The Samovar


On not taking a stand

A problem for progressives is that intellectuals are more (small-c) conservative than you might expect. The reason for this is that intellectuals are frightened of making mistakes and being caught making mistakes. This comes about because of their engagement in intellectual arguments and investment in their outcomes. Combine this fear of making mistakes with an understanding that they do not have sufficient facts to make an accurate determination of the truth in most cases, and the effect is that intellectuals will often not take a stand on important issues. The problem with this is that it leaves the field clear for those who will take a stand, or leaves the decision to those who make decisions by default, i.e. the powerful. In other words, the intellectual refusal to take a stand on issues where they are not certain amounts to a de facto stand in favour of established authorities and ways of doing things.

The danger of this passivity in response to issues that are too difficult to be sure of, is that it leaves you open to a form of propaganda or public relations strategy that has been well known and exploited for a long time.

‘‘Doubt is our product,’’ proclaimed an internal tobacco industry document in 1969. ‘‘Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe.’’

It is very easy to spread doubt, and often extremely difficult to prove a positive claim beyond all possible doubt.

The counter-argument says that not taking a stand is reasonable because we don’t know, and if we don’t know we shouldn’t take a stand. This seems reasonable, but in the case of issues where a political decision needs to be taken, we have to think about the effects of both possible positions we could take. On the one hand, if we refuse to take a stand we’ll never be subject to the criticism that we expressed a wrong opinion, but we’ll be letting the political decision be taken by those with established authority or power. On the other hand, if we take a stand we might be able to have some input into the political decisions, but we run the risk of being proven wrong at some point in the future.

Being proven wrong, though, is not in itself a political problem, it’s a personal problem. So, thinking of our actions as political, rather than personal, we shouldn’t worry about the upset it will cause to us if we turn out to be wrong. Rather, we should only refuse to take a stand if by recklessly taking a stand without sufficient information we might increase the chance of a harmful political decision. Going further than this, in most cases there is not a neutral position: the lack of a position being equivalent to a position in favour of the status quo. Let’s take a look at some examples.

As quoted above, the tobacco industry’s tactic was to create doubt about the link between smoking and cancer. Although the overwhelming evidence was supportive of this link, some evidence was found that was not supportive. What about the effects of taking a stand in favour of or against the link? On the one hand, taking no stand means not pushing for regulation of the tobacco industry, and allowing them to do whatever they want, at the risk of many more cases of lung cancer. On the other hand, taking a stand would mean pushing for such regulation, and reducing the number of people who smoke, at the cost of the profits of the tobacco industry, for no reason. Given that the evidence was very much supportive of the link, the cost-benefit analysis is clear: one should take a stand in support of this link.

A similar tactic is being used today by those who want to deny a link between human industrial activity and global warming. Again, the overwhelming majority of evidence is in favour of the link, but some evidence goes against it. Not taking a stand means letting things go on as they are at the moment, and putting the entire world at risk. Taking a stand, however, is also costly: it means potentially cutting back on emissions and consequently on economic growth, which also has an effect on millions of lives. In both the cases above, there is no neutral position: you have to take a position, and either position you take has potentially dire consequences if you’re wrong. In this case, not taking a position means taking a position in favour of the status quo, i.e. gambling that there is no link and that there will be no effect.

There are many more examples of this situation that crop up all the time. I have come across it in debates with people about industrial action, about alternatives to capitalism, and many more. I want to finish though with an example that is playing out right now and is causing a great deal of tension within the left: the case of the rape allegations against Julian Assange.

History has shown, including quite recent history, that governments are willing to smear their opponents with allegations of sexual misconduct. Given this, it was no huge surprise when allegations of rape against Julian Assange surfaced after the release of documents embarassing to several governments. On the face of it, it would seem as though this was a prime case for ignoring these allegations. However, there is a problem: there is a huge problem with the downplaying or denial or accusations of rape. And indeed, many articles arguing we should ignore these rape allegations have been of a decidedly misogynist character. The response of some (not all) feminists against such articles is then quite reasonable, but unfortunately I feel misses an important point about the way smears work: mud sticks. Consider, as above, our options on taking a stand in favour of or against Assange. If we take a stand in favour of him, we support those who would release important documents that reveal the way governments behave in secret, but we risk supporting someone who may be a rapist. If we take a stand against him, we show that the left will not stand by those who attempt to take on those in power, we let those in power disarm us by accusing us of rape. Yes, of course it’s the case that he might have done it, but there is no neutral stance here: not supporting him is equivalent to saying that you will not stand by anyone if they are attacked by governments in this way. And that’s true even if turns out he did it. Let’s take the logic a step further: what happens if we support him, and it turns out he did it? Our supporting him is a form of political support. The case against him is a legal one, and will hopefully proceed based on the quality of the evidence, regardless of our political support of him. If he did it, and the evidence is sufficient, he’ll be found guilty. We’ll feel bad for supporting him, but in terms of justice no harm will have been done. On the other hand, if we don’t support him, even if he is subsequently shown to be innocent, the damage will have been done.

