With Britain obsessed with Brexit, and the USA obsessed with the failure of Russiagate to pin anything on Trump, I sometimes find it surprising that anyone is still interested in climate change. Haven’t you got anything better to argue about at your dinner parties?
The three subjects have in common the absence of intelligent debate and the hysterical and authoritarian attitudes of those defending the “establishment” view. “Trump is guilty, we’re just not sure yet what of;” “a no-deal Brexit is an assault on democracy;” “climate denial is a psychological defect /thought crime.”etc.
We’ve all known crucial political issues in which we were opposed to the majority view, or the establishment view, but surely never three such issues, arising at once, where the prevalent view was so weird, so illogical, so lacking in evidence, and expressed with such dogmatic anger. What’s the connection? Is it something about the times we live in, the media we use, the social habits we develop to defend our psychological wellbeing? Or am I just beginning to realise in my old age that most people are terminally thick?
It’s surely significant that we at Cliscep appear to agree largely on all three subjects. We haven’t done any internal polling, we don’t know each other, and we differ in political outlook. I think that at least three of us are definitely “on the right” and that several of us are “on the left” – at least two on the far left. Obviously, we agree in being opposed to the prevalent establishment view on climate change, but there’s no obvious reason why we should also be as sceptical of the prevalent establishment views about the evil nature of Trump and Brexit, except for the fact that, as climate sceptics, we are already defined as exceptions, freaks, oddballs and pariahs in polite society.
In searching for a common factor I decided to find out more about Brexit, about which I know little (I’ve lived out of the country for 37 years and I keep meaning to take French nationality.) Everywhere I looked on the subject I found the name of Dominic Cummings. I’m probably the only Brit who has never heard of him, but just in case:- he was special advisor to Education Secretary Michael Gove, responsible for the Vote Leave Campaign, and is now Special Advisor to Boris Johnson, where he’s usually described as a kind of Rasputin figure behind the throne. He’s mainly known to the general public because of a TV film about him on Channel 4 (which I haven’t seen), and is frequently the subject of articles in the serious press like this one in the Independent yesterday under the headline; “Some loud bloke who stunk of booze yelling at us”:
Dominic Cummings is facing a growing backlash from all sides… “He despises politicians, presumably despises the process of democratic politics,” one of the rebels said of the adviser.
There follow more insulting quotes, plus the outright lie that he refused to testify before a Select Committee (he agreed to testify, provided that everyone, including the MPs on the Committee, should be under oath) plus the headline anecdote, based on three tweets (one of them deleted.)
Mr Cummings approached Jeremy Corbyn late on Tuesday night and issued a bellowing challenge to accept a general election… “I just bumped into Dominic Cummings, who was clutching a glass of red wine and wandering along the parliamentary press corridor, lost… said a political correspondent for the Guardian on Twitter… “Come on Jeremy, let’s do this election, don’t be scared” the 47-year-old shouted, according to a tweet posted by the political editor of the Sunday Times. The journalist has since deleted his tweet… “As one of several shadow cabinet members stood right next to Jeremy I just thought there was some loud bloke who stunk of booze yelling at us,” said Cat Smith, the Labour MP, on Twitter.
The Guardian, in an article on him two weeks ago, quoted Cummings’ opinion of politicians and journalists:
“The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’.”
which pretty much sums up the content of the Independent article.
The Guardian article is about his blog. It describes him as colourful oddball, full of self-contradictions:
Cummings studied history at Oxford but writes knowingly about subjects from bio-engineering to space exploration. His style oscillates between the academic and the hard-boiled.
and ends up admitting grudgingly that:
To his detractors, Cummings is a monster. To his fans, he is a guru. On the evidence of the blog, he is neither. He is an extreme rationalist, who is prepared to share his ideas in the form of this sprawling work-in-progress. He yearns for a world beyond politics – but does not explain how to square this with the fact that people disagree about things, and that these disagreements are based on different world views, of which his is only one. Nonetheless, his boldness is invigorating. Political thinkers on both sides may reject his conclusions, but they should engage with his thinking.
His blog is more interesting than that. It’s a mess, more disorganised even than Cliscep. And it attracts less comments, which is not surprising, given that his articles are infrequent, long (even longer than mine) rambling and repetitive. On the evidence of his blog, Cummings is the most interesting thinker I’ve come across in years, or at least since Ian Woolley introduced us to Jordan Peterson on this blog.
