The Age of the Orphan Part 1: The Path of Learning

The modern economy, we are told, is a knowledge economy and in order to have a knowledge economy you need to have a learning society. Sounds nice. But it’s pretty clear that our society for the last little while has been incapable of learning. The last two years have been a useful case study of this larger trend. The powers that be doubled down and then tripled down on a series of public health measures that hadn’t worked the first time to stop the spread of a respiratory virus. That doesn’t sound like learning. It sounds like not learning.

Of course, we were told those ideas were based on “science”. But science in this context means “knowledge”; the end product of the scientific method which is a itself technique for learning. So, another way to look at the last two years was that we continued to rely on knowledge rather than learning. This is not really true, however, as we threw all the existing public health knowledge about how to deal with respiratory viral pandemics out the window in March 2020. But that was the party line and most people seemed to believe it. We ended up with the worst of both worlds; neither learning anything nor relying on past experience and knowledge. Now that corona appears to be coming to an end, there is no evidence that we will learn anything from it. Instead, we are stumbling straight into the next emergency. It’s a useful time, then, to reflect on the meaning of the concepts just to remind ourselves what learning and knowledge really are. In doing so, I will set the stage for a mini-series of posts that aim to deal with the archetype of The Orphan in more detail (see my post on The Orphan in my coronapocalypse series for more background).

Let’s begin by doing one of my favourite activities which is looking at the etymology of the words themselves. These gives us an insight into the evolution of language and meaning over time. The words learn, know and knowledge all have cognates in Old English and proto-Germanic. This fact is not trivial because the English language often uses Latin words for abstract concepts reflecting the history of both Roman and French domination as well as the fact that Latin was the lingua franca for much of European history. Learning and knowing are such core concepts of human life that the Latin words did not dislodge the folk forms at those historical junctures.

The word learn used to have the meaning of “follow a track”. We can still find this connotation in modern English phrases like “learning pathway” which gets used in the education sector. Similarly, you might go to a conference and join in the “economics track” or the “accounting track”. In Old English, learn could also be used in the sense of modern German “lehren”. Thus, you could say “I am learning you Spanish” meaning I am teaching it to you. The teacher is the one leading the student down the track which hopefully leads to a mastery of Spanish. Later came the meaning that we still have to this day which is to think about, read about, become cultured etc. In this way, the meaning of learn follows a very common pattern in the semantics of languages where a tangible, physical meaning like following a track is metaphorically extended into an abstract domain like coming to know about something. (You can take my word on this one. I wrote an honours thesis in linguistics on the subject. Trust the expert).  

The word know is from Old English cnawan which meant “to perceive”, “to distinguish” and “to identify”.  We are told that seeing is believing, but actually the phrase “seeing is knowing” is more faithful to the historical meaning of know. Like the old word for learn, cnawan had the meaning of seeing with your own eyes; experiencing for yourself. In this way, cnawan was equivalent to modern German “kennen” and “erkennen” but not “wissen” (the English word wit has its origin in the same word as modern German’s wissen). To know meant the ability to recognise, to distinguish, to identify by perception. It implied something directly experienced.

Translated into philosophical terms, we can see that both learn and know had a strong empirical bias in common language. This made perfect sense as there weren’t many philosophers around back then and most people couldn’t read and didn’t go to school. Most of things they knew, they knew by virtue of seeing it for themselves. For things that they were told, there was another word: believe.

The earliest meaning of believe was “to care”, “to desire” and “to hold dear” and those connotations are still present in modern religious and ideological belief. When somebody gets triggered, it’s because their beliefs have been violated; things they care about. Later, belief came to mean something like “be persuaded of” or “to be made to care”. You believed something somebody else told you but which you did not see for yourself. This distinction is very important and we start to see why so much of modern education and modern life in general is based on belief and not knowledge in the old meanings of the words. Most of what we refer to when we say we “know” something actually falls under belief. We did not see it with our own eyes. Somebody else told us. The distinction was described by Descartes at the beginning of his Meditations where he realises that most of what he thought he knew about the world was just stuff he had heard and a lot of that turned out to be wrong on closer inspection. He set about wondering how he could put his on understanding on firm ground (another metaphor).

What about the word “knowledge”? If cnawan was about seeing with your own eyes, shouldn’t knowledge be the result of that seeing? There doesn’t seem to be any record of that. The earliest meaning of knowledge had the connotation of honour. We distinguish a person from the crowd. We recognise them and thereby we honour them. It was later on that knowledge received its modern connotation as the awareness or remembrance of facts.

To reiterate, in learn, know and knowledge we see a semantic shift over time from concrete, empirical experience to abstract forms based on study of second hand materials, facts communicated by others, book learning etc.