Given the history of sexual smears in the past then, we surely must support Assange in this case. And it’s important to say that this is the attitude to take not based on looking at the smattering of details of the case that have been leaked, it’s not to accuse the women involved of being CIA agents (it’s possible that they were, but even if the allegations are part of a smear campaign it doesn’t follow that they have acted in bad faith, and we don’t need to take a position on that one way or the other), and it’s not to have an opinion on what Sweden’s sex crime laws should be.

Finally, the argument of this post, that intellectuals are more prone to propaganda because they are afraid to hold a position that might be wrong, should be compared to an earlier article in which I argue that intellectuals are prone to propaganda because they think they understand things better than they do, and oversimplify them. On the face of it, that looks contradictory but I think it’s not: they are two types of error that are not in conflict. On the one hand, we can make the mistake of overconfidence in what we think we know and our understanding of it, and on the other hand we can refuse to take a political stand in cases where we can be proved wrong. These can coexist in that different people can make these two different types of mistake, and that a single person can make the two different types of mistake in different situations. It’s even possible to make both mistakes simultaneously, for example someone who reads and understands a climate change denial article that makes a valid point which they understand, and then declares that there is uncertainty about global warming. They are both making a mistake of overconfidence in their understanding of global warming (they’ve only read the one article and don’t have the expertise or the wide scope to weigh the evidence against all the other evidence), and refusing to take a political position one way or the other on it and are therefore implicitly supporting the status quo case.



“Belief” – la revanche!

A couple of years ago I wrote a post cheekily entitled Nobody believes in God which, following some recent conversations with friends, I want to revisit. This will actually make the third time I’ve gone back to this idea (see the first and second). I think this is because there’s an important kernel of a good idea there, but also much that is unclear.

Unfortunately, and perhaps to some tediously, the biggest problem is that the term “belief” is not well-defined. In my original article I wrote that “To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it.” This is an important sense of the term “belief”, somewhat akin to Daniel Dennett’s notion of the “intentional stance”, but it became clear that this isn’t a definition most people would agree with, and is problematic. It’s not necessarily detrimental that most people wouldn’t agree with it, but there are other problems. Notably, it assumes a certain consistency and unitary quality that people don’t have. All of us have beliefs that are inconsistent, and we wouldn’t want to say we don’t have beliefs just because of that. Similarly, all of us take actions that are inconsistent with our beliefs. Imagine that someone tells you that if you move your leg they will kill you, and then they tap you just below your knee with a hammer – you will, despite your sincere belief in what they say, move your leg. It’s not possible for you not to – the signal never even reaches your brain but is instead turned into a motor command by your spinal column. This is a trivial example, but suggests a general point: we do not have a single identity that we could ascribe our beliefs to, we have multiple systems in our brain that are sometimes under conscious control and sometimes not, etc. Ramachandran describes the case of a split brain patient who had one half of the brain which believed in God, and one that didn’t.

So using an individuals actions as a guide to their beliefs cannot give us the full story on belief, but that still leaves us in a quandary: what can we go on? Since people lie, we obviously can’t uncritically go on what they say. So if we can’t go on what they say or what they do, what is left? The only option remaining, it seems, is to give up the idea of a single, unitary thing called “belief” that people have, and admit that belief is a vaguely defined, context-specific thing that can, depending on specific circumstances, violate almost every single intuition we might have about it. Again there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and giving up usage of the term completely. No, clearly the idea of belief has some use, but we have to be careful about saying what type of belief we’re talking about, and when reasoning about statements involving “belief” be aware of the practical consequences of the different types of belief in different contexts. The next task is to unpick some of those types of belief and how they affect our actions. In the remainder of this entry I’ll discuss some of the types of belief that have been suggested to me in recent discussions that are relevant to religious/theistic belief.

The first conception of belief I’ll talk about is my original one, broadly corresponding to Dennett’s intentional stance, that someone believes something if they act consistently with it being true. For example, the shortest way from my office to the street is through the window, but I take the more laborious route via the stairs because I believe in gravity. There’s no doubt this is a useful conception of belief that has practical consequences. And, I stand by my original contention that most religious people don’t believe in God in this sense.

