Covid-19 and climate change

I’m wondering whether the pandemic disaster might in some way mitigate our climate-change disaster. I don’t mean in the trivial short-term sense that the collapse of travel and general economic activity reduces CO2 output. I mean that the experience of the pandemic undermines the intellectual foundations of climate-change denialism. Again, not in a trivial, debating-point sort of way, but a visceral “I refute it thus“.

Climate-change denial rests, it seems to me, on two intellectual — or perhaps it might be better to call them “mental” — pillars. I refer here not to the occasionally valid but always irrelevant sand-in-the-eyes technical quibbles that are used to convey the impression of scientific disagreement. I mean the actual intellectual motivations for the position that drives the search for these quibbles, to the extent that the motivation is not simply pelf or partisanship. These are

  1. The world is too big for humans to change meaningfully. Often they say it is “arrogant” to imagine that insignificant humans could do something as grand as to change the Earth’s climate.
  2. Action against climate change is woolly feel-good sort of stuff. Maybe it would be a good thing in principle, but hard-head thinkers care about people’s jobs and the here-and-now.

In a sense these are opposites: The first says human activity is trivial compared to the whole planet. The second says human activity is autonomous, and far more significant than the whole planet.

The experience of the pandemic is likely, it seems to me, to make people much less receptive to these arguments. Seeing how small the planet is, that a virus originating in one market in Wuhan can infiltrate the whole world within a few months is liable to leave people feeling that the Earth is quite a fragile thing.

And then, the economic cost of this pandemic is likely to be far higher than even the upper end of estimates of the cost of achieving carbon neutrality. Faced with the pandemic, we are thrown back on the material reality of the economy: Not jobs but work, not production but material goods such as food and shelter. We pay the cost because the alternative is clearly more expensive, in lives and social disruption. And this time, people have been willing, mostly, to pay the cost in advance, believing that the disaster would be vastly greater if we waited. The timeline for the climate-change apocalypse is much longer, but it is not implausible to suppose that the same frame of mind might then allow people to see that global catastrophe is a real thing, and worth making some effort to avert.

(Of course, the opposite might be true. People might say, the apocalypse-averting cupboard is now bare. Come back to us in a decade.)

Bergson and Brexit

Once it became clear that I would be staying indefinitely in the UK, I had long planned to apply for UK citizenship. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I thought it would be the good and responsible thing to vote and otherwise take part in politics.

Then came Brexit, and this, naturally, led me to think about Henri Bergson. Born to a Jewish family, Bergson moved gradually toward Christianity in his personal life, he considered himself a Christian from the early 1920s. By the 1930s he was making plans to convert formally to Catholicism, but held off because of solidarity with the increasingly threatened Jewish community. A few weeks before his death, Bergson left his sickbed — having rejected an offered exemption from the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy — to stand in line to register as a Jew.

He wrote in his will:

My reflections have led me closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment of Judaism. I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted.

For a while, then, I deferred applying for citizenship, out of solidarity with my fellow migrants. And then I went and did it anyway. The stakes are obviously much lower than they were for Bergson. And while I regret having to renounce the migrant identity, which suits me well, I also see that this isn’t an entirely noble inclination, as it also excuses me from taking a citizen’s responsibility for the nation’s xenophobic turn. It’s easy to blame those dastardly “British”. The permission to acquire citizenship reflects the growing responsibility for the society that one acquires merely by living here.

I also can’t resist noting that Bergson’s first publication was the solution of Pascal’s problem in Annales des Mathématiques, for which he won the first prize in mathematics in the Concours Général. On learning that he was preparing for the École normale supérieure entrance examination in the letters and humanities section, his mathematics teacher reportedly exclaimed

You could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher.

Trump supporters are ignoring the base (rate) — Or, Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen, ob Trumps erpressen

One of the key insights from research on decision-making — from Tversky and Kahneman, Gigerenzer, and others — is the “base rate fallacy”: in judging new evidence people tend to ignore the underlying (prior) likelihood of various outcomes. A famous example, beloved of probability texts and lectures, is the reasonably accurate — 99% chance of a correct result — test for a rare disease (1 in 10,000 in the population). A randomly selected person with a positive test has a 99% chance of not having the disease, since correct positive tests on the 1 in 10,000 infected individuals are far less common than false positive tests on the other 9,999.