The old idea of learning was to follow a track and this is still used in science (although less and less) in the concept of reproducibility. The great physicist, Richard Feynman, advised all scientists to reproduce the work of others rather than just believe it for themselves. In other words, to follow the track others had gone down. In science education we could, for example, take the student down the same pathway Aristotle took to show that the earth is round. This would require traveling to different longitudes to observe the night sky, seeing that the stars change and then reasoning about these observations. Another way would be take students to the shoreline and observe ships coming over the horizon via telescope. (Note: the Wolfram demonstrations project has an interesting version of this –

This learning by repeating is precisely how apprenticeships work. It’s how martial arts get taught. It’s how musicians learn. The student joins the path and the pathway leads somewhere. Given that it is built into our scientific method, how can it be that we have seemingly dropped it altogether in our education methodology?

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that education systems once implied a larger pathway or track for the student. For example, there was a system that produced the English gentleman. That education wasn’t just about teaching maths or English, it included how to dress, how to speak and how to behave. You needed to be able to tell the difference between the soup spoon and the dessert spoon so you didn’t make a fool of yourself when the Duke and Duchess came over for dinner. You were on a pathway which was a life path: the path of the gentleman. Your education was the preparation for this pathway just like an apprenticeship is a preparation for a trade you will have.

In the old world, the pathway for each individual was more or less fixed at birth. You were born a gentleman or a peasant or what have you. Nowadays, we have the opposite problem. We have no idea what pathway you are on when you are in school and you don’t either. Thus, when you finish your schooling, you still don’t know what to do. We can’t educate students in the old-fashioned way so we throw a bunch of knowledge at them in the hope that some of it might come in useful at some point. This makes sense when you consider that the modern education system was developed as a response to youth unemployment in the late 1800s. Young people used to go to work but then the work dried up and we needed to find something for them to do. So, we sent them to school. Ever since then, school has been not much more than a glorified child care facility which plays up to the vanity of parents and the underlying need of humans to form by dominance hierarchies by ordering children according to numerical grading. (To be fair, the old reading, writing and rithmatic did serve a useful function but that was in place by the end of primary school).

There is an idea that is fashionable nowadays that you can learn how to learn. This is mostly used as a marketing gimmick by the higher education sector to try and encourage adults to continue to spend their money on education. Nevertheless, I think there is some merit in it but I would frame it in the old fashioned sense. Once you have walked the path of learning once, it’s easier the second time and you can start to see the patterns that exist in learning. One of the patterns is that learning comes when it wants and not when you want. While you are walking the path, learning jumps out from the bushes like a group of bandits with pistols drawn. Learning costs you something although it is rarely a financial cost. Learning isn’t something you plan and it’s almost never something you want, at least in the short term.

Let’s take a concrete example from my own experience. Some years ago I decided to start walking the path of the backyard fruit and vegetable gardener. Along the way, I have learned many things about insects, birds, fungal disease, bacterial disease, soil, sun, pH, rainfall etc. Almost all of this learning happened when something went wrong and that crop of tomatoes I was expecting never eventuated because I wasn’t watering them enough or the apple cider I planned to make in autumn got eaten off the tree by a gang of cockatoos three months beforehand. I hadn’t planned to learn any of these things, but I did. Mother nature learned me gardening and she continues to learn me on a daily basis.

There’s another kind of learning which comes out of walking the path. You start asking yourself whether or not you really want to keep going. You ask whether you are on the right track. You learn something about your real motivations and your real will as opposed to the thing you imagined in your mind. This learning also comes when it wants, usually when some random pest has wiped out yet another crop and you throw your hands up in despair and wonder whether it’s all worth it.

If learning is something that happens to you and will pop up when you least expect it, it follows that learning cannot be controlled. Sometimes you learn a small lesson. Sometimes you learn a lesson that will shake the foundations of your entire belief system. Not all learning is equal. Our education system glosses over all this and sets up elaborate systems of grading with exams and essays and multiple choice questionnaires and we assign numbers to the results so everything looks scientific and quantifiable. Of course, the numbers have as much to do with learning as the current stock market valuation has to do with the economy.

In the last two years, some of us have learned a lot. Some of us have had the foundations of our beliefs about the world shaken. Many others have not. Those people have clung to their “knowledge” like their life depended on it. Even as the content of the knowledge changed from one week to another they still declared it to be knowledge. Of course, we know from the old meanings of the words that they weren’t referring to knowledge but to belief; the belief that the world makes sense, that the experts know what they are doing, that the government is doing its best to help.

Real learning calls both knowledge and belief into question. It challenges both what you think you know and the emotional and probably even physiological substrate of your mind. Every time you learn you are learning that the knowledge in your head was wrong. Once you’ve had that experience enough, you learn to be sceptical of your own knowledge. So, yes, you can learn to learn and it gets easier with time.

We can deduce from all this that we don’t live in a learning society. We don’t live in a learning society precisely because our education system does not put people on the pathway of learning. Rather, it is a substitute for that pathway. Modern education is the pathway for people who don’t know where their path is; and that is most of us.

It follows that the most needed thing right now is for people to start finding a pathway. To find firm ground again. More on that in the next post.

