Time Can Be Rewritten 14 (Asylum, BBC Books, 2001)
One more post of dotting ts, crossing is, and playing with some of the concepts from the Deadly Assassin Megapost, then we’ll do Face of Evil on Wednesday. Here I want to look again at the ways in which having an understanding of history and of the world more complex than the ones I critiqued in the Deadly Assassin entry – or for that matter in the Masque of Mandragora essay – makes for better writing than those of Big-Ass Science or the limited views of the nature of time and history espoused by mainstream fandom. And for that we have Peter Darvill-Evan’s almost but not-quite excellent book Asylum.
The first thing that should be said about Asylum is that Darvill-Evans is a much better writer than he is a historian. It’s actually a relatively minor point within the book, but he goes out of his way to have the Doctor endorse a particular historical view of Roger Bacon in which he is not actually a meaningful figure in the history of science on the grounds that his overall worldview was insufficiently empiricist. I am not a medieval/renaissance scholar, and I am not going to wade too far into this debate, but Darvill-Evans’s view amounts to a variation on the idea that the rise of science was a light switch that got thrown somewhere in human history in which everybody became an empiricist.
And this is very clearly what Darvill-Evans does. He has the Doctor say that Nyssa’s thesis is inaccurate. Her thesis is explicitly that Bacon is a proto-scientist and that an understanding of the “dawning of the technological age” should extend back at least as far as him, as opposed to merely to the twentieth century or the Industrial Revolution. To say that is flatly untrue is, well, flatly untrue. Whether or not Bacon ought be called a “scientist” proper is beyond my expertise, but he clearly has an important place in the history of science.
This isn’t quite nitpicking, but it highlights an important point about the relationship between art and criticism. Darvill-Evans is a pretty good writer, all told. I mean, he’s not one of the greats of the English language, but as guys who writes books based on a ropey old cancelled sci-fi series go, he’s got some real game. He writes a good story. And we know for a fact he was a damn fine editor, because he edited the Virgin range, and those were massively transformative books for Doctor Who.
That said, his critical essay at the end of the book is… well, see, I don’t want to say rubbish. It’s not rubbish. What it is, however, is a good writer trying his hand at criticism and missing a bit. Because there is a relationship. If you can write a good novel, you know enough about how novels write to do decent criticism. If you can write a good piece of criticism, you can probably bash out a novel if called to. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same concept. They’re just closely related. Darvill-Evans writes an essay that is genuinely good for somebody who has no training in criticism, but it gets some basic stuff wrong. Then again, if I were to bash out a Doctor Who novel, I’d probably manage some staggeringly basic screw-ups too. They’re different skills.
So for example, you have in his little concluding essay the fact claim that “the fact that place names and even some buildings survive for centuries gives a misleading impression of continuity.” Well, no, it doesn’t. It gives a completely accurate impression of continuity – the fact that the present developed out of the past. What it gives a misleading impression of is stasis – the idea that the past is identical to the present, or that any given thing from it has survived. And so as a result he confuses “Roger Bacon is different from a contemporary scientist” with “Roger Bacon was not a predecessor to modern science.”
And here we have the rub. Darvill-Evans has a great book here, but he doesn’t quite have the know-how of theory and criticism needed to do the job he’s trying to do correctly. And so he gets that detail wrong. But what’s interesting is that he gets it wrong in a way that is largely incidental. It’s one specific detail he gets wrong in a book that has much larger ambitions and that ends up being a quite impressive commentary on and partial indictment of Doctor Who in 1976.
The comics writer Warren Ellis, for a while, knocked on fascinatingly about the idea of the unexploded bombs of the twentieth century – the unresolved detritus of history still recent enough to feel visceral but buried enough to feel forgotten. This phrase – unexplored bombs – necessarily has more power in the UK than in the US. In the UK, there is still the problem of literal unexploded bombs – mostly German-made ones from the war – lying around in places and waiting to maim or kill someone. This is the metaphor Ellis is going for – the lurking disasters of wars we thought were over. In this book, then, Darvill-Evans deals with the unexploded bombs 1970s Doctor Who – the Baker era most obviously, but also and significantly the Pertwee era.
The most obvious aspect of this is the Doctor/Companion pairing – the Doctor some four seasons before he meets Nyssa, and Nyssa from long after she parted company with the Doctor. This is a carefully chosen pairing. Baker’s Doctor and Nyssa go together, but just barely. But Nyssa at the end of her story really and in a fundamental sense doesn’t go with Baker’s Doctor. There’s one very simple reason for this: Adric.
So, not to spoil the big surprise or anything, but there’s this companion named Adric who shows up late in Baker’s run, and he bites the dust towards the end of Peter Davison’s last season in a big, moving episode with a silent credit sequence so that fans can properly hear the sound of their own delighted cackling. We’ll do a more even-handed treatment when we come to it, but this is significant in that he’s the only “proper” companion to die (Katarina and Sara both being marginal examples).
The thing is, Adric’s death couldn’t have happened in the Baker era. I mean, they thought about things like that – Leela, Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier were all, at various points, slated for demolition. But they never did, and there’s an obvious reason for that – Baker, like Pertwee, is leading man. The leading man role is defined by a certain invulnerability. All of the Doctors since Hartnell have been played as highly charismatic figures, but Baker and Pertwee take it further in a particular direction than anyone else. Their Doctors are not only charismatic but particularly unchanging and imperious – to the point where getting the Doctor dirty and having him shot at a bit was a big, transgressive moment. They are, in other words, safe.
