Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

Comment, Comics and the Contrary. Contact: aj_bartlett1977*at*yahoo*dot*co*dot*uk
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Saturday, June 25, 2005


Tales of the Contrary - reviewed

The July issue of Comics International (#186) has a brief review of Tales of the Contrary. It also carries the full page collective advertisement on behalf of a group of British small-press comic book creators with the strap-line ‘Independent Comics for Independent Minds’*.

“This A4 sci-fi comic, with 20 pages of strip and a six page text story, displays a penchant for the twist ending and poetic justice. The tales of killing, cloning and interrogation are written as if by someone who takes life very seriously. It’s impressively drawn by Bolt-01, with grey tones by Richmond Clements and backgrounds that convincingly evoke the worlds in which the stories penned by Andrew Bartlett are set.” 7/10.

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You can buy Tales of the Contrary for £2 including p&p. E-mail me at aj_bartlett1977(at)yahoo(dot)co(dot)uk for more details. Payment can be made by PayPal (inc. credit card payments) or by cheque.

Empirical Majesty – Chapter One is also available for 75p (or £2.50 together with Tales of the Contrary) including p&p.

Buy Tales of the Contrary and Empirical Majesty

* These comics are:
The Girly Comic
Solar Wind
The End is Nigh
Pony School Assassin (no website but you can e-mail PonySchool(at)gmail(dot)com for more details)
Mothman About the House

Monday, June 20, 2005


How many people have been cheated by these quacks?

The Guardian hosts a psychometric test designed by the The Morrisby Organisation. This post is not challenge the basis of psychometric tests, though I am sceptical of the amount of useful information they can provide about an individual. This post is a shocked report that the test is ‘wrong’ – the purported answers to the questions asked are simply incorrect.

The first test is a “verbal critical reasoning test”. They are described by the Guardian as being “used to find out how well you can assess verbal logic. They are usually in the form of a passage, or passages of prose, followed by a number of statements. Your task is to decide if the statements are "True", "False" or if you "Cannot tell" from the information provided. You are to assume that everything that is said in the passages is true.” Then follows two passages on animal testing. After this there is a set of six statements, which the person sitting the test is asked to respond to with one of three categories.

True It follows logically from the information provided
False It is obviously incorrect given the information provided
Cannot tell It is impossible to tell given the information provided

For these statements I made the ‘correct’ judgement in three cases and the ‘incorrect’ judgement in the other three. The three that I got wrong were statements to which I had responded ‘cannot tell’. And I am right. These judgements that I make are not (explicitly) based on knowledge from outside the texts provided, but are responses to what follows logically from the information provided. This is what the test asks for.

4. Vistek is a protein found in the eye. My answer was ‘cannot tell’. The ‘correct’ answer is ‘false’. The rationale given for this judgement is; “It says that Vistek simulates the reaction of the eye.” Now, it does not follow logically from the information found in the text that Vistek is not found in the eye, or indeed that it is found in the eye. The only reasonable response to this statement using the information in the test (“a particular protein Vistek which simulates the reaction of the eye”) is cannot tell. The statement is neither ‘logically true’ nor ‘obviously incorrect’.

5. Animal testing has been used to develop 10 000 ingredients. My answer was ‘cannot tell’. The ‘correct’ answer was ‘false’, on the basis that the text “says that 10 000 ingredients can be used without the need for animal testing.” Now, what the text actually says is that “At present there are over 10 000 ingredients available to the cosmetics industry. These can be used in the development of new products, free from the controversy surrounding animal testing.” The origin of these products has not been discussed. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that animal testing was used in the process that added these ingredients to the chemist’s existing inventory. It does not logically follow that this is the case, but neither is it obviously incorrect to suggest this.

6. Kidney transplants were first tested in animals. My answer was ‘cannot tell’. The correct answer was ‘true’, on the basis that the text “says that kidney transplants would not exist if it were not for animal testing.” The text actually says “medical techniques such as kidney transplants would not exist were it not for pioneering animal testing.” First, there is the statement of priority. Even if kidney transplants were tested in animals, it does not logically follow that they were first tested in animals. Secondly, the text does not say that kidney transplants were tested on animals, rather that “kidney transplants would not exist if it were not for animal testing.” This statement can also mean that precursors to kidney transplants, necessary procedures involved in kidney transplantation, or the knowledge involved in understanding the kidneys or transplantation, required animal testing in the course of their development. It does not logically follow that “Kidney transplants were first tested on animals.”

The second test is of “numerical critical reasoning”, which “looks at how well you can reason with numbers and understand information presented in numerical form… Your task is to select the right response from five possible answers.”

We are provided with the following table:

Television viewing habits 250 people were asked what sort of programme they liked the most:
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Question 2 is: “What proportion of 16-20 year olds watch something other than the News?” From the table provided it is impossible to answer this question. The answer they give is, of course, 82% (100%-18%). But this is utter nonsense. The people responding to the survey were asked what sort of television programme they liked the most. The people who liked News the most are perfectly able of watching programmes other than the News.