What is the point of narrative comedy: A reply to Ugo Bardi

Recently, Ugo Bardi wrote a fine review of my second novel, The Order of the Secret Chiefs. There was one criticism Ugo made that I thought was unjustified but in an interesting way. Ugo made the point that the characters in the novel do not evolve but remain static. This would normally be a valid criticism. Any story which follows the Hero’s Journey pattern should have a denouement at the end where the protagonist transcends their old self and transforms into something new. However, comedy is the one genre where this is not true. To understand why, let’s first define some terms. I define a comedy as follows:

A story where the protagonist wins in spite of, or even because of, their vices.

We can contrast this with a tragedy:

A story where the protagonist loses in spite of, or even because of, their virtues.

The ur-novel of the modern West is also the ur-comedy of the modern West: Don Quixote. The protagonist, Alonso Quixano, is a fifty year old low level noble who is married and lives a comfortable life for the time. He decides to drop everything, call himself Don Quixote and go off on a grand adventure as a knight-errant. I hope it’s not a spoiler alert to say that Quixano “wins” in the end. Despite his vice – insanity – he makes it home safe and sound. What’s important to note is that Quixano has not evolved in any way. At the end of the story he is right back where he started and, although he renounces his previous actions, this is more of a social commentary on the part of Cervantes than a great revelation for the character.

Given that comedy is the genre where the protagonist wins in spite of their faults, it makes sense that the protagonist does not evolve. They have no need to. When things go well in life, we tend not to learn much. It’s mostly through pain and suffering that lessons get learned. This is one of the reasons why protagonists in comedy stories tend to finish where they started.

We see a similar pattern in what I consider to be the greatest comedic novels in the English language: the Jeeves books by P G Wodehouse. The protagonist, Bertie Wooster, is as clueless as Quixote. He is an inversion of the stereotypical English gentleman of the 1800s. Not for Bertie the gallant adventures of a Richard Francis Burton or squandering the family fortune on coke and hookers (I guess it was opium and hookers at that time) like many other young “gentlemen” of the age. Bertie is a wealthy man in his early twenties who could be playing the field, travelling or involved in affairs of state. Instead, he is wound up in trifling domestic disputes that get blown out of proportion through his own bungling. Fortunately, his trusty butler, Jeeves, is there to save the day. Jeeves must solve the problem while keeping the solution secret from Bertie who will only mess things up if he gets involved.

Like Quixote, what is going on in Bertie’s mind and what is actually happening in the real world are very different things and this drives the comedy in both books. There is nothing for Bertie to learn because he completely misunderstands what is going on. Because he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t evolve either. Again, we find that the protagonist in the comedy stays the same. The formula is neatly summed up in a line from another great comedy, The Big Lebowski: the Dude abides.

There is something else going on in Quixote and the Jeeves books that I think is interesting and relevant to larger social issues at the moment. Both Quixote and Bertie Wooster are anachronisms. Quixote has been reading too many old books and got himself riled up over a mythology about knights errant that was out of date even at that time. Wooster is an English gentleman of the old school at the time when that stereotype was fast going out of date and would be completely extinct after WW2. The fact that both characters are anachronisms is part of their charm. Both men are not just unwilling to conform to social expectations, they are completely unaware of them. The result is that they are not fitted for their world and must continually be rescued giving both of them an eternal childlike quality; two grown men who still believe in fairy tales. Another way to think about it is that they are out there in the real world acting as if the ideal in their mind were true and consistently ignoring all the feedback that it is not. This is in contrast to most of us who give up on whatever ideals we had in order to get by in society. There are strong parallels with Christ which Dostoevsky captured quite precisely in his fittingly-titled book, The Idiot.

What happens when we apply a standard comedic technique and invert this configuration? Instead of individuals who are running on an outdated social script, we make society the one which is running on an outdated social script. Then we change the individual from an idealist into a realist. Now it’s society forcing the individual to conform to an outdated, often absurd, social script. This is still a source for comedy. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George is forced to eat a poisoned pie by his co-workers: “If you’re one of us, you’ll take a bite.” It’s also an excellent description of where our society is at right now. On a daily basis, we are expected to believe all kinds of outright nonsense; to eat all kinds of poisoned pie. The process was in place before corona and has only gone into hyperdrive since.

As I’m sure Ugo would agree, we are coming to the end of the line of our current social arrangements. The story could be a tragedy and there are plenty of people who want to view it as such. That is the driver of many of the apocalypse fantasies that float around these days. There are a lot of people who want to heroically go down with the ship. However, societies, like most things in nature, operate in cycles. The end of one cycle is also the beginning of another. So, another way to think about where we are right now is the beginning of a new cycle. That is where the protagonist of the comedy, the Fool, comes into the picture.

