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Showing posts from September, 2020

179. Does ideology have a place in the scientific method?

This article is prompted by confessions, in the context of climate change, of several so called scientists who sided with oil industry efforts to systematically deny, or rather cast doubt, on climate change. Apparently, some of them now understand their positions were based on an aversion to regulation, a fear that government and legislator intervention on climate change would set us off on the slippery slope to communism. Firstly, this denotes a complete misunderstanding of politics, the role of the state in society and the concept of communism, but these might be forgivable in a scientist. But, more seriously, it denotes a complete misunderstanding of what the scientific method and, by extension, being a scientist is. The scientific method demands observation of fact, and the issuing of conclusions strictly on the basis of those facts. Opinion, ideology and intentionality are barred. Facts are objective and measurable, objective logic the only permissible path from them to conclusion

178. Do a little evil to do a greater good?

Last night I rewatched Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Its hero, Ballian, turns down the offer to marry his love, Sybilla, Queen of Jerusalem, and rule the city, made to prevent the warmongering Guy de Lusignan from taking the crown and destroying the precarious peace between Christians and Muslims. The moral Ballian refuses, as his acceptance would mean Guy’s execution, a compromise he will not make, despite Sybilla’s warning: ‘A day will come when you’ll regret not having done a little evil to do a greater good’. As a consequence, thousands die and Jerusalem is lost to Sal’addin. I can equate Ballian’s choice to Biden’s in the current US election, issuing guidance to his campaign not to canvass door to door because of coronavirus. This is morally laudable, but it risks dooming the US to 4 more years of Trump’s rule. Should Biden do a little evil, endorsing door to door canvassing, to assure a victory that would bring much greater good to Americans and the rest of us by extension?

177. Economy or democracy? Do we really have to choose?

The last 25 years have shown a concerning political trend. For most, politics have become about the economy, and not much else. This was first realised (or instrumented) by Reagan and Thatcher, and ultimately enunciated by Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. The trend is logical, we seemed to be entering a post-political period. With the USSR gone, there were no great political questions, or struggles, left. Capitalism was victorious, its politics widely accepted and democracies rose unchallenged. But this is no longer. Populism, fuelled by inequality and social problems, is waging war on democracy. Citizens are asked to choose between GDP and climate, jobs and minority rights, protectionism and international order. Still lulled into a false sense of security, they are, half sleep, choosing economy, when the battleground is on democracy. We are defending income and property when society and liberties are at risk. Wake up or kiss goodbye to democracy and, with it, to your economy

176. The tolerance conundrum, or paradox

Karl Popper, introduced in entry 170, had very topical thoughts on tolerance, informed by living in Austria in the 30s, the time of the Anschluss . ‘Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance to even those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them’ . This warning, issued in the politically dark 30s, is worryingly apt to today’s social and political trends. Tribalism, populism, aggression against the other and refusal of alternative ideas are the order of the day, fuelled by politicians and so called leaders with short term aims and Machiavelli’s ‘ the end justifies the means ’ as their mantra. We would do well to see, in Russia, China, Trump’s US and Brexit Britain the same attitudes to tolerance apparent in Germany, Italy and Spain in the 30s, and to be vigilant. When tolerance dies, democracy follows

175. The sustainability challenge

Sustainability is a big issue for humanity today. Ten years away from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals deadline, we are well behind schedule. Few people talk or write about this more eloquently than Peter Lacy, author of ‘Waste to wealth’ and ‘The circular economy handbook’. You should check out his work. Sustainability is a critically important long term objective, but too long term for most politicians, driven by the extremely short sighted agendas which have the potential of winning them another term. But, alas, we can no longer afford to delay. Time is short and the consequences are grave. It is therefore time to demand greater sustainable efforts from our leaders, not only politicians, but captains of industry and global leading entrepreneurs. Let’s challenge them, through public debate on social media, using our power as citizens, to provide answers to the sustainability question. They have the power to change our outcomes, and we have the right to demand that they do  Leng

