Profile of Alan Sokal

March 6, 2010

A talk wth the author of the Sokal hoax. Some interesting excerpts:

… after the Social Text affair, most analytically-minded philosophers embraced Sokal as an ally. “The reaction from philosophers, at least in the English-speaking world, was generally supportive,” he says. “Most philosophers in the English-speaking world don’t go for relativism in general and certainly don’t go for the extreme, sloppy versions of it that you get from post-modernist oriented literary critics. Philosophers have been critical of that sort of sloppy philosophy for a long time. There was the famous debate in the New York Review of Books between John Searle and Jacques Derrida. So most philosophers were genuinely supportive.”

But I wonder if they should be. Just as his kind words about what philosophers of science could contribute to physics masks the fact that, actually, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly they have contributed, so the hoax and its aftermath in a sense diminishes philosophy by showing that you don’t need to be an experienced professor with a detailed knowledge of the subject to wade in and settle some pretty big philosophical scores.

“I should make clear that I don’t think my parody article settles anything,” says Sokal. “It doesn’t by itself prove much – that one journal was sloppy. So it wasn’t the parody itself that proved it, it was the things that I and other people wrote afterward which I believe showed the sloppiness of the philosophy that a lot of postmodernist literary theory types were writing. But again, I wasn’t the first person to make those criticisms. It was only after the fact that I went back into the literature and found philosophers had made many of these criticisms long before me. All I did in a certain sense was to find a better public relations method than they did …

People sometimes unjustly accuse Harris and Dawkins at least of being strident when in fact all they’re doing is refusing our culture’s double standard for religion. The double standard is you can say more or less anything you want about Tories or Labour, about Republicans or Democrats; about capitalists or socialists; but you can’t say anything even remotely critical about a religion. Now why not? If you read Harris’s book or Dawkins’s book – certainly if you read what I’ve written – you don’t find anything half-way as harsh about religion as you read everyday in the paper about politics.”

When thinking about why Sokal gets involved with these debates, it’s important to remember his political motivations. Sokal is a man of the left who once spent a few summers teaching maths at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinistas’ rule. Underlying his work outside of physics is a strong conviction that it is a disaster for the left to abandon a commitment to reason.

Music, Plato and Roger Scruton

March 1, 2010

This is a very thought provoking piece by Roger Scruton on what he thinks are the possible psychological and social effects of various forms of music. It’s illustrated with appropriate YouTubes. I don’t agree even a bit with its implied conclusions but Scruton sure knows and loves his music.

God and Mammon

March 1, 2010

Via Steve Sailer, an interesting graph mapping income distribution and religious belief in the US.

The Ice Khan?

February 11, 2010

The first ancient person to have his genome fully sequenced looks from the illustration like a close relative of Genghis Khan. He is in fact a 4000 year old Eskimo:

HE HAD brown eyes, dark skin, thick blackish hair and type A blood. This Eskimo, who lived about 4000 years ago in Greenland, also had dry earwax, an increased risk of going bald and the metabolism of a person who could survive in a cold climate.

And his ancestors were, to the surprise of scientists, ancient people in east Siberia rather than neighbouring Native Americans or Inuit.

All this detailed information about the long-dead man comes from a study of a clump of his hair, which was preserved for thousands of years in the Arctic permafrost. Given the name Inuk, he will go down in history as the first ancient person to have had his full DNA code, or genome, sequenced.

Inuk, who was also inbred, is thought to have belonged to the extinct Saqqaq culture, the first group of people known to have settled in Greenland.

Bioethics and the egalitarian conceit

February 11, 2010

Sally Satel takes a well deserved shot at the presumptious busybodies known as bioethicists:

On valentine’s day two years ago, Paul Wagner, a 40-year-old Philadelphia purchasing manager, gave Gail Tomas, a total stranger, his left kidney. Wagner met Tomas, a 65-year-old former opera singer, on the internet, at MatchingDonors.com. Her daughter had posted an ad asking some magnificent stranger to save her mother. “It was there that I read about a lady in my city, Philadelphia, who was desperate for help,” Wagner said. “It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.” This story had a happy ending. Yet it unfolded amid controversy over whether ethical norms were violated.