It is not without good reason that the Fool card is the first in the tarot deck. It symbolises among other things the beginning of a journey. Quixote was a fool. So was Bertie Wooster. We are all now fools in that we belong to a society running on an outdated script. We must search for a new script but this mission is also foolish. We can expect many failures so we’ll need our Sancho Panza to keep our spirits up and our Jeeves to keep us from our worst mistakes. Like Quixote, we have to metaphorically leave our comfortable home where everything is still functioning more or less and go out into the world looking for adventure. We have to do that knowing full well that most of what we try won’t succeed but with the fool’s assurance that it will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Once Upon a Time in Tittybong 2 now available

Being a lover of alliteration and stoner comedy, I knew when I wrote Once Upon a Time in Tittybong that it would need to become the first book in a Tittybong Trilogy. So, I’m delighted to announce that we’re now two-thirds of the way there with the release of Once Upon a Time in Tittybong 2: Catch My Disease.

The Tittybong trio of JJ, Krusty and Svenson are back and have graduated from taking on the powers that be in a small country town to taking on the powers that run global politics. The setting for the most of the book is the north shore of Sydney. For those who don’t know, Tittybong is the name of an actual place in Australia, although it doesn’t have a postcode and I think the residential population is limited to a bunch of kangaroos and wombats. The fictional Tittybong presented in the book is just that.

I’ve made the first chapter available as a preview which you can download here.

The eBook is available through Amazon. Paperback is available at Bookshop (US, UK), Book Depository, Abe Books, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and most other online retailers.


JJ and Krusty’s business is CA$H ONLY. So, when the two entrepreneurs from Tittybong find out that the government is about to ban physical currency, they turn to Australia’s most notorious mafia boss, Pickles Macbeth, for help. But when the all-powerful leader of the Global Council, Kurt von Todhammerstein, announces a surprise visit to Sydney, Macbeth plans to topple not just him but the Australian government too and JJ and Krusty must team up with Norwegian polymath, Svenson, to thwart Macbeth’s plan, restore the rightful Australian government and rescue JJ’s ex-girlfriend.

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, Once Upon in Tittybong 2 is a riotous comedy that sees a group of teenagers from country town Australia go into battle against the behemoth of globalist politics.

The Decadence of Science

Back when I was doing my linguistics degree there was an exchange between one of our lecturers and the students in the class that I still remember to this day. The lecturer asked the class a question which was answered correctly by the student but the lecturer told him it was the wrong answer. She was looking for a single word answer, the name of one of the concepts we had been learning. The student objected that he had explained the concept correctly and so his answer was not wrong. The lecturer informed him that part of what he was learning was a scholarly language and his inability to remember the right word made his answer incorrect.

Linguistics has a technical term for what the professor was referring to. It’s called a Speech Community. Being a student of linguistics is partly about entering the speech community of Linguistics which has its own vocabulary (which the student hadn’t learned properly), preferred syntax patterns, hierarchy of speakers etc. From a socio-linguistic point of view, the professor rebuking the student for language use was no different to a group of teenagers making fun of a friend for who doesn’t understand the meaning of some fashionable slang term. The context is very different but the mechanism the same.

Speech communities develop naturally because humans are social creatures. But speech communities come with a number of weaknesses that must be mitigated. The student in the above story was correct to state that it was more important to know the concept than to know the right word that denoted it. The opposite of this is to know the right word without understanding the concept. This happens all the time. It’s possible to learn the right words through mimicry and social cues alone. Formal speech communities such as educational, professional and technical institutions have a duty to guarantee a minimum level of competence in their members part of which means ensuring members can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Our education system relies on written testing in the form of essays and exams which is arguably the worst way to deal with the issue in that these forms of testing are nothing more than regurgitation exercises that are easily gamed. A well-functioning speech community enforces rigorous standards to ensure its members understand the concepts and not just the words. A decadent speech community does not.

A related problem with speech communities is that they can stagnate. A community sets up an in-group and an out-group by definition. Like any other organism, there must be just the right amount of interfacing with the environment for the speech community to remain healthy. It must be able to accept new members so that it can bolster its stocks of energy and enthusiasm but the inflow cannot be too quick or too great otherwise the internal structures get overwhelmed. On the other hand, if there is no inflow at all, the speech community atrophies and loses contact with the outside world.

The great physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed two rules in relation to science that are also relevant for all speech communities. Firstly, he said science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. In other words, just because somebody is a member of a speech community and knows the right words to use does not mean they necessarily know what they are talking about. As a member of the general public, any given speech community is a black box to us. We cannot know without investigation whether it is decadent or not. Because nothing is pure in this world, we can assume that there is always some level of decadence involved. Therefore, we must bring a measure of scepticism to every interaction with a speech community and its members. We should trust but verify. Often this verification amounts to nothing more than asking questions so that we understand what is being said. In the public discourse, this asking of questions is outsourced to journalists whose role is to translate the position of a particular speech community into terms that can be understood by the general public.

