Saturday, December 10, 2005


"'The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science--or outside of it--we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense--science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge--all information between human beings--can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance--and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty. It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality--this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken." We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.""

Jacob Bronowski

Friday, December 09, 2005

Wilkerson's reflections

Der Spiegel has recently published an interview with Lawrence Wilkerson. It makes interesting reading - he basically lays the blame for most things that have gone wrong in the Bush admin. at the feet of Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Wilkerson: Yes there was. Incredible arrogance. I call it the administration of hubris. How could anyone look at that region and believe it? As opposed to the Pentagon, we in the state department never signed up to that idea that our troops would be greeted with flowers. There were so many mistakes from the very outset of the administration -- beginning with sticking our finger in the world's eyes with our rejection of Kyoto without offering an explanation. The gracelessness, the ineptitude of how we confronted the world made foreign policy and international relations in general very difficult in the first Bush term.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

they no know, either

A while ago I blogged about how I didn't know anything.

It's a particularly pressing question for me because I'm generally expected to 'know' stuff and, worse of all, to make predictions about what will happen next. It's all seen as being somehow glamorous and exciting but I don't like doing it, to be honest. I sometimes succumb to the temptation and make bold, sweeping judgments about things, and then find that I feel tawdry and arrogant. And then I'll meet someone who's making bold statements themselves and I'll dislike them for their hubris and their insouciance.

Fortunately, it turns out that I'm not the only one. Tetlock, whose academic paper on why political 'experts' tend to have worse judgment than complete ingenues inspired my last post, has just published a book going into more detail. The New Yorker has a great review of it.

Here's the bit I find particularly heartening:

Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who "know one big thing," aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who "do not get it," and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible "ad hocery" that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

A hedgehog is a person who sees international affairs to be ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history, according to which the Cold War does not end if there is no Ronald Reagan. Or he or she might adhere to the "actor-dispensability thesis," according to which Soviet Communism was doomed no matter what. Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events. For the hedgehog, therefore, predictions that fail are only "off on timing," or are "almost right," derailed by an unforeseeable accident. There are always little swerves in the short run, but the long run irons them out.

Foxes, on the other hand, don't see a single determining explanation in history. They tend, Tetlock says, "to see the world as a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies: self-fulfilling ones in which success breeds success, and failure, failure but only up to a point, and then self-negating prophecies kick in as people recognize that things have gone too far."

As an admitted intellectual butterfly, the idea that flitting from idea to idea is a strength rather than a weakness is heartening - as is the idea that intellectual humility makes for better analysis. It helps me remember that being a know-it-all is bad thing in more ways that one.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Khashoggi's Angels

Al-Hamedi has an interesting post on a Ms.Tanya Hsu on his blog. She writes PR pieces masquerading as journalism for the Saudi government.

Ms Hsu obtained a degree in economics from the University of London, according to her bio.(scroll down to the bottom) According to the same bio, she organised a conference on Arab-American understanding in 2003. The earliest piece that al-Hamedi has found is from 2003; I can't find anything from earlier either. I've checked Factiva, Lexis and Dialog too, though that's not foolproof.

In May 2003, Jamal Khashoggi was fired from al-Watan. By September 2003 he was ensconced in London as an adviser to the Saudi Embassy there.

I happen to know of one confirmed instance in which Mr Khashoggi has offered to pay for a young, well-educated and attractive woman to produce glossy magazines or other such material telling 'the truth' - but certainly not the whole truth - about Saudi Arabia.

I note from some of the tracks that Ms Hsu has left on the internet that she is a devotee of the Palestinian cause. Let me just say that I'm not inferring that there's anything wrong (or right, for that matter) with supporting the Palestinian cause. But the issue is the darling of leftists in London universities, and it is a frequent rallying point for student demos and the like.

She also fancies herself as a writer. That last link is a mawkish poem from 2002 in clear support of Palestinian resistance. It's a very well constructed poem, I think, for the genre, but I tend to find the genre as a whole rather mawkish.

So I have a picture in my head, which could well  be wrong.

I'm imagining Ms Hsu in London in the autumn of 2003, perhaps having just finished her degree? or between jobs? Who knows. But she loves writing, she loves anything that supports the Palestinian cause, and she's evidently very political.

And I'm imagining Jamal Khashoggi in London in the autumn of 2003, having been persuaded that the Kingdom needs decent PR abroad, starts thinking that well-educated, Westernised and assertive women are just about the exact opposite of what people associate with Saudi Arabia. So who better to convey the message that the Kingdom is actually a great place?

Did you know that Ms. Hsu has published a book about the place?

My daydream is probably but a flight of fancy. Food for thought, though, eh?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

a break from our normal programming

so, a girl who i'm really, really supposed to be over by now tells me that she's made plans this evening. and for some reason i was really bothered about it.

anyway, that's not really the point. the point is that for some reason i've got it into my head that i need to get some kind of recognition from this girl to feel worthwhile. except i never seem satisfied by what acknowledgement i get. i'm very aware it's because nothing will ever be enough - in past relationships i've had exactly the same feeling, no matter how close we were or how good the relationship was. and i'm also aware that i am wont to pick people who are unlikely to want to play the role, just to make absolutely sure. when i read about lonely obsessives given restraining orders for chasing celebrities, my revulsion is multiplied by an unnerving feeling of self-recognition.

this isn't about women, though, really. it's about that need to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. i don't know if it's an immaturity borne of a sheltered life or borne of our wider societal impatience and arrogance, but there's this niggling feeling that i should have at least half worked it out by now.

there was something i read once in a book by paul virilio - he quoted this french psychiatrist who worked with young people with addictive disorders. he said what characterised all of them - whether drug takers, alcoholics, compulsive speedsters - was the 'phantasm of total accomplishment'. it's that feeling you get through extreme behaviours, when it feels like, for a moment, it all clicks into place and you're lost in the moment and somehow, viscerally, you *understand*. i'm reminded of charles bukowski sat in his bed with a bottle of cheap wine listening to classical music and feeling like he's grasped the meaning of the music; of the girl i once knew who took coke because it made her feel 'interesting'; of hemingway and his need to cure the angst of writing through drink; of the romantic ideal of the starving poet in his garret; of the girl i still know who recited poetry to me on a bridge in paris under the mistaken impression that she was making sense.

and somewhere underneath all of that i dimly remember that the point is not to go for the quick fix of alcohol or idealised relationships or whatever else, but to somehow learn to fix that moment so that it becomes more and more frequent, more and more a normal occurence. not that an individual's emotional life isn't cyclical - but that the ups and downs should be closer together and less overwhelming. there's always the problem of the downside, though: those quiet moments when you can't remember why you're trying so damned hard and when the temptation to seize upon the easy options is all too great. i learned once in a dark room on my own in barcelona that a moment of simple intimacy between people - just reaching out to touch someone in the simplest way, with a sincere word or gesture - could make all that weight fall away like an old skin. but for all the beauty of that moment of recognition, i turned that understanding into another quick fix behaviour. ah well.

    "question and answer"
    Charles Bukowski
    he sat naked and drunk in a room of summer
    night, running the blade of the knife
    under his fingernails, smiling, thinking
    of all the letters he had received
    telling him that
    the way he lived and wrote about
    it had kept them going when
    all seemed

    putting the blade on the table, he
    flicked it with a finger
    and it whirled
    in a flashing circle
    under the light.

    who the hell is going to save                                 
    me? he

    as the knife stopped spinning
    the answer came:
    you're going to have to
    save yourself.

    still smiling,
    a: he lit a
    b: he poured
    c: gave the blade