The discussion among ordinary people in Turkey about joining the EU seems curiously uninformed and blind to economic-political realities. Among meetings of business managers, economic journalists and economists, there is agreement that joining the EU would probably be “a good thing”. But this consensus extends to most ordinary people, who seem to be under the impression that the economic improvement of Turkey is inevitable. The popular opinion is that “we shall become rich like them”, or “we’ll all get more money”. But although the experts and the non-experts agree about the end, their reasons differ.
I wonder to what extent ordinary people in Turkey (not economists, journalists, students, businesspeople and diplomats) are aware of the neoliberal policies favoured by most central banks and economic ministries nowadays. These include: control or elimination of budget deficits (at which the French and German governments have not only failed recently, but also expected to get away without paying the fines required by the European laws); curtailing welfare spending; providing more incentives for businesses (which unkind critics of such policies call corporate welfare); increasing the flexibility of labour markets, which means removing structural rigidities like minimum wage and union laws and other statutory protections for workers, gradually dismantling the European Social Charter. Business people and most economists seem very confident that these deregulatory policies will usher in a new Europe (I agree, in a sense), and most people who discuss such issues in Turkey seem to concur. Public discussion in Turkey is generally very quiet about who the losers will be from the EU accession, even though it’s common sense that not all will be winners. Questions about accountability, responsive and transparency are discussed only in the context of human rights or governance or corruption in government, which – important though it is – is not the entire story. The accountability, responsibilities and transparency of corporations and banks to society at large is seldom the issue. Right now the EU does not seem to me to be a model of any of these things.
More specifically, one needs to ask whether the overall experience with these neoliberal policies worldwide (i.e., liberalization, deregulation, privatization and price stabilization through curtailment of public spending) is actually going to raise living standards for the majority of people in Turkey. The experience of other developing countries which have tried implementing such “reforms”, such as Brazil and Argentine and Mexico, or even transitional economies like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, may provide some clue to what may happen to public welfare standards after joining the EU. But pre-EU Turkey is not a transitional economy, but one with a highly developed private sector and lightly regulated markets, more like some Latin American countries.
Here is my own rather pessimistic and unsubstantiated prediction about the transition to the EU. It’s more of a research hypothesis for testing than a prediction. The pessimism of the scenario drawn below will probably need to be tempered by occasional signs of vigilance, signs that people are aware of how undemocratic governments have become even while clinging to their democratic fig-leaves. In any case, I’d rather be wrong about my pessimistic predictions than right.
Turkey already suffers from fairly severe income and wealth inequality. There is evidence from all over the world that although the policies which increasingly neoliberal EU governments seem to favour increase GDP per capita, they often tend to also increase such inequalities. These in turn often result in social tensions and unrest, which may, in the future political climate developing globally, be dealt with as terrorism, unless they are “managed” in the time-tested ways of the PR industry – by manufacturing consent over common enemies, or whipping up anxieties over security, status and quality of life, or the eternal dissection of celebrity scandals. The tendency, now well-established, is to give an increasing but limited sense of control and choice in matters of individual decision-making in the private sphere, while taking political power away from the hands of the citizen through surveillance and control of associational possibilities in the public sphere, and the atrophy of the language of citizenship. Is there any reason to believe that the Turkish experience after accession to the EU is likely to be any different?
In fact – just to speculate a bit more about the future - the UNDP’s HDI for Turkey may face a decline, although it’s more likely that such indices will go out of fashion after a while as indices of social welfare are redefined in keeping with the prevailing Orwellian discourse of democracy and human rights in a way that would make peaceful democratic protest on economic issues either impossible or indistinguishable from terrorism. If this sounds far-fetched, consider what has been happening with street protests that greet all meetings of the IMF-World Bank, the G-8 summits, Davos, WTO – wherever the great globocracy meet to decide or discuss policies that will affect the lives of millions of people who will have no role in shaping those policies or discussions. Notice how the public for whose benefit these protests are staged are actually quite unconcerned or dismissive of them – which is exactly the media-generated consensus that the governments would like to see. This is already happening in the UK, US, Spain, and Italy, where governments have recently realized that they can now safely ignore public opinion and “show leadership”, not just on foreign but also on domestic policies, as long as they keep institutional investors and large corporations happy.
Is this likely to happen in Turkey as well? Or are there sufficient democratic institutions in place, and a sufficiently vigilant civil society, that will prevent this from happening?
