Thursday, 30 July 2015

No Wonder We Disagree So Much

Here's an interesting neurological study in psychologist Dr. Jeremy Dean's excellent blog to which I'm subscribed, showing that although the brain is well equipped to be both empathetic and logical, it may find it difficult to manage both of those qualities simultaneously. Brain scans revealed that activation in the analytical neuronal network suppresses some of the empathetic neuronal network, and activation in the empathetic neuronal network suppresses some of the analytical neuronal network.

As you may know, I'm a firm believer (with good evidence as backup) that when it comes to objective facts there are no rational disagreements if truth-seeking is pursued with honesty and rigour, and that it is only because of flawed reasoning skills, misinformation, sensory faults, biases and incomplete knowledge that there is so much disagreement in the world.

In addition to that, according to Jeremy Dean's article it would seem that the brain's difficulty in being both simultaneously empathetic and logical is a further barrier to people agreeing on things more freely. If you're empathetic you are likely to be much more empathetic to people who already share your beliefs, which militates against your employing the necessary logical steps to see whatever weight is behind arguments from your opponents. And if you're logical you are likely to be short on empathy regarding your opponents' position.

Consequently, if all these things are stacked against us, it is little wonder that there is so much disagreement out there, and that when two people are having a debate, they are probably going to be hamstrung by being not empathetic enough or not logical enough.

Still, no need to be a Cassandra-esque purveyor of doom on this one; I believe that the brain can be trained to overcome this problem. Once we become aware that when we are being logical we may have to work that bit harder to be empathetic, and vice-versa, we should be able to surmount what is stacked against us and master an adept balance of logical output and careful empathetic considerations of the alternative propositions.

* Photo courtesy of 4thalove

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Career & Maternity: When The Irresistible Force Meets The Immovable Object

On Thursday in this Blog post I set about dispelling one or two myths about gender pay differences. It was a popular blog post, generating about seven times as many hits as an average blog post of mine, but it did come with a bit of heat as well as light, mainly to do with the issue regarding how prospective employers may sometimes discriminate against women in their thirties to avoid taking on someone who might soon become pregnant and need maternity leave.

I explained in a subsequent debate that while it is illogical for employers to discriminate due to gender, there are conditions under which they might be driven to discriminate due to maternity. A critic thought that inconsistent, but alas, there is no inconsistency - this only goes to show a misunderstanding of the important difference between gender discrimination and maternity discrimination. Fairly obviously it is not in the interests of an employer to discriminate based on things like gender, skin colour, sexuality, and so forth, but it can be in their interests to discriminate when other factors, like maternity, come into it.

To give you an illustration that makes the point even clearer - an employer might not be discriminatory at all when it comes to young black men but he might choose not to employ a particular young black man because he happened to have four different children by four different women. The same is true in the case of women - an employer may not have any reason to be biased against women in general, but he may have a reason to be biased against women with a high probability of being pregnant soon.

The difference between the first case and the second is that in the case of the black man he could have changed the fact that he was irresponsible enough to father four kids by four different women, whereas a woman who soon wants to be a parent can't change the fact that biological evolution has conditioned that only women have babies.

So, the upshot is this; in life we have this issue to contend with - the immovable force of female biology coming up against the irresistible force of businesses needing to make decisions that are best for their firm's survival, and that in life this sometimes causes a conflict of interest. Despite this, one of the key basics of economics is that sometimes problems that look like they need solutions are in fact non-problems that just describe different people wanting different things or making different life decisions.

What I really want to get across here is that I'm always happy to hear people's views on problems in society, and I am open to hearing solutions - but a lot of the time people want to tell us problems and not attempt to offer solutions. Sometimes it's clear to me that they are non-problems, sometimes they are small problems with no realistic solutions, and sometimes there may well be solutions to make things better - but either way, my interest in these so-called problems dwindles if no one wants to talk about solutions.

Despite some impassioned reactions to my blog, anyone who thinks the maternity pay gap/discrimination situation is a problem that needs changing must at the very least tell us how they think things should be changed, and explain why it's practical - not just complain about the situation with no recourse to resolve it. It's no use saying things are wrong without first establishing that there are things that can be done that actually will help the situation without harming others, and also that there are actually realistic solutions to any problems identified.

The 'without harming others' point is so essential and so often missed - you cannot artificially put things in place to protect one group in the employment market without artificially hindering another group at the same time. For example, there is another group in particular that gets penalised when would-be mothers get artificially protected - that group is the women that don't want any children but may miss out through discrimination to account for all the women that do. As things stand if you're a 33 year old woman that doesn't want kids, you are highly unlikely to require a career break, which means there's no reason for you to be discriminated against. But your prospective employer won't know that, so he or she is likely to believe you have a high probability of being a mother, and may act accordingly.

What's the solution then? The truth is, I don't think there is one (except through some kind of binding contract - of which more in a moment), and I've not heard any single detractor suggest a solution, they've been too busy trying to convince me that there is a problem but offering nothing further.

Control is beyond your control
There are two main reasons that an economy is impossible to command efficiently from on high. The first reason is that the entire nexus of economic activity is just too complex and too diverse for any politician to get a handle on. The second reason is that human beings, even when acting rationally, are still very difficult to map to a final theory of predictable behaviour. Without having full knowledge of the entirety of society and every detail, even a world in which every human acted rationally for the majority of the time would still leave us unable to arrive at a gland slam model on which to base any kind of sovereignty.

