Today I’m recovering from a rather unpleasant patch of illness that has left me drained, tired and at times irritable — and has prevented me posting the following thoughts for over a week. As I can’t see anyone caring anyway, the following post can be seen as a sort of note to self — but hopefully in future rows I can refer people here. I was awaiting the chance to read Daniel Loxton’s piece on scepticism – I often agree with him on much – but in the end have seized the opportunity to write my own thoughts here. I shall adopt a short, simple and hopefully clear style, rather than my usual one.
So, I don’t want to be called a “skeptic” any more. Or even a “sceptic”, though I think I prefer that, it having the advantage of being spelt correctly in the British English I speak. Of course, if you go to the Greek — but either way, the issue is sceptic does not work for me. I even think it’s potentially harmful. We might need to lose it.
I know a bit about ghosts. I know people experience ghosts. I’m still fairly ambivalent about what ghost experiences represent and whether science can currently explain them. (I think not all). I am therefore surely not a sceptic?: I am open to “paranormal” beliefs.
Or am I? Skip back to 2006 when I joined the JREF forum, Randi’s place. People were just as belligerent and rude there back then as today (and some, indeed many, just as ace) and I soon ended up trying to explain that I saw Scepticism as a methodology, a critical process of investigating facts and assessing evidence, rather than a simple process of nay saying. I argued many posters at the JREF were “a priori skeptics” – that is that they knew say the paranormal was all bunk, therefore there was no need to address paranormal claims. (And such opinions still appear there today). APS, a priori skepticism can be defended as a tactic, but is irrational (in the technical sense) as an actual worldview.
I guess I had best defend that last statement. OK, imagine tomorrow we prove that some phenomena that occurs in paranormal books – take Giant Squid as that happened – really exists. Giant squid were staples of 70′ paranormal books. Therefore to APS they can not be real because they are/were paranormal. Now you can presumably if you are an a priori skeptic move things from the “paranormal” to the “real” category — but how remains rather obscure, because once you allow that it removes any justification for the APS of paranormal claims in the first place. Luckily most people who adopt APS are not concerned with epistemology or consistency, only in sneering at anyone who lacks their extreme faith-based beliefs. (I’m sure I don’t have to explain why APS is faith based?)
So enough of APS: it is still a minority position. Most sceptics I spoke to agreed with my 2006 definition of scepticism as a process: a way of looking at the world. Now I spent a lot of 2008-2010 reading philosophy of science, as I kept finding myself puzzled by things I experienced in sceptical circles (people used “rationalist” to mean something other than “argument based on deduction, not sense-observation” for example — and they used “empirical” to include mathematical proofs which are not empirical but rationalist, as well as conflating “rational” and “true” and “irrational” with “false”. I was irritated at times by what seemed to be the exuberance and bull headed self confidence of people who thought they were clever, yet often struck me as not actually knowing what they were talking about. Rather than fight over misappropriation of philosophical language, words can change their meanings and usage after all, I however noted something quite clear —
There seemed little difference between a process sceptic (or methodological scepticism) and normal scientific methodologies.
Yes I really did just write that in red bold. Methodological Scepticism and Science are one and the same thing. If you disagree with me, as I’m sure someone must, then please do comment, and tell me how they differ. Both begin by asking questions, and usually involve attempting to falsify a hypothesis. Both involve ending up making a judgement regarding the strength of the evidence, and if the research supported or opposed certain conclusions. Science like Scepticism can be performed by people irrespective of their personal ideological baggage – even Richard Dawkins has been able to perform science successfully despite his clearly strong ideological biases.
In process Scepticism paranormal belief is perfectly compatible with said scepticism, if that is what the empirical evidence leads you to. And hence the strong scepticism among many spiritualist circles, and large numbers of scientists I think who sit in such circles – they have a very anti-faith and evidence based mindset, and spiritualism provides what appears to be empirical proof, or so its adherents profess.
Now I’ve bolded that last paragraph cos I want to look at it more. I’m not a spiritualist, and immediately my instinct is sod “process scepticism”/”scientific methodology”, they are all deluded or being defrauded. Yet I immediately stop myself – because that claim is absolutely unfounded. I have certainly seen fake mediums – and ones who were convinced of their own abilities too – but I certainly have not seen enough to know they were all fakes, even if the Problem of Induction allowed one to make such grandiose claims. I have certainly know enough intelligent critical people who think they have encountered empirical evidence of the persistence after death of loved ones to realise my reaction is emotional, and far from sceptical.
As a sceptic I should do the work: conduct some experiments, investigate the evidence, and not draw conclusions beyond what the evidence permits. To allow “scientific cultures” sneering contempt for mediumship to influence my thinking is clearly seriously unscientific; and when I turn to the arguments most commonly brought against studying such things as impossible, I find most of them are of the category “belief claims for a materialist philosophical worldview” rather than actually anything to do with Science.
If Scepticism is as I propose simply synonymous with Science, it must remain as neutral as possible in framing the questions and conducting the research. If Scepticism is not Science, but instead something more akin to the philosophical defence (apologetics) of materialist, reductionist, and eliminative philosophies then it should be honest that it is that – faith based teaching, a form of apologetics, and state so.
So to go back to those spiritualists — I must adopt an open minded approach as far as I can, given my prejudices, to the phenomena. I must attempt to be objective. If strong belief either way is allowed to interfere with my reading of the data, my science will be flawed. I will want to render the whole research as transparent and objective as possible.
So why disguise my Scientific investigation as something else, dressing it up as “sceptical”? If that term says nothing about my final position (which will be evidence based) why use the misleading “sceptic” term? I’m assuming that no one thinks one can scientifically investigate spiritualism’s reality with the conclusion already written – that would be appalling science – so why take on a label that seems to suggest one is doing exactly such a thing?
Furthermore, imagine you think you have seen a ghost, or a bigfoot, or somesuch. You look in the phonebook – there is the local woo group with their YouTube video series, or the local SCEPTIC. Who will you go to? I doubt it will be the sceptic – even if you are unsure about exactly what you experienced, sceptic implies someone who won’t believe you.
Science is methodologically rigorous, critical thinking, and evidence based. Why do we need to add a Skeptic label?
We don’t. I suggest “Skeptics” stop trying to promote “scepticism”, and promote simpler easier to sell virtues, Truth and Science. No one will react badly to you promising to use science and objectively look for the truth. They may even support you.
I can only think of four reasons why the term Sceptic may be used…
1. It may be employed by people who feel insecure about their credentials for doing science. Don’t. You do not need to wear a white coat or have a PhD in a Scientific discipline to do science. If you aspire to do science, people will help you. Choose a simple research topic, think of an experiment, and try and ask a few folks to check out your methodology before you start. Make sure your ethics are good. And publish your results, if only on the web
2. It might be employed by people who think researching say ESP or Lake Monsters without setting out clearly they think it is all bunk will damage their university careers and funding. If so I sympathise, but your publications can speak for themselves, and I think the contrary implication that you are researching topics with your mind already made up as to the outcomes might do you rather more damage in much of academia than a predilection for studying slightly offbeat things.
3. It might be employed by people who genuinely believe there is a difference between sceptical and scientific methodologies, and that the former is superior. If such a position is held, please do explain it to me.
and finally 4. Some people may like calling themselves skeptics because it sounds clever. I have often found skeptics to be fairly intellectually self-assured. I don’t think advocating Science is any less clever though.
So seriously, this whole skeptic thing, it has got so much baggage attached. Stuff it. You find great papers and poor papers in the journals, and whether written by sceptics or believers is irrelevant. Evidence and sound analysis — good science – is what matters at the end of the day.
A fairly short piece today, on something I have mused over this week. I think it all started with a friend finally persuading me to watch the US comedy The Big Bang Theory: for the record I enjoyed it, and it’s a fun sitcom about geek stereotypes. In many ways it is similar to the wonderfully written British sitcom The IT Crowd – which features the IT department of a large utterly awful London corporation, and remains one of my favourite shows.
Geeks come in all forms, and The IT Crowd includes gaming geek references – there is a shot of what is clearly the board game Ticket to Ride in one episode, and another episode in which Moss ends up running a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy rpg. The DVD series box set even comes with one of its own as I recall Bravo! I personally enjoy these things immensely, just as I enjoy the mathematical geekery of Randall Munroe’s wonderful xkcd, which also featured the board game Agricola in one strip.
Both Big Bang Theory and IT Crowd provide affectionate portraits of geeks; they mock, but with genuine sympathy. The geeks are the good guys and gals. This is fine, though it is noticeable that in both shows the female character is the non-geek, or rather, the slightly less geeky. I assume this is to reflect the traditional issues geeks are said to have with “girls” (though it may simply be a narrative framing device for the non-geek Watson to be more sympathetic?) but it is hard to say of that reflects reality any more. My experience is that geeks today, comic, science, maths, games, computer, whatever shade — that they are as likely to be women as men. I may be wrong, your experience may vary. Certainly geeks can get dates these days, and I was amazed when I googled it at the plethora of “geek” dating agencies out there. I actually think “geeks” are increasingly the sex symbols of our society — but I’ll get back to that later.
Now when I was an undergrad I was told to start assignments by defining my terms. Being as pedantic as I am, this usually meant I ran out of words long before I started to answer the question, but it did teach me a lot. However I am fiercely going to avoid trying to define “geek” here: the term is fairly synonymous to my mind with the older pejorative nerd, in defining a group of scientifically/mathematically minded folks who have cultural associations with gaming and science Fiction and Fantasy: but ultimately geek is what geek is to you. We can argue definitions in the comments.
Kicking My Own Argument for Fun
I’m going to make the case that The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory are symptomatic of a shift in cultural and economic power, and that the Geeks will (and have already to a large extent) inherit the Earth. I will try and defend that position. However, I’m going to start by critiquing the idea that a couple of TV shows really shows us anything. Back in the 90′s Graham Linehan, the urbane witty and genuinely brilliant writer behind The IT Crowd gave us another much loved show, Father Ted. For those who spent that decade on a remote Irish island, er sorry, in a cave, Father Ted gently mocks (and at times fiercely satirizes) the Irish Catholic Church. It was a masterpiece. And we can compare it with another show of the period, that did much the same to the Anglican Church in England, The Vicar of Dibley. (Vicar of Dibley deserves its own piece, for its romanticisation of English country life, and the feudal/pastoral idyll it depicted. I enjoy it, but there is so much we can say about it. That must wait however.) So, given that Dibley and Father Ted both dealt with Churches, does that mean that religion was in the 1990′s gaining in importance? Far from it: I think those shows in their own way reflect a (at times hideous) past – they refer back to an earlier age, and our childhoods. The churches were safe to mock in the 1990′s, because they had to many become ridiculous, and yet reassuring. I’m going to write more on this theme: for now I simply ask you to consider it as a counterbalance to what I have to say below. In short, I may be talking utter rot about geeks.
Here I Stand
So right, I am making the strong claim that geek has become mainstream, and may soon become the largest subculture, indeed perhaps even the mainstream culture of the UK (that is it will be hegemonic if you want to get technical – geek assumptions, morals and ideals will be seen as “common sense” and the reality, and those not sharing these values will be in ‘outsider’ subcultures.
