Monday 26 February 2007

Hear no evil, ...

The deteriorating situation in Iraq, a consequence of Western blindness to local conditions and Islamic religiosity, has been mentioned in the previous post Unstated questions, hidden answers.
The same fundamental negligence can be found in the West's relationship with Afghanistan. An Islamic history going back over a thousand years, the more recent spectacular failure by the Soviets trying for nine years to tame a region that cannot even tame itself, all this was not enough to prevent the US and its Allies to go there once more.
Those outside pressures managed to hone what was a demographic wracked by sectarian strife into a cohesive foe, answering to no-one but his own agenda. The rise of militant Islamism a consequence of attempts to "civilise" the country - what a grand irony!
How immune to rational information the current leaders are can be gleaned from the correspondence between myself and Teresa Gambaro MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In a letter to her on the 1 Nov 06 the precarious nature of the situation was outlined pointing to the research under the Otoom model, a perspective which has already demonstrated its validity in so many respects.
Nothing was heard until a letter arrived from Andrew Park, Senior Advisor to Senator Santo Santoro, dated 9 Jan 07. Why him? I happen to reside outside Ms Gambaro's electorate.
Apart from anything else my letter did not involve local issues; rather, it concerned Australia's foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan about which the good Senator, with all due respect as Minister for Ageing, would hardly be the man to ask. (Surely that redirection couldn't have been a sarcastic reference to my own life span?)
Instead a serious concern by a citizen is once again fobbed off, a concern that relates to a significant error of historical proportions, leading an entire nation into a conflict the full ramifications of which have not even materialised yet.
How can it be that a supposedly democratic country can be led into such strife by only a handful of people with no time for a profound analysis of their ideas? Especially at a time when Australia and the West face challenges that require efforts to the tune of billions of dollars, not to mention the cooperation of many of the world's nations.
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil may well be the attitude of those wise monkeys - but they're still monkeys.

Sunday 18 February 2007

Unstated questions, hidden answers

An investigation into some phenomenon is an endeavour that can span years. As has been mentioned previously, it matters whether the explorer is comfortable with the idea of the result just in case it should happen. Meanderings are not always due to a faulty compass.
A question represents a similar issue on a smaller time scale. Often the answer is not completely obscure but already casts its shadow in the light of the inquiry. And we all know how frightful a shadow can be, especially if its substance must not be known directly.
Currently Australia is approaching its federal elections. John Howard, our Prime Minister, and Kevin Rudd, his contender from the Opposition, have already clashed on several occasions. As usual in such cases, what is perceived to be most prominent becomes a weapon on both sides. When it comes to standing apart, the Iraq war has few rivals.
Much is made of Mr Howard's subservience to George W. Bush. The PM's insistence that "mates" are bound by solidarity no matter what, does not bear a more mature view of this thing called friendship between nations.
In any case, the deteriorating situation over there against the whishes of the Allies, has spawned any number of investigations into the "why" and an even greater number of suggestions. Arguably the most in-depth analysis has been the Iraq Study Group Report, its findings still being debated by all sides.
This report is not only interesting for its detail but also for the answers it could supply, if only one asked the right questions. In it much is made of the sheer opaqueness of local affairs, of the fragmented nature of politics in the Middle East in general, and the unconstrained brutality confronting everybody day by day. The fundamental reasons are obscured by many verbal contortions, serving the political spin of the moment. As usual in scenarios that have acquired a life of their own, the core perceptions are the driver, pushing them ever onwards.
Over the last few decades the West has been subjected to a major re-orientation of its intellectual acuity. Its propensity for questioning for its own sake, its readiness to play the devil's advocate, its complexity of mind; these have been turned around to show their dark side. Post-modernism with its irreverent challenges, minority groups with their wish lists, and top-heavy sophists - in the end they found a seemingly never-ending feast catered by their wealthy host. Nevertheless, the rest of the world still exists.
Its own violence, its own religious fanaticism, and its own non-chalance towards human rights go virtually unnoticed as the West contemplates its own navel. The notion that people are not the same, that intelligence differs among individuals as well as demographics, that some heed advice, others need restraint, and others still warrant confrontation, had been superficially tied to such scapegoats as racism and colonialism.
Combine that with our own obsession with the Middle East, nurtured through the Christian centuries, and a cauldron such as Iraq is seen as a disadvantaged victim only waiting for well-meaning social workers to weave their spells. Of course, as European history should teach us, as Arab despotism has proven, as Islamic fervour demonstrates daily, nothing could be further from the truth.
How else can a nation such as the United States spend about US$400 billion on this engagement, unless not reason but pathology governs its thought processes.
By comparison, Australia's estimated total revenue for the fiscal year 2006/7 is just over A$230 billion, or just over US$180b.
And for what? To infuse our standards with Islamic markers, to clutter our daily lives with Middle Eastern upheavals, to mix our rationalism once again with religious fervour?
Political correctness means much more than an annoying phrase here or there; it is well under way dissolving the framework of a civilisation.