Despite all these forebodings, I would nevertheless still support Turkey joining the EU, because the potential for progressive change for Turkey is still greater within the EU than outside it. My fear, nevertheless, is that that potential may change, or become illusory. To prevent that from happening, citizens of Turkey and the rest of Europe need to see this not just as an economic opportunity, but also a political, social and cultural one, and remain vigilant to ensure that these opportunities don’t evaporate.
This is what the campus looked like from Rasmus's balcony. The city itself seemed less of a snowy wilderness in last evening's TV news. But the snow had reached upto hip height in my our rear balcony, and the doors to the balcony couldn't be opened. This was the heaviest snowfall we had ever seen, but Rasmus said it was not unusual in his native Denmark, or in Norway where he has also lived.
Buro and I have been talking a lot about the lack of interest that many very intelligent and articulate people have in politics. Both of us are worried by the prospect of Bush winning because of the apparent apathy of the American voter, which is itself a major political problem for the country and for the world. Much of this lack of interest seems to emanate from an inability to see how political events or processes affect one’s life, but also (and I know this from my own case) from a feeling that one is powerless to influence these events or processes. Moreover, all too often politics is narrowly understood as the doings of personalities and parties in and out of power, and cost-benefit analysis of supporting this or that policy or alliance or move – i.e., politics as a vast chess or poker game – that has no apparent relevance for one’s life.
I sometimes believe that some people are simply politically tone deaf, just as some people are unmusical, or are just not interested in cooking. Mostly, they are incapable of seeing the point of it, and are put off by what little they CAN see (and who can blame them?). Just as an unmusical person will not be able to sing in tune, an a-political person also represents an unconscious negative political position which can have major consequences if shared by the vast majority (e.g., in the US) – “leave politics to the politicians, just don’t bother me with it”. But while political disengagement and apathy may be forgivable at the level of the individual, they may have disastrous consequences at the level of society, as we may very well find out in the US this year.
Even at the level of the individual, what at first glance seems like a blank slate of political apathy or naivete, sometimes turns out to be not a blank slate at all, but a slate on which has been inscribed some pretty hair-raising beliefs and claims, easily transmitted to an uncritical mind by people in authority. Yet even such blank slates have been known to be aroused to awareness either by the force of events, or by some significant experience or insight. Besides, political apathy is itself a kind of negative political stance, a stance of refusal to engage at any level with what is going on around one.
I don’t wish to claim that politics must have overriding importance all the time, or for everyone, or even for most people. It turns out that for individuals there are some things that are often more important than politics, and quite rightly too. But I cannot see how one can adopt political apathy as a conscious stance and still claim to be an individual who is aware of what’s going on in the world. I also think it’s also impossible to understand the workings of a society without understanding its politics, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, my own political stance is no more than only one step above apathy - a willingness to be aware of politics, reflect on it, and discuss with other people about it. As a teacher who is professionally obliged to "keep out of politics" (as most professionals are), that's all I can manage for now. (More about the politics of professionals later.)
That is why I am astonished at people living under occupation, like some Iraqis and Palestinians, who manage to be constructively engaged in politics when one would expect them to be much more concerned with mere survival. Perhaps they are no different from people who are activists in more "normal" societies, except that they are living in much more difficult circumstances.
I hope the NDI, IRI and CIPE succeed in their mission of convincing Iraqis about how to run a good democracy. They should permanently inoculate the Iraqi people against the dangerous and pseudo-democratic idea that decisions about national resources and affecting national sovereignty should be made by the representatives of the Iraqi people. It's so much more in keeping with contemporary notions of democracy that the elected Parliament should simply rubber-stamp decisions made in Washington, whether on 1000 Pennsylvania Avenue or 1818 H Street. Most of all, recalling what might be called the Kissinger doctrine of national responsibility, they should firmly root out the irresponsible idea that a regime should actually use the oil wealth of Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Perhaps they should use the cases of Nicaragua, Argentina, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile to demonstrate what happens when democratic aspirations become irresponsible and consequently need to be deterred.
Let Iraqis also recall what one of the most prolific contemporary champions of US democracy has said about it: in his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman writes how "the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."
As a middle class NRI (Nonresident Indian), I am part of a new caste created in India by successive governments since the seventies, initially in order to stimulate inward remittances to help cure India's external payments difficulties, but later to encourage foreign investment from well-heeled enterpreneurs of Indian origin in the US and the UK. I am cosetted by a host of privileges, such as freedom from taxes on my income earned in India on investments from abroad, preferential rates of interest on my bank deposits, and special bank branches to deal with my banking needs. (Actually, within the NRI caste, I am probably a fairly humble member, and nowhere near as flush as others who have lived abroad longer than I have, or have larger incomes. This may be why I am not completely familiar with the most recent changes, all of which have reduced the degree of regulation and annoyance to which other middle class individuals who are not lucky enough to earn their income abroad are subjected.
