I am frightened by the crowd, for we are getting much too loud… Research and public opinion

A friend of mine was targeted for criticism about a piece of research.  A libertarian think tank had decided that academia was a waste of money, that academics should pay their own way, that academics should only study things which were useful.  The think tank took a few sentences from a description of their project and pilloried them in the press.

This week, the same thing happened to somebody I don’t know.  Based on a fragment of a flier looking for participants in a study, a popular Twitter account let rip about a study that didn’t match their ideological expectations.  A few progressive media outlets broadcast the signal, and my heart went out to the researcher who, in this case, is only a student.

The outrage about the research is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  It is ignorant and wrongheaded.  The basis of the complaint is that certain diseases should only be studied from particular perspectives according to some intuition about social justice, and was supported by a vague (and, it seems, inaccurate) complaint about the state of funding for the issue.

I really hope that the student is getting a lot of support from the university.  I can’t imagine how terrible this experience must be for her.

Without litigating the actual case, there’s a more important dimension that is lost in the crossfire: to what extent is public support needed for research?

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But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide… Should we celebrate the end of the personal essay?

The Personal-Essay Boom is Over‘ is the title of a really interesting piece by Jia Tolentino on The New Yorker.  I disagree with it, but it is really worth reading if you want a view on the economics of commentary: to what extent is the profile of public discussion shaped by profit incentives?  Tolentino argues — I think persuasively — that a boom in personal-essay writing, where writers (overwhelmingly women) mined their private experiences for content, was a result of media companies coming under increased funding pressures.  The writing is cheap and easy to churn out.

Where I think the article is wrongheaded is in its selection of context: why are we looking specifically at this genre of writing?

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Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race… Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 is atrociously good

I am one of those people who has a list of ‘rules’ about how to construct a story.  I think about structural things and the way we use shortcuts to convey meaning.  I think about how the audience fills gaps in what they’re being told and how they mapped what they saw to intuitions about bigger issues.  And then I use all of these thoughts to compile a list of rules about what works and what doesn’t.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 largely breaks all of the rules.  Nothing about this film should work, and yet it really does.

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I don’t know if I’m tired and I don’t know if I’m ill… In praise of Australian values

I really like Australia.  It is a great country.  It could be better.  Sure, it’s better for me than it is for many others, but I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.

The Left struggles with patriotism.  It smells too much like racism.  It whiffs of conservatism.  It looks too much like a relic of a colonial past where we cared about the Mother Country or the Fatherland, a concept which made people fight pointless wars in foreign countries and steal resources.  Isn’t it just irrational jingoism about the place where you were accidentally born?

The issue has raised its head in public policy again due to the Turnbull Government’s decision to tinker with the Citizenship Test: ‘Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia‘.

So let’s do a quick tour of the policy questions and the underlying philosophy of patriotism.

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Nothing ever slows her down and a mess is not allowed… #QandA and constructive debate

In the red corner, Prof Margaret Somerville, a professor of law and bioethicist.  In the blue corner, Nikki Gemmell, a columnist and author (mainly of the fluff-piece for Baby Boomers variety).  ABC’s Q&A thought that this would result in a constructive discussion about euthanasia.  It didn’t.

It is worth exploring why it all went wrong, because it reveals something about our intuitions about the role of experts in public debate.

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Quick Post: Historicity of Jesus

The Guardian published an article by Simon Gathercole about whether there was an historical Jesus.  The article is depressingly terrible and it’s annoyed me for a full day.

We should start with who Gathercole is.  He is an outstanding theologian who is pushing the development of several areas of inquiry about early Christianity.  When we talk about wanting Richard Dawkins to engage with serious theology, we’re talking about people like Gathercole.

But that doesn’t mean Gathercole isn’t sometimes afflicted by bouts of sloppy thinking, as evidenced by the Guardian article.

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What else can we do when the kids don’t like it… @MiVoteAus is very confused

I spend far too much of my life thinking about the control of Executive power (70% of this is due to me having eleven thousand words on the topic due in a week so I am procrastinating hard).  It is an extremely complex question that ultimately boils down to our basic intuitions about the relationship between the community and the State.  That sounds more simple than it really is: the way you express that intuition in language affects the way you think about it.

Jeremy Waldron gives an example of this: should we talk about limiting the State, or should we talk instead of empowering the State?  Well, that depends on what you think the State is and whether it begins its life omnipotent or impotent.  Reasonable people can disagree on this point, and it’s not mere semantics.  Back to Waldron: we can frame constitutions in ways that restrict the lawful use of State power or we can frame constitutions in ways which compel the State to use its power in particular ways.

I spend far too much of my life thinking about what the Executive power is and how we can control it.  Every school child is taught the Separation of Powers like they’re taught triune theology.  There’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  God the Father is the angry one from the Old Testament.  God the Son is Jesus the hippy who liked fish.  God the Holy Spirit is… the… other… one… maybe.  Similarly, there’s the Legislature (which creates the law!).  There’s the Judiciary (which interprets the law!).  And there’s the Executive (which… administers the law?  Whatever that means).

And then people map these three branches directly on to particular institutions.  The Legislature is the Parliament, full of parliamentarians who create laws by passing legislation.  The Judiciary is the Courts, full of judges who read the legislation and tell us what it means to resolve disputes.  And there’s the Executive who is… like… maybe the public service… maybe?

Anyway, this all gets me to what a shitfully bad idea MiVote is.

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There goes the baker with his tray, like always the same old bread and rolls to sell… Review of Beauty & the Beast

Remember the classic Beauty and the Beast from 1991?  Remember how good it was?  Go watch that.

We are in a dark age of recreating animated films as live action movies.  Cinderella a few years ago explored new areas of body horror with footmen and coach drivers screaming while transforming back into farmyard animals.  Last year, we had The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon remind us of animated movies that were really great and didn’t need gritty remakes in the flesh.  To a degree, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent also fit into this category.

But Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most confusing entry to date.  For 70% of the film, Hermoine is interacting with an entirely CGI world of dancing pots, pans, and candlesticks.  What meaning do we get from watching an actress not make eye contact with any of the people in her world?  What new is created?

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