30 December 2010

Climate Roundup

Most of the commentary on the cold winter has been too stupid to discuss, so I haven't. Certainly, cold winters do not prove that the climate scientists are wrong, though it does suggest that alarm is overstated: not only is weather not climate, but climate variability is so dwarfed by weather variability that it is not remotely possible to actually notice whatever climate variation there might have been over the last hundred years. The actual weather changes in any given place from year to year or decade to decade are vastly bigger than any global climate change we have seen. As I say, that doesn't make climate change wrong, but it does make it less relevant.

But most stupid are the desperate attempts to claim that cold winters are caused by global warming. Not because that is impossible, but because there has been scant regard for facts. I have been informed by one earnest physicist that snowy winters here are to be expected, because global warming increases the amount of water in the air. That would be sound logic if English winters were normally cold and dry, but they are not - winter conditions here are normally that if there is a clear night, there is frost, but if there is cloud cover, that keeps the ground too warm for frost, and it rains. We have snow this year because it is colder, not because there is more moisture.

Some random genius on Twitter takes the biscuit for claiming that the cold winter is to be expected, because global warming has melted icecaps, changed ocean salinity, and diverted the Gulf Stream. Again, logically sound, but the ocean salinity has not changed and the Gulf Stream has not moved. Apart from that, good try...

Monbiot's theory, that warming at the pole has disrupted atmospheric circulations, bringing cold weather down, is at least not obviously contradicted by the facts. It might be true. But there was certainly no consensus predicting it.

What has made this issue worth mentioning for me is the excellent collection of articles gathered by hauntingthelibrary, of the climate mainstream explaining that mild winters in Britain are the result of Global Warming. We are all familiar, I am sure, with the classic UEA "snowfall a thing of the past", but he shows that that was not one random nutter.

* Less snow and rain for islands (Hadley Centre)
* Warmer and Wetter Winters in Europe and Western North America Linked to Increasing Greenhouse Gases (NASA,Nature)
* The recent warm winters that Britain has experienced are a clear sign that the climate is changing (James Hansen)

The point is not that they are wrong. The fact is that the climate system is so complex, and the climate signal is so faint against the weather background, that there is no possibility of being right. If global average temperatures really have increased by a degree or so over the last fifty years, and I cannot see that there is any way to tell whether they have, then what the results are is equally unknowable. Weather is just too big a thing to see around.

The other point is the sheer lack of restraint in putting forward ad-hoc climate theories without the slightest thinking-through in response to any weather. Journalists do journalism, but this kind of speculation is what scientists were traditionally so unwilling to do that, 25 years ago, there was a popular stereotype of the scientist who couldn't commit himself to anything because "the evidence is not yet complete". That change is the most significant element in climate science.

22 December 2010

Friedman (D) on Rights

Some of you may remember my two posts on the nature of rights in 2008. If so, you can now forget them, because David Friedman has made the argument more completely and much more eloquently.

Rights in human societies, including modern ones, are based on the same pattern of behavior as territorial behavior in animals or enforcement via feud and the threat of feud, even if less obviously so. Each individual has a view of his entitlements and is willing to bear unreasonably large costs in defense of them.

Yup, that's what rights are.

21 December 2010

Cable and the Cables

I can't help thinking that the Vince Cable story is a knock-on effect of Wikileaks.

The biggest effect of wikileaks may not be either the secrets that it tells, or even the fear of the secrets it may yet tell. It may be the secrets that others tell, because of the feeling, "when all that is already in the newspapers, why am I keeping X a secret?"

Is it a breach of confidence to secretly record what an MP tells a "constituent" that he has never met? It's pretty thin... it is just a politician talking to a voter with no extra qualification; if he tells one voter something, what right does he have to keep it secret from other voters? But nobody did it before.

And, of course, the current story is based not just on the Telegraph's secret recording, but on a leak of that recording -- the Telegraph, perhaps for business reasons, chose not to reveal Cable's claim to have "declared war on Murdoch". So someone at the Telegraph leaked it to the BBC.

I rather suspect that norms as to what is publishable and what isn't have changed suddenly.

"Egalitarian Monarchism"

Reading Richard Spencer's criticism of John Médaille's form of "egalitarian monarchism", I was initially moved to leap to the defence of Médaille. There is indeed a sense in which the advantage of Monarchy is its egalitarianism.

What I mean is that the modern democratic state shares many of its problems with the feudal societies of the first half of the last millenium. Power is divided between many competing blocs (in the old world, aristocratic families, in the new, agencies and guilds) whose domains are variable and unclear, and much of what passes for policy results from conflicts between them for power.

The medieval problem was solved by the growth of Royal versus aristocratic power. The Tudors and the Bourbons (for example) were able to dominate the aristocracy.

This can be seen as an egalitarian reform -- the vast power blocs weakened, and the ordinary subject becoming more equal, at least in terms of political power, with his Lord who, like him, is under effective authority.

There are many institutions that today have too much power. A true royal restoration would make the government agencies, the quangos, the media, the universities, the unions, the banks, all bereft of political power. Opinions may legitimately vary as to which of those bodies most urgently need their wings clipped, and the Steel Rule means that I do not assert my own view, but the point is not so much that they all will be subservient to the Sovereign, as that he will be subservient to none of them.

One of the most important characteristics of personal power is that it is the power to get things wrong and then fix them. I do not in fact have confidence in the wisdom of some randomly selected King to know which of the above groups perform useful functions, and which are parasites perpetuated by their own acquired power.

I do think that only personal power is a recipe to eventually find the right answer -- all forms of collective decision-making are too easily swayed by the subjects themselves, with the result that the first decision made becomes irrevocable.

So, to summarise, the advantage of more monarchism, either in the hypothetical future or in the 1500s, is the stripping of power from the oppressors, and that can be (though I certainly wouldn't insist on it) seen as a kind of egalitarianism -- even as a kind of democracy if you really want to stretch.

Unfortunately though, Médaille is still utterly wrong. Actually looking at his pieces on Front Porch Republic, he makes an argument not for the ruling monarch of the later middle ages, but for the very confusion of competing political power groups that I see as analogous to the current mess, and which was superseded by what he calls "Regalism".

Once terms like "Tyranny" start to be thrown around in American publications, it becomes necessary to look at what the issues were at the time of the American rebellion. The rebels were certainly not out to free themselves from an absolute monarchy, since no English King had held such power for a hundred years. The Whigs had first made an alliance with William of Orange in order to remove the Stuarts, who were the last Kings who even aspired to really rule England, and with the importation of George I and his reception at the docks by the dignitaries of the Kit-Cat Club, the alliance became completely one-sided and the Whigs established their permanent dominance. (All English politics since that date has consisted of conflicts among Whigs, with the term Tory being revived from time to time by more radical Whigs as an insult to throw at their less radical colleagues).

George III did attempt to re-establish some kind of Royal power, though I am not sure he set his sights as high as the power Charles II had, let alone that of Elizabeth. (If I find out he did, I will adopt his banner as mine). The American rebellion was the Whigs' way of putting him in his place. The small gains he did achieve mostly lasted into Victoria's reign, but were finally expunged by the advent of universal suffrage and the acceptance of purely democratic theories of government in the 20th Century.

19 December 2010

Liu Xiaobo again

It seems that the Guardian has actually investigated and discovered (by the extraordinary method of finding someone who can read Chinese) what I merely assumed -- that Liu Xiaobo is a professional front-man for American imperialism.

That isn't such a bad thing, of course. There are many worse forces in the world than American imperialism, and many places that might benefit from a bit more of it. China might even be one of them (though I am not persuaded on that point).

What would be significant about the revelations that, for instance, his organisation has been funded by the US government, or that he was outspoken in favour of George Bush and against Kerry, or that he says "to choose westernisation is to choose to be human" would be if they changed anyone's mind about him. Because really, it is all implied by what little we knew about him before the Grauniad dredged up translations of his writing.

And of course, the fact that a paid agent of a hostile power, openly dedicated to overthrowing his country's government and culture, was allowed to remain at liberty for as long as he was, to my mind falsifies a lot of what is said about China today.

02 December 2010

Assange's Theory

I came across a link to a couple of articles by Julian Assange (from late 2006) detailing his motivation (via zunguzungu):

They don't amount to much. He opens, promisingly, "Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action."

He goes on to completely skip over the first two requirements. His very next words are: "Authoritarian power is maintained by conspiracy" the rest of the two powers covers nothing but how to take apart the conspiracy of government. There is zero discussion of what "Authoritarian power" is, and why we dislike it, or "what aspect of ... behavior we wish to change or remove". Which is rather a shame. It's all means, no ends.

The means, taking apart a government or other conspiracy by breaking the links of trust between elements, should work, and seems to be working, indeed. But what the ends are still eludes me - the word "authoritarian" means less to me than most other elements of unfamiliar theology. The natural consequence of the wikileaks style of attack would seem to be to produce networks with fewer and stronger links. I suspect that would be a good thing, but I have no idea whether Assange would consider it less "authoritarian".

He does say that "The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie". It's not clear whether that's put forward as a hypothesis or as an axiom: as a hypothesis, it's plausible but there are arguments to the contrary.