There is a complication though, which is that in this sense stated as above, I “believe” there is a china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars: I never do anything that is inconsistent with there being one. Somehow we want to exclude such beliefs as this, but this quickly becomes problematic if we want to talk about religious beliefs, for obvious reasons. There is a kernel of religious belief that cannot ever come in conflict with our actions. The idea that God “exists” and “created the universe” cannot be in conflict with anything we do. Many people today will, when questioned on their religious beliefs, agree only to this minimal kernel of faith and nothing more, but will vehemently defend the idea that they do believe in God. So do they believe in God or not? Here’s where context comes in handy: we can say of these people that although they may believe in God in some highly rarified symbolic context, in the everyday context of the real world, they have no belief in God. If God didn’t exist, nothing they did would be any different.

One suggestion for defining belief was precisely this: by the term “belief” we mean exactly that component of our thoughts that doesn’t come into conflict with reality. If it could be proved (or disproved) we wouldn’t have to believe it. This corresponds nicely with the notion of faith developed in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” where the Babel fish causes God to cease to exist by proving his existence and thereby eliminating faith. I feel that this definition does indeed correspond to some aspect of what we ordinarily mean by the term “belief”, and it has some resonance with the Christian relationship with “doubt”, but I’m not sure there are many theists who would be happy with a definition of belief as that which is inconsequential.

The second conception of belief that came up was several ideas around a common theme: the idea that belief is a form of post hoc rationalisation of our actions. This is related to the notion of confabulation in psychology. This is easily shown in an experiment with split brain patients where you tell one half of their brain to go and get a coffee (by whispering in one ear so that the other ear can’t hear it), and then you ask the other half of the brain why they went to get a coffee: they will typically reply that they were thirsty, or felt like a coffee, or something like that. In other words, having observed their own actions, they create a rationalisation for them. With probably a minimum of reflection, we can see that this isn’t just a peculiarity of split brain patients: we all do this from time to time.

Jacques Ellul used this notion of belief following action as an explanation for an important part of the power of propaganda, what he called “integration propaganda” (which I discuss in the last paragraph of this entry). Essentially, if you can get people to engage in certain actions, especially ones with a powerful emotion attached to them, then they will tend to create their own beliefs for why this was the right thing to do. The alternative to believing that it was right is believing that it was wrong, or meaningless, and most people don’t want to do this (cognitive dissonance). This form of belief applies very nicely to religion, in which you are first enculturated into various patterns of behaviour (going to church, prayer, etc.) and are thereby integrated into the social community of the Church. There is a strong incentive later in life not to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t believe in God, because to admit that would be to admit that all those actions were meaningless, or even worse, actually wrong.

So what type of belief is this? At first glance, it is a purely symbolic form of belief: you will say “I believe in God” if asked. Does the belief have consequences though, and in what contexts? It’s difficult to distinguish, in this case, because a belief such as this came with a period of social integration, which, especially in the case of people raised as religious, will have defined their whole moral outlook. Which consequences of this process are due to the belief, and which to the social process of creating the belief? It was put to me that religious people often do extraordinary things, such as not having sex before marriage, hating gay people, reading the bible, and praying, and that shouldn’t we take this as evidence that they believe? I countered that we can equally well explain those as consequences of their being brought up and part of a religion which encourages these sorts of behaviour (think of the extraordinary things that people did and thought in atheist Soviet Russia). I don’t think either of us was satisfied with this answer, it’s too difficult to pick apart why people did those things.

The question then, to me, is what explanatory power does the idea of “belief in God” have beyond membership of a religion? My argument is that it has very little power to explain behaviour because social pressures are able to explain so much. Twisting Laplace, I have no need of the hypothesis that people believe in God. You can say that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it – or rather, eat my cake and have it, as the expression should be in order to make sense – on the one hand I want to say that belief in God doesn’t lead to any actions, but when faced with an action that does appear to stem from a belief in God I want to write it off as the consequence of religious enculturation. How could I be proved wrong? But the defender of the idea that people really do believe in God has the same problem: when a religious person does something that isn’t consistent with their beliefs, they want to say that it’s because they are inconsistent, or weak, or because their belief doesn’t really apply in that case. I will put forward a few reasons, that may not be conclusive, to suggest that the social process is more important to explaining behaviour than the belief:

