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As an anarchist, I have no illusions that my voting will actually do anything at all to enact positive change in society. It is only ever, at best, an imperfect means by which to hinder the ruling classes in being even more rapacious than they might otherwise be. But that’s not nothing. I’ve never voted for a politician in my life, but I’ve sure as hell voted against some others … in a way that happens to be indistinguishable from voting “for” their opponents, because that is the only means the system allows. Yet, if it’s there, why not use it? Use it cynically, use it with open eyes, but what exactly is the point of eschewing the one tiny scrap of power given to citizens of representative “democracies”, even while working to overturn the whole system?

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!”
Sure. But doesn’t that well-worn slogan actually prove the opposite point to the one it’s generally deployed in favour of? It’s hard to see the history and current realities of deliberate disenfranchisement and voter suppression and  not see the ruling classes as actually running scared at the power of the electorate. They may be largely over-worried about that (see: most actual communist governments), but the aggregate power of the populace — shrunken and circumscribed though it most certainly is — is a genuine check on their power.

Voting legitimises the state (and/or whomever you vote for)
This is ultimately a philosophical point, and one where I tend to disagree with most anarchists. My disagreement, interestingly enough, stems from the very process that led me to anarchism in the first place: the academic study of the philosophical arguments by which governments claim legitimacy. See, they’re all bullshit, every last one. Social Contract Theory probably comes closest to actually being justifiable, in that it at least tries to involve the consent of the governed in being ruled by the state, but even it ultimately rests on the bullshit idea of “tacit consent”, whereby by simply existing under the rule of the state, the people have somehow agreed to be ruled by it.
All of which is to say: your consent is not required. It is simply assumed — even among electorates with voter turnout percentages regularly in the low 30s, it is assumed — and you are merely asked to choose among your oppressors. But some oppressors genuinely are worse than others, and given that the option of ‘no oppressors’ isn’t even on the table, I see no contradiction in using what little power you are afforded to try to ensure the less evil option (that is, to improve or sustain the actual material wellbeing of people in your society), and at the same time trying to flip that table altogether.
The more general point here is that participating in a system does not legitimise it. At least not where one is not given a genuine choice in whether or not to participate — and as we see from the general interpretation of low voter turnouts, simply not voting is not sufficient to be counted as “not participating” in the system. As far as I see it, voting doesn’t legitimise government any more than, say, having a bank account legitimises money, or having a job legitimises wage slavery.

Voting is alienating
Yep. Sure is. No argument there. I want to be clear that I’m not writing this as any sort of active encouragement for anyone to vote, merely as a counter-argument against some specific arguments against voting. Voting is quite literally alienating yourself from your real political power, and I would never shame someone for choosing not to do that.

Electioneering drains the energy of the radical working class!
Woah, woah, woah, now. Slow your roll, anxious anarchist abstentionists. I said voting. I didn’t say anything about campaigning. I absolutely think that it’s a waste of time for anyone seeking revolution[ary change of any kind] to bother spending any significant time working to get So-and-So, the Left’s new Great White Hope, elected into office. There are plenty of people who haven’t yet come around to genuinely radical politics; let them do the electioneering. You and me, we can keep working on the same shit we’ve been working on. But given the minimal effort required to actually cast a ballot, when elections do come around, why not vote?

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There’s been a fair bit of recent and less recent hand-waving about the methodological flaws dogging medical science. The problems seems to be these: First, human trials are difficult and expensive, meaning that a significant chunk of them are done by private (or, perhaps worse, publicly-traded and thus shareholder-beholden) companies with a vested interest in the treatments they’re developing turning out to be effective. Second, where trials are done by universities, something about the structure of grant funding means that researchers are under tremendous pressure to publish positive results – the combined effect of the general academic pressure to publish and the literature’s strong and well-documented (if much-bemoaned) bias towards publishing positive results. Thus, negative and especially inconclusive trial results “slip through the cracks”, going unpublished and leading to an unconscionable level of seemingly avoidable human suffering.