Exasperated by the efforts of sick and needy patients to find donors for themselves, Dr. Douglas Hanto, a transplant surgeon at the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, complained “it will undermine trust in the whole system.” By “system,” Hanto was referring to the national transplant list. Today, there are over 83,000 people in line for a kidney in the United States. In places such as New York and California, the wait can be up to eight years. Unless a friend or a relative offers a kidney, people such as Tomas languish on dialysis, awaiting an organ from a deceased donor. They die at the rate of 13 per day because an organ did not arrive in time — hence the frantic plea of Tomas’s daughter to anyone who would consider donating to her mother.

A few years ago, Hanto, a former head of the ethics committee of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, had his hospital turn away a fragile patient named Lisa Cunningham, a 40-year-old former social worker with a young son, whose prospective donor read about her plight in a local newspaper. Arthur Caplan, a prominent bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, condemned donor solicitation online as “an outbreak of impatience combined with a me-first attitude,” he told a reporter.

Me first? Cunningham was not snatching a kidney away from someone else. Except for the story about her, there would have been no offer in the first place. Moreover, every so-called Good Samaritan donor who gives to someone like Cunningham or Tomas removes them from the queue, and so others move up a slot. No one is harmed while someone is saved.

Caplan is a bioethicist; his titles imply an expertise in ethics. Hanto served as the chair of the Ethics Committee at the American Society of Transplant Surgeons. Yet what are we to make of their willingness to issue life-and-death pronouncements involving other people? Well, we know a few things about them. First, that they share an absolutist approach to egalitarianism: If all cannot benefit, then none should benefit. Second, as ethicists they presume to know how despairing patients should conduct their private affairs. And third, they appear to have few qualms about conveying to desperately ill people a message of hopelessness: Be passive, dying patients — wait your turn and take no initiative to save your own life.

Low IQ kills?

February 11, 2010

Continuing the recent purely coincidental series of posts on morbidity, via Steve Sailer, we find that low intelligence is a top health risk:

Research by Britain’s Medical Research Council (MRC) found that lower intelligence quotient (IQ) scores were associated with higher rates of heart disease and death, and were more important indicators than any other risk factors except smoking …

The MRC study, which analysed data from 1,145 men and women aged around 55 and followed up for 20 years, rated the top five heart disease risk factors as cigarette smoking, IQ, low income, high blood pressure, and low physical activity.

The researchers, led by David Batty of the MRC and Social and Public Health Science Unit in Glasgow, Scotland, said there were “a number of plausible mechanisms” which might explain why lower IQ scores could raise the risk of heart disease — in particular a person’s approach to “healthy behaviour.”

Those who ignored or failed to understand advice about the risks of smoking or benefits of good diet and exercise for heart health would be more likely to be at higher risk, they wrote in a study in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention

Bored to death?

February 9, 2010

I’ve always believed it important to find a job you love or at least consisting of activity you’d like to do 8 hours a day. Here’s another reason why:

People who complain of “high levels” of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from from heart disease or a stroke than those who find life entertaining, researchers at University College London found.

Of more than 7,000 civil servants who were monitored over 25 years, those who said they were bored were nearly 40 per cent more likely to have died by the end of the study than those who did not.

Of cours there may be some confounding variables in this finding. Intelligence for one. The researchers seem to link it bored people being more likely to turn to excessive smoking and drinking.

Last member of Andaman tribe passes away

February 8, 2010

The death of the last surviving member of a Paleolithic tribe on the Andaman Islands:

The last member of a unique tribe has died on India’s Andaman Islands.

Boa Sr, who died last week aged around 85, was the last speaker of ‘Bo’, one of the ten Great Andamanese languages. The Bo are thought to have lived in the Andaman Islands for as much as 65,000 years, making them the descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth.