  • Historically, behaviour by religious people is very inconsistent. In the past, and still very frequently today, Christians hated gay people, abhorred them as sinful, sometimes citing some of the nastier bits of the Bible in favour of this. These days, more liberal Christians will cite rather sophisticated theological reasoning to explain away the passages in the Bible that refer to killing gay people (apparently, Jesus “fulfilled the law” so we don’t have to follow it – if you can make any headway on that good luck to you). In any case, if both of these types of Christian “believe in God” in the same sense, then this belief clearly isn’t reflected in their attitude towards gay people. “Belief in God”, in other words, has no explanatory power with respect to attitudes towards homosexuality. We can play the same game with any number of attitudes and behaviours. What is left?
  • In my original entry, I argued that if you really believed in hell, you would never sin, and yet people often do. It has been countered, innumerable times, that these days most Christians either don’t believe in hell, or don’t believe that they’ll be going there. But, this is sophisticated theological reasoning, and I’m pretty sure that throughout most of the history of Christianity, the masses certainly did believe in hell, and thought that they might well go there. And yet, they sinned. Is our “belief in God” so different to theirs? Could it be that they didn’t believe in God, but that Christians today do? Perhaps, although that makes belief in God a very recent phenomenon, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. I would rather say that the belief (or lack of it) in God is the same, but that there has been an innovation in the language game of belief, coming about as a response to the increased interaction of religious people with atheists. Since the belief in God is the same we can apply my arguments about belief in hell to people a couple of hundred years ago and find that they don’t believe in God (beyond their membership of the religion in question), and that consequently, neither do people today.

Although I may be able to explain the actions of people raised as religious without using the idea that they believe in God, and therefore show that the post hoc rationalisation form of belief exists only at the symbolic level, there is still a problem with saying that there is no such thing as consequential belief in God. The problem is: what about people that come to believe in God later in life, perhaps having been raised as atheist? They didn’t experience a correlative moral training by theists, and so their actions, such as they are, must be explained by the belief in God. And since these actions are often similar to those of the people brought up as religious, shouldn’t we interpret both as stemming from their belief in God? This is certainly a conundrum, and perhaps even an antinomy, but it applies equally to those who believe that people believe in God (see bullet points above). I suspect that people who have converted later in life are often those who have experienced some sort of psychological trauma, and want the safety and acceptance of a social group, and perform the actions because they are an entry requirement to the social group. If anything, we would expect them to be more extreme in their performance of the rituals, because they have more to prove: they are trying to come in from outside, rather than being allowed to stay in by default of having grown up inside. This does seem rather supercilious though, and I have little to no evidence that it’s the case.

To finish with, I want to outline a position similar to my first followup to the original article, which is also similar to a suggestion made to me recently, and that at least partly resolves some of these difficulties. The position is this: we hypothesise that we think at a symbolic and non-symbolic level, and that there are interactions between these levels, but that they are not tightly integrated. The reality is undoubtedly more complex than this, but perhaps this hypothesis can shed some light anyway. Belief in God then impacts only directly on our thinking at the symbolic level. Typically, this symbolic belief in God is instilled by integration into a community (although it can also occur through other means). Normally, our actions are guided by pragmatic reasoning, or by routine, and these actions can be correlative with our thinking at the symbolic level having both been influenced by our upbringing.

The suggestion that was put to me was this: Infrequently, a decision presents itself which cannot be decided by either pragmatic reasoning or by routine. For example, what do we think about stem cell research? Stem cells are sufficiently far removed from anything we have ever thought about before that neither pragmatic reasoning nor routine thinking can enable us to come up with an answer to this. It is in these unusual instances that our belief in God can have an effect, because we are forced to pass from our beliefs to our actions rather than the other way around. My response to this though is that belief in God doesn’t have strong explanatory power here: the situation is really that the stated set of (self-contradictory) principles that someone believes in have to be resolved in a particular case by making a choice one way or the other. The fact that these decisions can sometimes go one way, and sometimes another (for example, in religious schisms that come about in these situations) shows that the resolution is to some extent arbitrary, or at least decided by other factors.

In conclusion then, I prefer to look at religion as a purely social phenomenon, which happens to include the notion of God, but that could equally well be replaced with any other purely symbolic object and serve all the same purposes. Everything that I’m interested in as regards religion can be understood in this way: we can see how it is that religion is capable of both great evil, and great good, just as any other form of power can be exercised in ways that are harmful or beneficial. In fact, we can treat religion purely politically, and I think if we do this we’ll see that it’s harmful and beneficial precisely where political systems are harmful or beneficial. Harmful when hierarchical, centralised, authoritarian, and beneficial when democratic and driven by ordinary human needs and desires. See also my old manifesto entry on religion, and followup on religion, atheists and hierarchy.

Why is this important? Because it changes the stance that atheists should take towards theists. For a start, we should probably not expend much energy in trying to undermine the idea that God exists because this is probably not primary for most religious people. It may have some use as a focal point for atheistic communities, may serve as a hook on which to hang ones atheism, and may help to give the final push to people who have already decided to give up their religion, but is unlikely to be a major force in converting people. More important than this rhetorical or didactic reason for not focussing on God, we shouldn’t do so because belief in God is largely inconsequential in comparison to religion as a political phenomenon. If the atheist community could apply their considerable talents to political analysis, perhaps really great things could be achieved. As it stands, atheists are as likely as not to be politically reactionary and supportive of authoritarian and hierarchical structures.