The real weakness in the analysis is the claim that "Conspiracies are cognitive devices". They are a lot more than that. Modern governments to not include so many hundreds of thousands in their conspiracies merely to enhance their information. Conspiracies gather power, and then they bring power to bear. By cutting off the extremities of the conspiracy, Assange is depriving it of some information, but that seems secondary; mostly he is reducing the reach of the conspiracy, both to gather power (for instance from allied governments) and to bring it to bear (for instance through distantly-deployed armies). The surviving conspiracy will have less total power at its command, which might be the point, but it will at the same time be constrained to use that power in a more concentrated direction.

More crucially, if it can no longer rely on power gathered from its periphery, the conspiracy will have nothing to offer the periphery. After all, the claim of (here it comes) democracy is that we are all part of the conspiracy - we are consulted, we exert influence, we communicate through our representatives. These are the weakest links that will be severed first.

So, I'm not here to criticise Assange's actions - only his writing. I might be on his side, if I knew what side he was on.

18 November 2010

The Royal Engagement

I hold no brief for constitutional monarchy. It has been observed that constitutional monarchies tend to work better than republics, but to the extent that is true, I would put it down to the presence of a constitutional monarch being an indication that other undemocratic elements are also present — in effect, that the regime is an "old democracy" rather than the inferior, more-democratic "young democracy". The actual monarchy itself has no significance.

There are nonetheless reasons for welcoming the continuation of the line of the Hanoverian usurpers. First, they serve to distract democratic idealists. The centres of real undemocratic power suffer less opposition because purists allow themselves to be drawn into endless pointless arguments about the trivial cost of the Monarchy versus the sentimental value of tradition and the tangible value of the tourism industry. (Back when I believed in democracy, I eschewed republicanism for precisely that reason).

Second, the Royal Family is a contingency plan of sorts. If we are ever to escape slow strangulation by Old Democracy, then an assumption of power by the monarch is about the least unlikely mechanism. The crisis that would lead to such a change would have to be extreme, but it is only very unlikely, not unthinkable.

For instance, there is evidence of some planning of a military coup against Harold Wilson, which it is claimed would have installed Lord Mountbatten as interim prime minister. Mountbatten would have been a logical choice from one point of view, as a member of the Royal Family, a World War II General, and a former ruler (of India). It came to nothing, but there could be a next time, and a King ready to take over ultimate authority would be a large asset to such a conspiracy — particularly as we are a bit short of famous generals or colonial governors. On the other hand, it would be plainly impossible in anything resembling current circumstances, because the USA would not permit it. For any future crisis to produce an escape from democracy, the US would have to be substantially weakened or would have to move first. (The story is that CIA at least were backing the Mountbatten plot).

That story (assuming for the moment it is true) does bring home the danger of any attempt to move to non-political government. Really, Mountbatten? I am reminded that I do not support the idea of a royalist coup in the same way as a democrat supports his party to win the next election. My thought is more that if it did somehow come off well, it would be a good thing. Things would have to get a great deal worse than they are for it to be worth that kind of a risk.

The difficulty is that while the benefits of abolishing politics are real, they cannot be felt for at least a generation: the first ruling Monarch will not have inherited only his crown, not his power, and will have to work as hard to hold it as any other dictator. Charles II nearly pulled it off, and if he had a son rather than his plonker of a brother his efforts might well have been enough. But it is much easier to mess up than to get right.

So, for those thin reasons, I am celebrating the prospect of the continuation of the House of Windsor into the future. Gawd Bless 'em

Speaking of which, I think I may have resolved what I felt was a problem with my political position. I am an atheist who believes in the Divine Right of Kings. There is some hint of a logical inconsistency there. But in fact the two beliefs go together. The concrete premise of my position is that competition for power is more damaging than power misused. Therefore I want no decision to be made about who has power — since any decision will cause competition. What better way to avoid a decision than to put the deciding power into hands that do not exist? God says the King shall rule. If you disagree, do not appeal to the army, the mob, the United Nations or the electorate — take it up with God. In the meantime, the King shall rule. God save the King!

There is one detail of the Royal engagement which might be significant: the princess-to-be is a commoner — one whose parents had, at one time, to work for a living (gasp!). This is contrary to tradition — is it a problem?

The biggest danger is that by choosing a bride from within the realm, the Royal Family is opening up a competition for power among rival interests. In the long run, a monarchy where the heir to the throne tended to choose his bride from his student colleagues (rather than from a predetermined small selection of princesses) might produce hugely destructive competition between political factions to get their daughters into the right courses of the right universities. Factions would seek to control university admissions departments, influence the Royal youths' choice of courses, possibly causing huge damage to academia in the process. That perhaps sounds far-fetched, but in fact compared to the steps taken by lobbies and interest groups today to gain indirect influence over policy, it's quite minor. Minor it may be, but it's not what we want.

(For an analogous line of reasoning, see my speculation about celebrities entering politics. The root issue is the same — if some activity becomes, in addition to its original purpose, a route to power, then in time it will become nothing but a route to power, and whatever useful purposes it had will be lost).

The commoner issue, then, is potentially a bad precedent in the long run. In the current circumstances, I don't think it's worth worrying about at all. Since, for any of the above to matter at all, we first have to take the giant, improbable step from constitutional monarchy to absolute monarchy, anything that makes that step slightly less difficult is worth considerable sacrifice. Attempting to find a suitable European princess is not something we need to be spending effort on.

So, here's to William and Kate.

12 November 2010

Effects before causes in the lab?

This is very exciting:


Daryl Bem has taken the unusual, yet elegantly simple, approach of testing a raft of classic psychological phenomena, backwards.

Take priming - the effect whereby a subliminal (i.e. too fast for conscious detection) presentation of a word or concept speeds subsequent reaction times for recognition of a related stimulus. Bem turned this around by having participants categorise pictures as negative or positive and then presenting them subliminally with a negative or positive word. That is, the primes came afterwards. Students were quicker, by an average of 16.5ms, to categorise negative pictures as negative when they were followed by a negative subliminal word (e.g. 'threatening'), almost as if that word were acting as a prime working backwards in time.

Got that? The experimenters have used the same techniques usually employed to see how various events affect people's behaviour, but reversed the order of the stimulus and the measurement of the response, and found that the stimulus has the same effect, even if it hasn't happened yet.

If the experiment has been done correctly, then it confirms what I have long believed. No, not that the structure of space-time is fundamentally different to what we are told. Rather, that the normal scientific techniques used to measure effects and evaluate their significance are no bloody good.

Nobody seems to have picked up on that possibility just yet, but I think the idea will gradually get around.

07 November 2010

Libertarian Politics

It's funny: (h/t Isegoria)

The Country Club Republicans put up most of the money and provided meeting places. Important.

The religeous right provided a lot of work. It was they that walked precincts and they that worked phone banks. Very important.

The libertarians talked. The libertarians also complained. They were always too busy talking and complaining to do any work.

... but I don't think it represents a personal failing on the part of the libertarians this politician attempted to work with. Rather, it exposes the fundamental flaw with libertarian politics. The other groups were important because they had bought into the idea of politics — they had picked their side and were prepared to work to make it win, effectively obtaining what power they could, and trading it with their allies to get help on the few issues they particularly cared about.

For a libertarian, this is fundamentally illegitimate. Libertarians are not comfortable seeking power outside of the specific policy changes they want to make. That makes them, in political terms, useless.

There isn't a way around this. For a libertarian to accept that he needs to fully engage in the political process, he has to accept that there is more to politics than policy — that who has power is an important thing in its own right. Once you believe that, you are no longer a libertarian.

05 November 2010

Tweakers and Pioneers

Good guest post on the Freakonomics blog: "Tweakers" and "Pioneers" in the world of innovation.

The undervaluing of tweakers compared to pioneers is something I've drawn attention to before, most recently in the context of science (with arts as a point of comparison) in Originality and Science.

14 October 2010

Non-violent revolution

In my critcism of the Nobel Peace Prize, I didn't address the point that Liu Xiaobo is an advocate for non-violent democratic change in China.

That was because it is irrelevant. It is the violence after the government falls that bothers me, not before.

The Tsar of Russia was removed non-violently, by strikes and demonstrations - the more democratic regime that replaced him lasted a few months, a different gang replaced it, their enemies started a civil war... Long story.

The exemplar of the non-violent revolutionary is Gandhi. He succeeds, the British hand over power, there are rival factions and interests sharing it out, a partition results, social unrest - 5 to 10 million dead.

Both those revolutions might nevertheless have been good things; that's not the point. The point is that either way, the non-violence of the first stage is pretty much insignificant. A non-violent revolutionary is only harmless if he fails.

13 October 2010

The Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize has long been beyond the grasp of rational criticism, but I don't think this year's award can be let by with just the usual cynical chuckle.

Timothy Garton-Ash says in the Grauniad CiF that the prize "hits China's most sensitive nerve". In fact, the offence that the Chinese government has taken is all the result of a misunderstanding. They really do have difficulty understanding the level of the West's hypocrisy and stupidity.

