Government Distorts Risk Assessment

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey C. Kabat, who is also the author of Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology has written an excellent and thought-provoking, but mis-titled column at Forbes on "How Activism Distorts the Assessment of Health Risks".

Kabat identifies many things wrong with how the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluates the cancer-causing potential of chemicals and products, such as cell phones.

All three of these flaws came together in IARC's assessment of cell phones: undue emphasis on a small number of positive epidemiologic studies from a single group, when the much larger body of studies indicated no elevated risk; the improper influence of an activist researcher (the lead author of the anomalous positive studies) on the deliberations of the working group; and, finally, a tilt toward the "precautionary principle." [link in original]
Kabat goes on to note the influence of the IARC on how government agencies with coercive regulatory power decide which substances or products to control or ban, and says the following:
What these distortions and abuses make clear is the need for a firewall between advocacy and science.
This is half-right and half-wrong. It is not advocacy, per se, that is the threat here, but the fact that government agencies can force others to comply with the conclusions -- mistaken or not -- that advocates for one scientific position or another hold. In fact, Kabat's evidence helps make a compelling case for the separation of science and state. Unfortunately, Kabat does not appear to see this, as far as I can tell from reading this column, and as a result, implies that government regulation of products based on cancer risk would be okay, provided that:
[T]he scientific evidence needs to be evaluated rigorously and dispassionately by people who do not feel they know the answer but whose sole goal is the accurate assessment of the evidence. People who know the answer and have an agenda are believers and advocates, and they should have no role in assessing the science.
I understand why Kabat is saying something like this, but this is absurd: Suppose, based on my evaluation of the evidence, I have concluded that something commonly found in food is dangerous. Why should I not be free to both put my conclusions into practice ad warn others? We do indeed need a firewall between activists -- especially those whose non-objective epistemology warps (or even prevents) their evaluation of scientific evidence -- and the public. However, that firewall is similar to that between church and state. For the same reason the state shouldn't promote any religious view, it shouldn't promote unproven scientific theories, speculation, or philosophical views (such as the precautionary principle). The state should not be in the business of funding science (thereby robbing people of money and creating a warped incentive structure for scientists in the process) or regulating chemicals and other products (violating the rights of producers and consumers alike, and causing problems such as those Kabat demonstrates).

Science should be privately funded and the decision to use a chemical or product should be left to the individual, informed by the findings of private organizations he trusts, such as Underwriters Laboratories or the Consumer Union. Activism could not distort the evaluation of scientific evidence on a nationwide scale like it does today without the government's help.

-- CAV


Kyle Haight said...

I don't think you can keep the government entirely separated from scientific questions. Consider the following scenario.

I use a chemical fertilizer on my lawn. You, my next-door neighbor, start suffering a chronic health issue. You claim that it is caused by a reaction to the fertilizer, and have some evidence to back up your view, but not enough to be conclusive. I claim your response is psychosomatic, and I also have some evidence to back up my view, but not enough to be conclusive. You sue me, seeking an injunction to block my use of the fertilizer, claiming that it constitutes a form of assault-by-chemical.

How can the government possibly resolve the suit without taking a position on the scientific issue and backing it up with force?

Gus Van Horn said...


Good point, and what I had in mind when I stated (although perhaps not clearly enough) that the government, "shouldn't promote unproven scientific theories". For example, certain theories, such as ballistics, are so well-supported by evidence that they can usually serve as proof in a court of law without undue questioning, assuming the expert is competent.

In your example, the jury would have to find based on a careful weighing of expert evidence and, yes, the government would have to have some broad guidelines as to what counts as expertise. Still, that's a far cry from the government funding entire fields of scientific inquiry, and enacting proactive laws based on results that have plenty of room for being questioned.

Conversely, you can say that you can't keep the government entirely out of religion. If some imam imagines that Allah wants me killed, the state still calling that a crime is, in some sense taking a position on the validity of his ravings.

That said, the fact is that a capitalist government that protects individual rights is not possible without a general cultural acceptance of certain philosophical positions by the populace. This is not the same thing as saying that, say, a proper government would actively promote a philosophy such as Objectivism.


Kyle Haight said...

I think the underlying problem is a tension between the legitimate desire to keep the government from handing down judgements of truth and the objective need for the government's own actions to be based on an assessment of the truth of the claims it is adjudicating.