Humans are often selfish but they will also act selflessly, particularly when there are selfish gains, but also for sporadic acts of kindness at a cost to themselves. They often have strong moral convictions in one area of life (it is wrong to avoid taxes) but relax their moral convictions in other areas of life (like being willing to cheat on a partner). They will often behave one way when caught up in a group collective, but depart considerably from such behaviour at an individual or familial level. They will be quite prudent in spending money on things they need, but in times when status-mongering or social gain is in front of them they will spend quite recklessly. The upshot is, let humans loose in society and they become a mess of contradictions and opposites.

One relatively small element of this complex society is each individual woman's life choices. Some women will choose an uninterrupted career over motherhood; some will choose motherhood over any kind of career; some will choose motherhood and an interrupted career; and even on top of well-intentioned plans some women will fall pregnant unexpectedly when they didn't plan to, whereas others will plan to fall pregnant and find it never happens.

Society isn't a giant piece of clay that can be moulded exactly as a potter wants it to be - it is a multi-faceted network of activity in which millions of people, including business owners (who themselves have a family and staff to think about), have to make local decisions most conducive to their own survival and well-being.

Consequently, then, legislation that seeks to protect some citizens in the free market against the free choices of other citizens in the free market only usually occurs by harming the latter group - most of whom are individuals trying to make the decisions they can to secure the solvency of their business and the jobs of that business's employees.

Although all I've said favours the contrary to what I'm now going to say, if you have got this far and you still are insisting that some kind of solution be put in place, then all I can say is, when you get a situation like this, where there is a clear distinction between maternity discrimination and gender discrimination, the most obvious solution is some kind of binding contract. After all, let's not forget, an agreement between an employer and an employee is already a binding contract, so if you really want to ensure the artificial protection of one group in society then a binding contract could be the only answer that can be entertained, short of becoming a nation that can arrest people for thought crimes.

The advantage of a contract is most conferred on all the women who don't want kids but who may be treated as they do, but it would also bring transparency to thousands of employment contacts that looked to protect women who didn't yet want kinds and employers who feared they might. If you think it's a problem that requires an interventionist solution (and personally I don't) then that might be your best solution.  And if it isn't you're perfectly welcome to comment below and suggest your own solution. But for goodness' sake, please do give up this habit of telling us all about the problems without first working out the following:

A) Whether they are actually problems or just facts about differences in life.

B) Whether, if they are actually problems, they are problems that can be solved without making the situation worse, or another group equally worse off.

C) What, if they are actually problems that can be solved without making the situation worse, or making another group equally worse off, you are proposing as a solution.

Then, and only then, does this become a proper debate that sheds light instead of heat.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Truth About Gender Pay Differences - Things Aren't As They Are Made Out To Be

David Cameron wants to force companies with over 250 employees to disclose gender pay gaps. He's doing this because he has swallowed the ubiquitous myth that women are systematically unfairly discriminated against in the workplace. 

The reality is, there isn't much of an unfair pay gap between genders, despite common myths to the contrary - although there used to be, but for good reason. Britain has changed a lot in the past few decades, from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one. When physical labour was the driving force in the economy, male labour was valued higher, so it was easily understandable why there was a gender pay gap.  

However, as service-based industry has emerged more prominently, coupled with increased technology that make domestic jobs less time-consuming, and women's lib, the wage gap has narrowed so much that it has equalised. In fact, if you measure just male and females in their 20s and 30s, females earn slightly more. Obviously this tails off in the late 30s and 40s as motherhood becomes the primary driving force in the re-introduction of a wage gap - but it's not to do with discrimination, it is to do with biology and life choices.

An easy way to tell the public that there is a discriminatory gender pay gap is to distort the picture by including the maternity/child-raising years in the overall figures. The pay gap over their careers factors in women leaving work to have children, and taking part-time jobs in motherhood. This skewed reality is a bit like a school publishing pupils' attendance records, including the summer holiday in their statistics, and then claiming pupils are spending lots of weeks not attending school. To get a fair statistic on school attendance you must obviously only include the weeks when pupils are due to be in school. Similarly, to get a proper reflection of gender pay, you must focus on the comparison when both men and women are pursuing careers with both eyes on the job market. That's why, when this is done, the years between ages 22 to 39 show women earning slightly more than men. From the ONS report:

"Hourly earnings figures reveal that, in April 2014, women working for more than 30 hours a week were actually paid 1.1% more than men in the 22 to 29 age bracket and, for the first time were also paid more in the 30 to 39 age bracket. So women in full-time work aged between 22 and 39 are now, on average, earning 1.1% more than their male counterparts."

It certainly is the case that people's differences do contribute to different decisions having to be made in society that will affect their career and job prospects. But what we mustn't let people get away with is the idea that businesses systematically discriminate unfairly at will. Let me explain why that notion is wrong.

When Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan says "Businesses need to value diversity in their workforce and pay attention to the role of women in their organisations.” - she is being disingenuous in trying to claim to be on the side of women by painting a slightly false picture of the extent to which businesses do value both genders equally. For fairly obvious reasons employers would not discriminate against women because it wouldn’t be in their interest to do so.

While there'll never be a completely fair market, nor a perfect solution to the dual desire of motherhood and optimal career pursuits, it's logical that businesses won't discriminate against women for the sake of it because if they do they will lower the pool of quality, and their profits too. Suppose there are two free schools - one set up by Jack and one by Jill - and 40 teachers for hire (20 women and 20 men). Jack is a misogynist and Jill isn't, so Jack discriminates against the women. Who is likely to have the better staff list of teachers? Clearly it's Jill. Jill looked to hire the best staff out of a male & female pool; Jack looked to hire more men, meaning he increased his chances of picking gender over quality. This plays out all through the market. A restaurant with a sign saying "No women" (pretend it's legal) would lose out on half the population's custom, and more once you factor in all the males that would go somewhere else because of it. Unfair discrimination is bad for business, and any half shrewd business person knows this, so would be a fool to discriminate.