Secondly, I am making the claim that geek culture is in denial of this reality, and continues to see itself as outsider and to some extent persecuted by “The Establishment” and “The Cool Kids”.
Thirdly, I predict that what we now regard as geek will simply become so mainstream that new oppositional subcultures will arise that will reject computing and Joss Wheldon programmes as much as geeks probably were not great fans of Blankety-Blank. We will see a new generation who just don’t think the internet is cool, and don’t give a hoot about SF or Halo 3. Based upon the end of the Victorian period in a dangerous piece of historical guesswork, I will claim that there will be an inevitable backlash and move to something very different, and probably anti-science and probably hedonistic and anti-intellectual. This is by far my most daring claim, because it is based on nothing more than what happened in the period 1860-1920, and history does not have to repeat itself.
To defend all these claims properly would take all day, so I have nailed my colours to the mast. I’ll just briefly explain my thinking. If I am wrong after all it will be forgotten in a week, and if I am right, posterity may credit me far more than I am due as having had insight rather than a bad sense of humour and a good sense of the odds.
Defending The Theses
So let’s start with 1. that geek has become mainstream, and may soon become the largest subculture, indeed perhaps even the mainstream culture of the UK.
I think this is really easy to defend – how many people do not use computers today? How many people do not know who Cthulhu is? (And I must note with great sadness the passing of Lynn Willis, who only a tiny number of hardcore game geeks will recognize the name of, but whose cultural impact, along with Sandy Petersen and Chaosium generally, has been out of pall proportion to their sales as popularizers of Lovecraft. Lynn gave me my first break in to game writing, and is sadly missed.) How big is xkcd? How many people know what a LARP is now compared with in 1997? and most of all, how many people have played computer games obsessively, and chat on online forums, or attend conventions? Cosplay is pretty mainstream now. Dr Who is once again massive. We can have a new Hollywood Star Trek movie, and we can have good sales for almost forgotten classics like Sapphire & Steel, Logan’s Run and Blakes 7. Even Robin of Sherwood has fan conventions these days.
So geek is culturally pervasive, but it hardly challenges the Premiership and Coronation Street does it? No, but that is perhaps because the mainstream media and commissioning editors are woefully slow to seize the ball, and because geeks might neglect TV in favour of the net and social media. I have watched a tiny fraction of TV time in comparison to hours online for well over a decade now, though I was an early adopter of the web.
It is the Interwebz that really marks the triumph of the Geek. Who are the great heroes of our time? Well Steve Jobs came close to being beatified by his legion of Cultic Mac fans on his death, and Bill Gates has to be one of the most inspiring figures to a generation. Clive Sinclair has his fans as does Lord Sugar; and various hackers, programmers, game writers and tech-heads are way more popular than most pop groups these days. Or so it seems to me, I could be wrong, but if I wanted to check Twitter followers would be one way, and that while obviously a flawed methodology in this case still in itself tells us something about how our society is moving. When even footballers need Twitter accounts, we have reached the Age of Geek.
You’ve read Karl Marx and you’ve taught yourself to dance
OK, I’m now going to employ a bit of Marxist theory to try and explain what is happening. Technically it’s Marxistant – I’m using some of their economic theory stripped from the ideological assumptions. I’m not a Marxist, and don’t hold this stuff as dogma – I just think it makes sense to use it it here. (And just in case the section header id bothering you as you cant work out where you have heard it before – here. )
I am going to invoke the Marxist Base/Superstructure Model. This arcane piece of economic/cultural theory boils down to this — societies are founded on an economic base, and from that grows the superstructure of our culture. So a feudal society will embrace different cultural means of expression to a mercantilist one, or a communist one, etc, etc. Really all it comes down to though is if you alter the way people get paid, make money, are employed and buy things you change society. Please don’t skip this – it is useful. I promise to return to happy geek topics shortly. And also note I am massively simplifying all this. Wikipedia is your friend.
Now I’m not asking you to read Gramschii and Althusser. Just grab the idea that the economy MAY drive our cultural forms, and that is this is right then a societies hegemony is dictated by economic factors. If so “common sense” reality for the UK today is at least in part defined by the fact we increasingly have economies driven by the net, hi-tech, science and communications technology. New technologies have given rise to a country where Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox are seen as proponents of good sense: the internet meme helps define our actual lived reality. Perhaps cats will inherit the Earth.
If you don’t believe this, consider something that changed Britain forever. When I was young people were often unless professionals paid weekly, in little brown envelopes. Then to (I presume) cut down on tax evasion, the law changed and we all became salaried, paid monthly. So rents became due monthly, people had to learn to budget, but could make larger purchases each payday than before without saving, and could take loans which were pretty secure as their wages were now paid in to their bank accounts and deducted at source. Our whole society changed in massive ways in the 80′s through this one change – stop reading this rubbish and spend a little while trying to figure out all the impacts of that weekly pay packet to monthly bank payment change. Seriously, do it.
Even if you can’t follow, or disagree with the above, we can use a plain ol’ Yankee analogy – “Follow the money”. The big bucks are in computing, IT, social media, and online sales – soon the world of Are You Being Served? may appear as quaint as the world of the Vicar of Dibley. You can get rich in the City, or you can get rich in Silicon Valley, or you can get rich in writing the next big console hit, but you ain’t gonna be as rich if you open a greengrocers on the Lower High Street. The true power, the true sanity and sense in our society lies in the geeky IT department in the basement: because they understand the changed game rules. Their decisions are what matters now. Richard Ayoade’s brilliant portrayal of Moss – though to me he is forever Dean Learner – is the kind of character who today makes the real power decisions, NOT the boardroom. Well, maybe. We have a class struggle between the net literate IT crowd and the establishment business-folk — and we idolize those who combine both qualities, like Gates and Jobs.
By this analysis, Geeks are a) increasingly mainstream b) damned sexy – they have money = power = sex (Sheep on Drugs, 15 Minutes of Fame) and c) defining our reality and cultural norms. They are literally Geeks bearing gifts.
Now not all Geeks are by their skill set computer wizards working in IT implementation or emerging technologies. Gaming geeks, comic geeks, SF geeks, and all the other little geekdoms stand to benefit from this cultural transformation as well however. They a) provide services directly to a new market – I predict an increase in board game, rpg and comic sales in the next few years for example – and b) they are culturally literate in this “Brave New World”. Many accept the anti-homophobic socially liberal pro-science mindset as common sense and the norm for any society. They have embraced the new hegemony, because they helped define it. Let’s move on to claim 2.
Rebels Without A Cause
My second claim is that geek culture is in denial of this reality, and continues to see itself as outsider and to some extent persecuted. Now I would say that: I am oppositional, in that while i have spent a decade kicking around sceptic and atheist forums, I’m actively engaged in parapsychology and religion, two subjects the emerging hegemony dismisses as false or irrelevant in the main. (Or such is a sub-claim of mine). Yet I have noted, time and time again, that despite the evidence of book sales, conferences and general pervasiveness of memes, atheists and sceptics continue to regard themselves in the UK as a persecuted outsider minority. I have argued their attitudes have long since become hegemonic, and that the cultural influence of say Richard Dawkins massively outweighs that of the archbishop of Canterbury, and that of James Randi or Richard Wiseman dwarfs that of say the late lamented Prof. Archie Roy or even Derek Acorah. These groups have become culturally mainstream here; yet their rhetoric remains that of the “Culture Wars” of the USA instigated by the Religious Right. Persecution complexes in majority groups can have horrible results. This is not the Mid-West guys.
Yet the elitism and outsider position are cool toys, and hard to give up. And yes, many geeks are scathingly elitist, if only in an ironic sense. Scientific literacy and intellect are valued over character and decency — we see exceptions, like Robin Ince, who has a great moral compass and seems from his tweets a genuinely decent guy I’d like to know, and Ben Goldacre who I also admire – but geeks can be cruel, scathing and vastly smug. It feels like being beaten up back in the late 90′s by nouveaux-Pulp fans, who had decided that you were one of the mainstream kids and somehow had decided to lash out in faux-nerd frenzy: the irony of geek on geek violence is never lost on me. “Hey Jarvis, can you hear me now?”
Science is more popular than ever before, but the sense of persecution persists, together with dangerous historical myth-making I have torn in to on this blog. The Geek Revolution will not be a velvet one – and strangely, the modern generation of Geeks might not know much about 1989, or care. Come to think about it they don’t know much about the Velvets either — can you tell a track from Live at Max’s Kansas City from something off say White Light/White Heat? Geeks are scientifically literate, but sadly many are historically and artistically illiterate – there are many exceptions of course, like the aforementioned Ince, but I try to discuss Marinetti in vain these days.
So I think Geeks have failed to recognise they have gained power, and while mainstream broadcasting is partially denied to them, the last bastion of the older influence groups, that may be because they don’t want it. Geek-chic is outsider culture, hence this terrible pretence, just as in the USA the Christian majority make a mockery of themselves with their claims of victimisation (a few of course are absolutely legitimate, the rhetoric more rarely) based on cultural memes of Second century Roman Empire.
The first stage in dealing with a problem is often recognising it. I hope geeks will realise they hold the keys to the kingdom; they have the empire, now as then.
My third claim is geek will simply become so mainstream that new oppositional subcultures will arise. I think this is actually happening in youth cultures that stylishly adopt the memes of the last pre-computing age, the 1950′s. Rock n Roll hedonism, blues, soul, austerity chic all seem to be making a revival in disenfranchised younger folks. Amy Winehouse and even Bruno Marrs are raiding the dead vinyl dreams of a pre-download age to bring us a new subculture or movement, however loosely defined. Football, dancing, drinking, sex n drugs n rock n roll – may all arise again, and form the basis for new subcultures. They will be subcultural though, not mainstream,and I am not sure if they count as geek or anti-geek. I’m thinking Jazz Age hedonism, the great Gatsby, the flappers and the rejection of science and militarism. If there is anything to historical determinism, I think these memes may create the new youth culture as surely as hippy followed 50′s corporate America. I’m not even going to tray and defend this claim yet though. I can explain why I think there will be a there will be an inevitable backlash and move to something very very different, and probably anti-science and probably hedonistic and anti-intellectual though.
We have been through something similar before, from the age of the first Internet, the telegraph, through the social dislocation caused by the rise of typist pools and telephones, mass media and radio. The late Victorian Era was characterised by I believe HG Wells as the “Age of Whoosh” – there was a tremendous optimism about scientific solutions ushering in an age of progress, justice and ease. (And many of those beliefs have been historically justified in the 20th century). Prince Albert espoused something close to the MacDonalds theory of conflict prevention – that no two countries with a MacDonalds had ever fought (true till 2008 as it happens). Obviously Prince Albert did not foresee the burger empire — he felt mutually beneficial trade would result in less war, as countries worked towards mutual benefit and this led to constraints on military adventurism. The Kaiser had similar visions of European Union, as did Napoleon, leading to less war and misery ultimately. yet all these ideas were blown out of the water in August 1914, and in the prolonged horror trench warfare in the Great War (1914-1919). The mechanisation of war had already wrought horror on vast scale in the American Civil War, but it took the deadlock of Flanders for Europe to get it. World War 2 was less costly to us, but left us living under the shadow of the Atom bomb and mutually assured destruction. Geekery and worship of science could hardly prosper in a Cold War environment when our most brilliant minds were dedicated to the issues of how to destroy each other; and the culture that emerged in the 19320′s was frankly hedonistic, and that of the 1950′s was frankly at times anti-intellectual, or challenged the intellectual establishment as phoney. No more heroes anymore.