The government must establish certain epistemological standards identifying what it will and will not accept as evidence of the initiation of force. "I saw it" is fine. "I saw it in a vision" is not. And there's a vast range in between where things get sticky. Fingerprints are only acceptable as evidence because we believe that they're unique -- and that's ultimately a scientific claim. Or, as you note, ballistics. What about lie detectors? Etc.

Setting up these epistemological standards and applying them rigorously and consistently is part of what it means to place the retaliatory use of force under "objective control".

Steve D said...

‘but this is absurd…’
I agree or at least minimally, I would say his statement is simply not realistic. As I’ve pointed out previously, everything comes down to the interpretation of data. How does he propose picking the one who is trying to objectively study the subject vs. one with an outside agenda, if he is a layperson with respect to that field?
As a biochemist, I still have a difficult time evaluating the evidence for controversial theories such as AGW, string theory, the expanding universe, Jovian mass and the like. How is a politician supposed to do better than me? (ok so there is absolutely no evidence for string theory but my point still stands)
In the law suit discussed earlier, the government has no choice but to rely on those recognized by their fields to be experts. That doesn’t mean they are right, but that they have no other option.
‘Kabat's evidence helps make a compelling case for the separation of science and state.’
If you rephrase this as separation of scientific enquiry (or research) and state, you are correct. Of course no modern organization or individual can completely separate themselves from science. At least I hope not.

Mike said...

Part I, a quibble.

We do indeed need a firewall between activists...and the public. However, that firewall is similar to that between church and state.

I don't like the turn of phrase here. I don't think it clearly expresses what you mean to say. I take it you mean that activists should not have the power to force the public but must be restricted to reasoned persuasion. Talking of a firewall between activists and the public sounds prima facie much like not allowing activists to organize publicly or something--and bringing in the separation of church and state into the bargain makes for a comparison in which it's hard to see just what is being compared to what.

Mike said...

Part II:
For the same reason the state shouldn't promote any religious view, it shouldn't promote unproven scientific theories, speculation, or philosophical views...

Or, to mention an example that's come up before, evolutionary psychology. It's a perfect example of half-baked quasi-scientific speculation usually relying on philosophical views incompatible with the basic principles of a free republic. The better sort of EP advocate says that the field just claims evolution has acted on humans in such a way as to shape domain-specific mental faculties, emotional responses, and the like, and that this is compatible with the free exercise of reason and respecting others' rights; but in fact EP itself assumes that human psychology is fundamentally modular--to the extent then that an EP-based explanation takes conceptual consciousness as nothing but a sum of modules, faculties, or responses, it shares the same basic philosophical flaw as "brain porn." In epistemology this entails that all human knowledge, including scientific knowledge, and thus EP itself, is determined by genes and the environment and thus not actually knowledge.

And many popular writers bastardizing the field for fun and profit do not in practice accept the better sort of EP. Thus, you have the odious Steve Moxon, who has argued on an EP discussion group that because group conflict has been a fundamental constant throughout human history, women have evolved so that rape is actually not a traumatic experience (any claim to the contrary is politicized misandry by ugly, smelly feminists, and, more than that, over 90% of all rape charges are lies), and therefore rape should be classified legally as battery equivalent to any other battery--that is, as a misdemeanor, not a felony unless a weapon is involved. (And of course there's the view, as with a former commenter here who has since renounced Objectivism, condemned Ayn Rand as a thinker because she was a woman and therefore by her nature irrational, and proclaimed himself a "misogynist," that Game is nothing more than EP or economics applied to sexual reproduction. If EP, it's bogus science subject to all the flaws above as well as the others that we've debated here--or rather that have been adduced and said loser ignored, since said loser is a very dim bulb and a knee-jerk emotionalist fonder of abuse than reason--and if economics, it's a deeply-dyed Marxist variety.)

(Note of course that that's not to claim there must not be a modular organization to important aspects of human cognition; the human mind has inborn faculties, after all. It also however has a great deal of neural plasticity, never mind the character of a conceptual consciousness, that plays hob with claims of overmuch genetic pruning of mental traits. I agree with Donald Hebb that it is necessary to pursue such lines of investigation as behaviorism to see what they cannot explain, and carried out in that spirit EP might yield interesting results. However, as currently constituted EP is heir to the same philosophical disorders as underlie behaviorism, Freudianism, and the rest of the baleful swamp of so much modern psychological theory. Symptomatic of this fact is that on that discussion group I mentioned earlier, the same EPers who decry Freudianism as an unscientific theory discredited among all but English majors, which is true, then turn right around and with a straight face offer EP explanations of the most ridiculous parts of Freudianism, like "penis envy" and other...quaint and curious assertions about female sexuality.)

