Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Science and The Left

At our May meeting, Paul Fitzgerald (a.k.a political cartoonist Polyp talked to us about how political ideology can influence science acceptance. We are aware that the political right can deny science - particularly evolution and climate change. However Paul is increasingly worried that his "tribe", the green/liberal left, have their own problems in this area. He gave us a number of examples:
  1. Nuclear power. There might be cogent arguments to be made against using nuclear power, but currently hysteria and exaggeration seem to dominate the discussion. Famously a Fukushima radiation map was widely circulated, without a key to the colour coding and with added apocalyptic imagery. Greenpeace issued a statement to try to calm the hysteria and dispel misinformation.
  2. Genetically modified organisms. Paul admitted that he was initially opposed to GMO's and even took part in some direct action. But there is now more evidence of safety. Much of the ideologically driven anti-GMO rhetoric relies on very bad, discredited science.
  3. Corbyn's election chances. Given the opinion-poll statistics it is almost certain that the Conservatives will win the election. However, when Paul pointed this out on social media it generated a great deal of opposition which he took to be data-denying. This produced prolonged discussion during the Q&A.
  4. The naturalistic fallacy. "Things that are Natural are good", "Chemicals are bad".
  5. The myth of the noble savage - a romanticised view of the past. This might stem from valid criticism of Western industrial societies, our colonial legacy and our unsustainable lifestyle. But it can go too far in assuming (against the evidence) that tribal societies are naturally co-operative, peace-loving, democratic and live sustainably.
  6. Reluctance to criticise victim groups. Seen most clearly in the use of the term "Islamophobia" against anyone who raises criticisms of Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls this the "racism of low expectations".
  7. Anti-Semitism. Paul has observed a casual anti-Semitism from some of the (otherwise) liberal left.
  8. Denial of difference. It seems to be controversial in some green/left circles to acknowledge that people have different abilities. The "blank-slate" view of humanity is common, putting all the responsibility on how people are raised. This denies innate (genetic) differences - dealt with well by Stephen Pinker's book, The Blank Slate.
How can this tendency to deny or ignore science be countered? Paul introduced the ideas of two philosophers of science; firstly Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies) argued that "falsification" is the basis of science. Any truly scientific idea can be falsified by observation and experiment, leading to a gradual improvement in knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) on the other hand argued that the scientific community could be reluctant to change and would defend the current consensus ("paradigm") until forced to accept a new one - a "paradigm-shift". Post-modernists took this to mean that scientific theories are merely social constructs. Paul sees this thinking, leading to cultural relativism, as having infected the left. He suggests that Popper's idea can be the cure: when we state our ideas we also say what would make us change our mind. Unfortunately Margaret Thatcher liked Karl Popper so there is little chance of him being accepted by the left!

It is a cultural norm to think that having strongly and consistently held beliefs is a virtue. Paul suggested that this is ridiculous, and we all need to be more open to evidence.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017


John Webster from Oxford Humanists spoke to us about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the First Fab four: Leigh Hunt, Byron, Keats and Shelley, all described as Freethinkers and Humanists.

In 1812 Shelley, aged 19, produced a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism which booksellers were ordered to burn. This also resulted in him being expelled from University College, Oxford.

In 1816 Shelley wrote in a hotel register in Chamonix, Switzerland “I am an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat”. Under the column ‘Destination’ he wrote “L’Enfer” (hell).

John proceeded to illustrate his talk with examples of Shelley’s poetry including the Masque of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo massacre, and Ode to the West Wind.  Shelley translated from Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. In Pisa he wrote A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays. Also in Pisa Byron and Shelley planned to set up a journal.  Other poems considered were Immortal Deity, The Funeral, and Adonai: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Hellas (The world’s great age…) was his last great poem.

Shelley looked forward to air travel and electricity. He also had a progressive view of the world of women compared with, say, Jane Austen. His heroine was Mary Wollstonecraft. He influenced nineteenth century thinkers such as Charles Bradlaugh, and he approved of the working class self-education movement.

John ended his presentation by playing his DVD Shelley’s Golden Years in Italy narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, which is available on Amazon.