Friday, 8 June 2018

I read Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy

In three days. I got the first book three days ago and read it that evening, ordered the second one and read it the next day, ordered the third, got it two days later and read it that evening. (Thanks, Amazon Prime. I had to buy the hardback, but I couldn't wait.)
It is very serious art, and unabashedly highbrow. I don’t follow the literary world, but I have a vague sense that there has been a backlash against high-faluting “literature” and in favour of genres and what would have previously been thought middlebrow. These books do not partake in that. There is very little plot, no dramatic events, just one conversation after another. And almost all the conversations are extremely intense: self-aware people dissecting their lives and relationships with the expertise of a sushi chef and the passion of a flagellant.
Reading it is unnerving. The narrator – Faye, a female author doing the rounds of writing courses and literary festivals – talks to other people, or listens to their monologues. They talk about the deepest things in their lives. Other characters are pinned down like butterflies, sketched in a few strokes of extreme skill. Everything is implicit. Neither Faye nor the author – it's in the first person, so the distinction perhaps does not matter – often expresses an opinion.
 But, like Tom Cruise’s pick-up guru in Magnolia, Faye is “quietly judging you”. Family, and divorce, are pervasive in the conversations; everyone has behaved badly, but few want to admit it. Children, even when they are annoying or burdensome, come across as sinned against, not sinning. Freedom is weighed against commitment and it almost always comes out worse, or at least as a let-down; people are at their wickedest and stupidest when they exercise power thoughtlessly. As a child of divorce, I liked the books very much. But I was also troubled and provoked by them, because the narrator, and I guess the author, is a feminist, in some sense, which I am not. (There is plenty of mansplaining, and some atrocious behaviour by entitled guys; and sometimes that feeling of a conversational elephant-trap being laid as a man is allowed to talk himself into a corner.)
In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, there is a chapter after the Great War when the cast reassembles, and the author suggests almost playfully that the values they hold should not really be taken seriously; as if the great comedy of the Victorian age, and its literature, can no longer be played straight. Reading Outline felt as if I was rewinding through that historical moment.
Nineteenth-century literature was explicitly judgmental. Dickens and Thackeray, for all their subtleties and play, saw wickedness and called it; and showed it in its harshest colours. And then that earnestness quite quickly vanished. Why?
A superficial answer is the rule of craft that says show, don’t tell. I think a deeper answer is that after the Edwardians, moral judgment got mixed up with aesthetic judgment, judgment of taste; and English judgments of taste, since (I guess?) the eighteenth century, have been made in silence and in code. You couldn’t say that someone was explicitly inferior; but you could imply it to those in the know, with a raised eyebrow.
One danger of this is passive-aggressiveness. I talked to somebody about On Chesil Beach and she asked if I had noticed that the heroine had been sexually abused. And I have heard about literature classes being told the same thing. “Did you spot that? Well done – you are aesthetically and morally sensitive – alive to other people’s hidden sufferings.” But if I was supposed to spot it, why didn’t Ian McEwan make sure I did? What is this, a cryptic crossword?
And in fact, where Faye does speak up and give her own opinions, she seems both warmer and braver. She lays it on the line.
About her we learn very little. She starts the trilogy after her own divorce, and has remarried by the third book. Occasionally her children call. These conversations are very different from the others. There’s less indirect narration, and more ordinariness. These, along with the narrator’s own talk, are the warmest parts of the book. It’s as if she and the reader can suddenly breathe out.
At the very end, the narrator is bathing in the sea when a man comes to the water’s edge and pisses in it. She watches his “merry, cruel face… and I waited for him to stop.” It’s a scene out of myth – the sighing breast of the sea, and the grinning Satyr. But I don’t know whether Rachel Cusk thinks of it really as myth, or as a piece of history, which could be brought to an end somehow.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The House of Government and the relative nobility of communism

Robert Conquest, the poet and deeply anti-communist historian of the Soviet Union, thought that fascism was worse than communism. Asked why, he replied just "I feel it to be so". Perhaps the feeling is that communism was a noble cause that went wrong, whereas fascism never had anything noble about it. Anyway, reading The House of Government made me question that idea.

It is a huge, brilliant book about the inhabitants of one house in Moscow – a purpose-built creation designed to house the elite of the new regime, and inhabited by the Old Bolsheviks, who had made the revolution and fought the civil war against the Whites. The Old Bolsheviks certainly have something of the nobility of an old-time religion: they start the book under Tsarism, holding secret meetings by gaslight, or exiled to Siberia. And the book itself takes the communism-religion analogy very seriously, drawing comparisons from early Christianity, early Puritanism, and the Great Disappointment of the US Millerite sect.

