Tuesday 14 October 2014

Brian Cox's 'boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment' and The Ascent of Man

There's a good article on the Guardian's Science website today by Henry Gee, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. He writes about the physicist and popular science presenter Brian Cox's new 'ascent of Man' series Human Universe.
Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic. 
But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.
Cox's programme is indeed a familiarly and depressingly linear, upward account of human evolution, full of questionable science and cod philosophy. Its teleology doesn't halt at the present but implicitly projects the path of the human essence out into the stars, as if that weren't all a bit last century.

In fairness it's very well put together and it's great that someone can make science exciting and accessible. In this respect Cox's talent is not in doubt. One can only wish that the ontology implicit within and propagated by such popularisations wasn't so very stupid.

Gee does a good job of humorously puncturing Cox's bubblegum science but I don't think too many will hear. Cox is the anointed successor to David Attenborough as the Voice of Science for the BBC and hence, to a large extent, for Britain.

Why is it always physicists these days who get to tell everyone what science is?

Sunday 12 October 2014

The only thing worse than being talked about...

If, as Oscar Wilde famously put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about then Graham Harman could certainly have things worse. To be sure, people are talking.

However, of course, one never wishes to be merely criticised. To be criticised well—that is the tacit compliment one must hope for. And having read the first instalment of Peter Wolfendale's surgical broadside against Harman's work—namely The Noumenon's New Clothes (Part 1)—I can only conclude that Harman is being criticised really rather ably, albeit with an attitude that is not exactly cordial.

Now, I haven't followed the ins and outs of this kerfuffle over time and to be honest I don't really care that much. However, to have one's work subjected to such forensic criticism can only be a compliment of sorts, even if said forensics are openly pursuing a policy of annihilation by scorched earth. To be the subject of such an analytical blitzkrieg is assuredly not the worst thing in the world.

So, 'SR,' 'OOP.' Moribund? Perhaps. Dead? Not with this level of chatter on the lines. Even as something to react against, Harman's work is clearly vitalising for many.

However, having said that, I am less and less interested by it every time I read some of it. Despite Harman's prolific output I haven't detected a great deal of evolution or progression (or even consolidation) in his ideas over the past several years—and I was fairly unconvinced of the major points of his philosophy to begin with.

The 'reduction to relations' critique is often asserted but rarely argued and I've never found it in the least bit convincing. Without that bombshell in place the substance-oriented edifice doesn't have a leg to stand on (to mix my metaphors) and becomes just a rather de-nuanced, metaphysical version of actor-network theory with the word 'realism' inserted at strategic intervals.

Harman points, fairly enough, to the fact that a great many people are interested in his work. However, to say that a philosophy is demonstrably popular is not an overwhelmingly strong defence of its validity. Its value should be assessed by the quality control department, not sales. It is entirely possible that its popularity and its controversy issue from the same sources: excessive simplicity, depthless polemic and unprogressive repetitiveness.

Anyway, the only way to kill something off, ultimately, is to stop talking about it. And I'm not sure that we're there yet, but we may be getting closer.