Monday 12 February 2007

Am I colour-blind?

Some respondents to the previous post here and privately seem to think my view on academics had been too harsh.

Although I have not compiled a comprehensive analysis of every scientist or researcher around the world, one way to gauge the effectiveness of some action is to look for its results. Let's not forget, someone in their position does have the ear of an editor, convener, or program chef. So, where and when has someone confronted a public phenomenon grounded in ideology head-on through his or her expertise on the subject?

Then there is the anecdotal evidence. Such as the comments by Jennie Brockie, presenter of the SBS-TV Insight program. On the 12 Oct 04 the topic of the discussion was, "Is animal rights activism out of control?". According to Ms Brockie several scientists were invited to attend to give the research side of the story. They declined because they were intimidated by activists who sometimes went as far as issuing death threats. The point was made repeatedly in the program, with the two scientists who did appear confirming the situation.

Remarks by Islamic clerics or others who are more interested in the shock value than actual substance are not countered by the voices of reason. And if editors cannot bring themselves to accommodate the unsensational then why is there not a systematic pressure applied to them in the interest of a mature society?

A critical and objective analysis is of course in line with the principles of the Enlightenment, the antagonist of Middle Eastern ideologies from the very beginning. Currently it is deemed the height of political incorrectness to criticise the general denigration of Western and/or European culture.

Some days ago the London think tank Policy Exchange published the report "Living apart together". Muslims across Britain were surveyed on their attitudes towards the British and Westerners in general. Their own comments made reference to a crude anti-Western bias existing in society (pp 7, 16), the official policy of multi-culturalism was seen as making the situation actually worse by mostly denigrating its own (pp 24, 33), and the report's authors recognised that the ideals once introduced by the Enlightenment and now downgraded provide the cultural vacuum for extremism to flourish once again (p 92). I don't think Australia is that much different.

No-one expects intellectuals to fight it out on the streets. But their professional status also comes with the duty attached to preserve the cultural climate which gave them their positions in the first place.

Monday 5 February 2007

Has science turned yellow?

There can be many reasons why something is misunderstood. Sometimes psychoanalysts have a field day.

The editor of a journal - both shall remain nameless - saw fit to reject a recent article about the worm program. The reason? As a "functionalist" I omitted important references to the field of functionalism, thereby evading the ongoing debate about the latter's tenets.

Why am I a "functionalist"? Throughout the article I had used the words 'functional' and its noun to describe a principle form of behaviour, compared to the behaviour's content (for instance, 'love' can be viewed as a functionality; one's love for a car is the instantiated content).

Nothing more, nothing less. Although explained in those terms, to that reader this was neither here nor there. Now it is true functionalism features large in the debates surrounding cognitive science and artificial intelligence. But it is a movement, if you will, which ultimately did not produce a viable model of how the mind works. Despite the often intricate hypotheses the resultant perspectives were insufficient to address the phenomenon of mind in a realistic, useful manner. Hence no reason to waste my time on it.

Why then jump to such a conclusion?

Well, it might have been a simple matter of a certain word capturing one's imagination in a rather indiscriminate fashion. But there could be more behind this.

How their mind works is a question that has occupied humans for ages. So you'd think somebody coming along and declaring "I know!" would be greeted with enthusiasm. Not necessarily.

Anyone claiming to have found the solution should then be able to address such matters as religion, culture, or ideology in a formal, objective manner. He or she should give a proper explanation why the Iraq war for example is such a disaster, or why Pacific island nations implode, or why it came to the street riots in France not so long ago.

Deep down this is understood of course, and so such a claim would consequently require the courage to engage with life out there, something an increasing number of academics are reluctant to do. What is left for public occasions such as debates on TV shows are the extremists, political players of any ilk, and interested lay people having to make do with random information. Conveners of such shows find it difficult to invite professionals who can provide some factual input as a balance.

It is much more comfortable to draw differential equations inside a cosy office, or to engage in sparkling word play at a lecture. Yet there is a world beyond those walls, and what one finds out there are hardened adventurers under many an exotic flag or no flag at all.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, just watch a politician's discomfort rise as soon as the topic turns to religion - an increasing likelihood these days.

Much better then to remain with the incestuous squabbles about this or that -ism and forget about reality. Edgar Allan Poe in his "The Masque of the Red Death" described it so well!

It is interesting to note that in the case of my work no-one has ever found an error in my observations, my deductions or conclusions, in my calculations or in my use of logic or in any line of my code. Instead, vacuous generalisations are used to hide from the world.