This is clearly a serious problem, but thus far the only concrete solution I’ve seen proposed comes from this New Scientist article, which profiles a start-up agency whose remit is specifically to reproduce trials, with the power to award those that prove reproducible with some sort of “reproducibility certificate”. This sounds great, and I’m all for it, but surely the simpler and more obvious answer is to get in some mechanism that gets all those unpublished results published in the first place? Indeed, Ben Goldacre’s article notes: “In any sensible world, when researchers are conducting trials on a new tablet for a drug company, for example, we’d expect universal contracts, making it clear that all researchers are obliged to publish their results, and that industry sponsors – which have a huge interest in positive results – must have no control over the data.”

It’s so glaringly obvious that I’m hesitant even to write, feeling for sure that this must have already been proposed, or is already being proposed by hundreds of people who are much closer to the medical research industry than I am, but: what about a universal research results database? The information-cataloging technology for this certainly exists, and it seems like it would solve several problems simultaneously. All research would be visible, and research proving a negative wouldn’t feel “wasted”. Something like this would presumably benefit all areas of science, but it seems especially pressing in medical research, given the potentially life-threatening consequences of messing that up.

I’ve spent the last several years coming to the gradual and disappointing realization that scientific research doesn’t usually work the way they tell you it does when they teach you about the scientific method in elementary school – an idealized picture that seems to still inform quite a lot of professional philosophers’ picture of scientific research. I recognize that there are “real world constraints” that make perfect application of the scientific method impossible or unrealistic, or unethical with human subjects. But does it really have to be so bad? For one thing, there is presumably a regulatory body that approves experiments on human subjects. How on earth are the non-publishing gag orders that Goldacre describes making it past their ethics committees? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? And if the data-publishing aspects of the experiments aren’t part of the proposals that have to go before the ethics boards – well, why aren’t they?

Anyway, I’m coming at all this as someone who is not a practicing scientist myself, and would welcome any input or feedback from those of you who are.

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Action and Knowability

I haven’t been getting out much, but last weekend I did manage to go to a party, and got talking to a woman I met there, mostly about Kant. We argued with vehemence and gesticulation: she was of the opinion that all of Kant’s theories were BULLSHIT because he said that even space and time were merely constructs of the human mind and thus not actually real. I found this to be both a serious oversimplification and gross misunderstanding, although because she was one of the hosts I did not use those words. My own over-simplistic understanding of Kant’s metaphysics is that the business about space and time being constructs of the human mind is mostly an epistemological point: that the “true nature” of the universe is ultimately unknowable because, although we perceive things spatiotemporally, we cannot know that our perceptions are accurate. This does not rule out the possibility that our perceptions are in fact accurate regarding the extension of objects in space and time; it simply means we cannot know for sure. (Or rather, more subtly but also more accurately: that we cannot understand our perceptions except through scema, such as space and time, which we introduce ourselves; but again this does not ultimately mean that they are somehow “inaccurate”.)

I’ve also been watching lots of Star Trek lately, which, like most sci-fi, has a tendency to play out weird ethical thought experiments. Viz.:

The captain always defends the deontological position; the first officer, the utilitarian.

The captain always defends the deontological position; the first officer, the utilitarian.

(Drawing is from Hourly Comics Day, which I did not complete with enough pizzazz to share any but this.)

There are questions, of course, about the extent to which Kant’s metaphysics were important to his ethical theories, but I maintain that in the most important ways they are effectively separate. Kantian ethics can be effectively summed up in his Categorical Imperative, which is to “Act as if the maxim of your actions were a universal law” or various other effectively similar formulations. It is commonly dismissed for the somewhat ironic reason that it is often impossible to know the consequences of one’s actions. And of course for the impossibility of correctly formulating “maxims” by which one purports to act.

Meanwhile, at work, I have a copy of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice reserved for myself, so that if I ever get around to reading it all the way through, I can disagree with it more intelligently. In a nutshell, though, Rawls provides the last possibly defensible gasp for Social Contract Theory, via a thought experiment in which one is meant to defend the state which one would find most palatable even if one did not know which position one would hold within it. We are meant to hedge our bets, of course, because we want it to turn out that, even if we were the lowliest of the low, the society we “chose” when we were in the “original position” (from which one sets the parameters of the society) would not be so bad. It is a fine thought experiment, except for the conclusion that the obvious choice of society would be a liberal state. When I run the experiment in my own head, the society I imagine is an anarcho-socialist one.

