Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time for a Reformation of science

I first published this May 12, 2010. It seems even more appropriate in the light of what Gleick has done. In a comment on my Montford review, Byron said this:
"while it is possible that sometimes an emperor needs to hear that he has no clothes from a child, in general, credentials matter. I would not presume to be able to judge between competing scientific professionals working on climate change. Instead, I will have a strong bias towards those who are actively publishing in recognised peer-review journals and whose work is accepted by reputable national and international scientific bodies."

As a general point, I think this has some force as an argument. Philosophically speaking it is an appeal to authority, and whilst, as such, it has no logical force (literally none!) and is irrelevant to an argument, in human terms I see it as significant, and reasonable to take into account. The question is: is the child seeing something that everyone else can see when it is pointed out? Or is the child not seeing something because it requires education or maturity in order to see it?

When Luther nailed his theses to the church door, he was protesting against corruption in the church. The reason that his protest triggered the Reformation (rather than it happening at a different time, eg a hundred years earlier) was because of two principal things (IMHO!): a widespread understanding that the church was rotten, which undermined the support for the church from within, and the political situation in Germany which allowed Luther to gain practical support and shelter. I've always found it intriguing that the countries which ended up Roman Catholic were the countries where there was an existing realpolitik settlement with the Vatican in 1517.

The question at issue with regard to the Hockey Stick raises similar issues. When McIntyre started up his Climate Audit blog, it was the equivalent of the 95 theses. In just the same way as Luther believed himself to remain a faithful Christian, and not be inventing a new religion, (and, in fact, had the church responded with integrity, he would have remained a Catholic) so too do McIntyre's criticisms not raise any questions about the theory of scientific investigation. Instead, the questions raised are about the current practice of that scientific investigation, most especially with regard to paleo-climatology and the weight given to certain alleged results in that field. More broadly - and Montford is good at bringing out these details - the questions raised by McIntyre cut very deeply into the rhetoric of science as it is presently employed. The issue is whether the current practice of peer-review is sufficient for establishing truth, or whether, in this particular case as an exemplar, the process of peer-review has been corrupted, allowing vested interests to control the flow of funding and research. In other words, in just the same way as the medieval church preserved the rhetoric of Christianity whilst collapsing into corruption and turning salvation into a cash-cow, is the scientific establishment now colluding in the covering up of malpractice in order to keep the lines of funding open?

Let's return to the question of authority. In the medieval era the priests were the embodiment of authority, with the ability to excommunicate all rebels. In the contemporary era excommunication takes the form of withholding or withdrawing funding. Just as priests had the capacity to bully, eg through the confessional, so too do present scientific authorities have the capacity to distort processes in their own interests, eg through blackballing particular researchers or boycotting or belittling particular publications that do not toe the line. This was what "climategate" was about. As repeated by most of the participants, the actual truth of the Hockey Stick graph is in itself pretty marginal to the question of AGW. What it is not marginal to is the question of the legitimacy of the scientific establishment. A light has been shone into the inner workings, and just as the church tried to obscure the reasons for Luther's protests (called the Catholic or Counter-Reformation) so too do the propagandists for the establishment say, either, 'move along now, nothing to see, everything is fine', or else, 'just a few bad apples, the rest of science is healthy and fine'.

The truth of this depends on the truth about the Hockey Stick itself, which is why it has acquired totemic significance. Which brings me back to the question of the Emperor's New Clothes and how we are to argue about the science. Byron's comment at the top of this post is not, as such, an unreasonable position to hold. It does, however, assume good faith on the part of the scientific community. If that good faith is held in question then there is nothing else to be done except to begin to investigate the points at issue. To say that this can only be done by scientists is to accept the closed circle of authority - it is the equivalent of the church saying 'trust us' to Luther. That does not mean that everyone has equivalent authority (the Protestant error) - what it means is that the only way to establish truth is for all the arguments and assumptions to be brought out into the open.

It is this which has most persuaded me that McIntyre is on to something. The response of the establishment to McIntyre's questioning has been to close ranks and stonewall. What an outsider can do most effectively is raise up settled assumptions to the light. A genuinely scientific community will be able to defend those assumptions, or, if they are indefensible, be able to creatively renew itself by revising those assumptions. Although I am not a trained scientist, I am a trained philosopher, and what that training has given me is the ability to judge a good argument. In other words, it is beyond my capacity to assess, eg, the impact of cloud cover in climate models (IMHO the modellers are still awaiting a Copernicus - the models seem like Ptolemaic systems about to collapse under the weight of their own complexity). It is not beyond my capacity to assess whether, eg, the RealClimate community is engaging with the arguments that McIntyre is raising. When I see evasion, equivocation, deception and the refusal to release information - in short, when I see science not treated as a holy endeavour - then red flags go up and I start to suspect that indulgences are being flogged to build a new St Peter's.

