Here’s a disclaimer which always annoys me: “I’m not a luddite but …”

This first came to my attention on one of the Open University’s internal forums. Typically, the phrase precedes a complaint about some aspect of computers: “I’m no luddite but I really dislike windows 10” or something. Funnily enough, just after I wrote the above words, I moseyed over to a quite different forum, (the internal Green Party discussion forum) only to find the latest reply starts with the words:

That is Luddite thinking,

It’s a cliché that grates with me because “luddite” is just a “boo” word. The only thing it contributes to the argument is a shot of emotion: “I really dislike this”. It is able to deliver this shot of emotion because it is generally accepted to be a Rude Word, yet it is pretty well meaningless as used in any context other than history. The Luddites were a particular historic group responding in to specific historic circumstances. (Perhaps even, you or I might have done the same in the their shoes? Or would you have willingly surrendered your livelihood?) In that trivial sense, no living person is a luddite.

If you insist that it is not meaningless at all, then the extended meaning of the term seems to be something like “hates all new technology and is therefore bad at thinking”. I do not believe there is anyone who “hates all new technology” – everybody welcomes some technological developments. So nobody is a luddite.

Equally, everyone dislikes technological developments which impact negatively on themselves (and, in realising what will truly impact on them, they might in fact be good at thinking). In that sense everyone is a luddite. By using the word as an accusation what you really mean is “you don’t like this particular innovation that I do like”. If you use the disclaimer that you are not a luddite, what you mean is “I don’t deserve to be called that horrible rude word”.

It’s quite interesting to ask what would be so bad about disliking new technology anyway – the answer is more subtle than you might think so that’s going to have to be another post. The counterpart “hooray” word to “luddite”, is of course “progress”. And that kettle of worms, or can of fish, will also have to wait to be opened.


See also: my comments from 2013 on the similar term “anti-car”.

The four meanings of the word “science”

Here’s something worth quoting. It’s from Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual impostures, (1998) (the numbers in square brackets are mine):

It is crucial to distinguish at least four different senses of the word ‘science’: [1] an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world; [2] a collection of accepted theoretical and experimental ideas; [3] a social community with particular mores, institutions and links to the larger society; and, finally [4] applied science and technology (with which science is often confused). All too frequently, valid criticisms of ‘science’, understood in one of these senses, are taken to be arguments against science in a different sense.

Thus it is undeniable that science [3], a social institution, is linked to political, economic and military power, and that the social role played by scientists is often pernicious. It is also true that technology [4] has mixed results – sometimes disastrous ones – and that it rarely yields the miracle solutions that its most fervent advocates regularly promise. Finally, science considered as a body of knowledge [2], is always fallible, and scientists’ errors are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, philosophical or religious prejudices.

Something of which I think we can all approve is meaning [1], “an intellectual endeavour aimed at a rational understanding of the world”, but what of the rest?

Intellectual impostures was a vigorous takedown some of of the writings of various cultural theorists roughly grouped as “postmodernists” who decorated their not-always-entirely-penetrable writing with impressive but meaningless references to difficult scientific concepts that were way outside their area of academic expertise. The book came after the “Sokal hoax” where Alan Sokal (a physicist) submitted a paper full of sciencey gibberish to a postmodern journal which then published it. The journal itself was not, it seems, peer reviewed, so fair do’s, sort of – but really you’d think the editor would have noticed something was amiss – that is, if the sciency gibberish in other writers actually meant something.

Anyway, there was a big fuss about Sokal’s paper. Egg on faces combined with insistence that faces did not need any cleaning at all (oh yeah, “it’s a metaphor”. The point of a metaphor is to use something that is already understood by one’s audience in order to illuminate something which they do not yet understand). But stop right there. It’s all well in the past now; cultural theorists don’t write like that any more – and most of them never wrote like that in the first place. The affair still gets cited in internet commentary of course, where intellectual impostures is widely misrepresented as a cudgel for beating all social scientists, ignoring the fact that S & B are quite clear, in the section I’ve quoted, that some of the things that come under senses [2], [3], and [4] of “science” do deserve analysis and criticism by non-scientists.

Why am I quoting this in a blog that is so far contains mostly wittering about the environment? Because of the rhetorical sliding between the four meanings, whereby meaning [1] is used to justify the imposition of damaging and inequitable technology or the bullying exercise of power, still goes on in environmental debate. Meaning [1] is what gives science its status – despite the fallibilities of individual scientists, the endeavour itself is a noble one. So the label “science”, correctly applied, is, rightly, prestigious. More to the point, the label “anti-science” stings nastily and, if it can be made to stick, carries persuasive weight.

(I have some previous on this. I once wrote a short review of a rather shoddy book called the march of unreason which paints “environmentalists” (what, all of them?) as a bunch of idiots and I’ve also taken resurgence magazine to task for ignoring meaning [1] by stating that the purpose of “science” is to control the world).

What a laugh

No, no – this really is not a politics blog. But I just can’t help myself from making a quick comment about Boorish Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary.

Goodness, what a clever move. Most obviously, it makes a clear public statement of “no hard feelings” (and of course, in addition to being strategic, this could well be a genuine sentiment). More importantly, it has effectively put him on a leash.

Until very recently there was a real possibility that this genial blond buffoon could have ended up as prime minister – less venal than Berlusconi but equally embarrassing to his country. However, the serious objection to BJ as PM, is not his personality but his lack of relevant experience. As far as I can tell (which is not very far), the jobs of elected mayor and prime minister are very different; mayors are quasi-presidential, prime ministers are definitely not (even if the job is drifting in that direction). Therefore, adequacy as London mayor says little about potential competence as PM.

We must assume that BJs burning ambition has not vanished and he hopes to have another crack at the top job in the not-too-distant. He may be a bozo but he’s also rather intelligent and will realise that if he makes a fist of this job – which will involve the painful experience of taking it seriously for two seconds – then his chances of the main job are much enhanced. He will no doubt realise that he managed to get away with handwaving and making-things-up and being entertaining as a journalist, as an MP and as a Mayor but he cannot get away with it as foreign secretary – and the moment he does something truly dumb he’ll be promptly shuffled off. Yet he could not possibly have turned down the job without finally scuppering himself.

Showbiz for ugly people? Oh I’ll definitely be following this sitcom.