an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

towards James Clerk Maxwell 3 – Benjamin Franklin and Coulomb’s Law

leave a comment »

Coulomb’s law – attraction and repulsion

Canto: So we’ve been looking at electricity and magnetism historically, as researchers, scientists, thinkers, experimenters and so on have managed to piece these processes together and combine them into the one thing, electromagnetism, culminating in J C Maxwell’s equations…

Jacinta: Or going beyond those equations into the implications. But of course we’re novices regarding the science and maths of it all, so we should recommend that real students of this stuff should go to the Khan academy lectures, or Matt Anderson’s lectures for the real expert low-down. As will we. But we need to point out, if only to ourselves, that what we’re trying to get our heads around is really fundamental stuff about existence. Light, which is obviously fundamental to our existence, is an electromagnetic wave. So, think magnetism, think electricity, and think light.

Canto: Right, so we’re going back to the eighteenth century, and whatever happens after Hauksbee and Polinière.

Jacinta: Well, scientists – or shall we say physical scientists, the predecessors of modern physicists – were much influenced throughout the eighteenth century by Newton, in particular his inverse square law of gravity:

F=G{\frac {m_{1}m_{2}}{r^{2}}}\

Newton saw gravity as a force (F), and formulated the theory that this force acted between any two objects (m1 and m2 – indicating their masses) in a direct line between their respective centres of mass (r being the length of that line, or the distance between those centres of mass). This force is directly proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the distance. As to G, the gravitational constant, that’s something I don’t get, as yet. Anyway, the success of Newton’s theory, especially the central insight that a force diminishes, in a precise way, with distance, affected the thinking of a number of early physical scientists. Could a similar theory, or law (they didn’t think in terms of theory then) apply to electrical forces? Among those who suspected as much were the mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, who made major contributions to fluid dynamics and probability, and Alessandro Volta, who worked on electrical capacitance and storage, the earliest batteries.

Canto: And Joseph Priestley actually proposed an inverse square law for electricity, but didn’t work out the details. Franz Aepinus and Benjamin Franklin were also important 18th century figures in trying to nut out how this force worked. All of this post-Newtonian activity was putting physical science on a more rigorous and mathematical footing. But before we get to Coulomb and his law, what was a Leyden Jar?

Jacinta: Leyden jars were the first capacitors. They were made of glass. This takes us back to the days of Matthias Bose earlier in the 18th century, and even back to Hauksbee. Bose, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Wittenberg, worked with and improved Hauksbee’s revolving glass-globe machine to experiment with static electricity. He added a metal ‘prime conductor’ which accumulated a higher level of static charge, and gave spectacular public demonstrations of the sparks he created, using them to set alcohol alight and to create ‘beatification’ effects on a woman wearing a metal helmet. All great japes, but it promoted interest in electricity on the continent. The trick with alcohol inspired another experimenter, Jurgen von Kleist, to invent his Leyden jar, named for Kleist’s university. It was a glass container filled with alcohol (or water) into which was suspended a metal rod or wire, connected to a prime conductor. The fluid collected a great deal of electric charge, which turned out to be very shocking to anyone who touched the metal rod. Later Leyden jars used metal foil instead of liquid. These early capacitors could store many thousands of volts of electricity.

Canto: At this time, in the mid-eighteenth century, nobody was thinking much about a use for electricity, though I suppose the powerful shocks experienced by the tinkerers with Leyden jars might’ve been light-bulb moments, so to speak.

Jacinta: Well, take Ben Franklin. He wasn’t of course the first to notice that electrostatic sparks were like lightning, but he was possibly the first to conduct experiments to prove the connection. And of course he knew the power of lighting, how it could burn down houses. Franklin invented the lightning rod – his proudest invention – to minimise this damage.

Canto: They’re made of metal aren’t they? How do they work? How did Franklin know they would work?

Jacinta: Although the details weren’t well understood, it was known in Franklin’s time that some materials, particularly metals (copper and aluminium are among the best), were conductors of electricity, while others, such as glass, were insulators. He speculated that a pointed metal rod, fixed on top of buildings, would provide a focal point for the electrical charge in the clouds. As he wrote: “The electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike….” He also had at least an inkling of what we now call ‘grounding’, as per this quote about the design, which should use “upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground”. He was also, apparently the inventor of the terms negative and positive for different kinds of charge.

Canto: There are different kinds of charge? I didn’t know that.

Jacinta: Well you know of course that a molecule is positively charged if it has more protons than electrons, and vice versa for negative charge, but this molecular understanding came much later. In the eighteenth century electricity was generally considered in terms of the flow of a fluid. Franklin posited that objects with an excess of fluid (though he called it ‘electrical fire’) were positively charged, and those with a deficit were negatively charged. And those terms have stuck.

Canto: As have other other electrical terms first used by Franklin, such as battery, conductor, charge and discharge.

