False epistemic modesty


There is an article published by unherd that has been making the rounds today, on the danger of overly trusting expertise. Michael Gove approvingly retweeted the article, saying it was ‘in praise of epistemic modesty’. The article itself makes some reasonable enough points about uncertainties in science, problems with economic knowledge and a particularly interesting example of a problem in biology that we will come back to later on. So far, so good. There are plenty of gaps in scientific knowledge, some fields (particularly in the social sciences) where there are big question marks about what kind of knowledge can be obtained, and plenty of reasons not to be overly deferential to the ranks and titles of the academic community. That isn’t to say that an entirely irreverent attitude to these things is warranted either. The fields of human expertise are so vast and in many cases the subject matter so difficult that we couldn’t do without taking a lot on trust. And we need markers like titles and institutional kudos, consensus (alongside our own background contextual knowledge) to know what claims to take seriously. Suffice to say that how much attention should be given to heterodox thinking is not a straightforward question.

It is important, however, to distinguish between a genuine call for irreverent, critical thought and what is a disguised excuse for, or an afterthought to anti-intellectualism as a political project. Genuine heterodox thinking might well challenge accepted ideas, but it also seeks to build new ways of understanding the world that is itself susceptible to scrutiny. It cannot completely distrust science or expertise per se, because it hopes that one day its results will be regarded as scientific expertise. When it raises doubts, it does so providing reasons for distrust and grounds for uncertainty. And it accepts that it is no good simply trusting common sense. Common sense is often wrong, and can be just another kind of dogma. It may even be the result of some old prevailing orthodoxy. As Keynes put it, “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any form of intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”. Moreover, even with a highly contested and uncertain field like economics, we simply have no choice but to best approximate knowledge, because the decisions it relates to are important.

Gove may like to talk about epistemic modesty, but at least in his political life (if not his personal) it is not what he practices. His infamous remark, that people have ‘had enough of experts’ was not part of an attempt to create some new, heterodox understanding of the economics of Brexit. The only serious attempt to do that was a widely discredited publication by PatrickMinford. Instead, it was part of a campaign strategy aimed at encouraging people to systemically disregard arguments of the opposing side. Vote Leave did not respond to arguments to remain in the EU, they merely labelled them ‘project fear’. In a debate with Jonathan Portes in 2016, Gove had all sorts of interesting things to say about the falsification principle and herd mentality in academia, but the political campaigns he has been part of have hardly been about fostering an attempt to further human knowledge. Dominic Cummings has similar things to say about the fads of the educated middle classes (he likes to quote Tolstoy on this) but his chief practical contribution to critical thought has been developing techniques used for mass disinformation.

To return full circle, the article originally mentioned in the introduction dedicates a large portion of its body to the discussion of an unusual species of crayfish. Two genetically identical crayfish, exposed to (almost) identical environmental stimuli nonetheless exhibit dramatically different features. The familiar dichotomy of nature vs nurture, or genetics vs environment, don’t seem to capture the full picture. Something else must be at work. One response is to try to understand what is going on, accepting the very real possibility that we may not be able to do so. But for some commentators the real message is a different one. It’s “screw the goddamn crayfish”.  

Condemnation, market failures and promoting the far right

A few weeks ago I saw a rather curious thread on Twitter. A journalist, who I otherwise rather like and would rather not name, wanted to introduce American readers to Katie Hopkins. He attached a series of links to her speeches, explaining why these showed how dangerous she was, and why American viewers should be wary of her. This is, of course, a profoundly stupid approach to the far right. Because sites like Twitter and Youtube use algorithms which push content based on views, this approach gives the far right more prominence by generating additional traffic on their videos and social media accounts. As in the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch, it doesn't matter if the viewers love the content or hate it (or are enjoying it ironically). The numbers show up just the same.

The additional prominence this gives to the far right almost certainly outweighs any benefit from the refutations or warnings that originally generated it. Yet an alarming proportion of content on social and broadcast media is doing precisely that. The problem here is both a supply and a demand side one. There is undoubtedly an enormous appetite for content involving TV and radio debates with the far right, and with social media content aimed at refuting or gazing in horror at its messages. Such content is entertaining, and, in a polarised political environment, often very satisfying. I myself admit that one of the most satisfying videos I have watched on Youtube is of Tony Blair angrily denouncing Nigel Farage in front of the European Parliament. It's a great form of vicarious wish fulfilment. 