The second point that Feynman made was directed to scientists specifically. He said that if you cannot explain your work in terms a twelve year old can understand, you do not understand it yourself. A member of a speech community must be able to translate the internal language into general language and common sense. The scientist must do this for themselves because otherwise their own language and thinking becomes so byzantine and obscure that even they don’t understand it any more. They must also do it to the extent that the general public needs to understand their work. This rule doesn’t necessarily apply to a private organisation that does not want to interface with the community at all. It does apply to other speech communities especially the ones that have any kind of power in public life. This is true in politics, in medicine, in science, in religion and any other domain.

If we join these two considerations together we get guidelines about the correct interface between the speech community and the general public. The general public must ask questions of the speech community to facilitate their own understanding. The members of the speech community must explain to the general community in terms the community can understand i.e. everyday language and common sense. That is what a healthy relationship looks like.

What happens when this does not happen? What happens when a speech community has power but is not expected to translate its internal language into language that the average person can understand? We need only look at the history of the church to find out. European peoples spent the best part of two millennia listening to the word of God in a language they didn’t understand. A large part of The Reformation and the subsequent upheaval was about making the Bible available in national languages. This process continued until finally even the Catholic Mass was conducted in the vernacular following the reforms of Vatican II in the middle of the 20th century. As a counterweight to these increasingly liberal reforms, there were the various inquisitions which were also mostly about language use. Who could say what? Who had access to information? Who was allowed to challenge and question the speech community of the church? It turned out the Church didn’t want to explain itself and didn’t mind using some very un-Christian methods when challenged to do so.

The aims of science may be different from those of religion but science is still a speech community and therefore subject to the exact same dynamics as any other speech community. “Science” as an institution now holds arguably more power than the church ever did. But the interface with the institution of science is no longer healthy. One outcome of this is a growing distrust and resentment on the part of the general public. But the complete opposite attitude also emerges: reverence, awe, adulation and hero worship. This is the attitude of a person who has no desire ever to understand but simply to submit. We can see this dynamic very clearly in the climate change debate. On the one side are people who dismiss it entirely saying the institutions are corrupt and on the other are those who believe it entirely and without question as if it’s the word of God handed down on a stone tablet. Both of these positions are caused by a malfunctioning discourse.

The religious worship of science is all the more weird because science itself is based on the exact opposite predilection: curiosity, iconoclasm, rejection of appeals to authority. But this is another phenomenon we see throughout history. The Church for most of its history behaved in a way that had little to do with real Christian teaching. In any case, it doesn’t matter what the institution is or what it proclaims to believe. The problem is generic to all speech communities and all power structures.

Recently on an online forum I saw the following exchange:

Person 1: “If the government told Australians to stand in front of an oncoming bus, they would.”

Person 2: “If science said that standing in front of a bus would potentially save my life and the lives of others, I would.”

This kind of exchange is not unusual these days but this particular formation caught my eye because it’s absurd in a way that is almost identical to the moral problem posed by Soren Kierkegaard in his great work Fear and Trembling. In that book, Kierkegaard explores the issue of what happens if God gives you a command that goes against all reason, logic and morality such as what happened when God told Abraham to kill his son. Claiming that you would stand in front of a bus if “science” told you to is analogous to this.

Who or what is the “science” this person is talking about? The trust that he proclaims in “science” is the exact trust that Abraham had in the biblical story. It’s the trust to believe the “word of science” even though it goes against all your instincts and common sense. It is, as Kierkegaard knew, an absurd trust. Kierkegaard argued that this kind of trust (a leap of faith) is foundational to the religious teaching of Christianity. That may be true but it is absolutely not foundational to science and most people who proclaim to believe in science would ridicule the story of Abraham. Why would such an attitude of mindless reverence towards “science” start to prevail now?

At least part of the reason is because science as a speech community now finds itself in a very similar situation that the church once did. Science has a history of producing “miracles” but it has devolved into a closed speech community which no longer feels the need to explain itself to the public. Neither does a large section of the public expect that science should explain itself. The dynamic is almost identical to what a medieval peasant might have felt looking up to the ceiling of a great gothic cathedral while listening to mass in a language he doesn’t understand. Moreover, he believes he will never understand these things and just admires them, perhaps even feels awe towards them. This is the attitude of many people towards “science” now. Meanwhile, the language of science now resembles the word of God of the Old Testament. It is often arbitrary and even vengeful. It is not the voice of reason but of authority.

Why does a large section of the general public accept, even revel in, this state of affairs? I believe the decline in common sense is a big part of the picture. The medieval peasant might have sat in awe of a gothic cathedral but he still had to grow his own food and take care of his own survival. He still had to have common sense. He might have listened to the priest on arcane spiritual matters but if the priest started telling him how to grow his crops there would have been a problem.