Jacinta: So let’s move on to Charles-Augustin De Coulomb (1736-1806), who was of course one of many scientists and engineers of the late eighteenth century who were progressing our understanding and application of electricity, but the most important one in leading to the theories of Maxwell. Coulomb was both brilliant and rich, at least initially, so that he was afforded the best education available, particularly in mathematics…

Canto: Let me write down Coulomb’s Law before you go on, because of its interesting similarity to Newton’s inverse-square gravity law. It even has one of those mysterious ‘constants’:

{\displaystyle F=k_{e}{\frac {q_{1}q_{2}}{r^{2}}},}

where F is the electrostatic force, the qs are particular magnitudes of charges, and r is the distance between those charges.

Jacinta: Yes, the Coulomb constant, ke, or k, is a constant of proportionality, as is the gravitational constant. Hopefully we’ll get to that. Coulomb had a varied, peripatetic existence, including a period of wise retirement to his country estate during the French revolution. Much of his work involved applied engineering and mechanics, but in the 1780s he wrote a number of breakthrough papers, including three ‘reports on electricity and magnetism’. He was interested in the effect that distance might have on electrostatic force or charge, but it’s interesting that these papers placed electricity and magnetism together. His experiments led him to conclude that an inverse square law applied to both.

Canto: I imagine that these constants required a lot of experimentation and calculation to work out?

Jacinta: This is where I really get lost, but I don’t think Coulomb worked out the constant of proportionality, he simply found by experimentation that there was a general law, which he more or less stated as follows:

The magnitude of the electrostatic force of attraction or repulsion between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
The force is along the straight line joining them. If the two charges have the same sign, the electrostatic force between them is repulsive; if they have different signs, the force between them is attractive.

It seems the constants of proportionality are just about units of measurement, which of course were different in the days of Coulomb and Newton. So it’s just about measuring stuff in modern SI units using these laws. It’s about conventions used in everyday engineering, basically. I think.

Canto: Equations like these have scalar and vector forms. What does that mean?

Jacinta: Basically, vector quantities have both magnitude and direction, while scalar quantities have magnitude only. The usual example is speed v velocity. Velocity has magnitude and direction, speed only has magnitude. Or more generally, a scalar quantity has only one ‘dimension’ or feature to it in an equation – say, mass, or temperature. A vector quantity has more than one.

Canto: So are we ready to tackle Maxwell now?

Jacinta: Hell, no. We have a long way to go, with names like Gauss, Cavendish and Faraday to hopefully help us along the path to semi-enlightenment. And I think we need to pursue a few of these excellent online courses before we go much further.

References

Khan academy physics (160 lectures)

Matt Anderson physics (191 lectures)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_law_of_universal_gravitation

https://www.britannica.com/technology/Leyden-jar

http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/franklinb/aa_franklinb_electric_1.html

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/benjamin-franklin-and-electricity-letters.html

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

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Augustin-de-Coulomb

https://www.britannica.com/science/Coulombs-law

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulomb%27s_law

Written by stewart henderson

May 18, 2019 at 6:04 pm

situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

leave a comment »

The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Towards James Clerk Maxwell 2 – Francis Hauksbee’s experiments

leave a comment »

an electrostatic generator – one of Hauksbee’s many ingenious experimental devices

Canto: So we’ve witnessed electricity since we’ve had the wit to witness, in lightning. And through our attempts to understand and harness those scary bursts of energy we’ve transformed our world.

Jacinta: We’ve written about lightning before, but the info we presented there was accumulated over centuries. Now we’re going to travel back to the early years of the Royal Society in England, the early 1700s, a mere 300 years ago, to reflect on the first experiments with electricity – remembering that there was no electric power and light in those days, that gods were in the air and much was mysterious.

Canto: Electricity from the start was much sexier, and scarier, than magnetism – lightning very very frightning was the most obvious physical manifestation, and its power was easily recognised. It could kill at a stroke, while magnetism seemed all about metals getting stuck together, and needles pointing north. Interesting, but hardly earth-shattering.

Jacinta: Lightning was all about gigantic sparks shattering the sky, and the ancients, who spent so much of their time in darkness, must have seen other, less impressive and dangerous sparks, the sparks of static electricity, and wondered.

Canto: In the recent BBC documentary The story of electricity, narrator Jim Al-Khalili begins by describing Francis Hauksbee‘s experiments with static electricity and electroluminescence in the early 1700s, which dazzled visitors to the Royal Society. These were the first properly documented experiments with the mysterious force, and a collection of his papers describing these experiments was widely read by the 18th century cognoscenti – including Joe Priestley and Ben Franklin. He employed the newly-invented air pump (simply a pump for pushing out air, as in a common bike pump), popularised in England by Robert Hooke some decades before. Hauksbee made his own improvements, enabling the pump to create a vacuum.