There are other wage differentials to note, but they are driven by other factors, namely the differential in abilities and in preferences. Men and women are different in a number of ways - and it's no bad thing that those differences are reflected in market patterns. There are substantially fewer female bricklayers or garage mechanics than there are males, just as there are substantially fewer male nurses and primary school teachers than females. The reasons are primarily down to abilities and in preferences, not systematic discrimination.

The same is true of other work factors - risky work, manual work, driving work, outdoor work, long shifts and unsocial hours - it's not that there are no women in these roles, it is simply that males outnumber them, again due to abilities and preferences. Equally, if you focused on the skills and preferences for, say, social care, bookkeeping, personnel officers and child-care workers you'd see a similar pattern in the other direction, with women outnumbering men in those roles. Naturally, the labour value of all these jobs is dictated by all the above factors and more.

Moreover, generally you'll find two other key reasons why men earn more on average than women do. One is that women tend to be less competitive than men, because they do not have he same biological and socio-cultural needs to be as concerned about status as men do. The other reason is that men are, on average, more likely to put their skills towards more scalable earnings (inventing, engineering, technological advances, etc) - because men are much more geared towards working with things, whereas women are more likely to work with people (as ever, these are all on average, there are always many exceptions, of course).

The upshot is, yes, I grant you, evolution has made females prisoner of their biology in respect of child-bearing - but nevertheless having children does affect women's roles and pay, which is why, as women are having children later, there is no evidential pay gap between women and men in the first two decades of their working lives, but an evident one as women go into their forties, and often work less, or take on lower paid roles for parental flexibility.

Generally, discriminating harms discriminators too - and while some people are arguing that the gender make-up engenders discrimination, the reality is that gender make-up engenders outcomes that in most cases (most, but not all) aren't discriminatory at the root.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Don't Twist The Facts, Your Great-Great-Grandchildren Won't Be Impressed

In this blog I wrote about history and how best to manage it. In this blog post I just want to add something else important to it - something that probably isn't considered often at all. A good reason to be accurate on your views is the danger of how those views can be mapped in history. In other words, if we are sloppy in the present we run the danger of distorting future perceptions of history. Here's an example of what I mean. You'll hear some people say that Tony Blair is a war criminal and should be tried for war crimes for his involvement in Iraq. Now you may think the Iraq invasion unjust, that it was based on faulty intelligence, and that Blair is very culpable in the emergence of ISIS. But it absurdly distorts the picture to put Blair in the same 'war criminal' category as people like Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Even the most entrenched anti-war propagandists don't really believe that Tony Blair has the same propensity for wickedness, oppression and cruelty as those men.

But a long time in the future, people's version of ancient history (our present) will be compressed to less detailed packets of information, just as ours is now when we speak of long and complex periods such as the Bronze Age, or Acadian times, or early Roman times, or the Dark Ages. Even though every generation records more information than past generations did, future humans will still have the same cognitive limitations when it comes to memory and attention span, so they will still oversimplify history, and they will still distort information in a way that their distant ancestors would see as being carelessly inaccurate. 

Suppose we fast forward to a time so far in the future that Blair's involvement in Iraq was seamlessly lumped in among other historical events involving crimes against humanity like Nazi Germany, the conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A distant future citizen might inaccurately believe that Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair belong in the same category together, just as someone unapprised of Roman history might think that Augustus belonged in the same category as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. Even the most impassioned anti-war propagandists don't really believe that Tony Blair resembles Adolf Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in his motivations, much less his actions, and this is why we must not be sloppy when laying down the historical foundations of information for our descendents.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Do Numbers Exist?

Around the world you’ll find a bunch of people – notably physicists, mathematicians and philosophers – who think mathematics is no more than just a human invention; and you’ll find a bunch of other people – notably physicists, mathematicians and philosophers – who have worked out precisely why mathematics isn’t just a human invention. The most probable reason why the members of the first group don’t realise they are wrong is because they have taken a partial description of mathematical reality, namely the descriptive representation of numbers we see in the form of lines and squiggles (like the number 1, 2, 3, 4 etc), and mistaken it for the whole of mathematical reality itself.

Mathematics is not a mere human construct – it is both a discovery and a construction, and the two interlock. For example, we discover mathematics when we draw triangles on a piece of paper (although triangles are an ideal shape, as are circles and straight lines - they don't really exist except as ideation), and yet we create it when we undertake geometrical elaborations that are a furtherance of that initial drawing. We discover mathematics further when we find out that nature realises these elaborated geometries when we observe the gravitational field, but then we see that nature places limitations on our geometries in that not all of them return accurate profiles of the gravitational field. The discovery and the construction are two wings of the same empirical bird - and both are mutually complementary.
The partial description of mathematical reality consists of the symbols we’ve constructed to represent numbers. So, for example, with the integers we’ve grabbed a pen and paper and constructed those lines and squiggles to make symbols that read 1,2,3,4, and so on, and we use them to do our sums. Naturally, those numbers in their symbolic form do not exist outside of the minds that construct them - they are descriptions of mathematical reality out there in the universe (and probably beyond). But they do exist out there insofar as what the symbols represent are actually facts about the universe, how physical things behave, and about the patterns, laws and regularities to which they conform from within the wider reality of the mathematical whole.
While they represent facts about physical reality, physical reality isn’t the whole story of mathematics, it is only a tiny fraction of it. Those that think mathematics is only a human construction have mistakenly focused only on that tiny fraction - our creation of those symbolic representations - while ignoring (or not realising) that what those symbolic representations represent is the most important part of their construction. To use an analogy, such people are like cartographers who design a map of a territory and then as soon as the map is finished they proceed to claim that the territory to which the map relates no longer exists. It's a common error to believe that mathematics represents a map and that the territory is the physical universe, but the reality is it's the other way round - the physical reality is the map and the mathematics is the territory.   

