Something something lies and statistics

Have a read: Spreadsheets are people too: statistics and reality. I quite like this blog post.* I see this issue come up time and again in political discussions, and it usually boils down to a “feels vs reals” kind of debate, or perhaps a subsection of the Two Cultures question. Like Professor Portes, I think that there is a lot of unnecessary and misguided antagonism between the stats and anti-stats crowd.

As someone who is, broadly speaking, found on the left side of politics, I’m sadly used to political bedfellows of the anti-stats persuasion. This doesn’t mean a literal hostility to statistics or science and maths more broadly; in fact, I’d say that many of these people would say they like science very much. The anti-stats attitude is something most easily seen in the midst of debate; for some, making an argument based in ethics or morality is more important than making a case using empirical tools. When this view meets opposition from the stats crowd, things can deteriorate fast.

I can’t help but think of my time spent in internet forums and Facebook groups that are focused on discussion between people of different political beliefs. These are weird little microcosms where real-world political dynamics are replicated, amplified, and played out in often predictable fashion. Often it seemed like the lefties showed up prepared to have debates centred on ethics and morality and expecting certain axioms of theirs to go unchallenged, while a certain set of the right/libertarian crew seemed to have piles of links and papers ready to go at all times on most topics (of varying quality). That Stefan Molyneux catchphrase, “not an argument”, is instructive here. In these spaces, arguments based on non-empirical foundations (for lack of a better term) were perceived as weak and illegitimate – not “real” arguments – whereas a position backed up with statistics and other scientific evidence was considered respectable.

I see interesting parallels here with wider cultural tensions between the hard sciences and humanities. Serious work is conducted using the scientific method; expendable, even indulgent work is done by those who spend their time, say, pouring through old poetry books, or theorising about gender. So goes one popular line of thought.

I’ve noticed this dynamic in debates online and in real life. I’ve tried to explain it to myself and ended up frustrated. Surely it’s problematic to view all this in a framework where left-wing politics is grouped with the humanities and right-wing politics is grouped with the hard sciences and they’re all fighting in some grand battle, but that seems to be what I’m implying. To help it all make sense I ended up using Nietzsche in a slightly spurious way, or at least employ/bastardise some of his ideas in ways perhaps not quite intended by him. I’m certainly no scholar of his work, but I’ve found his concept of master-slave morality to be useful in trying to make sense of why we see particular divides along political and cultural lines.

I see parts of the political left as beholden to a kind of slave morality which manifests in various ways including shaping the way that they argue. Whipping out a spreadsheet isn’t nearly as meaningful to some as a solid argument based in political philosophy, or something derived from an ethical framework, or testimony from lived experience. Further, arguing in the same way as their political opponents is uncomfortable; not only are they perhaps not well-versed in these techniques, but the act of simply adopting them seems like a tacit acknowledgement that their opponents’ tools of argument are effective – effective enough to want to copy and use right back at them. This is a concession that’s far too dangerous to make in a situation where gaining and holding on to points of legitimacy is paramount.

Many are reluctant to buy into a view that they perceive to be cold and sanitised. They doubt that graphs and numbers can give a true picture of people’s lives, solve the problems facing them, and ultimately provide justice. Perhaps they’ve seen these tools employed to do the opposite of that. The picture of, say, a heartless, hyper-rational government cutting welfare benefits based on advice from a wonkish grey paper is a powerful one (and it’s certainly not based on total fantasy).

So, the master’s tools can only be used for his own ends; the slave feels compelled to reject them and use his own. This is an enormous mistake for the political left to make. We must utilise a range of tactics in our political battles and avoid a mindset which prompts us to view the use of particular tools as a concession to our opponents. Perhaps a hackneyed point, but: statistics can be used to tell a range of stories, and it’s impossible to challenge or confirm these stories without knowing how to speak the language they’re told in.

Numbers are not a neoliberal conspiracy (to paraphrase a great tweet I saw recently and now can’t find). Those on the left are unwise to dismiss an indispensable source of information about the world. Of course, this is a complex issue with more dimensions than what I’ve touched on: consider how different priorities and ideological paradigms become popular, why certain research gets funding, how the concept of expertise is built and maintained, or why evidence for particular things might be pushed by powerful voices. Just… like I said, not everything is a conspiracy, and using statistics doesn’t make us heartless or cold or legitimise political opponents. It helps us understand the reality of our world in different and powerful ways.


