Politics, censorship, personal responsibility and truth.

Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk Philip.Belben at powertech.co.uk
Mon Jun 19 13:34:57 EDT 2000

Greetings, one and all.

It seems that my hastily typed note before I went off shopping on Friday got in
near the beginning of a major debate on the list over the weekend!  Not all of
it was on topic so I'll try and get my reply into this one message.

I could start with my political position, but that would have to be set agaist
the background of British politics, and why I think the name "Conservative" no
longer applies to the Tory party, so suffice it to say I'm pretty cynical about
the majority of politicians, and I once had a letter published in a newspaper
arguing for preserving the hereditary seats in the House of Lords, mainly
because they reduce the proportion of politicians in Parliament...

I think I should also add at this point that I once on the list described myself
as a "raving conservative".  I should like to say that I didn't mean to imply
that I supported any political party whose name might be suggested by that,
merely that I am (a) eccentric and (b) old fashioned.

Personal Responsibility.

Mary Ann, I think you've misinterpreted me.  At least, I didn't mean to express
what I think is the view with which you disagree so strongly.

In particular, I never said, nor intended to imply, that I think people are
_solely_ responsible for their actions, and I CERTAINLY don't think that people
are solely responsible for their situation.  Indeed, in my opinion this is an
even worse form of a nasty view held by such Tory politicians as John Major and
Jeffery Archer, who seem to believe that since they themselves made it from the
bottom to the top, anyone else can, and those who fail are more deserving of
contempt than of useful schemes to help them.  If that's what you thought I
meant, I apologise.  (To bring this back on topic, Charles and Nirupam almost
start on this discussion, about Brian Wentworth, in Witch Week)

I was agreeing with Max, who I thought was saying that DWJ might be unpopular
for presenting the idea that people have responsibility for [what they do with]
their lives.  I was commenting that this concept of responsibility for the
consequences of one's own decisions seems to be going out of fashion, and that
we (UK) are following the US in this.

The most obvious example is in consumer protection laws.  The American culture
(admittedly seen from afar) seems to be that however you misuse a product,
unless there was an explicit instruction to say don't do it, you can sue the
manufacturer if you get hurt.  Famous stories along these lines (I cannot
readily check veracity) include someone who tried to dry a dog in a microwave
oven, and won the case against the manufacturer (who hadn't said "not suitable
for livestock" anywhere), the thief who fell through a roof and successfully
sued the building's owner on safety grounds, and a light aircraft manufacturer
who would have been sued after a crash, had they not already gone out of
business...  Americans have (in British eyes) always been too ready to sue each
other, but it seems now you can sue anyone for anything that's your own fault,
and win.  And we are going the same way.


I tend to be against censorship.  I have a friend at work, who, like me, is a
Christian [1], but is much more in favour of censorship than I am.  He once
bought a book from a charity book stall, simply because it contained propaganda
for a pseudo-Christian sect, and took it home and burnt it.  He also vets any
picture books for his children (daughter aged 4 + son aged 2) and removes pages
with pictures of witches and related themes before he lets the kids read them.
I once sought to remonstrate with him about this, but he seemed impervious to my

That said, I do believe parents should be able to censor what small children are
exposed to - and should do so.  Another trend here seems to be parents not
taking responsibility for their children, but I don't really want to open this
can of worms here...

As far as censorship of (say) pornography is concerned, I wouldn't tend to
censor on the basis of content; however I do feel (as Britta pointed out) there
may be grounds for censorship in order to limit the exploitation of the

[1] Not to say that my interpretation of the Christian faith is like his in
every respect.  I won't start the Great God Debate here, but merely mention one
example, also from the debate on the list: I accept the theory of evolution,
while he doesn't.  Also to say that despite our differences we are still pretty
good friends.

Truth and Facts.

Here is a wonderful subject for debate!  I shall present a potted summary of my

Facts and Truth are not the same thing.  I believe that much misapplication of
science results from the confusuion of the two.

Science is concerned with Facts, that is to say, experimental results.  The
scientists jobs are (1) to examine the facts and to attempt to find a pattern,
known in science as a "law", behind them, and (2) to design experiments to test
such laws.

The scinetific "law" is not a "law" in the social sense.  There is no parliament
that enacts it or judiciary that enforces it.  It is simply a theory that
explains observed facts.  Take for example the law of Gravitation (not the
easiest example, but more on topic).  There is no statute that says objects must
fall, and no-one to report it to if they don't.  There are millions of observed
cases of objects falling, and Newton was able to produce a theory that suggested
why they did so, and predicted other behaviour that was (both already and
subsequently) observed.

<ON TOPIC>  in Eight Days of Luke, Mr Wedding tries to win David to his side
with an argument based on a blurring of the distinction between scientific law
(as exemplified by the Law of Gravitation) and social law.  David turns this
argument around and throws it back at him.  He can do this because the concept
that Mr Wedding introduces is not a valid one.  (Trying to explain without a
spoiler...) </ON TOPIC>

Newton's law of gravity is a good explanation of the phenomenon of falling
objects (and that of orbiting planets).  But is it True? and is it Correct?

I think it cannot be regarded as True, because we cannot observe the entire
universe over its entire history to test it.  In a more immediate way, it cannot
be regarded as True because some observations don't actually fit it.  Einstein's
General Theory of Relativity includes a law of gravitation that explains these
observations better.

Is Newton's law correct?  I would tend to say that it is, EVEN THOUGH Einstein's
law is in some sense better.  This is because, for most situations, Newton's law
actually gives better results.  Einstein's law is more complete - it copes with
more situations - but for most situations you (ironically) need to do a much
more precise calculation to get the right answer from Einstein than you need for
Newton. [2]

I would therefore say that Newton's theory is correct, but not complete.
Einstein's theory is also correct, and more complete.  We have no chance of ever
proving any theory to be totally complete, so we cannot say that either of them
is "true".

The difficulty with teaching science to children is getting these notions of
truth and facts, correctness and completeness, across to the kids.  I don't
think the kids will have any difficulty understanding them, but I fear many
schoolteachers might...

[2]  I think this is right.  With the laws of motion - what happens to an object
if you push it, etc. - this is definitely true, although I couldn't make my
first year physics supervisor (tutor) at Cambridge see it.  There was an example
where if you used Einstein's theory of Relativity, you needed to do the
calculation to about 20 places of accuracy to get a sensible result, whereas
using Newton's laws, 5 or 6 places were plenty.  Since my pocket calculator only
handled 10 digits, guess how I did it...  The tutor claimed that since Einsteins
method was "exact" I couldn't claim that it "lost accuracy" compared to Newton's
method.  Possibly another Facts vs Truth argument?

Other Changing Attitudes

Chris wrote:

> There was an interesting programme on TV the other day about marriage which
> started with a couple just getting married who had decided to remain virgins
> until they married. The tone of the programme was SHOCK, HORROR. That's a
> complete and utter turn around of acceptable moral standards in less than 50
> years.

I am shocked and horrified!  (At the programme's attitude, that is.)  Mainly
because I thought that the tide had turned, and movements like "True Love Waits"
in the US were bringing pre-marital celibacy back into fashion.  Well, good for
that couple!  And I wish them (sincerely, not sarcastically) very happy.

I seem to have written a very long post here, with less on-topic material than I
had hoped, so perhaps I'd better call it a day.


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