The common sense of the peasant doesn’t exist anymore for the simple reason that there is no need for it in modern society. For the average person, the changing of the seasons is no longer a crucial element that needs to be understood for the growing of crops, it is an inconvenience to be ameliorated by air conditioners and heaters. Similarly, observations of nature once required to plant seeds at the correct time, protect crops from pests or to secure fertilisers for the best results are no longer required. All of this common sense of the peasant was grounded in day-to-day empiricism. The peasant used abstractions as a tool and if the abstractions didn’t work they were quickly cast aside for ones that did. If they were not, starvation would quickly ensue. By contrast, the average person now goes to school for twelve years where they learn nothing but abstractions. Often those abstractions go directly against common sense.

That the earth is round goes against our everyday common sense experience. As soon as we teach children to believe that, we are teaching them to trust something that goes against common sense. Of course, a proper education teaches the child how to reach the conclusion for themselves so they understand the concept and not just parrot the right words. This was another rule that Feynman proposed for science: you should always reproduce other people’s work. Our education system fails to do this. Because the student does not understand how to get to the conclusion for themselves, the words become abstract and meaningless; something to be trusted rather than proven.

The result is a person with no grounding either in common sense or with the methods of science. Such a person carries around a set of abstractions in their head that they have never tested against reality. That’s how you get people who claim they would step in front of a bus if “science” told them it was a good idea. It’s also how you get people who will take an experimental medication without asking the most basic questions about it because “science” told them to. You get a society where Kierkegaard’s absurd thought experiment is an everyday reality.

Of course, the “church of science” has also taken from the average person the area of life that used to be governed by common sense. “Science” grows the food now and tends the livestock and even cooks the meals. Science predicts the weather and even promises to be able to change it if only the lowly peasant will do what they are told.

It is not a coincidence that it took a group of truckers to finally draw a line in the sand against this dynamic. What they have is common sense. Common sense almost always gives the person the self assurance required to demand that science (and the politicians who claim to be following it) explain itself in terms the average person can understand. That is the correct way to mediate between the speech community of experts and the general public. It’s particularly telling that corona should have involved the subject of medicine because a doctor’s office used to be the ideal example of how this process should work. It is a one-on-one interaction where the doctor as expert translates the science directly for the individual patient according to his or her understanding of the world. A robust civil society with a professional class that translates for the average person has been a feature of western societies for a long time but it has been hollowed out and replaced by huge corporations and vested interests which provide the exact opposite of the one-on-one consultation. Like the decadent church of the past, they are too big to do the job properly.

The dysfunctional relationship between the public and “science” leads more and more members of the public to become cynical due to having their legitimate grievances ignored. Meanwhile, the true believers become hardened into a position of religious fundamentalism that is encouraged by the institutions of science who have a natural interest in preserving their reputation and power. There is no longer any attempt to explain the science in terms the public can understand. Instead, truths are handed down in stone tablets dutifully worshipped by the faithful.

In truth, the whole thing no longer has anything to do with science just as the Church at various times never had anything to do with Christianity. It is now a naked exercise in political power. We saw this with the Australian government throwing out Novak Djokovic for no reason or on the streets of Paris last weekend or with Trudeau’s declaration of a state of emergency or countless other incidents over the last two years. Just like the church once betrayed its principles to obtain power, so science now betrays its own principles in order to reign over a bewildered public grasping for a certainty which common sense should provide except it is now missing in action too.

We need a Reformation. Part of it will be a demand that science once again explains itself to the public. Part of it must be a return to common sense as a grounding against institutional power. Part of it must be an educational system that actually teaches proper science. Will it happen or will the Inquisitions continue as they have for the last two years?

In the Magic Theatre

The philosopher William James once referred to philosophical rationalists as “tender minded” while philosophical empiricists were “tough minded”. Dealing with abstractions, as rationalists do, requires nothing more than a comfy chair, perhaps in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night with a nice cup of hot brandy to warm the stomach. Dealing with facts and, more importantly, the testing of facts requires you to get off the philosopher’s couch and go out into “the real world”. It is in this “real world” that engineering and science do their work (although today much of science is carried out on the modern equivalent of the philosopher’s armchair: a computer). The pragmatic philosophy which James espoused is a natural fit with the domains of life where you actually have to build something and test that it works.

Proving that things work takes time, energy and money and always more of these than you think it should. This should is itself an abstraction. You have a dream. You make a plan and in your plan you imagine the best case scenario, the shortest route to the goal where everything goes perfectly. That much can be done from the armchair. Turning the abstraction into reality requires dedication, focus, will power and persistence, among other attributes. Along the way, things go wrong, unexpected problems emerge, you get tired and you want to take short cuts. Sometimes you curse having ever started in the first place and you just want it to be over. That’s the workaday world of engineering and science. Only the tough minded need apply.