Jacinta: Yes Hauksbee was a more interesting figure than The story of electricity presents. He didn’t ‘lose interest’ but worked on his experiments and reflected on them until his final illness in 1713 – and I’m thinking that illness, since he was only in his late forties – may have been due to mercury poisoning. Hauksbee was ‘lower class’ so few details of his life are documented. However, in these experiments he wasn’t thinking so much of electricity as of ‘attractive forces’. Also as an experimenter who must always have seen himself as an underling (in his book he mentions his ‘want of a learned education’), he doubtless felt obliged to follow the guidance of his Royal Society ‘master’, Newton, which took him into different fields of research….

Canto: The term ‘electricity’ was possibly not in common use then? You’re right, though, about Hauksbee, who rose from obscurity to become a member of the Royal Society, probably under the auspices of Newton. In late 1705, as a result of some spectacular effects displayed to the Society he became intrigued by ‘mercurial phosphorus’. The fact that mercury, in a vacuum, glowed when shaken, had already been noted by Jean Picard, a 17th century French astronomer, and the Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli.

Jacinta: And this has to do with electricity?

Canto: We shall see. Hauksbee wanted to work out the conditions under which this mercurial light was produced. He found that the more air in the container, the weaker the light. Also the light’s intensity depended on the movement of the mercury. He concluded that the friction of the mercury against the glass was the major cause. But was it only mercury that had this property, and was it only glass that brought it out? He experimented with other materials, finding a means of rubbing them together in a section of his air pump, Amber rubbed with wool produced a light, brightened in the absence of air. By contrast metal on flint only produced sparks when air was present. Remember, oxygen wasn’t known about at the time. In late 1705 Hauksbee presented one of his most spectacular experiments for the Society. Ingenious instrument-maker that he was, he created a glass globe, from which air could be pumped in and out, on a rotating spindle. The spinning globe came into contact with woollen cloth, and the contact created a weird purple light inside the evacuated globe, which reduced as air was let in. It was a fantastic mystery.

Jacinta: I’m hoping you can solve it.

Canto: Great expectations indeed. He experimented further, and found that when he pressed his own hands against a spinning evacuated globe, the same bright purple glow was produced, which again faded when air was let in to the globe.

Jacinta: Okay, what Hauksbee was exploring in these experiments are what we now call triboelectric effects. I remember playing around with this in schooldays by rubbing a plastic pen along the sleeve of my jersey and watching the fibres stand on end as the pen passed, and hearing the prickling sound of static electricity. The pen was then capable of lifting scraps of paper from the desk, for a time. But I didn’t see any purple lights and I’m not sure how the presence or absence of air relates to it all.

Canto: Yes, triboelectricity is about the exchange of electric charge between different materials – the build-up and discharge of electrical energy. It seems that some materials have a more or less positive charge and some have a more or less negative or opposite charge (because positive and negative are really arbitrary terms, the key point is their relation to each other), and we know that like charges repel and opposite charges attract.

Jacinta: You’ve brought up the word ‘charge’ here, and I’m wondering if that’s just an arbitrary word too – like degree of positive charge just means degree of being repulsed by its opposite, negative charge. In other words, different materials are attracted to or repulsed by each other to varying degrees under various conditions, and that degree or ‘amount’ of attraction or repulsion is referred to as ‘charge’. So ‘charge’ is a relational term…

Canto: Ummm. Maybe. In any case, if you take these different materials down to the atomic level, and I’m not sure how you take plastic and wool down to that level – I mean I know plastic is a petrochemical product, but wool, which I’ve just looked up, has a very complex chemistry – but the fact that the plastic pen, after some rubbing, pulls the fibres of your woollen sleeve towards it is because there’s an attractive force operating between opposite charges. In fact there’s a movement of electrons between the materials, from the wool to the plastic. This electron transfer leaves those woollen fibres with a net positive charge, which is attracted to the now negatively charged plastic due to the electron flow. I think.

Jacinta: Mmm. None of this was understood in the early eighteenth century, obviously. But before we go back there, we’ll stay with this concept of charge, which is nowadays calculated as a fundamental or base unit, based on the electron or its opposite, charge-wise, the proton. These elementary particles have the same but opposite charge, though they’re very different in mass (something which seems suspect to me). Anyway, taking things on trust, a unit of charge is ‘defined’ in standard macro terms as a coulomb, named for the 18th century French physicist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb. One coulomb equals approximately 6.24 x 1018 protons (or electrons). We’ll come back to this later, no doubt. Returning to Hauksbee’s experiments, he soon realised that it was the glass, not the mercury inside it, that was the agent of electrical effects. His experiments with glass globes were written down in great detail, a boon to later researchers.

Canto: Interestingly, I’ve discovered that, more or less exactly at the same time, one Pierre Polinière was conducting and presenting experiments on electroluminescence in Paris:

A closer examination of these experiments reveals not only that Polinière had personally presented them before the French Academy of Sciences, but that Polinière and Hauksbee, starting from a common interest in the ‘mercurial phosphor’, had conducted similar investigations and had in fact simultaneously announced their independent discoveries of the luminescence of evacuated glass containers.

Pierre Polinière, Francis Hauksbee and electroluminescence: a case of simultaneous discovery.
David Corson, 1968.