*Though it’s worth highlighting the section about “spreadsheet-driven policy” on poverty: I take issue with this approach for particular (socialist) reasons that I’d like to discuss more in another post.


Contested territory: Trump, Corn Laws, expertise

[As with all my posts here, this is not meant to be an academic paper – it’s simply a collection of ideas that I’ve typed out in my spare time. I do have some academic knowledge in this area, but not enough to assure you that I’ve not made any mistakes. For the sake of brevity and making this interesting enough for a wide range of people to read, some points are glossed over – but not distorted.]

About a year ago I wrote my honours thesis on the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws in the United Kingdom. There were two key ideas underpinning my work:

a) That the rise of free trade is often and unfairly given a teleological treatment by historians. Doing so sidelines the role of people and institutions and legislation (among other things) in enabling free trade doctrine to move out of the realm of theory and into practice.

b) That the economics profession has historically occupied a contested place in public discourse and continues to do so today. The tension from this can be seen played out in public discourse; the Parliamentary debates on the Corn Laws show hostility between arguments that were derived from academic work in the field of political economy (out of which grew the economics field we know today), and arguments rooted in things like ethics, religion, foreign relations, etc. I believe that we still have not resolved this tension to this very day.

Point b) is something I’ve been extremely interested in for a few years now, but I was only able to begin thinking about it in a somewhat sophisticated way thanks to guidance from my honours supervisor, to whom I owe a great intellectual debt. I’ve now begun a PhD that will further explore issues of free trade and empire in mid-19th century Britain, and already I’m looking back on my previous undergrad work with a sceptical eye… I did pretty well in trying to make some high-stakes arguments with only one year and 16,000 words to work with, but suffice to say I look forward to returning to some of those topics when I’m better-equipped to handle them.

Recent political events in the United States have got me thinking back on this work, and especially on point b).

It’s perhaps not the most pressing news right at this moment, but President Donald Trump still has not picked a chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors. Even when (if…) he does, it looks like this person will not be a part of Trump’s cabinet (though cabinet inclusion is not a requirement – Barack Obama just set a precedent for this). Past presidents have relied on and valued the expertise of the CEA team, which is comprised of the Chair, two Members, and a staff of economists and statisticians, and which provides empirical economic data, advice on economic policy, and more. The list of previous Chairs include superstar names like Alan Greenspan, Joseph Stiglitz, Janet Yellen, Greg Mankiw, and Ben Bernanke.

Trump has filled some key relevant positions, however. Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs CEO, is Trump’s chief economic advisor and director of the National Economic Council. Steve Mnuchin, former Goldman Sachs chief information officer, is the US Secretary of the Treasury. Peter Narravo, professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, is the Director of the newly-created US National Trade Council. Hey, there’s one economist! Alas, one who has produced no peer-reviewed work in trade economics or macro, and whose views on those things are not well-regarded in the mainstream.

As many have noted, Trump seems spectacularly uninterested in taking advice or guidance from economists or shaping his policy around convention. He hasn’t released any particularly detailed economic policy but we’ve seen snapshots of an ethnonationalist-protectionist outlook, deep suspicion of free trade deals, and a determination to re-create/re-nationalise aspects of the US economy that have long been lost to globalised trade and capital. Some relevant pages: (I know, wikipedia, but it’s a good page)

Extricating itself so forcefully and suddenly from the global economy seems foolish, at best, for the nation that occupies such a vital role within it. Adam Tooze has a fantastic post on this – America’s Political Economy: Trump and the Global Dollar. It includes a link to and discussion of the extraordinary letter sent by Republican congressman Patrick McHenry to Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, in which McHenry heavily criticises the Fed’s participation in international forums/agreements including the Basel Accords (banking regulation). He demands that the Fed discontinue its involvement in such things “until President Trump has had an opportunity to nominate and appoint officials that prioritize American’s best interests”. It really has to be read to be believed.