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Today I came across one of those hi-larious comic flowcharts, this one about alternative medicine. Now, it’s hardly new or innovative to make fun of ‘alternative therapies’ (though this is a fairly well-done piece of humour), but I want to draw your attention to one corner of it in particular. That is, the options for those wanting a “wholly ‘natural’ remedy” and who believe that “Yes, Big Pharma are the devil”. The choice is then based on the “Quantity of active ingredients required”. “Bugger all” leads to “Homeopathy”;* “An unknown, uncontrolled & untested amount” leads to “Herbal Medicine”.

This idea of testing has been at the centre of most of the more civil debates I’ve had or seen about herbal medicines, and it’s an important one. Many arguments are marred throughout by both sides’ tendency to argue as though more committed to being on a side than to striving towards Truth, no matter what they may claim. That is: typically, someone on the anti-herbal side will point out that little or no medical testing has been done for most herbal remedies. Then someone on the pro-herbal side will either bemoan the lack of funding for testing in most places — at which point arguments usually end because the opponents see that they are on the same ‘side’ really, the side of scientific testing, they are just coming into it with differing hypotheses — or else the pro-herbalist will question the validity of medical testing itself. And that is when it usually gets nasty.**

It’s this sort of oppositional attitude, I think, that leads people to ridiculously extreme positions of either disregarding all scientific research, or blindly accepting it all just because it’s *~*~science~*~* (though it’s worth noting that the latter view seems to be much more prominent among rationalistic non-scientists than practicing scientists or especially scientific researchers). The trouble, of course, is that a lot of scientific research, and — this excellent article in this month’s Atlantic magazine leads me to believe — medical research in particular, is often filled with methodological flaws. Some are the result of bias or fraud, but many are simply unavoidable, and probably many more are simply oversights. It is simply not healthy — literally or figuratively — to accept all research uncritically.

In the above-linked article, meta-researcher Dr. John Ioannidis claims, and has come up with a mathematical proof to demonstrate, that under normal conditions, most medical research turns out to be wrong. Moreover: “His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials.” And yet, of course, it would be wrong to say that this is a reason to automatically distrust all medical research — though it certainly appears to be a reason only to trust randomized trials, and even to take those with a grain of salt. It is still less reason to think we should abandon the concept of medical research altogether. It just means that we need to work to make that research better.

An example from my own life has been niggling at my conscience for years now. St Andrews is a major centre for certain kinds of psychological research, as well as having a host of psychology grad students with their own research projects, and as such it is fairly common for students to earn bits of extra money by participating in experiments. Now, St Andrews is also a small town, and the university is small, and quite a lot of students know each other, and even more students, I would think, will know each other within the set of current students who participate in these experiments, because a lot of them find out about them through friends who’ve done them too — I mean, really, what student anywhere would give up the chance, or fail to pass on word of the chance, to earn almost minimum wage for pressing buttons for 45 minutes?

For most experiments, the fact that a lot of participants know each other is surely a non-issue. But one of the bigger labs within the department is one that researches perceptions of faces. This surely must be affected by the participant’s familiarity with the faces they view within the experiment. In the one I did, I was first given a basic colour-blindness test and then asked to rate how “healthy” various faces looked. There were fifteen or twenty faces in the cycle, and I knew close to a third of them. Two were close friends! I’m sure this must have made a difference, because I could tell where my friends’ faces had been digitally manipulated or stretched or discoloured, which I generally couldn’t with the strangers’.

I tried to tell someone this at the time, but they were all so busy and I was so shy that I didn’t work up the courage to demand one of their attention long enough to point out this potential (and potentially serious) methodological flaw. Then they took my picture to add to their database, gave me my handful of coins and sent me on my way. Ever since, I’ve been idly wondering whether or not I should email someone, but I don’t know who I would email, and the more time passes the more embarrassing it would seem to be, to initiate the discussion. But REALLY. It’s probably not something that most experimenters would need to think to control for, if they were in larger cities or had larger or older databases or whatever, but in that particular situation, it seems like a gross oversight — and one quite easily corrected within the experiment, with just a button or something the participant could click if the face generated was an acquaintance’s. Or by having a time lag of a good few years in between entering a participant’s photograph into the database and having it show up in experiments. Or something.

