Archive for Politics

The Royal Observatory Bomb and the Rise of Unreason

Posted in History, Literature, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by telescoper

I missed the anniversary by a day but I thought I’d pass on a fascinating but very sad little bit of history. One hundred and twenty years ago yesterday, on February 15th 1894, a 26-year old Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin blew himself up near the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. His death seems to have been an accident caused by the bomb he was carrying going off prematurely. It is not really known either whether the bomb was meant for the Royal Observatory or somewhere else. Anarchist attacks involving bombs were not uncommon in the 1890s and the range of targets was very wide.


Bourdin was found alive, though very seriously injured, by people who heard the blast. Though able to speak he did not offer any explanation for what had happened. He died about half an hour later.

This sad and perplexing story inspired Joseph Conrad‘s famous novel The Secret Agent. Conrad added an “Author’s Note” to the manuscript of his book:

The attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory: a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that is is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to pieces for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack.

We’ll never know what Bourdin’s motivations were; perhaps he didn’t really know himself. He is usually described as an “anarchist” although that term describes such a wide spectrum of political beliefs that it doesn’t really explain Bourdin’s actions; not all anarchists embrace violence and aggression, for example, although some – such as the members of Class War – clearly do. At one end of the anarchist spectrum there are the violent thugs who are nothing more than the mirror image of fascism and at the other there are reasonable intelligent people who simply don’t believe in hierarchical structures.

Brighton has its share of anarchists and the thing that’s most noticeable about them to an outsider like me is their conformity; the dress code is apparently very strictly enforced. The obvious irony aside, this suggests to me that much of the attraction of being an anarchist is not really the existence of a compelling political philosophy, but simply to fulfill the need to belong to something.

The main thing that occurred to me yesterday while I was reading about the Greenwich Observatory bomb plot concerns the implications of the location. If the Royal Observatory was the intended target then why was it so? The simple answer is that a core belief for most varieties of anarchist is their opposition to “the State”. A powerful symbol of the British state in 1894 was the Royal Navy; it was Britain’s maritime traditions that led to the founding of the Royal Observatory in the first place and most of the work carried out there involved accurate positional measurements designed to help with navigation. Or maybe it was to do with the role of the Observatory in defining the time? Insofar as acts like this make any sense at all, these seem reasonable interpretations. 

I’m tempted to suggest that the adoption of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1884 may have given a young Frenchman additional grounds for resentment..

A different answer from the suggestion that it was an anti-establishment gesture stems from  the conflict between anarchism and the nature of scientific knowledge. Anarchists usually express their beliefs in terms of the desire to make society more “equal” and “democratic”, so that decisions should be made collectively for the common good. I’m happy with that line of argument, and agree that we should all enjoy equal rights versus the government and other institutions, and in relation to one another. However, having equal rights does not mean having equal knowledge and it doesn’t mean that any person’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s. What I mean is that there are scientific experts, and the knowledge they possess has demonstrable value.

The approach of some to this challenge is simply to deny the value of scientific knowledge, and assert instead that it’s just a social construct like anything else. I am aware of a number of so-called social scientists at the University of Sussex and elsewhere who hold this view; my usual response is to ask them whether they regard witchcraft or crystal healing as equal to orthodox medicine.

CLARIFICATION: Please note I do not mean to imply that all social scientists hold the opinions described above. I’m fully aware that they are fringe views. The phrase “so-called social scientists” does not refer to all social scientists, just the fringe in much the same way I’d use “so-called geographers” to describe the Flat Earth Society.

I’m not trying to suggest that members of the Department of Sociology are plotting to blow up the Astronomy Centre! What I do think that while we should always strive to be as democratic as possible there are always limits, not just because of what is practically possible but also what is socially desirable. Any organization in which everyone votes about every decision that has to be made would struggle to function at all. We have to find ways of working that make best use of the different skills and knowledge we all possess.

A constructive approach is to argue that if we are to build  a more democratic society it is first necessary to greatly increase the level of scientific literacy in the population, so that more people can make informed decisions about the big issues facing the future, such as how we fulfill our energy requirements for the next 30 years and how we cope with global warming. That will not be an easy thing to do given the dearth of scientists in Parliament and in the media, but that’s not an argument for not trying.

Symptomatic of the widespread rejection of science among the politically disaffected is the lamentable state of Green politics in the United Kingdom. In my opinion there is huge potential for a scientifically-informed political movement focussed on environmental issues. Unfortunately the current Green Party is anti-science to the core, which would doom it to perpetual marginalization even without the loss of credibility stemming from the childish antics of the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas. I know that many will argue with me about whether the Green Party should be included in “The Left”, but since both Labour and Conservative parties now belong to the Centre-Right it seems a sensible classification to me.

It hasn’t always been like this. As Alice Rose Bell pointed out in a Guardian piece some time ago, there have been examples of constructive engagement between science and left-wing politics. This seems to me to have largely evaporated. I don’t think that’s so much because scientists have rejected the left. It’s more that the left has rejected science.

Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 13, 2013 by telescoper

On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.

According to a Guardian piece

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.

For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.

Why is Astronomy Important?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 5, 2013 by telescoper

There’s an interesting and unusual article on the arXiv today entitled Why is Astronomy Important? Here is the abstract:

For a long time astronomers and other scientists believed that the importance of their work was evident to society. But in these difficult days of financial austerity, even the most obvious benefits of science have to undergo careful scrutiny. Eradicating poverty and hunger is a worldwide priority, and activities that do not directly attempt to resolve these issues can be hard to justify and support. However, several studies have told us that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general and has helped countries to face and overcome crises. The scientific and technological development of a country or region is closely linked to its human development index a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income.

