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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Stewart’

The Science of DiscworldI’ve just finished reading (OK, listening to) The Science Of Discworld, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. I love Pratchett’s fiction – I’ve read and listened to the Discworld books over and over again. So funny, so clever. The book includes a story by Pratchett about how, due to yet another high energy magic accident, an infinite universe is created within a snow-globe-like object at Unseen University. After the mandatory Big Bang, matter gets itself sorted and produces a Roundworld, which goes through phases remarkably similar to our Earth’s history. The wizards watch this process (time moves differently on Discworld, you see), and sometimes influence it – not necessarily for the better. This story is interleaved with chapters that talk about the science behind the history of our universe and our world, also with great humour and, sometimes, satire. It’s a great book, and I’ve just started listening to the second in the series, which promises to be just as good.

One of the concepts the book discusses is ‘lies-to-children’. This is the tendency of humans to simplify information to a point where it becomes inaccurate, so that our children, or those who know less than ourselves (or are perhaps less clever), can understand what we’re saying. Of course, this is necessary in a lot of cases. You can’t tell a Year 8 kid all about quantum theory. You have to start with the nucleus and electron shells model of the atom. Otherwise it’s just too complicated. But this assumes that one of two things holds true. Either it doesn’t matter if the Year 8 kid drops sciences and never finds out that electrons are really complex probability fields (or whatever they are), or the Year 8 kid will always go on to find out what is really going on. If it does matter that she knows what’s really happening at a subatomic level, and she is just not interested in science, she might grow up continuing to believe this potentially dangerous lie-to-children.

I’m not saying everyone needs to understand quantum theory. No-one actually understands quantum theory. But I would argue there are some lies-to-children that do need to be clarified later in life. Over-simplification of ideals and facts can lead to possibly fatal misunderstandings. For instance… the bible is the word of the lord, and he influenced man to write the words that he wanted man to write. Therefore every word in the bible is true, therefore everyone must obey every word. No matter that there are contradictions within the bible, no matter that it was written by and for a very different culture. So the lie-to-children is the simple statement: ‘everything in the bible is true’. Perhaps a more progressive reading that would develop after further study would be: ‘the ideas in the bible show us a way we might find god’. The first of these would indicate that adulterers should be stoned to death. The second would imply that adultery is frowned upon and may be punished in some way.

I don’t believe in god, of any description. I just cite that as an example. So now, let’s think about the recent events in Paris, where (we’re told) fundamentalist Islamists killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that fearlessly and defiantly published satirical cartoons and stories about Islam, among many other groups. I wonder to what extent uncorrected lies-to-children played a role in that action? Worth thinking about.

Some further thoughts I had revolved around the nature and effects of satire. Relevant, as Pratchett is one of the masters of the genre. He even satirises satire itself – see Interesting Times, where he not only satirises modern China, but he also satirises satires of the communist regime. It comes back to free speech. Should people be allowed to say whatever they want? Well, sort of. Yes, they should. But other people then have the right to say ‘You can say that if you like, but you just can’t say it here.’ And groups have the right to say ‘You can say that if you like, but we’re not going to give you a platform to say it.’ And people have the right to say ‘I don’t think your group should give that person a platform to say what they want to say.’ I’m not quite sure whether states or countries should be able to say ‘We won’t permit anyone in this country to give you a platform for your views.’ I’m pretty sure states or countries shouldn’t be allowed to say ‘We won’t allow anyone in this country to hear what you’ve got to say.’ It’s all a bit difficult…

But is it? Surely if hundreds and thousands of people say ‘We don’t want to hear you saying these things,’ that should send a message? And surely no-one has the right to say ‘You can’t say that, it offends me.’ You can say ‘You can’t say that, it’s inciting people to hurt other people,’ but that’s different. To take a hypothetical example based on actual events… That holocaust denial bloke is invited by the student union at your local university to speak. They have the right to do that. The bloke has the right to spout his idiocy. But at the same time, you and I have the right to protest to the student union that they shouldn’t be giving this bloke a platform. And we have the right to disrupt the event in protest. Similarly, the student union has the right to say to the bloke ‘Bugger off, you’re a nutter.’ That’s democracy.

What’s that got to do with satire? Well, satire is basically standing up to someone or some group or some idea and saying ‘Bugger off, you’re a nutter.’ And pointing out, with humour, exactly why you’re a nutter. And to my mind, that’s OK. I have never read Charlie Hebdo, I don’t know the ins and outs of what they poked fun at and how fair or right it was of them. But I don’t care. Whatever they say, whether I agree with it or not, they should be allowed to say it. And they most certainly should not be killed for it.

No-one should be killed for anything. By anyone. Full stop. And that’s not a lie-to-children, it’s a fundamental truth. So what the fuck is going on with this world?

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