To the extent the award means anything at all, it is a declaration of intent, by the Nobel Committee and all those that speak in support of it, to overthrow the government of China and replace it with a Western-style government. Garton-Ash explains that Liu Xiaobo "has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy". It is possible to advocate respect for human rights and the rule of law within Chinese politics, but to advocate democracy is to advocate the destruction of the Chinese government and its replacement with a Western-style one.

To make such a warlike declaration in the name of peace is, of course, just the usual annual joke.

Therefore, it is reasonable for the Chinese authorities to react to the award as a declaration of outright enmity. Their reaction is, nevertheless, wrong. There are two things they do not understand.

The first is that this declaration is purely ritual. In calling for the overthrow of the PRC, the Western intelligentsia have not the slightest idea of any actual program of action; they are merely showing each other how virtuous they are. It is the equivalent of the prayers for the conversion of England that used to be said by Catholic congregations - a creed that had to be regularly affirmed, without the slightest reflection on its actual meaning.

The second is that, because of the lack of such reflection, the self-declared enemies of China actually have no inkling of what they are actually saying. "Democracy", in the mouth of someone like Garton-Ash, is just something that goes with human rights and rule of law - it is a minor adornment of a political system, that can be increased here and there without killing millions of people.

In Britain, that is indeed what it is - as democracy crept gradually into the British system over a couple of hundred years, the system absorbed and to a great extent neutralised it, producing a comfortable and moderately stable synthesis. That is not what happens when it is introduced in one go. Then it destroys one regime and produces another, usually very short-lived, replacement. Then there is generally a settling down into some kind of civil war. France is the model, not Britain.

The Garton-Ashes and Nobel Committees do not understand that. The thought never even enters their heads. They probably assume that even the CPC leadership itself really wants democracy, but is just a little too cautious and conservative in bringing it in, and needs to be gently chivied by the likes of Liu Xiaobo.

If the Chinese really understood Western politics, they would ignore it and watch the X-factor like sensible westerners do. But it is out of place for the politicians themselves to criticise the Chinese for taking them at their word.

I don't say all this to attack the idea of reform in China. While I am no great fan of democracy, and while the Chinese regime does have a fairly decent record over the last couple of decades, I recognise that it is bound to run into serious problems as wealth and economic freedom increase the power of rivals to the present establishment. There are already serious power struggles between central and regional governments. It may well be that political collapse is inevitable, and if so, then a somewhat Western-ish democracy would not be the worst possible outcome. Liu Xiaobo might be the nucleus of a future non-terrible government of China, and the alternative to something worse. It's hard to say. But these aren't the terms in which the debate is being carried on.

21 August 2010

A Strong Criticism of Monarchy

From the comments to the World Cup piece:

Monarchy is rule by a single individual. It works on this wise. Immediately after his succession, the new monarch enthusiastically attempts to rule the country. For a certain period, shall we call it a year. As there is only so much time between breakfast and supper, this is largely impossible. The next year, he carries on out of a sense of duty. The third year, he announces that he does not want to be bothered with this ruling crap, but if there are any fit women around would you please send them up. Monarchy then gives way to pornocracy: porne is Greek for prostitute.

Previous objections to Monarchic rule which I have rejected rest on the possibility that the monarch might be an idiot or a psychopath. In my estimation, mere idiocy or psychopathy are less damaging to good government than politics is.

The commenter brings up the more fearsome possibility that the monarch could be a normal sane bloke, more concerned about what his girlfriend thinks of him than about whether GDP next year will be 2.5 trillion or 3 trillion.

If decisions simply end up being made by some random attractive woman (or boy) instead of the hereditary ruler, that's not a problem in itself. But the reason this situation is so much more dangerous than mere insanity is that it produces politics, (meaning a struggle for power), based this time not around arming supporters or controlling journalists, but around forming close personal relationships with the monarch. This was often the main form of "politics" in historical monarchies.

I'm not sure that it is a worse form of politics than exists in a democracy or a military Junta, but my aim in proposing monarchy is to remove politics altogether, which is obviously more difficult than I thought.

11 August 2010

Devaluation of Significance

I referred in my last post to a lost writing of mine on the subject of abuse of statistics in economics. I've sort of found it - I sent it as an email in response to this blog post by Noel Campbell at Division of Labour. (Read it - it's short).

He quoted from my response, but I can't find the actual email I sent him. I do have a draft of it, so it would have been very much like this:

That's a superb question, and I think the answer will surprise (and disturb) many.

Your paper will include a calculation of significance. This is essentially an estimate of the probability that a correlation as strong as the one you found would exist purely as a result of randomness in the data, even if your theory is false.

This calculation assumes the "proper" sequence of events. You have a theory, and you test the data for a correlation. Since you in fact poked around for correlations, then came up with a theory, the significance calculation is not valid. The true significance depends on the probability that, having found a randomly-caused correlation somewhere, you can then invent a theory to explain it. That probability is very difficult to estimate, but is probably much greater - meaning that the significance of the correlation is much smaller.

It is very counterintuitive that the order of your actions affects the validity of your findings, and indeed it is a close relative of the famous Monty Hall problem - the poster child for counterintuitive probability. When you reveal the correlation that you already knew of, you are revealing no information about the chance of your theory being correct, much as when the quizmaster opens the door that he already knows doesn't have the car, he reveals no information about the chance that the door you first picked has the car. Conversely if you pick a door and find that it doesn't have the car, that does change the probability that the first door had it, and if you had no prior knowledge of the data, the correlation does change the probability of your theory being true.

Back to science. As you say, theories aren't formed in a vacuum, and so there is not such an clear division between the "right" way of doing it and the "wrong" way of doing it. Nobody is completely ignorant of the data when they start to theorize. That is a real problem with nearly all statistics-based results that are published today. They are all presented with significance calculations based on the assumption that the forming of the theory was independent of the data - an assumption that is very unlikely to be completely true. Therefore nearly every significance published is an overestimate.

This was much less of a problem when collecting data and analysing it was difficult and laborious. Now that large data sets fly around the internet, and every researcher has the capability of running analyses at the click of a mouse, it is a problem that has already got out of hand.

I didn't want to be rude at the time, but I found Campbell's response shocking. He seemed to fully accept my argument, but wasn't bothered by the implication that pretty much all published research relying on analysing pre-existing statistics was wrong. Rather, his conclusion was that since everybody else was doing what he was doing, nobody should complain and demand "purity" (his scare quotes). That came to mind particularly reading Bruce Charlton's discussion of the state of honesty in science.

The story of real science

Bruce Charlton has published what he calls an "mini-e-booklet": http://thestoryofscience.blogspot.com/

I think he is saying, in greater detail and at much more length, and with the point of view of an insider, what I was saying in the last few days: that science has declined, because science has become an industry which no longer allows for the extraordinary honesty that real science requires.

This is the problem of science today – it has been bloated by decades of exponential growth into a bureaucratically dominated heavy industry soviet factory characterized by vastly inefficient mass production of shoddy goods. And it is trundling along, hour by hour, day by day; masses of people going to work, doing things, saying things, writing things…

Science is hopelessly and utterly un-reformable while it continues to be so big, continues to grow-and-grow, and continues uselessly to churn out ever-more of its sub-standard and unwanted goods.

Switch it off: stop making the defective glasses: now...

There are some very general arguments he makes which I have been meaning to spell out for a while. He suggests that the peak of science was in the mid-20th century, and it was a transitional state.

this transitional state of classic science was an early phase of professional science, which came between what might be called medieval science and modern science (which is not real science at all - but merely a generic bureaucratic organization which happened to have evolved from classic science). But classic science was never a steady state, and never reproduced itself; but was continually evolving by increasing growth, specialization and professionalization/ bureaucratization.

I think such transitional phases occur in different fields quite frequently. Part of my disillusionment with libertarianism is that it is an attempt to recapture a transitional state in government that was never sustainable - the state where a new class is taking over power and opens up freedom for everybody because it has not yet thrown off its self-identification as an underdog that benefits from freedom.

The failure of science is also an aspect of the widely-recognised but ill-understood problem of trying too hard: some things can only be achieved by trying to do something else.

The scientists of the past, like the individuals making up the governments of the past, were privileged. They ruled or researched not in order that they optimise some output, but because they could - they had reached positions of genuine personal responsibility, and had to make their own judgement.

If these "very general arguments" sound rather woolly, do not adjust your set. That's why I haven't published on them already - nevertheless, I bring them up now because they're bugging me and I think Charlton's writing is relevant to them.

Back to the specifics, Part 3 quotes an earlier post of Charlton's that chimes very closely with what I was saying yesterday:

Charlton BG. Are you an honest scientist? Truthfulness in science should be an iron law, not a vague aspiration. Medical Hypotheses. 2009; Volume 73: 633-635


Anyone who has been a scientist for more than a couple of decades will realize that there has been a progressive and pervasive decline in the honesty of scientific communications. Yet real science simply must be an arena where truth is the rule; or else the activity simply stops being science and becomes something else: Zombie science. Although all humans ought to be truthful at all times; science is the one area of social functioning in which truth is the primary value, and truthfulness the core evaluation. Truth-telling and truth-seeking should not, therefore, be regarded as unattainable aspirations for scientists, but as iron laws, continually and universally operative. Yet such is the endemic state of corruption that an insistence on truthfulness in science seems perverse, aggressive, dangerous, or simply utopian.