The third test is a self-report questionnaire on “typical behaviour”. The answers to these questions are not logically right or wrong (though you can lie), but, given the lack of logic demonstrated in the preceding two tests, how can any person place their trust in the people who will be interpreting the answers to this third part of the test.

I wonder how much money that The Morrisby Organisation rakes in from the design and administration of these tests. More than that, I wonder how many people have been barred from jobs by these quacks. Remember, these are flaws that can be spotted by someone unfamiliar with the theory that underpins psychometric testing. Given that those who hold tight to the usefulness of this theory are capable of such staggering errors in simple reasoning, we ought to assume that their attraction to the ‘power’ of psychometric testing is based on similarly flawed reasoning.

[UPDATE 24th June: I sent this post to Ben Goldacre, the writer of the Guardian's excellent Bad Science column. Looking at the Guardian Online's Work page, I see that the editors have now removed a link to the psychometric test. But not, it seems, the test itself.]

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Speculations on the scientist as a public figure

The term public intellectual is ill-defined. When and where does, for example, an intellectual become a public intellectual? What is the relationship between the categories the intellectual and the academic? Are there differences between the public scientist, the civic scientist, and the communicator of scientific ideas? And where do these fit in with the notion of the public intellectual?

I am always tempted, perhaps as a consequence of a brief dalliance with philosophy, to attempt to analytically disentangle terms. That approach is not without merit, a consequence of its methodological commitment to clarity. I will, for now at least, attempt to suppress my analytic urge. I will offer instead a metaphor. As it is a metaphor it is not perfect, and I make no claim that it is entirely accurate. It is not a model or mirror, but rather it is an illustration. I will use this to illustrate the distinction between two distinct public roles that the scientist might play.

Consider our democratic society as an adversarial courtroom in continual action, making and overturning rulings with a constantly changing cast of barristers, judges and jurors, cases and rules of evidence. By democracy, here I mean democracy with a small d, a label that is attached to a type of society rather than a formalised mechanism of government. In this courtroom all those who are members of our democratic society, the demos, play the role of jurors. A small number of the demos also play other roles in this courtroom. The role of the judge, for example, may be occupied by editors, media magnates, and other arbiters of access to debate and discussion. We should not ignore or attempt to excuse the mess of this metaphor. Democratic societies as courtrooms are a virtuous mess. The roles to be acted and the cases to be heard are in constant flux.

The purpose of this metaphor, which is perhaps a suitable candidate for an allegorical story (Borges springs to mind), is, as I said, to highlight two distinct public roles that the scientist might play in a democratic society. There is, I argue, a real difference between the public scientist and the public intellectual who is a scientist. This is a difference with functional consequences in a democracy. In the courtroom of democracy the public scientist adopts the specialised role of the expert witness.

Expert witnesses are called to give opinions on subjects within their field of acknowledged, usually certified, expertise. The authority of acknowledged expertise transforms these opinions into things that seem very much like objective statements. These statements are then entered into the record, and can only, once the status of the expert witness is accepted, be disputed by other expert witnesses.

Barristers then use these statements to construct arguments, to persuade the jury of the demos of the merits of their case, to find in their interest, or the interests of those or that which they represent. In the messy courtroom of democracy, any member of the demos has the possibility of acting as a barrister. Who actually does is determined by those playing the role of judges.

Scientists are able, as we all are (to some degree), to offer thoughtful, considered statements on subjects beyond those within the boundaries of their field of expertise. They can construct arguments representing a community, an interest, an ideology. When a scientist does this their public role is not that of expert witness. They become a barrister on the floor of the courtroom of democracy. This is the role that is occupied by the public intellectual.

Scientists have occupied this role in the past. Consider J.B.S. Haldane, as an example. He was a leading geneticist of his time, and indeed, is an important figure in the history of genetics. But he is also an important figure in the history of left-wing thought in Britain. He was a member of the Communist Party who wrote columns for the Daily Worker. These columns, it is safe to assume, did not concentrate on the communication of genetic science. He spoke at trades unions meetings, and, in the 1930s, travelled to Spain to assist the Republican Government in the Civil War. Haldane acted as an advocate – a barrister – for a particular set of interests in the courtroom of a democratic society.

Haldane was just one of group of (largely left-leaning) scientists who acted outside their scientific field in the public eye. The ability for a scientist to act as a public intellectual was an unspectacular feature of democratic society in the first, say, three-quarters of the last century. There are a handful of comparable scientists today, but, even given their existence, I argue that the ability of the scientist to play the role of the public intellectual is greatly reduced.