This is violated occasionally, most particularly with Sarah’s manic reaction to going blind in The Brain of Morbius, but for the most part there’s not a frequent sense that real harm might come to the characters. Even when Sarah complains about her circumstances, she never quite complains about the danger, instead saying “I’m sick of being cold and wet, and hypnotised left right and centre. I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been.” She’s annoyed, not scared.
In other words, what you have here is a Doctor who genuinely doesn’t believe that any harm can come to his companions and a companion who knows better. Or, to put it another way, a companion who desperately wants to find somewhere safe and a Doctor who has no understanding of how bad he is at providing it. This, in turn, is laid against an interesting plot for the novel as a whole. The novel consists of two prologues, seven chapters, and an epilogue. All of the overtly science fiction content takes place in the prologues and epilogues. The middle section could, for all practical purposes, be a historical in the classic Hartnell tradition.
In the prologues and epilogue, however, we get a story about alien refugees who, in a desperate bid to survive, send one of their number back in time to try to get Roger Bacon, the nearest thing to a scientist they can find, to whip up a decent elixir of life for them. The events of the middle section are caused by this, but the actual causes don’t ever infiltrate the Doctor’s consciousness. For all the Doctor knows, he’s having a historical adventure, albeit one caused by something futzing with history.
The result is a rarity in Doctor Who stories – a story where the reader knows far more than the Doctor does throughout the story. The Doctor never encounters the aliens. Which means he never saves them either. They fail – not because of the Doctor as such (their plan would never have worked), but in a way related to him. He drops into their world, stops their scheme, and leaves without realizing they’re there or helping them. He misses this material suffering, and the worst part is, he doesn’t even look for it, instead treating all suffering that happens in the past as necessary and thus not worth looking at or thinking seriously about.
Taken in parallel with the book’s dismissal of Bacon this begins to look like an attack on the “great man” theory of history. This theory is itself something of an unexploded bomb – discredited among scholars and seemingly immortal among the laity. Its main point is pretty much what it says on the tin – that historical progress comes from the intervention of “great men” – called “heroes” in the original formulation – at key moments. Attached to this is a sense of an objective history that is described externally – as a narrative with convenient main characters, as opposed to as a subjective, messy narrative comprised of memories and conflicts. “Great man” history, in practice, is usually nothing more than a tool to erase marginal perspectives from history in favor of a perspective that is not even that of the dominant culture, but a perspective specifically of those with power within that culture. And I’ll go one further and suggest that the view of the Time Lords as all-powerful technocrats overseeing history embraced by fandom is inexorably linked to the flaws of “great man” history.
To be fair, in 1976, Doctor Who cannot help endorsing great man theory for a simple reason – it’s a show abut a hero who goes around intervening in key moments of history all the time. This is, philosophically, a real problem. And the solution, such as it is, is eventually to raise larger ethical questions about the Doctor – to ask if, in fact, he is a great man driving forward the engine of history or whether he’s a figure of destruction and calamity. The split of Nyssa and the Doctor being from opposite ends of Adric’s death is, ultimately, about this. We have a Doctor who is unambiguously a Great Man, and a companion who knows unambiguously that he’s not, at least in the capital-letter sense of that phrase.
But what Darvill-Evans misses the opportunity to do by misunderstanding Bacon is to argue for an alternative model to this formulation. He misses the opportunity to show that even if the great man model is flawed, there’s still a sense of historical development that comes out of the everyday messiness of human behavior. The result is a book that delivers an effective critique, but that doesn’t have anything left in the tank when its done beyond a variation on Terry Nation’s appallingly cliche “the only alternative to living is dying” sentiment from Death to the Daleks. Whereas a book that had taken Bacon’s transitional role in the development of science seriously while still showing the failures of treating him as the forefather of science, and in which the Doctor’s didactic monologue had reflected this complexity instead of essentially bullying Nyssa with an “I’m a better interpreter of history than you” monologue would have, in every regard, been better than this.
But the problem is ultimately one of insufficient theory. Darvill-Evans is playing with the right set of ideas, but ultimately doesn’t quite know them enough to build them into the story he wants to tell. The result is a story that shows us a lot of problems with how the show was handling history and heroism in 1976, but that doesn’t quite manage to move beyond them. But in the end, there’s only so much one can criticize a Doctor Who book with a past Doctor for failing to transcend the limitations of the show that existed in the era it was set in. Yes, Darvill doesn’t quite show how to get from Doctor Who’s frustrating reliance on great man history to a suitably messy and materialist view of the world. But then again, we’re not going to solve that problem completely any time on the show soon either.
November 14, 2011 @ 4:50 am
I love your blog, but you’re really got to stop using “Big-Ass Science”. It’s not funny, and drags the tone of the blog way down. Since there are already terms like “Scientism” to describe the viewpoint you’re critiquing, I don’t know what the point is in inventing a new term. It almost seems like an attempt to avoid criticism, since nobody’s going to come to the defense of something called “Big-Ass Science”. And maybe I have a short memory, but I don’t think you’ve given demeaning labels to any of the other positions you’ve critiqued. It just sticks out like a sore thumb and seems like something lifted from a significantly worse blog.
November 14, 2011 @ 5:01 am
Demeaning labels? No. Utter and bitchy swipes at positions I'm attacking? Oh, frequently. And as I think I've noted, I kind of loathe the term "scientism," largely because a practitioner of scientism would be a scientist, and that creates a deeply unhelpful ambiguity. "Scientism" lends excessive legitimacy to a position characterized by profound intellectual laziness. This is a position I am sufficiently disdainful of to want to lend not even a basic modicum of respect. It is a position I consider no better than homeopathy, religious fundamentalism, and the belief that The Twin Dilemma is remotely watchable.