But before admiring devotion to a cause, we need to know the cause's nature. An especial wickedness of communism, which it shared with fascism, was that it deliberately endorsed and encouraged hatred and cruelty against the enemy. For example, here is a passage from The Iron Flood, a civil war novel, in which the heroes take a Cossack town:

Note that this is not an underground or marginal text. It was a set text in schools until the end of the Soviet period. It is not atypical either. In the civil war, merciless killing of men, women and children was endorsed in reality as well as novels. To be merciless and brutal, since mercilessness and brutality were necessary, was a mark of moral strength and hardness. Stalin meant "man of steel". The Bolsheviks were the first people to favour the tough-looking leather jacket.

The catalyst for this evil was surely the brutality of the conflict, but it must also have had roots in Karl Marx's crisp analysis of conventional morality. Bourgeois morality was part of the bourgeois economic system: talk of human rights or humanist values was claptrap when most of humanity was enslaved. The only morality was to do whatever furthered the revolution. Then again, perhaps communism was simply of its time. The same worship of strength can be found in Kipling, say; expressed more subtly, in Nietzsche; later, in fascism. The result, in any case, was that Bolshevist communism became a death cult.

Some of the behaviour patterns are still with us. The bilious twitter monkeys of the extreme Left, for whom abuse and hatred are both tactics and habits, are more or less conscious followers of this Bolshevik tradition. Luckily, as of today they remain safely confined to the zoo.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Vague theories: a defence

Most scientists believe that vagueness is bad in a scientific theory. In fact, if it’s vague, it cannot really be a theory at all. At the hard end of the social sciences, economists insist that theories should be formalized in the crisp language of mathematics. Even in softer-edged disciplines, which often get accused of vagueness and waffle, very few people defend vagueness explicitly. Instead, they use arguments about the meaning-ladenness of human action, or the holistic interconnectedness of the social world, to argue that social science should aim for understanding rather than explanation. But understanding is still meant to be clear.

Actually, mathematics is not enough to avoid vagueness, as Paul Romer has pointed out in a controversial article on “mathiness” in the theory of economic growth. Mathiness is a word coined on the analogy of the Daily Show’s “truthiness”: when something “feels true in your gut” rather than actually being true. Mathy economic theories have a valid mathematical argument in their model, but the connections between the maths and reality are vague or ill-defined:
McGrattan and Prescott (2010) establish loose links between a word with no meaning and new mathematical results.
Boldrin and Levine (2008) make broad verbal claims that are disconnected from any formal analysis.
This suggests a puzzle. If the words and verbal claims in a theory must be connected via tight links to a formal analysis and mathematical results, why aren’t they part of the mathematics themselves? If economists build models because ordinary language is imprecise, then why is any ordinary language allowed?

Having sown these seeds of doubt, I will present three examples, and a bonus fourth, of theories that are vague but useful. I am not arguing that vagueness is a theoretical virtue. Instead, it is a disadvantage that must be traded off against competing values, such as relevance. Also, perhaps, the tradeoff approaches infinity as vagueness goes to zero: a perfectly defined theory would be a theorem in pure mathematics, with no relationship to the world; insofar as it connects to the world, it has to be a bit vague.

Theory 1: watch out for that truck!


This is a very simple theory. Its usefulness, if you are about to step into the road, should be obvious. But it is vague, because a key term is not precisely defined. What exactly is a truck? When does a van become a truck? Even people from Texas aren’t sure.

Van? Truck? Vruck?

Theory 2: Western societies are threatened by Islamic terrorism


This theory could be true or false. It is perfectly legitimate to argue that terrorism’s threat to the West is manufactured, or hyped, by the warmongers in power. But the theory is at least worth arguing over. After the Twin Towers attack, Western societies needed to decide what to do, which involved making judgments about this theory. Yet the theory is clearly vague. There is no clear uncontested definition of terrorism, or of “Islamic” terror. (Is it Islamic terror when a small-time drug dealer or mentally unstable loser decides to ram a van into some people, after posting some Islamic-tinged rants on Facebook?) Or of “threat”. Or of “societies”. Or of “Western”. A lot of the debate about this theory consists in making terms more precise. But you have to start somewhere.

