Marx on the machine and Repetitive Strain Injury (Quick Reflection)

In our present place and time, the ‘machine’ has become so much a part of our lives.

Marx says:

It is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it… The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself (Marx in Seidman 1983: 137)

Reflections on the machine from the present


Amongst the affluent (with entry barriers ever-lowering) we have not just the machine of the workplace but the machine of leisure. This machinery is not forced upon us by necessity but is chosen. Elsewhere, the machinery of the assembly line plods on, as inane as ever it was.

We act through the machine, Continue reading

Hayek’s The Intellectuals and Socialism


Friedrich von Hayek’s ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’ (1949) appears to be an important work, for perhaps almost all libertarian/free-market think tanks lead back to it.  The spirit of the essay, which was written in response to the great flurry of postwar social planning, runs warm in Australia’s own Institute for Public Affairs (IPA): the defence of free-market ideas in principle rather than via pragmatics.

It is also insightful beyond its immediate (ideological) aims.

It covers the following:

  • Intellectuals have more power than they are given credit
  • For this greason socialism – or rather, the principles of planned economy – had become a dominant in public policy
  • But why are intellectuals, above all the brightest ones, so attracted to socialism? Because socialism espouses a visionary utopian existence which inspires, whereas liberal thinkers tend to fixate on more mundane practicalities of the present
  • In conclusion, liberalism needs its own inspiring visionary thinkers

What is an intellectual?

For Hayek the class of intellectuals is broad. These ‘professional secondhand dealers in ideas’ are the consumers, synthesisers, and above all disseminators of ideas and conceptual frameworks.  It is a class composed of the literate and educated: teachers, academics, and journalists, but also scientists and doctors.

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Hypocrisy and progress in human relations


The word hypocrisy originates from Greek compounds hypokrites, hypokrisis, which relate to an actor playing a part on the stage1(actor, pretender, dissembler) . The word we’ve received is a metaphor intermingled with a religious-moralistic hue.

The Hippocratic oath also emerges form these roots. Presumably Hippocrates’ had an ancestral connection with drama.



Even Jesus, patron saint of turning-the-other-cheek, had nothing nice to say about the Pharisees. For their entrenched cultural or racial predilection toward hypocrisy he tarred the whole group with invective. In contemporary times this would be considered scandalous. But there are no records of cries of “not all Pharisees!”.

Thus hypocrisy is considered one of the worst of human failings.

Below is a short thesis, written as a counterpoint to the view of hypocrisy, which Jesus, Mohammed, and so many more of us seem to hold (if less rigidly), the view that hypocrisy prevents moral progress in human affairs: Hypocrisy enables vice at the expense of virtue.

This attitude is based on the lofty ideal, that acting virtuously in all our activities, even in private doing what was right, works to make the world a better place.

But what about the possibility that hypocrisy serves a positive function for civilisation?

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Privacy and destiny, data and individuality

Pavlov's Sermon

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ – George Santayana


The high importance placed upon ‘the private’, our increased links to one another via the internet, and the power of the same tech to capture and catalogue personal data ensures that debates about the future of privacy are frequent. The concern in Australia about the ABS retaining personal identification data in the Census (for a longer period) being only the latest to cause a panic.

The internet first broadened expectations for privacy as the greater world became accessible from the bedroom, but the undertow now threatens to drag the bedroom (and beyond) back into the public.

A major motivation of ardent defenders of privacy, typified by Edward Snowden, is the concern that the past, or present will be used against them at some stage in the future. For this reason they feel that their freedom to speak and think freely, now, is encroached upon.

These considerations are significant, but so much of the concern about privacy is fixated on variations of this same theme. In this essay I consider another dimension: privacy not to protect what we have done but privacy for the protection of what we will do, who we will be (and who we are).

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Consilience and Science – Part I

Consilience was proposed by William Whewell (1794-1866), alongside prediction and coherence, as one standard a scientific theory needs to meet to be considered verified.

“Science doesn’t work by plebiscite, by sheer numbers, but it does work by something called consilience. Consilience is something that goes back to William Whewell at Cambridge; where you have a great number of sources of different evidence … dozens of different inputs together building up a picture of what’s going on.” ((11:43-12:07) ‘The Science Show’)

Hearing the above on the radio I began to wonder about the relation between the concept of consilience and the much more common use of ‘consensus’ (as in scientific consensus).