174. Education is meant to make a big difference, but it not always does

It is possible of late to draw many parallels between the conduct of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. They are both sketchy in the detail of policies they propose, giving the impression that these have been thought out and developed by someone else, they both show not only no compunction when lying, but practically a pathological need to do so, they both seem happy to go back on recently made commitments and ignore agreements built after strenuous and often precarious negotiations. They seem, in fact, determined to become rogue operators in the international order. What is striking is to realise that they have arrived at this common point by following such different paths and, particularly, different educations. Trump is as proudly ignorant of history and the classics as Boris is enthused, enthralled even, by them, modelling himself on them. This makes not an iota of difference. All that elitist, classical education is wasted in what matters most, which is the behaviour it informs  Leng

173. It is all about the journey, not the destination

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend. He does not want to be another rat on the spinning wheel, working all his life for a salary to be left old, decrepit and with a disappointing pension. He needs to find a way to escape this most common of traps. This dissatisfaction with his lot, he sees as unique and personal, not shared by others. This is fascinating, as most share it. The individualism pervasive to modern Western society and beaten into us from an early age prevents us from seeing our problems as common and from searching for collective solutions. Every individual is trying to individually solve the same problem and thus succeeding only occasionally and only through the failure of others. This is the great success of our system, making social problems appear individual and therefore blinding individuals to collective solutions. The system thus survives unscathed whilst the individuals it is made of, and it should serve, fail in their efforts to change their lot  L

172. Tik Tok and Youtube jokes. Are they funny or depressing?

There is a new video based social media trend. Pranking. A section of users of channels such as Tik Tok and Youtube are intent on growing their following, with the ultimate objective of monetising their media presence (if this language is unintelligible to you, don’t worry, this is normal, it is tech speak designed to find new, industry specific ways to say things that can be perfectly said in normal English). One of their strategies is to publish videos pranking others, designed to elicit easy laughs from voyeuristic, lazy observers amused by seeing others ridiculed in public. Ridiculing others to gain following is not new, this is just the medieval square on modern social media. The pranksters, and their followers, demonstrate that, on average, little progress has been made since the Middle Ages and that the additional education we receive succeeds only at adding a layer of cheap sophistication to the same basic, deplorable instincts that have ballasted humanity through its history 

171. Is media balance a concept misunderstood with dire consequences?

When considering the climate change denial campaign I covered in entry 169, one of the most salient practices of the strategy orchestrated by the oil industry is the use of pseudoscientists, either in the oil industry’s payroll, or ideologically motivated, to plausibly introduce doubt. This practice is enabled, even supported, by the media’s misunderstanding of balance. Editors seem to think balance consists of allowing both sides of an argument to be presented in equal terms, to eliminate bias. This is eminently right when dealing with ideology and opinion, and in these cases the practice should be supported. But it should not extend to dealing with verifiable facts. When those presenting verifiable facts and those fighting them with demonstrable lies and confusion (read Brexit, climate change denial or hydroxicloroquine peddling, for example) are given equal airtime, this is not balanced reporting, but a dereliction of duty by our media and a betrayal of the confidence placed on it 

170. Modern politics and the philosophical concept of truth

The 1930s Vienna School, including its best known member, Karl Popper, concerned itself with the concept of objective truth (he also has very interesting thoughts on tolerance, as relevant today as they were in the 30s, which I will post on separately). Popper comes to mind because of the strategic attack on objective truth orchestrated by many modern governments (UK and US amongst others, such as Russia, China or Brazil, less surprising and disappointing). The strategy is based on continuous repetition of ideas and opinions, which are equated to fact, and on the simultaneous systematic devaluation of actual facts by alternative pseudofacts which are invented to counterweigh them and, when disproven with great effort, replaced immediately by a new alternative. The objective is the exhaustion of the critical mind through volume of statements to disprove, so that objective truth, reachable only by rational elimination of all alternatives, remains elusive to all but most committed critics

169. Climate change denial, offending with impunity

I have read with interest news that Exxon Mobil, API and Koch Industries are being taken to court in Minnesota for misleading the public on climate change. These organisations, amongst others, sought to protect their oil businesses by engaging in a 35 year campaign to sew doubt in public debate about the reality of climate change, following what has been known as the ‘tobacco industry playbook’. The objective is not to state facts proving climate change doesn’t exist, which could be challenged and disproven, but to introduce doubt in the public debate, combined with targeting of specific demographics with bespoke advertising. The practice is immoral, but highly profitable. Even if they ultimately lose an eventual lawsuit, as happened with tobacco, the penalties imposed will be negligible compared with the monies made while engaging in these practices. We need much graver penalties, if they are to be prevented in future, and maybe the largest class action ever, humanity vs oil industry?

