulate the rights and grievances of such underlings. Mostly this has involved clashes, demonstrations and strikes, with the formation of employer groups to combat the rise of workers’ associations.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the world of work we’ve seen more positive moves towards a collaborative approach than in other areas. Work, in the west, has become more multifaceted and less rigidly specified, with a blurring of distinctions between types of work and the prestige attached to work, from parental roles and household tasks to management and other high-flying positions, and this has broken down the old us-and-them tradition to some extent. Not that there isn’t a place for good old-fashioned confrontation. Sometimes, as with the demonstration I participated in recently, the problem is that there is no clear ‘enemy’. Workers in the community welfare sector [where the percentage of women is high] are very poorly paid. Generally they’re paid by the government, which means their work is very insecure as governments and their pet projects come and go. Funding is ever a problem and it’s hardly surprising that turnover is very high. Targeting government becomes a problem when governments get turfed out and the next government hasn’t made the same commitment. The problem may well be in public relations – but I’m moving too far from my focus. The point is that, again in this area, a collaborative approach, recognising the mutual dependency of coalface workers and management [and often their inter-changeability] strikes me as inherently more productive. But maybe we’ve had to go through a certain period of mutual hostility, misunderstanding and misrepresentation to get to that stage.

 

So the above is ten years old, and the world of work – the growing gig economy, and increasing deregulation – is getting tougher for those without the right connections. A basic income provision, which might alleviate the problems caused by an increasing concentration of wealth, doesn’t seem to be supported fully by the left or the right, never mind the kind of bipartisan support required for success. But bipartisanship and collaboration is essential to face and overcome the problems we’re creating for ourselves. The thirty percent target for female involvement at all levels in these key fields is critical in creating this collaborative environment – though thirty percent isn’t enough. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2021 at 12:43 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

random thoughts on progress and culture

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random pic of one of the Andaman Islands, I think

 

I seem to have a mind geared toward progress. I look forward (as I’m just beginning to feel my age) towards electric vehicles increasing market share in the ‘backward’ land of Oz. I look forward to governments here throwing their weight behind renewables without the usual reservations. I look forward to the James Webb telescope finally being launched, learning more about exoplanets, and of course genomics, epigenetics, neurophysiology, human origins, and much more. I look forward to the collapse of the Kim monarchy in North Korea, the demise of the current batch of macho political thugs worldwide, and the continuing rise to power of women in politics, business, science and technology. I’ve read Pinker’s two big books on the virtues of progress and enlightenment, I’m reading David Deutsch’s book on the beginning of an infinity of knowledge and discovery and technological improvement, and I’m wishing I could live at least another hundred years to watch the two-steps-forward-one step-back dance into the future. 

And yet. 

I generally describe myself as a humanist, and I’m drawn to those expressing suspicion and a degree of disdain toward nationalism – but, why is that? Am I free to have those feelings, which have been more or less with me since childhood, or have they been imposed on me by experiences I didn’t choose to have? After all, I’m human but I’m thoroughly localised in time and space. I’m a product, of a particular culture, often described as the dominant culture, white (though my skin is light brown and variable as I tan easily), Anglo-Saxon (though being born in the north-east of Scotland I may have Pictish and/or Scandinavian forebears, and frankly I’m not interested in tracing my ancestry) and protestant (though I’m not religious in any sense). Clearly, if I was born in the same place but several hundred years earlier, I wouldn’t be banging on about progress. I wouldn’t have ended up in Australia and I would likely never have travelled more than a few miles from the town of Dundee, where I was born. Whatever occupation I had wouldn’t have differed greatly from that of my father or my son, if I had one. 

So much for time. Think of place. Had I been born in Australia a few hundred years ago, I would’ve been what Europeans call an Aborigine or an indigenous Australian – but I should get with the program, they’re called first nations people now, presumably because we now know that we’re all actually indigenous to the African continent. In any case, my world would’ve been unimaginably different. Or I might’ve been born to first nation parents, but in the fifties (that’s to say, on my actual birth date), in which case I would’ve experienced a mixture of Aboriginal and Western/European/White Australian culture. Again, an experience nigh impossible for me to imagine. How, in that case, would I think of nationalism, as someone linked to a ‘nation’ with an ancient, resilient culture, or complex of different cultures, but surrounded by an innovative, progressive, dominant culture that I would never quite belong to. Would I want to belong to it? Who can say – I’m mixing generalisations with particular experiences here, and it’s not making sense.   

So it’s perhaps better, or certainly easier, to take the self out of the picture and think of cultures in the way we think of species and sub-species. Some species have found a niche, in the depths of the oceans, say, which has allowed them to survive and even thrive in a basic sort of way for eons, pretty well unchanged. Others, like rats and pigeons, have adapted to a variety of conditions, allowing them to spread across the globe, in tandem with ever-urbanising homo sapiens. Do we value all these species equally? Do we value all human cultures equally? We’re generally encouraged to think positively about biodiversity and cultural diversity. Yet we know that by far the majority of species mothered by this planet are now extinct. Many cultures, too, have been obliterated, by war, climate change, absorption into more dominant cultures and so forth. Which brings me back to progress. There seems to be a tension between the drive to preserve and the drive to transcend. There appears to be room for both drives much of the time, but what if they clash?

I recently had cause to learn a little more about the Andaman Islanders, who have a distinct and clearly self-sustaining culture developed over millenia. They don’t want to be disturbed and they’ve largely been granted that wish. After all, our progressive culture has no great need of their small scraps of land and what, from our perspective, are their meagre resources. However, imagine that something was discovered, via the latest in sophisticated computer technology, not too far beneath the soil of those islands – some mineral with extraordinary properties, valuable beyond measure to the dominant society’s continued technological advancement, but the extraction of which would massively disrupt the everyday life and compromise the spiritual beliefs of the islanders?

Perhaps this is a far-fetched scenario – it’s highly unlikely that, with our multi-faceted ingenuity, we would need to rely on some particular item from a remote set of islands for our juggernaut progress. And yet – I’ve read, in Simon Winchester’s book Pacific – of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the forties and fifties, as the USA chose to use their region as the site of scores of nuclear tests, causing widespread and more or less permanent radioactive contamination – the price of a particular kind of progress. As Wikipedia puts it:

The testing concluded in 1958. Over the years, just one of over 60 islands was cleaned by the US government, and the inhabitants are still waiting for the 2 billion dollars in compensation assessed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Many of the islanders and their descendants still live in exile, as the islands remain contaminated with high levels of radiation

Mistakes were made…

The ‘new world’ (meaning new to Europeans) and its first nations cultures have paid a heavy price for largely European colonisation, domination and progress. My position, as a somewhat low-ranking beneficiary of the dominant culture, makes it hard to judge the costs and benefits of these developments. We will go forward, but we need to look back at what we’ve done, and to look around at what we’re doing now. Preservation and progress is an uneasy balancing act which we’ll probably never quite master, but we need to keep trying, for humanity’s sake.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands

S Winchester, Pacific: the ocean of the future, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

February 4, 2020 at 2:35 pm