What is consilience?

Consilience is achieved when evidence from multiple sources converge to validate a single scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is verified to the extent that it confirms (and is confirmed) by  inductions drawn from different kinds of phenomenon. An example of consilience in its strongest sense is Newton’s theory of why planets  (what we would now call moons) orbit around Jupiter rather than travelling in a straight line. Newton’s theory achieved consilience because it was also able to explain other phenomenon such as falling bodies and the tidal movements – hence what might have been known as the ‘law of orbiting planets’ became the law of gravity.


Consilience does not imply that the actual phenomenon being confirmed is stronger or more serious but that it has greater credibility as truth (I write this remark as a sort-of prolegomenon toward some remarks on consilience in sociology). In the strongest case of consilience the supporting evidence makes the claim stronger and all instances become subsumed under a more general rule.


Consilience or Consensus?

One often hears “scientific consensus”, rather than consilience, used to describe ‘things that science agrees on’ . Consensus bears the connotation that scientists rather than the science have been the determining factor in deciding ‘truth’. As such the use of this phrase has led to considerable criticism: science as an institution, as process, or as body of knowledge, doesn’t and literally cannot concede.

To what extent, can controversies attracting the ‘scientific consensus’ phrase (e.g. Climate Change) be accurately classified as having achieved consilience? That is, to what extent is the ‘scientific consensus’ really scientific?

The majority of climate science converges upon a point – the typical figure used to defend the ‘scientific consensus’ is that 97% of climate scientists agree that greenhouses gases are the major factor leading to the rise of temperature.

The central element which underlies the ‘majority’ climate science is that greenhouse gases have historically been strongly correlated with temperature rise. This correlation has been confirmed from multiple sources, and based on what is known of particle physics a causal link is drawn between these two phenomenon – thus this hypothesis has consilience. Yet despite this, consensus, at least as it is used in the 97% ‘meta-study’ case and others like it (see the wiki) might still be the best word to use: the consensus of expert opinion, not the consilience of science.

These meta-reviews (i.e. studies of studies) report the number of science articles that take the position that climate change is significantly human-caused (a further analysis is conducted on only those articles which are written by influential experts of the field). There is a certain authority (institutional authority) to these articles by virtue of the fact that they have been peer-reviewed. Yet, even if a particular science article cites the connection between green-house gases and warming, it need not verify this with new research (as a consilience of inductions). Instead, it might begin with this connection as a premise, reporting its own scientific findings atop this assumption – think of a scientist who, in order to stress the significance and relevance of their work, prefaces their discussion about the severity of potential future weather events with brief review of the literature about the seriousness of human induced climate change, they would be classed as one of the 97% despite their actual paper contributing nothing to the causal assumptions about the roots of climate change.

These statements are not meant to stoke scepticism of human-induced climate change, only to emphasise that a proportion of the 97% ‘consensus’ figure is likely to based on papers which do not undertake elemental climate science, and that such consensus is, then, consensus of scientists after all. The clincher is that this consensus of experts relies on the fundamental claims already having achieved consilience.


The Consilience (or consensus) and its “enemies”?

Michael Shermer has written on this topic and may have been a source of inspiration for The Science Show’s recent remarks. On his blog he writes “as Albert Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory entitled 100 Authors against Einstein, “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”.

At first Einstein was indeed considered wrong. It was only in time, as its predictions were verified that the theory of general relativity, in the main, usurped physics from Newton.

Einstein’s theory has long since achieved consilience and continues to predict hitherto unobserved phenomenon – most recently gravity waves 1A major achievement according Whewell’s philosophy of science; he believed that it is greater that scientific theory predicts/explains what was previously unobserved (new facts) rather than what was already known. But it does not follow that Newton’s theory was without basis. Newton’s theory was well established, with a history of correct predictions. Einstein’s theory, however, proved to be slightly more accurate.

Consilience and consensus can be over-turned, then, but only should the new theory prove superior on all, or almost all, accounts. That means that, generally, the new theory will be consistent with earlier empirical observations and confirm the predictions of the theory it hopes to surpass. In other words, the critics of Einstein or climate change have a lot of work to do.

