The Power of Writing Regained

June 11, 2017

The Power of Writing Regained

by Dean

After confessing in my column last week that depression was threatening to rob me of what I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against the total disempowerment of despair – the power of writing – this week I have to admit that it didn’t help very much.

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It certainly didn’t do anything to dispel my lack of faith in the biblical alleged wisdom that “confession is good for the soul”, if only for the sole reason that I’m incurably skeptical about the existence of any such metaphysical entity.

But my confession was apparently cathartic or otherwise psychologically beneficial enough to my spirits as to restore my powers of written speech.

And kind comments on the ensuing column from two perennially-supportive pseudonymous Malaysiakini readers, JesuisAnwar and HaveAGreatDay, whoever they actually are, have greatly sustained my spirits since. So much so as to inspire me to the thought that it may not be depression per se that has been threatening to leave me lost for words all this while, but disappointment.

Disappointment at how little I feel I’ve achieved, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in my by now quite lengthy lifetime, and also at my apparent inability to redress these deficiencies, or at least make the most of the rapidly-dwindling time I have left to do so before death.

Or, to put this another way, I’m both metaphorically and literally dying to write as many and as meaningful words as possible before I reach my final full stop.

Unhappily, however, to return to the subject of disappointment for a moment, I’ve left so many of life’s fundamental questions so unnoticed, unexamined and unwritten-about, that I’m virtually dumbstruck with confusion as to which of them is most worth spending, my or indeed anybody’s last words on.

So rather than striving to have my final say on them all at once, as I’ve been so unproductively doing in my panic to meet my final, indeed terminal deadline, I’d better get myself focused, and fast.

By being smart enough, for a start, to think of my remaining writing time not simply in terms of how to best to “spend” it, as I see I thoughtlessly did two paragraphs ago, but how to invest it most intelligently on worthwhile topics or at least avoid squandering much if any more of it on trivia and trash.

Like, to cite the most vivid example of the latter types of topic than I can think of, in light of the almost 500,000 words I’ve wasted on them in this Malaysiakini column over the past 11 years, the corrupt, incompetent and ruthlessly truthless members and countless crimes and other misdeeds of Malaysia’s miserable, ever-misruling UMNO-BN regime.

Not that I’m promising to never mention them again, you understand, as long as Malaysiakini keeps generously granting me space on its site. But in future, I intend to mention this gruesome gang and all the world’s many other similarly blundering, plundering and people-repressing regimes only, if possible, in the context of or in relation to issues that are far more fundamentally interesting and important.

Like power, for instance, whose multitudinous and endlessly paradoxical manifestations are as all-pervasive in human lives and affairs as they are everywhere else in what we call the universe, and yet seems to me generally poorly comprehended or even perceived.

And like truth, which mankind seems to have spent its long history striving on the one hand to define, seek and discover, and on the other hand, and often simultaneously, seeking with equal if not greater determination, to ignore, avoid, contradict or deny.

In the process so apparently totally losing sight of the many and various meanings, purposes and perversions of truth as to seriously entertain the ludicrously ahistorical proposition that, because we can all post opinions on the net and the US has elected a lying pest like Donald Trump, we’ve reached the age of “post-truth”.

Another perennially pressing topic for as many last words as possible, of course, is the one that had inspired the ancient ethical philosophers, Western and Eastern alike, to ask “how should life be lived?”

But here the kind of confusion that’s been leaving me lost for last words starts to kick back in again. Because it’s impossible to consider and discuss ethics without consideration of truth and power, as well as what it means to be successfully and fully ‘human’.

A thought that brings me to what seems to me to be the ultimate topic for my or any other human who’s on a mission to make the most of his or her wits and words, last or otherwise: the exhortation carved in stone outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to “know thyself”.

This, of course, in light of the unfathomable complexities of and confusions and conflicts between our animal instincts and human intellects and conscious and unconscious minds, is paradoxically impossible.

In fact, as Socrates, my favourite philosopher, demonstrated to his own satisfaction and the outrage of his fellow Athenians, who for his pains condemned him to death for blasphemy and misleading the youth of the city, that nobody really knows anything.