This generates incentives for both broadcasters and individuals to produce such content. Why else would BBC Question Time invite Farage on so often? Those in charge of such decisions can easily offer justifications by reference to public interest, balance, or the value of open debate, but the arguments themselves do not add up.  Something similar is going on with individuals on social media. Posts which offer horrified denunciations or refutations of far right users and their material get wide circulation. They generate likes, clicks and prominence for the individual who decided to post them. An aspiring (or even established) journalist has a huge incentive to post this kind of material as a way of promoting themselves. This is a serious market failure.                                                                                
People can easily justify their decision to do so to themselves. What is essentially about self promotion can easily be narrated as a story of making a moral stand and speaking out against the far right. And individuals are apt to think that self promotion is itself a moral goal. It is easy to imagine that your own prominence and success will ultimately allow you to serve the greater good as you will be better placed to use your own talents.                                                                                   

This is essentially a collective action problem. Few liberals or left wingers actually want to live in a world where Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage have a significant impact on public life. But the individual gains accrued by promoting their material, be they in terms of extra following, or the satisfaction righteous indignation, seem more real and significant than a tiny bit of extra prominence their own work gives to the far right. But there is so much material out there attacking the far right that any more gives almost no additional social benefit. And the game of who gets to be among the most prominent who debate and condemn the far right is largely zero sum. The result is rather tragic. 

Hollowing out Democracy's Core

One of the interesting features of post war literature on Nazism and totalitarianism is the broadness of its understanding of democracy and what makes it work. Many of the leading political theorists and philosophers of this period understood democracy not just in terms of formal processes (majority votes, checks and balances of power) but in terms of the wider political and cultural practices of open and free societies. Jürgen Habermas's idea of communicative rationality stressed the importance of discussion and reflection for coming to ethical decisions which consider the value of others. In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt located the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s and the radicalisation of policy once in power in a fragmentation of public discussion of politics. Hans Mommsen's idea of cumulative radicalisation can also be thought of in discursive terms, as can Karl Popper's idea of the open society.

Without wanting to get bogged down in the specifics of their arguments, what these all have in common is the idea that things go very wrong indeed when meaningful public discussion breaks down. People are no longer forced to confront the ethical implications of their desires or their impacts on others. There is no longer a mechanism for gathering and processing new information about decisions, attempting to come to some kind of consensus, or falsifying bad propositions about how the world works.

This, it should be noted, is not primarily a question of the formal rules or constitution of a country. A democratic majority can be more or less considerate of the view points of those in a minority, and more or less open to information coming from outside sources. We might consider the following analogy, in want of a better one. Imagine a pub quiz team. They decide that when they disagree on an answer, they take a majority vote. Imagine, now, that a question comes along where there team is split, but one person in the group is quite certain of a particular answer and wants to explain why they know it to be correct. There is nothing about the formal rules of the team which means that person has to be listened to. It is not clear how you could possibly build a mechanism for doing so into the rules. But there is nothing stopping the other members from listening to that single person and changing their viewpoint. To insist that they do not have to and would rather stick with what they know to be a gut reaction would be mad, albeit technically allowed.

Granted, this is a silly analogy. And it's true that the value or reality of considerate public discussion can be overrated. But I think there is a specific danger in the direction of political argument in the UK at the moment. It is increasingly towards the idea of an opinion being widespread as a justification in and of itself, be it because it is held by a majority or because those that hold it are seen as somehow more authentic representatives of the population as a whole. This is not just about Brexit. Discussion of immigration and criminal justice which focussed on 'reasonable concerns' of 'decent, hardworking people' go back at least as far as the Blair years. The media response in 2010 to Gordon Brown's remarks caught on a microphone after speaking to Gillian Duffy are another illustration of this.

The point here is that this is not primarily about majoritarianism or what the rules of a democracy are. Yes, there is a good case for limits on state power and constitutional checks and balances, but beyond this there is a serious question of how discussions about those decisions are held. This is not just about protecting minorities (important though that may be): the majority loses out too when a mere statement of current opinion becomes a justification. This is as this kind of justification does not allow for new information to be considered that that majority itself might want to consider. And contrary to the authoritarian populist line that this kind of argument is patronising or elitist, the opposite is in fact the case. It assumes people are rational, interested in new information and want to participate in the democratic process. It makes no claim on what eventual decision people will come to to. And the opposite view, that people's opinions are fixed, unreflective, and uninterested in information or ethnical considerations of their judgements, is to paint the electorate as monsters. Those keen to defend this idea of open, ongoing discussions, which do not see opinion as fixed or disinterested in others need to win this argument. To do so, they need to turn the authoritarian populist argument on its head: it is they who are being patronising and elitist by presuming that ordinary people are too stupid and dogmatic to want real discussions of the issues.