Once you see that the universe is a mathematical object it is no longer tenable to see it as merely a physical object. The reason we see it as a physical object in the first place is because we are physical objects. That it is a physical object is down to our human perceptions of the physical world – there is no physical picture of the universe as humans perceive it anywhere except in human minds. We humans live I what I call a mental matrix – being physical beings we are locked into a world in which the empirical, the physical, the metaphysical and the humanly constructed mathematical symbols are different aspects of the much broader mathematical reality that has an existence more primary than the mere physical.

That is why we see the world in terms of physics, chemistry, biology, solids, liquids and gases - it is because we are physical beings in a physical world locked in to physical perceptions, rather like a man who has never seen Texas (call him Bob) holding a map of Texas is locked-in to his two dimensional perception of it. We have no choice but to see the world that way, but this limitation causes people to mistake the whole mathematical reality as being just the physical reality we perceive. Getting this right can, and should, open up your minds to a more stupendous view of reality, which gets the analogy of the map, the navigation and the territory the right way around. Physics is to us as the map of Texas is to Bob, and mathematical reality is to us as Texas is to Bob.

I never cease to be amazed by people who uncritically accept the reality of physics but tell us that the universe is not a mathematical object because they prefer to believe that mathematical objects are only ideas about the universe. Physical things 'are' mathematical objects - so denying the reality of mathematical objects while accepting physical things is like denying the land of Texas exists while accepting that the map of Texas is accurate.

Someone once said to me, in opposition, that if mathematics is more complex than what we can construct we'd be unaware of that mathematics. I had to thank him for proving my point very well - we are unaware of it - that's the big clue. The upshot is, we've created symbols to represent part of what we know to be true of mathematical reality, but we keep discovering that the maps to the territory point to complexities far beyond what we can construct. That is because the particular universe that we live in is a mathematical object is only a tiny one, and vastly unrepresentative of mathematical reality as a whole, just as a map of Texas is vastly unrepresentative of Texas as a whole. Mathematics is the territory, and we construct the maps. Just like in cartography, the maps are only a sparse representation of the territory in actuality. The maps are constructed through our locked-in perception that is physical reality, and the symbols are part of that navigation. 

Furthermore, mathematics cannot be ‘just’ a human invention because it gives the appearance of being something with fixed laws that were always there to be discovered. That is to say, the stability of the natural numbers is more stable than the physical reality with which we interface. If we rewound back time a few billion years to just before the occurrence of abiogenesis on earth, 2 + 3 = 5 would still be true, even if there were no human minds to think up the maps to this truth.  A planet with 2 + 3 moons would still have 5 moons, with or without human senses*. 

There are people who will happily tell you that numbers don't exist in the same way that, say, trees and water exist. That’s true, but that doesn’t tell us much at all; the universe doesn't exist in the same way that trees and water exist, but we believe it exists nonetheless. Numbers don't exist in the same way that trees, water or the universe exists, but they do exist. 

It is a truly enlightening thing to realise that the universe is a mathematical object, and that physics is only a tiny representation of mathematics as a whole; and equally special to see oneself in that picture as mere cartographers trying to navigate the mathematical landscape with symbolic constructions we call 'physical things'.

* On this, watch out for when some mathematicians try to fool you by saying that 2 + 3 doesn't always equal 5.  When mathematicians come out with things like 2 + 3 isn't always 5, they mean there is more than one way to skin a cat.  They are basically saying there are multiple ways to express mathematical facts about numbers by changing the system.  For example, 3 is a prime number, but is it a prime number in every conceivable situation?  The answer is, it all depends on the number rings one chooses to use.  3 is a prime number because using one system it can only ever be divided by 1 or itself. But 3 can be maid into something else - say, 3 = ( 1 + i Sqrt[2]) (1 – i Sqrt[2])*.  * Sqrt[2] is the square root of 2 which equals 1.414. In doing that I'm changing the rules of the game to a complex number (I'm moving the goal posts).  But if we agree beforehand that we are only using non-imaginary integers, then 3 is always a prime number, and 2 + 3 always equal 5. Consider English grammar as an analogy – you are free to change the symbols, you can even change the rules if you want.  You can have full stops in the middle of a sentence; you can finish questions without a question mark, you can even replace punctuation marks with reiteration, but you’ll no longer be sticking to the rules of grammar that we all understand.  Similarly, with mathematics, you can start a new system of arithmetic where two apples plus two apples equals five apples, but you’ll be playing by different rules to the rest of us.  Sure, you can express numbers how you like (Boolean, modular, binary, etc), but you cannot change the fundamental rules of arithmetic. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Main Thing You Need To Know About Knowing History & Knowing People

I have a coin in my hand; on one side should be heads (H) and on the other side should be tails (T). I just spun my coin ten times - it returned H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H - ten heads in a row. Do you think I have a double-headed or weighted coin? One way to enquire is to ask, what are the chances of my throwing ten heads in a row?  Quite slim actually, it is (1/2)^10. That translates as one in two to the power of ten, which equals a 1 in 1024 chance.  Before you conclude that my coin was not a fair coin, let me say that I omitted some vital information - I actually spun my coin more than ten times and I returned a few tails as well. Amongst the H,H,H,H were a few Ts - but I deliberately didn't tell you about those, leaving you with the impression that I might have had a straight off 1 in 1024 experience. 