Each time I go home, I do notice small changes that indicate that even the middle class in Kolkata (my original "caste" and locational coordinates before I left), the poorest of the four metropolises, has become more prosperous, readier to spend money, and demand better service. Conditions for the middle class have definitely improved over the last decade. Gas and telephone connexions are more readily available, the use of mobile phones has taken off exponentially, there are more people investing in the stock markets, buying cars and what are known as FMCG's, and going to expensive restaurants, than when I used to live and work there in the seventies and eighties. This is what I have found from my own experience of buying an apartment in what I would call a middle class slum area in North Kolkata, and observing others in my own social environs, such as my relatives and friends.
If this is true of Kolkata, it is probably even more true of the other major cities in India. The Indian middle classes are riding high on a consumerist boom unprecedented in the country. This has created a demand for more expensive and better endowed (I hesitate to say better) schools and hospitals, which in turn has led the privatization of formerly public services. The government claims to have invested more heavily in infrastructure, although the quality of parts of the Mumbai-Pune highway when I used ıt last year brought on a familiar, if not at all a reassuring, sense of deja vu from an earlier time.
I am not sure that the rest of India outside the 250-300 million middle class and the rich peasantry has actually benefited from these gains. In fact, the degree of income and wealth inequality seems to have increased palpably. More workers from shut-down factories seem to have been thrown to the tender mercies of the so-called "informal sector", hawking wares on suburban trains such as those between Sealdah and Kalyani. Farmers from prosperous states like AP and Karnataka have been committing suicide. Because malnutrition is chronic and widespread, the average Body Mass Index for the poorer populations in many states has reached alarmingly low levels, even while India exports surplus foodgrains and imports foodstocks at the same time. This condemns entire swathes of the population to stunted growth, both physical and mental, making it impossible for them to work productively, learn actively, or participate in social life meaningfully. While middle class conveniences and consumption patterns have increased, never mind improvements in the quality of life and democratic participation, even basic levels of living seem to have deteriorated sharply in many states. In the long run, a "shining India" is also adding to the underclass that is permanently debarred from active social life. Is this really the kind of India we would like to see in the future?
On the other hand, the middle class, while enjoying greater creature comforts and conveniences, has become more anxiety-ridden, self-absorbed, and unconscionable. Prostitution among middle class college and high school girls has reportedly increased in the bigger cities such as state capitals to support a more consumption-oriented lifestyle. The middle class has also become more politically apathetic even while prone to authoritarian fantasies bordering on fascism. It's the kind of cultural atmosphere in which a child can write in an Independence Day Children's supplement of a prominent newspaper: "My vision of a future India: (1) There will be no Pakistan..." Narendra Modi is regarded as the third most effective Chief Minister, probably based on his performance since 2002 as the Gauleiter of Gujarat, while Chandra Babu Naidu of AP where farmers have been committing suicide is among the most effective, according to a recent India Today poll.
What's there to celebrate? And what accounts for the increasing victory of precisely those forces which are driving India towards these destructive directions, both in domestic and in foreign policies (Much as I am heartened by the progress, I still don't have enough confidence in the India-Pakistan peace process: it is already showing signs of fraying. I fervently hope I am wrong.) My fears have nothing to do with which political party is in power - all of them have failed the vast majority of the people of the country. Such is the nature of our politics.
How long must people wait before they feel able to unite behind issues of economic, political and cultural justice at home, and peace with neighbours? The Biotech, stock market and BPO booms cannot be sustained for long, and everyone knows that for the long-term strengths of the country to emerge, there must be much greater investment in public health and primary education. Yet the booms are what people are obsessing about now, much as they did with dotcoms in the 90's, and ignoring the long term issues - as always.
Until there is greater justice and peace, the potential strengths and power of this country will prove to be illusory.
Those who are inclined to mock this as leftie-middle class-NRI guilt-tripping should come up with some solid arguments and evidence showing me where I am wrong.
Science has come to have a certain authority in the popular mind as a source of reliable facts and certainty, and as an unfailing guide – even the only one - to truth. According to some commentators, scientists have become the priesthood of a new religion which holds science and scientific truths to be sacred and beyond criticism – a role rejected by many honest scientists. I would like to devote this post to a critical reflection on the claims for authority, objectivity and truth made on behalf of science.
