The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gorby buys Indy

When the Independent was launched in 1986, I started buying it almost at once. After a decade or more of increasingly disgruntled loyalty to the Guardian, the Independent was a breath of fresh air. The politics weren't so very different - at least from where I stood, well to the left of either of them - but there was none of the piety. Everything was crisp: the typeface, the style, the liberalism. It was like the Guardian without the woolly hat.

I found lots to disagree with the Indy about over the years, but that was part of its appeal. After the paper adopted what became its (understandably unique) selling point, the single-issue pictorial front page (polar bear, penguin, starving child, heroin syringe, baby seal, smoking chimney, polar bear polar polar bear polar bear will you please just sod off and drown you smelly seal-chewing top predator where was I?) I still stuck with it. Even after Johann Hari revealed that for years he'd been popping anti-depressants that made him unable to see the downside of anything he thought was a good idea at the time (which explained, a little too late for a lot of dead brown people, his drum-banging for the attack on Iraq), I blinked back the red mist. When its hard-pressed science editor explained that nanoparticles are a problem because they're so small that they no longer obey the laws of physics, I spluttered Crunchy Oats over the page and turned to the next. I went on buying the paper every day, but I read it mainly for the columnists, which was just as well because there was less and less actual news in it.

It was one of the columnists who finally did it for me. Bruce Anderson, the (predictably ex-Trot) Tory the paper keeps on a string in the back yard, wrote a column defending torture, yelping excitedly over the ticking bomb scenario as if it were a new, fresh, insightful thought experiment and running with it all the way to torturing not only Mr Alarm-Clock but also - should that fail to get results - Mrs Alarm-Clock and all the little Alarm-Clocks.

At this point it became difficult to hold the breakfast down.

So, with some embarrassment, I crawled back to the Guardian, and you know what? It's good. It's so good I don't have time to read all the good bits. Still infuriating and smug, mind you, but at least it doesn't keep banging on about polar bears.

Now the Indy has been bought by a former KGB man, in close association with the former General Secretary of the CPSU. This means it might become interesting again, but for me it's too little, too late.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Climate science a hot topic at Social Session 04

Our fourth Social Session last week went well: the audience of thirty or so, a good proportion of which was from the natural sciences, almost packed out the room. The presentations were clear and the discussion lively. Thanks to all the participants, to the audience, and to Margaret Rennex, Jo Law, Emma Capewell, and Clare de Mowbray for making it all work.

As chair I welcomed everyone and made some opening remarks:

Last November one sentence from a hacked email by Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia from ten years earlier went around the world.

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

These words have been and no doubt for a long time will be endlessly quoted and misquoted to suggest that climate scientists are conspiring to hide a recent decline in global temperature, and that global warming is a hoax. The saying that a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on has seldom been so brilliantly confirmed.

When I looked into this and other supposed scandals in the hacked emails - about peer review, refusal to release so-called raw data, and badly-designed computer code - and especially when I compared what the scientists and their defenders had to say with what their critics said - from the most fervent doubters of global warming to George Monbiot - I began to suspect that lots of people have a completely false and idealised view of how science is actually done and what scientists are like. Now I knew a bit about that from my own experience as a postgrad, from talking to scientists, and also from some of the science studies literature that I've had a chance to look at over the past year or so. My initial pitch for this session was ‘Can Science Studies Save the Earth?’ but we decided to go for the populist version.

So tonight we're going to ask whether and if so how the messy, human and uncertain practice of science can deliver reliable knowledge, and how and whether this knowledge should be used to inform policy.

I then introduced the speakers:

Simon Shackley - School of Geosciences
Colin Macilwain - Nature columnist
Ben Pile - Climate Resistance blog
Colin Campbell - EaSTCHEM Research Fellow, School of Chemistry
Steve Sturdy - Genomics Forum Deputy Director

Here are some reconstructions of what the speakers said, taken from my scrappy notes. If anyone feels they've been misheard, please let me know.

