Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inequality is increasing

Whatever happened to Occupy Wall Street?

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion.
  • That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
- source, Oxfam

the Adam Goodes story

from the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) blog (link)

THE first choice he makes is to turn around. “Nah,” he tells himself. “This isn’t happening.”

May 24, 2013, in the dying minutes of the Sydney Swans versus Collingwood Magpies opening match of the AFL’s annual Indigenous Round, Swans powerhouse Adam Goodes chooses to turn his 100kg, 191cm frame towards an MCG crowd of 65,306 people and face the 13-year-old girl seated on the boundary fence who just called him an ape. He then chooses to point his right arm straight towards the crowd. This muscular, thick-boned weapon of a limb has contributed to 5797 disposals, 1829 handballs and 409 goals in a thrilling 16-year career. But now it’s a spotlight. It’s a thing of incandescence, a thing of fire. He then chooses to remove his mouthguard and call to a dazed steward resting against the fence with his arms folded across his kneecaps. “Mate,” he says. “I don’t want her here. Get her out.”

The moment takes 19 seconds to unfold. And 200 years to arise.

Adam Goodes was named the NSW Australian of the Year two months ago. On Australia Day eve he could well be named our nation’s Australian of the Year or this newspaper’s Australian of the Year. He’s been recognised as much for his community work – domestic violence awareness ambassador, working with kids in youth detention centres, establishing the Go Foundation with his cousin and fellow Swans great Michael O’Loughlin to create indigenous role models in all walks of life – as for the courage he showed that night at the MCG and the compassion he showed the girl thereafter. “I’ve had fantastic support over the past 24 hours,” Goodes said at the time. “I just hope that people give the 13-year-old girl the same sort of support because she needs it, her family needs it, and the people around them need it. It’s not a witch-hunt. I don’t want people to go after this young girl. We’ve just got to help educate society better so it doesn’t happen again.”

He’s had seven months to think about that night at the MCG, to turn it around in his mind, to chew on it with his closest friends and family. He pauses for a moment, silent and thoughtful. “Everybody has choices,” he says. “It’s about how you learn from those choices you make.” Choices.

Horsham, 300km north-west of Melbourne, 1994. Lisa May was a single parent raising three sons, the Goodes boys, Adam, 14, Jake, 12, and Brett, 10. Lisa May had separated from the boys’ father 10 years previously, and had recently chosen to escape from an abusive partner. She chose not to be a victim, not to wallow in a past that saw nine of her 10 siblings taken from their parents; saw her removed at the age of five from her parents at Point Pearce, an indigenous town on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, 70km from Wallaroo where Adam Goodes was born on January 8, 1980. She chose to devote her life to her sons.

“I’m very grateful to have a mother who wanted something better for her children than what she had growing up,” says Goodes. “There were sacrifices she made to make sure we went to school. To make sure we did our homework. To make sure we were well fed. I have no doubt she’s proud of us, but we’re forever indebted to her for those sacrifices she made for us.”

At 14, Goodes had a room filled with posters of the black US basketball star Michael Jordan. There was a time when he was climbing out his bedroom window to run to the local phone box to call the police to report domestic violence. But he could relax in his room, fantasise about “air”, hang time, the wonder and grace of a Jordan slam dunk.

On his first day of high school he passed a bus shelter where some kids offered him a puff on a joint; he politely declined. In class he met a kid named Dion resting his feet on a Sherrin football. At lunch the boys from the bus shelter asked him to sit with them but he refused because he’d chosen to go to the oval this ordinary lunch break to kick that oddly-shaped ball with Dion. Some time in that hour-long lunch break he leapt above the shoulders of his school friends and found his hang time, his own air, and Dion’s Sherrin slipped into his chest, sure and right, like it belonged there, like a newborn baby with its mother. “Not many cartilages left in my knees to give me that air up there anymore,” laughs Goodes today.

Some friends and family chose to drag 15-year-old Adam Goodes down. His dad, who separated from the family when Adam was four, had a European heritage. Adam’s own cousins called him “coconut”. He didn’t know what they meant. “Black on the outside, white on the inside,” his mum told him.

