Blind faith

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Diving back into Dominic Cumming’s epic blog post, while taking a sidelong look also at Alastair Heath‘s piece in the Telegraph yesterday, I noticed an aligning of ideas that answered something that has been bothering me for a while now.

In Dominic’s post, he quotes Bret Victor on the quality of political debate that often goes on these days. The bigger picture, as Dominic points out, is that the quality of information being presented to MPs is woeful at best, which is worrying when these people are often making life and death decisions, that can have ramifications for generations to come.

Victor, talking of many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in climate change, says: ‘And why trust them? Their rhetoric is catchy, but so is the horrific “denialist” rhetoric from the Cato Institute and similar. When the discussion is at the level of “trust me, I’m a scientist” and “look at the poor polar bears”, it becomes a matter of emotional appeal and faith, a form of religion.’

This quote really struck a chord with me, and has been bouncing around the old cerebellum for a couple of days now.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Alastair Heath writes about how left and right often misunderstand each other because they emphasise different core moral values. He writes:

‘The seminal works here are the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, as well as his more recent The Coddling of the American Mind. As Haidt points out, there are six main moral intuitions: fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The Left judge almost everything by the first two – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own, fuelling their anger – the Right by the last four, though they are usually more aware of the first two, which makes them more puzzled than angry. Such self-awareness is a key differentiator between Lefties, conservatives and libertarians.’

This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. The reason being that having immersed myself so thoroughly in Hayek for the past year or so, certain things didn’t feel quite right, and one of them was his argument that intelligent people tend to be socialists because they are intelligent and rational, and if you are intelligent and rational, you can’t accept that you don’t know everything.

Yet, the level of debate I’ve had with a lot of people around Brexit has been of a similar poor quality. Now, I know that I said here before that the part of the brain that deals with decision making doesn’t deal with language, so it’s often hard to articulate why choose to like what we like. That said, it is usually possible for us to at least come up with something, even if we feel it doesn’t really do it justice. There is usually something rational we can salvage from it.

And yet, with Brexit, the two camps have definitely taken each of their core values and run with them at a visceral level, not really thinking things through logically at all. And so we find those in the remain camp in a situation of almost loathing people in the leave camp. I suspect this is because their core values of fairness and justice have been mortally affronted by the result. Those who adhere to the latter for end up perplexed as to the amount of vitriol they sometimes receive, as they adhere to the other four codes, that allow them to be somewhat more tolerant of people who disagree with them (though, not always!).

The problem is that in both cases, rationality has gone out of the window. As Dominic says, both parties need to up their game in terms of proper objective arguments based on sound contextualised data to make the best decisions.

As Hayek argues, the extended order operates somewhere between instinct and reason. In recent years, many, particularly on the left, have shied away from rationality and taken refuge in instinct. This is the thing that has confused me for a while. I expected these rational, intelligent people to have the answers as to why they voted to remain, and yet they didn’t. More often than not they had nothing but, ‘You’re wrong, you’re an idiot.’ End of argument.

It reminded me of a very young and naive me, in my days of being a bit of a God-botherer.

In that context, it almost feels like socialism has moved away from being the rationalist’s home to being the believer’s home. It’s become a religion. And many of the key issues of our day, including Brexit, climate change and veganism have also taken on the blind faith qualities of religion, with an anger to rival some of the fiercest fundamental Christians or Muslims.

Strangely enough, I’m writing this on the train, and have just looked up to see a headline in the Evening Standard, ‘Now to we have a nasty left to match the nasty right?’

We need to find the middle ground again, and the start of that is proper, well informed, rational debate based on the latest techniques in data modelling and forecasting. Not only that, we need to start telling some proper stories to reflect the truth in these facts and figures. Time to bring on the actuaries?

Red Teams at the Ready

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Quite a few people over the past three years have admitted to me that the only reason they voted remain in the referendum was that they felt that those in Westminster and Whitehall were too useless to actually be able to carry a leave vote out.

I always felt this was a slightly pessimistic view of life in SW1, but after reading Dominic Cummings’ latest magnum opus of a blog post, you have to wonder if they didn’t have a point.

Dominic’s post is in equal measure inspiring, irritating and downright jaw-dropping (and for varying reasons, as well). His essential argument is that the Civil Service is so far behind the curve in terms of the latest ideas in analysis and prediction, and that the cabinet are so woefully under informed, that they might as well just plunge billions of pounds straight down the plughole and go home.

He goes into enormous, but very interesting detail, about the latest movements in data modelling and analysis and how it can be used well to drive the country forward with top-class decision making. It’s long (his argument for being so open and giving the ‘competition’ too much information is that they wouldn’t possibly read a 10,000 word blog post to find out anyway), but it’s worth a read if you are at all interested in just how poor the government processes are, and how good they could be if anyone there could be bothered.

What’s most fascinating, I find, is that ultimately what Dominic is advocating is looking for ways to map parts, if not all, of the extended order in unique an interesting ways. It would probably be meaningless to try to create a wholistic view of everything, even the summary would be incomprehensibly complex, but if we could focus on certain areas that are still vast (economics, climate change etc.) and try to tame those in a sensible way, we could make some amazing advances.

I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t a fools errand, but it’s certainly fascinating, and it’s not like we don’t have the computational power to start breaking into these things and making them comprehensible enough to base decisions on. It’s an area that I will be looking into quite closely in the next few weeks and months. Funnily enough, I might know a fair few people who could help Dominic out, but more on that later.