Trump, and many of his team, have taken part in economic debates and discussions but have rarely made “economic” arguments within these debates. By this I mean that they’re not holding up graphs and academic papers and grey literature. They’re not looking to the economic orthodoxy for support or demonstrating that they even think they should be. They’re promising that “trade policies will be implemented by and for the people, and will put America first”. They are concerned with America’s “devastated manufacturing base” and want to “revitalize our nation’s suffering communities”. They tell us that “Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country” (all quotes from White House page on trade; I feel they’re pretty typical of Trump’s rhetoric on trade and economics).

While certain topics like infant industry protection are contested within academia and the professional world, you’d be hard pressed to find a mainstream economist willing to go in to bat for Trumpian protectionism (and I’m sure not many in the heterodoxy would either). Does Trump care? Hell no. That’s the whole point. He’s giving two fingers to a group that he’s basically painted as a sinister cabal who plot to enrich themselves and their buddies at the expense of blue-collar American jobs and families. Important to turf them out of the White House, limit their power in institutions like the Federal Reserve, and then get to work Making American Great Again. I’m highly critical of claims that Trump is a true populist, but his language on trade and jobs is firmly in that vein.

As much as we have reason to be sceptical about Trump’s economic policies, we must recognise the sheer power of his arguments. There is no real indication that he can actually do what he’s promised to do – restore jobs, MAGA, etc – but people are passionate about the mere idea of it. They don’t want to hear wonkish arguments and read graphs. They want to hear things that mean something to them.

It’s clear that the authority of expertise doesn’t always carry the weight that many assume it does. Holding a particular job title or set of qualifications isn’t a guarantee that people will listen to you or respect you. Much can influence the standing of a given group in the public’s esteem.

One example that comes to my mind here is the Global Financial Crisis. The enormous shock of the GFC is still fresh in the minds of many. I think it’s fair to say that it cost economists a great deal of cultural capital (whether they deserved to lose it or not). The general public seems to consider them to be some kind of all-knowing, all-seeing wizards of money and markets, which isn’t a particularly good or correct thing to think, but here we are. With this impression in mind, the public watched the crisis unfold – and then they saw the wizards working their magic, not to stop the terrible events of 2007 and beyond, but to bail out the banks afterwards. The perception for many was that economists weren’t equipped to prevent what was likely the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and didn’t then lead the charge to punish those responsible for it but chose to give them handouts instead. Perhaps the GFC fallout led to a Wizard of Oz kind of moment for some: the curtain was pulled back, and behind it there were only mere mortals.

Of course, this version of events is not quite what happened – I’m simply trying to create a picture of what popular public perception was. That’s what I’m interested in, after all: how people viewed the economics profession historically and in the present day.

In the 1800s, “economics” didn’t quite exist as we know it. Work done by luminaries such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, etc was referred to as “political economy”. The boundaries between academic fields that we’re familiar with did not delineate intellectual work in this time (these boundaries are very recent inventions, but that’s a topic for another post). A political economist was never just that – he wrote on philosophy, politics, religion, science, and often many of these things together.

The period around the mid 1800s is of particular interest because it was a time of fierce debate, lobbying, campaigning, and agitating around repealing the Corn Laws, which can be seen as part of a push towards Britain shaking off its mercantilist chains and adopting free trade. In 1815 Parliament had enacted the tariffs known as the Corn Laws; these restricted importation of foreign grain and created a lucrative environment for British landowners who could continue to enjoy the high prices for their land’s produce which had been the norm during the Napoleonic Wars and were now artificially propped up by the Laws.

The Parliamentary debates over repeal give us a wonderful glimpse into the way that political economy was treated in political discourse in the 1840s. Note that this really is just a glimpse! I pored over thousands of pages of Hansard just to dig up these bits and pieces, mostly from 1846 (which spoiler alert was the year of repeal). In the future I plan to revisit this material to get a bigger and better picture of how political economy was received in the UK Parliament. For now – see how it was treated by politicians at the height of the Parliamentary debates over repealing the Corn Laws.