Playing for the North Ballarat Rebels in the TAC Cup under-18s, he outmuscled, outplayed an opponent, won a free kick. The opponent had nothing left in him but cheap and easy words: “F..k off you black c..t.”

Goodes chose football as his revenge. Be the best footballer they’d ever seen. Be Gilbert McAdam. Nicky Winmar. Michael Long. Be AFL’s Michael Jordan.

At 17, he was standing with his mum at Melbourne airport, about to fly to Sydney to begin his career with his beloved Swans. “This is the start of great things to come,” said Lisa May. “Don’t forget you are bringing Mama home a Brownlow.”

“I think I get a lot of my personality from my mum,” Goodes says. “She’s very modest about the job she done with all of us boys. She’s never blown away too much by anything we do because she’s always seen the good in us and she’s always believed we could do anything we wanted to do. She’s definitely given us that vision that we can do anything. Anything really is possible.”

Young Adam Goodes would bring Mama home two Brownlows.

Choices. Moments. Turning points. Former Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos watches footballers make choices every day, on field and off. Decisions that turn a game, change the course of a season, alter a career for better or worse. Roos says the greatest myth in the daytime telemovie narrative of Adam Goodes is that greatness fell upon him simply by strapping on his boots, pulling his red and white socks up and jogging on to the SCG. “He needed to be coached. He wanted to be coached. He wanted to learn. It didn’t come as easily to him as some people think. He had to learn his craft. He wasn’t a natural leader. He had to learn to lead. And we worked hard.”

Roos recalls Goodes coming to see him after the 2002 season when he finished third on the list of the Swans’ best and fairest players. Says Goodes: “The biggest disappointment for me at that time was not making the team leadership group and I’d just finished third in the best and fairest the year before. I thought that I’d improved with my consistency as a player and the leadership group was announced and there was 12 players in it and I wasn’t one of them.”

Some players of his talent might have opted for implosion, gone on a bender, skipped training, mouthed off. Goodes chose to quietly knock on his coach’s door and ask him to outline the ways in which he might better his chances the following year, correct his mistakes. “We sat down and had a discussion and one of the first things I asked was, ‘Do you want to be a leader?’?” recalls Roos. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I do’. And I said, ‘OK, well that’s good’. Not everyone wants to be a leader. It’s a myth in footy clubs that everyone wants to lead. I said there are things you need to work on, and behaviours.”

“They wanted to see more leadership from me on the training track and they wanted to hear my voice more in team meetings,” says Goodes.

“To his credit, he took that on board,” says Roos. “And the next time we voted he was in the leadership group.”

In the year that followed that discussion he was named team best and fairest and won his first Brownlow Medal. “I think it’s about how much do you really want something,” says Goodes. “How much do you want to sacrifice to get the best out of yourself? Once you commit in your mind what that is, you will do anything to get that.”

Roos and Goodes continued to have discussions that grew deeper and wider in theme. They talked about Goodes’ background, his family’s struggles. Roos soon saw a man who could not only inspire his team, but also his country. “I was always encouraging him,” Roos says. “From my point of view it was ‘if you are going to be a role model for the team you will also be a great role model for everyone, including your own people’. Adam tries to live his life by reaching his potential. He delves deeper into who he is and who made him what he is. It’s Aboriginal people, it’s European people, it’s every nationality. All kinds of people helped make Adam Goodes the great person he is.”

December 2004, and 24-year-old Adam Goodes sat at a table with future indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough in a French restaurant in Canberra. Also there was Sue Gordon, Western Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate and chair of the new National Indigenous Council, which Goodes would join. Goodes had been exploring his aboriginality, studying a Diploma in Aboriginal Studies at Sydney’s Eora TAFE. Gordon told Goodes how it felt to be removed from her mother at the age of four in 1947 because she was part-Aboriginal. Goodes listened intently as Gordon told a story that mirrored his mother’s but one he’d never fully heard. “He’s quite deep,” Gordon says. “What I found was he was very keen to learn about Aboriginal issues across Australia. He wanted to understand the history. He was educating himself. But at the same time he didn’t realise that he was becoming a mentor to younger Aboriginal people.”