I recall a meeting earlier in my career which was at the start of a new project. The business people were outlining the reasons for doing the project. It was a nice story full of abstractions. I asked what seemed to me to be a simple and obvious question about one of the main outcomes the project was trying to achieve: “what percentage <of some metric> would you consider success?” The project manager had no answer and it was clear from her response that she hadn’t even thought about it. This is the norm in corporations. Often millions of dollars are spent on projects where nobody has even calculated the expected return on investment. Even on the one metric that you would expect businesses to care about, i.e. profit, the business plan doesn’t include a specific, measurable number. This makes sense politically, of course, because if you allow something to be tested you also allow the possibility of failure and therefore the possibility of being blamed for failure. Much easier to stay in the world of abstractions where things are not testable and failure can be glossed over.

That might work for business managers and politicians but it can’t work for engineering teams who are tasked with building something and need parameters to work with so that they can design and test a solution and know that it works. Let’s do a lightning overview of what that process looks like using an example that is very poignant at the moment. Imagine we are the engineering team at a pharmaceutical company. We have just started a new project where management has given us the task formulated as the following abstraction: “create a vaccine that is safe and effective against coronavirus”.

The first thing we need to do as engineers is break this abstraction down into testable statements. This involves asking questions like “what sort of vaccine”? “What does safe mean?” “What does effective mean?”

Let’s set aside the question of what is and is not a vaccine and focus on the two other abstractions in our brief: “safe” and “effective”.

“Safe” could mean any of the following:-

  • Causes 0 side effects or deaths
  • Causes some temporary side effects but no death or permanent injury
  • Causes some temporary side effects and some deaths and permanent injuries

But these are too vague for science and engineering. We need specific, testable parameters. For example:

  • Causes temporary side effects in no less than 97.56% of cases

This statement is better but it still contains the abstraction “temporary”. We need to be specific about that too:

  • Causes side effects that last shorter than 60 days in no less than 97.56% of cases.

That’s better but we still need to define what counts as a “side effect”. If our vaccine caused a pain in the arm for an hour after injections but otherwise no other symptoms we wouldn’t consider it “unsafe”. So, we need to be more specific. We could reformulate the parameter as follows:

  • Causes side effects that require hospitalisation within 60 days of treatment in no less than 97.56% of cases.

This is the kind of statement that can be tested but it’s just one among many testable statements that form the parameters by which the engineering team can start to design a solution and then to test that the solution works. We would need to do the same for the abstraction “effective”.

Is this attention to detail hard work? Sure is. But that’s just the beginning. The reason we create testable assertions is so that engineering team can design the solution and then we can test the solution to make sure it meets the criteria. In the design, implementation and testing phases, ambiguities pop up, unforeseen problems arise, new information comes to light and we need to continually refine our analysis. For example, let’s say you notice that people in your study are suffering heart attack at four times the rate seen in the average population. You didn’t include heart attack in your list of side effects because you had no reason to think it was relevant to this particular medication. Should you now include it? You’ll probably need to go off and investigate the cause of the heart attack to try and figure out whether it can be traced to the vaccine or whether it was a statistical anomaly. What if it’s not something acute like heart attack but the fact that people are reporting subjective feelings of fatigue or aches and pains. Do they count as side effects? If somebody has persistent headaches for two years, do we include this person in the statistics even if we can’t find any explanation that establishes why the vaccine caused it? These are all the kinds of questions that pop up along the way in an engineering project.

These three elements – the abstraction, the testable statements that prove it and the testing that verifies the testable statements – can be thought of as a hierarchical structure where you drill down from abstractions to testable statements and then come back up from testing to the statements tested and then back up to the abstraction.

The world of abstractions is simple and comfortable. The real work begins in the realm of testable statements and testing. It’s down there where it’s easy to get lost, bogged down in ambiguity, confused, demoralised and weary. That’s why empiricism is for the tough minded who can stay focused and know how to navigate up and down through the hierarchy.

Note that this is just the beginning of the “fun” when it comes to testing things like vaccines. Because vaccines deal with the living biological world which is always in a process of becoming, any testing is fundamentally time dependent and quickly becomes out of date. This is especially true with rapidly mutating respiratory viruses. [This is a non-trivial problem and in my opinion the cold, hard, reductionist, analytical methods of the intellect cannot adequately explain the biological world and a huge part of our problem is that we believe that they can.]

Another issue is who gets to say that 97.56% is the cutoff at which a vaccine is called “safe”? One person’s “safe” is another person’s “not safe”. This leads to a second issue which is that, although it is valid to generalise across populations, a statistical average guarantees nothing about the safety to an individual. This is especially true with medical interventions where the number of variables to consider is astronomical. Thus, it’s not actually possible to say that something is “safe” at the individual level. At the individual level there is always an element of risk and that risk cannot be known in advance. Even if a vaccine had proven 100% safe up until now, the next person who takes it could get sick or die from it. For them it wasn’t “safe”.

The statistical average can and should inform our decision, of course. This is the kind of personalised advice that a doctor gives before administering a medical intervention. It should always come with the caveat that statistical average are just that and there is an irreducible element of risk at the individual level. That’s why it is always the patient who must assume the risk of any decision about whether to go ahead with treatment.  