Consider those who are perhaps the closest contemporary analogues to J.B.S. Haldane and his like; R.C. Lewontin and (the late) Stephen Jay Gould. These were both left-wing American biologists, whose writings and public positions extended far beyond the concerns of their professional fields; genetics and palaeontology respectively. The consequence of these public interventions ought to offer a cautionary tale to scientists seeking to become public intellectuals. As well as praise and a certain amount of fame (Gould being immortalised by a guest appearance in the Simpsons) both Lewontin and Gould received heavy and vociferous criticism. This criticism was not limited to their pronouncements on politics (small p and big P), but also discredited their scientific work. Discrediting here does not mean that their work was proven to be shoddy, or mistaken, within the boundaries of the community of science. Rather, it means that their credibility as scientists capable of making objective statements in the role of expert witness was reduced for a large section of the demos.

Those who are expected to play the role of expert witnesses should not offer opinions outside their field of expertise, it seems. This might seem to be a sensible rule in the courtroom, but that, remember, was only ever a metaphor. This, sometimes quite vicious, restriction of potential public intellectuals to their narrow sphere of certification is not, as some have argued, an erosion of elitism. Rather, it is a symptom of an anti-democratic trend that masquerades as anti-elitism.

The rejection of scientists playing the role of the public intellectual reflects the managerialism and technocratisation of our democratic societies. The reaction against the public interventions of scientists is as vociferous as it is as their fields of expertise are held to be esoteric, divorced from societal concerns. They are unqualified, or perhaps, misqualified, to perform the role of barrister in the contemporary courtroom of democracy. This can be painted as anti-elitism. We can be persuaded that scientists (and musicians, actors, novelists) ought to stick to their field of expertise. We might be tempted by arguments that suggest that these figures taking to the floor of the courtroom prevents the rest of the demos from having their time at the bar. But, of course, once qualification is required the rest of the demos do not get their time at the bar, as volunteering for the bar is replaced by a call to the bar. The diverse elite of public intellectuals and advocates is replaced by a managerial, technocratic elite.

The scientist is still of course required, and scientists still perform the role of expert witnesses. But expert witnesses are required in all societies, whether democratic or authoritarian. Authoritarian societies can do without public intellectuals and, indeed, courtrooms.

Saturday, June 11, 2005


What could more British?

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Gilbert and George are taking the piss aren’t they?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss.
What could be more British than here’s a picture of my bum?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss

Billy Bragg predicts the British representation at the Venice Biennial.

The lyrics, incidentally, are from Take Down the Union Jack, on the album England, Half English.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Redistribution, New Labour-style

A letter to the Guardian on Monday 6th June asked:

“Why set up a complicated system for charging motorists by the distance they travel, when all that is needed is a ban on diesel cars and more petrol tax?”

The answer, of course, is that petrol tax could be used to achieve the same ends as satellite surveillance. That is, if the end sought is the market-based disincentive to behaviour that causes traffic congestion (and pollution). Plainly, as the government seems to be willing to spend billions on this project, where an increase in petrol tax would cost nothing and could be introduced in a very short space of time, the government has other ends in mind. Either that, or they are very stupid, and have been taken in by silver-tongued IT salesmen. And that is the point. This proposal is very like the government’s Identification Cards obsession. It will be a piece in the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state. But that is not the end that the government is seeking. The end sought, having ruled out stupidity and dreams of a Stasi, is the transfer of billions of pounds of public wealth to a tiny number of IT contractors.

And this is New Labour policy across the board. Where the Tories transferred concrete public assets such as power stations and trains into the hands of a tiny number of people for a knock down price, New Labour transfers liquid public assets to an already wealthy elite. This is the rationale behind PPP, PFI, Identification Cards (and a whole host of wasteful – and privately provided – IT schemes) and now the surveillance on charging of road use. In the case of Academy Schools, the privatisation is of an even greater degree – the private ‘sponsor’, can, for next to no money, acquire a publicly funded school to run as he, she or they see fit.

New Labour cares deeply about the redistribution of wealth and power.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I hope that he gets a first

Darren Cullen, a final year student at the Glasgow School of Art, has managed, after some wrangling, to get his project on display.

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The Guardian quotes Margaret Morrisey, of the national Parent Teachers Association; “I think it's fair to say Christmas has become too commercialised. But there's no harm in a little bit of magic. For people to become artists they have to understand fantasy and magic. To be so cruel as to do something like that is not necessary. My seven-year-old granddaughter totally believes in Father Christmas. If she saw that billboard she would really question it and I would never be able to make her believe again. We know they won't believe forever, but it's nice to pretend.”

But Cullen has the perfect reply, arguing that “children have no intellectual self-defence against marketing and advertising and in that way they are easy targets.” In other words, if his posters really do have any effect on children, then we should question the role played by far more pervasive and well-targeted advertising and marketing in children’s lives.

Cullen worked in advertising for four years.


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