Theory 3: fluxions


Modern science, with its mathematical basis, was kickstarted by the enormous prestige of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Under that theory lay his advanced mathematics, in particular his development of the mathematical derivative – he famously fought Leibniz over priority on the topic.

The derivative can be loosely defined as the slope of a function. Awkwardly, its precise definition was not clarified until 150 years after Newton wrote. In particular, the idea of a slope at a point involves the idea of a “limit”, which was finally explained by Bolzano and Weierstrass in the 19th century.

For the first half of its history, Newton’s theory, the key theory underpinning the development of modern science, was vague, meaning not that it had an uncertain real world referent à  la “truck”, but that we could not even explain clearly what a key term meant. Newton recognized this explicitly and was uncomfortable enough to write a book about it.

Bonus Theory 4: the truth shall set you free


This is a saying attributed to Jesus. The actual quote, from John 8:32 in the King James Version, is: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The theory is frankly obscure. But it would be hard to say that it has not been influential. It may be that with respect to it, we are in the position of eighteenth-century mathematicians with respect to the calculus. It is a theory that seems important, but we cannot explain why.

I'll finish by quoting Edmund Burke's catchily-named A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The argument in this remark seems superficial, but I think a deeper point is lurking there.
But let it be considered that hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.

Friday, 30 March 2018

On race

Where Left wing economic ideas have been in eclipse for half a century, their social ideas have been hugely successful in changing attitudes, and backing up those changes with institutions. This is the first of three essays which take stock of this social agenda. They will focus in turn on three defining enemies of the post-1960s "equality agenda": racism, sexism and homophobia.


The modern anti-racist impulse came from the discovery of Nazi crimes in Europe. Ideas of innate racial differences had served to justify Nazi racial hatred. Back home, Americans found the same ideas supporting the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In the struggle to change this and similar systems, the word racism came to cover two concepts:
  1. A belief in innate, natural differences between racial groups.
  2. Hatred, prejudice and discrimination against other races.
Racists believed (1), and their belief was caused by, and served to justify, (2), so it was natural to name a single syndrome for both aspects.

This concept leads people to think that if (1) is true, then (2) is justifiable. This seems to be agreed by both racists and anti-racists.

The problem is that (1) – let's call it the "natural differences" hypothesis – is an empirical claim about the world. It might have turned out to be false. It still may turn out to be basically false. But as time goes on, that is looking less likely. To explain this, I need to talk about the science of race and ethnicity. I claim no deep expertise in genetics. But I do know a bit about both genetics and about the social science of ethnicity, which I hope gives me some standing to discuss both.

The genetics and social science of races

First, racial groups are a kind of ethnic group, and ethnic groups are best seen as political identities. Being, say, white or Hispanic in the US is more like supporting a football team than like being tall or short-sighted. It is an identity sometimes chosen by ourselves, sometimes imposed on us by others. There are many examples of ethnic identities changing with political circumstances. For instance, the US census used to ask people if they were white or black; it now asks if people are white, black or Hispanic. The reason is that with greater immigration from Latin America, being Hispanic became a salient political identity in the US. Politicians campaigned for the Hispanic vote, and Hispanic people worked together to support shared interests. There are similar cases in Africa, where tribal identities are shifted by the demands of politics.

Ethnic group identities are ascribed by descent – you get them from your parents. Racial groups are a particular subset of ethnic groups where the “badges” that categorize people include natural characteristics like skin colour, which relate to relatively long-run differences in ancestry. These characteristics often vary continuously, and people may spend a lot of effort policing the boundaries of the group: 19th century America had a whole terminology of “quadroon” and “octoroon” to describe different mixes of black and white ancestry.

Nevertheless, while the categorization is social, the characteristics are natural and inherited. This means that the natural characteristics which place you into an ethnic group correlate with your ancestry, which in turn correlates with other genetic differences. There are some well-known examples: people of African descent are more likely to carry a genetic variant putting them at risk of sickle cell disease; there are similar cases for Ashkenazi Jews, who went through a small population bottleneck in the first millennium AD.

They might also correlate with genetic differences that cause important psychological characteristics. As twin studies show, almost all psychological characteristics are partly genetic: that is, differences in two individuals’ characteristics partly reflect differences in their DNA. So, there could be differences between racial groups on any of these characteristics.