It might be helpful to begin by clearing up a number of misconceptions about science.
THREE MEANINGS OF ‘SCIENCE’
Let us start with the meaning of the word ‘science’ itself. It is used to refer to three distinct sets of ideas:
a) bodies of knowledge (e.g., Newton’s laws of motion) – I shall call this SBK.
b) methods of enquiry (asking questions, observing or collecting objects and classifying them, designing experiments and instruments, guessing or constructing hypotheses, performing measurements and calculations, judging error, testing for reliability, predicting, etc) – call this SME
c) social practices (science is whatever scientists do as scientists – apply scientific knowledge developed by others, share data, hold seminars and conferences, judge their colleagues’ work, seek funding for their projects, try and convince other people of the value of what they do, publish results, settle arguments between themselves, sometimes fudge or conceal or steal data, etc.). – call this SSP.
It is often helpful to keep these distinctions in mind to avoid confusion.
For instance, it is often asked whether science is in some sense culturally neutral. After all (it is claimed), Newton’s laws of motion are not culture-specific; they operate equally everywhere, in all cultures. It isn’t as if they are especially effective in England, and less so in Xian, China or Mobile, Alabama; nor is it the case that Newton’s laws began to work only in the 17th century when Newton formulated them. This suggests that science is universal and culturally neutral, not specific to time or place or culture.
There is a sense in which science is universal, but there is also a sense in which it is bound to a specific historical and cultural context. As always, one must be very careful when making statements for which one is claiming universal validity. Let’s use this three-fold distinction to unpack this claim.
a) As a body of knowledge, Newton’s laws are a set of claims about the behaviour of bodies acting under the influence of certain forces, and in certain conditions. Newton’s laws of motion are not an accurate picture of the world at the macrocosmic level – i.e., for astronomical or cosmological bodies like stars or planets or galaxies. Nor are they of much use at microcosmic levels of matter – i.e., at molecular, atomic or subatomic levels. They are a pretty good description of the behaviour of bodies in the middle range between these extremes. The laws are therefore valid over time and space but for a restricted range of phenomena.
b) Strictly speaking, the laws of Newton do not constitute a method of enquiry. However, they offer very powerful ways of explaining many phenomena in the middle range. It may be more useful to ask what method of enquiry led Newton to those laws. To the extent that those methods were historically contingent, this aspect of Newton's laws are not universal.
c) Newton’s laws do not constitute a set of social practices. On the other hand, it is useful to ask how scientists use the laws, or why scientists do not divide themselves into Newtonians and Einsteinians and Bohrians in seeking to explain natural phenomena (as economists have often been doing between Keynesians and Monetarists – to mention just two camps - in explaining economic phenomena!). Do scientists regard Newton’s laws as inviolable truths or limited but compelling generalizations? Do scientists generally concern themselves with truth, or only with the most convincing explanation which explains the widest range of phenomena with the fewest theoretical concepts? The same scientists who agree among themselves about Newton’s laws (and about so much else of their knowledge), disagree more or less over a wide range of questions in which the laws are applicable, such as whether the missile shield is a reliable and effective form of defence, or whether sending out weapons into space is a good idea.
It should be clear that something as “solidly” uncontroversial as Newton’s laws of motion are reliable and predictable only over a range of phenomena where they are applicable. Scientists themselves do not claim more for these laws (or any other laws) than this.
Bauer’s ‘Ethics in Science’ is particularly helpful in sorting out what is reliable in what passes for scientific knowledge, and why. The filter described in this article is a corrective for the misleading exaggerations about science that one often encounters in the popular media, and in the essays of students whose only encounter with science has been from a textbook (this is not to be harsh on students, but to understand the source of their misconceptions).
THE VALUE-NEUTRALITY OF SCIENCE
The other great misconception about science is that it is removed from the realm of values, and that it is in this sense objective. This debate in The Ecologist is an argument between a believer in the value- neutrality of science (Wolpert) and an environmentalist critic of the idea of value-neutrality in science (Goldsmith). Although the arguments range widely over a number of issues, Wolpert’s claims to the neutrality of scientific knowledge seem to be based on several arguments.
a) Scientific knowledge is neutral because it consists of what he, along with other scientists, regards as well-established ‘facts’ – “If we are not at the centre of the universe, and genes are responsible for determining some of our behaviour, [or that “…we are made of cells or that the heart pumps blood or that DNA is the genetic material”] that is the way the world is - it is neither good nor bad.”
b) The problems that Goldsmith says are created by science and technology are created not by scientific knowledge (SBK in our distinction), but by its application by “large and rich industrial companies” (SSP). Wolpert seems to attribute a certain moral purity to scientists when they are engaged in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, as opposed to the application of that knowledge.
c) The moral values of scientists have no influence on his/her scientific ideas, and the scientists’ personal morality should not influence the application of their work.