If agw was a purely abstract argument then the scientific community could be left to get on with it, and the paradigm shifts can be allowed to happen on generational time-scales, which is normal. The difference is that the agw thesis is highly politicised, not just in the vast funding being put towards it, but in prospect. In the end, the best arguments will win - and the best arguments are those that expose themselves completely to the judgement of the community. They are the ones that allow little children to ask obvious questions, and run the risk of being found naked. They are not the ones that employ a vast retinue of retainers to suppress all dissent, and ostracise such small children from the conversation.

This is something that the better scientists have recognised, and are taking steps to address (I'm thinking here of someone like Judith Curry, who seems to me to be asking all the right questions). More broadly, I'm coming to see that the process of peer-review, which has not historically been a necessary part of science, could best be replaced by transparency. Information wants to be free. What the vernacular Bible was to Protestantism, the blogosphere will be to this new science - a sociological revolution triggered by a technological shift. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but in my view, just as Luther triggered the Reformation, and in due course the Protestant church, I suspect that what McIntyre has done is trigger a new and Reformed style of science - one in which openness and transparency are the hallmarks, and which is faster, more dynamic, more creative - and more accurate - than the existing magisterium.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” - a declaration

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ was asked what the most important commandment was and replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37-38) As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to hold fast to this commandment, giving everything to God and not letting anything else take the place of God in our lives.

2. Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ said “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Jesus explicitly teaches that there is a tension between the demands of the first commandment and fidelity to God, and the demands that may be made by the needs of any local political economy.

3. Surveying the present state of our societies and economies it is clear that, as a people, we have succumbed to the worship of Mammon, and that it is the duty of all faithful Christians to resist such worship, to repent of our behaviour, and to seek anew the Kingdom of God. The fruits of such idolatry are clear: the injustice and unemployment and waste of human talents; the corruption of our political leadership and their collusion with immoral financial practices; the depredation and degradation of our natural environments and the exhaustion of our natural resources; the inevitable wars and other crises that arise from the systematic fostering of base human appetites and the refusal to compromise our ways of life, and pursue a more equitable sharing of the gifts bequeathed to us.

4. As part of my pursuit of faithful Christian discipleship I therefore resolve to abandon the idolatry of “economic growth”; to reject the use of such language in my own speech; to repudiate that language when used by others; to bring people's attentions to the way in which such idolatry increases human suffering; and above all, to seek to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, trusting that in returning to the Lord I will indeed find mercy, and that he will freely pardon me of my offenses.

Background notes
This was inspired by the Ash Wednesday declaration of Operation Noah. That declaration was primarily concerned with issues around climate change, seeking to make action to combat that perceived problem as a status confessionis - in comparison with the Barmen declaration, which focussed German church resistance to the idolatry of national purity developed by the Nazi party.
I believe that we are indeed in a similar situation to that of the churches in Germany in the 1930s. Patterns of behaviour are in play that are leading to catastrophe if not addressed. However, I am not able to sign up to the Operation Noah declaration. That is because I believe that climate change is not the issue that needs to be addressed. The science of climate change is nowhere near strong enough to be considered for status confessionis, and even if it was certain, it only scratches the surface of the relevant idolatry. That is, climate change could be solved overnight, and the idolatry of Mammon would not be affected. It is the idolatry of Mammon that is at the root of this crisis of our time, and if we address that, then we also address climate change in so far as that is necessary.
For a more substantial discussion of the theology behind this declaration, see my book Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture.
If you agree with this declaration, please do make it your own.

What have the boomers ever done for us? *

As I write, Greece is experiencing a dramatic confrontation between the governing classes – imposed by the EU, rather than elected democratically – and those who are presently suffering the economic consequences of several decades worth of mismanagement. Most strikingly, this is an exchange as reported in the Guardian newspaper: “Six inches from the riot policeman's shield outside the Greek parliament last Friday, a tall, pale boy was shouting at a man who could have been his uncle: "It's your generation that brought us to this point, but it's mine that has to pay for it. You have to take responsibility for what's happening here."”

Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. How have we ended up with such a crisis in the European Union – supposed vanguard of all that is most modern – that is running such a risk of turning into generational conflict? For that is what is at stake. In order to keep the economy functioning – or, at least, to maintain the pretence that the economy can continue to function in the way that it has done – the young and the poor are being bled dry in order to maintain the appearance of good order and financial management, to stop people looking behind the curtain. Sadly, there is only a certain amount of illusion that can be maintained in the face of abject misery and suffering – which is what is happening in Greece at the moment, and may well be coming to a street closer to home sometime soon.

