Monday, 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Cheap; Arguments Are Expensive | How Striving For Novelty Leads Students And Others Astray

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad: wrong, silly, or irrelevant. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Politics Would Be Less Crazy If Voting Were Compulsory

Democracies around the world are suffering paroxysms of populist rage. Obviously this has many contributing causes and individuals, from rising inequality to social media to political entrepreneurs like Trump. But here is one policy that might go some way to restoring normal functioning: Make voting compulsory.

Before politicians can do anything else, they must win election by getting  more votes than their opponents. This is supposed to ensure that only those politicians whose ideas and values are most agreeable to the most people have the chance to rule. One might naively suppose that democratic competitions would therefore focus on clearly communicating those ideas and values so that the voters can tell which candidate they most prefer. In practise that is not what happens. This is because voters must choose not only which politician they prefer but also whether to formally register that preference by voting. The politicians' challenge is that  while forming a political opinion is effectively free, voting is a mildly inconvenient task that it is entirely rational for most people not to bother with.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Transform Selfishness into a Public Benefit: Sell Some of the Covid Vaccine to the Highest Bidders

Of the Corona vaccine doses available each week, 1% should be auctioned off to the highest bidders and the money given to to humanitarian charities like the Red Cross and Salvation Army. This will ensure that the limited amount of vaccine we now have will achieve the most good. Perhaps more surprisingly, it will also be fairer.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Fantasy Politics

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

Two Failures Of Covid Science - And How To Do Better Next Time

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

Boris Johnson's Peculiar Game of Kamikaze Chicken is About to End

Rumple Johnson negotiates (credit: Andrew Parsons)
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

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

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

What Good are Nuclear Weapons to North Korea? Analysing Kim Jong-un

North Korea's development of fission bombs and ICBMs is very worrying. Unfortunately the analysis of it in the news media is woeful. Some commentators assume that North Korea works like a normal country (like their country); some clearly don't understand how war works; some believe the regime's propaganda; some seem unable to think in a straight line at all. Some manage to make all those mistakes at the same time and more. One can only hope that the US, South Korean, and Japanese war ministries have better experts. In the meantime, at least we can throw out the worst nonsense.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Challenging Lincoln's Greatness

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

All Deaths Matter: The Case for Extending Some Covid-19 Restrictions Indefinitely

In the Netherlands and several other countries where shutdowns and social distancing restrictions have succeeded in bringing Covid-19 cases under control, excess mortality has turned negative: Significantly fewer people are dying each month than they would in an average year. Ultimately such countries may even achieve a net gain of lives saved despite a deadly global pandemic. This is due to reductions in more usual causes of death, such as other infectious diseases or air pollution. Ending the restrictions that are currently suppressing those causes of death would kill a lot of people.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

If The Louvre Was On Fire, Should We Rescue The Art First Or The People?

Firstly, of course we should rescue the art first. Secondly, of course we should not.

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.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Feminist Case For Men’s Rights

The case for men’s rights follows straightforwardly from the feminist critique of the structural injustice of gender rules and roles. Yes, those rules are wrong because they oppress women. But they are also wrong because they oppress men, whether by causing physical, emotional and moral suffering or callously neglecting their needs and interests. While it is bad luck to be born a woman in our society, it is also bad luck to be born a man, in ways that relate directly and indirectly to gender roles and norms. Unfortunately the feminist movement has tended to neglect this, assuming that if women are the losers from a patriarchal social order, then men must be the winners.