Here’s the moral of the story. When we cherry pick data and leave out parts we don't want others to see we can easily give the impression of something compelling or noteworthy or unique. For years drug trials were known to be biased - medical companies would share the findings that support the drug's efficacy and omit the findings that call it into question. The same is true of our perception of the aberrations in various collective environments, as media reporters or historical interpreters often capture an extreme situation and exaggerate it out of proportion. A few Middle Eastern dissidents caught on camera burning a flag in the marketplace can be made to look as though the whole city is in civil unrest; an instance of corporate malfeasance or ignominy or sexual perversion can make it seem like the whole corporation or political group or religion is corrupt; a few isolated incidents of perversion of justice in the police force can make one question whether many police officers can be trusted; and a reputed group of inquisitors or anti-science dogmatists or heretic hunters can sometimes be felt to be representative rather than unrepresentative of a group in some point in historical time.

Given this pervasive problem of getting things out of proportion, or focusing too much on headline-grabbing cases, it’s clear that caution must be exercised when interpreting history, particularly as so much of history is written by those in power and those on the winning side. If you'd like an analogy of what recorded human history is like, it's a bit like the fossil record across vast geological time, and the evolutionary relationships between taxa, in that it very much resembles a join the dots exercise. Most of human history is not recorded, just as most of biological evolution is not found in the fossil record. Our framework of understanding is based on extrapolations of comparably sparse data, like a few dots scattered on the page, and from which we attempt to join those dots to give exhibition to a fuller picture.  

The really interesting question, I think, is to ask; what does it mean to live in a world in which most of the events, thoughts and feelings that have ever happened are inaccessible to just about everyone who has ever lived? Is it just a trivial fact of life that that is how things are, or does it give us cause to think a bit more deeply about the security of our knowledge and views?

Human beings speak with much confidence on many subjects – but I think our epistemology is more anaemic than we care to realise. Most knowledge a person has outside of their own first-person sphere is far more tentative than many would care to admit. What knowledge of human history amounts to is a set of neatly packaged general assumptions that attempt to present a fact or an opinion by shaving off a great deal of the additional data that surrounds it. 

Take the following events; Nero’s death, the Council of Nicea, the book Beowulf, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Enlightenment, Diderot's Encyclop√©die, the Scientific Revolution, Romanticism, World War 2, the film On The Waterfront and the London 7/7 bombings. What they have in common is that if you take all the recorded facts known about each of those events you are still devoid of a far greater proportion of unrecorded facts or experiences, whether in people’s minds or in surrounding events. It is only when we shave off or never become aware of a great deal of the additional data, either by not knowing it or by rendering it extraneous, that we have any simplified version of history at all. This really ought to inform us not just about how we engage with history, but most importantly, how we let our historical perceptions shape our present interpretation of things. 

Don’t misunderstand; often our interpretations of events like the ones above are reliable enough, or sufficiently well researched (if not by us, by others) to reveal clarity-inducing knowledge – but often an oversimplification leads one into too narrow a perspective that skews one’s outlook. Pick up any semi-academic magazine – The Spectator, History Today, The Economist or The New Scientist - and it will be replete with instances of this. Dip in to almost any page and you’ll find sentences that contain expressions like…

“The stone age period was a time of…”

“The inquisitors subjected people to forced conversion…”

“The Labour leader is trying to bring back socialism…”

“15th century Islam was more about conquering than converting…”

Iran is a very unstable country…”

“Throughout the 2nd World War the Axis powers…"

These and many more like them are examples of what I’m talking about – the expressions tend to over-simplify a series of events and are presented as neatly packaged general assumptions that demand further investigation.

Now, let’s be fair, I think such expressions are perfectly permissible within the realms of intelligent discourse – but they must always come with the caveat that they are a compressed version of a much bigger thing, and that the content is unavoidably anaemic.

In the spirit of fairness it has to be said we don’t have much of a choice when dealing with such subjects. These pale complexion examples of presentation are not easily avoided, because we are forced to resort to such anaemic language if we are to have any meaningful discussions - after all, when talking about history, society, religion, or any of the more intractable subjects, most of the data is unrecorded, inaccessible, and patchy, and thus beyond the purview of our own first–person comprehension of the situation. Our limitations compel us to engage in those aforementioned join-the-dots type of picture-making.

For that reason, it doesn’t mean that the way we tackle complex subjects is not meaningful and that it lacks practical utility – but it should be realised that we only handle these subjects with wisdom when we realise that many historical opinions we hold are mere epigrams that leave out the majority of the full picture. We make statements about various religions and political groups in certain periods of time in history as though we are only talking about a few people; we speak of a nation of millions of people as though the description is amenable to straightforward epigrammatic adjectival terms – terms like “oppressive”, “backward”, “liberated”, “draconian”, “prosperous”.

We all do it; we talk of North Korea as being ‘oppressive’, or of America as being ‘liberated’, or of China, Brazil and India as being 'increasingly prosperous’ – and those succinct descriptions serve to convey our perception of them. But if we are being strict - how can a nation of people be any of these things?  It can’t – a nation is too large, complex, diverse and multi-faceted to be amenable to such singular descriptions. Similarly, you’ll see this candid examination cropping up all over the political sphere too; how can a political party be “progressive”, or “right wing”, or “liberal” except in terms which severely comprise the vastness of the subject or object of study under scrutiny? 