So I think our situation now is similar in some ways to 1912. We don’t take prophets of doom, even the serious pontification of Lord Rees on threats to humanity seriously anymore. The Millennium Bug, the Doomsday Preachers, the 2012 nonsense, all have made the idea anything can interrupt our smooth progress seem loony. Our main concerns are the economy, politics, and faster progress. Yet some concerns are real, no matter how much those who express them are pilloried. We live in a complacent age, and age that reminds me of the one Walter Lord famously described as ending on April 15th 1912 when the Titanic hit an iceberg. If that smugness is justified it is hard to tell, but a Cold War era kid like me can smile at the beauty of Justin Sullivan’s 1989 lyrics in I Love the World, and a few of us still understand exactly what he meant, however much the geeks of today seem to have forgotten the lessons of history. I’ll leave you with some of his words…
Well I never said I was a clever man but I know enough to understand
That the endless leaps and forward plans will someday have to cease
You blind yourselves with comfort lies like lightning never strikes you twice
And we laugh at your amazed surprise as the Ark begins to sink
This temple that is built so well to separate us from ourselves
Is a power grown beyond control, a will without a face
And watching from outside I wish that I could wash my hands of this
But we are locked together here, this bittersweet embrace
Oh God I love the world
CJ, January 19th 2012.
I am not one of those folks who cares if anyone reads my blog: I write largely for fun. Today however I have something important to say, and I’d appreciate if you would share this post with friends in the UK, on Facebook or Twitter.
I used to have a girlfriend we can call Liz. That’s not her name, and though she is completely blameless in this story, it’s well over a decade since we split. I don’t want her to be embarrassed, but I want to share a snippet of her story.
It was a Christmas Party at a local club for students from the uni. Liz was wearing tights and a mini-dress, and DM boots. (The reason I bother to explain this will become clear later). We had arrived by taxi – it was snowing outside. I ended up being asked to DJ – in my youth I was a very very crap club DJ, but I have played most venues in Cheltenham. Anyway I was now behind the decks, and Liz got a bit tipsy on vodka and cola with a friend, who we can call Helen (again not her name). Now she had three doubles: I have known Liz to drink a lot more without ill effect, but about midnight her and Helen decided to go home. They called a taxi, and left. About half an hour later I realised I had the house keys, and having finished my set I hailed a taxi and went home, assuming Liz would be at Helen’s.
She wasn’t. She was laying on the doorstep, in the clothes she had worn at the club, a knee length heavy overcoat and her cardigan. Liz was always VERY sensible – even if we went in a taxi, she dressed to walk home. Helen had dropped her off, she had realised she was locked out but knew I’d be home fairly soon, so she had waited in the porch out of the snow. Eventually she had sat down and wrapped up warm and feeling OK just talked to the cats through the letterbox. She phoned me, and I explained I was on my way — and fifteen minutes later I was home.
Liz seemed very drunk. Confused, staggering. I asked her if she felt cold?; she assured me she felt quite warm, so I got her inside. Then she collapsed. I thought it was booze, but I grabbed her a warm drink, put some dry clothes on her, and wrapped a duvet round her. Now she was not making any sense, and this was somehow unlike any drunk I had ever seen. I called an ambulance, dialling 999. I am really glad I did, though at the time I feared I was being an idiot. Despite her protestations she was warm, she was icy cold.
The rest of the story is simple. By the time the ambulance crew arrived she was in a coma – perhaps 20 minutes after being taken inside. She was rushed to hospital, and I was told it was really touch and go, but that now hospitalised she may well recover. I slept there on a couple of chairs, and in the morning she came out of it, and was soon conscious and on the road to recovery. Unfortunately I missed a vital exam for a qualification that morning, and the course tutor refused to let me retake it. Them’s the breaks, but I still remember that too.
Liz was lucky. I was lucky. I was minutes away from having a dead girlfriend laying on the floor through hypothermia.
Now, let us recall – she was wearing a body, tights, a mini-dress, a cardigan and a full heavy coat as I recall. She still got hypothermia. Why?
Firstly, alcohol makes you feel warmer, but in fact makes the blood move to surface (flushing) and means you lose heat faster. (Vasodilation I think). Hypothermia victims in the UK have often been drinking. Secondly, she stayed still – but even people standing talking or walking can in a fairly short time get hypothermia if they have been drinking. And it kills. Liz was lucky – many others aren’t. Nearly 2000 people a year die from hypothermia in the UK, and while 75% are pensioners, young women who are out clubbing make up an alarming number.
Now a couple of times since that happened I have found women unconscious in sub-zero temperatures in the street, having drunk too much, or just succumbed to the snow. Normally I’d stay at a discreet distance and tried to find some women to go and talk to them. Nowadays I just call the police or an ambulance, and go try and put a coat or something over them. I’d rather frighten them than see them die of cold. I worry about this every year, and wonder if there is a way of warning people of the danger.
Yet — I don’t want to tell women how to dress. That is up to them. I have no issue with scantily clad women’s dress choices, I have an issue with them dying of hypothermia. So I figure the only thing I can do is share my story, and ask them to consider very carefully how they can keep warm and yet still have a good time while out. You can take a coat or leggings and change at the club perhaps? You can get a taxi home? You can make sure there are several of you around and you don’t queue in the cold? I don’t have any answers, I’m not an expert. If you think you have hypothermia and are reading this stop and call an ambulance or doctor. Do something now.
The reason I’m writing this is I just saw, at 3pm on the High Street, a woman of about 18 wearing a minidress and as far as I could see without staring at her no tights, yet a hat and scarf in the snow. Some people at the bus stop pointed her out, and she seemed quite happy. Fair enough – but tonight Cheltenham will have women out clubbing (and men too topless I expect) and I want to just say this — there is a real danger, and yes you can run round completely naked while sober in snow, and maybe be OK, but cold and alcohol are potentially deadly. Please be careful, and have fun!
Another year, another Fresher’s Week about to start here in Cheltenham. A friend from the University of Gloucestershire told me the new students arrived today, but it was only when I met some friendly types who started a conversation in a fast food restaurant a few minutes ago that I reflected on the fact this generation of students were not just not born when I first arrived here to study, they were in fact still seven years off it! Yep, twenty five years ago I arrived, in late September 1987, in a Cheltenham which has not really changed all that much in the intervening years. Well there are a huge number more students now, and St. Paul’s is dominated by them rather, and they all seem to go in to town whereas the only reason I ever venture off campus was to visit Waterstones, or to go to Burger Star on the Bath Road or the KFC, but hey, it’s not all that different.
I however was. Younger, far scattier, and prone to weird out accidentally my fellow students, I was a long haired hippy in an age of Rick Astley & Tom Cruise Top Gun era haircuts, when male students wore shirts and jackets to the bar and everything was a lot more yuppy and aspirational than now. That changed within a few years, a indie kids and grunge types arrived, but in 1987 students here were sharp dressing types who were pretty ambitious as I recall. Well a lot of them! I’d just had my ghost experience at Thetford Priory and was pretty freaked out, and I’d spent the previous two years neglecting my ‘A’ levels and playing wargames and roleplaying games, and hanging around at my grandmother’s house with Hugh and Gary McF, and occasionally others. I knew absolutely nothing about girls, and had little interest (I was a slow developer) – well at least till I suddenly started to get interested a few days in to uni – and I was painfully, horribly shy.
I’ve written about Fresher’s Week 1987 many times, because of the very dramatic events which marked mine – a bloodbath, a flood, a ghost investigation, and a mad crush that persisted a while – and it still forms the basis for the uni life novel I return to every few years and never finish. Still despite all the trauma, I had a pretty good time. Some of the facts are recorded in an earlier post on this blog called Family Nights In With Satan if anyone is interested in such things.
So thinking about it – what should I have told those Freshers I met tonight? I think after seeing 25 generations of students arrive I have a few insights – so here are
Six Things I Wish I Had Known as A Fresher in Cheltenham!
1. You may well be horribly horrifically homesick. It is perfectly normal to cry at times, and go home for weekends. You are not giving in. You will miss your friends/parents/dog. Don’t try and stay all the time for fear you will miss out on anything. You are not mad, depressed or failing in some way. You are homesick, like many before you. I was!
2. You may be worried about how hard everything will be academically. Relax – after ‘A’ level, it’s just easier and easier. Anything is easier than ‘A’ levels. You will only fail if you suffer appalling illness, bad luck or are on a truly awful course, and I don’t think there are many here — unless you try. If you work at it anyone can fail any course. It will be a heroic effort, but by failing to hand in work, forgetting exams, being drunk constantly and never once so much as glancing in the direction of a library you might just manage it.
3. Everyone will tell you that you will split up with your boyfriend/girlfriend from back home in under a term. Don’t believe them – I know people who stayed faithful and committed while hundreds of miles apart at different uni’s for all three years. (Because noone else would have them! – no, only joking. )
4. Cheltenham is pretty safe, but people do very occasionally get attacked here. Don’t walk home alone, regardless of your gender, and don’t get so drunk you can’t look after yourself. Don’t shout abuse at strangers, or annoy people who might turn nasty. Every year a few students in Fresher’s Week are viciously assaulted through drunkenly waking up locals on their way back from town or even in to town from FCH. This year it will be more, and I’m buying a petrol driven chainsaw tomorrow to make my attacks more memorable and more of a deterrent. Seriously though, there are plenty of very scary people here. Don’t give them a reason to notice you.
5. You may well be incredibly conscientious in your first year – too conscientious. By your third year you will be partying wildly and skipping lectures. This is the wrong way round to do things as unless the system has changed your second and third year marks make up your final degree. You should be having a good time now, just not so good a time you get chucked out. (Sadly burning students at the stake for not doing the seminar readings is no longer policy here).
6. Join the Christian Union. They have coffee, biscuits, and people who know even less about sex and romance than you. You are bound to pull? Or maybe join a society, though sadly the Student Parapsychology Society no longer exists, but hey it had a good ten year innings, ironically disappearing about the time I first got involved with Most Haunted.
That is what I should have told the students, but instead I just made a few bad jokes and was my usual cheerful self. Still, I wish a few people had given me these pointers, so if you do read them and think what a load of cack, sure thing buddy add your own in the comments below, or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, and i’ll update this piece – not that any student here will ever have any reason to read it!
POST SCRIPT: Andrew added this in comments. but as many people will not read comment I think it’s worth adding to main body of the text – what follows is not my advbice, so I will change it to a different colour, but some very good points in there –
Andrew’ s Top Six
… some of which are deliberate counter-arguments to CJ’s just to be amusing/provoke debate, some of which are deadly serious, and most of which are both.
1. Don’t forget to tell your parents if you move house. In today’s era of cheap mobile phones this is less relevant than it was when I moved in 1990. In my first year, I got allocated some pretty shonky “overflow” accommodation at Over Hospital (rat-infested and thankfully now demolished), and after a month I clubbed together with a couple of other first-years and rented a private house. I *completely* forgot to tell my parents for a month – they continued to ring the payphone at the geriatric hospital, further confusing the already confused residents. I’d rung them a couple of times, to say hello, but hadn’t actually remembered to tell them about the move.
