Saturday 26 December 2020
Wednesday 23 December 2020
Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit, for example, is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.
Tuesday 22 December 2020
While there have been obvious achievements by Covid science these should not obscure the very significant failures that have also occurred, such as around the politicisation of scientific advice and the delay in rolling out vaccine programmes. These failures may have allowed hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, as well as extending and worsening the social and economic impact of the epidemic on billions of people. Nevertheless, the point of identifying such failures is not to allocate blame, but rather to plan for how to do things better in future.
Tuesday 15 December 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pursued exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.
Monday 2 November 2020
Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.
Wednesday 28 October 2020
Tuesday 25 August 2020
Lincoln consistently scores top or at least top 3 in every ranking of US presidents (e.g.). This high standing has long puzzled me. After all, this is the leader who presided over a long brutal civil war that killed 620,000 of his own people. For context, as a percentage of the population, that is more American lives than all other presidents put together have managed to expend in all America's other wars. On the face of it, that is a massive failure of statesmanship, however competent Lincoln was at running the war itself. The usual response is that the war was a necessary sacrifice to end the supreme evil of slavery. I do not find this convincing.
Note that I do not claim that Lincoln was a terrible president (there have certainly been many worse presidents). I only question whether the case for his greatness survives rigorous scrutiny, especially when you push beyond the commonly repeated platitudes.
Monday 20 July 2020
Diversity Has No Intrinsic Value: A World With Fewer Species or Languages Would Not Necessarily Be A Worse One
It is easy to agree that 'diversity' is valuable, but what kind of value is it exactly?
Take linguistic diversity, passionately defended by anthropologists and linguists who want to preserve all 6,500 thousand spoken languages from extinction. If you look carefully at their arguments, they are all about the usefulness of languages and not about the value of diversity per se. For example, it is claimed that minority languages contain useful local knowledge about plants, animals, ecosystems and so on which would be lost if those languages died out. Or that minority languages are important for individual self-esteem and community functioning among ethnic minorities, which in turn supports their flourishing and well-being.
However, if the value of diversity lies in what it does for us rather than what it is in itself, then whether and how far diversity is valuable (or even disvaluable) turns out to depend on the context. Diversity has no value in its own right; it is merely one tool among others that we may use to achieve things that do matter. For example, if we are worried that important botanical knowledge achieved over many generations may be lost as the last people to speak the language that encodes it die off, then it makes sense to send academic botanists to collect that knowledge and publish it in a universally accessible scientific database. But it makes little sense to try to preserve that knowledge by somehow getting more children to learn the language and then continue living in the same precarious relationship to the natural ecosystem in which that specific knowledge would be needed and communicated. That confuses the substrate with the information it contains. It would be like trying to preserve knowledge of Euclidean geometry by teaching everyone ancient Greek.
Saturday 18 July 2020
Thursday 16 July 2020
This is a thought experiment. Presumably the Louvre already has extensive fire suppression systems and separate evacuation plans for its visitors (including the less-abled) and for its most valuable art works. The point of this scenario is not to recreate the boring details of such plans, but to stimulate thinking about the fundamentals of value and hopefully break through some cliches.