November 14, 2011 @ 5:39 am
I don't mind the "big ass" phrase although it's Americocentric – "arse", surely? A big arse is a material fact. I look forward to Big Arse Conservatism. I don't think one should ever accuse anyone of laziness. There's no such thing IMO, and that's why I do have some respect for homoeopathy and religious fundamentalism. They are often last ditch holding positions, and it may be that their adherents see a little further than the sceptics, at least in terms of the disasters engineered by doubt, choice and reliance on an"evidence base".
That's three characteristic British spellings in eight lines. A victory for the little country!
November 14, 2011 @ 5:40 am
I use American spellings as a sort of hair shirt to continually remind myself that I am in the inferior of the two countries.
November 14, 2011 @ 5:42 am
I've really, really, really tried to steer clear of this, but…Philip, could you explain a little more about what you mean by "Big-Ass Science" and maybe identify some people you think of as practicing it? Sokal, I guess? I'm having a hard time figuring out what exactly the ideology is that you're dismissing, since "scientism" is…not as far as I can tell any kind of meaningful force in the world of science. I admit I could be missing something. Which is why I ask.
November 14, 2011 @ 5:44 am
All was lost when the Brits became too lazy to write "shew" and "oeconomics".
November 14, 2011 @ 5:46 am
Normally, I hate being the dorky commenter who corrects typos, but you have it written that Adric dies in Davison's last season instead of his first.
Thankfully, the viewers didn't have to suffer through him for that long.
November 14, 2011 @ 6:07 am
Re: Ass vs Arse: "Ass" provides the additional connotation of the wrongheaded stubbornness of equus africanus asinus. Perhaps this is even its first meaning.
November 14, 2011 @ 6:23 am
Yeah, I also find the "Big-Ass Science" thing silly, juvenile and basically twattish.
I'm also unclear about exactly what it's supposed to represent. You've mentioned Sokal: I haven't read a great deal of his stuff, so maybe I'm simply ignorant, but what I have read was essentially mocking people who misuse scientific terminology that they clearly don't understand, not mocking the idea that there might be anything worthwhile other than science.
It's possible that I just disagree with you about the philosophy of science – I won't know unless you clarify what it is you're criticising. That's fair enough. But the twattishness of "Big-Ass Science" is enough to sour the experience of an otherwise excellent blog, and does actively put me off spending money on the otherwise very tempting book version.
November 14, 2011 @ 6:24 am
But what do Americans call asses? "You ass!" is a nice, Bunterish phrase. It's not nice to mingle it with the image of bottoms. "Ass" seems slinkier, but "arse" has more of a weight to it, a grossness and materiality, like an earthenware waterjug.
November 14, 2011 @ 6:25 am
Fair question, and I've already mentally tagged "OK, Phil, what the $*@! do you mean by Big-Ass Science" as a side essay for the Tom Baker volume. 🙂
First of a ll, I do think there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between Big-Ass Science and scientism – it's roughly the same distinction that can be drawn between a republic and republicanism (small-r there). Big-Ass Science is not merely an ideological position but a cluster of institutional practices stemming from an ideological position. (Or, rather, a cluster of similar ideological positions, this not being a doctrine as such)
Ideologically, I would describe the position as not merely endorsing the validity of science but asserting that scientific and empirical approaches are superior approaches in all cases, or that they are the sole source of any truth. Sokal is the one I take the dimmest view of because he explicitly takes as premises some truly deplorable claims – most notably his assertion that the only possible purpose for a metaphor is to clarify a less familiar concept with a more familiar concept. (Yes. He really said this. And thousands of science-sympathizing people took him seriously and dismissed postmodernism on his say-so.) But there are other examples – the evangelical atheism of the Richard Dawkins crowd is telling in this regard. (And Dawkins has written in support of Sokal.) The folks at Less Wrong are not exclusively guilty of being Big-Ass Scientists, but they are largely guilty in their insane quest to render all ambiguity subject to concrete measurement.
But there are also broader institutional practices – the insistence on trying to reduce humanities curriculums to that which can be judged by standardized tests, for instance, or the general insistence that the sciences are inherently more worthy of institutional funding and support than the humanities – reflect the same trends.
By and large, the "science" of Big-Ass Science is wholly misplaced. As I said in the Deadly Assassin entry, Popper, still by and large the best philosophy of science running, has no objection whatsoever to metaphysical positions except when they falsely present themselves as science. Big-Ass Science is really overt hostility to the arts and humanities that dresses in science's clothes to provide itself with legitimacy.
All of this is, of course, helped on by the humanities at times stubborn unwillingness to defend itself effectively. The so-called "science wars" were characterized by appalling misrepresentations of the humanities by scientists, but also by an equally appalling failure of the humanities to provide any defense of themselves more effective than "shut up." We declined to explain ourselves, in part because too many humanities scholars were embracing positions they didn't actually understand well enough to explain. As a result, plenty of well-meaning people fall into an unknowing support for the material practices of Big-Ass Science simply because they genuinely don't realize that the humanities aren't just a bunch of insane relativists who disbelieve science. And this is still a problem with the humanities.
But on the other hand, effectively defending the epistemological validity of postmodernism isn't all that the humanities need to do. They also need to attack the epistemological validity of the anti-humanities position. And I find the term "Big-Ass Science" effective in this because it makes it clear the degree to which this position is a loathsome and toxic one that is unworthy of basic respect, especially given its refusal to treat the humanities with any.