2. Do turn up and do hand in your work. That is pretty much all you need to do to get a 3rd or a 2:2. CJ is exactly right about academic ease; ‘A’ Levels are the hardest thing you will ever do and a degree is a walk in the park in comparison to those exams. That said, nobody is going to chase you for work or chase you if you don’t turn up. If you forget, if you can’t be bothered, you will just fail and eventually you WILL get chucked off the course, and that means no more student loan.
2a. Within reason, schedule your lectures around your convenience, not around your lecturers’ convenience. For the larger intake subjects, most lectures are run more than once per week, notably evening classes for those doing part-time courses. You CAN switch. Sometimes you have to justify your request to switch. “I’ve got a clash” used to be my excuse, but I suspect in today’s world of computerised timetabling this is less valid. My real reason was that I do my best work in the late afternoon and evenings, it’s just the time of day when I think better. I told my friends it was because it meant I could have a lie-in after nightclubbing, which was also partially true.
3. Play the field but use protection. I must admit I did a lot of the former and very little of the latter, and somehow managed to avoid infection and pregnancy, but that was just a fluke. THIS is the right time in your life to have lots of relationships. Get it out of your system NOW so that you don’t go and mess up someone else’s life (especially your children’s) by having an affair when you’ve settled down in later life. Now as a fresher you may be thinking that you’re the nerdiest person in the world and you’ll never get any action, but the thing is, you’re at a university that accepted you as a student, ergo almost all the other students are going to be very similar to you. In particular, males, pay attention: The University of Gloucestershire is predominantly an arts, theology and teaching college, which are heavily female-oriented subjects; contrary to traditional belief, girls are just as keen as boys. Just relax, be nice to your preferred gender, be conversational without trying to dominate the conversation and relationships will just fall into your lap. Also, the phrase “Please may I kiss you?” said at an appropriately late point in the evening after a couple of hours of familiarisation is probably the most reliable chat-up line in the world.
4. Never, ever get so drunk (or drugged) that you cannot make sensible decisions, walk, read a bus timetable or call a taxi. Cheltenham is not just “pretty safe”, it is one of the safest towns in the country. Ninety-nine percent of reported “attacks” are actually just arguments between drunk people turned sour. Keep away from really, really drunk people, especially drunk strangers, and do not hang out with anyone who thinks that spiking drinks or taking unlabelled drugs is fun. If you can see a bunch of drunk people arguing in a street, don’t walk down it, find another route, or at least find someone else who is not drunk to walk with. Remember, YOU are responsible for your own actions when you are drunk. If you turn up in court having crashed your car or having vandalized a statue, YOU will be found guilty, not your friends, not the pub that served you, and claiming to have been drunk will not reduce your sentence.
4a. When going out, agree in advance with some friends that you are going to look after each other. This includes telling each other who has had enough to drink and ensuring that everyone goes home safely (not necessarily together, but at least aware of each others’ going-home arrangements). Never, ever get offended when someone tells you “I think you’ve had enough.” They might just be saving your life. Think of it as practice; you can always try to have a little bit more next time, rather than right now.
4b. People who are already drunk or on drugs will not notice if, when they offer you drink or drugs, you pour it into a plant-pot or push it under the sofa cushion.
4c. Girls only walk home with sober people.
4d. Girls, only walk home with sober people.
4e. Note how the addition or removal of a comma in 4c & 4d changes the meaning, but retains the wisdom.
4f. Males are more likely to be attacked in drunken arguments than females. Don’t make smart-arse remarks or aggressive gestures to people who are too drunk to recognise your intellectual or physical superiority.
5. Find out what work contributes how much to your overall degree and put in the effort accordingly. Nobody but YOU will organise this for you. There is no point spending 50% of your work time on something that contributes only 5% of your final degree. Also, you can use this information to tactically plan your socialising; if your marks are evenly distributed throughout years 1,2 and 3 then you can be really conscientious in your first and second year, achieve a pass mark, and then party for most of your third year! Or you might find that only the second half of a module carries any markable work, allowing you to party in safety for the first half.
6. Gloucestershire is a really beautiful place. Get out there and visit it. It really is too easy to spend all your life in town, and even easier to stay in your particular (probably cheap) part of town. No excuses if you don’t have a car; Gloucestershire has a really good bus service. Trips out also make good romantic gestures. My top bus-accessible sights from Cheltenham: Gloucester Cathedral (bus 94), Broadway & Winchcombe (bus 606), Tewkesbury Abbey (bus 41), Gloucester Docks (94), Cirencester (bus 51), Bourton-on-the-Water & Stow-on-the-Wold (bus 801), Leckhampton Hill / Cricklade Hill (busses B, P and Q then footpaths; note that you can book a barbeque pit in advance at Cricklade Hill for a truly superb party). Within Cheltenham itself, Suffolk Road (walking distance from Park Campus, Montpellier or Bath Road) and Charlton Kings (busses B, P and Q) are lovely places to visit and have lots of cool coffee shops with excellent WiFi.
6a. Further afield, Bath and Birmingham are well worth the train fare, and Bristol and Wolverhampton are often on the tour list for some very good bands at some very reasonable ticket prices (Wulfrun Hall and Civic Hall in Wolverhampton; Anson Rooms in Bristol Students’ Union – all of these venues are not-for-profit).
Rather More Sensible Update from Someone Who Should Know…
1) Go to the first session of everything; even if you are hung over. Missing first sessions can be a mistake as the lecturer will often explain what the assessments are, and what the expectations for that particular course or module might be.
2) Use the Moodle site for the module. Depending on your course you will get very few paper handouts, but a lot of the information will be on the Moodle sites. For some courses you will also find the slides that the lecturer uses available for download.
3) Be nice to your neighbours, if you are going to be walking home very late at night don’t shout random things in the street or knock on random doors. Chris and Andrew have already explained Cheltenham is fairly safe, but winding up people late at night might have consequences.
4) Make sure you know how to contact the “Helpzone”.
5) Keep the university up to date with your current address, and check your university email.
6) Enjoy your time at University.
Not really much to say today: I have been extremely busy recently, and have not had a chance to update much though that will soon change. What does please me is to have a look at my blog today and see I have reached the 150,000 hits (since March 2009) milestone. It pleases me not because what I write is very important, or indeed of any interest, but because odd things like an essay on Futurism, the organisational structure of the NHS and various posts on games, psychical research, and history are clearly of use to some people.
I lived in that pre-internet age, where knowing stuff meant you either learned facts, or looked them up. Encyclopedias and huge book collections meant you could find stuff you needed, but people like Dave Sivier, Ed Woods and I had a wide range of (almost always) utterly useless knowledge. Tom Nowell is another example of someone who knows a bewildering amount of obscure facts. Of course you can’t know everything, and as I prove every week at the pub quiz I actually know very little, but for obscure pointless facts my generation were pretty good (and often very wrong – we learned something in 1985 and assumed it was still true today!)
The internet has really changed all that. Today research skills, such as google-fu, and critical thinking to assess the reliability of sources, are FAR more important than the rote learning we all indulged in, or the voracious reading and houses full of books that marks my generation. Not it often seems the biggest impediment to learning something new is lack of interest: curiosity drives us to look up all kinds of things, and I have often found myself talking to world class authorities on subject son the web, people I had heard of, but never dreamed I would end up one day talking to. I think it’s a wonderful thing, and I know that if I need to know something despite the gaps in my education I can find it out, or if it’s too technical for me to comprehend, find someone who can and will find the time to explain it to me.
Now I can talk to people all over the world who share my enthusiasm for poltergeist cases, Ars Magica, Agricola, Suffolk folklore, local history, and many many more things. Whereas once I was noted for my detailed knowledge of the life and work of one H.P.Lovecraft, I think Great Cthulhu and HPL’s fiction is now as well known as Star Trek, or so it feels, and I wonder how different my university life would have been if I had been born in the early 80′s instead of the late sixties. The jokes and games and esoteric discussions we had around the table in Fullwood at the Colleg eof St Paul and St Mary, where lunchtime conversation ranged from Bib. Crit to Aleister Crowley, from jokes about Shoggoths to Harry Price and Borley Rectory, hey today that would probably be pretty normal and mainstream, (The Triumph of the Geek?) And of course all those things I once exemplified I’m nor mediocre at best in, as a younger generation have learned far more than I ever did, without epic bus journeys to towns fifty miles away to scour second hand book shops for a ridiculously over-priced copy of The Horror in the Museum! Now that book is probably available as an e-text, a cheap download, or if not i can find it in seconds on E-bay or Amazon for a few quid at most, not the fifty quid I paid for a tatty paperback after a hundred mile round trip in 1986. The world has changed, and the weird geeks of B36 (my old college room) have become obsolete in a sense – jokes about Lovecraft or Cthulhu on the net now are far more obscure than ours, and yet understood by millions of people.
Obscurantism, pedantry, uber-geekery and elitist in-jokes, brought to a mass audience by the power of the web. I’m really glad. I just wished i still got royalties from Chaosium for my Call of Cthulhu monograph! However, while I’m rambling, one thing that does irk this rpg author. At least in the good old days, if we did not get royalties (we usually don’t) we did get a fee on reprints of our books. However .pdf sales come under subsidiary rights it seems, so we don’t get a penny for them. And of course people pirate our work, and share it, but hell at least they hopefully read it (though my experience suggests most people who download loads of pdf’s of rpg products never get round to reading them – I have bundles i bought to support charity events through Drivethru I have never yet had a chance to open and even browse!) Still as pdf sales become more important as e-readers and notebooks and tablets make taking stuff to games that way practical, I think we need to find a way to pay authors something for the pdf rights, and some version of the reprint fee: maybe repay every 3,000 or 30,000 or 300,000 pdf’s sold?
Anyway, enough! It’s a lovely sunny day so I will abandon the net and go walk; but I am pleased to think that 150,000 people have visited this blog, and hopefully found the answer to a question, something useful for an essay, or a picture of Mr. Blobby or Svalbard or whatever they are looking at, and I’d like to think my games reviews have shifted a few more copies of Polaris, Heroquest 2, Agricola etc, etc.
My blog is terribly self-indulgent — I write about whatever I want to — and I’m amazed at the number of people who still subscribe, given one week may be all about parapsychology, the next all about games, but you have my gratitude, and I’m even more humbled by the fact some of you actually seem to read it and comment! So a huge thank you, and hopefully my little essays occasionally add to the new information culture, even if I am a relic of the dark ages, and still live among heaps of books.
Today I should be working, but about the time I’m writing this my Becky is finally submitting her PhD thesis at Coventry University, entitled something like A Century of Apparitions: The Census of Hallucinations in the 21st Century. I have read the Abstract, and got to look at a few pages last night and it looks very interesting, and annoyingly looks like it may disprove one interesting hypothesis I had developed, at least based on one chart I saw in the content analysis section. (Becky was too tired to discuss it!) Once she has had her viva and made corrections, I will read the whole thing, but for now congratulations to Becky on getting it all done. Becky’s Ph.D thesis was made possible by generous funding from the SPR, and I know she wants to rework the whole thing for publication in the JSPR or PSPR.