And while Moxon's view of rape is odious to many EPers, how exactly does it conflict with EP principles? How are they to disprove it within the framework of EP? What would count as evidence for or against it in their view?

Gus Van Horn said...


"Setting up these epistemological standards and applying them rigorously and consistently is part of what it means to place the retaliatory use of force under 'objective control'."

Agreed, but for your use of quotes, which could easily be misinterpreted.


"If you rephrase this as separation of scientific enquiry (or research) and state, you are correct."

I didn't do this, so I stand corrected.


"Talking of a firewall between activists and the public sounds prima facie much like not allowing activists to organize publicly or something..."

Hadn't thought of that problem. Thanks for bringing it up.


Mike said...

Thinking a bit more about the paltry performance of certain EPers that I mentioned above puts me in mind of a constant refrain in gripe sessions about academia with a friend of mine who works as an independent scholar. (One positive result for him is that being able to pursue his interests as a folklorist and linguist is that he's a world scholarly expert on Tolkien, whereas if he were stuck in academia he'd have to master critical theory. Hell, busting rocks'd be better than that.). There's a striking shallowness to the time depth in citations you'll see in academic papers; there's a concomitant shallowness and crudity in analysis of deeper, more philosophical matters--caricatures of what scholars argued presented as "the view of the Enlightenment," for example, then something commonplace in, say, 1920 academic thought recapitulated as the great solution to a quandary of the author's making. (This is especially common when humanities types enamored of French critical theory try to expostulate on science hard or soft.)

It's compounded by the current academic fondness for interdisciplinarianism, which is usually accompanied by deplorable incompetence in all the involved disciplines--but it sure sounds cool to them not in the know. It's a lot of hackwork and posturing by a bunch of people who don't seem particularly bright or, more seriously, broad or deep, and who show some awareness that there are fundamental issues needing to be resolved but who aren't able to do so themselves. They feel they must dig, but they don't know where--a consequence of the philosophical muddles of our age.

But there's also the particular institutional trap of our system, what William James called "the Ph.D. Octopus" in a fine essay: pretty good for a Harvard man, I must say! And there's much more one could say about all that, but I'll just point to this guy. (His commentary on Islam and Leftism is also very good, and he's even a soccer fan.)

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the links: I'll be interested in reading them.

Also, I think you pretty well summed up a rampant problem here:

"It's compounded by the current academic fondness for interdisciplinarianism, which is usually accompanied by deplorable incompetence in all the involved disciplines--but it sure sounds cool to them not in the know."


Steve D said...

‘Or, to mention an example that's come up before, evolutionary psychology.’
Like sociology, I’m not sure evolutionary psychology is even a valid scientific field in principle as opposed to psychology itself which is a valid science but usually incorrectly applied.
The conclusions of all these fields either mundane or go far beyond what the evidence actually says.

Gus Van Horn said...

There is a reason such conclusions are either mundane (i.e., obvious and inarguable, although not necessarily supported by the "theory" being promoted) or too far for the evidence. It's because it doesn't have explanatory power, but its proponents need to make it seem to in order to gain traction.

Mike said...

I've been thinking some more about my comment about interdisciplinarians in academia. Mind you, there's no problem with interdisciplinary work as such, per se, and qua reasoned investigation--all knowledge is connected and is discovered at root with the same faculty of reason. This doesn't mean that the boundaries between disciplines are arbitrary, though; in some cases they represent historical accident (for example, if you ask what the difference is between anthropology and sociology, it would appear to be that sociology studies industrial societies, anthropology non-industrial ones, which is perhaps not that important a difference), but in many cases the disciplines are defined by basic methodological differences or subject matter.

That's why interdisciplinarian perpetrators often fail miserably. Each field has a well-articulated, long-developed, often fairly subtle and massively interlocked body of knowledge, methodologies, and techniques. To contribute to one field with the results of another, you have to have at least nodding familiarity with the results, concerns, and intellectual framework of the other. This takes a lot of work, and most interdisciplinarians instead do interdisciplinary work, I would guess, especially in the modern era, because they simply can't cut it in either field alone and use the other as a mystifying prop. This was especially true in the hale and hearty days of academia from the 1960s to the 1990s, when any hack and her sister could get a tenured position so long as their breath could cloud a mirror. (And if you want to take the gender shift there as a jab at dubious woozy feminist studies of the claptrappiest sort, be my guest, but it applies to men and women alike.)