November 14, 2011 @ 6:45 am
Tom Watts, you said ""Ass" seems slinkier, but "arse" has more of a weight to it, a grossness and materiality, like an earthenware waterjug."
I can't help reading this as a loving paean to arses. Someone ought to print this on Valentine's Day cards.
November 14, 2011 @ 7:00 am
From memory, so I don't promise complete accuracy:
Martin Heidegger: "I was talking to some doctors, and we were discussing "sight". I told them that we don't see because we have eyes; we have eyes because we can see".
Dr Smith: "That's the sort of remark that's certainly going to wind up a bunch of doctors".
Heidegger's line of thought can also be applied to say, "pain" – we don't feel pain because we have nerves and a nervous system; we have these because we feel pain. Etc.
I like this remark because, while from a scientist's point of view it may be the most outrageous nonsense, it does shew how philosophers and theorists are working from a completely separate departure point, which may be entirely outside the "scientific" one. Heidegger is questioning the "isness" of sight, and supposing that its Being has to be more originary than the mere mechanisms that appear to produce it.
I'd say that scientism was the kind of thinking which rejects and considers meaningless Heidegger's kind of thinking. I give it as an example in distinction to the usual Lacanian algebraical gibberish which to outsiders looks the same on the page as peer-reviewed pure mathematical gibberish.
It's possible to argue that Science is just an extension of counting, and that once you've understood the number line, that's more or less all you're ever going to learn. I would take slight issue with Phil on the compatibility of either way of thinking about the world. There is immense potential for hostility – for example at science for its part in mechanization and the mass-manufacture of death, and at literary academia for its often unacknowledged dependence on scientific and material progress.
November 14, 2011 @ 7:02 am
By the way, thank you Wm you are right. To be honest I've been watching La Bestia Uccide a Sangue Freddo on youtube, and Fernando di Leo's dream-like sleaze has been infecting my imagination.
November 14, 2011 @ 8:06 am
Hi, first I would just like to say that I've been reading this blog for a couple of months (thanks to a reference from Balloon Juice), and I've enjoyed it a lot, even though my Doctor Who knowledge is rusty, having drifted away in the later Peter Davidson years and just come back for Matt Smith. In interest of full disclosure, the first Doctor I watched was Pertwee and the first story, Inferno. So I don't care what you said about that story, it will always be one of my favorites!
But more seriously, I was wondering if you have ever read any of Ken Wilber books, who has a similar position to your Big-Ass Science, but he calls the problem "Flatland". All exterior, no interiors, anything measurable in some way is valid, anything not measurable (like metaphors, symbols)isn't. As I read you, his work keeps coming to mind so I was wondering. Thanks!
November 14, 2011 @ 8:43 am
"Martin Heidegger: "I was talking to some doctors, and we were discussing "sight". I told them that we don't see because we have eyes; we have eyes because we can see"."
Although from an evolutionary biology point of view, eyes and sight have co-evolved over millions of years – (probably) from rudimentary patches of light sensitive skin to the complex organs of modern animals, and in turn the specialised neural areas required to produce sense from them. Advances in each require advances in the other. We have sight because our environment is frequently flooded with huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation in a particular band, and it is considerably advantageous to any creature that can adapt to make use of it. Eyes and sight are so useful they have evolved independently many times.
I don't really know enough about Bacon to make informed comments about him, but even if we consider him to be a scientist, he wasn't the first. Ibn al-Haytham (965CE – 1040CE) is often considered the pioneer of the scientific method – in his Optics he proved by a series of experiments designed to rule out alternatives that light travels in straight lines and that sight works by light entering the eye.
November 14, 2011 @ 9:06 am
Electric Dragon – you're right of course, but from Heidegger's point of view, all that explanation is mere information, the product of calculation and mathematical logic. Its scientific origin is, from his perspective, of no relevance to the isness of seeing. I'm reminded of that DH Lawrence poem, "Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes water and nobody knows what that is". That third thing is what the phenomenologists are trying to find a language for.
September 23, 2021 @ 12:30 pm
November 14, 2011 @ 11:26 am
First of all, great dissection of the Big Man Theory of science and history: That's my hugest problem with the Tom Baker era; that it consistently and unwaveringly supports that position. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one annoyed by it. I also liked how you dovetailed it into another look at The Doctor as the Leading Man-While some Doctors are good at deconstructing the trappings of the role, I've always felt it best that the character avoid getting anywhere near it in general.
Secondly, I have no problem with your usage of the term Big Ass Science: I think it perfectly encapsulates the position you're critiquing and lightens the tone of the weblog sufficiently. It's never good to get too wordy, serious and stuffy! That said, I can't believe we've spent 17 comments analysing the etymology of the word "ass". That's why you have to love places like this I suppose!
However, I do have to part from you on one critical point. I soundly disagree that Karl Popper has the last word on philosophy of science. Science studies is my area of expertise and while he may not be as bad as some make him out to be, I would never, ever say he has the best conceptualization. I find Popper extremely limited, restrictive and reductive and tend to fight for a more nuanced approach. I much prefer Ludwig Fleck's concept of the Denkkollektiv, which explains how scientific theories come to be and change over time, and Donna Haraway's narrative, techno-social cyborgs, hybridzed identities and chronotopes. Actually, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned Haraway yet as I think she'd provide a very useful lens to look at things like "The Tenth Planet", "The Mind Robber" and Jo Grant.
Overall though solid analysis as always and very much looking forward to "The Face of Evil" and "Robots of Death". I've been chomping at the bit to sink my teeth into those for quite some time now!