Jacinta: So we might finish by trying to explain our current understanding of electroluminescence (EL) and its applications. It’s a sort of combo of electricity and light, as you can imagine, or electrons and photons on the level of particles. For example, semiconductors emit light when subjected to a strong electric field or current….

Canto: Is that the basis of LED lighting?

Jacinta: Absolutely. Electrons in the semiconductor material recombine with electron holes, emitting energy in the form of photons. So it has taken us three centuries to really effectively harness the electroluminescent effects demonstrated by Hauksbee in the early days of the Royal Society.

Canto: What are electron holes? I’m thinking not ‘holes in electrons’ but holes left by electrons as they’re displaced in an electric current?

Jacinta: Yes, or almost. It’s like the lack of an electron where you might expect an electron to be. These holes where you might expect an electrically charged particle (an electron) to be, act like positively charged particles – a positron, say – and move through a lattice like an electron does. We could get into very complicated electronics here, if we had the wherewithal, but these holes are examples of quasiparticles, which mostly exist within solids. Fluid movement within solids (not apparently a contradiction in terms) is extremely complicated. Who would’ve thunk it? This movement of electrons and protons within solids is ‘regulated’ by Coulomb’s Law. Remember him? We’ll be getting to that law very soon, as it’s essential to the field of electromagnetism. And that’s our topic don’t forget.

situation USA 1: Billy Barr’s memo, etc

leave a comment »

silly Billy

Jacinta: So we can’t get enough of the wacky world of US federal politics, maybe from a schadenfreudish perspective, since we’re not Americans and have no intention of setting foot in that mad bad sad world…

Canto: Fully of lovely people I should add. Very diverse.

Jacinta: Very, let’s leave it at that. But we’re fascinated that Trump is still trumpeting, and that the nation’s better half, actually more than half, has still not found a way to rid themselves of him. I’m very reluctant to attribute any smarts to Trump, because criminal types, in spite of many movie depictions, are rarely smart enough to avoid getting caught. Yet Trump is still at large. He’s obviously done many things right, re self-preservation, and even self-aggrandisement.

Canto: We think of criminals as dumb because they’ve been caught. That’s why we call them criminals.

Jacinta: Good point. Anyway, the slow train crash that’s US federal politics today may not be the Trump crash. He may well walk away from the wreck unscathed. The number of final scenarios from here seems virtually infinite.

Canto: So let’s jump right in. The Mueller team has produced a report, redacted to the public, but mostly available (with almost entirely unredacted summaries of each of the two volumes, on conspiracy and obstruction respectively), which we have read and which we’ve found to be extremely critical of the administration and Trump himself. We’ll be quoting from the report throughout this fun, multi-post analysis.

Jacinta: But first we want to have a look at the role being played by US Attorney-General William Barr, who’s currently standing between the Mueller Report and its reception and treatment, by Congress, by the US justice system, and by the American public.

Canto: Barr hasn’t been the A-G for long, having taken office on Valentine’s Day of 2019.

Jacinta: A loving day for Billy and Donny. Some background to the appointment. Trump nominated Barr for the position on December 7 2018, a month after the resignation of the previous A-G, Jeff Sessions. Trump, as example F of the Mueller Report’s many examples of possible or probable obstruction of justice relates, had been trying to get Sessions to either ‘unrecuse’ himself (a legal nonsense, according to many) from overseeing the Mueller Report, or to resign, throughout Sessions’ tenure in the position. Barr, who held the position of A-G back in the early nineties, was clearly aware of Trump’s frustration with Sessions and his desire for an A-G who would protect him, support him, be on his team, etc, and had sent, unsolicited, a 19-page memo, available online, which is well worth reading. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognise the many flaws in Barr’s arguments, you simply need a good sense of logic, decency and fairness.

Barr’s memo begins badly, with the title – Re: Mueller’s ‘obstruction’ theory. The scare quotes are meant to imply that obstruction isn’t really a thing in this case, and possibly for Presidents in general. But the most telling word is ‘theory’, because, as we have seen from the report itself, and no doubt this is a feature of Mueller’s legal career, the Special Counsel doesn’t theorise much, he relies on case law and precedent, which he cites at enormous length, to hammer home his findings.

Canto: Yes, just reading the memo, the word ‘theory’ comes up in the second and third paras. I also note the use of scary words like ‘demand’, ‘threat’, ‘interrogation’ and ‘coerce his submission’, all used in reference to Mueller’s behaviour towards Trump, all piled up in the first couple of paras. It’s no wonder that some have surmised that this memo was intended for an audience of one – especially if that person hasn’t the attention span to read more than a page a month.

Jacinta: Well, Barr quickly moves to legalese, using terms like actus rea (actually actus reus) and mens rea – which mean, respectively, a criminal act, and the intent, or knowledge of guilt. What he writes in these next paragraphs is unexceptionable – he agrees that the President is bound by standard obstruction laws, and that Nixon and Bill Clinton were rightly impeached on obstruction in the form of impairment of evidence. But then he goes on to write:

Enforcing these laws against the President in no way infringes on the President’s plenary [absolute] power over law enforcement because exercising this discretion – such as his complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding – does not involve commission of any of these inherently wrongful, subversive acts.

