Monday, August 24, 2009

Science and the Guardian

Today's Guardian leader on the Large Hadron Collider - 'But the greatest benefit of the LHC may simply be that it exists.' This provokes in me two associations. The first is those follies that rich men built to keep the poor employed during hard times. The LHC, having been the great key that would unlock the mystery of matter, has become a job creation scheme. The second is what might be termed the Scargill defence. Arthur Scargill, having taken on Margaret Thatcher and lost and having destroyed the power and credibility of the Trade Unions for the next two decades, said the miners' strike had been a triumph simply because it had happened. I quite like the follies and even Scargill's hilarious combover has taken on a pleasing sepia tinge with the passing of the years, but I do think it's a bit early to start so radically lowering the bar on our expectations of the LHC. Admittedly I've always thought of it as a contemporary cathedral, but I try to remember that the medieval cathedrals had a real function for at least a few centuries. The full argument of the Guardian leader is that the mere fact of international co-operation on such an apparently useless project is to be applauded. Again I feel a sepia tinge coming on - this time it involves a kind of Fabian hard-work ethic. But, behind this, lurks the way in which 'pure' science is being used as a quasi-religious abstraction, a transcendent force that guides and justifies our striving. The leader steers away from this at the end by bringing in climate change as a practical project, but, so far as I am aware, the discovery of the Higgs Boson will have little impact on global warming.
Which brings me to another article in The Guardian. This ties together a number of developments in neuroscience and psychology. Madeleine Bunting says these point to a new view of human nature as humans now no longer seem to possess reason, autonomy or freedom. This is a tricky argument as, once you have said it in its strong form, you can't say anything else because you are human and, therefore, anything else you might say is compromised by your lack of reason, autonomy etc.. See Vladimir Tasic for the full version of this. But, since the point has been made, it's worth saying that it has been made many times before, most famously by Michel Foucault's announcement of the death of the human. In fact, the idea is much older than that because it has been implicit in the causal assumptions of science since Galileo. These new versions of the idea are interesting but tentative. Speak to any decent neuroscientist - and I have - and he'll tell you that, in spite of our big white scanners, we know next to nothing about how the brain actually works. As ever with science, this makes it dangerous to draw any conclusions for the real human world. Bunting does this, suggesting there is some link between free market conservatism and the 'old' view of the autonomous human self and that, therefore, the left should take on board this new science as a countervailing ideology. This offers the pleasing prospect of a kind of Dadaist Labour party, declining all suggestion of rationality and autonomy. Don't go there, boys. Science as tentative as this is likely to change in an instant and you'll be left with a political programme with all the authority of a pack of Tarot cards.
Anyway, in all seriousness, this is why I like the Guardian, it's full of ideas. They may be wrong, they may be bonkers - a perfectly respectable technical term, I was told by a distinguished psychologist yesterday - but at least they are ideas.

14 comments:

  1. Our Maddy changes her 'solid' convictions every six months. Still, that'll be free will for you. Or would it?

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  2. I firmly believe that the greatest achievement of this comment is that it exists.

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  3. The Guardian may, in the near future, loose it's Observer, who then will keep an eye open.
    Talking of which some of us thought that Rupe had locked you all in an office Bryan, and told you not to reappear until you had put a satisfactory figure, in pence per view, on the Times down the phone line wheeze.

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  4. I imagine the scientific establishment would bristle at the heresy that the LHC's main achievement is it's simple existence. Does The Guardian not know that it has a very pragmatic, earthy purpose of great import to to the average citizen, which is to "help us unlock the secrets of the origins of the Universe"?

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  5. An old friend of mine was a senior Congressional budget staffer at the time of the Superconducting Super Collider debacle-- she doesn't have much good to say about metaphysical justifications for high-energy physics.

    Interestingly, there's a good argument for LHC-like facilities that she hadn't heard: most of the people who work at the LHC will never find permanent jobs in high-energy physics-- however they will end up trained in a variety of high-tech subjects. Physicists won't make this argument in public because they're out of business if too many graduate students and postdocs realize that they're not actually going to end up doing physics. Apparently, they won't make the argument in private, either.

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  6. Anyway, in all seriousness, this is why I like the Guardian, it's full of ideas. They may be wrong, they may be bonkers - a perfectly respectable technical term, I was told by a distinguished psychologist yesterday - but at least they are ideas.

    Isn't the "But at least they are ideas" defense of the Guardian itself an example of radical bar-lowering?

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  7. I'm suspicious of Bunting after she came out with this jaw dropping statement a few weeks ago:

    "Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism, even those that were destructive, such as neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being."

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