“Could be:” there’s the rub. We don’t know yet. As is often said, the fact that inter-individual differences have a genetic basis does not imply that intergroup differences are. But that works both ways: the fact that inter-individual differences are partly environmental, equally, does not prove that intergroup differences are environmental.

So, with all this data, why can’t we find out? It turns out that resolving the question is harder than it sounds.

What we don’t yet know

First of all, you can’t just gather a sample of different ethnic groups, test for genetic variant X, and see how this correlates with your psychological or social outcome of interest. To see why not, try a thought experiment. Take a genetic variant for dark skin. Now, let’s sample the whole US population and test whether this variant affects people’s income. Surprise! It has a large effect. Have we discovered a pathway from the gene to the brain’s famous money-making centre – the nucleus Wallstreeticus? Nope. I told you, by hypothesis, the gene only affects skin colour. Of course, people with this gene are more likely to be black; and black people in the US have less income on average; so our gene is associated with lower income. But we knew that already. There is gene-environment correlation. That tells us zilch about causation.

This problem has led geneticists to focus within populations, rather than between them, in their hunt for causal variants. Mostly, they look at white people. Even among white people, they try to control for broad ancestral differences. The most extreme version of this is to look within siblings from the same family. This way you can identify the true effect of a given variant, because genes are handed out randomly from parents to children.

But now we have a second problem: the effect may be different among different ethnic groups. A variant which makes white people taller may not do the same for black people: first because different bits of DNA interact to build a human, and white and black people’s DNA differs on average; second, because DNA takes effect in a social environment, and ethnic groups are exposed to different environments.

This means that while we know a lot, and are learning fast, about what genes affect what individual outcomes, we are much less sure if the effects are the same between ethnic groups.

But we will inevitably learn – unless we decide to only do “white people genetics”, which would be a terrible idea medically and scientifically. And once we can estimate the effects of variant X in different ethnic groups, we can ask counterfactuals like “what if this group had the same proportion of variant X as this other group?” Or in other words, how much does a given gene contribute to intergroup differences?

We might then find that the total contribution of genetics is large – in effect, that the natural differences hypothesis is true.

My personal hunch is that this is rather likely. Nobody else need agree. But there are some straws in the wind:
  • Polymorphisms in the MAOA gene vary between human ethnic groups. They have also been linked to behaviours like aggression, risk-taking and addiction. (In 2007, the press got hold of this and coined the phrase “warrior gene”.) Single genes rarely have large effects, but nevertheless the evidence on MAOA seems to have held up reasonably well.
  • This paper shows that different human populations have been undergoing selection for different characteristics, including height, educational attainment and, delightfully, “self-reported unibrow”.
  • Nations with more individualist cultures have higher prevalence of a serotonin-linked allele. (This is just a cross-country association, not a causal link, so the case is still very much open.)
So it is worth asking: what if "natural differences" is true? What would that mean?

When a concept falls apart

The concept of racism is highly moralized. Most people think racism is bad (me too). Since nobody wants to think of themselves as holding wicked beliefs, the prospect that natural differences might exist has led to some odd reactions:
These arguments are silly. But if natural differences exist, how would it actually matter?

There are two contrasting views here. The first is rather maximalist, and seems to be shared by anti-racist campaigners and racists alike. Both think natural differences would change everything. This leads anti-racists to argue that believing in them is wicked; and racists to support them and draw extreme political conclusions.

The second view is more relaxed. Charles Murray and Herrnstein put it like this in The Bell Curve
We cannot think of a legitimate argument why any encounter between individual whites and blacks need be affected by the knowledge that an aggregate ethnic difference in intelligence is genetic rather than environmental.
In essence, it doesn’t matter what the causes of intergroup differences are; we still have to deal with them, and a genetic pathway is just another way to intervene. I lean towards this second view, but with some qualifications.

Let’s take a relatively extreme case. Suppose that we learn there are genetic differences between white and black people in the US that – with society as it is – cause substantively large differences in IQ, educational attainment and income. (To repeat: I entertain this here as a hypothesis. As of 2018, you are perfectly entitled to believe that this is false.)

In this case, would it be justified to discriminate by race, for example by preventing black people from voting? Of course not. We can see this, just by thinking of the really existing group of people, of all races, who actually are unintelligent. We could easily and directly identify these people, without any genetic whizzery. But we do not think that dumb people should not vote, or should be denied other civil rights.[1]

What about individual discrimination of a more low-level kind? Would it be OK to deny black people job interviews because of their race? No, it would not. It is a core tenet of liberalism that individuals deserve to be evaluated on their merits. We should treat people as people because that is the right thing to do.