One of the ways in which this will gain a painfully clear focus is through pensions, and this is where generational conflict is likely to rear its head. The financial crisis is, to put it brutally simply, a result of an imbalance between claims to wealth and actual wealth. That is, the banks and other asset-holders have a certain amount of genuine wealth – shares in companies, ownership of land and other valuables like gold and so on. The claims to that wealth are vastly greater – that is, there are a very large number of IOUs being passed around, keeping up the illusion of how much wealth we have. It is essentially like a game of musical chairs, except that whereas, in the game, only one chair gets removed at a time, when the music stops for our financial affairs, most people will be left without a chair. Wealth that isn't directly tied to an asset directly – eg the deeds to a property – is highly likely to simply melt away, in the way that those who have held Euro-denominated Greek government bonds are finding their wealth melting away. This applies, most of all, to pensions.

When this happens – and it probably won't happen all at once; there will simply be a steady progression of pension funds finding that they are unable to meet their commitments – those who are reliant on such paper will find that they have to fall back on much more old-fashioned sources of wealth – such as family ties. Yet this is where the whirlwind is really likely to cause havoc. For what sort of family structure has been left behind by those who wish to be drawing their pensions? Let us remember that these are the generations who pushed through 'no fault' divorce, leaving misery in the lives of their abandoned children as they pursued the gratification of their own needs and desires. Of many possible exemplars, let's take Bill Clinton as the type – someone who was for a time 'the most powerful man in the world' who was incapable of exercising power over his own passions.

Now obviously this is a vast generalisation – this is an opinion column, the natural home of vast generalisations – and it doesn't apply to every boomer, nor even to a majority of boomers – but there does seem to be a prominent generational characteristic to the boomers of 'live now, pay later'. Well, we have now arrived at 'later' and the trouble is that it is the next generation along that is going to have to pay the bills. Or, to change the metaphor, we have now reached the morning after, and it is the children who are having to clear up after the wild party of the night before. The great political negotiation of the next ten to fifteen years will be how far those who are presently working will be prepared to pay higher tax rates to cover the costs of failed pension schemes. My suspicion is that the answer to that question is 'not very far'.

What I believe that we shall see is a political movement centred upon the restoration of classical virtues and traditional morality. After all, those are the only tools that we will have to cope with the immense poverty bearing down upon us. We will only be able to make it through if we return to the values of economy and thrift. Other nations in the world can already see the extent of the transition that we will have to go through; it's only the make-believe of our governing classes that stops us grasping the truth. Mahathir Mohammed, the former leader of Malaysia, commented in a BBC interview recently: "Europe... has lost a lot of money and therefore you must be poor now relative to the past. And in Asia we live within our means. So when we are poor, we live as poor people. I think that is a lesson that Europe can learn from Asia."

We are going to have to live as poor people – which means much greater reliance on the extended family and the local community. This is not an unattractive vision – after all, the happiest places in the world, such as the Philippines, have exactly this pattern of life, and there is no reason why we, too, couldn't be (relatively) poor but happy. But it is not what our culture has supported for many years, and there is a bill to be paid for the destruction of family life. Who gets to pay that bill will, as I say, be one of the principal political issues of the next several years.

* For those who are unfamiliar with the marvellous Monty Python film 'Life of Brian', my title is an allusion to a particular scene in that movie – my point being that, of course, boomers have done lots 'for us'.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Let us be Human - also available from author at discount...

I should have added - Let us be Human is available from me for a cost of £10 plus postage and packing (£2 First Class to a UK address in nice new jiffy bag). That's significantly cheaper than Amazon, unless you've got a Kindle, which means you can get it for £2.63! Payment can come by Paypal or old-fashioned cheque.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Let us be Human now launched and available!

I’ve had a wonderful day. Had a fun launch of my book this morning - now available on Amazon etc, including just £2.63 for the Kindle version! - but particularly blessed by presence of close friends who came up to celebrate the day with me. I am a lucky man. Blogging friends can wangle a free copy from me in return for a review. Byron I'm looking at you....

Monday, February 13, 2012

In praise of modesty

“Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way” - so sang Maurice Chevalier in the late 1950's. This is not something that I ever gave much thought to – at least, not until I had daughters of my own – and I wonder if Chevalier could possibly sing the same now.

Consider, for example, the charmingly named 'slutwalk'. This began in Toronto, in response to a police officer's comment that, in order to be safer, “women should avoid dressing like sluts”. The officer's comment was rude but realistic. Men are simple creatures. We have a biological system that is hard-wired to respond to signals of sexual availability – like exposed flesh – and whenever presented with such signals there is an instant limbic response which pushes testosterone into the body in order to prepare for a mating opportunity. This is our biological inheritance – what St Paul often called 'the flesh' – and the challenge for a civilised man is to ensure that these triggers do not overwhelm our wider values. When successful this is called character, the product of being trained in the virtues of self-restraint.