And over a thousand years later, Frenchman René Descartes similarly set out to challenge every belief he had for which he could find insufficient support, and found that the only one he was left with was, as he famously expressed it in Latin, Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am”.

However skeptical about my own and others’ beliefs that I am, I certainly don’t kid myself that I’m in Socrates’ or Descartes’ class. But I’d most certainly consider my life far from wasted if I could come up with enough sensible and sincere last words to finally feel satisfied at the end with an epitaph along the lines of “I wrote, therefore I was”.

DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

The George Washington University 2017 Commencement

May 23, 2017

The George Washington University 2017 Commencement‘-get-arena

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth Urges Graduates ‘to Get in the Arena’

Sen. Duckworth, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West and The Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron received honorary degrees as 6,000 students graduated from GW.

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U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), M.A. ’92, delivers the university’s 2017 Commencement speech on Sunday. One of Sen. Duckworth’s themes was embracing failure. (William Atkins/GW Today)

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) described Nov. 12, 2004, as her “alive day” during her George Washington University Commencement address Sunday on the National Mall.

“It was the day I almost died, but didn’t,” she said. “It was a good day for me.”

Flying over Iraq, Sen. Duckworth’s Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The explosion vaporized one of her legs, she said, and blew off the back of her right arm. The aircraft instrumental panel amputated her other leg.

“I was quite literally in pieces,” Sen. Duckworth said. Yet, her crew refused to leave her behind, she said, and helped to save her life.

“I knew from that moment on I would spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to honor the courage and sacrifice of my buddies who saved me,” Sen. Duckworth told an estimated crowd of 25,000, including roughly 6,000 graduates, as the university celebrated the end of its 196th academic year.

The senator shared her personal story as part of her themes of embracing failure, taking advantage of opportunity and maintaining humility in which she referenced the words of President Theodore Roosevelt and rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar.

“Every time I got knocked down, I got back up. I dusted myself off, and I got back in the arena—when my face had literally been marred with dust and sweat and blood. And I am so glad that I did,” she said.


Resilience is increasingly important, said Sen. Duckworth, M.A. ’92. Especially with today’s challenges at home and abroad, the stakes are higher for students embarking on their post-university lives. She quoted President Roosevelt, who said, “There is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

“It’s really just an eloquent way of saying, don’t be afraid of failure,” she said. “Successful people didn’t make it because they never failed. They made it because they never gave up.”

She encouraged her soon-to-be fellow alumni to “step up.”

“You can be our nation’s next generation of leaders,” she said. “Luckily, as GW grads, you already have a head start on many of your peers. Over and over the students of GW have proven to be some of the most civically engaged students in the nation, showing leadership in and out of the political arena.”

But doing so, Sen. Duckworth said, requires trying, doing, putting yourself out there and—yes—sometimes failing.

“Don’t be afraid of failure,” she said. “Be afraid of never tasting it.”

And she urged graduates to remember the “good fortune and luck” they had that enabled them to experience the opportunities and take advantage of the resources at GW.

“Some of you have been lucky enough to afford tuition here without help, but even if you worked three jobs … there are people out there who aren’t as lucky,” she said. “I guess what I am saying is—to reference Kendrick Lamar—be humble.”

Sen. Duckworth urged students not to lose sight of what lays ahead, what remains to be accomplished.

“Don’t be a timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat,” she said. “It is time to get in the arena.”

Congratulatory Remarks

Remarks from university leaders preceded Sen. Duckworth’s Commencement address.

Provost Forrest Maltzman welcomed graduates, highlighting the “one-of-a-kind” opportunity to celebrate Commencement on the National Mall. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the Mall.

Dr. Maltzman recognized the achievements of GW’s graduates and those who supported them—family, friends and fellow alumni alike—and said Sunday’s setting at the foot of the Washington Monument, which was dedicated to the nation’s first president and GW’s namesake, was a “fitting tribute to your achievement.”