No More Games


Earlier this week I wrote a post criticising the Labour leadership for playing election games that risk allowing no deal. I would like to extend that criticism to the Liberal Democrats.
Jo Swinson has said she would rule out supporting atemporary Unity government headed by Corbyn in the event of a successful voteof no confidence. Such a government would have to be headed by a backbencher like Yvette Cooper to gain Lib Dem support.

I am no Corbynista, but this is pretty preposterous. So long as the Labour leadership does not budge on their current position, that any administration would have to be led by the Labour front bench, the Lib Dems are effectively throwing away what may be the only means of preventing no deal. Their argument, that they could not countenance putting someone like Corbyn into Downing Street does not even make sense on its own terms. The governing coalition would likely only exist for a few weeks, with the sole purpose of negotiating an article 50 extension. It would have neither the time nor ability to pass any other legislation, and any hint of an executive overstep of the coalition agreement could immediately be met with a withdrawal of support and a vote of no confidence.

Their real motivation is surely just another electoral game. Most of the Lib Dems target seats are Tory marginals, and they do not want to be associated with a government that has Corbyn in Downing Street, even if just for a few weeks. This is dangerously cynical.  

It’s true that the Labour leadership is playing cynical games too. But that does not negate collective responsibility. Trying to force the Labour leadership to change their position is just irresponsbile at this stage. What's more, it is unlikely to work. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the Labour leadership is intensely (perhaps primarily) worried about losing control of the party. It has woken up to the fact that Brexit poses an existential threat to this, and they believe that a government of national unity headed by a backbencher would provide a locus around which a leadership challenge could be mounted. For many figures around Corbyn, this may be more important than any other considerations.

Secondly, the leadership likely has ambivalent attitudes to the political consequences of no deal. It is quite possible they see themselves as the likely beneficiaries as the consequences of no deal fuel backlash against the government. The main fear that they too would be blamed if they did not form or support a unity government is more or less neutralised if the Liberal Democrats make the same mistake.

Finally, some may even see the economic consequences of no deal as offering an opportunity for Labour to remodel the UK. It is quite possible that large parts of the British economy will effectively have to be operated as a command economy if supply chains break down; nationalisation and the introduction of price controls would be much easier to justify in such an environment.

The main strength of the Lib Dems at the moment is that if they are willing to support a Corbyn led temporary government, the Labour leadership is not in a position to refuse. This, in the long term, I think, would offer actually offer a better electoral strategy for the Lib Dems anyway, as it would put distance between the party and their role in the Cameron’s coalition government.

There is a big opening for a Europhile party of the centre left, particularly one that embraced expansionary fiscal policy. This seems to offer more of an opportunity than mopping up the relatively small number of disaffected Cameroons. But there is no room for that strategy if the Liberal Democrats become yet another appendage to the political culture that brought about a no deal Brexit. And even if that's wrong, at this stage, who cares. Now is not the time for electoral games. 

The party politics of no deal

There was a lot of noise last night about Rebecca Long Bailey's interview on Channel 4 news in which she said that Labour would not support any kind of unity government as a means of preventing no deal Brexit, as this would give Johnson a "get out of jail free card". The most common response has been that it was simply illogical, or suggested a misunderstanding of what a 'unity government' would mean. How could a scenario in which Johnson lost a vote of no confidence and was replaced as Prime Minister be letting him off the hook?

But I don't think this is the most likely explanation. The second part of the sentence was that he could use his get out jail free card to "sail back in, without any problems at all, without a sufficient parliamentary majority". That last part of the sentence admittedly confuses things, but the general sense sounds more like what is being expressed is the fear that Johnson would not have to face the consequences of his actions (i.e bringing the UK to the edge of the no deal cliff). He could then at some later stage "sail back in", though presumably on the back of a general election (and perhaps, if successful, a parliamentary majority). As mentioned, the last part of the sentence doesn't quite gel with this, but you can see why someone wouldn't refer to the prospect of their own party losing an election.

Furthermore, whether or not her remarks were an accidental admission, you can see the strategic rational from the point of view of the Labour leadership of that view. The chaos of a no deal Brexit would, you would hope, make the Conservatives very unpopular. And the alternative scenario, in which Johnson as leader of the Conservative party can go into a general election saying that his plan only failed because he was undermined by remainer MPs, does sound like something that could be an effective strategy for the Conservatives.

