A Naiad Cortege I


Penelope and her suitors

A guest post written by HUBERT HUZZAH·

Sometimes Science reveals something we would prefer not to know. For Medieval Popes, who could control the World by deciding the date of Easter, Natural Science revealing that Aristotlean Wisdom was flawed was one of those things. Giordano Bruno was dressed in yellow and burned at the stake. Galileo Galilei was forced to write a retraction of experimental findings. Natural Science showed that Venus had phases which may seem obscure. However, when the only consistent explanation of those phases is that Venus is orbiting the Sun the Papacy is challenged. The knowledge, that the Earth orbited the Sun, was not something Galileo originated. The big offence of Galileo was that he proved the thesis: that the Earth is not the Centre of Creation.

The date of Easter is an important illustration of Papal Power. The Computus was the process by which Easter was calculated and, once determined, the Computus fixed all of the significant dates of the calendar for the entire year. Fixing the date of Easter was not simply about deciding a single date. The Computus was as the centre of determining the way the World would work. Not only fixing Easter but also significant moveable feasts which were non-working days and even Quarter Days, when rents, tithes and obligations were due. Controlling Easter was a proof of mysterious power and a very worldly power.

Science proved something far more significant than Heliocentricity: it proved no mysterious power was needed to know things. It proved that the Papacy, the Computus and all of the moveable feasts were constructed by society, not ordained, and this could be proven without any need to ask for permission. Natural Science demonstrated that the Aristotlean Method has distinct limitations and that those limitations can be overcome by a Socratic Method.

According to Aristotlean Method, Scientific Knowledge is the Knowledge of Causes. For Aristotle, a demonstration is a deduction in which the premises are true, primary, immediate , better known than the conclusion, prior to the conclusion and causes of the conclusion. In other words, Scientific Knowledge is a sequence of causes back to the mists of existence. Science is not merely a body of knowledge but a body of Authoritative Knowledge. Socrates may have written nothing: an appropriate mystery for someone whose Method consists of asking questions that banish belief but clarify what is known.

The Socratic Method has parallels in Crowdsourcing while the Aristotlean Method tends to be about Expertise. Both have a relevant role to play in Science.

There are infant simulator programmes seeking to prevent teenage pregnancy. These are used in high, middle and low countries. Despite policy popularity published evidence of their long-term effects are rare. The Lancet has recently published a randomised control trial investigating the Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) programme’s effects on sexual health. This study is registered as an international, randomised controlled trial, (ISRCTN24952438). The aims of registration suggest the Socratic approach of discovering knowledge, yet the outcome of the study suggests the Aristotlean approach of dispensing knowledge.

After statistical analysis, the Lancet Authors concludes:

“The infant simulator-based VIP programme did not achieve its aim of reducing teenage pregnancy. Girls in the intervention group were more likely to experience a birth or an induced abortion than those in the control group before they reached 20 years of age.”

which suggests that, just possibly, infant simulator programmes do not prevent pregnancy and, indeed, might even demystify childcare to such an extent that young women can make a more informed choice about getting pregnant. This would be a reasonable hypothesis to investigate. Young women might well, in Socratic fashion engage in critical thinking and determine that having a child younger is a better prospect as Virtual Infant Programme has demonstrated the challenges of childcare. Programme and Policy creators, in Aristotlean fashion, persist in the idea that the Policy is correct but requires adjustment.

Which leaves Science in the same situation as Giordano Bruno: too badly connected to the political, economic and social infrastructure of society to be merely told off. Science, and Scientists, are dressed in metaphoric yellow and burned at the allegorical stake. The Socratic Revolution of 1615 embraced empirical observation along with socratic questioning and began the slow overturn of Aristotlean Science. Four hundred years later, Science policy has, largely, reestablished Aristotlean Science. Science by fiat.

One of the huge gaps in the narrative around the infant simulator approach is that it fails to acknowledge that the programme seeks behavioural change. The infant simulator is a nudge towards “better” life choices. Yet, the life choices being made are exactly the opposite of those intended. In the intervention group – the group being nudged – 8% got pregnant; in the control – un-nudged group – 4% got pregnant. Instead of engaging with the empirical evidence – that the intervention is associated with higher pregnancy rates – Programme Designers lock themselves into an Aristotlean Behavioral Change Stairway Model whereby the intervention will be redesigned.

What Programme Designers rarely do is question if the underlying assumption – reducing pregnancy rates – is actually realistic. Evolution has reinforced the human behaviour of having children. When parents – particularly women – see a child they are rewarded with the hormone Oxytocin. The same hormone is involved in social recognition, orgasm, childbirth and stress. Designing a programme with the potential to promote oxytocin secretion is designing a programme with the potential to promote childbirth. Evolution trumps Policy. Regardless of Policy Objectives.

Which is a fundamental problem with Nudge. Ultimately, as observed by Sue Jones in her excellent Politics and Insights Blog, Nudge is about the exercise of power. As with a lot of Aristotlean Science of the past, the exercise of power requires control of social construction. The Computus must be a mystery controlled by a Papacy. Anything else leaves open the possibility of transformative change through Socratic Method. Critical Thinking as it is known.

Persuading young women to delay childbirth has an awful lot to recommend it in a society where childbirth is a personal Easter that determines a range of future events. Controlling female fertility need not be about improving opportunities in life by nudging young women to delay conception. There is evidence that particular nudge fails in some situations. In those situations, Policy remains resolutely Aristotlean: it does not change.

The huge truth of the Galilean Revolution is not that Galileo did something new and revolutionary but that between the trial of Bruno in 1593 and the trial of Galileo in 1633 the same thing resulted in two different results. The Papacy ceased to be able to define the social construction of reality as Aristotlean Science failed. Yet, here we are, four centuries later, with Aristolean Policy in a Socratic World.


Lancet Article:Efficacy of infant simulator programmes to prevent teenage pregnancy: a school-based cluster randomised controlled trial in Western Australia”, Brinkman, et al.

Oxytocin Review: “The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor”, Magon & Kalra Trial Registration: ISTRN Registry Entry ISRCTN24952438

Politics and Insights: The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative Character Divination.

© 2016 Hubert Huzzah

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