The full text of the paper can be found on the IAU website here.

The article focusses on matters relating to the transfer of technology between astronomy and, e.g. industry, aerospace, and medicine, its effect on technology we are familiar with in everyday life, on astronomy as an exemplar of international collaboration and on its wider cultural and philosophical impact. Many of the points made in this article can also be found in the Royal Astronomical Society‘s free publication Beyond the Stars: Why Astronomy Matters which is available for free online here.

I recommend you read the full article and make your own mind up about why astronomy is important. I have just two comments, which are partly questions. The first is that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the interpretation of correlations like that mentioned in the last sentence of the abstract (between technological development and the human development index). The issue is the basic one that correlation of two phenomena does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. Is it really possible to establish rigorously a causal link between spending money on astronomy and wider societal benefits? I’m not saying that there isn’t such a link, just that it’s difficult to interpret evidence which is dependent on so many factors. Could one not argue instead that more developed countries spend more money on astronomy because they can afford to?

The other thing that troubles me with arguments of the type presented in the paper is that there is a danger that  emphasizing the transfer of knowledge to other disciplines as the rationale for funding astronomy implicitly negates the argument that astronomy has intrinsic worth of its own. In other words, answering the question “Why is Astronomy important?” seems to accept at the outset that it isn’t.  If it is indeed the case that we can only justify astronomy because it has produced spin-offs in, e.g., medicine, why not just spend more money on medicine and forget the astronomy?

I’m not saying that the technology transfer arguments carry no weight, just that they are definitely double-edged and should be used with caution. For the record, I think we should fund Astronomy (and other sciences) primarily because they are an essential part of the fabric of our culture and civilization; all the rest is icing on the cake. In other words, I support state funding for the sciences for very much the same reasons as for the arts.  I’m fully aware, however, that this unlikely to persuade the powers that be as effectively as an appeal to economic benefits; that’s why science funding has fared so much better than arts funding in this age of austerity.

Hymn for the Day

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on October 31, 2013 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is Sine Nomine, No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of those participating in today’s strike of some University staff.

Proletarian Democracy Eurovision Song Contest Preview (Part 1)

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on May 16, 2013 by telescoper


As we approach the evening of interminable tedium that is the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s refreshing to stumble across a Blog post that reveals the competitions true political and cultural significance…

Originally posted on Proletarian Democracy:

The Eurovision Song Contest, cultural Marxism’s flagship spectacle, is a highlight in every communist’s calendar, or should be. We proudly present part 1 of the official Proletarian Democracy preview of all the entries. The following score system applies.

PD eurovision score table

1: Austria – Natalia Kelly – Shine

When hurt is all you’re feeling, your heart is slowly bleeding
The only memories to hold on to
When you almost stop believing, you’re cold, alone and freezing
You think you’re lost and don’t know where to go
Look up to the starlit sky, reignite the fire
You will shine, shine and fight the shadows in the sky

What’s it about?
The loneliness of the far-left paper seller.

Sounds like:
A somnambulant Travis.


Little bit communism

2: Estonia – Birgit Õigemeel – Et Uus Saaks Alguse

The curtain is being raised once more
The second act is starting, where I pick myself up and dust myself down

View original 1,620 more words

Gove Agreement

Posted in Education, Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2012 by telescoper


I’ve had the same worry about finding myself in agreement with Michael Gove, at least on a few things; see here, for example. Anyway, this piece makes some very good points about the corruption of the GCSE system.

Originally posted on Protons for Breakfast Blog:

Michael Gove

Michael Gove: Not always wrong.

What do you do when someone with whom you basically disagree, says something sensible? Michael Gove has placed me in this situation three times now.

Firstly he abolished the Qualifications and Curriculum development Authority (QCDA).  Secondly he pointed out at that school IT lessons are at best uninspiring. And now he has gone and acknowledged that our system of competitive exam boards has driven down GCSE standards.

You may not have noticed this because he also called for GCSEs to be replaced with ‘O’levels. I sympathise with his motivation – to raise the bar for the most academically able pupils – but I think he is wrong on this. It would be enormously disruptive, enormously divisive, and there is actually nothing inherently wrong with GCSEs.

The problem with GCSEs lies in the ‘almost corrupt‘ link between publishers and their…

View original 202 more words

The Budget – a Pictorial Guide

Posted in Finance, Politics with tags , , on March 21, 2012 by telescoper

Courtesy of the BBC Webshite.

Graffiti Politti

Posted in Art, Politics with tags , , , on February 9, 2012 by telescoper

For all the Saints who from their Labours Rest

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is Sine Nomine, No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of all those participating in today’s public sector pension strikes.

Dare to Be Dumb (via Climate Denial Crock of the Week)

Posted in Politics with tags , on September 5, 2011 by telescoper

I came across this interesting polemic about climate change denialism and because I’m going to be too busy today to post anything original I thought I’d reblog it here.

Someone told me off last week for my “Academic Journal Racket” post, arguing that polemics never advance an argument. I disagree, actually. Polemics are good, as long as they’re good polemics.

Dare to Be Dumb In “Confessions of a Climate Change Convert”, D. R. Tucker explained the change in consciousness that came to a conservative writer after seriously looking at the evidence for  anthropogenic climate change. Today, he offers another insight into the conservative's climate quandary. The amusement parks I visited when I was a child had signs indicating that one had to be “this tall” in order to go on a ride. Viewing the endless stream of op-eds and … Read More

via Climate Denial Crock of the Week


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