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“the indolent and vicious”
November 1, 2010, 12:05 am
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , ,

In 1834, responding to the increasing cost of poor relief which was considered to be unmanageable, the Poor Law Commission recommended that those receiving help should be “subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious” (quoted in A. L. Morton “A People’s History of England”). Consequently, the workhouses were run according to the principle of less eligibility, that as a form of deterrent, the conditions in them should be worse than was possible outside (which was certainly the case in the Andover workhouse, in which the inmates had to suck the marrow out of bones they were supposed to be grinding for fertiliser). Furthermore, that someone “requesting to be rescued from that danger out of the property of others, he must accept assistance on the terms, whatever they may be (see p24 here). This was the system described by Dickens in Oliver Twist, and it led to mass agitation, partly through the Chartist movement, including the storming and burning of the workhouses.

On reading about this recently, I was reminded of George Osborne’s recent comments, that “The welfare system is broken. We have to accept that the welfare bill has got completely out of control… People who think it is a lifestyle to sit on out-of-work benefits … that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end.” Just as it was in the 19th century, however, the rhetoric is quite out of touch with reality.

See also Tristram Hunt writing on the spending cuts.

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A brief intro to Zizek
October 27, 2010, 10:00 am
Filed under: Politics, zizek

To those of you who somehow have managed to not come across Slavoz Žižek, Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher / cultural theorist, here’s a nice, short animation that does the basics. If you haven’t read him or seen him talk before, you should really take a look (and it’s quite fun even if you have).



Atheism in 10 minutes
October 26, 2010, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Religion | Tags: ,

I haven’t been blogging much for quite a long time, mostly because I haven’t had the time to write any long, carefully argued posts. So as not to let this blog become totally moribund, I thought I might post a few shorter, incomplete entries. So, let’s kick off with a video someone sent me last night giving a very brief (10 minute) statement of “lack of belief” as a definition of atheism. It’s sort of unarguable in some sense. (Or is it just that it says things I agree with?)



Should left wingers not send their kids to private schools?

The UK Labour party is currently having a leadership contest. The most left-wing candidate, Diane Abbott, has been criticised for sending her children to a fee-paying school. In the eyes of many socialists, this should be an instant disqualification for any left-wing political career. But is this a reasonable point of view?

I can see two reasons why you might want to rule out any candidate that sent their children to private school.

  1. It’s hypocritical to be against private schools but send your kids to one. This hypocrisy suggests that you don’t really believe what you say, and therefore if you got into power you wouldn’t necessarily act socialist.
  2. Sending your children to private school gives them an unfair advantage, and by doing so you are promoting inequality – not good for a left-winger.

The first criticism says that sending your kids to private school signals that you don’t really believe in socialism. There are two responses to this: first of all, it’s not clear that this is a correct inference. There is a difference between what someone believes they should do, and what they believe government policy should be. It is entirely logically coherent to believe both that we should live in a society with no private schools, and that given that we do live in a society with private schools, it is better to send ones kids to them than not. The two statements are simply not comparable, they live in different moral worlds: on the one hand choices about the nature of society itself, and on the other hand choices about what to do when the nature of society is fixed. So there is no reason to think that someone who sends their kids to private school would oppose the ending of the system of private schools, or indeed any other socialist policy.

The second response is that we also have to consider the signal sent by doing the opposite. If someone believes that sending their kids to private school would give them an advantage, and they’re financially able to do so, what does it mean if they choose not to do this? One possibility is that it means they value their political career more than the future of their children. If this were the case, then it’s not only a disturbing feature of their personality, but it suggests the sort of thing they would do if they got into power: anything that was necessary to further their career. That wouldn’t bode well for socialism.

However there are other reasons why they might not send their children to private school even if they thought it would be advantageous to them. They might, for example, think along the lines of statement (2) above – that someone else is being hurt by their sending their children to private school, and that this is not an acceptable price to pay. Alternatively, they might believe in the importance of symbolic commitments: that by performing certain actions you assert your commitment to ideals. An example of this is voting: any individual is wasting their time by voting, as their single vote almost certainly won’t change anything, but by doing so they assert their commitment to the ideal of democracy. The value of this sort of belief is debatable, but one wouldn’t want to assign any bad motives to someone who had such a belief. One final reason for not sending your children to private school even if you had the means to do so would be that you believe that state schools give a better education.

Given that there are many good reasons for not sending your children to private school even if you can – we certainly don’t want to deduce that people who choose not to have put their career first, but it is a possibility and it’s therefore not clear that someone who chooses not to send their kids to private school is likely to be better than someone who does.