There are points I disagree with: Charlton tells the orthodox story of Lysenko - he was a gangster, he brought politics and political arguments into science. As I said yesterday, that lacks the understanding that he believed he was not the first to do so, that he believed he was only trying to correct the political influence that had already occurred. We are distracted by the fact that Lysenko's enemies were not merely removed from influence, but actually imprisoned - that is incidental, just part of the difference between Stalin's Russia and our world. The dissenting scientist today is as much an enemy of the state as Vavilov was, the only difference is that our establishment is secure enough to leave its enemies at large, while Stalin wasn't.

The reason I insist on this is that the orthodox story makes the problem seem too easy: don't allow monsters like Lysenko, keep politicians out of science. It isn't that easy - the politics that matters is the "office politics" of science itself, not the real politics of the government.

Charlton does not suggest a solution like mine of yesterday - de-emphasising the quest for originality in favour of more checking and reproduction - but it's clearly a prerequisite for the sort of changes he does advocate. To restore the primacy of truth to science a necessary step would be to ensure that only truth-seekers were recruited to the key scientific positions, and to exclude from leadership those who are untruthful or exhibit insufficient devotion to the pursuit of truth. Obviously, before you can do that you have to have a way to find out who is truthful and who isn't - you have to check.

Certainly there needs to be a slowing-down of science - Charlton and I are as one on that.

There's another point that Charlton gets close to: Real achievement in science requires a great deal of luck - the thing you are looking for has to really be there. However, when someone is in a career, it is unjust to value them by whether they are lucky. That is one of main forces that has driven a wedge between the practice of science and any real product - every research project has to produce something publishable (failing incompetence by the scientists), whereas in reality most research of the most valuable kind finds nothing, producing only a few jackpots for the lucky. The only solutions within the structure of science as bureaucracy is to either know what you are going to find in advance (which is useless), or publish results which are in fact devoid of real content, drowning any real results in the noise. This is largely achieved by abuse of statistics - something I thought I'd addressed in relation to economics, but I can't find. Perhaps I'll post something later.

09 August 2010

Originality and Science

One probably-final point to come out of the Lysenkoism discussion of the previous two posts:

Yesterday I admiringly referred to Richard Feynman's quote

I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists

As I said, that is a key part of cutting out the cascade of distrust that can occur when science becomes politically sensitive.

The problem is that that was an easy thing for Feynman to say, because Feynman was a flamboyantly insane genius, and the last thing he ever had to fear was being ignored. The situation is rather different for one graduate student or new PhD among twenty aiming for the same grant-funded research post. In that position, playing down the significance or certainty of one's own work is a ticket to the dole queue.

And the density of competition is astonishing. There was a piece in Nature a couple of years back, on the limitations of fMRI, that pointed out that from 2007-2008 there have been eight peer-reviewed papers published involving fMRI per day - 19,000 since 1991. "About 43% of papers expore functional localization and/or cognitive anatomy associated with some cognitive task or stimulus". Thousands upon thousands of papers, each searching for the little piece of originality that will give them importance.

However, this torrent of research demonstrates a solution as well as a problem. I wrote yesterday that "it is ... impractical to replicate every experiment, confirm every observation, check every calculation". Clearly, I was wrong. There is ample manpower in the science industry to double- and triple-check important results, but the system does not value the work highly enough for it to actually get done. Only original work actually merits funding.

That is a widespread problem in non-commercial fields, most obvious in the arts. In commercial arts, most artists make small variations or combinations of existing products, just trying to be a little more attractive and entertainment. The minority who are truly original are highly valued, because they are providing material for the rest to refine or perfect. Indeed, I can think of no other distinction between "high" and "popular" art, but that high art always seeks to be original, and popular art isn't too bothered. In academic arts, the only valid work is to do something really new. The end result is a product that is always different, but never very good. In science, every new paper is original, but most of them are wrong.

I would assume that in the cases of both art and science, the original assumption was that the market worked well enough to perfect existing work, but that originality required help and subsidy. However, the subsidised sectors at length became isolated from the commercial, to the point that now there is no commercial sector relevant to the academic work being done, and the new stuff is being pumped out into a vacuum.

It seems obvious that it would be beneficial for science to move more slowly and carefully, but the academic system has evolved in a way that does not permit it. It would take a major shakeup to get the science establishment to start to value that caution.

08 August 2010

What they want to hear

There was another interesting point in the discussion at Hans von Storch's that I brought up - an interesting comment by "Toby" on the earlier piece:

Lysenko told the politicians what they wanted to hear - a "short cut" to socialism. Which side of the current "debate" is telling politicians what they want to hear? The ones arguing that money must be spent and sacrifices made? Or the ones advocating that nothing be done?

That is a good question, and is the root of much of the political polarization of climate science.

Toby implies that politicians want to hear that nothing need be done - money need not be spent.

A right-winger - like myself - believes that what politicians want to hear is that their departments and budgets must be enlarged.

As I explained, the distrust of motives is enough by itself - without any actual dishonesty or malpractice - to mess up the scientific process in a field where unequivocal confirmation or rejection of theories is difficult to come by.


There has been some interesting discussion at Hans von Storch's blog about Lysenkoism. Nils Roll Hansen wrote some posts.

I don't agree with the conclusions reached.

Lysenko was not a politician, he was not a fraud, he was not an ideologue. Lysenko was a scientist.

Lysenko, like the majority of scientists today, worked for the government.

In the scientific controversy that involved Lysenko, he reported to his superiors (the government). That was his job as a senior member of the scientific establishment.

The scientific controversy was politically sensitive. Lysenko claimed that his scientific opponents were politically motivated: their science was based on bourgeois ideas of inherited superiority. That claim was not implausible, and Lysenko had no reasonable alternative but to draw the attention of his superiors to the possibility.

The politicians did their job - they reached a conclusion about how to run a government department based on the advice they received and their judgement of that advice.

When we tell the story of Lysenkoism, we tell it in the knowledge that Lysenko was wrong. What we look for are the indications that the process was bad - that the wrong conclusion was being reached.

My opinion is that there are no such indications. Yes, it was "politicized science", but the main political force on the science was the belief that orthodox genetics was itself the product of the political assumptions of the Western scientists that developed it. That perception was probably exaggerated, if not totally erroneous, but it was a genuine belief honestly held.

The point is that for politics to mess up science, it is not necessary for anyone to let the political implications of a theory take precedence over the evidence. All that is necessary is for some participants to believe that other scientists are doing that. That is enough to cause theories to be suppressed, and thereby for the science to be systematically skewed.

It is not enough, either, to say that at the end of the day the evidence should speak for itself, and the trustworthiness of its spokesmen not be relevant - nullius in verba, and all that. That is all very fine, but it denies the fact that some science is difficult. It is so impractical to replicate every experiment, confirm every observation, check every calculation, that nullus in verba is the next thing to radical scepticism in the philosophical sense. You have to trust some scientists, and that means you have to choose who to trust, and that means you have to take into account politics.

In the very long run, you can learn who is actually trustworthy and who is not. But that is a painful bootstrapping process - you need a little trust to give you some facts, and then you use those facts to evaluate the trustworthiness of those who addressed them. That gives you a little more trust, to gather a few more facts, and so on.

To call, as Hansen does, for "independence" for science does not address the problem. It just means that scientists will be punished for scientific dissent rather than political dissent - which makes the situation worse. If science is run by politicians, you can probably advance whatever theories you like so long as you support the right policies. If science is run by scientists, you must support the authorized theories to succeed.

There is, then, no silver bullet to depoliticise science. There are, however, treatments that can make science work better. Since a small amount of distrust has such a catastrophic effect, the least dishonesty cannot be tolerated. This is behind the now dying attitude that Feynman talked about, of bending over backwards to draw attention to everything that tells against you theory, so that you cannot possibly be accused of concealing any of it.

12 July 2010

Thoughts on the World Cup

Cephalopods aside, I think the most important fact about the 2010 World Cup is that it was the first in which both finalists were teams from monarchies - and that after a run of seven finals in a row between two republic teams.

His Majesty King Juan Carlos becomes the third monarch to reign over world cup winners, following Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (1934 and 1938) and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (1966).

Monarchies have lost to republics in 3 finals, Sweden to Brazil in 1958, and The Netherlands to West Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978. So Her Majesty Queen Beatrix joins Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden, and her mother Queen Juliana as monarchs of world cup runners-up.

What does this break in the trend signify? Possibly a resurgence of Europe relative to monarchyless South America, but that doesn't cover the poor showing of France and Italy.

Other factoids arising from Victor Emmanuel III and fascism: Mussolini was deposed by Victor Emmanuel in a proper constitutional manner in 1943, and German President Paul von Hinderburg's will is believed to have expressed a desire for Germany to return to a monarchy. (The History Place says he did, Wikipedia says it's disputed).

