Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Intervention 'versus' Free Markets

Just read a good, clear piece about recent events in the financial markets, over at the Democrat's Diary.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Comment is Free - A Reply

Last week I wrote a piece about Dawkins's 2-part documentary The Enemies of Reason for the Guardian's web site. You can read the piece here.

The piece attracted a large number of responses from readers. I will try to address the main issues raised here.

Firstly, a number of posters asked about the factual basis for some of the claims I made. CommanderKeen asked for a source for the claim that:

The pharmaceutical companies receive far more in public subidies than is spent supporting alternative medicine.

Under the formula agreed by government and business at the end of 2004, 28% of the money paid for branded drugs is a earmarked to support research and development (see this BMJ article for more about the scheme). The NHS spend £10.3 billion on drugs annually according to the Department of Health. 80% of NHS drugs are covered by the agreement, according to Pharmacy Management, ie £8.24 billion. Of this £2.3 billion is therefore an r&d subsidy.

Figures for spending on alternative health are more difficult to come by. But last year the Times estimated that NHS spending on CAT was around £450 million. How much of this could legitimately called a subsidy is less clear. The £10 million spent helping to refurbish the homeopathic hospital, perhaps. Anyway, total taxpayer funding for CAT (which incudes sports massage, GP-referred acupuncture and so on) is around a fifth of the allocated subsidy for the pharmaceutical companies. This is separate from the fixed profits that the companies enjoy on sales to the NHS. We ought also to bear in mind the state support for tertiary science education, which provides the pharmaceutical industry with trained staff, and the state support for basic research, which often feeds into commercial product development.

CommanderKeen also asked for a soource for the claim that:

[Public money] overwhelmingly goes on marketing treatments for lifestyle complaints.

According to Rachel Cohen of Medecins san Frontieres in 2000 'no drugs were being developed to treat tuberculosis, compared with 8 for impotence or erectile dysfunction and 7 for baldness' (quoted in The Corporation, Joel Bakan, Constable: London, 2004, p.49). These figures broadly generalise, I think, for understandable commercial reasons.

I might have added that almost all major breakthroughs in pharmaceutical medicine have depended on fundamental research by state and academic institutions. Much of the original work on the BCG vaccine was done at the Pasteur Institute, for example.

The key question is whether the corporations are safe custodians of the public health research agenda. Should we give them vast sums of money for research? Or should we look to find other ways to promote innovation in medical science and public health policy (the two are not always identical)?

I don't mean to imply that Big Pharma is worse than other businesses in any essential sense, by the way. Dawkins spent an hour talking about medicine; Big Pharma is relevant in that context. It is important to recognise that there is more to this than an anti-capitalist critique. The sector enjoys very high profit margins while receiving very considerable public support.

Theophobic asked for background on the following:

States and corporations habitually use rational means to promote irrationality in target populations. They exploit the prestige of science to marginalise their critics. They cook up marketing strategies that sound scientific but are no more than mythmaking.

State propaganda standardly promotes false beliefs and hence irrational ones. In the USA much of the population thought the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi; they thought that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks; that Bush was invading to avenge an assassination attempt on his father and so on. Similar campaigns for war were run in 1916-17 in the US, in the late 30s, in the late 40s (to help kick off the Cold War), in the 80s (against the Sandinistas) and so on.

Corporations promote irrational beliefs about their products, quite standardly. It's called advertising. They also promote irrational beliefs about themselves. This is called Corporate Social Responsibility.

The best example of science in the service of myth I have come across is the 'serotonin myth', which David Healy discusses in Let Them Eat Prozac (New York University Press, New York, 2006). We all think that Prozac and the other SSRIs work by raising the level of serotonin in the bloodstream. In fact we have no idea how the SSRIs work. Which, I grant you, isn't as snappy from a marketing point of view.

On the use of the prestige of science to discredit legitimate critics, I suggest you go and look at Sourcewatch; they provide a handy list of business-funded think tanks. If you look at the work of these think tanks, you will see that they often accuse critics of business of technophobia, or irrationality.

(Theophobic - on the matter of the 'deep time machine', I don't accept that the universe is a machine, much less a time machine. Machines are made for a purpose. It is no more than whimsy to call the universe a machine)

Aside from these matters of fact, there are two related themes in objections to the piece. One is that Dawkins can't be expected to take on everything. There are plenty of people researching the problem of state and corporate mendacity, so there is no great harm in his focussing on homeopaths and whatnot (henrykrinkel, Everytimereferee etc).