A little background, courtesy of Charles Pelham Villiers. Villiers was a prominent Liberal politician and one of the key proponents of repealing the Corn Laws. He outlined the tension between the goals of protectionists and supporters of repeal in his Parliamentary speeches: protectionists sought high prices for produce to ensure the livelihoods of farmers and income of landowners, but supporters of repeal sought lower prices for produce to ensure that workers could purchase food at affordable prices and have money left for other items. If food prices remained high, a large portion of a worker’s wage needed to go towards this necessary good, which left only a small amount to spend on manufactured goods. In this way, home markets were compromised by high prices for grain and other food goods. Compounding these issues, Villiers noted that the population of Britain has been growing throughout the nineteenth century and that those extra people would need employment and the usual necessities of life. The situation of low manufacturing wages and high food prices was unsustainable for all these reasons.

Some politicians, including Prime Minister and repeal champion Robert Peel, invoked the field of political economy and names such as Adam Smith as sources of authority. Some, like John Russell, leader of the Opposition, argued against protectionism with what we could slightly anachronistically call economic arguments. He criticised the tired-out, decades-old theories for protectionism being put forward and championed the progressive and modern ideas of free trade that had been developed in response to the changing nation and its economic condition. As to be expected, Richard Cobden, Radical and founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, considered political economy “the highest exercise of the human mind” and said so in Parliament. He stated that, barring “want of [mental] capacity, and having a sinister interest – I defy any man to look into this question [of repeal] honestly, and come to any other than one conclusion”. If a politician was of keen intellect and good character, and thus able to appreciate the academic work of political economy, Cobden felt that there was no reason for this man to come to any conclusion other than one in favour of repeal of the Corn Laws.

Chief among the critics of political economy was Benjamin Disraeli, who acknowledged its use but described it as comprised of “theories which never influenced human conduct, and which are incapable of ever doing so”. He was suspicious of the motives of those politicians who praised political economy, painting them as deceitful, and even suggested that “we ought to invent a limbo for political economists, where we might hang up all those arguments that have served their purpose, and which have turned out to be sophistries”. Seems a bit harsh, but pretty much par for the course for Disraeli. Others including Edward Smith-Stanley cast political economy as a dangerous, experimental field that could not be relied upon for sound policy guidance and would produce “hazardous and doubtful policy”. Henry Seymer even begged the House “not to be imposed upon by the scientific jargon of the political economists”!

William Rashleigh took a bleak view, warning that fellow parliamentarians “may rejoice and indulge in those theories of modern philosophy and political economy; but when you have endangered and destroyed the peace and happiness of a nation, you will have but a sorry return for your pains.” Others spoke of political economy as sophistry, charlatanism, or a purely esoteric pursuit with little connection to the real world.

This gives us an idea of some of the professed attitudes towards political economy that were held by UK politicians, but it’s what was not said that is also of great interest. While I haven’t done enough research to say anything conclusive, I am comfortable saying that political economy just didn’t feature that much in the Corn Law debates, as a topic of discussion or as a source from which arguments were derived. Much more time was given to discussion of the Irish Potato Famine, food security, welfare, and relations with foreign nations – topics which are certainly within the purview of political economy, but the salient point is that they were not being discussed and debated on principles taken from academic work and there was no need for or expectation of politicians doing so. An argument based on moral principles or religion or foreign policy concerns or whatever else was much more common and likely to be better received than a quote from Wealth of Nations.

The field of economics is clearly going through a rough time under the Trump administration. Its place in public discourse is always contested, but at the moment it’s taking quite a beating. Recently, economist Justin Wolfers tweeted about Trump’s failure to nominate someone for CEA Chairperson (and here’s a column he wrote about economists’ concerns about Trump). In noting the demotion of economic advice in the current administration, Wolfers said, “For all the valid criticisms of economists, it’s worth remembering our defense: We’re bad at understanding the economy, but others are worse“. Hard to argue with that. I myself have been known to partake in heated critique of the economic orthodoxy from time to time (considering my politics it would be a little surprising if I hadn’t), but it’s simply foolish to do what Trump is doing: dismissing an entire academic and professional field, jettisoning expertise and bodies of research entirely. Perhaps unfairly for it, economics has a lot of work ahead to rehabilitate its image (and interestingly, I’ve read a lot of articles and columns recently from economists critiquing their field and suggesting ways it can change). Its future challenges under Trump remain to be seen.



Having your feminist cake and eating it too

There’s a common line of questioning that opponents of feminism will periodically put forward which goes something like this: why won’t feminists support [successful and prominent woman who is ambivalent or outright hostile towards feminism and/or has conservative political leanings]?