It is the received wisdom that in 1933-34, Hitler's oratory was so supernaturally spooky that he convinced the German people even to abandon democracy to put him in power. It seems more likely that by then democracy had failed so badly that any alternative looked like a good idea. But that's not the stuff to give the troops.

03 July 2010

On Holiday

I'm on holiday, and have been for a couple of weeks, which has taken my mind off matters political and philosophical. But I'll be back at work within the week, and in the meantime my distraction has been broken by anticipation of what will be my first July 4th in the United States.

The argument of my previous post leads me to see the patriotism of my hosts as a human virtue, and ordinary good manners demands that I not treat the event as an opportunity to demonstrate the faults of republican government in general and that of the United States of America in particular.

I therefore aim to concentrate my attention on the American People, who have achieved so much in spite of unwisely lumbering themselves with such an inferior form of government - one which brings such predictable and immediate tragedy when attempted by peoples less endowed with individual and collective virtues, of solidarity, initiative, generosity and even, when using a realistic standard of comparison, intelligence. The American People is almost uniquely qualified to overcome the handicap of democracy and to maintain a society that, while visibly decaying, remains the envy of much of the world. Just imagine what they could have done these last two centuries with a decent monarchy!

I can often be accused of gratuitous contrarianism, and while globally the American form of government is more admired than Americans themselves, my tastes have always run otherwise.

25 May 2010

Right Conduct

Politics and morality can become mired in ill-understood abstractions, so I'm re-evaluating my ideas in more concrete terms; what should be done? What should I do, what should we do, for any values of we that I can get a sensible answer with?

The two questions are separate. Taking the first, what should I do? Taking myself in isolation, there have been two coherent answers to that question: one is "whatever God says", and the other is "Whatever I like".

I prefer the second of those, but it can use some refinement. Doing what I want now could cause me problems in the future; I need to anticipate, and delay gratification to gain more in the long run.

There is a more subtle refinement too: I am not detached from the world; I can change the world, and in the process change myself. It can be easier to manage myself to be satisfied with what is, than to manage the world to satisfy myself. Dispassion is part of the mix as well.

But that's all viewing one person in isolation - an unrealistic approach. Humans are social, and need to form groups to succeed. As well as pursuing my personal goals, I need to gain the cooperation of my neighbours. How to do that is the larger part of what is normally thought of as the sphere of morality.

The most obvious fact is that the answer varies. What will win me cooperation in one society will have me shunned in another; what works in one century (decade, sometimes) fails in the next.

All we can say is that it is necessary for me to conform to the collective expectations of the other people I interact with - to fulfill my designated role in whatever society.

For that to make sense, I have to know what my society is. In theory that's difficult: it's some group of people who interact with me and share expectations of each others' behaviour. In practice, it's usually easier to identify, but not always. I'll come back to that.

As in the individual case, that is not the end of the story. Some societies allow their members to achieve their goals more effectively than others do. Societies change, as individuals do, and they can fail or be replaced. We can say that each person should do what is required of them by their society, and still say that one society is better than another. It might be better in that it is more useful to its members, or it might be better in a different sense in that it is less vulnerable to shocks, more able to grow in reach and strength.

These judgments on societies matter, because, while seeking our own goals and conforming to our place in society, we still may have some power to direct society in a given direction. If we have a vision of a good society, we can aim to change our society for the better.

One practical aside - the aims of improving society and being a good member of it can come into conflict, and attempts to resolve those two competing priorities are often at the centre in dram and history. Froude's Times of Erasmus and Luther contrasts Erasmus's desire to be a good citizen of Christendom with Luther's defiance of his allotted role in the cause of improving Christendom. In this case Froude comes down on the side of Luther, but the question is more important than the answer.

There's an important point missing: We can talk about what makes a society good or bad, and how a member of society can attempt to change it, but ultimately my aim is to advance my own interests, and that might be most effectively done by changing society in a way that is not better either for the society in its own right or for its members generally.

It seems reasonable to say that societies will do better, for themselves and their members, if they somehow prevent this from happening to any significant degree. That's not a theorem - conceivably an arrangement that permits it may bring compensating benefits that outweigh the damage sustained - but they'd better be very substantial benefits.

I'm trying to keep separate two different ways in which a society can be good - it can be good for its members, or it can be good for itself, seen as a metaphorical organism: able to survive, adapt and improve. Inasmuch as a society is a way for its members to better their own lot, the first good is primary, and the second only significant in that it supports the first.

There are a few different forms that can exist to prevent a society being wrecked by selfish interests. (Again, there are two quite distinct ways of being wrecked: the society can be weakened to the degree that it is replaced, either from without or within, by a different society, or else it can remain secure, but provide less value to its members). The first defence is rigidity. If the society is very resistant to any change at all, then it is resistant to wrecking. The problem is it is unable to develop, and unable to react to changing circumstances. Some societies in the past have been successful for their members by being stable, but the rapid changes in the world and in the capabilities of people over the past few centuries have swept all of them away.

To safely accomodate flexibility, a society must preferentially encourage its members to change it in ways that benefit the society and its members.

There is a three-way trade-off: my interests, the interests of my neighbours, and the interests of the organism of society. We rely on society to allow the first trade-off, between each other, to be resolved in an efficient and non-destructive way. The second tradeoff, between a society and its members, is more difficult.

Nothing I've written here is new. Never mind Carlyle and Froude, quite a lot of it can be found in Aristotle. However, it's not a set of ideas that I've put together before, and includes things that I explicitly rejected when I was young and arrogant.

Also, it's not a set of ideas that provides easy answers to difficult questions. That's always a good sanity check1. If your calculations show you can build a perpetual motion machine, or solve NP-complete problems in linear time, you've probably made a mistake. This framework doesn't usually answer difficult questions, but it at least tells you why they're difficult.

I promised to write about patriotism, and now I have set up the scenery. Froude's comment2 on a "distinguished philosopher" seems anti-rational; and so it is, but I am prepared to be persuaded to it.

The problem that society solves is how to cooperate with my neighbours; how to achieve more together than we could in conflict, or even more than we could independently. We cannot do this without some framework that enables us to match expectations, and that framework needs to be stable enough for us to move with confidence from one interaction to the next.

The framework can be changed, for the better or the worse. As well as enabling our cooperation, therefore, it needs to be such that I can be assured of continuing to benefit from it in future. The future, though, is uncertain, and it his hard for me to know that circumstances will not arise where my neighbour can gain by destroying the assurances that I have relied on. This is the second tradeoff above, between the members of the society and the society itself. The society exists for its members, but we need to maintain it too.

There is a smaller-scale, easier parallel to this situation, which I wrote about before. When two people become a family, each is threatened by the possibility that the other will destroy or abandon what has been created. Reassurance is at hand, however, through the irrational attachments that people in that position have been bred to form towards each other, which discourages them from breaking the bonds even if it becomes objectively convenient for them to do so. The irrationality is an advantage to the individual, as it enables him to make somewhat binding commitments in the absence of any external enforcement mechanism, and thereby reach more advantageous social arrangements.

My neighbours' love of our country is what enables me to tolerate their freedom, as my wife's love is what enables me to tolerate hers.

It is a threat to the tradeoffs if the society can be changed by individuals who are not dependent on it either practically or emotionally. That is why it is important to know who is in and who is out. This is often looked on as some kind of prehistoric handicap, but it is not. I've been talking about "societies", not countries, so I have not yet closed the loop to say anything about patriotism. I admitted above that we need to identify which individuals are the ones we care about, from the point of view of succeeding personally by fulfilling our expected role in society. There are two answers, on two levels. First, those who we expect to interact with in future. Second, those who can change the expectations that we have towards the first group, and that the first group has towards us. If someone will be dealing socially with me, I need him to be within the social framework. If someone can affect the social framework itself, I want him to be constrained not to damage its effectiveness or longevity.

That's still, on the face of it, rather imprecise. However, for most people, through most of history, it's been very easy to work out. There's a good reason for that: if you don't know who is in your society and who isn't, you are in a lot of trouble - at least your society is, and that means that, in the long run, you are too. With personal love comes jealousy, and with the patriotism that gives a society its longevity comes a certain chauvinism. That's a necessary feature, not a bug. If someone isn't a member of your society, they need to be kept away from it, or at least made powerless over it, lest they damage it.

Tribes work as societies on that basis. We had nation-states for a few centuries, and they worked too, more or less. Now we do not have a society where it is clear who is in and who is out, and where the members are bound to preserve and improve it. We have many compensations, and I haven't proved we're worse off in net, but I've at least shown how we could be, how, other things being equal, patriotism is a virtue.

In the end, we may go back to tribes, or as John Robb has it, to some new kind of tribe.


1 "My own conviction with respect to all great social and religious convulsions is the extremely commonplace one that much is to be said on both sides" - Froude, The Influence of the Reformation on the Scottish Character

2 "I once asked a distinguished philosopher what he thought of patriotism. He said he thought it was a compound of vanity and superstition; a bad kind of prejudice, which would die out with the growth of reason. My friend believed in the progress of humanity--he could not narrow his sympathies to so small a thing as his own country. I could but say to myself, 'Thank God, then, we are not yet a nation of philosophers.'