Barr Memorandum, June 2018, p2

Canto: Hmmm, I think I see what Barr is trying for here. But first, why isn’t it jaw-dropping to grant absolute power to one person over law enforcement? Only in America, surely. The land of the individual super-hero. But what I think Barr is arguing here is that Trump’s attempt to stop a proceeding – the Mueller enquiry – was perfectly legal due to his plenary power. So, even if Putin’s Russia interfered with the 2016 election ‘in sweeping and systematic fashion’, and did so to substantially advantage Trump, and the Trump campaign knew about and welcomed that interference, it was perfectly legitimate for Trump to shut down an investigation into that interference and the Trump campaign’s response. Based on that view, all attempts to get the enquiry stopped or to change its focus were legitimate. End of story.

Jacinta: You’re getting there. And fortunately we don’t have to rely only on our own brilliant minds to critique this memo, as many lawyers have already done so. But let’s continue to go it alone for a while, and then see what others have to say. Barr admits at the outset that he’s ‘in the dark’ about many facts, yet he’s happy to speculate, claiming that ‘as far as I know’, and ‘seemingly’, this is what Mueller is actually doing – for example ‘proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws’. Again, we’re not lawyers, but I note that Mueller cites precedent many times in his report. And he doesn’t include in his examples of possible/probable obstruction the multitudinous tweets and speeches in which Trump denigrates the Special Counsel’s investigation as a witch-hunt and the Russian interference as a hoax. In a broad sense, this appears to me to be witness tampering – using the bully pulpit in the manner of dictators of the past, repeating a lie over and over until it becomes true. The witnesses here being the American public. But back to the memo. Barr homes in on USC 1512, subsection c2, which Mueller does indeed use in his report, but c2 seems to me clear-cut about obstruction, and covers many acts committed by Trump which Barr glosses over or doesn’t mention. In fact Barr seems to think that the only possibly obstructive act committed by Trump was the firing of Comey. Here is subsection c:

(c) Whoever corruptly (1) alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object, or attempts to do so, with the attempt to impair the object’s integrity, or availability for use in an official proceeding; or (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.

Further, Barr states that, as far as he knows, Mueller isn’t accusing Trump of evidence tampering. But how far does Barr know? This is an assumption, and on the basis of that assumption he accuses Mueller of an over-reach which in any case makes no sense on the basis of a straightforward reading of c2.

Canto: Well according to Barr, c2 shouldn’t be read as standing alone, it should somehow be read in the context of 1512 c as a whole. To me, though, it clearly reads as a necessary addition to c1, which doesn’t deal adequately with all the nefarious ways and means of obstruction. Barr describes the use of c2 as allowing an ‘unbounded interpretation’ of obstruction. But the law surely requires a definition of obstruction that captures the myriad ways that obstruction can occur – myriad but at the same time obvious to any well-reasoning witness.

Jacinta: Interesting – Mueller and Barr are friends of at least 30 years’ standing, which is a worry, and this makes me imagine, and perhaps it isn’t just imagination, that Mueller is writing up his report partly in refutation of Barr’s claims. That’s based on reading just three pages of Barr, but we’re often more miffed by the criticism of friends, and blokes are such competitive bulls.

Canto: Yes but you could be onto something there. Mueller dwells at length on 1512 c2 as the basis for his obstruction analysis, as well as on the three elements that must be fulfilled to show that obstruction has occurred – obstructive act, intent, and connection to an official proceeding – and towards the end of the report (Vol 2 III. Legal defences to the application of obstruction-of-justice statutes to the President), Mueller directly addresses the issue of 1512 c2, not in response to Barr, but in response to Trump’s personal counsel. These remarks summarise the Special Counsel’s position:

In analyzing counsel ‘s statutory arguments, we concluded that the President’s proposed interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2) is contrary to the litigating position of the Department of Justice and is not supported by principles of statutory construction.

Mueller Report Vol 2, p159

Jacinta: Yes I like the report’s succinctness, with the above summary being followed by a great deal of case law, constitutional argument and so forth. Of course we’re not conversant with all the precedents and the possible constitutional nuances, but we note that these arguments – which may well be directed at rebutting Barr – are detailed and cool, lacking the sense of outrage we find in Barr, regarding over-reach and unprecedented interpretations. And they do seem to confirm our amateur understanding that 1512 c2 is intended to cover acts other than the physical destruction of evidence – and those other acts would be an open-ended set.

Canto: Yes, Barr quibbles a lot on the term ‘otherwise’ in 1512 c2, and Mueller responds to that.