It’s a pretty good question. If feminism means equality for all women, as feminists frequently remind us, then why don’t feminists celebrate Margaret Thatcher, or Julie Bishop, or Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign in her role as Donald Trump’s campaign manager? All intelligent, ambitious women in the upper echelons of their careers, but because they don’t subscribe to progressive politics they miss out on the support of the feminist movement. I guess feminism isn’t really for all women then, hmmm?

Of course, this is put forward with a generous layer of faked concern by people who are desperate to execute a gotcha. Most feminists won’t respond to this kind of thing seriously, and it’s not really designed for a serious answer. It’s one of many ideas floating around in the cultural space of feminist debates that are plucked down and used as needed but never really fleshed out. There’s no need to add any detail to these arguments because they’re not intended for thoughtful deployment or engagement. They’re dumbly-thrown hand grenades intended to make a bang rather than achieve anything tactically sophisticated.

However, I am completely serious when I say that the question above is a good one. Digging into it leads us to some interesting suggestions about feminism and the reactionary forces opposing it. This is a big issue that I’ve been stewing on for some time now and I’m trying to keep this post short-ish, so there are about a million caveats and tangents and “i.e.”s that I’ve simply had to leave out. I’ve striven to word things as best I can in a post intended as a page in a scratch-pad rather than a fully-formed argument.

Feminists are fond of using very short, generalised definitions of feminism to address criticism about its scope and concerns about its internal debates, and to express incredulity at people who say they are not feminists. This is a problem, and it’s more of a problem than many feminists would probably like to admit.

For example: imagine someone saying “I am broadly supportive of gender equality, but I don’t think women should be elevated above men in society, so I don’t call myself a feminist.” Or “I am not interested in a social movement that doesn’t take my class and my race into account.” Or “I don’t believe that pornography and sexualisation of our bodies is empowering for women, and I see a lot of feminist messages that say otherwise, so I don’t really use the word “feminist” for myself.” Chances are that you’ve heard someone say something like this or said it yourself. Chances are, too, that you’ve responded with something like, “But feminism just means the political, economic, and social equality of women. If you believe in achieving this, you’re a feminist.” Maybe you’ve also said, “I don’t know why you’d be reluctant to call yourself a feminist when the definition is so simple. How is it even controversial?”

I see this as an instance of the so-called “motte and bailey” – a debate tactic where Person A offers a controversial point, then Person B critically engages with that point, then Person A switches to a more simple and uncontroversial form of their original point and claims that this is what their argument was based around all along. Blogger Scott Alexander describes this nicely in the post “All in All, Another Brick in the Motte” on his site Slate Star Codex.

Feminists spend a huge amount of time hashing out internal debates, developing theory, suggesting new ideas, and so on. When others (feminists or not) then note this activity and criticise it – especially when they cite aspects of it as reasons for not wanting to be a part of a feminist movement – it’s common to see a retreat away from controversial ideas and hear cries of “Uh do you have a problem with basic rights for women??”

The meaning of “feminism” is increasingly unclear. As feminist activity around the world grows and changes, this becomes even more so. We may all be nominally collected under the same banner but the differences between some strains of feminist thought are simply irreconcilable, and the debates between these strains are often more complex and fiercely fought than debates between feminists and anti-feminists. Moreover, the feminist ideas that have gained mainstream traction and prominence today are not always particularly good ones (and like many feminists, I believe these ideas have been allowed to grow and flourish due to their complicity with the social/cultural effects of neoliberalism and the interests of capital).

Feminism has such a broad scope that squishing it into a sentence or two can’t tell us anything particularly useful (outside perhaps a dictionary. I don’t deny the use of some kinds of definition, but do question their use in rhetorical battles and their effects on the intellectual character of mainstream feminism). Difficult feminist debates exist and it’s unavoidable that people who aren’t intimately acquainted with these issues will encounter them and form opinions about them. Perhaps they’ll misunderstand, perhaps they’ll create an unfair view from an out-of-context snippet – or perhaps they’ll raise valid concerns about views that some feminists hold.

It is certainly tempting to try and create a united feminist front to present to the wider world – an invaluable aid in political activism – but it’s misguided to do so when the only thing holding some of us together under the “feminist” banner might be a good faith acknowledgement that we all believe we’re searching for a better life for women.