The second criticism is that sending children to private school is in itself a sort of act of violence – by giving your children an advantage you must, almost by definition, put someone else at a disadvantage. This is a reasonable point of view, and to a certain extent must be true. There is another way of looking at it that makes it less clear though. It may be the case that sending someone to private school only makes them more likely to succeed – it doesn’t actually change the distribution of success or failure in society. In other words, the individual act of sending someone to private school may only improve their chances of success without changing the overall levels of inequality at all. Suppose you could choose between two possibilities: either your child is successful and consequently someone else’s child is unsuccessful; or someone else’s child is successful and consequently yours is unsuccessful. All other things being equal, we would have to be dubious about someone who chose that someone else’s child should be successful instead of theirs.

Let’s take this one step further: if we believe that we shouldn’t give our children an unfair advantage by sending them to private school – doesn’t this also mean that we shouldn’t give them an unfair advantage by doing other things that we know improve a child’s chances in life? Like talking to them and playing with them? Like taking an interest in them and helping them to understand the world? In other words, by being good parents? And what on earth would we make of people who thought like that? One response might be to say that there’s a difference: that sending children to private school and being a good parenting, that the former increases inequality whereas the latter does not. But what evidence is there for that? We know that ‘cultural capital’ promotes inequality in much the same way as financial capital does, and isn’t it precisely this cultural capital that is increased by good parenting? Rather than argue that parents ought not to work to give their children any advantages, which is I think absurd, I would argue that parents should work both to make their children’s lives as successful and happy as possible, whilst at the same time working for an equal society, a society in which everyone can have a fulfilling life, where fulfillment is not necessarily gained by doing better than others.

In conclusion: I am not arguing that parents ought to send their children to private school if they can afford to. There are, as I outlined above, many good reasons for not doing so. Instead, I’m simply arguing that the arguments of many critics against people who choose to are poorly grounded, and that following through on the type of reasoning they have followed to reach their conclusion would lead to some weird conclusions. Beyond this, I think that there is a danger that by insisting our politicians uphold certain standards that we haven’t through very carefully, we actually provide perverse incentives that work against our interests. By insisting that socialist politicians cannot send their children to private school, do we not thereby increase the chances of getting politicians who are more interested in their own careers than in their children? And if we’ve learned anything from Tony Blair, isn’t it that government by those who are more interested in their careers and the exercise of power itself than in the ideals they claim to believe in is an enormous wasted opportunity for the left?

I’ll finish with a suggestion: left-wing parents who want to send their children to private schools could make donations equal to the school fees they pay to a charitable trust devoted to giving grants to send children to private schools from families that could not afford them. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, there are some questions to be asked about it: perhaps there are better uses of that money? What about parents who could afford to send their children to private school, but could not afford to double that cost?

Disclosure: I was sent to private school by my parents. Make of this what you will.



Nobody believes in God redux
March 14, 2010, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Religion | Tags: , , ,

A while ago I wrote an entry Nobody believes in God. I don’t think I argued the case particularly well there, but the conclusion was basically correct. I’ve just come across some interesting quotes from Hume and Mill saying more or less the same things.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2:

To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. … All Christians
believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; … that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds.

Thanks to this post for the Hume quote, this essay for the latter quote and this blog entry for the link to the essay.



Expert advice

The recent sacking of David Nutt – formerly head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – for giving scientific advice that showed the stupidity of the government’s drugs policy, suggests taking a look at the role of expert advice in policy.

The problem is that the government can have an unstated policy of accepting expert advice when it suits them and rejecting it when it doesn’t. Such a policy is ideal for the government, because if the advice fits what they wanted to do anyway, they can claim that they are supported by evidence, and if it contradicts them they can in most cases easily shrug it off by claiming (correctly) that the point of expert advice is not that it should define policy, but that it should be taken into account as part of wider considerations, and that in this case, blah blah… The policy is equivalent in outcome to having no expert advice, but in some cases looks better. Alan Johnson’s statement in his letter to Nutt was extraordinary in tacitly recognising this:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD.

It is understandable then that other members of the ACMD are resigning, although it is not entirely clear how principled this stance is when everyone on that council must have known beforehand that they were helping to legitimate highly irrational policies. (I don’t want to be too critical though, maybe the strategy of working within a faulty system can do some good.)

So where does this leave the issue of expert advice? Can it play a useful role and if so, how? One possible way out of the problem above would be for the government to create advisory groups and commit itself to following their advice whatever it might be. There are various problems with this though. Firstly, it is subject to manipulation by selection of the members of the group. Secondly, it’s not clear that it would even work – Tony Blair stated the reason to go to war with Iraq “must be according to the United Nations mandate on Weapons of Mass Destruction”, but changed his mind when that mandate disappeared.