Jacinta: But if we move out from the detailed law into the world of basic ethics, we should be able to recognise that Barr’s position is nothing short of appalling. He tries to argue – and he did so in the senate hearing – that it’s not obstruction if the President ‘thinks’ that the proceeding is corrupt, and so wants to shut it down. So, according to Barr, Trump’s endless claims of a witch-hunt are sufficient justification for him to dismiss the Special Counsel! That’s laughable. I mean Trump would say that, wouldn’t he? Not that this is what Trump thinks. He knows full well that he’s a career criminal. It’s what every career criminal would say when brought to justice. Duh.

Written by stewart henderson

May 4, 2019 at 7:36 pm

the self and its brain: free will encore

leave a comment »


yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

palestine 6 – the Nakba

leave a comment »

northern Israel, the long march to Lebanon, November 1948 – an Associated Press pic

On May 14 1948, Israel was unilaterally proclaimed as a nation by David Ben-Gurion, ending the British mandate in the region. US President Truman immediately recognised the new state in spite of the views of his predecessor, Roosevelt, who had argued that Arabs and other natives of the region should be consulted. According to the US ‘Office of the Historian‘: 

The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine until May 1948, opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. Great Britain wanted to preserve good relations with the Arabs to protect its vital political and economic interests in Palestine.

There’s no doubt some truth in this, but also by this time Britain was falling out of love with colonialism due to bitter and costly experience, and the post-war era experienced a re-emergence of general concern for oppressed people. 1948 was also the year of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it’s worth noting some of the Articles in light of the Palestinian situation:

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 13 (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 15 (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

These are just some of the articles being drawn up at the time which have direct relevance to what was going on in Palestine, and it seems odd that the US, so heavily involved in the Declaration, was not particularly attuned to that relevance. Nevertheless it’s clear that the USA has been for decades the staunchest ally of the Zionists, and its arms and support have been vital to Israel’s imposition of an apartheid state in the region.

Going back to 1947, Palestine was in a world of tension, and the UN plan for partitioning the region, described in the previous post, only made matters worse. Neither the Zionist nationalists nor the Palestinian Arabs were happy with British control, and both sides – but particularly the never-consulted Palestinians – were unhappy with the partition as defined. The wider Arab region was becoming increasingly sensitised to the issues, as a sense of Arab nationalism grew. At the same time, the revelations of the Holocaust created greater sympathy for the Zionist cause, particularly in the US. Within Palestine itself, atrocities were committed on both sides, tit-for-tat killings, finally escalating to the point of civil war as the British were reluctant to intervene. It seems the Arab side was most active in the initial stages, as the Zionists began to organise for the long term, with increasing support for the paramilitary Haganah, and Ben-Gurion’s plan to have all Jewish men and women perform military service. Arms for the Yishuv (the aspirational and Zionist Jews within the Palestinian Mandate) were effectively smuggled from Europe and other regions. Meanwhile, upheaval and economic insecurity in Palestine disproportionately affected the Arab population. The displacement of the Arabs, a feature of Zionist tactics from the beginning, rose sharply in this period, leading to later evacuations.

It’s impossible, in a small blog piece, or a limited series of posts, to do justice to the events of 1948, before and after the declaration of Israeli statehood. Needless to say, these events, variously described as the Nakba (catastrophe), the Palestine War, or the War of Independence/Liberation, all depending on allegiance, left a legacy which has never been dealt with and continues to fester. Things started ‘small’, with car bombings, house bombings, indiscriminate grenade attacks, riots, and the mining of railways causing the deaths of scores of Arab and Jewish civilians as well as British military personnel. In February-March 1948, the charismatic Arab leader Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni organised a successful blockade of Jerusalem, using a force consisting almost entirely of volunteers. Although this was a blow to the Jewish leadership and the Haganah, who lost most of their armoured vehicles in trying to relieve the blockade, the Zionists were always better-funded than the Arabs, and the situation on the ground generally was such that an increasing number of Arabs and non-Jewish Palestinians, especially of the middle class, fled the region, always hoping to return.

Over time both sides became more organised and militarised. The Haganah in particular became more active, effectively relieving the Jerusalem blockade in mid-April 1948. The death of al-Husayni in battle at this time profoundly affected Palestinian-Arab morale.

The surrounding Arab nations provided some troops but were insufficiently organised to make a decisive intervention. The situation became increasingly disastrous for the Arab population. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were sacked, and the major cities of the region became void of Palestinians. Numbers are always in dispute, but the monoculturalist ambitions of many (but not all) Zionists were essentially achieved, as some 80% of the Arab population no longer resided in the new state of Israel by the end of the war. Many of them had understandable hopes of returning after the situation had stabilised. It took some time for the Arab population to realise that ethnic cleansing was always the aim of the Zionist monoculturalists. Not that all Zionists were monoculturalists, but the moderates in Israel were outmanoeuvred by the hardliners, and have been in the seven decades since.