OK, so it might be wrong, but surely it would be tempting – and sensible! Individual self-interest might easily lead employers to save time by only interviewing the white guy, right?

Not really. Consider three ways to learn about someone’s intelligence – in the straightforward practical sense of “is this person smart enough to do their job well?”
  1. Make the judgment based on their race.
  2. Ask for a cheek swab and estimate intelligence from the person’s genes.
  3. Make them do an IQ test.
  4. Look at their CV, and/or talk to them in an interview.
The respective merits of the last two options are arguable, based on how much weight you place on IQ tests. But it is a known fact that 2. is much worse than 3., and always will be; and I am pretty sure that 1. is worse than 2. and always will be.

2. is worse than 3. because genetics only explains about half the variation in intelligence – any presently available genetic test explains much less than that, but even the best possible genetic test would only get half. 1. is worse than 2. because there is a lot of genetic variation within-groups – more than there is between groups, for most things.[2] So racist hiring will continue to be a bad idea, as well as wrong.

In short, if we find substantive genetic differences between ethnic groups, it will not change how society should function. But it may change our politics.

The first change would be epistemic. Different ethnic groups get different outcomes in many, many ways, and these differences are often used to argue that society or institutions are racist, i.e. that they treat people differently based on race. But if genetics provide an alternative explanation, then this argument is not valid. This is the same argument at group level that has already been made at individual level. Thoughtful people now accept that e.g. class differences in outcomes from education are not, in themselves, a proof that schools serve poor people worse: you have to do more work than that. The same may apply to ethnic differences.

The second change is more unpredictable. Call it the “James Watson wants his job back” factor. (The co-discoverer of DNA lost his position after suggesting that Africans were less intelligent than other races.) For a generation, to hold such views has been thought wicked, and people who express them have paid severe penalties – the most obvious being Charles Murray, who wrote twenty pages on race in a long and prescient book on inequality, and is still being monstered a generation later.

In this respect a certain shift has become noticeable of late. The argument has moved from “they are racist and wrong” to “they may conceivably be right, but they were arguing in advance of the evidence”.[3] But in science, we do not normally blame people for being the first to be right. I wonder whether the condemnation of these people has become an end in itself.

This may be a minor issue – delayed justice for a few intellectuals – but it could become more than that. If a large component of elite discourse on race – what people have been told with great firmness and authority for years – turns out to have been wrong, it is hard to predict the effect on the public debate on, say, immigration.

The lesson here is not to infuse your science with morality, and make your morality depend on unproven science. If you do so, you may paint yourself into a corner.

I will say more about this in my next post, on racism.

Postscript: a qualification

I should make it clear that if the natural differences hypothesis is true, it is true in a very different sense to that of the eugenics of the 20th century. In particular, “race” in the biological sense is not a box you can put someone in; it is shorthand for being a bit more genetically similar to some people than to others. Very few DNA variations are exclusive to any ethnic group.[4] This means that statements about racial groups and (the genetics of) any characteristic are always probabilistic. They will be claims about averages. In particular, they should be interpreted, for any individual, in the light of other information.

For example, I teach many Chinese students; I think it is possible that people of Asian descent have higher IQs on average than white people, for genetic reasons… but this does not keep me awake at night, because I have a PhD and my students don’t, which is much more informative than my ancestry about my capacity to teach them. Or for a more relevant example: if you know that somebody is an immigrant from country X, you know two things about them, first that they were born in X, second that they came to your country. The second fact may easily tell you much more about their intelligence – even their genetics – than the first.


[1] Well, some people do… but that’s a stupid idea itself.

[2] Race-based judgments could have the advantage of picking up environmental differences between groups which genetics don’t capture, such as social disadvantage. But clearly, this has nothing to do with genetic science.

[3] David Reich’s recent New York Times article does this to James Watson, for example.

[4] Interestingly, those that are are almost always to do with physical appearance.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Looking for your keys under the lightning: social science in turbulent times

It is time to come out. I am writing a book. When I tell this to senior academics, they wish me "Good luck," and their eyes gain a mysterious, troubled look. Writing books is not what economists do.

Here is a self-justifying sketch of the relationship between social science and its historical setting.

