Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005


The [global] policeman

It seems to me to be straightforward that those policing a community should belong to that community. If they do not, how do we prevent the order imposed by the police being seen as a coercive imposition from the outside? A force of oppression used on the behalf of others. An [armed] occupation even? The idea that the community to which the police belong plays no part in their ability to perform the task of policing a community has bolstered the institutional racism of the British police, and no doubt the police of nations all around the world. Of course, the idea of community is fluid, and the community with which people identify, or are identified with varies between people and over time. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that a predominantly white police force with a history of racism will not be seen as the legitimate police of a black community with a history of being the victims of racism. For this state of affairs to change it does not simply require that the police force in questions eliminates racists from its ranks, but it also demands that the police force recruits people from the community in question. Policing must be a consensual act, patently not at the level of the individual criminal, but certainly at the level of community. Of course, communities overlap and interact, and when this is considered the police force that brings order to these overlaps and interactions must be drawn from both these communities in order to keep its legitimacy.

I would like to suggest two examples of police as occupiers. The first is the policing in South Yorkshire during the 1984 Miners’ Strike. The South Yorkshire Police were seen as too soft on the miners, reluctant to use force where the use of force could be avoided, being aware that, as members of the communities in question, their future was bound to the future of these communities. In response to this ‘softness’, the Metropolitan Police were drafted in. These men bore no obligations to the communities they were sent to police, and so acted with a brutality not seen on such a large-scale in Britain. Excepting, of course, where white police forces ‘brought order’ to black communities.

The second is the ‘policing’ of Iraq by US and British soldiers. These men not only bear no links to, not even speaking the language of, the communities they police, but they also conceive of themselves as belonging to a different people. This is not so much a complaint that men trained as soldiers cannot perform a policing role, though I nevertheless believe this to be largely true. More, it is that men from beyond the boundaries of the community, men with their future not tied to that community, men who return to ‘the world’ that exists outside of this community to continue with their lives, simply cannot be policemen. They are occupiers. The occupation of Iraq may be a necessary task, though I would argue that it is not. But it cannot be claimed that these men are policing Iraq.

This argument extends into discussion of the idea of America being the ‘world’s policeman’. I have lost track of (okay, I never started counting) the number of opinion pieces in which members of the American right and their international allies complain that ‘the world’ expects America to provide the power required for a policing role when it suits them, rejecting the right of America to act using this power in other circumstances. These commentators present themselves as being baffled by such double standards. But there are no double standards at work if we consider America to be the world’s policeman. The police carry out their policing with the consent of the community they serve and police. As in this case the community that is being policed is ‘the world’, it is ‘the world’s’ consent that is required. To believe that America, as policeman, should be allowed to deploy force in its own interests and justify these actions as policing is to argue for a concept of ‘police’ that has more in common with ‘gangster’ than the concepts and legitimation of police, and the power we invest in them, that are used in democratic societies. To be fair, this concept has many aspects in common with the concept of ‘police’ used in dictatorships. Even in these, the police act to bring order and security to people pursuing their day-to-day business. But they also are primarily the servants of the ruling minority, and the force the police possess is deployed in their interests.

I would argue that as America represents only a fraction of the community that is ‘the world’ it cannot perform the role of ‘policeman’. But if American power is to be deployed in a policing role, this must always be done with the consent of the wider community being policed. As so many commentators who appear to be in tune with the ideology of America appear to view the role of ‘world’s policeman’ not as an obligation to serve the world but as a licence to use their military power, I would argue that their use of the term police is empty rhetoric, designed to persuade a doubting but liberally minded world public than as an ideological commitment. Well, it is either that or the more frightening proposition that the idea that the dominant American political philosophy holds a concept of the proper role of police is akin to that which the rest of us would describe as gangsterism. Except possibly without the pension plan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Are you not quite sure if you are thinking what you are thinking?

In that case, take any or all of these tests and remove the stress of devising a personal political position.

Who Should You Vote For?