Introducing George Washington President Steven Knapp, Dr. Maltzman thanked Dr. Knapp, whose tenure as president ends July 31 after 10 years of service to the university. He noted how the university has advanced under his leadership.

“I know that what he is proudest of is the approximately 50,000 students who have graduated from this university during his tenure and who are each making their own contributions to the world,” Dr. Maltzman said.

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George Washington President Steven Knapp charged graduates to keep alive their spirit, energy, imagination, commitment to service and curiosity. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Dr. Knapp continued “an important Commencement tradition” by thanking the parents, families and friends of the graduates.

Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell, B.S. ’85, said his GW education and friends have stayed with him and “continue to enrich life.”

His charge to graduates: “Take what you have learned and the pride and respect you have gained for your alma mater into the world as citizen leaders. Remember, who you are has been shaped by your experiences here at the George Washington University.”

Mr. Carbonell also took a moment to recognize Dr. Knapp—not only for the institution’s growth under his leadership but also for his direct involvement in students’ success, from move-in day to Commencement.

“President Knapp wants all of you to succeed in your future endeavors,” Mr. Carbonell said.

Special Recognition
Angela Sako, B.A. ’15, M.P.P. ’17, was selected as this year’s student speaker.

Her remarks Sunday were framed around life’s “welcomes”—the “welcomes” that many receive to uncertainty, challenges, new friends or a new university.

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Angela Sako delivers her speech Sunday. Ms. Sako’s theme was “welcoming” the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Ms. Sako was just 14 years old, a recently arrived immigrant from Albania by way of Italy who spoke little English, when her father died unexpectedly. She said she felt “so low” she wondered “if I could ever be lifted.”

But with support from family and friends, she said she transformed grief into resilience. She eventually was welcomed to GW with a letter of acceptance and a Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship.

She encouraged her fellow graduates to welcome the years ahead.

“Our journey ahead might hand us some bricks, but let us remember that if we welcome these challenges, and we encourage each other to open a window, a wide door will follow,” Ms. Sako said.

Dr. Maltzman also recognized this year’s recipients of the GW Awards, presented to students, faculty and staff who have made extraordinary contributions to the GW community. Richard Livingstone, B.A. ’12, M.P.A. ’17; C. Thomas Long, Ph.D. ’05, assistant professor of history and coordinator of undergraduate history advising; and Bridget Smith, B.A. ’17, were recognized with the awards Sunday.

Three other students—Howard Charles Goodison II, B.A. ’17; Antonia Keutzer, B.S. ’17; and Thomas Elms, B.A. ’17—assisted Dr. Knapp in conferring honorary degrees Sunday to Sen. Duckworth, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, M.D. ’88, and The Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron.

Dr. Knapp highlighted the recipients’ many achievements and officially awarded each with an honorary degree of doctor of public service.

In his remarks, Mr. Baron talked about the importance of a free press as journalists face growing threats both around the world and in the United States. “The president has said that he is at war with the media,” he said. “We are not at war. We are at work.

“We are doing jobs inspired by the First Amendment, which was drafted by our nation’s founders with this fundamental idea: that the press—and all citizens—should hold government to account.”

Dr. West, the highest-ranking African-American woman in the history of the U.S. Army, said she was “truly honored, humbled and grateful” to receive the honorary degree, citing “the strong foundation that the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences provided in the art of being a compassionate healer.”

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Roughly 6,000 graduated from GW on Sunday. GW is the only university that holds its graduation ceremony on the Mall. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Main Event
Later, finally, GW’s most important degree recipients of the day got their turns.

The graduates joined a “lifelong and worldwide community” of GW alumni, now numbering more than 280,000, Dr. Knapp said.

Dr. Knapp charged them to keep alive their spirit, energy, imagination, commitment to service and curiosity.

“You are our future,” Dr. Knapp said. “We depend on you to repair what earlier generations have broken, to build what we have left un-built, to learn what we have not yet learned, to heal what we have so far left unhealed.

“And as you go forth to do these things, always know that, at the George Washington University, you have a home in the heart of this nation’s capital.”