So of course there's some very good interdisciplinary work--the use of demographic techniques in history, for example, and of archeological techniques. In linguistics, one example might be the application of quantitative methods to studies of language change pioneered by William Labov, but that's more a case of a chemist changing fields at a time when sound processing technology had advanced enough to make quantitative methods fruitful.

Mike said...

Part II:

Interestingly, these successes make much less of a wave outside academia than the more dubious kinds do. I'm tempted to say that the more outsiders hear about a certain interdisciplinary work, the less well-founded it is. For example, there's Martin Bernal and his Afrocentrist tracts Black Athena (three volumes thus far). Bernal was originally a political scientist who specialized in Southeast Asia, but was called somehow to the far-removed pastures of ancient Mediterranean history and decided that Egypt was indeed the founder of Ancient Greece and set out to prove this with a fresh look at all of the evidence. He was helped among academics by the first part of his first book, in which he traced the history of European studies of ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East from the 18th century to the present to show (or claim to show) that many of the founding figures were racist. (In fact, in many cases this is overstated or simply libellous; in other cases it's true but it does nothing to disprove the work the scholars actually did, but instead serves to discredit it for the reader through guilt by association.)

After this introductory bit of defamatory sludge--which is also the most accurate part of his work--he then sets out to dismantle the traditional hard-won chronology generations of scholars have worked out from several divergent lines of evidence to make way for far-reaching (and far-fetched) claims that many ancient Greek cities were founded as Egyptian colonies. This includes crankish linguistic nonsense, which doesn't convince linguists specializing in the field but really impresses outsiders. (Bernal's lack of linguistic attainments is shown in his reply to a critical article by Jasanoff and Nussbaum in Black Athena Revisited: In trying to disprove their assertions, he showed that he simply doesn't know squat about historical linguistics.)

It's worth adding that Bernal's work, by attributing everything to the Egyptians, distracts from solid interdisciplinary work showing that ancient Greece had important influences from the ancient Near East--for example, the myth of Adonis and Aphrodite is a survival of ancient mystery cults that spread around the ancient eastern Mediterranean around c. 800 BC; the name "Adonis" is related to Adonai, an epithet of God in ancient Judaism, for example. There are many such traces of older trading and cultural influences around the ancient eastern Mediterranean that are found in ancient Greek culture; there were extensive trading and cultural contacts around the ancient eastern Mediterranean whose significance is unclear, for it's truly a case of nearly disappeared history, but what is clear is that Babylonian science and religion had some influence on the Greeks, both directly and through the Phoenicians, and outside of certain parts of mathematics and the like more important than ancient Egypt had. (Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Ancient Greece did not have Egyptian or Babylonian roots, though some of its plants had Egyptian or Babylonian seeds.) Casting everything in an Afrocentric mold as Bernal does does not open new lines of inquiry, it obscures already existent lines of enquiry in the name of modern myth.

Mike said...

Part III:

Another example of interdisciplinary fail, this time in your older line of work, is the attempt to unite thermodynamics and evolution in Daniel Brooks and E.O. Wiley's Evolution as Entropy. This has been sadly too influential in biology, for the physical sections are very poor; one good short response can be found here, and there are others. More baleful, this faulty line of investigation has been picked up by creationists, who are much too stupid on their own to think up the Second Law of Thermodynamics as disproving evolution, but who have seized upon it and, of course, recast the argument on an intellectually debased level still beyond their native capacities, so that it has been progressively bastardized in transmission.

Andf this brings up a related point about interdisciplinarians, a symptom of interdisciplinary fail, if you will: The friend I mentioned previously was entertained by some reviews of Brooks & Wiley I sent to him; he and I both review books for journals and are dismayed by the tendency to insist on candy-assed butt-licking among reviewers. He said longingly, "How wonderful! People in the hard sciences are actually still allowed to say bad things about bad books!" This is no longer true in many fields in the humanities and soft scientists. This encourages crap, of course, which is often produced under the pressure to publish or perish. (You might say it's part of a trend to change the conjunction in "publish and perish," which is the only rational policy in science.) It seems to have been a result of a constant softening of criticism in these fields the past couple of decades as job openings have dried up, paths towards tenure increasingly straitened, and graduate students have become increasingly worshipful of the tenured figures wielding the whiphand of grands patrons increasingly able to make or break up and coming scholars.

