In a democracy people are free to express their opinions and question those of others. This is an important personal freedom, and also essential to the very idea of government by discussion. But it has also been held to be instrumentally important because in open public debate true ideas will conquer false ones by their merit, and the people will see the truth for themselves. In other words, democracy has an epistemic function as a kind of truth machine. From this it follows that in a democracy there should be no dogma: no knowledge protected from public challenge and debate. Yet this whole argument is founded on embarrassing misconceptions of the nature of truth and of the working of democracy.
Monday 5 December 2011
Monday 30 August 2010
The difficulty of conspiracy thinking is its pathological character; the problem of conspiracy thinking is the enormous danger of false positives. One way to identify and challenge conspiracy thinking is to evaluate its internal coherence: 'Do these claims even make sense in their own terms?'
Sunday 11 April 2010
Our modern society has achieved an amazing degree of division of labour in knowledge and hence specialisation, particularly in science, but co-ordinating that expert knowledge to make it available to society in general is surprisingly difficult. Consider the problems faced by the non-expert in accessing and employing expert knowledge to address particular problems. The politician who wants to know if GM crops are safe; the fisherfolk trying to work out what's happening to all the fish; the parents trying to assess risks of particular vaccinations for their child; and so on.
Saturday 3 April 2010
Mainstream news media are supposed to provide a vital public service for democracy. Particularly newspapers since they have all those words. They are supposed to provide we the people with the accurate and relevant facts and analysis about the world that we can use to come to informed decisions about climate change, health-care, foreign military adventures, etc. They also play a directly political role in successful democracy by making the operation of political power transparent and accountable.
So, we are told, it's terribly important that states find some way to protect our newspapers from the current cruel winds of technology driven changes in their business environments. But when you take a look at most news media, including national and local newspapers, one frankly is not overwhelmed by the evidence of either a commitment to public service or the reporting breadth, depth, judgement and integrity that this role would seem to require. The news is just a business, not a sacred mission, and an enormous proportion of what gets published is best described as bullshit news. This can take various forms, but what it has in common is the short-termist private interests of journalists and media companies over and against the public interest.
Tuesday 9 February 2010
As Frank Furedi's excellent analysis argues, conspiracy thinking - "attributing the problems and misfortunes faced by individuals to some intentional malevolent behaviour" is on the rise. As many have noted (e.g. Jacob Weisberg) electorates are becoming ever more delusional ("give me public services, but not government or taxes"). Both kinds of foolishness are connected to a decline in an authoritative and widely shared 'common sense' about the-Way the World Works: history, science, politics, ethics. etc.
Sunday 7 June 2009
Orthodox economics asks the question 'What is rational decision-making?' It recommends allocating scarce resources among our competing interests according to how much we value each interest and their probability of being brought about by our choices. By multiplying these together we should get a single ordering of our choices in terms of the subjective value of the outcome that will be brought about, and then we should choose the highest ranked option.