In any case, the chaos on the ground during the early period of the war, with Jewish retaliation becoming increasingly heavy-handed, and the commission of such atrocities as the Deir Yassin massacre, led to panic flights of Arab populations. Arguments still rage, of course, as to whether there was a clear-cut policy (outlined in Plan Dalet) of what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but it’s clear enough that the Palestinian flights fulfilled most Zionist desires, and they were certainly encouraged by Zionist psychological warfare. The Palestinian flight from the city of Haifa, for example, was ‘facilitated’ by Haganah’s Arabic language broadcasts calling on Palestinian inhabitants to (irony of ironies) ‘kick out the foreign criminals’, and to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But these were more than psychological ploys, as Haganah battalions attacking Haifa had orders to shoot every male Arab on sight and to burn down Palestinian houses wherever they found them.

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli leader and new Prime minister, was clearly the architect of the Nakba, insofar as there was one. He was more than willing to flout UN directives, and he clearly considered that Israel had to be a homogenous Hebrew state. It’s a repeat, in many ways, of the colonial enterprise here in Australia and in the United States. You either kick out the original inhabitants or you neuter them through overwhelming power and violence. Yet this was happening in the twentieth century, after all we’d learned about colonial injustice, and at the very time that the world was formulating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Expulsion of Arab populations became more standard, and more brutal, as the war entered its final stages. There were also (e.g. the evacuation of Nazareth) cases of outright deception, reminiscent of the US government’s dealings with its native population in the 19th century. Ilan Pappé, the expatriate Israel historian, writes of this period:

In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied … The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and the imprisonment of men … in labor camps for periods of over a year.

The expelled Palestinians were mostly forced to live in refugee camps in surrounding countries, most notably Lebanon, where they were often subject to extreme restrictions, raids and massacres by forces allied to the Israeli government, as described, for example, in Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud. Those who tried to return were often shot. The right of return is of course guaranteed by the UN, for what that is worth.

Writing about these events, and reading about them, is one of the most unpleasant and demoralising tasks I’ve ever undertaken. So this will be the last historical piece. Instead I will focus on heroines and heroes in the dark world of Israel/Palestine, many of them largely unsung. Most of them have suffered for their humanist outspokenness. Israel today is very close to the bottom of my list of countries worth visiting, and what is most exasperating is that telling the truth about it is likely to get you into big trouble even in Australia, if you happen to be a politician or a high profile intellectual. Luckily I’m neither, so I can write what I like. I’ll try my best to tell the truth – and the truth does have a habit of coming out eventually, though I strongly expect that the truth about Israel’s anti-democratic democracy will be a long long time in coming. I mean the global acceptance of the truth, which is currently accepted by only a tiny beleaguered minority.

Some reading

Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud

Goliath, by Max Blumenthal

The case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith

The Last Earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Palestinian_exodus

Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2019 at 8:06 pm

a discussion on scientific progress and scientism

leave a comment »

Pretty funny, but not much related to this post

Scientific progress depends on an expectation of continuous innovation, on encouraging an attitude of willingness to experiment, rejecting established authority of every sort, on the assumption that new experiments will bring out new realities and force us to revise our knowledge.’
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia

Discuss ‘scientific progress’ in the light of this statement.

Canto: This is very interesting. As a ‘fan’ (remembering that this word comes from ‘fanatic’) of scientific progress, an evidence junky, and also a humanist, I can see, and have experienced, a collision between the scientific process, which involves a respect for evidence rather than people, and the strongly held cultural/religious beliefs of people, which they hold fast to as identifying and solidifying principles. For example, the Aboriginal belief, handed down and taught, that their people have inhabited this land for eternity, while scientists are trying to determine precisely when the first home sapiens arrived here, and how old the continent of Australia actually is, given the pre-existence of Gondwana, Pangaea and the rest. 

Jacinta: A belief probably not held by that many Aboriginal people, most of whom have been educated in institutions that treat science seriously. That’s to say, more recent generations, and this is a problem everywhere – ‘established authority’ can also mean traditional beliefs and practices, even the old established language. The tribal language, the local language, being abandoned everywhere for more global forms of communication. 

Canto: Yes I read yesterday an essay topic about the growth of English as an international language, often as a person’s second or third language – and I recognised immediately that the essay was out of date as it stated that about 900,000 used English that way. It’s well over a billion now and rising fast. 

Jacinta: And the language of science is largely English – plus mathematics. It’s funny that there are actual scientific endeavours to preserve many of the 7,000 languages that exist in the world, while scientific communication relies largely on a universal single language…

Canto: Yes, and a person can feel that contradiction, that kind of tugging both ways, within themselves. Like following Scottish or Jewish traditions at times of celebration, enjoying the fun, and then thinking – why am I doing this? I don’t believe in first-footing or plate-breaking or whatever. 

Jacinta: People follow these traditions because they work, or at least they think so, but not always in the traditional way. And many such followers are well aware of this – that these activities don’t work as lucky charms so much as social glue. But that’s the trouble with glue – you get stuck. 