Simon Shackley began by referring to the widely held ideal of science summarised as Robert K. Merton's CUDOS principles: communism (in the sense of no private property in ideas), universalism, disinterestedness, and organised scepticism. These work fine in normal science, but in post-normal science, where "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent" , not so much. In normal science it would be quite acceptable not to provide algorithms and program code, but in post-normal science the only course to follow was complete openness. The CRU people were still doing normal science, when they should have realised that their situation was post-normal and that everything they did and said - not just their published work - would come under scrutiny from other interested parties, not just other scientists. Put it all up on the web!

Colin Macilwain pointed out that the public needed more than raw data on a website. A crucial mediating role was played by science journalists - Ben Goldacre is a good example. Colin argued that the CRU scientists had been harassed, including with FOIA requests, and that it was obvious that the 'trick' was not deceit. But he added that climate models - as distinct from climate observations - could very well be queried, and that in the models there was indeed much to be sceptical about.

Ben Pile insisted that the climate change issue was centrally about moral and political, rather than scientific, claims. Statements such as: 'We have just ten years to save the planet', or the comparison of fossil fuel use to slave-owning, are (overstated) moral claims. In the absence of clear sources of moral authority or political principle, 'the science' of climate change has served as a source of 'cheap moral realism'. ('Realism' in the sense, I think, of moral principles as existing independently of, rather than arising out of, human concerns.) The CRU had to carry the weight of being at the centre of all those moral arguments, thus making it, naturally, the focus of hacking attacks.

Colin Campbell, coming from a less publicly contentious field, allowed that some poor research gets published in the less prestigious journals, but that in science it's only possible to get away with 'low-impact lies'. He agreed that sometimes a scientific orthodoxy can shut out minority views, but not indefinitely: Peter Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis was not at first well received, but eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and is now in all the textbooks. One advantage of doing normal science is not having to deal with the coupling of scientific debate and moral norms.

Steve Sturdy argued that scientists are seen as trustworthy not because the general public can independently assess their work - we can't, without being scientists ourselves - but to the extent that they live up certain expectations and ideals, which the Mertonian norms (referred to by Simon at the start) express as well as any. Scientists need to be completely open about the scientific process and about uncertainties. Science journalists are guilty of not engaging with the actual arguments of 'climate sceptics', preferring to expose their funding and political affiliations - which are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the content of their arguments, which have to be met.

The discussion that followed ranged over science journalism - with Colin Macilwain sticking up for the profession - science education, with some in the audience arguing that it had all gone downhill in the past forty years or so - and the politics of the climate debate. Curiously enough, despite the differing perspectives of the panellists, what emerged was something like a consensus - that whatever may have been the case in the past, the only way forward for climate science was for every step of the process to be out in the open.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great moments in psychohistory

'With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale ...'

Conspiracy theorists - you're under starter's orders!

(From an article on Charles Stross's most distinguished co-panellist.) (Via.)

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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Restoration Game

When it looked like The Restoration Game would be published in March rather than in July, Blackwell's on South Bridge very kindly and cannily offered to host a launch party at (6:30 for) 7 p.m. on Wednesday 17 March at the nearby Pleasance Theatre. The event is still on, but will now consist of readings followed by discussion from me, Charles Stross, and Andrew J. Wilson. My own reading will be from The Restoration Game, and anyone pre-ordering at the event will get an early copy (signed, if you like). [Update: Charlie will be reading from his forthcoming Laundry novel, The Fuller Memorandum - which, if I've remembered some conversations correctly, is partly about an eldritch secret in the Russian/Soviet past. I think we got an event theme here, folks ... ]

This event is ticketed, but tickets are FREE. Tickets are available from the front desk at Blackwell Bookshop, 53 – 59 South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1YS. For more information or to reserve tickets, please contact Ann Landmann on 0131 622 8206 or

The book has been briefly and favourably reviewed in The Guardian:
As ever, MacLeod's grasp of political intrigue is first rate, and in Lucy he's created a complex heroine forever in doubt as to the true nature of events.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

For stranger maps

Earth has many states. Most of these have different systems of government. Some of them have different social systems. Earth is in this respect almost unique. Everywhere else the default is one government, and one social system, per planet - if not, indeed, per galaxy. At least, that's the rule in SF.