But I also pointed out to him that a number of more positive reviews of Brooks & Wiley consist of scholars writing that while the approach taken in their field is dubious or nonsensical, the rest of the book is intriguing. Put all the views together and you can see the work's spherically absurd--that is, it's absurd from every direction you might look at it. This is a major symptom that a certain piece of interdisciplinary work is bad. It's also a key to how bad interdisciplinary work gets propagated--those who are well trained enough in one discipline don't have training in the other disciplines, and so aren't able to catch all of the nonsense of writers who are well trained in none of the relevant disciplines.

Mike said...

rvacyet 816Part 4:

And of course the spread of undisciplined interdisciplinarianism and of interdisciplinary fail is similar to crankishness. There's a lot of that too, and it's even more popular, or at least attracts much more vocal fanboys, than interdisciplinary fail. Mind you, there's no hard and fast division between interdisciplinary fail and crankishness. Bernal, for example, is not a crank; he strives to handle the evidence accepted in the relevant fields, at least, and though he relies on guilt by association (a crankish speciality) and massive doses of special pleading, he clearly strives to tackle the relevant fields in scholarly fashion. (He sure does attracts lots of cranks though!) The same is true of Brooks & Wiley. True crankhood is much more entertaining on a visceral level--it takes a developed palette to appreciate revisions in accepted chronology based on variant readings of the evidence, but dismissing entire eras of human history as created out of whole cloth by later generations in malign conspiracies? That's accessible to the most undeveloped minds and untalented drudges!

My friend and I collect cranks. Cranks are a bizarre group with many idiosyncratic intellectual failings and many more in common. They often seem like the sort of soft-minded fools who in earlier ages would have seized upon their addled visions of unity and transcendance to found new religions, but who in a more rational, scientific age (but for how much longer?) have tried to transform their addled visions into scholarly revolution.

For example, there's Edo Nyland, who believes that all human languages were simply created out of whole cloth by Basque monks in the Middle Ages--he shows this by splitting up words in various languages into bite-sized morsels that he then equates with vaguely similar-sounding Basque words with even more vaguely similar meanings to show the true meanings of the words we speak.

There's M.J. Harper's The Secret History of the English Language, which is a full-on gleefully chuckling crankish broadside against academic linguistics and linguists who believe that Spanish, Italian, and French are actually descended from Latin (!) and refuse to accept that Middle English (the language of Chaucer) was actually a fraud and forgery--but since it's a fraud and forgery perpetrated by those same scholars, it's no surprise, eh? (Natch, Harper has gone on to contribute to Templarish nonsense in the well-dragged ruts of Graham Hancock.) And of course it's eaten up by all sorts of amateurs.

And so on.

Mike said...

Part 5:

It's worth adding that some cranks start with academic nonsense. One example I ran across recently: Marcel Griaule was a leading French anthropologist who specialized in the Dogon people of Mali, whom he researched in the 1930s and then later between 1946 and 1956. He claimed that they possessed extremely advanced astronomical knowledge, such as the fact that Sirius is a binary star.

In fact, this appears to be a distortion of the actual myths of the Dogons to fit the knowledge Griaule possessed of Sirius from his earlier technical training before he decided to work in anthropology instead. (Dogons themselves claim that Griaule misunderstood or misinterpreted their myths. Griaule fanboys dismiss the anthropologists reporting such claims by saying that of course they wouldn't tell their sacred secrets to outsiders who didn't live among them for decades like Griaule did...except that some of them have.) Because they have a belief in sky ships, this has transmogrified into the belief that the Dogons are the descendants of ancient astronauts from Sirius. Several books have been written about this by certain Afrocentrists claiming that other Afrocentrists distort the secret history of Africa to bolster the pretensions of Egypt (like all of ancient Indian knowledge being transplanted by ancient Egyptian explorers or whatever). Ignorant armies clashing by night in battles for the intellectual leadership of the Dark Continent, you might say, and entertaining in the same way that bad fantasy novels are! Until you realize that they take their fantasies seriously, after which they are much less entertaining--or, depending on your cast of mind, much more darkly entertaining.

Mike said...

