Burn the lab coats 28th March 2007 I read with interest Olivia Judson’s article (News & curiosities, April) about stereotyping scientists by depicting them in lab coats. I then turned to page 49 and the “Lab Report” illustration. Erm… come on Prospect.
Karisa Krcmar Barrow on Soar, Loughborough
“President” of Spain 28th March 2007
Frederic Raphael’s correction (April) of Michael Burleigh’s reference to José María Aznar as “president” of Spain is actually incorrect. The Spanish habitually refer to their prime ministers as presidente del gobierno, although this may sound constitutionally strange to Anglo-Saxon ears.
John Whitton Exeter
Grayling and relativism 4th April 2007
AC Grayling’s account of relativism (April) is a bit of a hatchet job. Even if it is true, as the relativist maintains, that there is only “truth for me” and “truth for you,” with no objective standard, it does not follow that “one might as well rest content with whatever one currently happens to believe and seek no further.” Most of our beliefs are not as certain as they might be. I am not sure all my beliefs are true, even by my standards. It therefore makes sense for me to try to seek more certainty. A further point is that if “truth for me” and “truth for you” happen to be based on sufficiently similar criteria, we can begin to talk of “truth for us.” It would be easy to mistake “truth for us” for absolute truth, especially if “we” are plentiful in number.
Howard Simmons Grays, Essex
Obama and the israel lobby 30th March 2007
Your standfirst “Barack Obama… changes position to appeal to the Israel lobby” (Washington watch, April) is hardly fair. It is based on a statement reported by Ali Abunimah, whose website denies Israel’s right to exist, and who is scarcely a reliable source. Certainly Obama is distancing himself from Reverend Jeremiah White, an anti-white racist and a friend of Hitler-admirer Louis Farrakhan. The so-called Israel lobby is a minor factor. Bryan Reuben London South Bank University
Cooking oysters 21st March 2007
Alex Renton asks (March) why Europeans so rarely cook oysters. Though I cannot answer that question, I can answer a corollary—why do non-Europeans so often cook oysters? Simple. Before eating them raw, they wash them, which removes 75 per cent of the taste and gives a sort of unidentifiable soapy flavour. While I cannot speak for other Europeans, I can tell you why, outside dinner parties, I rarely cook oysters. When you have something so exquisite and so simple to prepare—just open it—why bother with anything else?
Angus Morison Saint-Germain-En-Laye
The IPCC’s evidence
30th March 2007
David Whitehouse (Letters, April) thinks the IPCC has hardly made a “great stride towards certainty” by upgrading its assessment of the likelihood of humans having influenced global warming from “likely” to “very likely.” Closer reading reveals that this corresponds to a change in probability from “more than 60 per cent” to “more than 90 per cent.” In most fields of complex phenomena, where certainties are rarely possible, such a stride would be remarkable and deserve serious attention.
Whitehouse also claims that the data used by the IPCC shows that since 2002, there has been no upward warming trend. But the IPCC’s summary actually states, “Eleven of the last 12 years (1995-2006) rank among the warmest in the instrumental record.” It goes on to say that the warming trend for 1906-2005 is larger than the previous figure, for 1901-2000. The data is thus consistent with long-term warming. Whitehouse is right that there are “climate extremists saying false silly things,” but these should not be confused with the IPCC.
Unlike Whitehouse’s conclusions, the data indicates that it is indeed time for the debate to move on to economics and policy. Mitigation targets can easily be relaxed if and when the long-term trend slows significantly or reverses.
Philip Coghlan Romford, Essex
Illiberal adoption 9th April 2007
Richard Mitchell (Letters, April) confuses Catholic and Protestant attitudes to homosexuality. It is a Protestant (and Orthodox Jewish) tradition to cite the Old Testament as a prohibition against homosexual relations. But Catholics seldom take their moral theology from the Old Testament. Catholic attitudes to homosexuality have certainly been influenced by St Paul, but also, more specifically, by the Catholic moral philosophy on the natural law, which deems that sexual congress is about “the transmission of life.” This is why contraception and birth control cause Catholic moral philosophers such trouble.