When we look at the ancient and mediaeval worlds, we see if anything a greater diversity of forms of rule than we see today. In fantasy, where we might expect a wide play of fancy, we see nothing of the kind. There are good monarchies, legitimised by prophecy or ancient artifact. There are evil empires, usually in the east. There are barbarian tribes. Here and there, if we're lucky, there are city states ruled by merchant princes. There are plenty of exceptions - Pratchett, Gentle, Pinto, Mieville - but that's the rule.

We can do better than that!

Let's start with SF. There, it's easy. All we have to do is junk the rule of one government per world. If you have a one-world government for a reason, that's fine. But let's stop making it the default. Even if a human settlement is derived from one colony ship (and why assume that, by the way?), there's no reason to assume that it'll stay united. In fact, there's every reason why it shouldn't, as the population expands and moves into new territories. The European settlements in North America existed for centuries as separate colonies before they became, with much upheaval, the United States.

If it's an alien planet, of course, there's even more scope for differentiation, yet here the one-government-per-world rule is more rigorously kept. All the more kudos to you if you break it.

If the social system or government isn't just background but central to the plot - to illustrate your pet political theory, say - there's a different rule to junk. That rule is that all foregrounded political systems work the way they're supposed to. This is true even if the way they're supposed to work is to not work (crush the human spirit etc etc). Just for a change, I'd like to see a libertarian writer depict a laissez-faire society with persistent social problems. I'd like to see a left-wing writer show a socialist society that isn't a utopia, but has real, nigh-intractable difficulties and internal contradictions (and not just, say, radio-borne viruses beamed at it by malevolent posthumans). I'd like to see the converse of these, as well, from the opposite (and other) authorial preferences.

With fantasy it's a little more complicated. So many plots, after all, turn on claiming rightful thrones or toppling dark lords that kingdoms and dominions can't be easily dispensed with. But there's no reason why these have to be simple. When your hidden princess at last ascends to her rightful throne, can she get away with relying on one or a few wise advisers? Mightn't she have to persuade a fractious parliament to come up with the money for the Defeat of the Dark Lord (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill? What if this parliament, like the real-world Polish Sejm, requires unanimous consent? Could her kingdom, like Poland, be in permanent peril of just vanishing from the map?

Could there be a whole school of thought that holds that mere possession of the Blue-Sapphired Sceptre of Snazziness is not, in fact, the basis of legitimacy? That instead, a pilgrimage to the Convent of Extraneous Plot-Device must precede an acclamation by the knights of the Realm? Can the Dark Lord, meanwhile, run his vast domain with a handful of henchmen, terrified minions and lickspittle courtiers? Doesn't he need, at the very least, some plodding but reliable bureaucrats? To say nothing of an arms industry and scientific - or magic - research, all of which will need some genuine enthusiasts. And all of this complication doesn't just add depth and colour to the background - it opens up plot possibilities. Does the Dark Lord's armourer never think of expanding his export markets? Might he not stoop to taking money even from the Forces of Good?

If you compare the map at the front of the standard fantasy trilogy with the maps in The Penguin Atlas of World History (for the Middle Ages, say) the contrast is striking. The almost fractal depth of mediaeval geographic complexity makes most fantasy maps look decidedly thin and unimaginative. A glance at the diagrams of state and social structures (for the various stages of the Roman Empire, for instance, or the mercantilist system) is likewise an eye-opener.

And with that opened eye, take a look down the Atlas's right-hand pages, which give the chronology and the exposition. If that doesn't get your imagination working, nothing will. There are lots of cool names, too.

[Note: This originally appeared in the BSFA magazine Focus, some time ago.]

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