The problem with the slutwalk approach is that it believes that all men should have achieved that character before being allowed out in public. In other words, it rejects what I described in my last column as our fallen world. It does not recognise that the world is imperfect, and unlikely to be made perfect any time soon. To offer an analogy – if you are dealing with a recovering alcoholic then it is generally considered a good idea to make sure that access to alcohol is restricted, for the simple reason that the habit of self-restraint has not been properly fostered. The slutwalk attitude seems to imply that waving a bottle of vodka beneath an alcoholic's nose has absolutely nothing to do with their subsequent falling off the wagon. Very powerful passions are provoked – and the slutwalk is simply an abuse of power, an exercise in bullying.

This might seem to be 'blaming the victim' but that is not what I am trying to describe. A man who is unable to exercise a brake upon his passions is morally culpable for whatever they then do – I don't subscribe to our modern fad for medicalising our moral failures – but this is the world that we actually live in. It is simply imprudent to act so recklessly, with such brazen disregard for the consequences of our actions – and to then present that as a higher virtue simply reveals the moral depravity into which our culture has now sunk.

What we as a society need to do is work on our virtues more, recognising that many of the other benefits of social living that we take for granted depend upon a prior framework of accepted values in order to function. For example, business, politics and scientific research would all be impossible without the virtue of trust, which allows colleagues in the field to take what is said at face value. It is our virtues that make us free.

The slutwalk is not an exercise in freedom, but rather a parade of slaves to social and biological desires. In order to overcome such slavery, and gain a genuine freedom, virtues need to be cultivated, and the crucial virtue in this context is the virtue of modesty. I like the way that the Christian writer Kahlil Gibran described it: “modesty is for a shield against the eyes of the unclean”. In other words, modesty is about not provoking a sexual response in the course of carrying out the normal business of life because to do so would be a distraction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Even worse, by dissipating the power of the erotic through wall-to-wall exposure of flesh, the genuinely holy and creative power of the erotic in its proper place is vitiated. This is one aspect of the evil of the tabloid newspaper industry, and its prurient lack of propriety. Modesty, after all, has as its corollary the capacity to blush – blush at our own indiscretions but also at the revelation of someone else's. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

So am I arguing for a complete covering up? Do I believe that we should adopt the chador as customary women's clothing in our society? No, but I believe that there is a value in the Muslim approach which should not be dismissed. There is surely a happy and creative middle point between the slutwalk and the chador, one where our daughters can grow up to be respected as whole individuals and not simply evaluated as pieces of meat. I believe modesty is an essential component of that fuller life, a fuller life that includes a proper appreciation of the erotic. Modesty does not mean unsexy, after all – it simply leaves more room for the imagination to work, and that is the most important sexual organ of all.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A few thoughts about women bishops

It's a bit depressing following the shenanigans at General Synod about Women Bishops. (+Alan expresses why quite succinctly). I thought I'd put a few thoughts down about my own position.

1. I believe that the CofE has authority in this matter. If I didn't believe that I'd be a Roman Catholic.

2. My understanding of ordination and episcopacy is that they are indissoluble - the former derives authority from the latter (and not just in the ordination of a priest but in any subsequent ministry - "this ministry which is yours and mine"). So to my mind the fundamental decision was made in the early 1990s. What is happening now is about taking the process to a logical conclusion. For what it's worth, I suspect that the *specific* decision made in 1992 was the wrong one, for all sorts of reasons. However, what's done is done, and there is no going back.

3. I believe that there are objections to the ordination of women that are non-trivial and that are not rooted in anti-women prejudice (there are, of course, many objections that are trivial and rooted in prejudice). In particular, this is not a matter of 'equality', 'discrimination' or 'justice' - except derivatively so, from a broader theological framework. That is, there is a genuine debate to be had here about what it is to be a priest, what it is to be a bishop. The greatest sadness for me is that the argument has been hijacked by secular thinking (on the pro side) and reactive, panicked negativity (on the anti side). In so far as there has been higher quality theological reflection on it (and there has been some) it hasn't filtered down.

4. To my mind, the root issue is that vocation is not reducible to biology. That is, to be a priest or to be a bishop is not a matter of having the correct chromosomes - nor is that a necessary condition - but rather it is entirely a question of character. Who or what is this person called to be? If we had a better theology of ministry and discipleship, and a clearer understanding of what it meant for any individual Christian to be called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, then we wouldn't have gotten ourselves into this mess. We are reaping the bitter fruits of several generations of theological illiteracy. Which is the real reason why the CofE is dying.

Monday, February 06, 2012

LUBH: official book launch

Learning Church special - Rev Sam's official book launch
Saturday February 18th, 9.30am WM Church Hall
Sam will read a few extracts from his book 'Let us be Human'
Copies will be on sale for £9 (£5 off RRP)
Date subject to delivery of the books themselves!!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Transforming Presence

Had a positive and encouraging meeting with my wardens this morning, looking to take forward the Transforming Presence process in this patch. +Stephen gives inspiring public leadership.