Today, Goodes and Gordon love each other like family. “I’ve watched him grow from a young footballer to a man to a captain,” she says. “He’s a fine man and he has a cross to bear far greater than some of them.

“That young Collingwood fan that night, that’s a sign that there are still pockets of people who don’t address the issues within a family. It really hurts. There are still a lot people who don’t fully understand it.”

He was magic that night. The thing that’s often forgot about Adam Goodes and the Swans-Magpies game of May 24, 2013, was how well he played, how much he contributed to the first Swans victory over the Pies at the MCG in 13 years. He kicked his 400th career goal that night. He gave his heart and soul to the 65,306 football fans in the crowd. Curling kicks from the outside of his right boot that could have landed on a coin. Bullet handballs that ignited 70m corridor plays. Goal-square marks of such timing and precognitive positioning it felt like his opponents were running in sludge and he was running on air. He found the ball that night like a bee finds nectar. He was a butterfly. He was a bloodhound.

He believes Australian rules football had its origins in marn grook, the game played by his Aboriginal ancestors in which players kicked and jostled for a stuffed animal skin “ball”. “The tallest men have the best chances in this game,” read a passage in 1878′s The Aborigines of Victoria by Robert Brough-Smyth. “Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball.”

He believes he was born to play the game. His bone structure, the size of his calves and thighs, his height-to-weight ratio. “When I play football, it’s something that becomes instinctive for me,” he says. He considers the game the “purest expression” of his Aboriginality. And there was no better example of this than on May 24, 2013, at the MCG. He was instinctive. He was electrifying. He was unstoppable. Until he chose to stop.

In 2008, Goodes was asked to contribute an essay to a hardback AFL history called The Australian Game of Football Since 1858. Goodes wrote a disarmingly frank and insightful history of indigenous Australia’s connection to the great game, drawing on everything he had studied, everything he had heard first-hand from scholars such as Sue Gordon and survivors like his mum. He wrote about his hero Nicky Winmar and the day, April 17, 1993, when ceaseless racial taunts caused him to lift his St Kilda jersey and point at his skin. “I am a human being,” Winmar said after the game. “No matter what colour I am.” Goodes wrote about the day in 2002 when one of the game’s most high-profile players called him a “f..king monkey- looking c..t”. He wrote about what it’s like to live “half-caste”, about “being the object of racism so many times that you lose count”. He left nothing off the page like he leaves nothing of himself on the football field when the siren sounds.

“I live in a racist country,” he wrote. “To understand what it means to be indigenous, you need to understand that we come with baggage,” he wrote. “Every one of us. And every one of us has a choice as to how we deal with it – some of us have not yet come to terms with that choice, or circumstances have made making the right choice difficult, if not impossible. But the choice – and the opportunity – remains there, right in front of us.” He titled his sweeping epic The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice. Anyone who has read it understands why he chose to stop that night at the MCG, why he turned around to spotlight the “ape” taunt that was flung at him so carelessly and foolishly, just like all those countless taunts that came before it. There was nothing knee-jerk about it. His whole life informed his reaction.

“It takes time to build that confidence to do that,” he says. “I think when you’re proud of something and you’ve always stood up for yourself, and when you get to that place, you’re very sure of who you are and what you stand for. And no matter how old that person was or where that happened to be, my reaction would have been exactly the same.”

That three-letter word did the impossible. It made Adam Goodes forget how much he loved Australian rules football. “Yeah,” he says. “It was disappointing. I don’t know if it would have been different if I had actually stayed on the ground. Because the coach just wanted me to rest the last three or four minutes off the ground that game. It just sort of all hit me once I was on the boundary, just sitting there thinking about it. Yeah, I just didn’t want to be out there anymore.

“When something cuts you to the core it’s very emotional, a very disappointing feeling. Something that you don’t want to have anybody go through and you certainly don’t want to be the reason that person is feeling like that. That’s what I take from the experience,” he says. “I think it’s important for people to stand up for who they are and where they come from. But to be able to do it in a way that cannot only help that person but help the people around them.”