Notice that there is a confusion here between different sorts of values: moral and aesthetic values, and values which determine the relative priority or importance between different courses of action. When scientists decide that they wish to focus on certain aspects of a problem rather on others, do certain kinds of research rather than certain others, they are making a judgment of priority. Polanyi gives examples from his own scientific career of decisions he made that emanated from moral concerns about the consequences of certain government actions. Scientists and mathematicians are often concerned about the aesthetic aspects (e.g., elegance and beauty) of their work. So the claim that scientists are value-neutral when it comes to science is one which is valid only in some fairly restricted senses, e.g., when “science” is used in the sense of SBK, understood as a body of facts. But scientists are not neutral in the sense of how these facts are established, or what standards of acceptability scientists agree to work with i.e., in the sense of SME or SSP.
This may also be the appropriate place to address the distinction made by some between the "text" and the "context" of science on the way to suggesting that they are independent. Facts within the context of science (SSP in my terminology) are supposed to have little influence on the text of science (SBK or SME). For instance, it is claimed that the occasional dishonesty of individual scientists, or the fact they work on defence or commercial projects (SSP), does not affect the knowledge create by their research (SBK). It is probably true to say that scientific knowledge as a set of claims about the natural world (SBK) is independent of the uses to which it is deployed (SSP). But this is not the same as claiming that claims about the workings of the natural world are indpendent of how (SME) and in what context (SSP) such claims are established. It should not be difficult to acknowledge the pressures that are created on scientists nowadays by their almost universal dependence on corporate or government funding, and by the association of much scientific work with the prestige and competitiveness of corporations and of nations (all aspects of SSP). Nor should it be difficult to see how such pressures can influence the questions that are raised by scientists (SBK), the methods (SME) that they adopt in addressing them, and through them, the content and reliability of scientific knowledge itself (SBK).
THE MYTH OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
The title of this section forms part of the title of a book by Bauer titled Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method in which he undermines the notion that science is about objective truth (‘facts’), sought according to some standard procedure known as the scientific method. The basis of his claim can be clearly seen in the filter model that he develops.
The so-called scientific method is supposed to consist of a cycle of observation =>hypotheses formation =>testing of hypotheses => verification or falsification => prediction => testing the prediction => further observations. But this assumes that scientists know in advance what to observe, whereas the observations themselves pre-suppose a theory. A theory in turn embodies a set of perceptions – of patterns in data, or of similarities or analogies with more familiar phenomena, or a model constructed by selecting some particular features of a phenomenon. Secondly, if a prediction generated by a hypothesis is not confirmed, it is far from certain whether it is the hypothesis that should be rejected. An error could have occurred in the measurement, or in the interpretations of the observation, or in the instruments used for conducting the observation or experiment. So the process of observation, or of interpreting the results of an experiment, unavoidably relies on subjective elements of judgement and perception (seeing something as one thing and not another – as a ‘duck’ instead of as a ‘rabbit’).
The history of science shows that scientific understandings change when new and better explanations are found. This suggests that scientific theories are very rarely final and conclusive, but can be improved. The criteria for judging theories are given in reading 1. Notice that none of the criteria suggests that scientific theories need be true. Even a flawed theory can successfully predict phenomena, so that successful prediction of a limited range of phenomena does not necessarily imply that the theory is true. However, if a theory is consistent with a large number of known facts, and can successfully predict a wide range of events, scientists usually tend to regard the theory as “true”, but what that means is that the case for accepting it over other theories is very compelling. It does not mean that the search for a better theory is over, particularly if observations emerge later which cannot be explained by the current theory.
PARADIGMS OF SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT
The absence of any fixed method in scientific work led Thomas Kuhn to propose, in his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the idea that most scientists work within a particular framework of ideas which suggest ways of framing a problem, methods of dealing with it, and standards for acceptable theories. This framework is itself the paradigm, and the history of scientific ideas shows that paradigms change in response to various changes in the intellectual climate. A change in paradigm is also brought about by a radical (but not necessarily sudden) change in perceptions.