The natural law is not based on biblical fundamentalism but is an accretion of Judeo-Christian scholarship over the centuries. Piquantly, the other group that insists upon the natural law is the Darwinists, who claim that the biological purpose of the human species is to propagate its genes through fruitful sexual congress, which by definition means male and female.
Mary Kenny Deal, Kent
America and slavery 8th April 2007 Richard Dowden (April) cites Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings for a view which amounts to a new interpretation of the origins of the US—that “the prospect of the abolition of slavery in the colonies by Britain in the 1770s was a—possibly the—reason for the American war of independence.”
Yet no such prospect existed. In fact, the privy council had disallowed Virginia’s recent attempt to ban the further importation of slaves. Further, such a concern played no part in the numerous colonial protests against parliamentary and royal policies. The southerners’ resentment at Lord Dunmore’s offer of liberty and arms to slaves who came over to the British lines could only have arisen after fighting had broken out, for entirely separate reasons, in distant Massachusetts. Dunmore’s proclamation, as Schama points out, was a military, not a humanitarian stratagem, was not a response to anti-slavery sentiment in England, and had no roots in government policy. The anti-slavery movement was making headway in London: Lord Mansfield’s rather equivocal judgement in the 1772 case of the slave Somerset—which stated that there was no legal backing for slavery in England—was seen as a victory by anti-slavery campaigners, but this legal decision was not an expression of government policy, and in any case was not applicable to the colonies.
The war of American independence was not fought to protect American slavery from British abolitionism; Britain had an economic interest in both the slave trade and slavery in America.
JR Pole Oxford
Getting a second life 13th April 2007
Victor Keegan (April) writes that when certain “potential sources of growth, leisure, education and commerce take off together, then the distinction between virtual and real worlds will become hazy to the point of disappearance.” All it takes to expose the stupidity of this remark is to ask if Keegan would rather enjoy a meal with friends in a real three-star Michelin restaurant or a copy of one running on his laptop. This difference will always remain, no matter how good Keegan’s graphics card is.
Installing a branch of the Open University inside a other virtual world, as Keegan suggests, does not bring it any closer to the students. It is another useless layer, like watching a television via CCTV. Being inside virtual reality does nothing to further the objective of the OU, which is to put knowledge inside people’s heads so they can go outside their front door and have a life.
It is depressing to imagine that people want to be so disengaged from the world of physical interaction that they wish to slip inside the essentially uncreative and meaningless environment of virtual reality. The very easiness of the virtual world is the reason it is so valueless.
Richard Herriott Aarhus, Denmark
When the music stopped 26th March 2007 Norman Lebrecht (March) is too pessimistic. More of the classical repertoire is available today than ever before, and for people looking for new music, things have never been better. We now have recordings of all the symphonies and string quartets by Vagn Holmboe, Edmund Rubbra, Robert Simpson and Arnold Bax. Nearly all Frank Bridge’s works are available on CD. In the past, too much attention was paid to the core repertoire.
Lebrecht downplays the tremendous contribution made by independent labels. Firms like Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos and BIS now release more discs each month than the so-called “majors.” They frequently win awards, and have high technical standards. An excellent performance by a relative unknown cheers me because it is one in the eye to those star-struck listeners who would not listen to these discs with earplugs.
Lebrecht makes his most puzzling statement when considering orchestras’ own labels. “[They] will never have the allure of the real thing because they are self-produced without the editorial discrimination of an external commercial force.” Does this mean recording the “right” repertoire? Or the artwork of the CD? Or editing the recording? There is something authentic about an orchestra recording its own discs, free of the interference of “suits.” To describe them as “not the real thing” is insulting to the musicians, who must be proud of their product and only too glad to have escaped the dead hand of the accountants.
Gavin Bullock Winchester