The Coming Technology Policy Debate

May 7, 2017

What is really needed are new and improved institutions, policies, and cooperation between law enforcement and private firms, as well as among governments. Such efforts must not just react to developments, but also anticipate them. Only then can we mitigate future risks, while continuing to tap new technologies’ potential to improve people’s lives.–Michael J. Boskin

The Coming Technology Policy Debate

by Michael J.

*Professor of Economics at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was Chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993, and headed the so-called Boskin Commission, a congressional advisory body that highlighted errors in official US inflation estimates.

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What do the leaks of unflattering email from the Democratic National Committee’s hacked servers during the 2016 US presidential election campaign and the deafening hour-long emergency-warning siren in Dallas, Texas, have in common? It’s the same thing that links the North Korean nuclear threat and terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States: all represent the downsides of tremendously beneficial technologies – risks that increasingly demand a robust policy response.


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It is the Fourth Revolution–The Only Certainty is Change

The growing contentiousness of technology is exemplified in debates over so-called net neutrality and disputes between Apple and the FBI over unlocking suspected terrorists’ iPhones. This is hardly surprising: as technology has become increasingly consequential – affecting everything from our security (nuclear weapons and cyberwar) to our jobs (labor-market disruptions from advanced software and robotics) – its impact has been good, bad, and potentially ugly.

First, the good. Technology has eliminated diseases like smallpox and has all but eradicated other, like polio; enabled space exploration; sped up transportation; and opened new vistas of opportunity for finance, entertainment, and much else. Cellular telephony alone has freed the vast majority of the world’s population from communication constraints.

Technical advances have also increased economic productivity. The invention of crop rotation and mechanized equipment dramatically increased agricultural productivity and enabled human civilization to shift from farms to cities. As recently as 1900, one-third of Americans lived on farms; today, that figure is just 2%.

Similarly, electrification, automation, software, and, most recently, robotics have all brought major gains in manufacturing productivity. My colleague Larry Lau and I estimate that technical change is responsible for roughly half the economic growth of the G7 economies in recent decades.

Pessimists worry that the productivity-enhancing benefits of technology are waning and unlikely to rebound. They claim that technologies like Internet search and social networking cannot improve productivity to the same extent that electrification and the rise of the automobile did.

Optimists, by contrast, believe that advances like Big Data, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence herald a new era of technology-driven improvements. While it is impossible to predict the next “killer app” arising from these technologies, that is no reason, they argue, to assume there isn’t one. After all, important technologies sometimes derive their main commercial value from uses quite different from those the inventor had in mind.

Optimists, by contrast, believe that advances like Big Data, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence herald a new era of technology-driven improvements. While it is impossible to predict the next “killer app” arising from these technologies, that is no reason, they argue, to assume there isn’t one. After all, important technologies sometimes derive their main commercial value from uses quite different from those the inventor had in mind.

For example, James Watt’s steam engine was created to pump water out of coal mines, not to power railroads or ships. Likewise, Guglielmo Marconi’s work on long-distance radio transmission was intended simply to create competition for the telegraph; Marconi never envisioned broadcast radio stations or modern wireless communication.

But technological change has also spurred considerable dislocation, harming many along the way. In the early nineteenth century, fear of such dislocation drove textile workers in Yorkshire and Lancashire – the “Luddites” – to smash new machines like automated looms and knitting frames.

The dislocation of workers continues today, with robotics displacing some manufacturing jobs in the more advanced economies. Many fear that artificial intelligence will bring further dislocation, though the situation may not be as dire as some expect. In the 1960s and early 1970s, many believed that computers and automation would lead to widespread structural unemployment. That never happened, because new kinds of jobs emerged to offset what dislocation occurred.

In any case, job displacement is not the only negative side effect of new technology. The automobile has greatly advanced mobility, but at the cost of unhealthy air pollution. Cable TV, the Internet, and social media have given people unprecedented power over the information they share and receive; but they have also contributed to the balkanization of information and social interaction, with people choosing sources and networks that reinforce their own biases.