In saying all that, one can of course also recognise a sense in which ‘oppressive’ does aptly describe Iran, and “liberal” aptly describes facets of a political party. The point is, it’s ok – that’s what we humans do. There’s no harm in doing it, so long as we are able to see a picture that extends beyond our compressed descriptions.  

A similar thing applies to an interpretation of people
Clearly we find the same thing occurring when describing people too. How easily we try to reduce a person to a few simple adjectives – happy, generous and kind, or mean, uncaring and pessimistic, or moody, discontent and dismissive – or combinations of all these things.  But that’s sometimes fine too – there are some people for whom the words ‘kind’ and ‘generous’ are apt compliments, and arguably some for whom terms like 'wretched' and 'insane' paint a pretty accurate picture too.

All we must always be aware of is that when we have views, opinions and beliefs, we are shaving off lots of external factors, and that much of what we intuitively feel about a belief system, a nation, or a person, is merely an intuitive focal point on which we have chosen to concentrate our gaze. This is part of our adaptive unconscious, and it requires the short-cutting of lots of key data to enable the mind to harbour succinct ideas about the world (as per the image of the join-the dots epistemology). 

Such is human personality, of course, that even if you were to focus on just one person you know – a neighbour or a work colleague or a friend – you could not justifiably reduce them to a few dozen simple statistics. To get anywhere near to ‘knowing’ that person you would have to spend a considerable length of time with them; you would have to see them happy, sad, at ease, ill at ease, under pressure, vulnerable, confident, upbeat, dejected, successful, unsuccessful, in mourning, pursuing intelligence, in the company of many different people, and in and out of their comfort zone. And even if we grant that that can happen over several months or years – you know as well as I do how much a person changes throughout their life – so even that level of scrutiny tells only a fraction of the picture. You have, I imagine, had situations where you’ve peered into a corner of someone’s life and felt a sudden acceleration of awareness about their character – perhaps from seeing their book collection for the first time, or seeing them with their parents or children for the first time, or seeing them lose their temper for the first time, or seeing them get drunk for the first time. There are obvious tell-tale signs that help us put people’s views into perspective – but they are not the full picture.

If that is the case with just one person – you can, I hope, now see (if you couldn’t already) how foolish it is to think you know enough about a person or group of people or a nation or a historical epoch from just a few quotes or articles or books about them by people who never met the individuals in question, or people who did but were, as we all are, selective in what they recorded.

Always be on guard
Be careful out there; so many people rashly think they have nailed a subject, or they hastily develop a worldview based on a few isolated and often decontextualised bits of information. It may be the best we can do with the tools we have, and that is fine, so long as we show epistemic humility when dealing with knotty subjects that require plenty of untangling. One of the key steps to wisdom is to understand that we must always hold views and profess knowledge with it in mind that most subjects outside of our realm of first-person experience are hugely intractable, and that our knowledge of those subjects is sparse and fragmented. 

Finally, you may now be wondering, if what I've said is the case, how can we justifiably hold religious beliefs, political views and other ideas containing complex data? We can hold them, but we must do so with our old friend epistemic humility. Part of that epistemic humility is in admitting that we are only doing what the psychologists call ‘thin-slicing’ – which is the ability to find patterns and formulate tentative knowledge based on only ‘thin slices’ of experiences.  When we assess a situation and say that Iran is unstable or that North Korea is totalitarian or Britain is too liberalised, we are attempting to compress the data into a succinct form of expression – but at an accelerated and exaggerated rate. We end up with what we feel is a fairly sophisticated judgement of something far more complex than our precipitations have accounted for.

The reason complex situations can be decoded with some aplomb is, I think, down to the fact that once we package a lot of data together we find that the sociological world has stable patterns. Hence, one can read about a country (or better still visit it) and use words like ‘unstable’, ‘totalitarian’ and ‘liberalised’ as pattern distillations that aid us in forming an compressed impression of complex situations. Realising we do this all the time is not just one of the first steps to wisdom, it is one of the first steps to correcting many of the faults that stand in the way of the clear thinking that engenders wisdom.

Friday, 10 July 2015

On Greece, And How George Monbiot Is Confused Yet Again

In his latest Guardian column, the perpetually befuddled George Monbiot wants to tell us that Greece's current problems are actually caused by an extreme version of what he calls 'neoliberal market fundamentalism'.

"The Maastricht treaty, establishing the European Union and the euro, was built on a lethal delusion: a belief that the ECB could provide the only common economic governance that monetary union required. It arose from an extreme version of market fundamentalism: if inflation were kept low, its authors imagined, the magic of the markets would resolve all other social and economic problems, making politics redundant. Those sober, suited, serious people, who now pronounce themselves the only adults in the room, turn out to be demented utopian fantasists, votaries of a fanatical economic cult."

It's incredible how, when you only have a hammer in your mental toolbox every problem seems like a nail. But it's also interesting to see how to hard left extremists things slightly less extreme yet still very economically left can seem to them to be right wing - a bit like how warm water feels hot when your hand has just been in very cold water.

I am completely at a loss as to how George Monbiot can think us neo-liberals - you know we who argue for small state interference, open global trade, the celebration of national diversity, and a drastic reduction in bureaucracy, can be to blame for the present day big top-down interfering, globally restrictive, nationally homogenous, stuffily bureaucratic European superstate and the problems of some of its struggling nations.