To head back towards the original premise of this post: aside from the problems already outlined, the “short definition” rebuttal technique is a poor rhetorical move for feminists to make as it opens space for the kind of attack described in my opening section. If feminism is concerned with political opportunities for all women, why do many feminists not acknowledge the achievements of conservative women in the same way that that they do for, say, Hillary Clinton?

Here I need to profess a certain kind of admiration for women who are prominent conservative politicians and pundits. The decision of these women to have the careers they do runs contrary to the core of their belief system. They are not occupying the roles that they presumably see as the best for women to have in order to maintain a tightly-woven social fabric. Many are intelligent and politically savvy, and often more so than many of the truly mediocre men who rise to the upper echelons of the conservative commentariat and political ranks. I find Phyllis Schlafly a compelling example: an American constitutional lawyer and activist who ran the sophisticated and successful campaign opposing ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The way she juggled the contradictions between her rhetoric and the reality of her life and work was clever and sensitive, if not always totally convincing.

These women are no friends of feminism and are often openly disdainful of feminist activism and organising – even as they benefit from the enormous cultural and social shifts that occurred in no small part due to feminist efforts (boys clubs certainly didn’t open up their ranks due to the overwhelming merit of these women). Margaret Thatcher famously stated that she owed nothing to women’s lib, and her and other conservative women in public life have never asked for or shown any expectation of receiving feminist support in their careers. Very well.

Conservative women don’t want feminist support. Feminists don’t want to support them. But, uhh, I thought feminism is for equality of all women? When am I gonna get an answer to this contradiction?

Using lines like “But feminism is just gender equality” does two interesting and dangerous things: it elides dense webs of inter-feminist debate, and it seeks to present feminism as an almost non-political entity. It presents feminism re-formed into an axiom: “gender equality is good and must be achieved” is the self-evident truth. On its own, devoid of context and whys and hows, such a sentiment is as good as meaningless.

See, feminists who offer these “short definitions” of feminism don’t mean just what they’re saying. There’s a complex backdrop of beliefs and values sitting behind this kind of definition, obscured by its axiomatic presentation. I don’t suggest that this is being concealed in an underhanded way, but that their view of gender equality as a “motherhood and apple pie” idea results in feminists assuming all right-thinking people will treat it as such. There must, then, be something seriously wrong with anyone who wants to question it. Fredrik deBoer has a series of good posts on this stuff as it pertains to broad left-leaning political behaviour. Many feminists believe that their own ideas are absolutely above questioning – hence “But you believe in gender equality? So you’re a feminist!” Sure, feminists can fairly say that their goal is the political, economic, and social equality of all women, but the unspoken element of this statement generally specifies that this goal will not be achieved through conservative political ideas and actions. The implication is that it will be achieved by mainstream, liberal feminism. Therein lies the rub: it won’t.

Conservative women don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women, but adhering to simplistic feminist messaging makes it difficult to assert this without looking hypocritical. However, many ostensibly progressive/liberal/left-leaning women politicians, like Hillary Clinton, also don’t deserve feminist support because their political ideas and actions are harmful to women. Feminists largely align themselves with the latter and not the former due to rank tribalism and dominance of liberal thought among the broad range of feminist ideas. A true and thoughtful commitment to feminism requires a critical eye to be taken to all politics, even that which you feel particularly committed to. A couple of wise men once said “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, and much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies”.

Right now, it doesn’t really matter who mainstream, liberal feminism lends its support to. Its intellectual limits ensure it remains complicit with oppression through its own inability to ask hard questions and foster radical thought. It is difficult to take its professed goal of gender equality seriously when liberal feminism entertains and endorses ideas that point towards an atomised, soulless society rather than one which enables women to live meaningfully. Value-free celebration of women’s success in any area. Obsession with getting women onto company boards. Cold, callous abortion rhetoric. Support for financial abortions for men. Preoccupation with minutiae. Power-worship. Idolising politicians and pundits.

This feminism that won’t support conservative women is doing nothing to counter many of the most pervasive material effects of reactionary politics. It carries on with handing out ostensibly apolitical mission statements while maintaining a cosy relationship with the status quo. The “short definition” rebuttal tactic I described earlier is an short-term tool with long-term repercussions: repeat a simplistic statement loud and often enough and contribute to the creation of a flimsy movement that reflects it.

