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Wednesday 7 December 2022

How Smart?

Charles Dickens
I don't do social media any more. It's a toxic cesspit of illogic, bigotry and overweening arrogance resulting in what, statistically, is far too many people thinking they're the smartest person in the room, and almost all of them overlooking the primary principle of intellectual self-improvement; if you're the smartest person in the room, you're almost certainly in the wrong room. 
In fact, the vast majority of people are in exactly the right room, they just aren't smart enough to recognise it.

I do keep an eye on some social media accounts, notably some journalists whose output is intelligent, considered and articulate and keeps me abreast of things. One such account is Novara Media's Ash Sarkar, with whom I align so well politically she often saves me the effort of feeling I need to comment. Famous for - among other things - retorting to Piers Morgan "I'm a communist, you idiot!", Ash is that rarest of commodities; a non-client journalist.

Anyhoo, she's been having some 'fun' on Twitter of late with, yes, the racists, despite Britain being purportedly No Place For Racism. Apparently, a black actor has been engaged to portray the titular character in Oliver Twist in a production for radio (because melanin plays havoc with enjoyment of audio...) This, despite him being an entirely fictitious person, has some of the gammon* brigade up in arms.

This would not ordinarily worthy of comment in this place, but one retort sets it apart and brings it into my wheelhouse, a particular exchange about educational attainment and physics, and in particular about assessments rooted in shoddy logic.

So let's look at the landscape without the preamble. Here's Ash:

The allusion to fantasy should be clear. Dickens wrote fiction, albeit with a factually-oriented slant. In fact, it's well worth noting Dickens was what we would nowadays call 'woke', to at least some degree. Oliver Twist was written, at least in part, as a protest. Dickens began writing it immediately after the institution of the so-called 'poor laws' of 1834, which stemmed from idiot gammon Jeremy Bentham's nonsensical assertion that people would tend to claim state benefits rather than working, an assertion that still carries weight among the conservative politicians of today, despite being flatly contradicted by reality. Dickens was more than aware of the travails of the poor, having been a child worker himself after his father was sent to debtor's prison. He was firmly of the belief - quite correct - that the major driver of crime is poverty, and was utterly dismayed at the criminalisation thereof.

In any event that was the setting. The idea that Dickens was writing anything other than completely constructed characters is exactly analogous to the expectation that people routinely encounter talking fauns under lamp-posts at the backs of their wardrobes. As for Oliver's ethnicity, it's been decades since I read it - Dickens was a good storyteller but a bloody awful writer; fight me - I have no recollection of a clear description ever having been given. It's known that he was the result of an illicit affair Between Mr Leeford and Agnes Fleming. We could possibly infer ethnicity there, if we were idiots, but we're also entirely aware that anglophones are shockingly bad with unfamiliar phonemes, and routinely change them or bestow names we're more comfortable with\(^†\).

Anyway, there was a comment...

I won't comment on the advertisement of his entire position with the flag in the moniker, always a stick-on for a bigot, and I'm going to ignore the content aside from pointing out that the accusation of race-grifting is, well, racist, because this is just a set-up for what's coming:

This is news to me, yet entirely unsurprising. Still, here's the killer, and what brought me on board.

Let's ignore the almost certain fact that Lee Wardle can probably identify two or - if he's particularly knowledgeable about physics - three or even four of the people in that photograph, the comment is asinine on the face of it. Not just his own accompanying comment, but the comment that this is the most intelligent group photograph ever taken. This is what I'd term a 'Gödel statement'; one that can be erected only from within a set of axioms, with no regard to whether those axioms are consistent. All else aside, here's another group photo:

Go on, tell me that isn't a smarter group of people. I dare you. I'm not going to say it is, but I'm also not daft enough to assert that it isn't. 

In fact, while I know who most of the people are in the first group photo, I can only positively identify three of the people in this one (and I might be wrong about two of them). That's more a matter of historical contingency than anything, because we've had 95 years to absorb that photo and the scientific contributions of the people in it, and it's worth noting that the legacy of the Solvay Conference has been one of immense confusion\(^‡\), a legacy we've been at pains to demystify in this little corner of the interwebs for some years. The one I'm absolutely certain of is the man on the far left, Neil Turok, whose work we examined in You Must be Off Your Brane!, and who I half-expected to be elected to the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge after Hawking. This group is so far beyond the foundations of Quantum Mechanics it would almost be like asking whether Newton or Einstein was the more intelligent. It's nonsensical to draw such comparisons.

There's also the small matter of confounders. People think of Quantum Mechanics as a horrendously difficult subject, but it really isn't. It's deeply counter-intuitive, as we've discovered in some detail hereabouts, but almost all the hurdles to intuition arise from thinking of particles as little chunks of stuff, when they're not remotely like little chunks. As soon as you shed that, it actually becomes fairly straightforward to intuit. The over-riding point is that Quantum Mechanics is enormously predictable, rendering the most accurate predictions ever made by science, in fact, despite all the ontological baggage imposed on us by our middle-world intuitions and the always-fraught rendering of its postulates into natural language.