The good news, though, is that Dr. Ioannidis’ work has been exceptionally well-received by the medical community. Yet there is apparently controversy within the meta-research community for exactly the reasons described above: some fear that seeding public doubts about scientific research will simply drive people to seek “alternative” therapies or ignore the medical establishment, or their own health, altogether. I much prefer his proposed solution. To quote the Atlantic article: “We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough.”

* As well it should.

** Let us be clear: it also gets nasty because of the anti-herbal camp’s tendency to lump herbal remedies together with all other “alternative” therapies, like homeopathy and crystal healing and bullshit like that, and equivocate between them in their refutations; and by the tendency of many proponents of herbal remedies to also believe in bullshit like homeopathy and crystal healing.

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This year, all of H.P. Lovecraft’s work came into the public domain, eliciting a flurry of geekery among, well, the geeks. Harry took the opportunity to stage the first-ever play of ‘Call of Cthulhu‘, and filled the house with Lovecraft paraphernelia, including various radio plays which he aired for our general enjoyment. I hadn’t read much Lovecraft before, but it wasn’t long before the themes common to most of his stories became glaringly apparant. In almost all of the ones I read or listened to, some curious person delves just a little too deeply into some secret knowledge of the ancient horrors of the world, and concludes that it were better they were never known.

(more…)

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Phantasms

Recently I’ve been feeling inexplicably agitated. It’s almost physical, like an itch or irritation deep in my chest, behind the solar plexis, churning and twitching with no hope for relief. It could just be too much coffee, I suppose, but I am so tired all the time. And anyway, it feels more like I just ought to be doing something, anything, all the time, but I’ve no idea what I should do — and I am so tired, all the time. And so I itch, and burn, and snap at people.

This becomes an extended metaphor »

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I’ve started re-reading Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’, preparing to write an essay on it. Like so many of his predecessors, Rousseau is concerned with determining which aspects of human society are ‘natural’ and which are ‘artificial’. But I think they are setting up a false dichotomy.

I was particularly struck by a bit in the beginning of Chapter II, in which he claims, first, that the only truly ‘natural’ society is the family. Fair enough. But he goes on to claim that if any connection is maintained between a father and his children after those children have reached adulthood, it is so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily”. As though voluntary human actions were somehow unnatural.

Now, before y’all start correcting me, I get what he’s saying: he’s using ‘nature’ to describe what comes forcefully naturally to our natures, like breathing. (We can control our breath to a certain extent, but we breathe without thinking about it and we cannot stop breathing or we die. I understand everything through analogy because I’m a bit simple like that.) Then he’s using ‘artifice’ to describe those things which we do only through the exercise of our minds.

Our natural, human minds. I suppose my objection stems from the general separation of ‘human’ vs. ‘nature’, which is often simply false. I suspect a bit of it is religiously-based (God created Man and the animals, not Man of the animals), though even without religion there’s a fair amount of egoism in our conception of species.

What I find particularly hilarious is the argument — based on agreement with the above — that ‘believing in’ global warming is somehow egoistic. “As though one single species could influence the whole planet so much!” What do these people think the atmosphere was like before algae and oceanic photoplankton?

Speaking of which: there was an article in the Guardian today saying that climate scientists are blaming global warming for the huge increase in Atlantic storms over the past decade. Well, freaking duh! I wonder how long it will be before someone takes [more explicit, publicised] note of the fact that the current changing rainfall trends, IIRC, pretty much mirror the changes seen at the end of the last Ice Age. Hmmf.

Anyway. The Guardian also had an article talking about Nature Writing as a genre. Which is all well and good. But what confused me was its tagline:

“A new genre of writing is putting centre stage the interconnectedness between human beings and the wild.”

Excuse me? Okay, granted I haven’t read any of the books it talks about, but in what way is writing about nature and natural things a NEW genre? Surely it’s one of the oldest there is! E.g.:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

– Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Writing about humans’ interconnectedness with nature is new, then, eh?

Finally, there is the natural end of all life.

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman.

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