"A man who takes up with philosophy like that, may write fine books, and review articles and such like, but at the bottom of him he is a poor caitiff, and there is no more to be said about him." - Froude, Times of Erasmus and Luther

Froude and Coke

As per orders, I have been reading Froude. I read The Bow of Ulysses, and while he was obviously broadly accurate, at least in his more pessimistic outlook, I thought it was interesting that he had overestimated how bad democracy in the British West Indies would be.

A couple of days later, Kingston collapsed into civil war. Then I happened to notice that Jamaica had already had the highest murder rate in the world. It looks like this Victorian knew more about the twenty-first century than I do.

But that's by the way. I went on to his Short Studies of Great Subjects. I'm less than a quarter through, and while I can't point to any really new insights, I've suddenly found that I'm looking at a lot of things in a completely different way. The first result will be a piece on patriotism, which I'll go onto next.

22 May 2010

Red Toryism

  • Libertarian economics is sound. But libertarian politics is an oxymoron.
  • Individualist Libertarianism and collectivist Socialism are opposites. But they came from the same roots and the first always becomes the second.
  • Victimless crimes should not be prosecuted. But broken families do more damage than psychopaths.
  • No-one should be born into privilege. But the alternative is to compete for power.
  • Mencius Moldbug is a lone nutter. But opinion is shifting more and more against democracy.
  • Global Warming is rubbish. But it might not have been, and what would have happened then?
  • I have always believed that morality only makes sense in terms of the individual. But I can't remember why.

Froude Society
Philip Blond - Red Toryism
Cato Unbound

Much more to follow, if I can find my feet again

16 May 2010

Conservatives and Climate

According to Jonathan Hari, 91% of Conservative MPs do not believe in man-made Global Warming (via The Devil).

The problem is, that really doesn't prove what he wants it to prove.

As an aside, he shows himself in the same article to have a very shaky grasp of numbers: he says "This oddball rabble are five times bigger than the Lib Dems, despite getting only 13 per cent more support." What he means is that the Tories got more votes than the Lib Dems by an amount of 13% of the total votes - in fact the Tories got 56% more votes than the Lib Dems did. That is the only ratio that it makes any sense to compare with the sizes of the respective parliamentary parties. He could also say that the Tories got 38% more of the seats in the Commons despite getting only 13% more of the votes in the country. Using the correct 56% number rather than the irrelevant 13% wouldn't have weakened the reasonable point Hari was making, but it proves he is either habitually dishonest even where it doesn't help him, or very stupid indeed.

Back to the 91%, then, assuming we can in this instance trust Hari to report a percentage accurately. I have just checked the Conservative Manifesto:

We will reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and increase our share of global markets for low carbon technologies.
Labour have said the right things on climate change, but these have proved little more than
warm words. Despite three White Papers, a multitude of strategies and endless new announcements, the UK now gets more of its energy from fossil fuels than it did in 1997

If 91% of the candidates who successfully ran for election under that manifesto do not believe in man-made Global Warming, what it proves is that politicians' positions on climate change bear no relation to what they actually believe to be true.

It further proves that man-made global warming is a politically convenient position - one that politicians find it advantageous to adopt, even if they don't believe it.

This is tremendously important, because it is the positions taken by politicians that have set the public scene. It is politicians who have set up and maintained the IPCC, set the priorities of NASA and the Met Office, and form the context for any public debate. And those politicians are under pressure to pretend to believe in man-made Global Warming, even when they don't.

13 May 2010

Fixed Term Parliament

All through the election campaign I told myself, and my loyal readers, that it was just a game - that, out of habit, I would follow it closely, but in the spirit of a major sporting event rather than something that was actually important.

In the face of the new Conservative-LibDem government, however, I am struggling to maintain my cynicism. This government really might make a difference to the real world.

Abolishing ID cards is good. Abolishing ContactPoint is great. But abolishing Parliamentary Sovereignty - that is genius. And done with such subtlety, as a rider on fixed-term parliaments. "Oh, and by the way, Parliament will no longer be able to get rid of the government by majority vote". Talk about balls.

Of course, the newly created system does not make sense. We could end up with a government that can't be sacked, can't resign, and can't govern. What then? Then they will make it up as they go along - and probably at least some of the inconsistency will be resolved by further limiting the powers of parliament.

At the Blogger Bash, I asked the panellist how bad things would have to get before they would give up on democracy. Perry de Havilland (I think) stood up for democracy, saying that it was important that the government could be thrown out. But that is not the same thing as having the voters choose MPs and MPs choose government. You could have the Prime Minister appointed for life, and ministers too, and merely have them recallable by a popular supermajority, and that would still meet the criteria.

Most people think that the government should, in principle, be controlled by the people, but in specific cases most intelligent people come to the conclusion that reducing democratic control actually produces better outcomes. If the new contradiction between the government and the commons majority resolves itself in favour of the government (as I suspect it will), then it should be possible to demonstrate the improvements brought about by reducing democracy.

This would not have been possible even thirty years ago. What has made it possible to casually take away what were always seen as vital fundamental democratic principles is that recent democratic governments have been so bad that nobody cares any more. When I casually mention to strangers that my preferred political outcome is a military coup installing an absolute monarchy, the most common response is "well, it couldn't be any worse." They probably aren't serious, and don't realise that I am, but the reaction is almost automatic - what is the point of defending the democratic system that gave us Gordon Brown? If we do escape democracy, it may not be through violent revolution, or Mencius' "True election", but simply through the influence of voters being chipped away to a chorus of apathy. The electorate will, reasonably in my view, just not care.

10 May 2010

Alternative Vote

It's beginning to look quite likely that we could end up with the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Aficionados of electoral reform will tell you that it's not a proportional system, which is quite true. The results it produces will be quite different from those produced by multi-member STV or d'Hont. That doesn't mean, however, that it would not be a significant change.

Unlike the multi-member systems, AV will continue to give small parties no seats. What AV does, however, is allow much more effective signalling by voters. It is very plausible that it could help small parties, over time, become big parties.

The point of AV is that it saves the voter from having to do tactical-voting calculations. Currently, anyone who votes UKIP, or Green, or SSP, or BNP is sacrificing their (tiny) influence on the result of the election in favour of making a public statement. With AV, you can do both - vote SSP ,Labour as 1 & 2, and there is less chance that your SSP vote will let in the Lib Dems. (Not no chance - there are still circumstances in which it might turn out that you would have got a different result by voting Labour, SSP, but they're complex and not very predictable)

2.5 million people voted UKIP last year. Only 900,000 did last week, so quite possibly the other 1.6 million didn't vote UKIP because of the wasted vote issue. If in the next general election, the constituencies which went 8% or 9% UKIP became 25% or 30%, they probably still wouldn't get any seats, but they'd get a lot more publicity, and they wouldn't be far short of getting MPs.

The same logic applies to high-profile candidates who defect from their parties to stand as independents. It becomes a straight popularity contest between them and the "official" candidate, since any supporter of the party can vote rebel-1 official-2.

AV might benefit the BNP most of all, since they have most to gain by giving voters a chance to anonymously show support for them. Today, nobody knows, do the BNP get only 2% because nearly everyone hates them, or because they're a small party and it's a wasted vote, or because most people think nearly everyone hates them, since they only get 2%? In the last case, it would only take a few election cycles for them to look less like outcasts to those who are secretly disposed to vote for them, but put off by the opprobrium.

At the end of the day, though, a politician will still win. I'm not paying all this attention because I think it's important, it's just more entertaining than the Premier League. But if you do care about who wins, then while multi-member STV is still the first choice, you probably shouldn't turn your nose up at AV.

08 May 2010

The Election

Some disconnected thoughts:

Politics as Entertainment - election night was the most entertaining media event of the year. Possibly the most entertaining event ever for me - I sat up until 1am on Monday to watch the end of the snooker, but I was glad when Robertson won the last few frames to get it over with. I didn't go to bed on Thursday. The only bad bits were actually listening to politicians.

Poisoned Chalice - for both major parties, there must surely be a temptation to put the other lot in to bat. Whoever forms the government will have to take over a very difficult situation, and as soon as they hit serious trouble, the government is likely to fall and they will have to fight an election on a record of chaos and failure. The opposition can make a show of being humble and helpful, and then attempt to knock the whole thing over at a time of their own choosing.

Cleggmania - Either Clegg made a big impression in the debates on people who couldn't actually be bothered to vote, or voters were in "X-Factor" mode when answering pollsters, which is different from voter mode in the polling booths

Technical Difficulties - With 40000 polling stations, some few are bound to be affected by incompetence or unforeseen circumstances. This will no doubt be used to argue for hi-tech voting systems, which will solve the problem by making such failures so frequent they cease to be newsworthy

Lib Dems - The Lib Dems told me to vote for them because only they could stop Gordon Brown. They can now stop Gordon Brown, so what do they tell people if they don't do it? But no doubt they told many others that only they could stop Cameron.