Now what about the role of consensus and consilience in the social sciences? (My original motive for beginning this piece)

Representative Democracy Versus the Unrepresentative Swill

I have been absent for a while but have been strong-armed back by the appearance of Iain Walker on the ABC’s Qanda political debate program tonight (Question and Answer). I don’t know much about Iain Walker so I’m not plugging him, other than to say that he runs a foundation called newDEMOCRACY which has proposed a ‘citizen senate’, something along the lines of an idea I have been mulling over for the last month and a half. I post some brief details below.


The question is whether democracy could be improved by greater representation from ‘ordinary’ people. Australia’s present political landscape features one peculiarity which suggests (by sheer fluke) that this may credible: due to Australia’s fairly unique ‘preferential’ voting system and the large number of candidates that can run for election to the Senate we have seen the election of a number of relatively ‘ordinary’ Australians who quickly developed their ability and taken their job with seriousness. Continue reading

Inverting ‘Broken Window Theory’?

In 1982 George Kelling and James Wilson published a paper in the Atlantic outlining their ‘Broken Window Theory’. The theory begins from the observation, which is common enough, that small instances of ‘disorder’, such as the broken window of an abandoned house, are often followed by more disorder (i.e. more broken windows), and finally to destruction. What made Kelling and Wilson’s (henceforth K&W) contribution new was their attempt to transpose this insight into a social theory about the relation between crime and community. They argued that protecting the community from minor infringements can stop more severe infringements from becoming the norm.

The thesis I want to consider in a moment, is that something approaching the opposite may be true: that a relative improvement of community standards may lead to an increase of problems. Before getting to this I want to provide some more information about the original theory. Continue reading

Prohibition of Alcohol in America (Quick Reflection)

This following is as a brief critique of the notion (sometimes expressed) that the 1933 repeal of nation-wide liquor laws in the USA is a knockdown argument against new forms of ‘prohibition’. “Prohibition never works. Look at Prohibition in America”.

The standard argument is as follows: consuming alcohol was very common in America. It was banned; yet many people still wanted to consume it. Therefore an extremely powerful criminal underworld emerged to produce and distribute alcohol; underground saloons sprung up, and the huge number of people who now consumed alcohol became ‘law breakers overnight’.

‘When there’s a will there’s a way’

I suspect it is no coincidence that this account sits in harmony with basic economic principles and the rule of ‘supply and demand’ – there was demand and therefore there developed a market. But the suggestion that barriers preventing people from obtaining what they desire will always erode of necessity (and a more harmful and unregulated system emerge), hides many complexities.

The wills are many as are the ‘ways’

In simple terms, prohibition fails when the will and ability to subvert the law (and its punishments) outclasses the will and ability to uphold the law.  In other words, the success or failure of prohibition is a result of the specific factors involved in the case (the arrangement of ‘wills’, availability of ways) rather than something intrinsic to prohibition itself.

Some specifics of the American Nation-Wide Prohibition 1920 – 1933

In understanding why Prohibition eventually failed so spectacularly it is useful to consider its particular context. Here are a few: alcohol is low tech and easily manufactured; alcohol has intrinsic value (it relaxes or disinhibits); it has symbolic value: related to a masculine ideal, or idea of a good time. Also, the extent of the ban was absolute, allowing no ‘pressure relief’ to cushion the severity of the law. This lack of pressure relief meant that the social function performed by alcohol, a relaxant after work, and as instituted in business practice -i.e. discussing a deal over a drink- was neglected.  This prohibition occurred at at time when relaxation was highly desirable- the era of the Great Depression.

Ultimately the government failed to win the argument with a highly individualistic people.

Few substances share the same characteristics as alcohol, and the social context of the 1930s America were unique. As a comparison, consider ‘soft drinks’ which are similar in that they are widely drunk, have symbolic value, and pose a health risk when consumed too often; yet soft drinks lack intrinsic value, they don’t have exclusive reign over a social function, and they are perhaps too easily manufactured. Would a massive black-market and criminal network develop to satiate the people’s will for soft drink were it prohibited?

This was the first ‘quick reflection’. The point is to raise an idea for contemplation [edited for brevity]