This is deeply worrying, because it suggests that the Labour leadership might well come to the conclusion that the best electoral strategy is to make some kind of parliamentary gesture of opposition to no deal, but ultimately fail to take what might be the only viable way of preventing it. Even more worryingly, the Conservative leadership is now dominated by a cult that not only sees no deal favourably, but actually seems to think it will bring political dividends. They point to an opinion poll suggesting a higher vote share for the Conservative party in this eventuality, are primarily focussed on winning back Brexit voters, and like all cults on some level think that what they want must ultimately be popular.

If you assume that British elections are essentially a zero sum game with two players, either Labour or the Conservatives must be miscalculating. But that is perfectly possible. It is quite plausible that the Labour and Conservative leadership for different reasons both think that letting no deal happen (or balking at the measures that would actually prevent it) is the best way of positioning themselves for the next general election. To use an old cliché, I very much hope I am wrong. If not, we are in for a very bumpy ride.

Arguing against the absurd

At university, for the better or worse, I was quite involved in competitive debating. One rather surprising thing you learned was it was often a lot easier to argue for an extreme, or even absurd position than a reasonable one. What you said would be more interesting, more entertaining, and if you were good at it, give you more opportunity to use novel arguments. These would be harder for the other side to anticipate and they would have no experience refuting them.

The following example is illustrative, if a little embarrassing. I remember one day having to chairing a show debate about the legalisation of duelling. The proposition had 15 minutes to prepare their case. Their argument was simple. Individual preferences are difficult to discern. We allow people to make strange choices according to priorities which don't always make sense to an outsider. We also allow people to consent to large risks. If people are willing to consent to something with risks that large, they probably do so because it is very important to them. The opposition responded by questioning the ability of individuals to consent to that sort of risk. They talked about family and societal pressure, motivation by jealousy, shame, or rage, and argued that the kind of situation where somebody was likely to be involved in a duel was one where they could not rationally make a decision. But the proposition had a counter. Why could these things not constitute rationally valid motivations? If a sense of shame or lost honour is so important to you that you would be willing to risk your life for it, why could you not rationally make the choice that the risk was worth taking? The opposition had no idea how to respond to this argument.

That's not to say there weren't effective counters for the opposition out there. Or perhaps they should have sidestepped the issue of whether someone can consent to such harms, and framed the debate in terms of whether consent eliminates a harm. Perhaps they should have talked more about the consequences the practice imposed on loved ones, or how it would shift societal expectations of how people respond to shame.

Thinking back to this does make me cringe a little. But I think it helps make sense of popular debates, and why it can be so difficult to argue against absurd positions. Think about someone who wants to argue that natural selection is in fact a myth. An argument frequently used is that something like the eye could not possibly come about through natural selection, as it requires a high degree of complexity to be advantageous. There are so many mutations required for an eye that give no evolutionary advantage before you have something functional  (so the argument goes) that an organ like the eye would be highly unlikely to come about. This is not be a good argument against natural selection, but how would you respond to it? As a layman, it would actually quite hard to immediately know why the argument is wrong. Is it because there is already a good evolutionary account of the eye, or is it because the absence of one does not mean we should reject the theory of evolution? As it turns out, there are explanatory accounts of the eye. But unless you happened to be an evolutionary biologist, or spent some time researching the question after the conversation, you would have no idea what these explanatory accounts are. I still do not know how certain or speculative they are. The correct response in such a discussion might therefore be to say that while you can't explain the eye, a single incident of something currently only partially understood does not imply that you should reject a theoretical framework for which there are otherwise overwhelming grounds to accept. But it's easy to imagine a situation in which you fail to make that argument, or, in doing so, you seem to have conceded rather more than you actually did.

The point is that the person arguing against natural selection, however absurd their position, is actually likely to be far more familiar with how these arguments play out than most people who might hear their argument. They will have more experience arguing their position, and assuming they aren't arguing against a specialist, may even have more relevant  (albeit partially false) subject knowledge . It is likely to be an obsession, and something they have spent a considerable amount of time arguing about. And precisely because their argument is so absurd, most people will never have spent any time whatsoever thinking about how to defend their own, contrary beliefs. Indeed society would not be working properly if this were not the case: there is simply too much specialist information out there for us all to absorb, some conclusions must simply be taken on trust of those with expertise, and those experts themselves have to spend their time thinking about real scientific questions, not how to justify assumptions or positions in debates overwhelmingly resolved a very long time ago.