168. Venice, the city of small superlatives

I visited Venice a few days ago. It was, because of coronavirus, much emptier than usual. And, as a result, much more enjoyable than usual. Not that I usually do not enjoy it. It is an amazing city. Beautiful, delicate and evocative of a bygone World, a time when the will of a few men, the Dogo and his court, could create the almost unthinkable. Venice doesn’t make sense as a city, it is so precariously squeezed less than a meter above its lagoon, claustrophobically filling every available square inch of every island, traversed by so many canals that the only sensible transport is a boat. And it is its defiance of all logic that makes it completely special, utterly unique, so unlikely to be repeated for its impracticality, and timeless, as its concept does really not belong in the modern World. That alone makes every instant you spend in it exceptional, a moment to be savoured at a different pace. You must visit Venice at least once but, more importantly, you must live it at least once

167. The boring predictability of professionalism

The last couple of weeks I’ve been watching, and enjoying, the Tour de France, a truly unique sporting event, epic in its dimension and in the demands it makes of its competitors. Le Tour is beautiful. Aesthetically, because of the opportunity to see the many breathtaking landscapes it crosses and because of the undulating, graceful movements of the multicolour snake the riders form. Sportingly, because of the incredible strength, sacrifice and courage the cyclists display, day on day. But the extremely professional, controlled set up of the race makes me long for the olden days, when the riders, without support teams, power meters or in-race radios pitted not only their bodies, but also their wits, against each other and the course. When every day, every climb and every bend could spell awe or catastrophe, in a way not possible today, with all the support, the in-race aids and the meticulous planning and preparation. I admire the modern Tour, but I miss the less predictable Tour of ol

166. The refugee question, or rather, lie

Let’s start with a shocking revelation. Europe is not being swarmed by refugees, we are not assailed by incontrollable hordes of unwanted visitors. This is the impression, or rather misapprehension, many Europeans are under. But it is just not true. Refugee numbers are small, tens of thousands in a continent of 500 million people. A drop in the ocean. The numbers are low because the journey is fraught with peril and, sadly, most don’t survive it. The few who do, the lucky ones, are not fortunate enough to grant that moniker. On arrival, they meet the callousness of our wealthy society. We prevent them from working to earn a living and from integrating. We isolate them, concerned by the callout effect the far right warns us of: Welcome them and more will come. But this is no package holiday, it is a nightmarish odyssey fraught with danger in precarious conditions. They come because they have no choice, so welcoming them would change nothing, just make Europe human, or great, again  Leng

165. Broken treaties

This week we have greeted with dismay, at least in my case, UK government indications that they plan to break the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The trouble with international agreements between nations is that they can’t be enforced. Offenders can be challenged at international tribunals, but the tribunal’s authority depends on the offending country recognising its jurisdiction. Thus, international politics are an international treaty scrapyard. However, countries such as UK and US were the ones, to this point, instrumental in the creation of the current international order by upholding its institutions and honouring their agreements. This seems to be changing, and they appear as rogue players that can no longer be trusted, joining Russia and a number of others. If this is the case, the troubling question is whether what is left is sufficient to uphold an international order. If not, it will be back to the law of the strongest, and we would have lost the progress we made in the XX century 

164. What is success and who defines it?

The interview I discussed in Twitteretter 161 got me thinking about success. In today’s society, we are evolving towards equating success with financial reward. Being richer means you are more successful. Money, a basic, blunt instrument we devised to represent the value of goods to allow their exchange, is becoming the tool we use to measure a person’s success. But success is not so simple. By this reductionist simplification, Van Gogh, for example, is hugely successful in death but was completely unsuccessful in life. I would argue that Van Gogh succeeded at creating exceptional works or art, his aim, but society failed at rewarding him justly for such achievement. And this illustrates the danger of oversimplifying, instrumentalising the concept of success. It means only achieving in some fields and certain ways is regarded as success by those who should recognise us and, as a consequence, many fundamental roles in society, such as nursing and teaching, languish forgotten and betraye