The Public Whip

Chris Lightfoot’s Political Survey

Political Compass

Monday, April 18, 2005


What you should know about science

On April 7th, The Guardian published a short list of things “everyone should learn about science”, selecting the “most provocative responses” to a survey of 250 scientists conducted by the magazine Spiked. And the list has, belatedly, provoked me. I will only comment on a handful of the replies, and sketch out my disagreements.

We will begin at the beginning; being a scientist.

Seth Lloyd Professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

You do not have to be a scientist to do science; you can be a child, a computer, or an intelligent rat. As long as you can verify a result, it is part of science.

Science is not simply the measurement of things, or the collection of data. It is also the process of attempting explain how these measurements, these data, fit together. This process is an imaginative act. If you contest this point you must concede that the great scientists of the past are nothing of the sort, that the knowledge that they produced could have been produced by anyone else measuring the objects and collecting that data. The task of asking the question is an imaginative act, the task of choosing how to measure the objects or collect the data is an imaginative act, and the interpretation of the data is an imaginative act. So it is wrong to say that a computer could carry out these tasks, unless he is engaging in speculative science fiction. And his further example of the intelligent rat proves that he is. You might not have to be a scientist to do science. But you do, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, have to be human.

And this is before we get into the tacit knowledge and craft knowledge that is a part of all scientific practice.

Lewis Wolpert Emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology — from medicine to industry. (My italics)

This is plain incorrect. Science does not only connect with values and ethics at the ‘end’ point – at the connection of scientific knowledge to technology and other applications. There are an infinite number of questions that we can ask about the universe, and many ways of framing each of these questions. The questions that we choose, and how we choose to answer these questions, reflect our society and our ethical and political values. This simple truth must always be remembered when we are discussing research into human behaviour. People will ask; “why not attempt to determine differences in intelligence between ‘races’?” But this question prejudices the answer, and the very asking of this question has an impact on society. You might say; “So what, so it should.” But you cannot deny that the act of asking this question is loaded with ethical and moral weight.

Antony Hoare Senior researcher at Microsoft Corporation

I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right. (My italics)

Dr Robert Maynard Senior medical officer at the UK Department of Health

The principle of refutation put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, in his books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations, is my choice. Popper argued that scientific knowledge advanced most reliably by the development and refutation of hypotheses — much more reliably than by the accretion of evidence in support of theories. [He then discusses the ‘white swans and black swans’ example of refutation].

Individual scientists do not start by trying to disprove what they hope is true. At least, not in the hopelessly idealised view of science that Antony Hoare presents here. Any study of the practice of science makes a mockery of this statement. I would argue that statements like this, which may have served the purpose of maintaining the institution of science in a less iconoclastic age, now are seen as disingenuous defences of science against criticism. But science does not need to hide behind a myth. It can point quite clearly to the power of science in our manipulation of the physical world, and can, at the same time, acknowledge the limitations of both our knowledges and our methods.

It would be better if when discussing these ideal(ised) forms of science scientists limited these values to the institution of science, rather than to individual scientists. There would be more truth in such an argument.

John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'

Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".

Well, what would you expect from a computer scientist? But numbers are not the best form of representation across all science, as biological scientists will tell you. Indeed, John Sulston, the leader of the UK arm of the Human Genome Project, who is also represented in this list, offers an anecdote in his book The Common Thread where he has to convince a mathematically minded disciplinary immigrant to the biological sciences that his drawings of nematode worm cell lineages were a valuable form of data in themselves. To deny that they were, or to suggest that they are amenable to ‘numberisation’, is to be either deliberately contrary or seriously myopic. Of course, the images could be digitised, but to be returned to a state of value to human understanding (and remember, this is the point of science), they must be retranslated into visual images.

There were plenty of responses that I had no quarrel with, and plenty of valuable insights into science. One that I did like was this reply:

Kathy Sykes Collier professor of public engagement in science and engineering at the University of Bristol

I would teach the world that science is not about truth, but is about trying to get closer to the truth. This is important because, too often, people look to scientists as having the "truth". What we have is wrapped in uncertainties, caveats and simplifications.