Boa Sr was the oldest of the Great Andamanese, who now number just 52 …

The surviving Great Andamanese depend largely on the Indian government for food and shelter, and abuse of alcohol is rife.

Boa Sr survived the Asian tsunami of December 2004, and told linguists, ‘We were all there when the earthquake came. The eldest told us ‘the Earth would part, don’t run away or move’. The elders told us, that’s how we know.’

Linguist Prof. Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Sr for many years, said, ‘Since she was the only speaker of [Bo] she was very lonely as she had no one to converse with… Boa Sr. had a very good sense of humour and her smile and full throated laughter were infectious.’

‘You cannot imagine the pain and anguish that I spend each day in being a mute witness to the loss of a remarkable culture and unique language.’

Boa Sr told Abbi she felt the neighbouring Jarawa tribe, who have not been decimated, were lucky to live in their forest away from the settlers who now occupy much of the Islands.

Some fascinating background on another one of the ten tribes of the Andamans, the Pygmy Negritos, here.

Allah controversy in Malaysia really about racial politics?

February 5, 2010

When I first read about the troubles in my country of birth Malaysia that started with non-Muslims having their right to use the word Allah affirmed in a court ruling and culminated in church firebombings, I assumed the culprits who were inflaming tensions were Islamic fundamentalists.

However I stand corrected. It appears that the official stance of the Islamist opposition party PAS is to back the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah. See also here. This is not to suggest that even everyone in PAS is happy with the official position of the party – it has caused some division in PAS. However what this does suggest is that rather than Islamism being behind the recent unrest, it has been consciously cultivated as a political ploy by the ruling UMNO party who are supposed to be more modernist and secular than PAS. This certainly is consistent with their decision to commence new sodomy proceedings against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In short, the ruling party has been scared out of its wits by recent electoral losses and the resurgence in the popularity of the opposition coalition cobbled together by Anwar Ibrahim. It’s not surprising to think that they have intentionally formented tensions firstly by legislating the ban against the use of the word in the first place and then by encouraging protests against the high court decision in a ‘divide and rule’ tactic with racial politics thrown in (non Muslim of course being synonymous with non-Malay).

This old piece in the NY Times cottons on to similar suspicions:

The word Allah has always been used without Muslim objection by Christians in the Arab world, as well as those in Malay-speaking Indonesia, where there are 10 times as many Muslims as in Malaysia. The word is itself derived from pre-Islamic Semitic language roots. Even Malaysia’s strictly Islamist opposition party, Parti Islam (PAS), agrees that all Abrahamic faiths are entitled to use the word Allah.

But such facts are of little relevance to UMNO politicians determined to drum up any issue that can be used to show their commitment to defending Malay and Muslim privileges and thus retain the support of a Malay majority against the appeal both of PAS and the multi-ethnic Keadilan party of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

UMNO cannot claim to be a party of the pious. Half a century in power has turned it into a vast patronage machine that enriches the Malay elite, providing support for luxurious lifestyles. Its insistence that all Malays are Muslims (and cannot convert) is an attempt to give religious backing to the message of Malay racial preference. That is barely in accord with the universalist notions of global Islam but keeps the loyalty of many Malays otherwise resentful of growing income gaps.

Confucius the movie?

January 31, 2010

Yes apparently the life of Confucious is going to be made into a movie, with Chow Yun Fat in the lead role. As Gene Expression points out:

In terms of a big-budget biopic it seems to me that the life of Confucius is a very thin source of blockbuster material in relation to other social-religious figures of eminence. Jesus, Moses and Buddha have supernatural aspects to their lives. Muhammad’s life offers the opportunity for set-piece battles. Confucius was in many ways a failed bureaucrat, a genius unrecognized in his own day. His life can’t be easily appreciated unless you have the proper context of his impact on Chinese history in mind.

It will be interesting to see if this can be pulled off.

I see that Lao Tzu is also going to feature in this movie. How much more of a free society would China be today if Lao Tzu’s thought had prevailed over Confucius?


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