Modern information technology, moreover, tends to be dominated by just a few firms: Google, for example, is literally synonymous with Internet search. Historically, such a concentration of economic power has been met with pushback, rooted in fears of monopoly. And, indeed, such firms are beginning to face scrutiny from antitrust officials, especially in Europe. Whether consumers’ generally tolerant attitudes toward these companies will be sufficient to offset historic concerns over size and abuse of market power remains to be seen.

But the downsides of technology have become far darker, with the enemies of a free society able to communicate, plan, and conduct destructive acts more easily. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda recruit online and provide virtual guidance on wreaking havoc; often, such groups do not even have to communicate directly with individuals to “inspire” them to perpetrate a terrorist attack. And, of course, nuclear technology provides not only emissions-free electricity, but also massively destructive weapons.

All of these threats and consequences demand clear policy responses that look not just to the past and present, but also to the future. Too often, governments become entangled in narrow and immediate disputes, like that between the FBI and Apple, and lose sight of future risks and challenges. That can create space for something really ugly to occur, such as, say, a cyber attack that knocks out an electrical grid. Beyond the immediate consequences, such an incident could spur citizens to demand excessively stringent curbs on technology, risking freedom and prosperity in the quest for security.

What is really needed are new and improved institutions, policies, and cooperation between law enforcement and private firms, as well as among governments. Such efforts must not just react to developments, but also anticipate them. Only then can we mitigate future risks, while continuing to tap new technologies’ potential to improve people’s lives.

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

April 17, 2017

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

 by Paul Levinson and reply by Jonathan Lieberson

In response to:

The Romantic Rationalist from the December 2, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Despite Jonathan Lieberson’s unsubstantiated summary of my In Pursuit of Truth (a Festschrift in honor of Karl Popper’s 80th birthday) as a series of “sugary and obsequious expressions of praise” in your December 2 issue, I found this and the first part of Mr. Lieberson’s two-part essay on Karl Popper’s philosophy to be a generally fair and reasonable attempt to explicate Popper’s work. Lieberson’s achievement, however, is unfortunately marred and nearly nullified by a conclusion that seriously misunderstands one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy.

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Lieberson begins with an essentially accurate description of how Popper’s method of “falsification” or conjectures and refutations seeks to improve upon the traditional Baconian scientific method of induction or absorption of knowledge from mere repeated experience. As Hume and even Sextus Empiricus before him had seen, no amount of induction or positive repeated experience can ever verify or even support a general theory (for all of our repeated observations may merely be at the tip of an iceberg that runs counter to our general theory); but even one negative or counter experience can, as Popper emphasizes, serve to logically falsify or refute a general theory. Thus, no amount of repeated observations of white polar bears can prove or strengthen a theory that all polar bears are white (for we may from then on encounter nothing but black polar bears), but observation of even one black polar bear—assuming it is indeed a black polar bear—means our theory that all polar bears are white cannot be right.

Lieberson then correctly points out, however, that Popper’s fallibilism is so pervasive as to lead Popper to assert that even observations of black or white polar bears are theory-impregnated (we identify the black object that we see as a polar bear rather than, say, a crow, because of theories that we hold about what polar bears look like, the constancies of species, etc.), and thus conjectural, uncertain, and eminently unprovable. How, then, Lieberson asks, may conjectures-and-refutations and its uncertainty be considered an improvement over induction and its problems? And why, recognizing the inconclusiveness of both, should we reject induction and rejoice in falsification? Since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, Lieberson concludes that Popper’s hope for a non-inductive growth of knowledge is an impossible and thus misleading and dangerous ideal, a romantic “wild-goose chase.”