And with that I will finish the post.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


If the cap fits

Michael Howard proposes to place a cap on the number of people allowed to seek refuge from tyranny and oppression. A cap like this, perhaps?

Image hosted by

Were you a German war criminal?

[I realise that this post will offend some people. However, I believe that Michael Howard is running a campaign based on the same prejudices, ignorance and hate that worked against members of his own family (who may be among those offended, as David Duff points out) during the 1930s. Our current electoral climate appears to be one in which such a robust campaigner against racism as Kem Livingstone is tarred as anti-semitic while a politician who seemingly does not miss an opportunity to push racial and xenophobic electoral buttons is the leader of Britain's second party. I do not think that someone willing to play such a nasty, dirty and immoral electoral game is above being called out on his shameful campaigning.]

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


So who do we vote for?

The Queen has dissolved parliament and an election has been called for the 5th of May. The election campaign has kicked off. The Liberal Democrats promise a positive campaign, the Conservative message was summed up by Rory Bremner as ‘less tax, less blacks’* and the Labour Party seem to base their entire appeal for votes with the threat that a vote not cast for Labour increases the chances of a Conservative government. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? The threat of a Conservative government is a very strong motivation for voting Labour.

Yet this is not enough. To appeal for votes on the basis of a democratic deficiency in our electoral system is a morally bankrupt, and anti-democratic, strategy from a party that has held power since 1997, holding a massive majority, without even suggesting that a reform of the electoral system was needed. Any electoral system where large numbers of votes cast according to principle can be accurately described as, at best wasted and at worst, an aid to political ideologies that oppose those of the voter, is one in need of reform. I have stated before the ideal would be a first house of parliament elected on the basis of constituencies using a single transferable vote electoral procedure, with a second revising house based on proportional representation according to the national vote. The second is necessary as, if say 10% of people in each constituency across the country vote Green they will win no constituency seats, yet such a large number of people nationally deserve at least one representative across the two houses of parliament.

So, with the Tories running a disingenuous and particularly nasty campaign, and with Labour taking the votes of progressive and socialist voters for granted, we should be voting Liberal Democrat, no? Correct, no. I was once, some years ago, a member of the Liberal Democrats. I had bought their presentation as being a modern left-wing party. I was, however, sent a document from the ‘Young Liberals’ or ‘Lib Dem Future’ or something, in which the future electoral strategy of the Liberal Democrats was discussed. The conclusion seemed to be this – in order to win Conservative seats they(we) had to adopt the policies of the Conservative party and simply present a more youthful and polished face. I was not able to remain in a party that saw political campaigning in such narrow terms. I wanted to argue for what I, and the party as a collective organisation, believed in, persuading voters to cast their vote for those ideas. Not to simply present what the voters already vote for in order to win power, which would be either power fraudulently achieved if the adopted principles were then abandoned in favour of the ‘real’ Liberal Democrat project, or power empty of purpose as the adopted principles that we not the beliefs of the party or its members formed the basis of governmental action.

My Liberal Democrat organiser rang me to ask me to campaign. I told him that I had resigned. I told him why, and he tried to argue that this was the necessary price of winning power. I should have told him that if I simply wanted to be a member of the ruling party I could have joined it. What I did tell him was that this strategy has lost a member and a vote. It does, of course, get worse. The Liberal Democrats are not simply opportunists (of a far less nasty nature than the Conservatives, it must be said), but, if they do have an ideology, it is the ideology of economic liberalism. And that cannot be my party, or the home of my vote.

So what am we left with? Well, here I am able to vote Plaid Cymru, but as I am not Welsh and not a fan of nationalism, I would feel that a vote here would be misplaced. That leaves me with the Green Party and RESPECT, and over the next few weeks I will be examining their positions, comparing these with my own principles and values and coming to a conclusion.

Which I might share here.

*Or, to revisit a tried and tested slogan, “if you want a gyppo for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour.” But as bad as this is, at least we won’t end up with a theocratic junta ;-)


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