Esther Rantzen - was always an irrelevance, and lost her deposit. Was no more worthy of media coverage than the Monster Raving Loony William Hill party

Predictions - the results were in line with a lot of polls, if not the ones from the last couple of weeks. I don't remember anyone addressing the possibility though of the Conservatives not having a majority, but Labour and Lib Dems together not having one either. It seems to be hitting everyone as a new idea.

Voting Systems - radicals of all types hoping for proportional representation can forget it. If anything, we would get AV+, which would help the Lib Dems but nobody else. The BNP might get a seat in the North-West, and UKIP might get one in the South-West, but Marxists, Greens, Libertarians, etc. would get nothing.

05 May 2010

Two-horse race

3 new leaflets this morning - one from the Labour candidate, one card from Nick Clegg, and one letter from Nick Clegg. All three carry pictures of two running horses. The Lib Dems say only they can beat Labour, but Labour say only they can beat the Conservatives. That's the main point of all the material.

The Lib Dems seem more convincing - for one thing, unlike Labour, their illustration demonstrates that they understand that horse races involve jockeys. But of course, the authorities on horse races are still considering the Lib Dems outsiders, though at 11/2 they've nosed ahead of Esther Rantzen.

Only one of the three documents (the postcard from the Lib Dems) has any mention of policy, and one of the four bullet points there is "action to get our economy moving again", which doesn't quite qualify as a policy for me.

Anyone out there who thinks that democracy is a good thing - how can it be right that the vast bulk of the material given to me by candidates is concentrated on the question of who is more likely to win? OK, PR would change that somewhat, but really, what is the explanation?

Previous posts: Letters from Gordon, Dave and Nick, The Liberal Democrats - an apology,

30 April 2010

The Cancer of Bureaucracy

I just got round to reading Bruce Charlton's short piece The Cancer of Bureaucracy (h/t Isegoria)

It feels exaggerated and overstated. But I'd be a lot more confident in dismissing it if I could find one thing in it that was actually wrong.

I suppose there is one thing which the article misses, which is the private sector. In my experience, in private-sector organisations, while the bureaucracy Charlton describes does exist, it is subservient to an individual decision-maker. As such, it sometimes shrinks instead of growing, and the bureaucratic process is carried on in the shadow of "what Tom thinks" - where Tom is the person whose opinion matters, either because he is in charge, or his judgment is trusted by the person who is in charge.

But really, how important is the private sector in the direction that our society is taking today? While in raw numbers it's still a bare majority of activity, so much of it is now under the indirect control of public-sector bureaucracy, that private decision-making is restricted to a much smaller, and diminishing, sphere.

27 April 2010

Anti-election poster

I'm generally in favour of there being posters up encouraging people not to vote, but this isn't precisely what I had in mind:CCTV Voting is Shirk Deeds are being monitored for the purpose of final judgement

19 April 2010

Recall petitions

Voting systems used to fascinate me. I miss caring about which PR system was fairer more than I miss believing that the government worked for me.

That's pretty much gone, now, but I just had a thought about the Conservatives' plans for introducing recall of MPs.

I was wondering whether they had taken into account the small number of people necessary to elect an MP. Luton South is a 4-way contest, so 30-35% of the vote may well win it. If turnout is around 40%, then the winning total may be no more than 12% of the electorate. So finding any way of demonstrating that even a newly-elected MP has the confidence of his constituents won't be easy.

It turns out that the Tory plan is that a petition of 10% of the electorate forces a by-election. I think I can safely predict that there won't be a single MP in the house that 10% of the electorate wouldn't want to get rid of, so the only obstacle to getting a by-election anywhere in the country is being organised enough to collect the signatures.

Any existing research on how easy it is to get signatures is probably worthless, because existing petitions are a complete waste of everybody's time. This is the sort of thing where people are getting very much more efficient.

I wouldn't be surprised if the recall plan led to every week being a by-election week. Should be a laugh.

18 April 2010

The Liberal Democrats - an apology

Earlier in the week, I wrote of the Liberal Democrats' election literature, that it says "that 'in many areas' only the Lib Dems can beat Labour. It tries to give the impression that I am in one of those areas, without being so dishonest as to actually say so."

Possibly they were stung by my remarks into stepping up their dishonesty, because I got a leaflet yesterday claiming outright "It's a two horse race here - the Conservatives can't win in Luton South."

If I wanted to know about horse races, I would, as the Labour and Conservative parties did, look at what the bookmakers were saying, and they do indeed have the "can't win" Conservatives as odds-on favourites, and the Liberal Democrats as fourth-place outsiders, behind even Esther Rantzen.

I wouldn't criticise the LDs for claiming they have a chance when impartial observers say they don't, but when they claim that the odds-on favourites can't win - why should any intelligent observer believe a word they say about anyone else?

There is a slight moral conundrum. Tactical voting, like other coordination games, can exhibit self-fulfilling prophesies. If the Lib Dems can lie well enough that they are bound to beat the Conservatives, it would become true, as tactical anti-Labour voters who believed them would vote for them. So if they do come third or fourth, will their offence be that they lied, or that they didn't lie enough?

16 April 2010

Home Education registration dropped

When I wrote my earlier post, the top reason in my mind why a Tory government would be slightly less unpleasant to me than a Labour one was that the Conservatives had promised to repeal the requirement in the new Education Act for home educators to be registered.

As I went through the "filling-in-the-links" stage of the post, I discovered that that clause had been knocked out by the Lords, and the bill had gone through without it.

I felt rather silly for having missed that. However, on checking I could not find one mainstream national news organisation had reported the change. Google News shows 19 stories on the subject, all of them either from specialists or not actually mentioning the home education part. It was also picked up by some local papers such as The St Albans and Harpenden Review

There is a conspiracy of silence on all sides about home education in the UK. Home educators prefer to keep a low profile, because of the risk of the government getting interested and putting in its big boot, particularly since Badman. The education establishment is equally quiet, because they don't want to draw attention to the number of parents who value state education not merely at less than it costs the taxpayer to provide, but as so completely worthless that it is preferable to do the job themselves.

15 April 2010

Letters from Gordon, Dave and Nick

The other interesting element of the election is the literature I'm being sent. The letter from Gordon Brown is about the sort of policies he would introduce if he were ever to become Prime Minister. It barely mentions the Labour party, and makes no suggestion that this Brown person has ever had power of any kind in the past.

The one from Cameron is about civil liberties - ID cards, ContactPoint, and so on. I'm suspicious enough to think that I am on some Conservative database as being concerned about those things, and my neigbours are getting letters from Cameron about clamping down on immigration or spending more on hospitals, depending on what the database says about them. (Actually, rising immigration is one existing phenomenon that this Gordon Brown chap claims in his letter to be opposed to).

The letter from Clegg is the most interesting. It has nothing to say about policy, but says only that "in many areas" only the Lib Dems can beat Labour. It tries to give the impression that I am in one of those areas, without being so dishonest as to actually say so. (Update: they have since rectified that)

Attempts to guide tactical voters are not restricted to party leaders though. The local Labour leaflet devotes one side to claiming that the Lib Dems can't win in Luton South, and that therefore only Labour can keep the Tories out, and the local Conservative leaflet agrees fully. They are not identical, though - Labour cite William Hill as an authority, but the Conservatives go with Ladbrokes. (if the leaflets are correct that 14/1 is available against the Lib Dems, I think it's probably worth a flutter).

Meanwhile local LD blogger Andy Strange is keen to claim that they're really in with a chance, because Nick Clegg has visited twice...

I'm a bit confused about the Lib Dems claiming on one hand that Labour and Conservative are so alike as to be one "Labservative" party, and on the other that I should not vote Conservative because only the Lib Dems can get Gordon Brown out. If I want the Conservatives, and the Dems' first claim is correct, then I should prefer Labour, who are like the Conservatives, to the Lib Dems who are claiming to be different.

OK, I'm not really confused. I am perfectly aware that the Lib Dems will say anything at all that they think might get them votes. Not that the others have more moral scruples, but they have slightly more actual history to tie down voters' idea of what they stand for, and can't therefore claim as wide a range of different positions simultaneously as the LDs

Election 2010

Apparently there's an election campaign on.

By a twist of fate, the first election since I gave up on democratic politics is the first election in which I have the opportunity to influence the result - I would estimate the probability of my vote changing the result as something like 1/100,000 which is non-negligible, and orders of magnitude higher than in previous elections.

My old strategy in elections was, since the main parties are so close as to make no important difference, to attempt to influence the future positions of the parties by voting for fringe candidates.

A related idea is that of Peter Hitchens, who advocates voting against the Conservative party in an attempt to destroy it, opening the possibility of the formation of a new party to represent the conservative majority of the population.

These are both logical ideas, but they depend on the assumption that it is possible to affect the medium-to-long-term political climate by voting, and further, that it is possible to do so in a predictable way. The distinction is important; a butterfly's wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it's not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.

I do not accept the assumption. The Conservative Party does not represent the conservative tendency of the population, it is the conservative tendency of the political class. I could affect the political landscape (in a tiny but non-negligible way) by joining the political class, but not by voting. I'm not willing to join the political class, as I have better things to do with my life.

