Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Missing The Point Society

The Royal Society of Chemistry have generated great deal of 'news' coverage for their Solve The Italian Job Competition without ever noticing what a horrible display of ignorance of socio-cultural matters in general this represents. The end of The Italian Job is left open to afford the slight possibility that the team get away with the loot because such a possibility was a radical departure from the previously strongly imposed conventions on crime not being allowed to pay. The contrast between the conclusion of The Italian Job (1969) and the conclusions of the great English comedy-heists of a slightly earlier generation [e.g. Two Way Stretch (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960), The Lady Killers (1955)] could not be clearer. Fictional criminals were not allowed to profit from their crimes because the hegemonic-ethic of society was utterly opposed to such an outcome. So what is breathtaking about the literal cliffhanger ending of The Italian Job is the audacious playing with the ethical conventions of the heist movie not the unstable physical mechanics of the bus (which of course do not exist being just a plot device and an effect of the composition of the text of the film). The inability to recognise that there are no physics to discuss but that there are interesting things about society and culture to consider - not least the extremely nationalistic ideology of the text (which is only slightly undercut by the ironic composition of this nationalistic framework) - suggests an absolute (and deliberate) ignorance of literary studies and theory and of socio-cultural studies and theory more generally. As an approach to media culture it is very reminiscent of the poor deluded fools who try to establish scientific rationales for the 'events' 'reported' in the Bible and other holy works (the ten plagues as side-effects of volcanic activity, the deluge as memory of the formation of the Bosphorus, the star of Bethlehem as comet or nova or both) as though there were a necessary reason for those things to actually have happened.
What is particularly galling about this is that the standards they set for other peoples knowledge and understanding of science are reject by them when it comes to their dealings with other fields of knowledge (e.g. their fear of The Flintstones).
The RSocChem are not alone in this as Sense About Science and the rest of the 'science-communication-industry' are equally guilty of this hypocritical hectoring foolishness when it comes to knowledge of fields of enquiry and understanding beyond their own borders. If we consider Sense About Science's annual pop at celebraty ignorance of science we can see this deliberate ignorance of other fields of knowledge quite clearly.
Consider the following two examples.
First, Delia Smith is disturbingly, praised for keeping out of the politics of food (i.e. GM) but castigated for considering over indulgence in sugar to be a problem and suggesting excluding it from ones diet. The SaS response to this is remarkable and worth quoting in full

Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

“Delia, you’ll never get rid of sugar from the diet, nor would you want to, as you consume sugars naturally in many foods such as fruit and milk, which provide us with important nutrients. Also, the causes of obesity are much more complex. Although you’re right, in so far as that if you have too many foods/drinks with high levels of added sugar, it can upset the balance of a healthy diet.”

Note the 'ontological gerrymandering' at the begin of the second line in the move from the cooking term 'sugar' to the nutrition science term 'sugars'. The deliberate transition from singular to plural transforms the meaning of the words. Although these words are connected they do not posses the same meaning here and are, indeed, not even members of the same family resemblance. 'Sugar' here has been used to mean sucrose processed from the plant Sugar Cane and used as an ingredient in cooking - as we would expect from a famous cook. Whereas 'Sugars' has been used to indicate water-soluble carbohydrates - as we would expect from a nutrition scientist. There is a fundamental difference between the two uses of these words and there is no sense in which SaS's criticism of Delia is meaningful. It is not the case that this is ignorance of Wittgenstein on the part of SaS rather it is a wilful display of ignorance of cooking on the part of SaS and there is simply no ignorance of science on the part of Delia Smith to be discussed. Consider what a culinary disaster it would be if you asked a member of the SaS team to pass you the salt when cooking as they would have to pass you some salts; the combination of Lead Diacetate and Copper Sulphate sounds particularly yummy!
Second, we have this gem of wilful ignorance;

It’s unusual to hear celebrities talking about maths, but science sells and Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 is so famous that it even makes a cool album title. Mariah Carey explained her choice of an equation as her latest album title by clarifying that it stood for “emancipation equals Mariah Carey times two”. Dr David Leslie, mathematician “Unfortunately, Mariah has misread the algebra. The two in the equation means c squared, not mc multiplied by two. The correct reading of the equation is E=mcc, so perhaps Mariah's re-interpretation should have been “Emancipation equals Mariah Carey Carey”? I would have been very happy to chat with her and check it out before she went to print.”

There is so much that is outrightly silly about this statement and it displays such blindness to other fields of knowledge that at first I assumed this was some kind of ironic piss taking of Sense About Science's communication project. Now I am forced to accept that this was sincerely meant. I look forward to Dr Leslie giving Garrison Keillor a good talking to about the impossibility of all the children of Lake Wobegon being 'above average' and slapping the producers of Lynx deodorant silly for claiming that the mere act of addition makes women undergo forced and immediate chimerism! The sign in question has marketing effectiveness because it is an icon of the modern world and is immediately recognisable to almost everyone. Their is no 'misreading' of this equation because it is not an composite entity in this case but one icon. In mathematics the five individual components are meaningful as an assemblage whereas in marketing or semiotic terms this is but one whole iconic entity.
The problem of this is that all of the fields of knowledge and understanding essential to communication are deliberately ignored by the professional communicators of scientific knowledge and understanding; which is a useful starting point for a discussion of irony.


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