Think of the possible states of society as a multi-dimensional space, each dimension corresponding to a variable: the growth rate, inequality, the price of corn, the prevalence of opiate addiction and so on. Different societies or parts of society – Kansas and New York, Denmark and Greece, or South London and North Oxford – are at different points in the space.

Nearby societies are at different points in a many-dimensional space

Some exogenous variables are like the weather: they change naturally, but we cannot change them. Others are policy variables, in the broadest sense that they can be affected by collective human choices. The optimal value of the policy variables depends in on the value of the exogenous variables. Social science involves working out how our welfare depends on the policy and exogenous variables.

At settled times in history, society appears static. Expected changes in the exogenous variables are small, and welfare appears high, suggesting that policy variables are about right. In this state, social science involves looking nearby in the social space – probably within the convex hull formed by different existing parts of our society. This gives us lots of data.

Economists talk about "looking for your keys under the street light". The idea is that your keys, if you have lost them, are no more likely to be lying under the street light than elsewhere; but it makes sense to look under the street light, rather than in the dark where you won't see them anyway.

In settled times, we look under the street light. Prestigious social science involves careful empirical work, leveraging the available data to recommend incremental policy changes. Think of Esther Duflo and the economist as an engineer, or, as Keynes once wistfully suggested, a modest profession like dentistry.
Social science in settled times: looking for small changes within the convex hull* of what is known
[* the shape shown is not quite convex, but eh.]

Other times in history are times of turbulence, of fast change and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. Expected changes in exogenous variables are large, or social welfare appears low, suggesting that we need large changes in policy variables.

In turbulent times, we need to explore remote points in the policy space, beyond the convex hull of what is known. Social science involves bold steps of imagination and deep theoretical examination of current and possible structures. Think of Marx and what Joan Robinson called his intellectual "seven-league boots", striding forward over trivial details. Or think of the public choice movement of the 1970s, which looked at the foundations of political constitutions. In fact, we need to "look for our keys under the lightning" – flashes of insight which illuminate the whole landscape and point to big possible changes.

Social science in turbulent times: looking for keys under the lightning.

Today we are living in turbulent times. The economy is changing fast as the centre of the world moves East. Politics, driven by voter dissatisfaction, is just as fast-moving and less predictable.

Of course, it is arrogant to assume that you can produce a bolt of intellectual lightning! But if the premium is on lightning, then it may be worth trying.

This is why I am ignoring my senior colleagues' troubled looks, and writing a book.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Hello Daaaave...

From my previous post on new media:
Those politicians that grasp this new reality – Leftists like Corbyn, nationalists like Trump, centrists like Macron – win elections. Those that don’t, don’t.
Let's stay on this topic. I got an email from Brandon Lewis yesterday. Brandon Lewis is the new broom at Central Office, part of his remit being to bring social media pizzazz to match Momentum.
Dear David,
What's up, Brandon?
With your support, we’re shaping the future of Britain. But Labour want to stop our progress.
Oh dear! That sounds generically bad.
That’s why the Prime Minister wrote to you, David.

And so it goes on. I'm not saying it was necessarily written by a smart-suited young person in marketing. It seems that way, but who knows? Maybe Brandon – or as I call him, the B-Dogg – penned and sent it himself, with all the friendly personal touches.

So anyway, current wisdom runs that we can keep Theresa May, because she's still a bit ahead in the polls.

The last time Theresa May was ahead in the polls
That'll probably be fine!

Saturday, 24 February 2018

The fake news hysteria and the Intellectual Dark Web

Two writers, from Left and Right, make contrarian, optimistic arguments about the effect of the internet on public debate:
Both make interesting points, but their optimism is unwarranted.

What is really going on?

Lower costs

The internet has dramatically reduced the cost of publishing. The market for news and opinion has gone from an oligopoly to a classical free market, with many sellers and many buyers. What before required industrial-scale machinery and a nationwide distribution network can be done by anyone with a Facebook account.

By standard economic theory, that should be good for consumers, providing more variety at lower cost. Mr Murray and Professor Milanovic both broadly take this line. But long ago, Joseph Schumpeter argued that monopoly could be better for innovation than free markets. A monopolist would expect to reap all the dividends from investing in new techniques; in a free market, other sellers could and would steal your new ideas.

For news production on the internet, this argument applies in spades. Newspapers always competed for the scoop and knew their rivals would follow the story up the next day. (In the jargon, news is non-excludable.) The internet has exacerbated this: an article which took weeks of gumshoeing to produce can be copied in a second – even if not literally copied and pasted, its ideas can be taken. The traditional press is right to grumble that Google News and Facebook are killing its business model.