Part 6:

Then you have cranks inspiring other cranks who are inspired by different dark dreams of sleeping reason. For instance, there's Heribert Illig, an art historian and recent chronocrank, as I term them, insisting in his "Phantom Time hypothesis" that the accepted chronology of the European world is wrong--and not just wrong but fabricated by a later grand conspiracy. The starting point of his mania appears to have been the the introduction of the Gregorian calendar:

Illig’s theory is rooted in the introduct­ion of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. It had long been known that the old Julian calendar had a defect – the Julian year being roughly 11 minutes too long – and the new calendar was designed to correct this discrepancy, to the tune of making up for 10 days that gradually slipped during the years between AD 1 and AD 1582. But Illig alleged that the Julian calendar should have produced a discrepancy of not 10 but 13 days over the period in question, and concluded that roughly three centuries had been added to the calendar that had never existed. His response was to run with the notion of calendar “slack” and look for corroborat­ive evidence.

This is amateurish, of course; it's common knowledge among historians of the time that the Gregorian calndar was based on restoring the western calendar starting with the date of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, not the birth of Christ, in order to make the calculation of the date of Easter agree with the formula adopted at that Council--which you'll notice jibes almost perfectly with the figure of 300 missing years.

But of course in his ignorance Illig decided that what must have happened is that the years between 614 and 911 didn't actually exist--they were retroactively forged into the historical record on the orders of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. That's because of the well-known dearth of documents form that period, which is why historians refer to it as the Dark Ages. It's not dark because the sun didn't shine but because there are few lights for us to see what happened.

Note that this period covers the entire period of the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne, who was created out of whole cloth in Illig's view. It also covers the period of Anglo-Saxon history in which the Venerable Bede wrote one of the relatively few historical works from the period that does survive. And so on. It demands a remarkably wide-based, ambitious conspiracy, and yet it still fails when you take the basic evidence of astronomy into account (ancient star charts of decent enough accuracy that we know there could not have been 300 years added between Ptolemy and the modern era).

Mike said...

Part 7:

So, Illig is entertaining enough to mention, but he's been coopted into other bits of crankishness having religious and political motivation. As you know, there's a strong effort among religious conservatives to attack Islam on religious grounds--Christianity is a religion of peace and enlightenment, Islam is a religion of war and hatred of the mind. As you might also know, there's a concomitant movement to whitewash the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages more generally as a time of enlightenment and progress--Rodney Stark's special pleading for Christianity comes to mind.

Books in this vein start from the fact that the Middle Ages did show some progress (see, for example, Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine for some of the spread of new technologies in the medieval world, such as improved plows and agricultural techniques and waterwheels that drove mills). Nor does the claim that the adoption of Christianity led directly to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire bear up; the causes of the collapse were at root fundamental problems in the governmental structure of the empire, consequent economic spoliation and collapse, and the pressure of military crises and civil war over the centuries between, say, 250 AD and 650 AD that devastated the ties of power, trade and travel holding the empire together, scoured the countryside and caused most cities to disappear, and led to massive decentralization away from the broader Mediterranean world to the level of the (former) province. This is old hat to medievalists, though the surviving evidence is still too scanty to allow us to properly weight the importance of the different factors at play.

Mike said...

Part 8:

All of this is dismissed by such books as John J. O'Neill's Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, which seeks to rehabilitate Christianity by artificially darkening Islam--and also darkening the minds of any readers taken in by it.

It's not a good book. At the end O'Neill actually uses Illig as further evidence that the Dark Ages really didn't exist, and therefore Christanity can't be blamed for them. (Mind you, medievalists don't claim that it should be, despite O'Neill's insistence that that is exactly what the godless liberal advance guard of Islam in academia preach to their students. For O'Neill is on a jihad against godless liberals, you see, and he sees them everywhere and wants his readers to see their malign work in every criticism of his book too.)

His view instead seems to be that Islam wasn't actually created by Muhammad but was instead the result of Arab forces being co-opted by the evil Persians who, rather than being conquered by the Arabs, used them to help fight against the Roman Empire. As an example of his basic scholarly malfeasance in this line (whether uncoscious or intentional), he writes, "Firdausi...makes no mention of an Arab conquest." (p. 250) Firdausi (to use his transcription) was the first great Persian poet after the Arab Conquest, and he wrote a massive poem of about 55,000 lines, the Shahname, retailing the legends of the Persian kings up to their fall at the hands of the Arabs. If he didn't mention the Arab conquest, this might be interesting evidence, but in fact he does: "So it was that 'Umar, the famous Arab, Commander of the Faithful [i.e., Caliph]...sent...troops against the Shah...When Arab fortune worsted Persian, and the Sasanians' fortune had grown dark, the world had had full measure of its Shahs..." (From p. 72 of Vol. 9 of the translation by Arthur and Edmond Warner of 1905-1925, the only complete English translation, or as I like to refer to it, the Warner Bros. version of the Shahname.) O'Neill's only defense against baldfaced lying is that that section's not in the parts most scholars read, but that means he's lazy and incompetent instead--a liar, a sluggard, or incompetent, quite an unsavory set of alternatives for a supposed scholar.