An example of a paradigm change is the replacement of the geocentric paradigm (with the earth as the center of the planetary system) with the heliocentric one (the sun as the center). The current view of the universe of the universe has long abandoned even the heliocentric view when other planetary systems were discovered, and indeed other sections of the universe. The universe is currently regarded by most astronomers as expanding from the moment of its origin in the Big Bang, but this superseded a “steady-state” view of the universe which was prevalent till the 1960’s.
Another example of paradigm change is the replacement of creationist theories of the origins of life by the evolutionary perspective originated by Charles Darwin, and developed and systematized by Huxley, Mendel, Maynard-Smith, Dawkins and others.
It would be a mistake to regard paradigms as relevant only to the natural sciences. Marxism provided a powerful paradigm to historians and economists and other social scientists for a long time, and still continues to do so. The example of Marxism shows that paradigms themselves are far from fixed.
Some would say that there are now several very large change in paradigms occurring with
• the new sciences of chaos, which study random behaviour in systems which were thought to be deterministic (e.g., the effect of predator-prey interactions in populations of animals, changes in weather patterns, etc.);
• the deeper understanding of the physics and chemistry of the brain influencing ideas about consciousness;
• ideas from mathematics and computer science being applied to the study of life and intelligence.
These new directions in science are creating a new awareness of nature and of ourselves as conscious beings within it. For further information, see the Serendip and Calresco websites among many others. For further discussion of Kuhn, start with the excellent introduction to philosophy of science by A F Chalmers titled What is this thing called Science?
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
Finally, a word about Science in the sense of SSP and SME. There are many critics who claim that it has become the new religion. Scientists and experts are the new priesthood, enjoying the power that previous priesthoods enjoyed. The large financial investment that much scientific work now requires has made scientists dependent on governments and private corporations which have an interest in the outcome of scientific research for reasons of profit or power. This poses a problem in democratic societies, since it puts public policies regarding the applications of scientific knowledge outside the range of open scrutiny by the ordinary citizen who will be affected by such public policies. This problem has been discussed in Bauer’s essay cited earlier.
This problem becomes particularly acute when the experts themselves do not agree, or when there are large uncertainties in their predictions, or when the experts themselves (either openly or secretly) represent one side or another in a debate, and therefore cannot be relied upon to be independent. This has recently attained a great deal of prominence in various controversies about global warming, about the effects of human activities on the environment, about the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, about the causes of “Mad Cow Disease” and Aids. What all of these issues have in common is the uncertain extent of harm which is expected to flow as a consequence of certain kinds of scientific policies. What some have proposed is a Precautionary Principle which requires scientists and governments to take action to prevent potential harm even before the full extent of the harm can be determined accurately. Among the questions which this principle raises are:
• How certain do we need to be about the possible harm before we take preventive action?
• How much harm would be unacceptable?
• How long should we wait before conclusive evidence of harm emerges?
In his essay Testart (Download file) makes a plea for supplementing expert knowledge with citizen’s perceptions. The expert’s response to this would be to claim that this would effectively put a stop to any scientific endeavour, since popular perceptions of harm would be treated as evidence of potential harm. On the other hand, the “precautionists” like Testart would claim that the absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm.
This controversy is not easy to resolve, but it is clear to me at least that what is an acceptable degree of harm is not a decision that can be left to scientists alone. Paradoxically, the answer to this uncertainty is not a turning away from science, as some scientists who are against the precautionary principle claim, but more careful science that is frequently debated by a scientifically educated and politically aware public.
This discussion has suggested that the common view of science as an infallible guide to certainty and truth, and the view of scientists as value-neutral, impartial seekers after truth, are both mistaken. However, I have also tried to reinforce the need for open and critical debate within a rational community about all scientific matters, in order that science should retain its compelling power as a guide to understanding the natural world and our place in it.
I now think KM is right in identifying the nihilistic and fatalistic strands in multiculturalist thought – the idea that we are locked into our cultural differences, without any prospect of exiting from our own oppressions. The possibility of an exit is expressed in secular form in the Enlightenment ideas of rationality, progress and modernity, in religious forms in ideas of liberation from illusions and suffering, of Ramrajya, etc.
Also, as pointed out by John Clemo (Dresden October 18 2003), there is a point at which multiculturalism seems to share the same view of difference as racism. Racists say: “They are different from us, they should stay out.” MC’s say: “They are different from us, they/we have no right to tell us/them how to live.”
But the multiculturalism that I wish to espouse is one that acknowledges that all cultures are equally valuable, and at least worth attending to equally, even if all particular cultural practices are not. They are equal in the sense that human beings are equal in their biology, though they may not be equal in their personalities and behaviours.