My conclusion is that I now see myself as a subject of the political class, rather than as a citizen of a democracy. That's calming - when I thought the government was "my" government, I was infuriated by how bad it was, but as a subject, I look at the tidbits of protection and freedom that my ruler gives me, and my position isn't so bad really, compared with that of most people who have ever lived.

And next month, as a free bonus, like a free entry in a prize draw, I get a tiny but non-negligible chance to have a small effect on the government itself. Well, why shouldn't I take it? If I thought I was more than a subject, then the trivial choice offered to me by David Cameron would be such an insult that I would spurn it as a matter of principle. Nobody who sucks up to the environmentalist lobby and who accepts that government should control more than a third of the economy can possibly represent me. But as a free gift to a subject - well, no more attacks on Home Education, scrapping ID cards, a faint possibility of lower taxes - I guess I'll take box "C", since you're offering.

I suspect that normal, sane people have always looked at elections this way - that would explain much of the mental gap between idealists such as I used to be and the rest of the population. It does make me wonder what would happen if normal people thought like we do - possibly they would demand a democracy and the whole country would go down the tubes.

That does leave me the choice of what to do about my membership of the Libertarian Party. For me, the party only ever had one useful point from the very beginning - getting Chris Mounsey on television. Now that that's actually starting to happen, I think I should continue to give support, even if it's not, by all accounts, going too well so far.

08 April 2010

Private Morality and Professionalism

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog went quiet for much of the early part of the year.

That was due in large part to the trouble I had trying to get to grips with a story which I considered of great importance. I just wasn't able to put the issue into the right order to do it justice.

At length, the story ceased to be topical, I admitted to myself that I had missed my chance, and got on with writing about other things.

However, the recent Chris Grayling storm has brought some of the same issues into focus, and gives me context to return to my confused drafts of February.

The vital story I was unable to discuss topically was the decision of Wayne Bridge, the England left back, not to make himself available for selection for the 2010 World Cup.

To recap the story for those with short memories, Bridge was living with and had a son with a young lady called Vanessa or Victoria or something. At some later point the couple were no longer a couple, but coupling was taking place between Vanessa and the England captain, John Terry.

Bridge appears to have taken this badly. He refused to play for England, a decision made much more significant by a long-term injury to serial adulterer Ashley Cole, leaving Bridge an important part of the England defence alongside John Terry.

The affair reached a climax at a match between Terry's Chelsea and Wayne Bridge's club Manchester City, where Bridge pointedly refused to shake hands with the opposing captain, an event which had been the supject of considerable action at the bookmakers'. Once the wagers had been settled, the story began to fade away.

What interested me was the widespread idea that there was something wrong in Wayne Bridge subordinating his professional role as a footballer to his other roles as a man and a lover. There seems to have been a clear expectation that Bridge had a duty to stand alongside John Terry on the pitches of South Africa, whatever their private relationship.

I consider such an idea extremely destructive to society. Many of us spend much of our lives involved with our work. If it is accepted that our private judgement of morality has no place there, whether in the stadiums of the Premier League or the offices of the city, then morality has been eliminated from about half of our society.

Is such personal moral judgement really so important? Yes it is, and the case of the suitors of Miss Vanessa demonstrates why. Apart from the question of professionalism, many have criticised Wayne Bridge on the grounds that she had already left him before carring on with John Terry. That is a significant point, but for me to assess it fairly I would need detailed knowledge of the relationships between the three people. That would require that there be extensive coverage of the events (which, as it happens, there was), and also that that coverage be reliable and truthful (which strikes me as so unlikely that I haven't actually bothered to ascertain the details of the story as they have been presented, though I care enough about it to write all this screed). The reality is that even in a story like this, played out (thanks to Justice Tugendhat) on the front pages, the only people in a position to make meaningful moral judgements are the participants themselves and those very close to them. The person on the spot has to make their own judgement. If they are constrained to subordinate their judgement to that of the Football Association or the News of the World, then morality is left with a busted metatarsal.

OK, so why am I bringing it all back up, now that the world has happily forgotten the most recent melodrama of footballers and their molls? It is because one of the causes of the decline of private morality has now hit the headlines. This is the story of the guest house which turned away a respectable middle-aged gay couple. Like Wayne Bridge, the proprietors of the guest house made a moral judgement that is at variance with that of most of the population. In this instance the facts are not in question, only the moral rules applied. But if we take away the right of a guest-house owner to apply their own moral rules, it does not follow that they will instead apply ours. They will, like the rest of our society, retreat into jobsworthism and deem all behaviour not actually illegal to be none of their business. (I would go further - even illegal behaviour will be tolerated unless the police can effectively prevent it, since they are the professionals and as private people it is "none of our business")
I would like to see it accepted that making moral judgements is always our business, whether we are full-backs, B&B proprietors, or bankers. We won't all be applying the same moral rules, but that can't be helped. The only choice is between personal morality or no morality.

I do accept that while the discrimination at the B&B might seem harmless enough in Cookham, it would be a very different matter if gays faced "not wanted" signs at every turn.

So to see the other side, take the case of Constance McMillen, who wanted to dress in a tuxedo and take her girlfriend to a school dance. In Fulton, Mississippi. The school cancelled the prom rather than let her attend, and when a private alternative was arranged, she was deceived into going to the wrong venue.

While I would say that the immediate problem is that she wanted to socialise with people who didn't want to socialise with her, and that's a game she can never win, I have to admit that, dances aside, life in Fulton doesn't look very attractive for Ms McMillen. How would she get by without protection from anti-discrimination law?

I fear she might have to leave. I don't say that lightly; I know it's an imposition. But after all, I'm not even talking about the hypothetical case of there not being anti-discrimination law, I'm talking about the actual case, given the US law that prevented the school holding the event without her in the first place. Such laws do not effectively protect anyone, unless they want to spend their lives fighting their neighbours on behalf of the central state. There must obviously be somewhere she can go - for the sort of laws we are talking about even to be possible, the wider population must generally support the tolerance the law mandates.

The less obvious point is that, while the existence of anti-discrimination law doesn't much help Constance McMillen, the absence of such law wouldn't much help Suzanne Wilkinson. If Chris Grayling were to repeal the law he voted for, thereby allowing Wilkinson to advertise "No Gays" at her B&B, I strongly suspect that none of the brochures or listings she advertises in would take her money. If she wanted to take a political stand, she could, but if she wanted to carry on a quiet business in accordance with her preferences, a lack of cooperation, and the attrition of local hostility, would mean she would probably not be able to.

I sympathise with her in just the same way as I sympathise with McMillen. There isn't, to me, one side of this which is "pro-freedom" while the other is "anti-freedom"; rather, the cases really are symmetrical - both women want to make their own choices in an arena that is in the wide grey area between the private and the public, and they both are prevented, as a result of being culturally out of step with their communities. One community has the law behind it, and the other against it, but the practical power of the law is very limited, in both cases, compared to the day-to-day weight of the community's standards. (John Stuart Mill made quite a point of the fact that community attitudes could be a lot more restricting than actual law).

If the presence or absence of discrimination law does not make much practical difference, either to Suzanne Wilkinson or to Constance McMillen, then what is it for? Like so many laws, it is primarily meant to send a message, to change attitudes. In the words of the song that passed for a morning hymn when I was in primary school,

And now a child
Can understand
This is the law
Of all the land
(All the land!)

A child can understand that Suzanne's preference is not respectable, while Constance's is, because acting on the one is illegal, and on the other legally protected, in all the land, even Mississippi.

My knee-jerk libertarian response is that that is not a legitimate reason for passing a law. But that is dogma and would need some kind of supporting argument.

If we accept that the law is there to shape attitudes rather than to simply prevent the specific things it prohibits, that puts new moral rules on a different footing from old moral rules. Nobody decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with his friends' girlfriends, the way that we have generally decided that it is now perfectly OK for a man to sleep with another man. However, in order to chase those who are deemed to be behind the times, the acceptability of homosexuality, and the unacceptability of discriminating against homosexuals, have been reinforced with anti-discrimination laws. The unacceptability of taking over your friends' women bears no such official imprimatur, and so, without our really deciding that it's unimportant, it loses standing from the contrast.

The law is meant to send the message that integrating homosexuals into mainstream activities is good, and excluding them is bad. I don't have any objection to that message. But is that the message that is really sinking in to our consciences? Or is the real message, instead, that our private moral judgements are to be kept to ourselves, and not acted on in public? Is the message, in fact, that Wayne Bridge has no legitimate grievance against John Terry, who, unlike Suzanne Wilkinson, has done nothing illegal, and that he should therefore shake Terry's hand and play for England?

And is the message that Margaret Moran didn't break any rules when she claimed for her house in Southampton? Is the message that I shouldn't give a second thought to the role I played in the crash of 2008, since I was a professional and I followed the rules? Broken families and broken banks are just things that happen sometimes - maybe the rules need to be changed. If people followed the rules, then nothing else can be done.

That's morality of a sort, and it works after a fashion, but I'm not convinced it's better than what went before.