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The problem that Lieberson raises—the conjectural nature of falsifying observations—is indeed profound, and one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper. Indeed, had Lieberson come upon his knowledge of Popper a priori, or from some casual discussion in a classroom, then the conclusions that Lieberson draws from the fallibility of falsifications would be entirely understandable. But the fact of the matter is that Popper himself has continuously raised, addressed, and dealt with this problem throughout his writings, going back to his first published work on scientific method, Logik der Forschung of 1935; and, I am obliged to add, this problem is similarly raised and dispatched with in at least four of the “sugary” essays in my volume. The situation is actually quite simple. We indeed must begin, as Popper does, with the recognition that all observations—whether used to falsify or “verify”—are themselves conjectural, and of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory. We are then faced with a choice: do we use these uncertain, problematic observations to build knowledge inductively, or via a process of conjectures and refutations as suggested by Popper?

Our decision might take into account the fact that induction is, quite independently of the uncertainty of all observations, logically untenable (as Hume had shown, there is no logical warrant that allows us to jump from even a huge number of specifics to a general theory), but that falsification, or the negation of generalities by specifics, is (as Popper and others have shown) quite logically acceptable as a process, even though the contents of that process (the observations) may be forever uncertain. Our choice would thus seem to amount to this: use conjectural, uncertain tools in an illogical process (induction), or use conjectural, uncertain tools in a logical process (falsification). Granting the obvious fact that neither choice can yield perfect or certain knowledge, which one would you choose, Mr. Lieberson?

But if we opt for conjectures and refutations as at least being logically possible, does not the uncertainty of the observations used as refutations condemn us to stagnate in our knowledge, to wallow in a perpetual state of conjecture? Is Lieberson’s characterization of Popperian method as a wild-goose chase appropriate after all? It is not—as a careful reading of Popper and, again, any one of a number of the contributions to my own In Pursuit of Truth makes clear. Indeed, discussions of how knowledge can progress and even flourish despite the endemic uncertainty of our cognition predate Popper by many years, and in Peirce we even find an implication that knowledge grows precisely because it is uncertain (see, for example, the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 1, paragraphs 135-149; for extended discussions of Peirce on certainty and fallibilism, see any of Peter Skagestad’s recent writings).

From among the many arguments for the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world that Popper provides, let us look at but one—the biological or evolutionary analogy central to the field of “evolutionary epistemology,” which is where my own interest in Popper most lies. Assuming the general accuracy of the Darwinian model (but of course alert to its inevitable flaws), we notice three aspects of evolution that have pertinence to the possible growth of uncertain knowledge: (a) all organisms and organic adaptations are imperfect relative to their environments (i.e., they don’t always survive or succeed); (b) all organisms and adaptations appear to develop via a series of trial and error encounters with the environment, with organic characteristics initially generated or “proposed” independently of the environment, and then either eliminated or not by the environment; (c) on the basis of the first two processes, evolution or progressive change does indeed seem to occur, e.g., organisms seem to have developed from simple to complex, from non-intelligent to intelligent, etc., across time.

Now to the extent that the trial-and-error evolution of organisms seems descriptive of the conjectures-and-refutations growth of human ideas—and despite some obvious differences (for example, the important role of intentional rationality in the development of human knowledge), the two processes do seem to have much in common—we have in biological evolution an example of how progress can occur in a world utterly pervaded by, indeed constituted of, imperfection or uncertainty. In other words, if we accept the biological evolution of imperfect organisms as real, the growth of uncertain human knowledge through non-inductive conjectures and refutations seems possible: the nihilism that Lieberson imputes to Popper’s thoroughly conjectural method is unwarranted.

Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution and for that matter the living world itself may be a chimera; reality and all our perceptions of it may be false or even non-existent. Popper’s philosophy does hold open such disturbing possibilities. But Popper’s philosophy also allows, more, encourages us to choose an alternative to the despair of nihilism and the illogic of inductivism, an alternative which seeks to parlay our uncertainty into a genuine, hard-won, painfully groping growth of knowledge. Granted that such a choice is something less than rational—I elsewhere call it “pre-rational”—but a choice and possibility it nonetheless is. It is just this golden egg of opportunity that Lieberson’s banishment of Popper’s wild geese would destroy.