The disappointment was deepened five days later when Collingwood club president Eddie McGuire – a man who had shaken Goodes’ hand in the dressing rooms after the incident with the girl, assuring him his club had a zero-tolerance policy on racism – made a remark on radio linking Goodes to the promotion of the King Kong musical. In some ways, the McGuire comment was a sharper blow, coming as it did from an adult professional, a seasoned journalist and businessman. Goodes was deeply hurt by it. He could have lashed out in the media, returned fire with a few stinging comments of his own. But he chose to go deeper, calling for big-picture understanding, a universal hauling of “the baggage”, a few more hands to carry the cross he has to bear.

“I think what I’ve learned in my journey is that sometimes you pick the wrong way as well,” he says. “You try not to make that bad decision again. You’re not going to make the right choice every time. I’m definitely one of those people who has made a lot of mistakes. It’s about how you deal with them and how you learn from them that really builds your character and how you can build your sense of self-belief and morals.”

But remember, he stresses, “we’re only 200 years old”. He thinks about what might have happened to a “half-caste kid” like him 100 years ago. He thinks about the Kahlin Compound, a Darwin home established in 1913 where, he says, “they took these half-caste kids away because they thought they could better assimilate these kids into mainstream Australia … because they had some white European blood in them”.

“In these camps they were trained to be domestics,” he says. “So no doubt we’ve come a long way since then.

“I’m very happy with the Australia I’m living in right now. We have a fantastic people that want very similar things. It’s a place where you can raise your family and they will be created as equal and be seen as equal. I think there are a lot of people out there doing fantastic things in the community. But we’re never gonna live in a perfect world and nor would we want to. I’d hate to think everybody got along and agreed on everything because that would be a pretty tame life, I believe. But we’ve got to work on each other’s mistakes.”

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rhonda Farkota Speaking Tour: Maths Mastery

Australian education and maths. I think it's generally accepted that Asia has long ago overtaken us, that maths instruction is poorly done in many primary schools and that we have an unacceptable long tail of underachievement.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, Rhonda Farkota (Maths and Direct Instruction expert) will be running seminars near you soon. Here are the locations and dates:
  • Adelaide, February 7th
  • Perth, February 14th
  • Brisbane, February 20th
  • Cairns, February 21st
  • Hobart, February 28th
  • Melbourne, March 14th
  • Sydney, March 21st
  • Alice Springs, March 28th
  • Auckland, April 4th
More detail here

Rhonda achieves something that most educators fail to achieve: She gets the balance right between teacher directed and student directed learning. That might sound simple but our educational reality shows that it is far from simple.

I have used Rhonda's materials with indigenous students and with home schooled students and think her approach is what is needed for students to establish a thorough grounding in basic maths skills.

See my earlier blog posts for more detail about Rhonda Farkota, her materials and education philosophy:

Rhonda Farkota's 2005 Opinion Piece (What needs to be done and still hasn't been done to fix maths education in Australia)

Rhonda Farkota: Australia's Direct Instruction Maths Expert (Some brief comments about her PhD thesis and links to the materials she developed)

Rhonda Farkota's educational philosophy explained in five paragraphs ("When it came to the employment and cultivation of higher order skills where reasoning and reflection were required it was clear that a student-directed approach to learning was better suited. But when it came to the acquisition of basic skills the empirical evidence unequivocally showed that a teacher-directed approach was best suited")

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism

A recent article by Bill and Melinda Gates (Three Myths on the World's Poor) gives the impression that capitalism is an unparalleled success story:
In our lifetimes, the global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the U.S. was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there. So is Gabon. Since 1960, China's real income per person has gone up eightfold. India's has quadrupled, Brazil's has almost quintupled, and tiny Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a 30-fold increase. A new class of middle-income nations that barely existed 50 years ago now includes more than half the world's population.

And yes, this holds true even in Africa. Income per person in Africa has climbed by two-thirds since 1998—from just over $1,300 then to nearly $2,200 today. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa.

Here's our prediction: By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.
This reminds me of a stunning video by Hans Rosling, the Director of the Gapminder Foundation which shows how much the wealth of the world has increased in the past 200 years:
You Tube version

brown – Europe
red – Asia
green – Middle East
blue – Africa
yellow – Americas

Most of the commentaries on the web praise this video to the skies. It deserves praise for its overall assessment of the progress of capitalism but there is also a tendency to fast forward through the bad times.