Canto: You’ve heard of the missionary who tried to Christianise the Andaman Islanders and was speared to death for his efforts? Most people’s responses were of the ‘serves him right’ type. But wasn’t that because the missionary was just trying to substitute one set of myths for another? If he was trying to introduce a new fishing method, or, I don’t know, something modernising and scientific…

Jacinta: We’ll have to get onto so-called ‘scientism’ at some stage, but here’s the thing. Maçães writes about ‘rejecting established authority of every sort’, and Richard Feynman apparently described science as belief in the ignorance of experts, but when we come upon, say, the Piripkura people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso, whose continued existence in the face of western diseases and cattle-raising gunmen we’re not even sure about, converting such people into scientific modernists who should question why they’re having difficulty surviving and adapting, seems very arrogant somehow. 

Canto: This is where humanism comes in, and it’s a fraught kind of humanism. Many would say – look, all these tribes will disappear, because their way of life is outdated and ‘in the way’, which doesn’t mean the people will disappear, they’ll gradually get absorbed into the broader population, modernised, urbanised, educated and homogenised into our diverse modern world. If they’re lucky enough not to die of disease and gunshot wounds. 

Jacinta: And their expertise in traditional hunting, gathering and fishing will be found to be not so much ignorant as obsolete within the mechanised world of food production and consumption. And this is happening everywhere, from the Limi of south-western China to the Bushmen of Botswana. Could it be said that they’re the victims of scientific progress? It’s hard to distinguish science and technology from other aspects of modernism I suppose, but this is the complex other face of science’s otherwise refreshing respect for innovation, experiment and evidence rather than ‘experts’, or just plain old people. 

Canto: So what do you think of ‘scientism’, which is I think a rather vague claim about the steamrolling arrogance of science, and what about the possibly self-destructive implications of relentless scientific advancement?

Jacinta: You know there might be something in the criticism, because as I try to get my head around the complexities of, say, electromagnetism, or neurological interactions, I find myself less drawn to some of my earlier loves, literature and the visual arts. I don’t know if that means I’m arrogantly dismissing them, but I do know they’re not engaging me in the old way. I find science more exciting, and maybe that’s dangerous…

Canto: In what way? 

Jacinta: Well, the motto of this blog is ‘rise above yourself and grasp the world’, but that kind of engagement – in something so large if not abstract as ‘the world’….

Canto: The world isn’t abstract – it’s everything. Everything found in time and space. It’s absolute reality. 

Jacinta: Well maybe, but that engagement in ‘everything’, it rather detaches you from the smaller world of the people around you, and – and yourself. Rising above yourself entails escaping from yourself and you can’t really do that, can you? 

Canto: The sciences of biology, neurology, genetics and so forth are the best ways of learning about ourselves. It all comes back to us in the end, doesn’t it? Our mathematical equations, our experiments, our discoveries of black holes, the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, they’re all about us, somehow. The things we do. And it seems it helps our understanding and sympathy. Science is about finding out things, like finding out about other people. The more we find out, the less we tend to dismiss or hate, or fear. Look at those who commit acts of terror. Surely ignorance plays a major role in such acts. A refusal or inability to find out stuff about others. A lack of curiosity about why people are different in the way they look and act. Science – or the scientific impulse, which is basically curiosity – opens us up to these things, so that we no longer hate or fear mosquitos or spiders or snakes or Christians or Moslems or Jews. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, so what’s the buzz about scientism? Let’s end this post by discussing a quote from an essay on scientism written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist. Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Canto: Well I’m not impressed with this argument, I must say, probably because I don’t agree with the implied definition of science it presents. Science, to me, is an activity, driven by curiosity, which provides dividends in the form of a greater knowledge which raises more and more questions. I rarely worry whether it’s the only source of human knowledge, because that raises the question of what ‘knowledge’ is, and I’m not so interested in that enquiry. Much more interesting to try and work out how life came from non-life, how our planet got covered in water, whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the solar system, how different parts of the brain interact under particular circumstances, etc etc. I don’t know or care whether you call those enquiries ‘science’ or not, I only know that you won’t get answers to those questions by just sitting around thinking about them. I mean, you can start by thinking, forming a hypothesis, but then you have to explore, gather evidence, conduct experiments, test then modify or abandon your hypothesis…

Jacinta: I thought the ‘net’ analogy used in that quote was pretty inept. Of course it’s reminiscent of the old Kantian categories, the grid or net by means of which we know things, which separates the noumenal world of things in themselves from the phenomenal world of perception/conception. But Kant’s problem was that the noumenal world was just a hypothesis that couldn’t be tested, since we only have our perceptions/conceptions – enhanced somewhat by technology – with which to test things.

Canto: Probably another reason why so many scientists, especially physicists, seem dismissive of philosophers of science. Another problem with those that go on about scientism is that they insist that there are other ways of knowing, but you can rarely pin them down on what those ways of knowing are.

Jacinta: Yes they’re often religious or new-age types, and spiritual knowledge is their stock-in-trade. And if you don’t have that spirituality, which doesn’t need to be explained, then you’ll never understand, you’ll always be a shallow materialist. There’s no response to that view.

Canto: Yes, we’re obviously on the autism spectrum, though not so far along as real scientists. Meanwhile, let’s keep exploring…

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2019 at 9:27 am