So I am positing a level at which all cultures share certain universal characteristics, and another level at which they are different.
Now for the response...
A Response to ‘All Cultures are Not Equal’ by Kenan Malik
KM approvingly quotes CLR James (a famous Marxist historian from the West Indies): “…I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.” KM claims (rightly, in my view) a universality for these ‘profound discoveries’, which presumably were “…the ideas of reason, progress, humanism and universalism that emerged out of the Enlightenment”, by emphasizing their accidentally western origin.
I think it is an act of historiographical arrogance to locate the sole origin of these ideas in the “west” (wherever that is) and in the European Enlightenment – KM stops short of doing this, but only just. What KM fails to acknowledge is that enlightened values such as the ones he lists can be found in the history of all civilizations, as even a superficial scrutiny of the history of nonwestern civilizations reveals. The European versions of these values are the ones that are currently the best known because of accidents of history, partly because they happen to be the most recent accounts of these values, and partly because they happen to be the ones that have been spread and advertised the most all over the world by those who, by virtue of their political and economic power, were also in the most favourable position to do so. But art, music, architecture, literature, science, agriculture, medicine, mathematics and wisdom all flourished under very diverse and difficult conditions, and although much of this knowledge is now lost to us, enough of it remains to suggest that the world still needs that cultural diversity and creativity. I reject the suggestion that people in non-western cultures were incapable of originating or practicing rational and progressive ideas that added to the sum of human achievement, and that only Europeans were uniquely capable of doing so. To James’s words “I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization”, I would add, “and those of other civilizations as well”.
It may be precisely the universality of these so-called ‘western’ ideals of humanism, progress and reason that enabled people in nonwestern societies to recognize their potential and promise. It should therefore come as no surprise that intellectuals like Fanon should hold the West to the standards of its own Enlightenment, and that people in the empires of the west should demand a share of the “progress” (as it once appeared to be) made by the west. Yet the historical experience of the last two centuries seems to suggest that however enlightened and progressive these ideas were, the western societies claiming them as their own were, beyond a point, incapable of actually putting them into practice. In the hands of the imperial powers that were also inheritors of the European Enlightenment, humanism, reason and progress themselves became instruments of power and domination in their “civilizing mission” in the nineteenth century. The twentieth was a century when the gains of the first half in the social and political sphere were reversed in the second, and the achievements of science and technology were co-opted by the power of the corporation and the state.
Why does KM regard “the scientific method, democratic politics, the concept of universal values” as “palpably better concepts” or “superior ideas”? Presumably it is because they are most conducive to “social and moral progress”, and because cultures that originate and adopt them are the ones that “best promote human advancement”. But the historical record shows that each of these “superior ideas” has been distorted in their practice by the exigencies of power and greed. Perhaps the real world of ‘earthly’ practice is the wrong one within which to judge these ‘heavenly’ ideas, but it is on earth that these ideas are made real by imperfect human agency.
At a time when most scientific research depends upon military or corporate funding, when consequently the pursuit of scientific enquiry and the valuation of scientific knowledge is motivated by power and profit, science (understood as a method of enquiry or a form of social practice) may no longer be what enlightened minds in all civilizations would acknowledge as “promoting human advancement”. We are now at a stage when we have witnessed the contributions of science to human well-being, but can also see the effects of rampant industrialization on the environment, and the increasing inequalities in access to the well-being that science has made available. When democratic politics has been corrupted even in the bastions of democracy by the funding of public representatives by powerful private interests, and by the bending of the institutions of justice and legislation to the promotion of these interests, the idea of democratic politics has been all but rendered meaningless in practice. As for universal human values, it has become abundantly clear that in the eyes of the inheritors of the European enlightenment, the suffering of some human beings is infinitely more important than that of others. When the value of human life itself does not command universal assent, why speak of the universality of human values? The forces of globalization speak in the name of the enlightenment, yet have gained ground by disempowering and disenfranchising vast masses of people who were promised its fruits. The non-west may therefore be forgiven for looking within their own traditions when the promise of the universal values of the west remained unfulfilled.
To point to the gulf between Enlightenment values and actual practice in the name of these values is not to necessarily reject the values themselves, but to articulate one’s disappointment with the societies and cultures which claim to internalize these values – and these include allcultures, not just western ones. We are now living in an age when we are seeing only the historically most recent examples of the failure to live up to the promise of enlightened values. Islamic civilization has already been down this road, as have the older civilizations elsewhere.