All this gets brushed aside when politicians intervene and demand that a vaccine is safe and effective. Politicians almost exclusively stay up in the world of abstractions for the reasons outlined earlier. In the world of abstractions, you can escape responsibility for failure; one of the key skills of any politician. Much public discourse relies on the unspoken assumption that somewhere “the experts” are doing the hard work of creating testable statements and then testing them. There is no reason, of course, why politicians couldn’t just report the findings of the experts. They could say that in 97.56% of cases there are no side effects. Strangely enough, this is exactly what the West Australian Premier did recently when he made the following statement:

“So far, the science shows that people with only two doses of a Covid vaccine have only a 4 per cent protection against being infected by the Omicron variant,” Mr McGowan said. “With a third dose it can provide a 64 per cent protection against infection.”

The statement was unusual not just because politicians normally avoid being so specific but also because these statements are not very flattering to the stated policy of the Premier. 64% isn’t a particularly impressive number. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have more such statements in public discourse because they give us something to bite into as good empiricists. Note that there is ambiguity in the Premier’s statement. Is the Premier is saying 64% of the vaccinated people are protected from being infected 100% of the time or 100% of the vaccinated have a 64% chance of not being infected any given time they are exposed to the virus? This is the kind of question we would ask when constructing testable statements. It’s also the kind of question a good journalist would ask so that the public can understand what is being said. Having clarified that, a good journalist should also ask the Premier to point to the evidence that proves the truth of the statement.

There was an example of this kind of reporting just recently in this unintentionally hilarious press conference from the US where a defence spokesman makes a claim about Russia which is challenged by a journalist who asks for proof. We could break the spokesman’s claim down as follows:

Abstraction: Russia might commit a false flag disinformation campaign in Ukraine

Testable statement: we have information about Russia hiring people to carry out the false flag

Testing: source evidence which shows that Russia hired people

In the video, the reporter asks the defence spokesman to provide the evidence, which in this case means show us the intelligence you have that Russia hired people to do the thing you say they are going to do. The spokesman responds by saying that him making the statement at the press conference IS the evidence which, the journalist rightly points out, is not real evidence. It gets funnier from there and I recommend watching the video for yourself.

Of course, this is merely funny (unless it happens to start WW3) but almost the exact same thing was attempted with the releasing of the pharmaceutical companies’ documents about the trials done on the corona vaccines. Originally it was ruled that Big Pharma could wait seventy five years before releasing their evidence, which amounts to not ever having to release it. But that was overruled and apparently the evidence is due to be released soon although still more than a year later than it should have been if you wanted doctors and the public to actually make an informed choice about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Why weren’t journalists (and doctors for that matter) demanding to see the evidence about the vaccines? We can come up with a host of reasons why but the truth is that they didn’t and neither did most of the people who got the vaccine. The willingness to follow the abstraction without demanding evidence represents a general trend away from tough minded empiricism and towards tender minded abstractions that has been in train for some time. Empiricism takes time and resources. Both of these are lacking these days because we are going backwards economically and because the “pace of life” has sped up. Actually, this speeding up is itself a symptom of decline. We don’t have time to do the job properly anymore. Journalism is a useful yardstick here because proper investigative journalism is an empirical science which takes time and therefore money to do properly. There is no longer any money for proper journalism and thus journalism simply parrots abstractions. That’s all it can do. Abstractions are quick and easy and don’t require any work.

With our abstractions no longer grounded in reality, our public discourse flails around wildly. It reminds me of the last quarter of Hermann Hesse’s book Steppenwolf where Harry Haller enters the “magic theatre” and there follows a kaleidoscope of abstractions swirling so fast it makes one nauseous to read it (as was intended by Hesse). We’ve all been sucked into that magic theatre in the last two years; locked at home watching the kaleidoscope of pictures on screens. In truth, it’s all just been one giant projection. One giant Rorschach test. Just like in Steppenwolf, the speeding up of the abstractions represents the culmination of a process that’s been building for a while. That process is a mental breakdown. That’s what Haller goes through in the book and what we are going through right now at the societal level.

It’s possible this mental breakdown is the end of a cycle. That’s what Hesse implies in Steppenwolf. It takes the nausea of abstractions spinning out of control to throw us out of the comfortable world of “rationalism” and back to reality. But the abstractions that are spinning out of control now are not just limited to the ones specific to a supposed new respiratory virus. Almost everything seems to be up for grabs including things like “democracy” and “science” both of which are fundamental to our understanding of what western society is. Viewed “logically” or “rationally”, it should never had gotten to this point. There were so many off ramps along the way that could have been taken. Viewed psychologically, however, it makes sense. Like wood on the floor of a forest waiting to catch fire, we had built up far too many dead abstractions not tied back to reality. They need to get burned away for something new to grow. Like Harry Haller, we are hitting rock bottom and it’s only once we have hit rock bottom that we can start the process of getting ready to face the real world again.