This seems to fit into a more general pattern of prioritising new and/or private information over public information that may be more informative, or at least more accessible. Journalists are conspicuously prone to this bias. For instance, as Brexit blogger Richard North has lamented repeatedly, UK journalists would breathlessly hype the latest leaks of government planning documents revealing the extent of adjustments that would be needed for phytosanitary checks at the border, for instance, or aviation, where the same information had been available for a year in official planning documents on the European Commission website. This psychological bias was famously exploited by WWII British intelligence operatives in Operation Mincemeat, where they dropped a corpse stuffed with fake plans for an invasion at Calais into the sea, where they knew it would wind up on the shore in Spain. They knew that the Germans would take the information much more seriously if they thought they had found it covertly. In my own experience of undergraduate admissions at Oxford I have found it striking the extent to which people consider what they have seen in a half-hour interview to be the deep truth about a candidate, outweighing the evidence of examinations and teacher evaluations.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who has been accused of colluding with foreign governments to defame his political opponents. He has done his collusion both in private and in public. He famously announced in a speech during the 2016 election campaign, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” And just the other day he said “I would think that if [the Ukrainean government] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens because how does a company that’s newly formed—and all these companies—and by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

It seems pretty obvious. But no, that’s public information. Trump has dismissed his appeal to Russia as “a joke”, and just yesterday Senator Marco Rubio contended that the fact that the appeal to China was so blatant and public shows that it probably wasn’t “real”, that Trump was “just needling the press knowing that you guys are going to get outraged by it.” The private information is, of course, being kept private, and there seems to be a process by which formerly shocking secrets are moved into the public sphere gradually, so that they slide imperceptibly from being “shocking if true” to “well-known, hence uninteresting”.

I am reminded of the epistemological conundrum posed by the Weimar-era German cabaret song, “Ich möcht’ so gern wissen, ob sich die Fische küssen”:

Ich möcht’ so gerne wissen
Ob sich die Fische küssen –
Unterm Wasser sieht man’s nicht
Na, und überm Wasser tun sie’s nicht!

I would so like to know
if fish sometimes kiss.
Underwater we can’t see it.
And out of the water they never do it.

Pierre Menard and Jack Malik

I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.

One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written. Continue reading “Pierre Menard and Jack Malik”

Volkswillen and Parliament

Brexit started with rhetoric about unelected Eurocrats thwarting holy parliamentary sovereignty. Now, faced with opposition to her Brexit plans in Parliament, Theresa May

insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.

I am reminded of this comment by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, shortly after the Brexit vote:

Dazu gehört in gewisser Weise ein Taschenspielertrick: Zunächst sagen sie, es gebe einen einzig wahren Volkswillen, der sich gar nicht irren könne. Dann behaupten sie, dass dieser Wille bisher von den Eliten unterdrückt und nicht gehört worden sei. Und schließlich, dass sie selbst nichts weiter täten, als diesen Willen zur Geltung zu bringen. Sie setzten nur um, wozu ihnen das Volk den Auftrag gebe.

Underlying it is a sort of sleight of hand: They start by saying, there is only a single popular will, that can never be wrong. Then they say, this will has been repressed and silenced by elites. And then, finally, that they themselves are doing nothing but to give effect to that will. They are just fulfilling the task assigned to them by the People.

Quoth the raven, Never Trump

Carl Hempel famously crystallised an obstruction to the formalisation of inductive reasoning as the “Raven paradox”: Suppose I am an ornithologist, concerned to prove my world-shaking hypothesis, “All ravens are black”. I could go out into the field with binoculars and observe ravens. Suppose that over the course of the week I see 198 black ravens, 0 white ravens, 0 green ravens, and so on. These are strong data in favour of my hypothesis, and my publication in the Journal of Chromo-ornithology is assured. (And if they turn it down, I’ve heard there are numerous black studies journals…) But it gets cold out in the field, and sometimes damp, so I could reason as follows: “‘All ravens are black’ is equivalent to ‘all non-black objects are not ravens’.” And in my warm and dry study there may be no ravens, but there are many non-black objects. So I catalogue all the pink erasers and yellow textbooks and white mugs, and list them all as evidence for my hypothesis.