In 1810 the wealthiest countries were the UK and the Netherlands. The average life expectancy of every country was below 40.

Enter the industrial revolution and the wealth and life expectancy begins to dramatically improve for the countries which do industrialise. This is true although there is no mention of the appalling working conditions, the very long working hours, the child labour in the emerging factories of Britain and elsewhere. The birth pangs of capitalism led to major upheavals in 1848, the shortening of the working day, the Factory Acts, etc.

As the wealth of countries increases then so does the gap between rich and poor countries. Rosling does mention this (at 2:35). It also needs to be emphasised that the scale he is using on the horizontal wealth axis is logarithmic, showing the per annum categories of $400 (roughly one dollar per day), $4000 ($10 per day) and $40,000 ($100 per day). If he had used a linear scale then the gap between rich and poor countries would be far more pronounced. The gap between the richest and poorest countries taken from the closing and opening screens of this video is at least 100 times today compared with less than 10 times in 1810

He does mention the catastrophe of WW1 but then fast forwards through The Great Depression and WW2. It is far easier to fast forward through the bad times than live through them or explain them.

His focus is on post 1948, the boom years of capitalism.

By 1985 even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366 per year, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

Wealth has increased but so has inequality. Rosling visually extracts Shanghai out of China towards the end, showing that it is similar in wealth to Italy. Then he extracts the poor inland province, Guizhou, and compares it to Pakistan. Finally, he shows how the even poorer rural part of Guizhou has a wealth index similar to Ghana, Africa. Certainly in this section there is no brushing over the real world problem of inequality in China.

He finishes on an optimistic note. The gap between the rest and the west is now closing. In the future it is possible that everyone can make it to the healthy and wealthy corner with more aid, trade, green technology and peace. Rosling slips into an optimistic version of political correctness in this parting message.

Some people are optimistic about the future of capitalism because of its productivity; others are pessimistic because of its inequality, anarchy of production, environmental destruction, and alienation . We need to see both sides of this picture. In evaluating the rosy picture of Gates and Rosling, I would use three criteria: standard of living, inequality and stability.

The overall standard of living has increased dramatically. Correct, capitalism has delivered in this respect.

Inequality has increased too. This is totally ignored by Bill and Melinda. It is mentioned by Rosling in places but the logarithmic wealth scale distorts the huge and growing gap here

Stability: Apart from the post war boom period (relatively stable and prosperous) capitalism has been an unstable system which can’t seem to avoid periodic economic crises. Over the next few years we will see how acute this problem will become. I'm really uncertain. I don't think anyone fully understands the inner dynamics of capitalism and its tendency to crisis. That elephant is still in the room.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

science, limited (Hilary Putnam)

Ch 8 The impact of science on modern conceptions of rationality. In Reason, Truth and History (1981) by Hilary Putnam

Putnam is suggesting that it is better to think rationally about both science and our values, without regarding one as more important than the other, rather than elevating science thinking above values thinking.

Putnam is trying to create a space in between two extreme, opposite views that tend to dominate our cultural discourse. The extreme views are:

Scientism: that the scientific approach is the only productive approach to take towards all of our issues, including social issues. Science, unlike all other viewpoints, provides us with the opportunity to understand the world objectively.

Relativism: Absolute scientific truth is an illusion. Truth, if you want to call it that, resides in an individual's interpretation of the world, which depends of their current knowledge and cultural context. There are many ways to interpret the world, we should respect all of them and not be so arrogant as to think anyone knows the best way.

This dichotomy (scientism / relativism) can be expressed with different labels, eg., objective / subjective; facts / values; materialist / idealist; reductionist / holist; monist / pluralist. In some debate these become swear words, that each side throws at the other. Putnam wants to collapse these dichotomies, which have become rigid ideological labels, into distinctions. We can talk rationally about both science and values without presuming that science represents some higher form of truth.

Our concept of progress tends to be scientific progress. The Industrial Revolution and the Computer Revolution represents progress. You can convincingly argue that Newton knew more science than Aristotle. But it is harder to argue that Shakespeare was a better poet than Homer. Science has progressed dramatically whereas literature and the arts have not.