Why do I mention this? Well another funding story caught my eye this morning, on the Facebook at Paranthropology, where the excellent Nancy Zingrone commented, and then at Roy Stenman’s blog Paranormal Review. It seems the Templeton Foundation are putting 5 million dollars in to a research programme, but not just any research programme –
Newswise — RIVERSIDE, Calif. — For millennia, humans have pondered their mortality and whether death is the end of existence or a gateway to an afterlife. Millions of Americans have reported near-death or out-of-body experiences. And adherents of the world’s major religions believe in an afterlife, from reincarnation to resurrection and immortality.
Anecdotal reports of glimpses of an afterlife abound, but there has been no comprehensive and rigorous, scientific study of global reports about near-death and other experiences, or of how belief in immortality influences human behavior. That will change with the award of a three-year, $5 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation to John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality. It is the largest grant ever awarded to a humanities professor at UC Riverside, and one of the largest given to an individual at the university.
The full story is here – do read it! Now I know humanities are suddenly fashionable, at least in the UK and we are now treated like the cool kids in uni, ending 90 years of humanities and social science types being seen as not real academics by Science, Medicine and other numerate types — a rather odd trend, but apparently a real one. I think the rampant Scientism of the 2000′s has caused a reaction; but even so, it’s rare and rather wonderful to read of an award of this scale being given to a philosophy department. I expect Richard Dawkins will be unimpressed!
Anyway, I can imagine my friends broadly agreeing on something. The atheists and materialists will say “what a waste of money — it is all bunk”. (I hope to be proved wrong though!) My fellow Christians and folk of other faiths will say “we know we survive death, why not spend the money on medicine, feeding the hungry or getting clean water for the millions living in poverty?” (or so I hope, because that was my first thought). My scientifically orientated friends will know just how many areas a few hundred thousand dollars could help with. However, none of these are the real reason for my unease, though I am not sure the question needs so large a sum when people are starving and dying of preventable diseases or suffering injustice or poverty in this life which we all know exists.
No, my real issue is that the plans seem seriously odd. Let’s look at the Immortality Project page. All good and worthy stuff, and great news for philosophers and theologians. Now I sometimes wear one or the other of those hats, and I have no issue in principle with allocating resources to these areas, and while I’m surprised that spending money on translating American philosophers in to German, and one hopes vice versa, is seen as a pressing issue in survival research I am utterly amazed at one thing.
Since 1882 psychical researchers have worked constantly on exactly this issue, and the SPR have published millions of words, including all manner of top rate scientists and philosophers writings on the area. Yet I see nothing on any of this work? Let’s look again at the Press Release
Anecdotal reports of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences and past lives are plentiful, but it is important to subject these reports to careful analysis, Fischer said. The Immortality Project will solicit research proposals from eminent scientists, philosophers and theologians whose work will be reviewed by respected leaders in their fields and published in academic and popular journals.
I nearly spat my coffee all over my keyboard. The cat is still holding his paws over his ears from my indignant yelp. The bolding above is mine, obviously, but really, how can anyone write this?
For 130 years exactly this kind of work has been going on, and being published in the peer reviewed parapsychological and psychical research journals. This has been an interdisciplinary research programme, involving doctors, neurologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, and many other brilliant thinkers. I believe the SPR has had 8 Nobel Prize winners as Presidents, though Tom Ruffles will doubtless be able to correct me if I am wrong. Believers, sceptics and agnostics alike have attended annual conferences, study days and monthly lectures, and published millions of words in the JSPR and PSPR, That’s just the SPR. On top of that we have the Parapsychological Association, the ASPR, and many many more groups and research institutions. With I believe 13 postgraduate research centres studying these issues in UK universities alone, it seems bizarre this has all been dismissed as anecdotal and by implication lacking careful analysis. Now hopefully parapsychology is included under scientists mentioned: but I can think of an awful lot of established research centres from the Alister Hardy Research Centre now at the University of Wales, to the KPU at Edinburgh, to Lund University, to the SPR, ASSAP, the ASPR and Scottish SPR, through to Chris French’s APRU at Goldsmith’s, who all deserve a slice of that money. What about Atlantic University? Coventry? Bucks New University? Northampton? Middlesex? The Rhine Research Centre?
Yes I know the plan is to bring philosophers, medical men, theologians and scientists together to study the issues, but surely the Templeton Foundation must realise that the SPR and PA conferences already do just this? Yes there are other aspects mentioned, which fall under sociology and psychology of religion in the main, but those are already represented at the psychical research conferences.
I have tried for twenty years to get funding to study survival and immortality. On paper I look like a good candidate – not up to Stephen E Braude or Anthony Flew’s level, or the wonderful and sadly departed David Fontana, and Christopher Moreman is the current expert here, but hey I’m passionate, hard working and my academic background is in exactly these fields. Given half the money is going on grant awards, I should be sensible like everyone else will be, and keep my head down and hope for funding and be delighted the subject will finally be investigated with lavish funding. I’m not going to. I’m going to howl in protest that there is no mention of any of the above peoples work, or the recent large scale scientific projects on NDE, contemporary scientific research on OBE, in fact just a general suggestion, if I do not infer to much, that the subject has never been academically or scientifically investigated rigorously before. If there is a life after death you can test it empirically now: Myers, the Sidgwicks, Podmore, Gurney, William James et al will be spinning in their graves!!!
I’m going to suggest that rather than funding two new conferences, the PA and SPR conferences, or even the ASSAP conference, could have benefited. I’m going to make a noise about this, because I’m frankly offended. I need about $15,000 maximum for my PhD fees: $5 million is probably more than the SPR has spent on funding research in the area in I know not how many years, possibly since 1882. In an area starved of funding, this is indeed welcome news, but not if the research effort ignores “controversial” areas like psychical research.
Maybe I’m being too hasty. I though of writing to Professor Fischer to express my concerns, but than thought I’d post publicly, and now. I’m tempted to create a detailed bibliography of research on human survival, NDE, OBE and other peer reviewed articles of relevance, but today I am very much pressed for time. SO I write these words, and realise that once again my outspoken nature when I perceive injustice may debar me from any of the Templeton loot. So be it: I have in the past been a big fan of the Foundation’s work, and I am absolutely delighted for Riverside and Prof. Fischer, but this press release has done nothing but arouse my fears that psychical research and 130 years of serious academic study is to be side-lined in a project designed to re-invent the wheel. I look forward to future statements however that will hopefully allay these suspicions, and show that those who have worked in this area for their whole academic lives will not be, once more, overlooked.
I wish everyone involved in the project the very best, and desperately hope my reservations prove unfounded.
There was a bit of a note of desperation in some of the coverage to show how relevant it was – “the early 20th centuries equivalent of 9/11″ seemed to be a phrase that recurred time and time again in the narrations. Um, maybe. In fact there was an unpleasant tone to some of it too — the story is a fable of rich and poor dying together in luxury, amidst heroism, and some would argue villainy. It is unpleasant in that it is such a romantic, heady fable, that the real deaths and utter misery caused by it are forgotten in our joy at hearing the old story retold. There is something slightly voyeuristic, unpleasant about it; but then I watch Air Crash Investigation, and am fascinated by it (I also have a morbid fear of flying though.)
Still my friend Andrew Oakley’s complaint that many of the media talked of a celebration of Titanic, when they meant a commemoration rings true. The British are good at costume drama, and love heroic failure — Titanic lets us indulge both sins. Yet I feel a slight tinge of guilt at the number of books I have picked up over the years on Titanic – always remembering my grandmother Alice’s complaint that the 1958 film A Night To Remember on the tragedy was “too soon”. Well it was 46 years after the sinking, but many alive must have seen themselves portrayed – it does not seem that many years since the last survivor died now, and yet in an age when we have Hollywood films about 9/11, my grandmothers annoyance and horror at the 1958 film seems a bit quaint. (She must have been annoyed, because she mentioned it to me repeatedly as a young boy in the 1970′s and 80′s, decades after the film came out.) She died before James Cameron’s Titanic, but I know it would have offended her horribly, as making a romance out of a tragedy. That is an ancient human preoccupation however, and not limited to Titanic in any sense. Romantic tales of tragedy might actually serve some cathartic function, releasing societal anxieties and tensions, creating teleological narratives that make sense of the senseless? I don’t pretend to know.
In Belfast, where she was built by the great shipyards, celebration could legitimately be in the air. They were marking the awesome achievement of building the ship, not her tragic end. A peculiar choice to celebrate – RMS Olympic her sister ship was a great success, albeit commercially unprofitable in the end; the age of super-luxury liners for transatlantic travel was fairly short I think, and replaced by that of aircraft in less than half a century, and other lines picking up White Stars lost traffic following the disaster. I was amazed to learn in one documentary that a £12 passage in 1912 is roughly equivalent to £1000 now – as I think the cheapest berths were about £7, even steerage class was not cheap back then?
So given my somewhat ambivalent feelings about our fascination with this disaster (it is bizarre — we don’t pay half as much attention to the sinking of the Lusitania, or the worst of all in lives lost MV Wilhelm Gustloff, perhaps because both happened in wartime even though they were civilian ships) — anyway, given my ambivalence, why write about the media coverage?
Well I think I have already really noted why – my grandmother Alice Bentley, with whom I spent large parts of my youth, sitting in her little front room, listening to her stories. She was about to turn 12 on the day the papers headlines read “Loss of the Titanic: dreadful loss of life” — and she was profoundly shaken by the tragedy. In later life she met a woman who had booked passage on the Titanic, and had not sailed on her for various reasons — but my grandmothers emotional response seems to have dated from the actual time of the disaster. Now she was thousands of miles away, safe in Bury St Edmunds – yet her accounts of hearing of the Titanic sinking did seem to emotionally outrank the Zeppelin raid on Bury a few years later, and pretty much anything to do with the First World War but the flu epidemic. Maybe it was her age at the time it happened, but she was very distressed by the Titanic, taking solace in the fact the band reportedly played a hymn as it went down. As a young boy hearing her tell the story it affected me too, and since that time I have taken an interest in the whole sad affair.
Of course the myths about the Titanic are endless: even before the romance of Cameron’s Titanic, a film I had best note now I have never watched, partly out of deference to Alice’s sensibilities and sense of appropriateness. Perhaps the greatest is that she was classed as “unsinkable”; others are that her launch was a huge event in popular consciousness – it wasn’t, her sister ship had been sailing the route for a while and was almost identical.
There are others, so many others — could SS Californian, just ten miles away, have responded in time and saved everyone if the radio operator was not off duty? Probably not – most modern experts think she would have arrived about an hour after the sinking, though perhaps she could have arrived as Titanic went down — survival time in the waters was less than an hour, and many would have succumbed within 15 minutes to cold. Oh and of course not all that many Titanic victims drowned – there were plenty of life jackets. I also wonder if they could have launched more lifeboats even if they were available – the collapsible were launched right at the end as it was, and there were not enough available able seamen to crew them. Luckily she was going down in a manner which allowed the lifeboats from both sides to be launched — but I am far from certain everyone would have got off the ship even if she had enough for everyone, as lots of people really did not want to, believing she would last till a ship arrived.
