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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Call it Science

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The television advertisements broadcast in the United States by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, launched partly in response to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth film, are a poststructuralist's paradigm. In the former film, soft-focus, saturated images of children blowing dandelions, and trains trundling down rural railroads, contrast with dull images of third-world farmers pounding grain. This regression, the film suggests, is what a world would be like without oil (no mention of renewable substitutes here). Its punchline hammers the point home in terms every bit as binary blankly binary as Bush's "you're either with us or against us" ('you're either for the war or a terrorist') speech: "Carbon Dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life." The meaning of words change before the eyes of the reader; even the supposedly absolute and permanent formulas of chemistry metamorphose into rhetoric and ideology.

Secondly, the advert signals once and for all the death of the author(ity), even of science, as a quick look at the background of the "Experts" on the board of the CEI reveals. The President of the CEI has a degree in Mathematics and Political Science; Chair of Energy and Global Warming policy is someone with an MSc from the London School of Economics; the Director of Energy Policy is "working part time toward a Ph.D. in American Government from Catholic University." In my PhD course, my graduate school is always emphasising my need to gain transferable skills; but even though I work in an interdisciplinary field across sciences and arts, I would not claim to qualified to speak with a solid foundation of empirical knowledge on the case of the former. But perhaps unlike in the British university system PhDs in "American Goverment" give one the skills to make accurate and objective scientific claims.

Preceeding these technical criticisms, though, my gut reaction is one of utter despair at the inequality in the battle between science and political ideology. As the CEI so stridently asserts, scientists as a body are not sure precisely how fast climate change is taking place. Even as I type this, the BBC Climate Change Model running silently in my taskbar reminds me that climate change may well be happening faster than some scientists think, but that its effects may also have been over-exaggerated. But these are concerns that are quantitative in type; the overwhelming majority of scientists working in the field are agreed that in our earth is experiencing a qualitative revolution in its climate, one that breaks so radically from past events that, regardless of the details, impacts on life are already being felt.

The unfairness of the playing field in which these scientists must compete against the likes of the CEI is that (as I mentioned in my previous post about Richard Dawkins) for scientists to assume the rhetoric of dogma and politics - which they have to do in this most pressing issue - is for them to open the arena to all-comers. Noting just a few coincidental contentions in the broad canvas of scientific consensus, even opponents with little awareness of scientific practice can argue that, having stepped out of their remit for the objective pursuit of knowledge, scientists are legitimate targets on the assumption that the science as a whole is founded on faith (as in Creationism) or warped by liberal politics (as in relation to global warming).

It leaves me deeply depressed for the lack of respect we have for the Baconian enterprise that has constructed a world in which we live longer, can communicate through the internet and, yes, drive cars. In his weekly column in The Guardian, Ben Goldacre tries in vain to correct some of the media's grotesque perversions of scientific evidence. These often assume that one trial on one particular issue (MMR and autism is a favourite), though it has failed the standards of scientific practice, has the same authority as the rest of scientific evidence on the issue put together, even though the silent majority of scientist have been required to meet high benchmarks of double-blind laboratory testing and peer-reviewed publication. A few years ago, Elton John was awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel damages, following tabloid claims that he was bulimic. It seems to me that we need a similar sort of law to protect scientific knowledge from similarly, but more significant, defamatory abuses.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:54 pm


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