As difficult (futile…) as it is to form a definition of feminism, we must be prepared to make certain commitments to what feminism is and is not in order to make an effective movement. Feminism cannot be a blank slate on which anyone can write something worthwhile merely by virtue of them being a woman.

Atheism, history, mythology

A while ago I came across this great blog post, which discusses an immensely popular tweet about Isaac Newton that was posted by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson: On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642. The blog post challenges the mythologised view of Newton’s life that the tweet celebrates (he certainly didn’t transform the world by age 30!) and notes that Tyson’s “craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity”.

This tweet and blog post are from late 2014/early 2015, but the issues at hand are on my mind fairly regularly and I’ve decided to start writing some thoughts down and shaping them into something substantial. I’m still mapping out my ideas, as the somewhat messy nature of this post will indicate, but I think my key concern and interests are clear: bad history and its real-world consequences. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a notable promulgator of some very bad history indeed, so this is where I start.

Aside from some terrible tweets and other social media posts, another example of Tyson’s penchant for fictionalised history of science can be found in the 2014 reboot of the TV series Cosmos, which he hosted. Cosmos gained some negative attention specially for its treatment of Giordano Bruno, 16th century Italian friar, mathematician, and astrologer, who it inaccurately portrays as a martyr for science, imprisoned and eventually executed in an intellectually backwards Italy. While Tyson was not a writer on the show, I think it’s fair to assume he’s endorsing the material he’s delivering and thus to send some blame for its content his way. This piece delves into some of the show’s problematic historical content and discusses key points about the consequences of bad history.

As might be expected, the idea of the persecuted scientist defending truth in an ignorant society is a powerful one within certain circles. I first encountered it in my teenage years, a time in which I devoured many books by Richard Dawkins and co., trawled through atheist forums online, and was generally extremely cranky about religion.* Years later, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint what set me down this particular path; I wasn’t raised in a religion and my family doesn’t have strongly-expressed atheistic leanings. Regardless, I was completely enthralled by the ideas I absorbed. Reading about the atheists of the past was mind-blowing. I felt profound solidarity across the centuries and found it easy to cast myself as their intellectual descendant.

While I’ve now moved away from my strong commitment to atheism, I can still clearly remember the powerful sense of belonging that it produced in me. I wasn’t part of a religion but I was definitely a part of something. Though I had little real-world contact with other atheists, simply reading widely and being aware of others like me was somehow enough to create strong feelings of solidarity.

Think of those who feel repressed growing up in a certain religion, those who are critical of religious influence on a secular society, those who feel that their present-day scientific work is under attack: it’s simple to understand how a connection with the past can be significant for people today. Having a sense of shared history can add new significance to life, and especially so when it involves carrying on a legacy of struggle. Even for someone like teenage me – not raised in any kind of religion, just a switched-on young person lurching between different ideological influences – this sense of an historical connection was deeply meaningful.

The idea of scientists as an oppressed group throughout history isn’t based on a pack of lies, of course, but it does rely on many misconceptions. For a start, even referring to historical figures as “scientists” is problematic! The concept of “scientist” as a profession is relatively new, and people who have contributed to natural science knowledge through history often held many diverse occupations, beliefs, and interests – including in religion. History of science is a rich academic field, but it sadly doesn’t have a communicator with the reach of Neil deGrasse Tyson to spread its work to the general public. If the average person receives any history of science education it will be through a popular presentation like Cosmos, and it’s clear that the people in charge of that kind of series are not terribly interested in historical accuracy.

People who should know better are simply being either lazy or intentionally misleading in sharing inaccurate historical material, and audiences who should know better aren’t taking a critical approach to what they’re hearing. At the risk of making a bit of a lame “gotcha” point: it is interesting and unfortunate that people who profess to value truth and rationality so highly are not applying these things to historical enquiry.

An obvious explanation for this is that we’re all really bad at identifying and correcting our own biases. It may never even occur to us to question the history we take for granted. Less obvious, but no less interesting, is the particular value we place on history and why this may make us amenable to accepting mythologised historical narratives. I think there are two ideas worth exploring here: that we all desire a meaningful and shared history for ourselves, and that history is one of the most used and abused tools in public debate.