Paul Levinson, Bronx, New York

Jonathan Lieberson replies:

Paul Levinson claims that the conclusion of my pieces on Popper displays a serious “misunderstanding” of “one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy,” namely Popper’s views on the nature and status of “falsifying observations.” But he does not accurately report my thesis: I did not say that since falsifying observation statements (not “falsifying observations”) are “fallible” or “conjectural” Popper’s theory of science falls to the ground. Nor did I claim that “since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, his views are unacceptable.

My difficulty, as I explicitly stated [NYR, December 2] was that a combination of views held by Popper render his alternative to inductionism (as contrasted with Baconian inductivism, which nearly all contemporary philosophers disagree with) a self-defeating and incoherent account of scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. As such, I went on, it does not constitute a serious alternative to inductionism.

Thus, although I certainly discussed it, the problem of falsifying observation statements was not my main concern. I was aware that Popper has repeatedly discussed this problem, which Mr. Levinson believes is “one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper.” I was not aware, however, until I read Mr. Levinson’s letter, that it has been “dispatched with” in his collection of essays. Mr. Levinson claims that the “situation” with regard to falsifying observation statements is “actually quite simple”: all observations are conjectural, “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.” Granting this point, he continues, we should clearly prefer the process of falsification to that of induction, which is “illogical.” I do not agree. While it is true that observation statements are, in a sense, “theory soaked” (as Popper says), not all the theories in which such statements are soaked are of equal merit, and not all observations are “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.”

I wonder whether Mr. Levinson actually believes what he says; for my part, I have no difficulty in concluding that the claim that I am now seated before a typewriter is of far greater “epistemic import” than the abstract theory that the world is entirely made up of butter. I also hold, for reasons I set forth in my articles, that we do upon occasion possess perfectly good reasons for accepting such observation statements as true, a view Popper does not hold. Secondly, while we await an accurate codification of inductive practice—a task to which many philosophers, statisticians, and others have devoted their labors—I do not think that we can responsibly and without qualification claim that induction is “illogical.” That induction does not conform to the standards of deductive logic is obvious, but as I took pains to point out in my essay, there are no good reasons for regarding deductive standards of inference as establishing the standard of rationality in science.

In short, I think I can answer the portentous question Mr. Levinson poses: granting that observation statements are not infallible, and that neither the methods of induction or of falsification can yield perfect knowledge, I continue to hold that induction is an activity—a “method” if you will—that we can in some circumstances rely on. It turns out, accordingly, that my alleged “misunderstanding” of Popper is no such thing, only disagreement.

I must add that the force of the evolutionary tale Mr. Levinson tells toward the end of his letter eludes me. Presumably it is an argument that is intended to contribute toward showing that the “nihilism” I impute to Popper, the view that his account of science describes a wild-goose chase (with respect to the aim of discovering the truth), is unwarranted. But does it do so? First of all, the argument depends upon an analogy that is seriously imperfect: the example of “obvious differences” between the “growth” of conjectures and refutations and the trial-and-error evolution of organisms that Mr. Levinson mentions is only one of many that could be presented—another would be the lack of analogy between the truth of a scientific statement and the adaptation of an organism to an uncertain environment.

Moreover, it is not clear to me that, even if we grant the analogy, the claim that imperfect organisms can develop through trial-and-error encounters with the environment into increasingly complex entities damages any of the points I made. The key issue, it seems to me, concerns “progress,” which in the case of science means making some advance toward the aim of discovering the truth about the world. After all, the whole process of evolution might yet be a non-progressive affair, displaying only a temporary “progressive” character, as indeed some celebrated and dismal evolutionary speculations have suggested. As such, the analogy does not seem to me to support Mr. Levinson’s thesis that he has presented a good argument for “the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world.”

When scientists speak of the growth of knowledge, they do not mean, I take it, simply a gradual increase in the complexity of their guesswork, or the increasingly successful adaptation of guesses to still other guesses. A parlor game or the process of creating myths and fairy tales, spurred on by problems of internal consistency, might exhibit this character; but while science might be an uncertain affair, wouldn’t this be a grossly exaggerated and perverse description of this uncertainty?