November 14, 2011 @ 11:34 am
"That third thing is what the phenomenologists are trying to find a language for."
I sometimes like to explain the point as follows: "Constitutive conditions for any X determine WHAT X is, while enabling conditions are the underlying factors that make X's realisation possible in specific circumstances. For example, chemistry can tell us what texture and composition a given material must have in order to maintain a cubical shape at a given temperature, and so in one sense tells us what 'makes' something a cube; yet this does not make cubicality a chemical property. It is geometry, not chemistry, that tells us what is to count as a cube, and in this task it places no reliance on empirical data; geometry sets the criteria for cubicality (the constitutive conditions), and chemistry then investigates how to meet those criteria (the enabling conditions). One is a geometrical question, the other a physical one. (Compare the relation of praxeology to thymology/psychology in Austrian economics.)
In the same way, neurobiology is concerned with the enabling conditions of mind, but philosophy is concerned with mind's constitutive conditions; each investigates what 'makes' something a mind, but in entirely different ways. Questions about constitutive conditions are logically prior to questions about enabling conditions; one first has to know WHAT something is before one can meaningfully investigate what makes it possible. But the reverse does not hold. Just as the geometer does not need to rely on chemistry in investigating cubicality, the philosopher does not need to rely on neurobiology in investigating the mind; the sorts of questions the philosopher is interested in thus do not depend on neurobiology for their answers. We are in EXACTLY as good a position today to investigate the philosophical problem of mind as Plato, Augustine, and Descartes were — no better and no worse. The neurobiological investigation of mind, by contrast, although it must be informed by philosophy (just as the chemist needs to consult the geometer to learn cubicality's constitutive conditions), is not a philosophical enterprise at all. Philosophy is concerned with conceptual questions, not empirical ones; hence the idea of philosophy as 'queen of the sciences' is no mere mediaeval prejudice, but simply a clear recognition of the logical priority involved."
More here: http://praxeology.net/unblog11-04.htm#17
November 14, 2011 @ 11:37 am
"a practitioner of scientism would be a scientist"
Fair point, but there is philosophical precedent for such linguistic oddity. A practitioner of psychologism isn't a psychologist, for example. (And I'm pretty sure the term "scientism" was coined with the precedent of "psychologism" in mind.) I like to use the terms "scientism" and "psychologism" for the positions I oppose precisely because doing so signals my position's linkage to the long and honourable tradition of thinkers calling their projects "anti-scientism" and "anti-psychologism."
"'Scientism' lends excessive legitimacy"
Does it really? After all, it's a pejorative term (again like psychologism); no one calls their own position that.
"Popper, still by and large the best philosophy of science running"
Popper's actually still way too scientistic for me. If one takes on the theory-laden-observation material in Kuhn, ditches the quasi-relativistic metaphysical and epistemological conclusions Kuhn tries to draw from it, puts in their place the kind of scientific realist arguments that draw on Putnam and Kripke, and then wraps the whole package up in yummy Wittgensteinian/Hayekian ribbons to prevent the scientific realism from getting too big in the ass, you get an approach to philosophy of science I find a lot more promising than Popper.
"nobody's going to come to the defense of something called 'Big-Ass Science'."
Does "Fat bottom science, you make the rockin' world go round" count?
November 14, 2011 @ 11:50 am
I'm another person who doesn't think that using the clearly derogatory term "Big-Ass Science" lowers the tone. But then I am Australian, so I don't flamin' well think any language lowers the bloody tone. Mate.
I also had a big problem with Dawkins' The God Delusion – specifically when he admitted about two chapters in that the the only purely rational position on the subject of religion was "Permanent Agnosticism on Principle", because fundamentally the position of a god can never be proven or disproven. he then, of course went on to write the rest of a quite lengthy book arguing furiously that this position was some sort of wishy-washy middle ground, and that we should be more hard-line about the topic, and go hard for all out atheism on principle.
That principle would see to be "to ignore the most logical Principle, previously outlined".
Personally – yes, I am an atheist – I think that Scientismists, or Big-Ass Scienceists are ridiculous. They are falling into the same logical trap that they purport to abhor in others.
When a Creationist argues "You should teach the seven-day creation of the world in science class, because It's The Truth." my response is always: "I don't care about The Truth. That's not what science is about."
I don't however, dismiss the idea of Truth, or finding it, and meaning or enlightenment, in avenues of thought other than science. Religion is a common place people look, but I would recommend Philosophy, History, and Art as other excellent venues for that exploration.
In fact, technically speaking (which the Big-Assed Scientismists should like) Science is exactly the wrong place to look for truth. Look there for a big list of falsifiables. Which is an excellent place to start if you are building a bridge, or trying to stop global warming.
But it's a bad place to start if you want to learn anything about being a human, as experienced by seven billion of your peers.
November 14, 2011 @ 12:05 pm
OK, I think I get where you're coming from with "Big-Ass Science", though I still dislike the term. I do wonder why you have such a bee in your bonnet about it, though. It just all seems so 1990s. You must have been in high school at the time of the Sokal hoax, pretty much the high watermark of the science wars. (I was a postgrad, and I have to say that, at the time, it was hilarious.) All this institutional science-v-humanities stuff seems a bit like people still banging on about how Blur are better than Oasis.
The real threat to the humanities these days is not Big-Ass Science, it's Big-Ass Economics. A view in governments that we need to prioritise investment in activities that promote economic growth (which is fair enough), coupled with a view that the humanities do not contribute significantly to economic growth (which is blatantly false) and an apparent failure by humanities departments to make their case to funding bodies (which is entirely their own fault, if a tragedy for their junior members).