Why would the story of a persecuted 16th century astrologer capture the imagination of a modern-day audience?  Why is any history meaningful to us? I tend to gravitate foremost towards answers about it giving our own lives meaning and significance. It provides a kind of reassurance that we haven’t been randomly plonked on the planet to live atomised lives of unclear purpose, but are here today because of the collective lives that came before us. Perhaps we’re not always consciously looking for this kind of reassurance – sometimes we just want to learn about something like medieval warfare because it’s extremely cool – but I suspect it’s always lurking somewhere in the background. The popularity of many forms of identity-related history, from genealogy to national history and more, are testament to this.

Great webs of history and tradition sits in the background of present-day discussions on religion and opposition to it, and even those of us who aren’t well-versed in the history of religion have some sense of its major details and significance. Here I’m thinking not so much of the content of religious doctrine as of the ways that religion is a part of people’s individual lives, their communities, their cultures and national histories (though they are not unrelated). When was a given religion founded? How and where and when do people worship? When was their local church built? How long have people worshipped there for? What is the history of that religion in that city? In that country? and so on. I don’t suggest that an atheist wishes for something directly analogous to this; I do suggest that all of us want to feel the tendrils of the past reaching out and touching us, even if we don’t consciously wish it.

So, perhaps a part of what makes us receptive to mythologised history is its potential to offer us a meaningful connection to the past. Is there a problem in this? Is it a big issue if people believe some bad history and it helps them feel a little more significant in the world? It’s a shame if public intellectuals are spreading and endorsing inaccurate historical narratives and their fans are eating it up, but people believe in lots of demonstrably false things all the time – things with greater importance and repercussions than an inaccurate view of Newton’s life. Misconceptions about details of past lives probably aren’t too concerning. Of great concern, however, is what all this can lead into: bad history being used as ammunition in debates of the present day and propping up views that inform real-world actions.

History occupies an interesting place of authority in contemporary debates. We frequently make appeals to past events, people, texts, cultural practices, and so on. It’s powerful and satisfying to name-drop a significant historical figure who agrees with a point we’re trying to make, or to pull out a data set that demonstrates the pattern we’re attempting to show, or trace the development of a present-day practice back to origins that may surprise or shock us. Without due vigilance, however, history can quickly become “a pack of tricks we play on the dead” as Quentin Skinner so neatly puts it. We impose convenient narratives on past lives, we interpret words and events in disingenuous or dishonest ways, and we drag historical figures into debates they can’t possibly contribute to. We appropriate their authority (and a kind of cultural capital they have, perhaps) and use it to support our own causes.

When we go searching for historical back-up, we naturally want to find things that will provide simple and unambiguous support. Messy history doesn’t win arguments. Spending time exploring complexities is as good as ceding ground. Strong answers are needed, and when they aren’t forthcoming we like to create them. Powerful mythologies of the past are conjured up to bolster arguments and shape debate on race, gender, nationalism, economics, and so much more. As noted earlier, people may not even consider taking a closer look at the history they take for granted – and they may actually be disinclined to do so if they need its support in a high-stakes debate.

Their embrace of mythologised history indicates that atheists, secularists, and others are no less susceptible to being charmed and blinded by a satisfying historical narrative than anyone. The fulfillment of their latent desire for a history of their very own overpowers any drive to fact-check it. Rationality and scepticism are put aside when the chance arises to possibly claim a cultural and intellectual legacy that is both personally appealing and useful as a rhetorical device.

In the future I hope to expand on these ideas; I think I can create some interesting work that draws on Gadamer’s concept of the historically-effected consciousness. Something I’d also like to explore is my suspicion that there is a kind of Whiggishness lurking in aspects of atheistic rhetoric, which would explain a lot about the interest in a history of oppression and persecution.

Finally: as I had hoped, there is a blog that is devoted to the so-called New Atheists and the terrible history they insist on promulgating. Check it out: History for Atheists

* Interestingly, this never dampened my love for religious choral and vocal music; I have enthusiastically sung in choirs (and occasionally solo) for many years, and religious repertoire has long been a great passion of mine. Handel’s Messiah, which I first heard over 13 years ago and have sung many times, remains a firm favourite.