The difficulty I have with this is that Dawkins couched his argument explicitly in terms of a defence of the Enlightenment tradition of free inquiry and open debate. He claims to see a rising tide of superstition and magical thinking among the public and a growing distrust of science. He further claims that alternative and complementary practitioners (charlatans as he would see it) are central to explaining the public's growing distrust. My own view is that the factual basis for this claim is pretty shaky. There is some considerable concern about the structure of the medical/scientific system (the medical industrial complex, to sound a more polemical note). Some of that is stoked by the anti-rational claims of snake oil types. But some of it derives from legitimate anxieties about the corruption, danger, waste, and wasted opportunities, in the current mechanisms for research funding. If you are serious about defending the Enlightenment you need to be careful to register the difference. It might even be possible to do a little research into the link between CAM and distrust of conventional medicine.

The second main objection (Mujokan, for example) is that alternative therapists are more serious as a threat to reason because they reject science, rather than manipulating it for their own ends, as the corporations do - 'misuse of science is bad, but at least it requires acceptance of science'. I think this is an interesting point. It suggests a different way of ordering priorities, one in which radical differences at the level of theory matter more than the material impact of various agents on the wider society. So a rationalist must care more about what an openly irrational agent gets up to than they do about someone who is also rational, but happens to be engaged in deceit. This is part explains the prominence of postmodernism in attempts to defend the Enlightenment. Because some postmodernists claim to be 'radically sceptical' about the Enlightenment project (and inded sometimes define themselves against any such project) they excite the hostility of those who see themselves as the Enlightenment's defenders.

I would reject this way of thinking, though. Even if we limit ourselves to CAM, it doesn't seem obvious that a rational materialist conman is less of a worry than a well-intentioned, but deluded, advocate of some kind of esoteric treatment. Both should be treated with extreme caution, but the former seems more morally disgraceful. Looking more widely, rational agents who promote irrationality in pursuit of their goals are much more powerful than the mostly good-natured types who really think that crystals or magnets are the answer to the world's woes. Indeed in part it is their open-eyed use of rational means (polling, research, experiment, etc) to promote delusional ideas in the wider population that makes them so powerful.

The clash between faith and reason, between the rational and the irrational, and so on, is dramatically appealing. It feels urgent and brave to attack the irrational on the terms that Dawkins does. I just don't think it is.

I hope that clarifies my position a little.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Comment is Free

Work is really hectic right now, but I will try to post a response to some of the comments on my Guardian piece next week.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

The Guardian's Comment is Free has just posted an article by me about Dawkins' problamatic relationship with the Enlightenment. The readers' responses haven't been quite as hostile as they were last time. The most powerfully expressed objections seem to be that a.) Dawkins doesn't need to address corporate and state efforts to promote irrationality, because that's John Pilger's job and b.) I am an elitist bastard.

(there are more subtle and interesting criticisms than that, in fact)

My favourite comment so far comes from 'Henuttawy' -

Ah, how sad. The expectant followers of the great Prophet Dawkins find that his attempt at a Sermon on the Mount merely tried to put the world to rights by attacking the likes of horoscope-writers.

As was related in the gospel according to St. Dawkins, Chapter II, verses 14-18:

And then didst the followers of the Prophet Dawkins gather together in CIF.
"What about the really big issues, O lord?" the followers cried unto him. "What about the really big fibs, the ones that multinational corporations, politicians and the like tell? Wilt thou also tell them to be less economical with the truth?"
"Shut your stupid faces," the Prophet said unto them, pocketing the fee which Channel 4 had given him. "For unlike the faith-heads, they have big-shot lawyers and the media behind them! In other words, they have power!"
"But how does this help to establish the new religion of reason, O lord?" the followers asked their Prophet.
"Never mind that - just keep repeating the new lord's prayer of gimme proof, gimme proof, gimme proof," the Prophet sayeth unto them. "Just don't ask politicians and multinationals the same question, that's all..."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Get Your (Think) Tanks Off My Lawn

Controversy continues to rage over The Threat to Reason. In the Independent James Harkin denounces the 'toothless and muddled' version of Enlightenment that he claims to find in the book. Needless to say I am not wholly convinced by his claims. Toothless and muddled I may be, but the model of Enlightenment I champion is inhumanly clear-eyed and toothy.

You can read his review here and I have written a response to him on the Prospect blog, which you can find here. Hopefully we will have an enlightened exchange of views.

A friend and colleague of Frank Furedi, one Dolan Cummings, reviews the book here on the slightly nerve-wracking Culture Wars site. In a moment of fair-minded transparency Cummings acknowledges the link with Furedi. Not surprisingly he prefers Furedi's approach to mine - 'Furedi wants to argue with the public; Hind wants to enlighten it'. Maybe.

Meanwhile over in the much reviled mainstream media Harry Eyres has written a glowing review in the Financial Times. The comparison with Chomsky is flattering, but I am not sure he is right.

Did I ever tell you I was on that Start the Week? You can still listen to my frantic attempts to remember the book's argument here.