Of course, not all humanities departments are failing in this way. I've seen some exciting, imaginative and even heroic innovations in the humanities, particularly the digital humanities – but I'm also aware of a lot of hidebound practices and attachment to outmoded funding models. I'm not singling out any particular institution or department here, just a general culture in many parts of the humanities.
I would say that if people working in the humanities see science – Big-Ass or otherwise – as the main threat and not a narrow and blinkered economic establishment then they are in grave danger of not working in the humanities for much longer.
(I would note also that narrow-minded economics also threatens a lot of science as well. Just because a particle accelerator gets megabucks doesn't mean all is rosy in the sciences, far from it.)
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
November 14, 2011 @ 1:01 pm
The term Big-Ass Science is wonderful, your usage of it should never go away.
@Iain Coleman Amusingly, the problem with Big-Ass Economics is that it started to treat itself as a science rather than an area of the humanities. Just watch the pundits on television who go on and on about "The Economy" and what "Economists" say as though there was some kind of physical object in the natural world called "An Economy" that we'd bent to our will and used for all time. Currency, economies, mortgages – all of these are abstract concepts created out of human interaction. The "laws of economics" have nothing to do the laws of thermodynamics, we made them up to fit our own behavior. The "profit motive" only exists in societies structured to see it.
November 14, 2011 @ 1:59 pm
Actually I think the laws of economics are much more secure than the laws of thermodynamics, because they're conceptual truths rather than empirical truths. But I agree that they apply only in societies that have the institutions and practices defined in those laws.
November 14, 2011 @ 7:14 pm
Well, given that Blogger just ate my lengthy comment in which I responded to most of these points…
I've really enjoyed reading this discussion. I mean, I enjoy most of the comments threads, but this one has been a particular treat. Very, very briefly then:
I like Popper as a model of how science should be done. As a sociology or history of science, he's… well, not one, mainly.
The Heidgger quote is a great one. I'm reminded of Alan Moore's more mystical formation: "Through us, matter stares slack-jawed at its own star-dusted countenance and knows, incredulously, that it knows."
Ibn al-Haytham is one of many people who would have been valid choices for pre-Bacon science, though to be fair Asylum merely has Nyssa moving the known origin date of science back as opposed to asserting an absolute origin. While Doctor Who would be a better show if it did more historicals with figures like Ibn al-Haytham, the use of Bacon fits squarely in the larger tradition of its focus on British history.
November 15, 2011 @ 12:31 am
Tom Watts, re Arse: Following discussion with Mrs Wm Keith, I should like to refine the terminology and substitute "delftware" for "earthenware". This allows for a base earthiness as well as a tactile glossiness. Empirical data suggests that the use of "Big-Arse" in this context is unhelpful.
November 15, 2011 @ 2:13 am
Interesting. Of course Tom Baker is an arse man, as witnessed by those visitors to the National Gallery who had to listen to him orotunding on the arse of ?Venus in a Velasquez. So no one can say we're not keeping on topic. Delftware is a legitimate substitution, although for me it privileges smoothness, or coolth, over shape, and I was thinking really of a Cretan pithos, half standing-height and without handles, or of a Cambodian cement water pot, which every Cambodian family keep under their floorboards.
November 15, 2011 @ 8:12 am
I appreciate you explaining more about what you mean by "Big-Ass Science" and giving examples of people you think it describes. I'm probably never going to come around to the term, but I can at least understand your reasons for using it a little better now. Still, you've mentioned it being a strong current in Doctor Who fandom, and I'd be interested in seeing an example, akin to the old fanzine review you critiqued in your Deadly Assassin post. I don't doubt that there are such people, but I don't have much exposure to the fandom as a whole, so your comments on the subject come off a little abstract to me. It'd help to see what you feel the need to be so catty about ;p. And in general I think critiques are always better when they work from specific examples. Otherwise it can be easy to slip into "Group X thinks Y" style strawmanism.
But so anyway, I really do like your blog; I'd hate to come across as overly negative because so far I've only pointed out things I didn't like. While I don't always agree with what you argue, I think you almost always make your argument very well (that's why this "Big-Ass" stuff feels like such a step down). However, I lack firsthand experience with most of this era of the show, and any of the tie-in books, so I never have much to add in terms of your ideas on the specific stories. Keep up the good work!
November 15, 2011 @ 11:20 am
Richard Dawkins being one of the few people who remembers the stars (in "The Big Bang") does seem to be some kind of endorsement.
November 15, 2011 @ 1:43 pm
Of course modern Doctor Who likes Dawkins–the show is explicitly atheistic. God died in the Time War.
Seriously though, regardless of how one feels about Big-Ass Science, I think one can make a very, very strong case that Doctor Who becomes atheist propaganda during the Hinchcliffe era and stays that way forever. I wouldn't say that pre-Hinchcliffe Who is atheist propaganda; it's only grafted onto the show's DNA around season 13, but the graft takes.
I don't mean that, within the narrative, the show denies that gods exist–there are gods all over the place! What I do mean is that the show leaves no room within its narrative for anything resembling any kind of personal interventionary god that anyone could possibly care about or worship–that is, the show is atheist in the same way Dawkins is atheist.
I don't want to clog up all our Internet tubes with an extended rant, so I'll just give the bullet points.
1. While Pertwee's Doctor was notably deferential towards Azal and Kronos, Baker's Doctor is firmly convinced that higher beings should not use their power to manipulate mortals. Baker's Doctor would never approve of an interventionary God, leading to…
2. As of season 13, "god-killer" becomes an official part of the Doctor's job description. If an intervening deity did exist, the Doctor would destroy it.