History, as interpreted by the positivist August Comte (1798-1857), shows us that science is a heroic success story. We have moved from primitive myths, to high religion, to metaphysical theories (Plato, Kant), to positive science. This represents intellectual success as well as the obvious material and technological success.

From the scientism viewpoint, value judgements are viewed as suspect because they can't be verified by the methods of science. We can't obtain universal or majority agreement on ethical questions about abortion or homosexuality. Therefore science must be superior because the correctness of scientific theories can be demonstrated publicly.

Of course it is not really true that there is agreement on scientific theories. But most of us agree that scientific theories have testable consequences. Scientific language refers to publicly verifiable observations and not subjective private introspection. If we perform such and such actions then we will obtain such and such observable results. Much of the maths and science might be too difficult for the public to understand. But often the experts seem to be in agreement. And the public usually defers to the experts.

Not always. But current controversies such as the anthropogenic global warming debate or the reading wars debate are fought out with both sides claiming that science is on their side. Both sides think that science and not something else will deliver victory to their cause. When in doubt do more science.

Can science deliver us an objective view of the real world? Quantum physics interpreted as pop science is seen to be cool because it delivers us imaginative, mind boggling views of how the world really is that defy common sense. I have seen real scientists on TV arguing for parallel universes or that we are just holographic projections from the nearest black hole. Does anyone really believe this? I prefer common sense. If someone down the pub thinks they are just a holographic projection then they can buy their own drinks.

Instrumentalism is the idea that scientific theories are instruments to predict observations rather than attempts to describe the real but hidden structures of the world. Instrumentalism of itself is not a tenable or fully rounded concept of rationality. Sure, it is very valuable to know efficient means to attain certain ends. But it is also valuable, probably more important, to know what ends to choose. Scientific rationality applies to public means-ends connections. If this defines science then it also confines science. Why would anyone be satisfied with such a narrow conception of rationality?

Complex, real life, judgements require a high level of rationality but cannot be proved scientifically. It's strange that the fact that some things are impossible to prove (our value judgements) should become an argument for irrationality of belief about those things.

Nevertheless, instrumental success is appealing to the contemporary mind. Industrial society, both capitalist and socialist versions, have promoted their legitimacy on the basis of rising productivity and increasing standard of living. There is no doubt in my mind that this has some real merit. If a billion people or so live on a dollar a day then obviously we need to increase their standard of living. That is why I can't abandon my socialistic sentiment, since capitalism might increase standard of living but at the same time it also increases the gap between rich and poor. But, it is also true, that once their basic material needs are met, humans also look for more, a deeper concept of human flourishing or eudaimonia (Aristotle's term).

Empiricism is the belief that experience is the only source of real knowledge about the world. (I plan to discuss empiricism more fully later). One extreme version of empiricism is phenomenalism, that all we can talk about scientifically are sensations. JS Mill, for example, described physical objects as the "permanent possibility of sensation" (1865).

It follows from phenomenalism that all worthy facts are ultimately instrumental. If phenomenalism is correct then instrumentalism is elevated from the mundane and practical to high science. If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences. The only worthy knowledge is means-ends connections. This form does not fit "good", "bad" or other ethical judgements. "Good" people who take "good' actions have many divergent experiences and outcomes. Such ethical statements have no cognitive meaning, they are purely "emotive". This way of thinking (phenomenalism) was promoted by the Logical Positivists and Logical Empiricists [Ernst Mach (1838-1916), Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970 ), Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953)] and flourished from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s.

Hence, phenomenalists could still claim to be curious about the "big questions" such as black holes, the Big Bang and evolution unlike the "vulgar" form of instrumentalism that only appealed to practical outcomes. For the phenomenalists it was just a fact of life that worthy knowledge was ultimately instrumental in form: If you perform such and such actions then you will have such and such experiences just happened to be the only sort of knowledge worthy of true science.

The logical empiricists were not worshippers of practical, narrow minded instrumentalism. Their healthy motivation was to eliminate obscurantism and metaphysics from intellectual discourse. But by drawing a sharp line between the factual (observational science) and the evaluational (talk about values) they ended up giving a distorted picture of the factual.