But a third and deeper problem with this and any other similar scheme is that it conceals the true nature of politics, and supports the false idea that government can be a purely technical exercise in doing whatever works. Politics is actually about conflicts of interests of different groups and classes. Portraying political issues as technical ones works to hide these truly political aspects. Governments and opposition parties are very happy to do this because they are both largely supporting the interests of the same classes/groups – typically the wealthier ones. This shouldn’t be surprising because the decision making part of the government and state largely consists of, is staffed by and supported by people in these classes.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not technical considerations in policy making, nor that expertise is irrelevant. In the case of drugs policy, for example, the evidence is overwhelming that tobacco and alcohol are more dangerous than cannabis and many other illegal drugs, making a mockery of government policy. However, I do doubt that an institutional arrangement can be devised which allows for a useful and non-political injection of expert advice into decision making. I would suggest instead that experts should be entirely independent of government. A well informed and scientifically literate press – something that is very far from what we have today – would be hugely preferable to any number of advisory councils selected by and working for the government. This would allow an injection of expertise into an explicitly political process, rather than supporting a fictional non-political one.



Authority and Competence

The view that the people in charge know what they’re doing is implicitly prevalent. Although many people would say that the people in charge were incompetent, in fact there seems to be a widespread implicit assumption that they either do know what they’re doing or that someone else would know what they’re doing better. Underlying this is the assumption that it’s possible to know what you’re doing. In politics and economics, none of these are true – there is very little understanding of what is happening, what the effects of various actions will be, or what we should do. Understanding this is important, because at the moment there is a lack of critical thinking in politics. Although there is much criticism, of course, it usually fails to get at the root causes of problems and so the mass of critical feeling fails to achieve anything, and is wasted in irrelevancies.

As an example of this, the debate that was had a few years ago about extending the period that the police can hold people without charging them beyond 28 days in terrorism cases. Assumptions of competence pervaded this debate in many ways. For some, it was enough to note that the politicians thought that an extension was necessary to protect us. For others, that wasn’t enough, but the fact that the police thought that an extension was necessary for them to be able to protect us was enough. This was also the basis for a substantial amount of the debate in parliament. It was assumed that the fact that the police said they needed the extra time counted for something. Not everyone agreed that just because the police thought they needed it meant that they should get it, but it was universally agreed that their opinion counted purely on the basis that it was their opinion. Their perceived authority and presumed competence gave their opinion weight in and of itself.

However, very few people questioned why the police had come to their opinion, and what the evidence for it was. It turns out that one of the major claims was that in previous terrorist cases they had used more and more time, up to 26 days I think it was. The argument was that since they had used this much, it was probably the case that if the limit had been higher they could have profitably used more, and that future cases were likely to need even more. They were already at the limit, and this was holding them back.

This argument is terribly weak in many, many ways, but came under hardly any criticism at all (indeed, very few people even knew that this was the argument). But there’s no reason why it had to be like this – the weaknesses of this argument, and the counter-arguments against it, are not so complicated that most people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Rather, it was that the whole process of questioning the argument was made unnecessary by the fact that most people were willing to go along with the opinions of those in positions of authority based on their presumed competence. A more critically engaged society would be better able to protect itself against manipulation by those in power. We have all the necessary democratic mechanisms, but they count for nothing if we hand over our critical thinking to those in positions of authority (and that includes journalists).

In order to achieve a more critically engaged society, we need to understand competence better – where does it come from? What sort of things are we able to be competent about? How can we recognise it? We also need to dispel myths and misunderstandings about competence, which are widespread.

If we describe competence as being about having knowledge, then we can split it down into an explicit and tacit component. Explicit knowledge is something you can write down and tell others about, things like 2+2=4, the capital of France is Paris, etc. Tacit knowledge is everything that can’t be put into words, but that is still valuable. I can’t put into words what it is I’m doing when I solve a mathematical problem, but there’s definitely something I know that most other people don’t that makes me able to do them and them not. Tacit knowledge is built up from experience, thousands of particular cases, attempted and failed solutions of problems, etc.

The existence of tacit knowledge is very significant and certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, this is a good argument that sometimes we do need to rely on the authoritative judgments of others (experts). But we shouldn’t make the mistake of just presuming that people do indeed have tacit knowledge about their area of work. First of all, you don’t get tacit knowledge about something just by doing it often, and secondly it is often easy to think that tacit knowledge is more general than it really is.