Because George Monbiot thinks neoliberal free markets are the cause of most of the world's ills, and because Greece is currently going through one of those ills, he assumes that the former must be the cause of the latter. But it just isn't so.  

Let's tell things as they are - the problem with this European superstate is that it is devoid of the open free market qualities that many of its countries so badly need. The federal state of Europe is an overblown political project, showing not the slightest reason to think that monetary unity could make it a successful economic project. The Greek situation shows the result of numerous poor decisions, but also it shows the danger of a fanciful idea of a European superstate with a single currency. I wouldn't be surprised if the EU breaks down in the future - but until then, a few comments about Greece as things stand.

The Greek economy gave indications of going this way as far back as the 80s - in recent times it has been a country that doesn't focus on market-based wealth creation but more on wealth extraction through top down management. It's a great example of the failure of leftist economics - the focus on other people's money rather than small government and economic growth. A country's ability to generate growth is roughly commensurate with its ability to allow the market to facilitate that growth. That's why places like Greece, Portugal and Spain struggled after the crash and why England much less so. England has one huge advantage too - and that is, it has London.

If Greece could exit the Eurozone, revert back to the drachma (and a concomitant devaluation), there could be a slow climb. In real terms Greek wages and prices would sharply fall, and the Greek State would effectively be locked out of capital markets for a while, but if it learned how to create wealth it could then gradually price itself back into the global market. As things stand currently this looks unlikely.

By printing more of the drachma, this lowers the value of the currency in international markets, but it also makes Greek exports more competitive. Add to that the lowering of domestic interest rates, which then encourages domestic investment, and it can potentially make the servicing of their debts for Greek debtors more conducive too.

Alas, when you are locked in a shared monetary policy with the rest of Europe, this won't happen. The monetary policy of the European Central Bank is Germany-friendly, not Greece-friendly. It's Hobson's choice for the Greek people - massively increased debts, or Grexit and a depression that could last a long while longer. The IMF, which has a questionable record of international policy, has been loading Greece up to the waist with debts in exchange for austerity and huge tax increases, which only exacerbates things.

To recover in the long term, Greece needs an awful lot more of those things George Monbiot laments, not less of them. What Greece needs is not going to be likely under this current European superstate - its advocates have a lot resting on it working, and they don't want anything to spoil what they hope will be (but evidently won't be) an unspoiled legacy.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Political Compass Test Isn't Very Good, Is It?

You may have seen the political compass test that's been doing the rounds - it looks to find where we are on the spectrum regarding whether we are to the left or right economically, and whether socially we lean more towards authoritarian or liberal. As you can see from the image above, the horizontal line is economically left or right and the vertical line is socially authoritarian or libertarian (meaning socially liberal), with the x and y coordinates (horizontal and vertical respectively) indicating where you fall on that spectrum after you’ve answered all the questions. Incidentally, it would have been better to have been labelled Authoritarian vs. Liberal, & Socialist vs. Economic Libertarian, but we’ll leave that and accept it as it is.

Alas, even aside from that slight quibble, whoever wrote the questions for the political compass test gives the impression that they are not very well informed. I will give a quick run down of the questions (in italic), including my answers/comments in bold (the choices are Strongly disagree , Disagree, Agree and Strongly agree), and also where the questions clearly needed revising.

If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.  Daft Question

Trans-national corporations are made up of human beings, who by definition are also part of humanity.

I'd always support my country, whether it was right or wrong.   Strongly disagree

No one chooses his or her country of birth, so it's foolish to be proud of it.  Daft question

It's not the case of being proud or not proud - one can be proud of some things without being a fool or an extreme nationalist. For example, I'm proud of my country's literature, films and music, and many of its places.

Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races.  Daft question

Daft by being loaded to the point of being meaningless. Every race/nation/culture (whatever you want to call it) has qualities that others do not have.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.   Strongly disagree

Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.   Agree

There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment.   Hmm …I don't really know what that question precisely means.

People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality.   Sloppy question

I think the subtleties behind that are too involved to be a simple case of agreeing or disagreeing.

Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment.   Sloppy question

Sloppy for reasons no one surely needs explaining.

Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation.   Agree

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is a fundamentally good idea.   Agree

It's a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product.  Disagree

Land shouldn't be a commodity to be bought and sold.   Strongly disagree

It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society.   Sloppy question

If it were the case then it would be regrettable. However, in the vast majority of cases the biggest indication that your job is contributing to society is if someone is willing to pay you to do it. Crime is an exception, but I get the feeling the questioner thinks some non-criminal jobs contribute nothing to society, which is pretty much always false.

Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade.   Strongly disagree

The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders.   Sloppy question

Technically that's the main purpose of a business - to deliver a profit (delivering a profit shows the company is running well and contributing value to society). However, while that's true, it is *desirable* that companies should be socially responsible.

The rich are too highly taxed.   Agree

I agree if the question is about what is most economically efficient in terms of growth. However, once we factor in what is best for the rich in terms of their behaviour, things get more involved (I'll do a blog on this at some point).

Those with the ability to pay should have the right to higher standards of medical care.   Strongly agree (although Sloppy question)

If by which we are supposed to mean, the right to purchase private health care - but surely hardly anyone denies this.

Governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public.   Agree (although Sloppy question).

It all depends on how they mislead the public - and that is the important point that is never considered.

A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies.   Agree

The freer the market, the freer the people.   Agree

At least, the conditions that engender freedom in society are likely to engender a freer market too.