I said interesting, not necessarily original. He discusses the history and philosophy of science, the origins of computing, game theory, quantum mathematics and the Apollo programme, and quotes Feynman, von Neumann, Gödel and Turing far more often than Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. He is a brilliant populariser of serious ideas, or he would be, if he’d organise his rambling essays and replace links with old fashioned footnotes. I intend to spend the next few weeks exploring his blog, learning about things I never knew I was interested in – and stuff Sky News and the downfall of parliamentary democracy.
Here, he sums up the problem with the educated élite which Ben and I and others have been rabbiting on about for years:
I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields… Why is almost all political analysis and discussion so depressing and fruitless? I think much has to do with the delusions of better educated people. It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery.
Generally the better educated are more prone to irrational political opinions and political hysteria than the worse educated far from power. Why? In the field of political opinion they are more driven by fashion, a gang mentality, and the desire to pose about moral and political questions all of which exacerbate cognitive biases, encourage groupthink, and reduce accuracy…We all fool ourselves but the more educated are particularly overconfident that they are not fooling themselves. They back their gang then fool themselves that they have reached their views by sensible, intelligent, reasoning.
Here he discusses von Neumann’s contribution to economics, quoting his criticism of Kant’s assertion that the human sciences can never have a mathematical base, due to the complexity of human society. He quotes von Neumann:
‘The reason why mathematics has not been more successful in economics must be found elsewhere… To begin with, the economic problems were not formulated clearly and are often stated in such vague terms as to make mathematical treatment a priori appear hopeless because it is quite uncertain what the problems really are. There is no point using exact methods where there is no clarity in the concepts and issues to which they are applied. [Emphasis added] Consequently the initial task is to clarify the knowledge of the matter by further careful descriptive work. But even in those parts of economics where the descriptive problem has been handled more satisfactorily, mathematical tools have seldom been used appropriately. They were either inadequately handled … or they led to mere translations from a literary form of expression into symbols…
‘Next, the empirical background of economic science is definitely inadequate. Our knowledge of the relevant facts of economics is incomparably smaller than that commanded in physics at the time when mathematisation of that subject was achieved. Indeed, the decisive break which came in physics in the seventeenth century … was possible only because of previous developments in astronomy. It was backed by several millennia of systematic, scientific, astronomical observation… Nothing of this sort has occurred in economics.
And from the same article:
In 1987, the Santa Fe Institute … organised a ten day meeting to discuss economics. On one side, they invited leading economists… on the other side, they invited physicists, biologists, and computer scientists, such as Nobel-winning Philip Anderson… When the economists explained their assumptions, Phil Anderson said to them, ‘You guys really believe that?’
One physicist later described the meeting as like visiting Cuba – the cars are all from the 1950’s so on one hand you admire them for keeping them going, but on the other hand they are old technology; similarly the economists were ingeniously using 19thCentury maths and physics on very out-of-date models. The physicists were shocked at how the economists were content with simplifying assumptions that were obviously contradicted by reality, and they were surprised at the way the economists seemed unconcerned about how poor their predictions were.
Ouch. Remind you of anything?
Wandering through his rambling articles, I’ve seen nothing directly concerning climate science so far, although weather forecasting is mentioned with respect to chaos theory, and, in a discussion of management strategies, today’s NASA is severely criticised in comparison to the NASA of the Apollo programme. (Graham Stringer also gets a mention as one of the few MPs who aided the Leave Campaign, whereas other more prominent parliamentary Brexiteers were unwilling to forego their skiing holidays…) But everything he says about the nature of scientific enquiry, the psychology of group behaviour and the problems at the heart of our establishments seems relevant to the discussions we have daily here.
Just dipping into these blog articles, it’s easy to see why he’s hated. The stupid people in politics, the media and the civil service whom he castigates will fight to the death someone who won’t suffer fools gladly. And those who are as intelligent as he is can’t compete with him, because they haven’t read what he’s read, thought about what he’s thought about, worked as hard as he has at finding answers. They lack the wide ranging curiosity, the bloody-minded desire to find out what works, the courage to swim against the tide. And of course, most of them have academic tenure, or guaranteed jobs with the government or large media groups, or maybe a bit of one and then the other, and are not going to listen to some upstart outsider who happens to know what he’s talking about.
I urge you to take a wander through the jungle of his blog and come back here with any insights. Whether your thing is risk analysis, cognitive technology, systems management, or the military strategies of Bismarck and Sun Tze, you won’t be disappointed.
OK, I haven’t really established a connection between Brexit and climate scepticism – rather a parallel movement. The day we find our Cummings, we might start to get somewhere.