In the example of the debate above, the police may well have sincerely believed that they had the requisite experience and knowledge to make their judgment that they needed the extension to protect us from terrorism. But they didn’t. For a start, they haven’t dealt with nearly enough cases to get tacit knowledge that is worth much. Since the end of the IRA bombing campaigns, which were rather different to modern terrorism, there has only been one successful terrorist incident and a handful of failures. The police have had no great successes or failures in these matters – they have caught some people, but these have largely been fantasists who had no real ability to do the things they wanted to do. The fact that terrorism has been as little a problem as it has been is a consequence of the fact that there have been very few competent attempts at it, few individuals involved, and little will to carry it through. All the police know, then, is what they’ve done in the past, and what happened in consequence. Even on that basis alone, there’s very little to go on as chance and circumstance probably have as much to do with that as anything else. But further than that, there’s no basis for them to be able to know what would happen if they had got the extension they were looking for. They have no model, explicit or tacit, of the world that would allow them to make such a prediction, and no experience to go on. Almost certainly, what they actually had was the conviction that it couldn’t make it worse, and that it would make their lives easier.

It is vital, if we take someone’s judgment as an expert or authority, that we analyse what basis they might have for making the claims that they do, whether or not they could be in possession of explicit or tacit knowledge that would justify it, and where that knowledge could have come from. This is far from being a complete recipe for dealing with issues of authority, expertise and tacit knowledge, but even a better recognition of the importance of these issues would be a big step forwards.

One thing that needs to be addressed if we’re to achieve a more realistic understanding of these sorts of issues is cultural representations of expertise and competence – the myths that are portrayed in books, films, TV shows, newspapers and everyday discourse that support them. Films and TV shows typically portray hyper-competent individuals bursting with impeccable tacit knowledge. The reason for this on the one hand is obvious – a story about heroic, talented individuals is more interesting. Sometimes it’s obvious that people in these things act beyond human abilities, such as the hacker who can break into any computer system in the world in only 5 minutes. But other times the portrayal is more subtle and insidious, such as in The West Wing, a notionally realistic show about the US presidential staff in the White House. The technical competence of the heroes is constantly portrayed as a virtue in and of itself, and the show suggests implicitly that they have the right to rule by virtue alone of their greater ability to do so. Very few TV shows portray anything like reality in this regard, with the most notable exception being The Wire, one of the best things ever to be shown on TV, proving that it certainly is possible to do it (and be reasonably popular).

On a final note, these considerations apply very much to areas of life outside politics and economics. For example, some people might be shocked about the standards of evidence that count in science. But that’s another story.

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Fairness and equality

There has been a lot of discussion of a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on attitudes towards tackling economic inequality (at Directionless Bones, Left Luggage, Sunder Katwala on CiF, Don Paskini at Liberal Conspiracy, and David Osler). Quoting Alderson at Directionless Bones, one of the key findings of the report is:

People didn’t seem to endorse the idea of ‘equality’ as a general principle as much as they endorsed ‘fairness’.

This is a point that several of the posts linked to above considered, and there has been a feeling that the left needs to find a new way to promote their view of the world to people (which traditionally is based on equality).

I find this interesting because for the last few years I’ve been coming to the view that the case for a left-wing politics should be based rather on the principles of fairness and freedom than on equality. Equality is important and essential, but I think it’s a consequence of fairness and freedom. I’ve argued this in much more detail in an earlier entry on capitalism. Essentially, a very unequal society will, in practice, also be necessarily an unfair one.

The report has caused quite a lot of distress because it showed that people are not against what they term ‘fair inequality’ – but I don’t think the left should be dispairing over this. The report also clearly showed that people think there are substantial levels of unfair inequality, and that this is a bad thing. This suggests to me that most people basically get and agree with the final point of the previous paragraph – high levels of inequality lead to an unfair society.

I suggest then that what the left needs to do is to push this analysis further and address the misconceptions that the JRF report showed that people have. Most people substantially underestimate the level of inequality that actually exists and overestimate the level of social mobility. Changing perceptions of these is difficult, but could make a significant difference.

As a final point, the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form of socialism where equality is considered more important than fairness and freedom, and much less of a blow to an anarchist form of socialism which takes freedom and fairness to be fundamental. This is important and suggests the left should be considering a change of direction towards anarchist conceptions – and thankfully much of the left does, slowly, seem to be doing this (even if they don’t call it anarchism). In particular, the point about support for ‘fair inequality’ is very interesting with respect to the remuneration mechanism of parecon (which I written a few things about on this blog). Parecon allows for a certain amount of precisely ‘fair inequality’ – that is, inequality that comes from a choice to work harder or at more onerous labour. It is fair because anyone can make that choice (whereas not everyone can choose to be a doctor, banker, etc.). On the other hand, it absolutely rejects unfair inequality. As such, it seems that many people’s fundamental views of what society should be like resonate more with a pareconish or anarchist conception than a state-centric socialist one.