Socio-political postulates are a different beast entirely, primarily because people are considerably less predictable than the distributions of energy dealt with in Quantum Mechanics. We can't check our work for consistency with dimensional analysis when we're dealing with the lived experience of real people in the real world. While it's certainly true that it takes a reasonably high degree of intelligence to engage in the bleeding edge of physics, the notion that a group of physicists is inherently more intelligent than any other collection of well-educated people is preposterous. People aren't drawn to be theoretical physicists because they're intelligent, but because they're interested in theoretical physics. Other equally intelligent people are drawn to other pursuits. There was a really lovely comment on this, albeit somewhat oblique if you don't know what you're looking at. Here it is:

In case this image doesn't strike a chord, Max was highlighting where Lee's brain cocked up. It's an example of a very particular kind of bias, known as 'confirmation bias'. The story is that planes that went on bombing missions returned consistently with impact patterns that looked like the above, with hits in all those places. The powers that be decided they needed to do something about that, and reinforced those areas with armour. Of course, what they completely overlooked is the lack of returning planes with bullet-holes elsewhere, and that's because planes that were hit in places other than those in the image simply didn't make it back, so they were fortifying areas of the planes that could withstand the bullets, and completely ignoring the areas of the planes that, if hit, generally resulted in a downed plane. The obvious allusion is that this is a group of physicists, therefore the smartest. It's worth pointing out that I know and have known quite a few physicists, yet the person who's most routinely challenged me to think harder isn't a physicist, let alone a stale, old, white male. Her field of study is geology and geoscience, because that's what interests her. 

As for the 'purge', this is just another episode of Things That Didn't Happen. There's a really excellent book on the subject of clearing out the old in science, a tale of inertia and the demise of the old guard and their paradigms. I suggest Lee needs to avail himself of this work, entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. This is, in fact, the work that coined the term 'paradigm shift', a term that's found its way into our collective colloquium.

And, of course, the entire point of pivoting to this group photograph in the first place was an attempt to deflect the Ash's point by the clumsy intimation that maybe Ash's experience teaching Victorian literature at university level is somehow less than... less than what is left to the interested reader, but it's a beautiful fallacy twofer nonetheless, the ever-present well-poisoning fallacy, which we met in Don't Drink That!, and the red herring fallacy. Ash's experience in teaching Victorian literature is a direct refutation of the alleged ignorance of the distinction drawn. 

The idea that Oliver Twist couldn't have been black is absurd on the face of it, entirely aside from the fact that it's terminally irrelevant. There were plenty of people of colour in Victorian England, and some of them were in workhouses. Here's another group photo:

There's your Oliver Twist, right there. Three of them. These are Elizabeth, Sarah and John Peters, taken in by Barnardo's from the St George's Workhouse in Hanover Square in London, in what is now the swankiest property on the Monopoly board. And they were the lucky ones, finding their way thanks to the hotbed of wokeness that Barnardo's clearly is. You can read their full story here.

There was one more comment that caught my eye, a sideways look at a famous quote by one of the physicists in that first group photo that's cropped up here on more than one occasion.

 Nicht einmal falsch

This is an extremely common set of circumstances, in which somebody insists that a character be played by somebody who meets their personal comfort, and petulantly voice their barbaric and bigoted yawp from the rooftops. Maybe the funnynotfunniest example of this was the recent blow-up by terminal fuckwit and Scaly Mail journalist Dan Hodges, who went bananas when a black actor was cast to play Hamlet. This, despite his mother, the amazingly talented and brilliant Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson, being nominated for a bucketload of awards and winning several of them for playing... King Lear. Honestly, even Hodges himself, a fiction writer as prolific as Dickens (but not even in his league as a writer), couldn't make this up. An enormous part of what art is about is generating the kind of discomfort that makes you think. Your ideas about such things should be challenged. It's what it's for. If you feel uncomfortable because a black person plays a character you think should be white, or any other iteration of a minority actor playing a role you think should be played by... what was it again... oh, yes, a stale white male, there are two things I can discern from this; first, you're a bigot, and second, the art is doing its job. Love the milquetoast if you haven't the wit to be challenged, but don't speak for the rest of us, who aren't remotely fazed by such circumstances. 

Just grow up instead.

* There are those - all of them racist - who suggest that 'gammon' is a racist term applied to white people. In fact, historically the term was applied to general bloviation, and is precisely nothing to do with pigmentation, but is descriptive of the engorgement of the face due to outrage (gammon is not white, it's a pinkish purple; if you're this colour, it isn't race you're suffering from; see a physician). All else aside, I have a catalogue of gammons of colour, not least idiot white supremacist internet cleric and howling racist Calvin Robinson, who we met arguing the gammon position against life-long and career anti-racist Billy Bragg on the racist Channel 4 news in 'A Proper Gander'.

\(^†\) Not incidentally, an instance of obvious racism at Buckingham Palace of late has been defended by the racists on the basis that the victim of the abuse - and there's absolutely no doubt that it was racist abuse - has changed her name from the Anglophone one her family were inflicted with to one that more accurately reflects her identity, which is seen as some sort of nefarious 'race-baiting' plot. Let's ignore the fact that you can't be baited into behaviour you're not willing to engage in, as well as the implication that you're so easily manipulated that you can be baited into such disgusting and toxic behaviour, because reclaiming one's identity is an obvious response to any sort of oppression. It's a ubiquitous feature of why so many Irish people have reclaimed the de-Anglicised versions of their names, or have named their children in Gaelic. My own name is not Tony Murphy, as it says on my passport, but Antóin O'Murchadh (in fact, there is no 'h' in Gaelic; the h denotes a diacritical dot above the preceding letter, which usually denotes a 'v' sound for the combination, meaning the 'h' is itself an Anglicisation imposed after the teaching of Gaelic was outlawed by the British government when their illegitimate occupation covered the whole island). The history of this occurrence is voluminous in almost every sphere of resistance to oppression. Of course, the reason the gammons don't grok it is because they have no history or experience of being oppressed, which is also why they don't understand Black History Month, or Gay Pride, or any of the movements that "I'm still here, you fuckers!"

\(^‡\) Don't even get me started on the collapse of the wavefunction and what we can 'know' about the conjugate variables of quantum systems. Not that the Uncertainty Principle applies only to 'particles', of course. It applies to everything. More on that here.

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