Mike said...

Part 9:

Mind you, O'Neill also tries to revive an old historical debate, again in the name of saving the truth from the godless liberal academic vanguard of Islam. As such, he again distorts the facts to fit a conservative agenda that slams Islam to make Christianity more palatable to the reader.

The background is this: Until his death, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne was perhaps the leading medievalist of Europe--and deservedly so. He was a brilliant historian and also a brilliant, clear writer, a combination not always seen in historians. The Pirenne Thesis (in fact, the most famous of three theses called "the Pirenne Thesis" in different contexts) was that the end of classical antiquity was due exclusively to the spread of Islam--it was only about 700 that major evidence of trans-Mediterranean trade disappeared from northern Europe. His view was that the Germanic invasions had not severed northern Europe from its classical roots, but that the spread of Islam did by causing trans-Mediterranean trade to be disrupted by Islamic navies. If you're curious, see his Mohammed and Charlemagne, posthumously published in 1937 and still worth reading.

This occasioned a vast scholarly debate, though without access to journals you're not likely to encounter its full scope: One reader, Alfred Havighurst's The Pirenne Thesis (1969), is half centrally important essays in the debate, half fluff, and misses some of the most important essays, while Hodges and Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: The Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archaeology (1983), is not nearly as good as its authors think it is. Much of the most important response in book form is in French, I might add, and in English much of the best is only available in journals.

The basic form of the criticisms is that the Thesis is greatly overstated: Pirenne downplayed or ignored evidence of drastic economic and political decline in the Germanic kingdoms of the centuries before the Islamic conquests, and this is in part due to the fact that his thesis was a response to the work of the Austrian historian Alphons Dopsch, who attributed too much of the decline to the Germanic invasions. (And this brings in cultural attitues of the French world and the German world, in which either the healthy, pure Germans did in the decadent Roman Empire that the equally decadent French are so enamored of, or else the French were so supreme a people at even that early date that certainly not smelly German barbarians but only a great force like Islam could possibly be responsible for bringing down Rome.)

Mike said...

Part 10:

Now, part of the current view among medievalists I've already mentioned: There were several centuries of decline before the Islamic conquests that had already destroyed most of the ties holding the former Western Roman Empire together culturally, and the Islamic conquests merely furthered decentralization. Moreover, historians specializing in early Islam pointed out that Islamic naval power was largely negligible until some time after the period Pirenne viewed it as important, and many of the evidences of disappeared Mediterranean trade due to supposed naval conflict between Byzantium and Islam were in fact due to Islamic economic policies based on continued state monopolies surviving the loss of Alexandria and the like to Islam.

Moreover, Islam was not particularly depradatory at that time; cities that surrendered to Islam at that stage werre allowed to pay tribute acceptable to them, which in many cases was equal to or less than that paid to the Roman fisc, and the establishment of the Islamic world allowed a unified market to spring up that ushered in a couple of centuries of propserity...until civil war within Islam over the next few centuries put paid to that. Nor was Islam particularly antagonistic to trade with non-Muslims, at least at that time.

That's not to say Islam is a particularly peaceful religion; it's a religion of conquest and domination. It is also, however, at least in the Arab tradition, not hostile to trade and fairly free economically for non-Muslims provided they show all the accepted signs of submission. This is enough to condemn Islam as not compatible with western values, but it is not nearly enough for religious conservatives who try to set their Christian unreason and fundamental hatred of the mind apart as somehow fundamentally superior to its major world competitor, essentially because western Christianity has been tamed by the Enlightenment and Islam has not.

And of course the unity of classical civilization was already done in by the time Islam came on the scene. What survivied of classical civilization by and large was just those elements of it that the Catholic Church had subsumed; and the unity of the classical Christian world had already been destroyed by the fact that all of the parts of the empire reconquered by Justinian by the 550s were ruled by heretical regimes--Arian heretics in the West and Monophysites in the East. (In addition to the malign effects of aristocratic hostages on both sides in Italy, for example, being slaughtered by the hundreds during the reconquest, and the imposition of harsh new taxes to support such a far-flung, artificially propped up realm scoured clean of industry by a decade of harsh warfare.) So, for example, many cities in the Near East welcomed the Islamic conquests since the Muslim authorities didn't care whether their Christian subjects were Catholic or Monophysite, unlike those Greeks who most certainly did care--and remember, they had only recently been reconquered after a generation of religiously benign Persian rule.