What else? There was a considerable delay between the impact and the first distress message, but even if sent earlier, I fear there would have been little difference. As to the fact she should have slowed down, none of the captains of the day felt that was needed in ice, and if she had actually steamed straight in to the iceberg, there would have been some fatalities, but she would probably have stayed afloat and made New York or Halifax. If you are interested in the myths about the Titanic I must highly recommend Tim Maltin and Eloise Ashton’s (2010) 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic But Didn’t. I still think the best general read on the subject, long outdated but still excellent, is Walter Lord’s (1956) A Night To Remember, and the 1958 film adaptation is excellent too (sorry nan!), just don’t take it too seriously.
Actually it just occurred to me that some people may not have heard what at first sounds like one of the battiest conspiracy theories of all time: that the Titanic actually never sank at all. If you don’t know this one, take a look at Robin Gardiner’s book Titanic: Ship That Never Sank . Once you understand the explanation it makes a lot more sense – a ship did definitely sink, with immense loss of life, but the question is whether it was actually Titanic, or a sister ship renamed that just before the maiden voyage, for fairly convincing reasons. Now OK, I freely admit it still sounds bats, but there is still some controversy, despite Ballard’s discovery, and I have seen people argue the evidence from the shipwreck both ways. I’m not convinced, but it is well worth reading anyway.
Finally, before I start on the recent media coverage, don’t forget the wonderful online resource that is Encyclopedia Titanica. That one can keep you busy for days, possibly weeks or months. You have missed @TitanicRealTime on Twitter – enjoyable, but the timing seemed hours out: the collision at 11.40pm, the sinking at 2am-ish, all that stuff – it is ship’s time, not GMT. Then on top we have as Ash Pryce points out to compensate for British Summer Time not existing in 1912 – so the collision with the iceberg was several hours later that the @TitanicRealTime version. I looked at the US inquiry and the evidence given there which seems to suggest that ship’s time was 2 hours ahead of New York time, and eventually managed to work it out I think – the ships time was based on the estimated likely position of the ship at noon the next day, and the clocks adjusted at midnight, but they did not update them on April 15th 1912, because, well, they were sinking. Maltin has ably calculated the ship’s time to be 2hrs 5 minutes ahead of New York, which seems to fit perfectly. So @TitanicRealTimes decision to stick to GMT equivalents (@Titanicafewhourstooearly would have been more accurate?) is entirely reasonable, given the fact the few hours of frantic sinking most Twitter followers were waiting for happened in what would have been the very early hours of the morning our time, when almost everyone was abed.
So what of the TV shows I watched? Len Goodman’s Titanic is worth catching — only thirty minutes, with the perhaps to be expected emphasis on Wallace Hartley and the band. Three 30 minute documentaries, with little new but well presented and with real feeling by the likeable Goodman, and certainly worth the effort. Recommended, not least because to Goodman this is a tragic story, and you sense he feels it deeply. Before becoming a dancer Goodman was a welder with Harland and Wolff, and he also has experience of life on cruise ships, having been a professional dancer on them. It was nice to see him on the Queen Mary 2, the closest thing to Titanic around today I guess. Affectionate, well presented, sentimental but not afraid to cast stones – White Star come out of this really badly, as do Black & Co. the musicians agency. I’m not quite sure what Goodman’s take on Bruce Ismay is, but I have always felt sorry for him, and I think Goodman does too. You can catch this on IPlayer, along with A History of the Titanic in 30 Pieces, a series I have not viewed yet so won’t comment on.
Words from the Titanic was truly excellent, and if you are not really familiar with the story of what happened as the ship sank, well this is probably the best place to start, as it is a series of narratives from those who were on the ship – the usual suspects, Archibald Gracie, Violet Jessop, etc. The acting was first rate, and it was quite moving to see some of the narratives read by descendants of the titanic survivors or lifeboatmen etc. A good mix, that followed a seemingly deliberately non-controversial line – nothing on what the band played as she sank, or the more controversial aspects of the conflicting narratives of the night that I noticed. An hour long show I could happily watch again, and would be tempted to get on DVD, even though I know the accounts it features fairly well. And really, the acting was superb — especially the lady who played Violet. This was on ITV – I’m pretty certain you will be able to view it if you search, and it’s well worth seeking out. Excellent.
What else did I view? I didn’t watch Julian Fellowes creator of the ever popular Downton Abbey or whatever it’s called Titanic drama – did not appeal at all. From what I have seen of the viewing figures it’s hard not to make jokes about sinking here, in terrible taste. Besides there were so many documentaries to watch! Another one, I forget the title but think it was on cable, told the moving story of Wallace Hartley and the band, and his links with Colne, Lancashire — and while this was the best treatment I have seen on TV of that aspect of the tragedy, and dealt with the confused accounts of what the band did,what they played, etc, etc, they missed out one fascinating story which came up in the last documentary I shall mention. It was competent stuff, but I was a little bored by it — but then there was little new to interest me here. It may have been called “and the Band Played On” or something?
More interesting was Titanic: the Final Secret on National Geographic. I notice this is currently available on YouTube, and it’s worth a watch. I have always tended to avoid programmes about the exploration of the wreck of the Titanic – I’d like it to be left in peace I guess as a grave, though I appreciate Robert Ballard’s extraordinary achievement in finding it and the new information the wreck has given us. Somehow, while I really usually enjoy engineering shows, mos of the “anatomy of a disaster” shows on what the wreck tells us just bore me — it is the human stories that intrigue me I guess. This one was different — it featured the recently declassified story of how Ballard was funded by the US Navy, but first carried out secret missions to the wrecks of two famous US navy submarine wrecks, the Thresher and the Scorpion. As I have always been interested in the mystery of how they fell below crush depth and were lost, I enjoyed the show. It was completely different to all the other documentaries I watched.
Still, my favourite I think this week was the utterly, unrelentingly grim Titanic: The Aftermath. Unlike Words from the Titanic, I would not want to watch it again for a long time I think — but it is a wonderful antidote to all the romantic-tragic fluff. This one starts here the others leave off – as the Carpathia picks up the survivors, 1500 bodies are floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It chronicles the SS Mackay-Bennett’s voyage to recover the corpses, the euphemistically named “rescue ship”, and while i know of the story of the embalming, the controversy over the decision to bury around 50 unidentified victims at sea, and the wonderful efforts made by Halifax, Nova Scotia to bury the dead, this horrible, grim and seriously tragic story is worth telling. A great piece on one of the musicians from Dumfries, John Law Hume, and the identification of his body – and the tale of his pregnant girlfriend left at home, despised and ignored by his family — the case ends in court. The mutiny on the Olympic gets a mention — that rarely happens! — and many other aspects of the tragedy never normally covered were given good examination. It was grim – you see reconstruction of frozen bodies, mortuary tables, the real graves in Halifax, and later on actual photos of Titanic corpses used to identify the dead. Actually it was all horribly, horribly grim — and that is why I think it was the best documentary of all. Some of it looked low budget, compared with the lovely sets on other productions this week, but this one brings home the most important thing of all – that the Titanic was a horrendous, horrible tragedy, where people lost their lives not a romantic fiction.
It may have been painful and unpleasant to watch, but I think Alice would have approved, because it actually caught the pain that the Edwardians felt, and shocked us in to the reality of the horror of that night, and the reality of the deaths. The corpses in the water, the bereaved and the heartbroken left behind – that was the real legacy of this terrible maritime tragedy, and this was it, raw and real.
OK, just to make absolutely clear – this was my April Fool’s joke for 2012. No Bishops were harmed in the making of this post.
I expect many people were surprised, not least “New Atheists” and devout members of the Church of England, by last nights announcement from Whitehall that Richard Dawkins has been ordained in to the Church of England, and has in very short (holy) order been appointed to an episcopal see. Bishop Dawkins, as he will become on ascending to the office of Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds later this year, has for many years been an outspoken atheist, and indeed his best selling book “The God Delusion” was an impassioned call for a secular culture and end to traditional religious thought, almost as radical as those by Anglican Divines like Don Cupitt or former Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson whose “Honest to God” caused such controversy in the 1960′s.
Perhaps the greatest surprise to an Anglican like myself is that the obvious diocese for Dawkins was missed – one would have expected him to become Bishop of Durham. Still, with the lack of vacancy in that diocese Bury St. Edmunds is a good choice. My only fear is that his attitudes on religion may be too moderate and too simplistic and literal-fundamentalist for the average sophisticated pew dweller of the modern Anglican church. While I admire his liberal stance on many social issues, including his defining statement on homosexual marriage — “I don’t think it should be compulsory” — I too feel it should be restricted to non-heterosexual laity and clergy alike and non-mandatory– his rather direct and literal reading of a text as complex as the Bible flies in the face of my Neo-Orthodox reading of the Holy Scripture, and will cause him no doubt to have many problems with those who place Tradition and Experience and Magisterium above Scripture – indeed I don’t think we have seen the spirit of sola scriptura and emphasis on the Bible alone as the basis for the Christian faith so loudly advocated since the time of Luther and Calvin, except by certain Evangelicals. The fact Dawkins chooses to refute the whole book is irrelevant – he still accepts a theological principal that that is all Christianity is that has not been fashionable since the days of Augustine (with a few noted exceptions as mentioned), and that would make Origen blush.
Still, the move to appoint Dawkins as Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds is undoubtedly a courageous one, albeit not unsurprising. I seem to recall he is a good friend of former Bishop of Liverpool Richard Harries, and last month debated the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. During that debate Dawkins made what many saw as a shocking announcement, that he was actually “agnostic”, not entirely excluding the possibility of a god. That this shocked anyone at all was a source of amazement to me, given that his scale of atheism and the words he used were almost verbatim those he has used in The God Delusion many years before. He is comfortably, clearly a pragmatic atheist, while admitting to being a “cultural Christian” — and as such I think he has to be accepted as the perfect candidate to reflect the views of the modern CofE Church attendee.
Of course I fear he may have problems with certain of the defining principles of the Church of England, in particular the first and most crucial of these, The 39 Articles. The first article reads “God is nice: preach this often, but cause no offense to any man, women, child or person of other gender.” In his practically absolute denial of the existence of the deity Dawkins will not got far enough for many Anglican pew sitters, but will outrage others who will ask how the niceness of God can be compatible with His non-existence. I think they should take a moment to reflect on Rorty’s non-representationalism, and non-realism in modern theological language – clearly Cupitt and others blazed a path here, even if Dawkins is slightly too much mired in traditional notions of faith to fully accept their principle that when we say something we don’t actually mean it at all like that, but something quite different, quite sacred, and quite mundane, and quite ineffable, as the word sacred means nothing.
While the new fast tracking system for Anglican ordinands has been controversial, I do like it. I myself am hoping to be raised to be Dean of somewhere one day, or perhaps a Royal Chaplaincy would suit. For too long the Church was a haven for the family idiot, or for Neo-Marxist social liberals who had been thrown out of Outrage for being too outspoken. The new meritocratic system, where merit is measured largely by the colour of ones old school tie promises to bring a reassuring conservatism back to the church, even if it is only a social conservatism not a theological one.