The result is that analysis, which anyone with a brain can produce, proliferates, but actual reporting, which costs time and money, withers. And so, instead of scoops, we get front page news about cold weather snaps. The extreme version of this is the Daily Express in the UK, which has given up reporting as too costly, and fills its headlines with press releases about heart disease drugs.

Unfortunately, modern democracies need the information gathered by reporters much more than they need analyses from social scientists and pundits.

The end of the consensus

The old media firms were not neutral actors. To get political news, the journalist asked his pals in the government for a juicy story. In return, they expected favourable coverage. Different organs allied with different political tribes, but when the elite as a whole agreed on some view, challenges to that view went unheard.

This was the old-style social construction of reality. It was certainly problematic. On the other hand, a consensus, even a biased one, provides society with the evidence base it needs to make collective decisions, and common ground as the basis for constructive debate.


That has all gone. The Sun can no longer swing elections with its headlines. A paper publishes a fishy story about Jeremy Corbyn meeting a Czechoslovak spy – his rebuttal, on Youtube, gets a million views in a day. 

Those politicians that grasp this new reality – Leftists like Corbyn, nationalists like Trump, centrists like Macron – win elections. Those that don’t, don’t.

Back in the day

 Is this the democratic ideal realised? Nope: you can also get a million hits by reporting fake news on Trump’s gorilla channel. News has another quality: it is an experience good. What we buy are “stories”. We cannot find out for ourselves which stories are real. The market failure this would normally cause used to be mitigated by a journalistic outlet’s reputation. Broadsheet newspapers were biased, but they left the really garbage stories to the tabloids.

In a market with a million outlets, all copying each other, this partial solution no longer works. As a result, we are drowning in clickbait.

What solves public goods problems?

The actors in this new reality will not be thoughtful bloggers like Branko Milanovic. They will be states. States can control the flow of information within their borders. They have the resources to produce fake news, real news and everything in between. They can step in and solve the public good problem. And they have the incentive to do so, because states need to produce consensus supporting their actions.

Professor Milanovic occludes this point by describing Al-Jazeera, Russia Today etc. as “foreigners” as against the “Anglo-American” media. But this misses a distinction: Russia Today is directly an organ of the Russian state. The New York Times is not.

Similarly, the fragmentation of the internet into national borders is not a reactionary backlash against the new open world. It is part of the same process. It is the obvious next step.

What is there to celebrate here? Yes, now the West knows what it feels like. But when Radio Free Europe broadcast into the Soviet Bloc, it was passing on the truth – at least some truth – from liberal democracies to dissident citizens in some thoroughly nasty dictatorships. When RT broadcasts to us, it gives us lies and conspiracy theories.

Western hegemony was often exercised brutally. Many liberals and progressives, sensing its end, mistakenly infer that the rising powers – Russia, China and their allies – will agree with their values better. This wishful thinking will deserve the nasty surprise it gets.

Hobbits and hooligans

Douglas Murray celebrates the availability of new ideas that challenge the consensus. I agree: I’m glad to read Jonathan Haidt or Nicholas Christakis or Sam Harris.

We now have a free market in theories. Whereas before we all had to buy the one theory, we now can pick the one we like best. Will the best theory win?

The political theorist Jason Brennan describes three kinds of citizens. There are hobbits, who like comfort and don’t want to be made to think; hooligans, who gather evidence to support their preconceptions; and vulcans, rational thinkers like Spock in Star Trek, who make ideal citizens because they inform themselves impartially. Evidence from public opinion research provides the kicker: basically, Vulcans don’t exist. There are only hobbits and hooligans. Jason Brennan is skeptical about democracy.

Jordan Peterson seems like a good guy, and who is to disagree with rules in his book like “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”? Whether that is intellectually ground-breaking work, I am less sure. It sounds an awful lot like Make Your Bed (author Admiral William H McRaven, US Navy, retd). In general, there is a market right now for sensible, Victorian advice. What Professor Peterson does seem to have is great charisma as a lecturer.

Intellectual progress requires more than the existence of competing views. Those views must meet in reasoned debate, and the better argument must win. The blogosphere, or Intellectual Dark Web or whatever, has not yet proved its ability to generate this kind of progress. I hope it does. Meanwhile, it is certainly nice to find intellectual allies, and the internet can provide that for all of us.