This, I think, was one of the initial advantages that the Leave side had in the 2016 Brexit referendum. They had been making their arguments for decades. They knew how audiences responded, they knew their case, and they had a much better idea of what the Remain case might look like than the other way round. Remainers, on the other hand, had almost no experience arguing their case. They had no idea which arguments worked and which didn't. And they had no idea how to respond to a position that they saw as inherently absurd. The Leave position seemed in some basic way to violate how the world worked. Figures like Daniel Hannan could do very well in televised debates by bamboozling opponents who had no idea what the flaws in his argument were. A lot of the time, they relied on specific falsehoods or factoids which took a lot of time and effort to refute.

On Brexit specifically, this may have gradually changed. A lot of people have suddenly found themselves finding a lot more out about the issues involved, and learning the contours of this strange 'debate'. People like Ian Dunt, Chris Grey and David Allen Green have large audiences for their work refuting some of the bad arguments made about Brexit. This is perhaps similar to the response from popular science writers who in the '90s and 2000's very publicly made the case for natural selection. But there is a more general problem here with populist movements for liberals and left liberals like myself. They rely on conspiracy theories that are very difficult to refute. And they attack the norms and practices of liberal democracies that are so established that very few people have thought about how to argue in favour of them, at a time when they are weakest. They make bold claims about how the world could be, or how governments could act, that nobody else has thought through. And what used to be a compelling argument, that such propositions just demonstrated a lack of understanding of how the world worked, now seems to be a much weaker one.

Voting for no deal

Most leavers are wrong when they say they voted for no deal. But they aren't necessarily being disingenuous. It is quite possible that many people are being quite sincere when they say that a no deal Brexit was what they always had in mind when they put their cross in the box in 2016.

The first claim, while difficult to prove conclusively, has a decent amount of evidence in its favour. Vote Leave, the official leave campaign, consistently insisted that Brexit would be a relatively smooth process, and that the EU almost certainly agree to arrangements which did not disrupt the flow of trade, having an enormous incentive to do so. While it is difficult to prove the general thrust of a campaign, particularly when many contradictory promises are made, the campaign leaflets are illustrative. They emphasized continuity in trade and cooperation, achieved by an alternative agreement.

Of course, the messages of the campaign itself does not necessarily imply beliefs on the part of the target audience. But polling taken in July 2016 about expectations of Brexit suggest that beliefs were indeed congruent with the campaign message. In this comres poll, 70% of respondents expected some sort of continued single market membership, either unmodified or with some changes on Freedom of Movement. More surprisingly, these expectations were not hugely divided by how people had voted. 61% of leave voters expected the same, with the bulk (54%) expecting single market membership with new rules on Freedom of Movement.                                                                                              \

But this does not in and of itself mean that leavers are being disingenuous if they say that 'no deal' Brexit was in fact what they had in mind when they voted to leave. Research on the psychology of attitude formation suggests that people's memory of past behavior and beliefs is affected by current attitudes. One example of this is an experiment carried out by Michael Ross in 1981. Half the participants were presented with information on dental hygeine, the other were not. They were then then asked how often they had brushed their teeth in the past two weeks. Those who had been given information on dental hygiene were significantly more likely to say they had brushed their teeth more often. While there are problems with this specific experimental set up, similar results have been found in numerous other experiments, particularly when memories relate to attitudes that are value laden.                                                                                                                                                     

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this extends to memory of attitudes and attitudes about the past, when these are in tension with current, more salient attitudes. Think about going for a meal and discovering that your favorite dessert had run out. It wouldn't be too strange to decide that you had never really wanted it in the first place. It's particularly easy to imagine this occurring when what is at stake is your own sense of self, and whether you were duped into false expectations. In the case of Brexit, current attitudes can be a strong part of people’s sense of self.

Finally, the contradictory and impossible nature of the Leave campaign’s promises, and absence of any specific conditional commitments as to the relative importance of leaving or what would be done in what circumstances allows for the selection of certain real past memories which are more consistent with the present reality. You could remember the campaign promise that the mechanisms for maintaining the regulatory framework of the single market would not apply after Brexit, but fail to recall how important you thought this was, relative to other, contradictory promises (continued market access). 

This is important when thinking about how to argue the case against no deal. Arguments which start from the premise that leavers are being disingenuous if they say they voted for no deal are not necessarily true (though some prominent politicians and journalists almost certainly are being disingenuous). In any case, that is unlikely to work well as a persuasion strategy. Prominent political actors who are dishonest should be called out for it. But when addressing the broader base of leave voters, assuming sincerity is the better strategy.