Most surprising to me was that while I can see Lambeth Palace would be enthusiastic for this move, that 10 Downing Street assented. Prime Minister David Cameron must have known that it would make the church relevant to 90% more modern British people than it currently is, and it is clearly a huge coup for the Anglican Communion – Dawkins book sales far outweigh all the Bishops combined since the Colenso affair in the 19th century, and the incorporation of the schismatic “New Atheists” back in to the Anglican Communion albeit with the new “Skeptical Rite” will do huge amounts to to boost church attendance and take pressure on hard pressed roof repairs off jumble sales and bailiffs enforcing Chancel tax. So why did Cameron agree?
Well, in the words of senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby the Church of England is primarily a social organisation, not a religious one, and one must maintain the balance, the Anglican Via Media, between those who believe in God and those who do not. Cameron clearly took this important lesson to heart, and Lambeth, with a long tradition on its side, have appointed the best man to the post. I fear that next month some long haired ex-acid head Graham Kendrick’s chorus singing loon will be appointed to balance the balance: but it for best perhaps, and at long last the CofE has learned from our current government – it is bad to look both heartless and feeble, so do both alternately?
Best wishes to Richard Dawkins on his ecclesiastical preferment. Further reportage here.
So Napoleon famously mocked the English, or so it is said. Actually the phrase came from Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations, where he wrote — “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” Napoleon may have taken up the phrase, and used it, but I seem to recall that actually his tone may have been rather more respectful than is general believed. Still, whatever the truth, has anyone wandered down the Regent Arcade, Cheltenham recently? It was Lisa who pointed out to me the large number of empty shops — when this happens to Cheltenham, you have to wonder. I think I might try soon to interview either the Town Centre Manager or the Economic Development Officer for the borough, though to be fair they probably have rather more important things to do. Cheltenham has weathered the recent economic storms quite well, but the changes are visible on the High Street, and a host of innovative new shops appear to be opening to offer the cheapest of the cheap to the once prosperous shoppers of this fine city. I’m not moaning, as I say, Cheltenham is still much more prosperous than most places, even if that prosperity is rather unequally divided among its citizens, with areas of (in 21st century terms) deprivation, but nothing like the real poverty of some cities districts.
I’m moved to write by something I read yesterday, by of all people Prime Minister David Cameron. Amid much nonsense (he seems to think businessfolk are motivated by altruism and social concern, and the belief they might be motivated by personal gain is “dangerous”!) he accused the British of having a snobby anti-business attitude — and I happen for once to agree. In fact it has often been said that I have a Cavalier attitude to work, and I don’t think those who accused me of idleness realized how right they were. The real “cavalier” attitude of the Seventeenth century, but which existed for centuries before and centuries after, was that Trade and Commerce were little better than manual labour, being the lot of the unwashed asses, and certainly not at all respectable. One did not worry about where one’s money came from: and one certainly did not indulge in crude money making schemes. One sets one mind on “higher concerns”, and academia, the clergy, government or administrative posts are just fine, as is a career in the Armed Forces — but running a business? That is for peasants!
For all their aristocratic aloofness, the ruling class of England have actually never been adverse to owning money. If they had adopted Apostolic Poverty one might have more sympathy for them, but the cavalier attitude of anti-trade that I am said to be (mistakenly, but according to my friends) an arch-exponent of was always tempered by a desire to live well and have plenty of money. Historically one achieved this by various means, such as marrying well, inheriting vast amounts of money, exploiting the labour of the lower classes, gambling, carving out a private domain in some other foreign lands and if worse came to the worst investing in some scheme or other. (I guess nothing changes much ) Jokes aside, there has always been an element of the British upper class who have troubles themselves with improving crop yields, creating new machines to make labour more efficient, and running commercial concerns, and another element who have jumped on get rich schemes like the infamous South Sea Bubble, or the Dotcom Bubble.
Generally though Cameron is right – historically there has been a desire to own land, avoid grubby commerce, and spend ones time in other pursuits, such as chasing members of the Vulpes family, chasing a Mr Darcey (or young actresses), snoring through sermons or engaging in heroic-age science, like that of Buckland, Darwin or Kelvin. Yet despite this, Britain had developed, even in those cavalier times, a great tradition of tradesmen, artisans and merchants, and in fact by the time of Napoleon we had half the population of France, but greatly exceed it in industrial output.
And in fact our great Empire, and all the abominations which came with, was founded on trade and commerce: Napoleons was at least based on the ideological principle of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” albeit much tempered with his dynastic ambitions and the inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie. The British Empire was a trading empire – the vast wealth of Victorian England founded on the horrors of colonialism, and the good things which came from it too, as well as the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. And the Victorians knew that, and many of them, like Prince Albert, believed that trade and commerce were the way the world could be improved not just for the British but for all, and knew that commerce and industry underlay the great literature, judicial and engineering achievements of their rapidly improving world. Faced with global warming, pollution and scientific atrocities we fear technology and progress: most of our ancestors seem to have embraced it lovingly with a feeling of optimism, with the exception of those dispossessed and ruined in the name of progress. We are all Luddites now, compared with the world known by H.G.Wells.
In recent decades we have seem something of a return to the world of HG Wells – in the last few years I have watched with wry amusement the rise of the New Atheists, whose faith in Science is untempered by the horror the previous generations felt at a world where ‘progress’ had led to the threat of nuclear ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of popular music looked to a lost Eden, and pre-scientific Golden Age that never was; an Atlantis of “Merry England”. The Hippy/New Age advocates of that generation were castigated by the punks, but it is the New Atheists who really embody the reaction against this mythic woo, and fervently embrace the hope that Science van lead us forward, as it has extended our lives, saved us from the ravages of disease and fed millions. It’s hard not to sympathise with their optimism and hope, rather than the doom laden nay-saying of the hippies. I am thinking of things like Eve of Destruction (YOUTUBE sound link) by Barry MacGuire, or In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Termius) (YOUTUBE sound link) by Zager & Evans, typical of the apocalyptic end of that era.
Now the old post-war critiques of science as enslaved by what the hippies called the “Military-Industrial complex” are largely forgotten I think – certainly the rhetoric of the New Science fans tends to look to what I have termed the “heroic age” of 19th century gentleman scientists of independent means, not the reality of commercially driven science research programmes of today, but the point could be made there is little scope for the amateur scientists these days, with a few exceptions – astronomy still throws up discoveries by empirical observation by the amateur, and the natural historians still do invaluable work as do volunteer conservationists learning about ecological systems, and the Zooniverse Project is an amazing example of what can be done with public participation, as was the recent work in protein chain folding by gamers. Science is hip, and the fact that for many science graduates the career outlook is very bleak indeed is largely overlooked.
If there is part of our society that is invaluable but has really suffered from a loss of prestige, I’d say it was the poor engineers. Engineers used to be heroes, and still should be, but outside of late night cable TV shows, when did you last see a big name British engineer lauded? In the 19th century we produced an awesome crop of engineers, with a disproportionate number of Scottish or Welsh, and yet nowadays engineering seems to be neglected, unless you happen to create microcomputers. I’d love to see greater public awareness of the amazing achievements of the engineers of the past, and even more so greater public appreciation of what engineers continue to do for us today, but somehow I doubt any will be pushing Cheryl Cole off the covers of the tabloids soon…
So is the British attitude to commerce and wealth creation really ambivalent? Hating investment bankers has certainly become a national sport (with some good reason I fear) but actually we have long been pretty negative about the world of business. I grew up in the 70′s and 80′s, and the TV dramas of the period often had villains who were corrupt amoral grasping businessmen, or mad scientists. Was there any thing extolling business? Perhaps Dallas from the USA, or are more parochial Crossroads Motel, but as far as sitcoms go there were leftist gentle critiques of our rat-race like The Good Life, and Rightist critiques embodying cavalier attitudes like To The Manor Born? Actually Only Fools and Horses gently mocked the yuppy mentality, and Open All Hours and Are You Being Served? arguably at least showed businessfolk as heroes, but the inherent drama of the Public Sector jobs in The Bill, London’s Burning, Casualty, Soldier Soldier and other shows arguably did a great deal to gain public respect and lead to the pay rises and improved conditions public servants gained in the last three decades. I would not push it too far – I doubt many peoples career aspirations were shaped by Porridge!
The social class struggle in the English sitcom still awaits a definitive treatment – Polly Cox did good work on it in her undergraduate dissertation, but I have seen little since. Still, business does not come off well in our popular culture, even in the yuppie 80′s. Now for Prince Albert there was a great hope that trade and commerce would build a peaceful world, and the Victorians seem to have seen globalization as benign and a huge positive — something few do today it would seem, but Albert’s beliefs were something along the lines of the modern adage that no two countries with a Macdonalds have ever fought a war, though since the 90′s that is no longer true. It is however a tempting vision of peace and prosperity, and today I don’t think many people see business as a major benefit – most kids really do seem to regard employers as oppressors, which in an increasingly de-unionized society could happen. There are still good employers out there, and millions of people who love their jobs though.
So yes, Cameron is probably right – and the division between the commerce loving right and the commerce hating right may have been healed, with everyone an heir to Thatcher, Blair and Cameron at least. Us Britons are not enthused by wealth-creation – we want instant gratification, via the National Lottery, instant fame by the X Factor or some other get -rich-quick-scheme like those Del-boy and Rodney dreamed of. More interesting to me is the changing social attitudes, the different heroes of each generation.
In the 19th century industrialism was associated with horrors, but actually Whig Liberals and Fabian Socialists, left-leaning Nonconformists such as Unitarians and Quakers, owned and built many of the great mills, and many did much to try and help the poor trapped in the industrial city hellholes with their philanthropy and model communities. Their fate was probably at times little worse than those left to starve in the countryside in the agricultural slump of the 1880′s, where right-leaning Tory squires likewise did much to assist in some cases.
Where are we now? I think Cameron should be mollified – while I despise The Apprentice, a lot of people love it. Alan sugar, Richard Branson, even dare I say it Clive Sinclair, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – all household names, all major entrepreneurs, seeming loved, even idolised by the public. There is perhaps a new enthusiasm for business; or was, when The Apprentice was conceived in 2004. I remember hearing from a Commisioning Conference that TV back mid-last decade was to be “aspirational” – that was the buzzword. The crash of 2007 caused it to falter, and perhaps now the slump has killed it, but I think last generation was in the UK broadly that. It was the decade when grunge was abandoned by students in favour of a lifestyle more like Friends – and when I see students now, they look attractive, well dressed and wealthy, far more so than in my day — because their expectations were shaped by two decades of wealth from the businesses they despise now.
I started this ramble, which in no way should be mistaken for a coherent critique – I was thinking as I wrote — with Cheltenham. Cheltenham today is arguably one of the very few pieces of evidence for the trickle down effect, where the poor benefit from the rich, working spectacularly. What could have been a tiny market town much like Tewkesbury benefited from the immense wealth of the 18th and 19th century visitors, and the quack spa cures they enjoyed. It’s a town built on “alternative medicine”, and on snobbiness, but it is a lovely place to live. Ironically it was never much of a producer, or manufacturer, until well after it was wealthy – Dowtys and others went on to make it a major manufacturing centre, but Cheltenham was really little more than a quack cure super-casino for dilletantes to pursue each other, find mistresses and enjoy the snobbery of their exalted social position. Thanks to the generosity of James Agg-Gardner, Baron Ferrieres and others who donated and subscribed to the parks and museums, art gallery and library, we all benefit from that past, and reading the towns history there was little oppression and a lot of opportunity, albeit with much horrible poverty and illness, for the poorer inhabitants.