Putnam discusses how phenomenalism unravelled from within. One of its chief theoretician, Rudolf Carnap, tried but failed to show that statements of science are translatable one by one into statements about what experiences we will have if we perform certain actions.

Hence, since such science can't be attained (translation from science statements to certain experiences) then it is not justified to exclude value judgements (as emotive) on those same grounds.

It is a correct generalisation about the practice of scientists that their observation statements are couched in a certain type of language, a public physical thing language. But it is an error to turn this into an epistemological absolute. For example, if you are not allowed to talk about sensations because they are private then all introspection is ruled out.

Here is a danger which Putnam is articulating. Some people are in awe of the instrumental success of science which for them is free of the interminable debates we find in religion, ethics and metaphysics. In an age of various forms of quackery and snake oil salesmen (Tarot cards, Palmistry, homeopathy, astrology etc.) the best antidote is to stress the success of the scientific approach (achieved through rigorous controlled and / or double blind experiments). But there is another type of problem. In a culture hypnotised by the success of science a philosophy emerges (Scientism) which can't conceive of useful knowledge and reason outside of what we call science. What else could real knowledge be, except for science?

Modern versions of attempts at scientific objectivity have replaced the now rejected efforts of the Logical Empiricists. One of them is the Bayesian school. The problem here is that prior probabilities are subjective, or, the time taken for them to converge may be very long. You can't draw a sharp line between the actual beliefs of scientists and the scientific method.

Putnam also discusses Nelson Goodman's (1906-1998) critique of inductive projection. I'll leave that to another time since Nelson Goodman's work seems important enough to warrant more study in its own right (see references).

How then do we account for the success of science?

Scientists did develop a new set of methodological maxims between the 15th and 17th Centuries. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) played a major role here (see Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer). Before Boyle experiments were conceived as illustrations for doctrines believed on deductive and / or a priori grounds, not as evidence for and against theories. Boyle advocated several things which changed all of that:
  • he distinguished between actual experiments and thought experiments
  • all experiments should be completely described, including failed experiments
  • he wrote manuals for experimental procedures
This shift from a focus on a priori beliefs to testing theories by controlled experiments was a significant methodological shift. And it did lead to very successful science.

So Putnam agrees there is a successful scientific method but argues that it is not a rigorous set of formal rules. It also requires informal rationality or independent intelligence to be successful. It presupposes rationality and does not define rationality.

There are other limits to what science can achieve. It is not always possible to perform controlled experiments and sometimes only passive observation is possible, eg. for ethical reasons. Evaluating evidence for alternative theories is often an informal matter.

Karl Popper argued that science should proceed by putting forward highly falsifiable, risky theories, testing them, until only one survived. One problem with this is that it is not possible to test all strongly falsifiable theories, there are too many of them.

Furthermore, the falsifiability criterion would rule out one of science's favourite theories: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's theory does not imply definite predictions. We accept it because:
  • it provides a plausible explanation for an enormous amount of data
  • it has been fruitful in suggesting new theories
  • it provides links to other fields such as genetics and molecular biology
  • there is no satisfactory alternative theory
The method being used to evaluate Darwin's theory is inference to the best explanation even though the best explanation is not strongly falsifiable.

So, what remains of the scientific method? We can think about it either in the Boyle sense of strict experimental procedure or as a vague thing like:
"Make experiments and observations as carefully as you can and then make inferences to the best explanation and eliminate theories which can be falsified by crucial experiments"
Putnam argues that such a vague definition of the scientific method could be used for ethical induction just as readily as scientific induction.

This post is mainly a summary of one chapter of a book by Hilary Putnam, although I have thrown in a few examples and brief comments of my own on the way through. I'll write up how Putnam's thinking has impacted and changed my thinking in a later post.

Putnam's chapter also awakened or in some cases reawakened my interest in reading other books some of which I have already bought but haven't had time yet to read. Here they are.


Goodman, Nelson (1978) Ways of Worldmaking

Goodman, Nelson (1983) Fact, Fiction and Forecast (4th Edition)

Pielke, Roger A, jnr. (2007) The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Sarewitz, Daniel (1996). Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology and the Politics of Progress. Temple University Press

Sarewitz, Daniel (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon (1985) Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life