The status of this charming story as a paradox depends on the belief that no one would actually make such an inference. Behold, the president of the United States: Last week the special prosecutor for matters related to Russian interference with the 2016 US election released an indictment of 13 Russians. None of them had worked with the Trump campaign. Trump’s response:

In other words, while it is proving too difficult to collect proof of the contention “No anti-American voter fraud was performed by Trump,” he is collecting evidence that “There were actions not performed by Trump that were anti-American voter fraud.”

Stopped clocks and reporters

One convenient thing about the Trumpist banana republic is that rampant nepotism makes it easy to keep track of the key players, because no one trusts anyone but a blood relative.* So now the Washington Post reports that Trump’s absurdly incompetent choice for Education Secretary has a brother, Erik Prince, who just happens to be the founder of the infamous Blackwater mercenary troop. And that

The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

Is it true?

A Prince spokesman said in a statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”

According to this spokesman it is a “complete fabrication”. On the other hand, “the meeting” occurred, apparently. I suppose the Post might have fabricated the story, which turns out only by sheerest coincidence to be true, like stopped clock that just happens to be showing the right time when you look at it. Seems like we’re getting deep into the epistemological weeds, though.

The best part is the last sentence, though, which sounds like the guy pulled over for drunk driving, who yells at the police, “I pay your salary. Shouldn’t you be out catching some real criminals?

* I heard the joke recently, after Trump gave his son in law the job of reforming the federal government, on top of bringing peace to the Middle East and reviving US manufacturing, that perhaps Trump is one of those fairy-tale kings who requires that the prince seeking to marry his daughter perform three impossible tasks. (Except they’re already married… or are they?) Perhaps he can use his experience to help the federal government find a wealthy heiress to marry…

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

“Getting a bit of extra assistance is never cheating”

If I were a philosophy student with a looming deadline for an essay on casuistry, I know I’d turn to BuyEssay for expert help. The Guardian has reported on government moves to crack down on essay mills, that sell individually crafted essays for students who need “extra help” –anything from a 2-page essay to a PhD dissertation (for just £6750!) The article reprints some of the advertising text that these websites offer to soothe tender consciences.

“Is Buying Essays Online Cheating?” it asks, in bold type. You’d think this would be an easy question, hardly something you could spin a 300-word essay out of. But they start with a counterintuitive answer: “We can assure you it is NOT cheating”. The core of the argument is this:

What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead. In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating.

Given that high grades are so essential, it seems almost perverse that universities make it so difficult to obtain them. Why do they put all these essays and other hurdles in the way — “unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time”, as the essay puts it? It’s shitty customer service, that’s what it is.

The only critique I might make is that the essay is a bit generic. I’d worry that when I submitted it for the assignment “Is Buying Essays Online Cheating”, that the marker might notice that someone else bought almost the same essay for the assignment “Is Murder Wrong?” In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Wasn’t this the plot of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?

The random correspondence theory of truth

Republicans may not believe in scientific reasoning, but Republican administrations seem to be the best for generating innovations in epistemology. The Bush administration brought us the taxonomy of “known unknowns”, etc.

Now presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway continues to press forward her creative truth-value confections. After coining the term “alternative facts” for what were formerly called “lies”, she is now attacking what might be called the curatorial conception of truth.

“You can talk about somebody almost making a mistake and not doing it,” Tapper said. “I’m talking about the President of the United States saying things that are not true, demonstrably not true. That is important.”

“Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?” Conway replied.

It is not important, in her conception, for true statements to be statistically more common than false, or, presumably, even more common than background randomness. Only that they are there, and that they “make a difference”. The lies presumably make a difference as well.

Abstractly, statements can be generated by a machine, or a Magic 8 Ball, and there are approximately equal numbers of potential statements that are true as false. (Think Library of Babel.) We count on humans having a preference for truth, even an abhorrence of falsehoods. From Conway’s point of view, though, Trump has no obligation to make overwhelmingly true statements, as long as the truths that do crop up “make a difference”.