Mike said...

Part 11:

But, of course, all of this is ignored by O'Neill, who attributes the supposed deliberate refusal to recognize Pirenne as a perfect example of the cultural warfare of the, again, godless liberal academic vanguard of Islam he and his ilk so love to go on about. (In fact, when I studied medieval history back in the 1990s, Pirenne was still required reading in beginning classes and in advanced seminars on medieval economic and social history. The Pirenne Thesis is no longer accepted, but it is enormously influential for all the right reasons--it's ambitious, coherent, and fundamentally changed the view of its contemporaries ot the period, and as such it is required study for medievalists since studying it will make students much better historians.)

And of course, O'Neill has been echoed by many even lesser minds, and picked up and repeated in even more bastardized form by, yes, a certain misogynist former Objectivist commenter who claims not to be a Christian or a conservative (though he echoes them and praises them at every opportunity as more intelligent and knowledgeable about the world than Objectivists are) and who loves anything that portrays Islam as a Borg whose adoption by its very nature removes a person's free will and thus requires us to either slaughter every Muslim on Earth or at the very least kick all of them out, even citizens, whether or not they have committed any crime, because by their very nature they cannot be trusted (kind of like women in his view, actually), and to hell with rule of law or any other protection remianing from the equally evil Leftists who present as great a threat to the West.

Mike said...

Oops, one quick correction. In Firdawsi's referring to 'Umar as "Commander of the Faithful," that would be the title amir (emir), not Caliph (short for "Successor [khalifat] to the Messenger of God"). It's the difference, to the extent such a difference can be drawn, between the military and religious position of the leader of early Islam.

Gus Van Horn said...


Very interesting, though I had time to read only about half...

I like your method of detecting likely bad interdisciplinary work via multiple reviews intriguing (and amusing in a perverse way). I also am glad you mentioned that bit of nonsense about the Dogon "knowing" that Sirius is a binary star.


Mike said...

Well, I'm pleased how few typoes I made! Proofing comments in this window is not a pleasant task. I have to make two more comments.

First, I stated that the Muslim conquests of the Middle east were not that destructive. Well, that's a relative statement, and probably by the myths the lefties who do like to portray Islam as a language of peace, they'd have in reality been utter savagery. The point is that if a city submitted, it set (usually) the tribute it would pay for future peace. (If they didn't submit? Well, there's a reason we talk about getting medieval on someone's hindquarters.) After submission the city was part of a unified, large market with internal peace. HOWEVER: The same could NOT be said for cities across the border, which were subject to devastating annual raids. Thus, much of the territory remaining to the Byzantines in the region was devastated for the first couple of centuries, until internal strife in the Abbasid Empire caused the tide to turn, alas, though, only temporarily, until the Battle of Manzikert of 1071 lost Byzantium much of Anatolia. (Like you commented to me once, it's one of the least known crucial events in European history. Trivia: it was fought near Lake Van.) That comment of mine then is what's called a lapse so great it's almost criminal.

Second, a bit after I posted all these comments, I discovered ANOTHER book in O'Neill's line on Amazon published within the year: Charlemagne and Mohammed Revisited by Emmet Scott. (I'm on Blackberry right now and have to write that from memory.). It sounds like a retread of O'Neill with emphasis on archeology based on skimpy sources; and it flirts with Heribert Illig. One fanboy replied to a review pointing that out by saying that's guilt by association. Uh, no, Illig is a crank with no scholarly value or virtue, and citing him in any but a critical fashion is like citing Velikovsky in an astronomy book.

Mike said...

Oh, and one more comment, this time on a lighter, more positive note: While there's a lot of nonsense more accessible and louder than ever (or so it seems) in our day and age, the last couple of decades have also been a golden age of popular science, math, and history books--as you know, since I've given you several as Christmas and birthday presents. Chronocranks make me think I should add to the wealth: How We Know What was When.. For really, how was the chronology of the past worked out, and how solid are the dates for different events? So, yeah, it's probably already been written, but if not, what a great topic! So, if anyone gets me a publishing contract I might just write it.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yep. As you emailed me, your last two comments were stuck in the queue. Monitoring this has become even more troublesome lately, as it is now populated mostly by comments that have already been published.