3. "But what about the White Guardian," you ask? He's the nearest thing the show ever presents to a "God" in the devout sense, and the Doctor, it's true, does not destroy him. But…The White Guardian is a jerk. Only a moral abomination would disguise a segment of the Key to Time as a living sentient person! The Doctor certainly thinks so and does not stand for it. Plus…
4. At the end of the Key to Time saga, the Doctor achieves literal apotheosis and makes the Guardians look frankly pathetic. After the Doctor gains absolute power over every aspect of reality and spanks the Guardians so thoroughly that they never again play any cosmological role in the series, it's impossible to take seriously the idea that there's any kind of meaningful divine force out there in this narrative universe. Because we already had one. And it was the Doctor. And he gave it up. If the Doctor doesn't trust himself with that kind of power, do you think he'd let any other entity have it? Plus…
5. What is there left for a god to do, in a universe that has the Doctor running around in it? Again, it's only with Baker's Doctor that this pops up, the first Doctor who we're so convinced can do anything that you can even believe he can fly…
November 15, 2011 @ 1:46 pm
I think it's a tough claim that a show that has explicitly validated the existence of deities from numerous pantheons is atheist. Pro-apotheosis, sure. But atheist? Clearly not.
November 15, 2011 @ 2:43 pm
Sorry, jumping into the party late with a pretty minor point, but Darvill Evans a good writer? I know you've read Deceit, and I would hesitate to claim that anyone who wrote Deceit is a good writer.
Saying that, I would heartily agree with you that he's a wonderful editor, and the Doctor Who world would be a dark place without his contribution.
November 15, 2011 @ 2:44 pm
I haven't read Deceit in years, though don't remember hating it as much at the time as everyone else did. But more to the point, even if Deceit is irredeemable crap (and we'll find out when we get to it), by that logic isn't Robert Holmes a bad writer due to The Space Pirates?
November 15, 2011 @ 4:01 pm
So, I haven't seen Space Pirates, but I'm sure it's better than Deceit. Plus, I've heard Independence Day is terrible too, so an output of 2/3 crap isn't great. But I also think there's a difference between a bad story and a badly written story. And even a bad Paul Cornell book or a bad Robert Holmes episode isn't badly written. In my opinion, usually an author is pretty consistent on how well written their stuff is. Sometimes a poor writer will come up with a great book (Sanctuary, for instance), but a great book does not make a good writer. And, from my experience with Deceit, Darvill-Evans is not a strong writer, though I can certainly see from Deceit how he might be capable of alright books.
November 15, 2011 @ 4:09 pm
I'm really just not willing to sign up for the logic that one's first book can serve to create a prima facie case that the author is not good, or that a single misfire of any level of disaster invalidates the quality of one's entire career. That just seems far, far too harsh on authors.
Also, I think calling McIntee a "poor writer" is a bit harsh. 🙂
November 15, 2011 @ 10:14 pm
That's fair, I am being unnecessarily harsh on McIntee. I should say that I personally find his prose style hard to get through, and that even though I personally don't care for his prose style, Sanctuary is a massive success despite that. It's probably not fair to call him a fair writer just because I personally do not care for his prose style.
I guess I'm coming from the side that given his prose style, ability to pace, unsubtle use of sexuality, and so-so characterisation found in Deceit, I would be very surprised if his further books made a massive improvement. In contrast to, say, Lawrence Miles, whose first book was also a dud, but whose prose style, handle on characters, and thematic content was such that it was no surprise his followups would be some of the best writing I've read.
November 16, 2011 @ 2:57 am
I think it's a tough claim that a show that has explicitly validated the existence of deities from numerous pantheons is atheist
What deities has Doctor Who validated? I can think of several occasions when it has revealed such to be in fact alien beings of immense power a la Sutekh, but that's kind of the opposite of 'validating' them as deities: it's explicitly denying their divine status.
And aren't they almost all pre-season 13 too?
I must say I think Happypants PhD makes a strong case for a change in direction of that nature at this point in the series.
Of course, there's two distinct but related forms of atheism here (conveniently Dawkins embodies both)): the first is 'God doesn't exist because He's empirically unfalsifiable and by definition anything that's empirically unfalsifiable doesn't exist', which is the overreaching empiricism of Science! that we've discussed previously. That's clearly Douglas Adams's view and that can't help but come through, though it never quite takes over the programme and after Adams leaves it fades (you can't be uber-empiricist when one of your major influences is Alan Moore, after all).
(Of course, as pointed out, it then comes back with a vengeance in the new series and becomes part of the furniture right from the banning of religion on Platform One).
The second is, 'Even if the Christian God did exist we'd be wrong to worship Him because worshipping anyone is Wrong.' Here the criticism comes not so much from the idea that only the empirically falsifiable can be objectively true, but from the opposite direction of de-privileging the status of objective truth, or at least of epistemic routes to objective truth. The idea that the most important thing in the world is to go your own path, to find your own truth. To 'go forward in all your beliefs' simply because they are yours.
As that implies, this has been a part of Doctor Who form the very beginning (it's about a lone eccentric inventor, for goodness' sake!) but it becomes stronger with time: the early Doctors do admit the existence of authority (the second Doctor defers to the authority of the Time Lords even as he disagrees with their use of it; he mounts a defence of himself in his trial, implicitly recognising the court, whereas you get the impression that the fourth Doctor would simply have pulled a Milosevic and denied the Time Lords had any right to judge him at all).