KM confuses a criticism of the actual practices of those who speak in the name of the Enlightenment with a rejection of the values of the Enlightenment themselves. Consequently, he associates multiculturalism with nihilism and fatalism, and condemns the non-west and western radicals for not accepting the civilisational gifts of the west. But can he understand Gandhi’s sarcastic response when, asked what he thought about western civilization, he replied that it was a good idea? Can he conceive of a multiculturalism that allows for a culturally self-confident non-west; that is respectful of cultural differences, yet provides opportunities for a rational dialogue between cultures towards the (re)discovery of new values and ideas, and new ways of living together? Will he allow the non-west to define their own modernity, to discover their own criteria for judging what constitutes progress? Will he concede that the non-west may still have a few ideas and ways of living and thinking to contribute to the sum-total of human advancement and civilisation?
While the terror attacks we have witnessed in the US, Indonesia and Kenya have nothing whatever to do with the dialogue of civilizations, I suggest that for the vast majority of the world’s people, this dialogue has not even started, even at the level of tourism. What has started is a process of disintegration and fragmentation under the hammer-blows of globalization. Where these blows have been felt the most severely, there has been no recourse to explore ways of living beyond mute submission to the empire. No one speaks for those who feel powerless to change their lives for the better, since the political institutions for doing so have never been available to them. So when terrorists and criminals directly challenge the empire, they win instant popularity among the disenfranchised. This has been the ultimate failure of the Enlightenment - but in practice, not in values. What has happened since September 11 has only deepened this failure into catastrophe.
That is why the need for democracy, reason and the exploration of the meaning of progress and human well-being is so urgent. That is why other voices need to be heard urgently, and it is unfortunate that Kenan Malik chooses just this time to excoriate multiculturalism.
December 6 2002
Tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid
Thanks to Justin Raimundo for his timely reminder (amply linked to sources) to the amnesiac media and their somewhat less forgetful consumers that in December 2002, it was the regime of Saddam Hussein that produced a 12,000 page document detailing how they had destroyed their WMD. No one in power and in the media believed them at the time. Just as no one believed Scott Ritter.
As Raimundo suggests, this puts paid to the recent tall tales such as of Hussein being lied to by his scientists, and of Hussein putting up a shield of deceptive ambiguity to ward off any attackers.
And if that doesn't work, why not try a re-run of Operation Northwoods for some more bread and circuses? For details of Operation Northwoods, here is a declassified primary source document. Also see James Bamford's Body of Secrets for the background and fate of Northwoods.
Remember the boasts a year ago on how US forces would shock and awe the world with their bombing?
Suppose, just suppose, that of the many more millions outside the UK than inside it, there's a group of nutters (just as nasty as the incandescently "Christian" neo-imperialist Blair) who may have decided that the UK or the world would be better off without Tony Blair. (Perhaps there are some - perish the thought -within Britain itself!) Or suppose some people in some country far away decided that that the US or the world would be better off without George W. Bush. What if they decided to use the Blair/Bush doctrine of humanitarian intervention too, and put the Brits or the Yanks out of their misery? It's a really bad move to use this argument, and anyone who does so should be immediately arrested for promoting terrorism.
Here is a much more forceful and serious rebuttal of the same "Iraq-is-now-a-better-place" argument. I notice that most of the people making it aren't actually inside Iraq, dealing with the daily violence and death and destruction. Perhaps they should be sent with their families to live in the same conditions as ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad, Falluja, Erbil and Kirkuk.
On another note....the enquiry commissions into intelligence failures are not going to satisfy anyone but the most naive, because, as Jon Sopel was trying to insist without much success, the basic trust between the citizens and the government has been lost. Sopel should have pointed to the need to resort to shameless plagiarism for the British government to makes its case in the run up to the war last year. By that one move alone, the British government should have forfeited the trust the Brits had reposed in it. The same applies to the US government for its lies regarding the shipments of material from Niger, and the subsequent "outing"of Victoria Plame. And there was Alan Milburn blathering on about how cynical the public has become. Dear me, my heart bleeds!
I sometimes wonder whether neocons like Perle, Wolfowitz and other shadowy characters hiding in their resplendent think tanks have children; and if they do, what they tell them. "Listen, son: lying, cheating, betraying, deceiving, killing - these aren't really the problems. They've been around for as long as humans have besmirched the planet by their presence. The real problem is people who get in the way of your achieving your goals: never let them or any woolly-headed morality stop you. That is true moral clarity!"