Many years ago I read to my daughter a children’s book in which a little girl learning to ride a bicycle keeps running into objects like trees and lampposts. A bicycle instructor explains to her that when you become too fixated on an obstacle it exerts a strong psychological pull, so that the very exigency of evading it leads to a crash.
I used to wonder whether this was a real phenomenon. I don’t anymore…
Actually, I’ve long thought the second Iraq War was an example of the same phenomenon. There was no possibility that there wouldn’t be a war, because once they’d started to consider it Bush and Blair couldn’t bare not to see how it would turn out.
I was just listening to physicist Sean Carroll’s podcast interview of epistemologist Quassim Cassam. The interview mainly concerned Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political, but at the end it touched on his new book Conspiracy Theories. He remarked on the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are becoming increasingly widespread, and politically influential, and then made this Chomskyan comment
leaving aside the question of whether conspiracy theories are more or less prevalent, it’s true that conspiracy theories are popular and influential across the world and particularly in the US…. I’m actually much more interested in the idea that conspiracy theories or at least the sort of big ticket conspiracy theories are really forms of political propaganda, that what they really do is to advance a political agenda and that’s really their role.
So, you may think conspiracy theories are just arising naturally, but actually there are dark shadowy figures manipulating belief in conspiracies for their nefarious ends.
One small point: Carroll started the interview by remarking “I know a little bit about epistemology, not that much”. Which struck me as a deeply ironic remark, to which I yearned in vain for Cassam to reply “You may know more about it than you think you do.”
A little-publicised development in statistics over the past two decades has been the admission of causality into respectable statistical discourse, spearheaded by the computer scientist Judea Pearl. Pearl’s definition (joint with Joseph Harpern) of causation (“X having setting x caused effect E”) has been formulated approximately as follows:
X=x and E occurs.
But for the fact that X=x, E would not have occurred.
Of course, Pearl is not the first person to think carefully about causality. He would certainly recognise the similarity to Koch’s postulates on demonstrating disease causation by a candidate microbe:
No disease without presence of the organism;
The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease ;
The disease must arise when the organism is introduced into a healthy animal;
The organism isolated from that animal must be identified as the same original organism.
I was reminded of this recently in reading the Buddhist Assutava Sutta, the discourse on “dependent co-arising”, where this formula (that also appears in very similar wording in a wide range of other Buddhist texts) is stated:
Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:
In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.
Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?
It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.
So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.
Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.
There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)
People in the know are starting to think a disastrous “no deal” Brexit is now not at all unlikely. According to UK trade secretary Liam Fox
I have never thought it was much more than 50-50, certainly not much more than 60-40.
The Latvian foreign minister is only slightly more optimistic:
The chances of the UK securing a Brexit deal before it leaves the European Union in March are only 50:50, Latvia’s foreign minister has said ahead of talks with Jeremy Hunt.
Edgars Rinkevics said there was a “very considerable risk” that, with time rapidly running out, Britain could crash out of the bloc without a withdrawal agreement.
But not to worry. Rinkevics went on to say that
having said 50:50, I would say I am remaining optimistic.
I suppose, technically, he is more optimistic than Hunt. Why so gloomy, Jeremy, with your exaggerated estimate of 60% chance of disaster? I think it’s more like 50 percent. That’s a glass half full if ever I saw one…
I’ve just been reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Reckoning with Risk, about risk communication, mainly a plaidoyer for the use of “natural frequencies” in place of probabilities: Statements in the form “In how many cases out of 100 similar cases of X would you expect Y to happen”. He cites one study forensic psychiatry experts who were presented with a case study, and asked to estimate the likelihood of the individual being violent in the next six months. Half the subjects were asked “What is the probability that this person will commit a violent act in the next six months?” The other half were asked “How many out of 100 women like this patient would commit a violent act in the next six months?” Looking at these questions, it was obvious to me that the latter question would elicit lower estimates. Which is indeed what happened: The average response to the first question was about 0.3; the average response to the second was about 20.
What surprised me was that Gigerenzer seemed perplexed by this consistent difference in one direction (though, obviously, not by the fact that the experts were confused by the probability statement). He suggested that those answering the first question were thinking about the same patient being released multiple times, which didn’t make much sense to me.
What I think is that the experts were thinking of the individual probability as a hidden fact, not a statistical statement. Asked to estimate this unknown probability it seems natural that they would be cautious: thinking it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 percent they would not want to underestimate this individual’s probability, and so would conservatively state the upper end. This is perfectly consistent with them thinking that, averaged over 100 cases they could confidently state that about 20 would commit a violent act.
There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.
Most Republican leaders, in their concern to defend the president from accusations of racist over his terming African nations and Haiti “shithole countries” and saying “get them out”, have resorted to one of two strategies:
Fake news. He didn’t say it, and it’s outrageous to suggest that he did.
Harsh but true. He did say it, and it shows how forthright and unconcerned he is with liberal pieties.
Neither is entirely satisfactory. It is natural, then, that a Fox News correspondent, in the spirit of Freud’s “kettle logic“, combines the two:
I think it’s either fake news or if it’s true, this is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar.
The bar is the new locker room. It’s kind of weird, though, when the best defense for the president’s behaviour is, he’s talking in the formal setting of a negotiation with senators the way even average uneducated Americans would only talk in a private setting when somewhat inebriated.
Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”
I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.
One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.
Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.
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.