It's the third Doctor who first gives the impression of recognising no higher authority than himself, and the fourth Doctor, in stories like the two that bracket this book's claimed position, who makes it explicit. And it's a thread that continues right up to the end (partly because it's very difficult to have Alan Moore as one of your main influences and not subscribe to it): even as the Doctor becomes more vulnerable, and less of a universal colossus bestriding the universe than Tom Baker, he still retains his privileging of the individual experience any attempt to assert authority gets his back up in a way that it simply didn't for the first six seasons.
After this there's no such thing in Doctor Who as rightful authority: the very act of asserting authority is a mark of evil, or at best extreme universe-negating insane incompetence (Four to Doomsday).
November 16, 2011 @ 3:22 am
And then there's that yay-Christians scene in The Romans…
November 16, 2011 @ 6:14 am
In The Curse of Fenric there's a strong suggestion that the Doctor himself might be the God-figure who fought it out with Fenric's Satan-figure at the beginning of time. And of course the idea that the Doctor might be God was played around with behind the scenes in Silver Nemesis.
In other news, there' a long tradition of regarding God as a principe rather than a person — which makes worshipping it less problematic.
November 16, 2011 @ 11:19 am
Late to the party (thanks to blogger freezing me out of the blog), so a couple of things:
Firstly, that's by far the most positive review of Asylum (and assessment of Darvill-Evans' Who novels as a whole) that I've come across. I'm also wondering how the fact that the novel is clearly inspired by the Brother Cadfael books/TV Series plays into your reading of the story. I've never read the books, and not see the series since it aired in the 90s, so I can't recall how it fitted with the themes.
Secondly, the distinction you draw between scientism and Big Ass Science seems to me to be one between ideology (scientism is "simply belief") and religion (scientism is "belief put into some kind of practice"). And your reason for rejecting the term scientism comes across as pretty lame (you don't like the way it adjectivises).
Interesting analysis from the commenter who said that Doctor Who took an explicitly atheist stand. I have to say that I didn't notice that before, and that it doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the franchise, despite being a Christian. Mind you, it doesn't carry through to stories in all media. The DWM comic strip epic The Glorious Dead goes and establishes a God in (more-or-less) the traditional (Judeo-Christian) sense, for example.
The show's individualist morality is another interesting point to bring up, though I won't go into my issues with individualism here. I'll just point out that individualism (alongside consumerism) is one of the major defining features of today's Western culture from both an historical and a global perspective. So it's hardly a surprising morality for Doctor Who to take on.
November 16, 2011 @ 11:41 am
Just for the record–since I love this blog and don't want to give the impression that I'm actively hostile to what goes on here–although I would stand by my claim that Doctor Who is atheist (in the appropriately-qualified way), now that I have a better idea of what is meant, I wouldn't say that Doctor Who supports the "Big-Ass Science" view Philip describes, nor would I say Doctor Who is ever hostile to the individual mystical experience. Doctor Who atheism is like Carl Sagan atheism: differing from a romantic scientific pantheism only in semantics. Anti-religious, but still Hermetic. Giordano Bruno and Alan Moore belong in this narrative universe; the guy who writes "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" does not.
December 6, 2011 @ 5:51 am
What deities has Doctor Who validated? I can think of several occasions when it has revealed such to be in fact alien beings of immense power a la Sutekh, but that's kind of the opposite of 'validating' them as deities: it's explicitly denying their divine status.
+1 to this. A god that's simply a big monster isn't a god.
I can't believe we've got this far into the thread without mentioning that Face of Evil was originally called The Day God Went Mad.
However, I don't think the turn to atheism is as strong as Dr Happypants is suggesting. In the Hinchcliffe era we're past the time of the soft supernatural benevolence of the Buddhist years, explored particularly in Planet of the Spiders but also visible in Kronos the Time Monster; but The Daemons is pretty atheistic and the Malcolm Hulke stories are full of, as you say, science vicars. Likewise, after the Hinchcliffe era we have not just the Guardians (who are more mystical in their T Baker appearance than in their Davison appearance) but the Keeper of Traken, the people of Logopolis, and Castrovalva called into existence from imagination, as well as the Immortals of Enlightenment. (We also have the Gods of Ragnarok, who are the only ones in this sequence explicitly called gods and so are obviously monsters and don't count). Bidmead would probably hate to think of Logopolis and Castrovalva as theistic, but the stories are very much about a sense of wonder in front of the infinite and steeped with a countercultural mysticism that's as close as you can come to religion in a show that clearly can't endorse any specific religion that actually exists.
October 10, 2013 @ 8:44 am
Just as a datapoint, I have to say that before I read this explanation, I considered Big Ass Science a rather fun phrase which I would have cheefully used as a self-deprecating term ("Yeah, I can get a bit Big-Ass Science about that…")
Sciencism, on the other, hand, makes me bristle, because I don't consider my Big Ass Science tendencies to be an ideological position.
November 30, 2013 @ 6:16 am
" with a silent credit sequence so that fans can properly hear the sound of their own delighted cackling."
That would be myself and my friends, who were, being in our early teens, the precise audience the existence of Adric was targeted at. We hated that fucker so much.
November 30, 2013 @ 9:52 am
Whereas my Relevant Childhood Doctor Who Friend was the one person in the world for whom Adric worked as intended. She bawled her eyes out when he died.
June 26, 2014 @ 9:38 pm
I've got to say, growing up in America, any time I've heard someone use the word "arse" it was treated as a comedic affair, whereas "ass" would generally – but not always – indicate something more serious, such as anger.