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Malaysia:Expressing an Opinion or doing Research IS deemed an unlawful act

April 2, 2017

Only Chimpy Malaysia where expressing an Opinion or doing Research IS deemed an unlawful act

by Azmi

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FIVE school teachers have been given show cause letters by the Education Ministry for being “excessively” critical of the Government in public forums and the like. I wish I could find out what they said; it would be nice to see what “excessive” is.

The Education Minister also said that civil servants should be loyal to the Government and any criticism should be done via the “correct channels”. But all this silencing of educators is not undemocratic, he says because it is done via the law – namely the General Orders which civil servants are bound by.

How quaint. These are really old justifications that have been used for decades. Firstly, one has to wonder what “proper channels” there are and whether they are effective or not. If these channels are not open to the public (and I am certain by “proper” it is meant “discreet”) then they can easily be ignored.

Secondly, just because a law exists to silence people, that does not make it right. A power provided by legislation can be just as undemocratic as an unfettered discretionary power.

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These five teachers are facing the beginnings of disciplinary action for things which they did outside of the classroom. But the Youth and Sports Minister has chipped in saying that things done within the classrooms should not be used as a “political platform”.

Well, sure, it would be unseemly and inappropriate for any sort of political campaigning to be done in classrooms. Kind of pointless as well, since schoolchildren can’t vote.

But I wonder; what if a history teacher decides to point out the fact that UMNO was late in joining the calls for independence and in fact the originator for that call was the Malayan Left. Would this be political?

And that is just within the context of schools. Universities offer courses and have departments whose entire purpose is to examine critically what happens in society, which includes what the Government does.

A Social Science Department that does not cover race-based policies in the country will not be doing its job. An economics department that does not explore the effect of corruption on the well-being of the country will not be doing its job. A law faculty that does not criticise unjust laws and judgments will not be doing its job.

However, recently, public universities have received a circular, once again written under the authority of legislation meant to control civil servants, where we have been told that we can’t say or do anything that could be deemed as manifesting disloyalty to King, country and government.

Well, I can tell you that makes my job as a Human Rights and Environmental Law lecturer very simple then.bI think I can just turn up to class for the rest of the semester with a guitar and sing Kumbaya with my students for an hour.

Of course I won’t do that. This is because my responsibility as a lecturer, and a teacher’s responsibility, is first and foremost to our students. Our job is to broaden their horizons and to show them not just what is, but what can and should be.

As long as what is being taught is backed up by good research and sound reasoning, then what is said should not be penalised. If we do our jobs well, we produce thinking graduates and by this we serve the people and the nation. Not the Government.

It is not just teachers and lecturers who have been under the cosh recently; university students have not escaped either. Nowadays any show of dissent from students will ensure disciplinary hearings. But one student in particular has had the full force of so called anti-terrorism laws, and all the intense pain and stress that implies for her and her family, used against her.

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This is what I feel today about the Najib Administration. –Din Merican

Siti Nor Aishah Atan was a Master’s student in Universiti Malaya. She was apparently doing research on terrorism, and as part of her work she had in her possession, surprise surprise, books related to the subject. She was arrested last year for being in possession of “illegal” books.

The High Court released her on the grounds that there was no evidence that the books were “illegal”. She was then rearrested and detained without trial under the Prevention of Crime Act for 60 days.

Upon her release she was made to wear an electronic tag and report to the Police once a week. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, unhappy with the High Court, appealed the decision and she was detained without trial again, now under the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act.

My question is this: Siti has been under investigation and watch since September last year; she has been detained for two months, and she has had her movements monitored, so why the need to detain her further? Unless, this girl from Terengganu, is some sort of genius terrorist mastermind (which is the reason why one presumes the A-G’s Chambers are so dogged) or the investigating agencies are utterly incompetent for not being able to find enough evidence to charge her properly in court.

Besides, what she was doing was research. Surely in the face of very real terrorist threats the world over, such research should be carried out and not punished. But then, in a land where civil servants are expected to be docile and lecturers are faced with restrictions which are designed to cow them into total intellectual impotence, logic does not really come into the equation.