Judith Curry, of the Climate etc website, found herself involved in a wide-ranging Twitter debate which prompted her to summarise her position both in American politics and philosophically. I don’t use Twitter much, and am coming to the view that I should simply dispense with it, but I thought her summary position was well expressed, and thought further, why don’t I do the same? So here is mine, using her structure simply as a beginning. I have written about many of these points in the past, but here they are brought together.
I grew up in the country, and have always had a sympathy for country people in their lack of many of the amenities that attract people to the city. I joined the Country Party when I was young, and thought about running for parliament under its banner. I gave up in time, having neither the money nor the preparedness to endorse everything the party stood for. That was the early 1960s. Since then I have voted for Labor and the Liberals. I was much more sympathetic to Labor when I was younger. I thought, and still think, that the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1990 was the best Australian Government we have had in my working lifetime. The Rudd Government I think was the worst, the Gillard one not much better.
I am socially ‘progressive’ and economically ‘conservative’. I have probably been like that since my undergraduate years. I don’t recall any of my university teachers having been ideologically evangelistic, though most would have been on the Left, I think, and my parents never talked about politics at all. My guess is that they mostly voted Labor until they got to know the local MP (State and Federal), when they may have voted for him on personal grounds. I do know that writing for newspapers forced me to work out why I felt as I did, and how best I could defend that position. I don’t think my positions have changed much over the last thirty years. I was taught in the 1960s that data trumps theory, and that one should inspect all ‘data’ for flaws. I learned the phrase ‘GIGO’ in 1965, in the USA. It was a computer lab. term emphasizing the need for extreme care in inputting data.
The end of the Soviet Union did not mean the end of ideology. It is everywhere, and I try my best to rid myself of it. All researchers need to be aware of their own ideologies, and do their utmost to think past them. One should be one’s own severest critic, and in my case that meant hours, days, of subjecting my own hypotheses to demolition. It didn’t always work. An Honours student wrote a lovely little article showing that I was quite wrong on an issue in which I had thought I was quite right. She was my own student, and I had to congratulate her. She went on to do a good PhD, too. Judith Currie has been impressed by the work of John Ralston Saul, a Canadian philosopher, ten years younger than me, whose early work in the 1980s was important to me. She has set out the characteristics of ideologues like this:
- Absence of doubt
- Intolerance of debate
- Appeal to authority
- A desire to convince others of the ideological ‘truth’, and
- A willingness to punish those who don’t concur.
There’s a lot of that about today. Perhaps there always was. But it is imperative that those who wish to debate issues seriously avoid these attributes. To want to debate at all carries with it a need to listen as well as talk, to be prepared to change one’s mind if the evidence warrants it, to argue from data and first principles, not from what others say, to be satisfied with helping others examine their own positions, and to avoid being a smart-arse.
I’m not sure what JC meant by this, and her examples I would think of as societal goals rather than values. What do I value in others, and therefore for me? Open-ness, self-reliance, altruism, friendliness, intellectual honesty (see above). What do I want for my country? Those values expressed generally in our society. I do not like curbs on free speech like section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act. No doubt 18(d) would protect me in what I write, but the political correctness embodied in 18(c), and indeed in the Act itself, hinders the free exchange of views that is essential in a real democracy. If you see something in our society where you think there ought to be a change, lend a hand yourself first before you ask others or our various governments to lend a hand. I am not an internationalist, and believe that the world of nations is far too diverse for ‘world government’ to be sensible. So my energies are directed toward making Australia a better country. A lot follows from this value, and I may write about it again later this year.
Judith added ten ‘signs of intellectual honesty’, which others have mentioned in their comments, urging me to follow them. I try always to do so. They are these:
- Show a willingness to publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist.
- Be willing to publicly acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases.
- Be willing to publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak.
- Be willing to publicly acknowledge when you are wrong.
- Demonstrate consistency.
- Address the argument instead of attacking the person making the argument.
- When addressing an argument, do not misrepresent it.
- Show a commitment to critical thinking.
- Be willing to publicly acknowledge when a point or criticism is good.
I have written for newspapers for half a century, in all, a few million words. The papers included The Canberra Times (five years, once or twice a week), The National Times (twelve years, once a week), The Australian Financial Review (five years, once a week) and all the main city papers on an irregular basis. I have also done a lot of radio and television work, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. I get most of my basic news today from the Internet, but my television news now mostly from SBS.
I don’t read the newspapers any more, though my wife will point out anything she thinks would interest me. I keep waiting for one of the major papers to fall over. They are getting thinner and thinner, and there is not much difference in content between The Age, The SMH and The Canberra Times. I am much more conscious of editorial slant now than I used to be. Having written five years’ worth of editorials myself I do know how that process operates.
Engagement with the policy process
I have worked with government and ministers from both sides of politics and at the Federal and ACT levels pretty well continuously from 1981 to 2012. For the most part I found all the Ministers I worked with to be sensible, clear-headed and anxious to improve the area they were responsible for. I was allowed, sometimes encouraged, to propose courses of action, especially in the research funding and policy areas. People like me are needed in the policy process, to engage with a government and its needs. It is not always a happy engagement, and the bigger the task the more likely you are to receive flak. I have a good deal of sympathy with Ministers, and for anyone who engages with public politics. You do need a thick skin.
Why do I maintain this website and write for it?
I do so partly because I am used to writing for a public readership and speaking to a public audience. I try to follow the precepts that are outlined above. Newspapers these days are too poor to pay you for op.ed. pieces (which is, apart from my academic production, essentially what I have written for fifty years), and I learned how to establish and run a website through the love and skills of my family. I think the future of mass communication will be increasingly a mixture of print and digital, with digital becoming more powerful. This website gets about 10,000 hits a month, and has received over 18,000 comments. I read every comment, but usually stay out of the debate unless I think the writer has missed a crucial point. I try to write one essay each week.
I get a good deal of email from people who want to express a view to me but don’t want to go on line. I’ll keep the website going while I can, but my illness last November, which has not completely gone, tells me that I am not in fact immortal!
Afterthought: There is no end to this sort of introspection. It leads at once to the sort of society I think we have and how best to improve it. We are not perfect creatures and cannot create a perfect world. But we can always improve our situation in a particular direction, and I much prefer incremental changes to great visionary leaps that do not live up to their purpose and can be quite dysfunctional. That is another subject, I agree, but it is related to the above.