Meanwhile everyone appears to have been hypnotised by Richard Dawkins's latest intervention, The Enemies of Reason, in which he bravely attacks psychics, homeopaths and other threats to an enlightened understanding. Those of you who have had more than a couple of drinks with me will know how glad I am that Dawkins is still getting away with this stuff.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exchange with Jonathan Derbyshire

Keen readers of this blog (are there any, I wonder?) will recall that Jonathan Derbyshire reviewed my book for the New Humanist. We had a brief exchange about the review, which I reproduce here:


27 June, 2007

Dear Mr Derbyshire,

I have just seen your review of my book, The Threat to Reason. It is the first I have seen, so I read it with great interest, as you can imagine.

I am glad you thought it was breezy; I did want to write something that would be accessible to non-experts.

I am sorry that that you found it hard to tell what kind of Enlightenment-sceptic I am, or if I even am one. For the record, I like lots of things we associate with the Enlightenment; free inquiry, a commitment to material progress through the advancement of knowledge, and so on. But as you are aware the history of the Enlightenment is complex and cannot be defended (or attacked) as an indivisible whole. We shouldn't be forced to choose whether to be for or against the Enlightenment; indeed I don’t know what it would mean to be for or against a historical period.

I wish I could have been clearer about this in the book, but there it is. I was conscious while writing that I was operating at the very limit of, and sometimes beyond, my powers.

One thing did puzzle me, and I wanted to ask you about it. In the conclusion to the review you write that:

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it criticizes the dupes of military or corporate might on the basis of principles (justice, say) that, by its own lights, cannot be anything but the ideological residue of power politics. But the ‘betrayal of the Enlightenment’ that Hind denounces wouldn’t be real if its principles themselves weren’t real.

Why do you think that my analysis requires me to believe that moral principles ‘can’t be anything other than the ideological residue of power politics’? I certainly don’t believe that, and I would be very disappointed (horrified, in fact) if I had written anything that gave the impression that I did. I’d be very keen to know what prompted you to think this.

It would be fun to have a bit of a discussion about this and related topics. What with Hitchens’s call for a new Enlightenment the other day and the current vogue for atheist polemic, I would welcome a conversation about what it would mean to be enlightened now, and about what we can learn from the history of the Age of Reason. If you like we could aspire to one of those public debates that Kant was so keen on.

Yours sincerely,

Dan Hind


2 July, 2007

Dear Dan (if I may?)

Very sorry not to have replied to your email sooner - I've been away.
I'm sorry you're puzzled by that paragraph in my review, so let me try to clarify the point I was trying to make. You argue that Enlightenment principles have been "betrayed" (p134). As I point out, this entails that those principles are real, that they have substantive content and are not just ideological epiphenomena. However, you also argue that Enlightenment ideals routinely provide cover for power politics (see, for example, p105).

Now, you could quite reasonably reply that those two claims are perfectly compatible and that what you mean by "betrayal" is just the latter. But if that's the case, I don't understand why you insist on using the notion of the "Occult Enlightenment". If it's a "betrayal" of the Enlightenment, why use the term at all? It seems to me that you're tempted here, perhaps for polemical purposes, by what can plausibly be described as an Enlightenment-scepticism too strong for the rest of your argument to bear.

Does that help?

All best,



14 August, 2007

I have thought about Jonathan's point for a while now and can understand how he could see a problem with my position.

He is right, I think, that I should have worked harder to distinguish between two ways in which the state-corporate system relates to the Enlightenment.

Firstly, states and corporations exploit enlightened rhetoric to maginalise and discredit their enemies, as when corporate-friendly think tanks set up a confrontation between enlightened experts and an irrational, risk-averse public.

Secondly states and corporations support scientific institutions under conditions of secrecy, or at least commercial confidentiality. I call this the Occult Enlightenment in the book.

The work of the Occult Enlightenment remains recognisably in the Enlightenment tradition. The work of scientists developing biological weapons may well be scientifically impeccable, albeit morally disgusting. It doesn't make sense to declare that this work is simply a 'betrayal of the Enlightenment'. It is too close to the program for knowledge suggested by Bacon and indeed too close to the program of the Royal Society. On the other hand I do think it should be resisted, should indeed be the focus of enlightened public inquiry. In the Occult Enlightenment, open sincere debate takes place behind closed doors. Hence the attempt to contrast an Open with an Occult Enlightenment.

Of course the two approaches do sometimes coincide, as when an intelligence agency market-tests and then deploys enlightened rhetoric to damage the reputation of their enemies - as when an official enemy is declared to be an enemy of freedom of speech, a strong theme in CIA propaganda against the Sandinistas in the 80s, for example.

So, for the record, activities can both plausibly inhabit the tradition of the Enlightenment in one sense, and at the same time undermine it in another.

Exciting, isn't it?

(15 August, 2007 - I have decided to change the wording on page 134 in future editions of the book to remove any ambiguity. I do try to distinguish throughout between Enlightenment as a moral commitment to truth and Enlightenment as a set of rational techniques deployed in an institutional setting, so I don't think that Derbyshire's point generalises, but as I say, I can see why he might have been confused by this particular sentence)