Abortion, when the woman's life is not threatened, should always be illegal.   Strongly disagree

All authority should be questioned.   Strongly agree

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.   Strongly disagree

I'm assuming the questioner doesn't really understand this principle. In the Old Testament an eye for an eye does not mean if you do me wrong to the value of X then I am encouraged to reciprocate also the value of X. What it actually means is if you do me wrong to the value of X, the very most I can do to reciprocate is match the value of X. It's not an encouragement to take an eye for an eye - it's an instruction that the very most you should take is an eye for an eye. Jesus, of course, came up with something better (Matthew 5:38-48).

Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis.   Agree

Generally I agree, although government funded projects in the arts and in history can be beneficial.

Schools should not make classroom attendance compulsory.   Strongly disagree


All people have their rights, but it is better for all of us that different sorts of people should keep to their own kind.   Strongly disagree


Good parents sometimes have to spank their children.   Disagree (although poorly phrased question).

I put disagree. Although generally I feel one ought to avoid smacking, I could not put 'agree' because there are times when perhaps a light but very infrequent smack does more good than harm. The question was a bad one though - much better to have asked about people’s preferences for regular smacking.

It's natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents.   Agree

Possessing marijuana for personal use should not be a criminal offence.   Disagree

Although I'm almost 50/50 on this, I can see the pros and cons, but there's just something about me that disfavours drug use just enough to not want to legalise them. Only just though (in the case of cannabis).

The prime function of schooling should be to equip the future generation to find jobs.   Daft question

The prime function of schooling is education, which does equip the future generation to find jobs, but does so much more too.

People with serious inheritable disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce.   Strongly disagree


The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline.  Daft question

Children need to learn so much, of which discipline is a key part. It's daft to try to separate those qualities into a hierarchy as they all play vital, but different roles.

There are no savage and civilised peoples; there are only different cultures.   Sloppy question by being a false dichotomy.

We are all a heady mix of savage and civilised, and we all belong to varying cultures.

Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society's support.   Disagree

We must support them, but help them to be more dynamic and get to the root of why they are refusing opportunities.

When you are troubled, it's better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.  Disagree

Psychological indicators suggest that in doing this those troubles come back stronger. Experience backs this up.

First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country.   Strongly disagree


What's good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us.   Sloppy question

Given that 'always' is far too general, choosing either agree or disagree paints an inaccurate representation of the view. For example, technically I'd have to say 'disagree' because what's good for the most successful corporations is not, of course, *always* good for all of us. But generally it is - however, choosing 'disagree' is supposed to give the impression that generally it isn't, which distorts things.

No broadcasting institution, however independent its content, should receive public funding.   Agree.


Our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of counter-terrorism.   Disagree (that is, I disagree specifically in terms of counter-terrorism rather than as a general statement)


A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system.   Strongly disagree

Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried.   Disagree

The death penalty should be an option for the most serious crimes.   Disagree

In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded.  Agree

Well, yes to laws and regulations, if that's what is meant.

Abstract art that doesn't represent anything shouldn't be considered art at all.   Sloppy question

Ah, this question is presumably intended as being one to tease out the authoritarians who want a critical monopoly on what art is. However, this is sloppy questioning - I think a lot of so-called art involves cases of Emperor's New Clothes critiquing, but I wouldn't want to say what should and shouldn't be art outside of my own personal subjectivism. There are some things I don't consider art that others do, but we each reserve the right to our opinions.

In criminal justice, punishment should be more important than rehabilitation.   Strongly disagree

Obviously to agree with that would be barbarism. Read Dostoyevsky's House Of The Dead if you're not convinced.

It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate some criminals.   Strongly disagree

(see above comment)

The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist.   Sloppy question

Important for what, and for whom? They need to say. For human progression why separate the businessperson and the manufacturer from the writer – they need each other at various inextricable levels. To ask who is more important is a bit like asking which blade on a pair of scissors is more important. A much better question would have been: Which is more important for human progression, living standards and well-being, business and manufacturing or art? To which the answer would be business and manufacturing.

Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers.   Agree

That is, once you become a mother then until your child is old enough your primary duty (along with the father) is to look after and care for him/her.

Multinational companies are unethically exploiting the plant genetic resources of developing countries.    Agree

Another sloppily blunt question, but no question that is true in several cases.

Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity.  Daft question

Could they really not think of better questions than this?

Astrology accurately explains many things.   Strongly disagree

The one accurate thing astrology explains is that anyone who subscribes to it is gullible and uneducated about astronomy.

You cannot be moral without being religious.   Strongly disagree

Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged.  Disagree

Charity is great, but less reliable (I’m presuming the questioner does not mean government aid).

Some people are naturally unlucky.   Agree

I don't subscribe to luck generally, except to say that one's place of birth can be considered on a scale of lucky (England, for example) or unlucky (Somalia, for example) in terms of how your life will likely play out.

It is important that my child's school instils religious values.  Sloppy question

It's important my child learns facts about what religious people believe.

 Sex outside marriage is usually immoral.   Disagree

In the Christian sense, chastity is encouraged, but in terms of how the survey is framing the question, it would not be considered immoral.

A same sex couple in a stable, loving relationship should not be excluded from the possibility of child adoption.   Agree


Pornography, depicting consenting adults, should be legal for the adult population.   Agree

I don't like it, but making it illegal is a bit much.

What goes on in a private bedroom between consenting adults is no business of the state.   Strongly agree

No one can feel naturally homosexual.   Strongly disagree


These days openness about sex has gone too far.   Sloppy question

In some cases yes, in some no.

The End

FINAL COMMENT: Alas, could have been an interesting and pretty informative survey if the questions weren’t composed so sloppily.