I’m left wing as most of you know, but Cheltenham does seem to show that business is not all heavy industry, investment and mercantilism – there is room for prosperity based on a service culture of entertainment, so long as wealth is being created **somewhere** to be spent here. So come back Cheryl Cole, all is forgiven, and come and spend a few million in our town. Maybe Cameron forgets that in some industries, like pop music, TV, and entertainment software, services and tourism, we are still world class business folks.
I think it’s gonna be OK, but I was always an optimist.
Long time readers of this blog will know I am a genuine fan of Professor Chris French — he is brilliant, hard working, and actually investigates claims, and like Professor Wiseman avoids making the “rationalist myths” howlers that most of the celeb-atheist twittering classes embarrass their readers with, by actually knowing what he is talking about. Unlike Richard Wiseman, there is a certain down to earth self effacing humility in Professor French.
Anyway Prof French edits the excellent The Skeptic magazine: I assume it is excellent based on a small collection of essays that were published in book form a couple of years back, and because I really like Neil Davies, the chap who does the wonderful caricature cartoons, and also Andrew Endersby who I know has long been involved with the magazine. However this remains a statement of faith on my part, as I have never been able to afford to subscribe: perhaps this year I shall, and i am pleased to see one can order individual issues, so if you are interested enough in the subject to have read this far go and have a look at picking up a subscription?
Anyway I am not here to sell magazines, I’m writing today because before Christmas and my annual cold and chest problems I saw an interesting little piece by Professor French on Anomalistic Psychology on Nature.com blogs. It’s a very short piece, well worth reading, and I have already given my thoughts on Anomalistic Psychology in a couple of other places on my blog – at the end of my infamous Paranormality review, and I in my review of Chris French’s Cheltenham SitP talk. So while I will reprise some of those concerns here, this piece if a direct response to Prof. French’s article and video, which you should go view now if you have not yet.
The article opens with a rather well written introductory paragraph that sets the context.
“Ever since records began, people have reported strange experiences that appear to contradict our conventional scientific understanding of the universe. These have included reports that appear to support the possibility of life after death, such as near-death experiences, ghostly encounters and apparent communication with the dead, as well as claims by various individuals that they possessed mysterious powers such as the ability to read minds, see into the future, obtain information from remote locations without the use of the known sensory channels, or to move objects by willpower alone. Such accounts are accepted as veridical by most of the world’s population in one form or another and claims relating to miraculous healing, alien abduction, astrological prediction and the power of crystals are also accepted by many. Belief in such paranormal claims is clearly an important aspect of the human condition. What are we to make of such accounts from a scientific perspective?”
OK, so writes Prof. French. This raises so many fascinating questions — firstly and most obviously, a physical phenomena that was mysterious in late 7th century Constantinople, or 18th century France, or 1970′s Dagenham, may well be fully understood now. French I am sure accepts this point: but indeed much science is anomaly driven, as we refine models by trying to explain things such as “dark matter” or some other scientific mystery. A deeper issue however arises – where is the observer in the “conventional scientific understanding of the universe” situated? If he means there have been through history phenomena reported that are now Fort’s damned “things” (but still they march!) then yes, but are we talking outside the “conventional scientific understanding of the universe” of their period, or today? The conventional scientific understanding of the latter 13th century could accept many phenomena that ours today can not: we have sensibly enough adopted methodological naturalism as an epistemological framework, and resolved the philosophical debate of centuries by deciding yes Nature can be described and modeled mathematically, without arbitrary intervention, ghosts, gods, goblins or witches.
I assume Professor French has in mind the modern scientific worldview, shared by the average Nature reader, who one assumes is not much like Rupert Sheldrake or Bernard Carr, but closer to the kind of chap who writes books called The Magic of Reality seemingly completely happy to accept that Science in some way directly equates to reality. (OK, a low blow — but I think intelligent children can grasp concepts as simple as Instrumentalism, or Inductivism. Failing that, point out to them that if Cheltenham is the Cosmos, then we can draw a series of maps of it; those maps in some simple ways equate to our science’s relation to the actual universe; it is a description, useful for making predictions and getting places, but we should never forget the science is just a depiction of the reality, and the nature of the relationship between the two is still hotly disputed in the philosophy of science…)
So yep, a lot of these phenomena are utterly discredited in the eyes of the modern scientific paradigm, though as much for metaphysical axiomatic reasons as for successful falsification of them. I have a real issues with the very notion of parapsychology, being a negatively defined discipline, and have argued passionately on this blog as to why I find the notion of the paranormal utterly incoherent, unhelpful and indeed probably damaging. I would encourage you to take a moment to understand my argument there before proceeding, if you have the time…
Chris French, like Richard Wiseman, Sue Blackmore and a handful of other committed sceptics have actually done what most sceptics never do, and done a load of experiments. In that process you can easily go, like Dr Sue Blackmore, from a believer to a complete sceptic, or the other way like Prof. Jessica Utts and others have I guess. I think it was during the period when Sue Blackmore was becoming disillusioned with parapsychology that she wrote one of the most important papers she ever published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Luckily that paper is online here and it is absolutely worth reading — it is really the Founding Manifesto of modern Anomalistic Psychology, and Dr Blackmore deserves a great deal of credit she does not often seem to get.
Now in the article Dr Blackmore writes, surveying the SPR in 1987
So first, has our subject really failed so dismally? A dispassionate look at our Society’s activities suggests that it has not lived up to its early ambitions. We do not hold crowded lectures in our own well appointed lecture theatre, nor are we established in a University department. Also there are not many of us. This year, in 1987, the SPR has 830 members; not an enormous increase over the 700 or so who were members in 1887. Size, you may protest, is not everything. No indeed it is not, but what else could we boast? As a Society we are not very well known and are still considered as a fringe group, accorded rather little respect or academic standing. And as for research—most of us do not do very much and there is pitifully little money with which to encourage more.
The situation in 2011: I believe there are about 50 parapsychology PhD students now, and somewhere around the 13 or 14 active parapsychology units or departments doing parapsychological research in UK universities – most are psychology departments, with a couple doing paraphysics. The SPR still has around the same number of members it always had I believe; in recent years the decline in numbers has dropped, perhaps even reversed. As to the money and respect, it is much the same as when Dr Blackmore was writing. This reminds me of the joke of a friend who told me he was working in “Anomalistic Psychology” and i asked him what the difference was between that and parapsychology – “about 50k a year and tenure” he replied. However while we have seen losses, like the European Journal of Parapsychology folding, we have seen gains in terms of a huge increase in the number of PhD students in the field, a large amount of publications with some like Bem’s drawing mainstream attention, and probably more research that I ever will ever have time to even read the abstracts of published in the last three years. (Most of it bores me to tears, because y interests in parapsychology are pretty much apparitions and poltergeists. )
So when Chris French writes in his piece of the failure of parapsychology, I am minded of Susan writing back in 1987, and I remember her call for a new parapsychology –
If we are going to have a new psychical research we must ask ourselves just what are the questions which matter to us. I would guess that most people interested in psychical research are interested because of experiences they have had and cannot explain. These might be dramatic psychic experiences; convincing examples of telepathy or precognition; veridical astral projection or effective communication with the dead but most people’s experiences are far less veridical and much more personal than that—as a glance at any issue of our Newsletter Supplement reveals. I suspect that the crucial experiences are often things which people know in their heart are important but find it very hard to explain to anyone else. For myself, I have had out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams; experiences in which myself and the rest of the world seemed to be one; in which all change flowed in an endless now. I have learned that it is possible to see more clearly, even perhaps to ‘wake up’. These things are hard to describe; even embarrassing to speak about. But it is these experiences which brought me to psychical research.
Anomalistic Psychology is exactly the “New Parapsychology” Blackmore called for in that paper: it performs important work. I have many reservations: I am no fan of fMRI studies that purport to show certain brain states correlated with certain neurological responses, and which crop up in some research in the area, and I am frankly sceptical of some of the modular theories of brain activity that I have seen touted, and the evolutionary psychology explanations often put forward on the fringes of the area. If you stick to Wiseman, French, Blackmore and the APRU you probably won’t go far wrong — once you get involved with psychologists who have no understanding of parapsychology, things get very silly and annoying quite often.
My greatest critique remains simple: Anomalistic Psychology runs the risk of being “faith based”; it is grounded in a materialist reductionist worldview, and as I think most scientists now recognise all observation is theory laden and our preconceptions can shape drastically which research questions we even bother to ask, it runs the risk of being unproductive, if the answers for the anomalies are not actually located in the noggin, but in the wispy shades of the ethereal dead or some such.
And there is the rub: in my recent ANOMALY article I pointed out that physical aspects of “haunts” have been consistently downplayed and ignored by parapsychological writers and sceptics alike for over a century, and I argue the reason why is they are not mental, psychological phenomena. I am sure that Anomalistic Psychology could tell us something about belief in poltergeists, but it would not tell us much about what the chaps from the Max Planck institute measured happening at the Rosenheim poltergeist, or many other bizarre cases with physical aspects?
Still, I remain unsure about how we can be certain about what is actually going on in these cases, and Anomalistic Parapsychology is certainly of interest and useful: but again, it must avoid simply being “parapsychology for sceptics”, and it must never become mired in dogma. Dr Blackmore wanted a parapsychology that faced up to the loss of the self, free will, and triumph of materialism — I am waiting for Prof. Hood’s book before I launch my critique on those positions, but based on the versions Blackmore offered I think the case is weaker now than it was when she was writing in 1987. In either case, I prefer at least some nod to academic impartiality and objectivity: the venerable SPR, for all its eccentricities, has a wonderful thing in it’s “no corporate opinions” rule. Once “believers” are welcome in Anomalistic Psychology, as they are as both subjects and students in Religion and Sociology departments, my doubts will no doubt diminish.
So to quickly finish, because I am aware my hacking cough makes me cantankerous and rude, how do we account for the “retreat factor” in paranormal gains and losses, by which seemingly promising results are soon lost? In the case of Bem, there was media hyping, but plenty of similar papers had been published over the last decade. I am almost completely uninterested in psi research, but I will write a future post on the papers, and their statistical power, and the failed replications (denied publication in the mainstream journals, published in the parapsi ones though?) Sometimes it is possible for dodgy research to grab the worlds attention – but actually there is another phenomena, where interesting and consistent stuff like the Ganzfeld studies are ignored, and largely forgotten, owing to the whims of fashion. Maybe the problem is they show some interesting result, but bring us no closer to a mechanism or theory of psi — as to why that is I won’t speculate. Still, I think the truth may be just that: any ESP research last as long as people are interested in it., and any “paranormal” gains are quickly countered. As my experience of skeptics is that they can be very easily be misled by anything that suits their prejudices, like all of us, being human,the countering may not even be factually accurate — as in when the over enthusiastic skeptic hurls Randi’s Prize at me as a reason why PEAR, Bem or the Ganzfeld trials were all nonsense.
Anyway apologies for the slightly sardonic tone – I am a little unwell, but felt worth commenting on the piece.