163. Does your bank account balance say anything about your IQ?

I’ve lately been making the following joke: ‘The stupidest person in the cemetery is the one with the largest bank balance at death, and the smartest is the one showing a nice, round zero’. But this is not really a joke. It is in fact a pointed statement about money’s purpose and value. It is valuable only because it allows us to exchange goods and services, as we have chosen it as a simple and intuitive proxy for value. Thus, the value of our money is only exercised when we use it (for purchases, investment, tax payment or charity). When we don’t, and it sits on a bank account where we stare in awe at the many zeroes and grin at our name on the Forbes Richest List (other lists available, not that I recommend any), we get no value from it, bar for an empty, twisted satisfaction at most. Money must be deployed in the economy, creating wealth and improving standard of living for all. Anything else is stupid and indicative of a lack of understanding and, by extension, lack of intelligence

162. Eat out to help out

A recently published study by Columbia University seems to demonstrate, statistically, that having visited restaurants is the one activity that correlates to increased coronavirus infection. Those who ate out had a higher chance of becoming infected, whilst other activities had no statistically relevant impact. This is hardly surprising when you watch unmasked waiters breathing over the food that many customers are going to eat in a single evening. A waiter, infectious and asymptomatic for 2 weeks, can easily infect over 300 people. The study is so far being ignored by policy makers, especially in UK, where the government are encouraging citizens to visit restaurants with the ‘ Eat out to help out’ campaign. The message is clear, our contribution as consumers is more important than our survival as humans, at least to those that govern us and who we entrust with our safety. I feel for restaurants but surely masking waiters would not be too high a price to pay for that consumer effort? 

161. I am myself and my circumstances

The quote that titles this entry is one of many acute thoughts by JL Ortega y Gasset, the great XX century Spanish philosopher. I was reminded of it by an interview I just read with Michael J Sandel, the Harvard sociology professor, a current great thinker. Sandel discusses the success culture which pervades modern society. The successful forget that their circumstances have played a great role in that success, they apportion causality disproportionately to own merit. Luck and environment are removed from this revisionist view of biography. Conversely, if success is fruit only of dedication, effort and talent, so must failure be the just harvest of their antagonists. With this simple, reductionist logic, society blames the unsuccessful for their hardship and, in a fell swoop, removes the need for solidarity. This is unjust and dishonest and, if nothing else, the current appeal of populism tells us it is high time for fairness and honesty from the fortunate (I choose the word pointedly)

160. A modern call to arms

The coronavirus lockdown and, specifically, its exit, have highlighted significant differences between European countries. Whilst 90% of office workers in Germany, France or Spain have returned to their desks, only around 50% in UK have. The UK government is pleading with workers to return, to reactivate the economy, reassuring them returning is safe. But, alas, workers are dragging their feet. The issue is not safety but rather the daily, very long, expensive commute in overcrowded public transport or on overly congested roads. The economy has not been working for its workers for a long time. The lockdown made them realise and see an alternative, and they will not give this up easily. The time and financial savings are too significant. The government is having to resort to wartime rhetoric to try to get them back to work. Do it for your country. But 40 years of Tory governments undermining solidarity and fomenting individualism are not good preparation for such a call to arms  Length:

159. The no risk mirage

Modern society is characterised by risk aversion. As our resources increase, so does our ability to imagine potential risks. This represents a danger to our way of life, of which Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist, already warned us in the 80s. The elimination of risk is futile, doomed to failure. But its mere existence as a desire changes the way we live, as individuals and at a social level. We elect authoritarian, populist politicians in the hope that they will, by limiting social freedoms, eliminate risks which are negligible and could therefore be ignored. Individually, we avoid activities or encounters in which we perceive a risk. We stifle the freedom of our children to grow up happy. We diet, we monitor, we stay in, we keep our children on the sofa on a sunny day. We accept abuses of the freedoms of minorities, callousness to refugees and immigrants, to those in need. We choose the certainty of a lesser life to avoid unlikely, if not imaginary, risks which never go fully away 

158. Champions of mobile time wasting

Writing the other day on the beauty of chess got me thinking about the risks of digital technologies to our new generations. It is not unusual for teenagers to rack up screen times of between 3 and 5 hours on their mobile devices, as a consequence of the addictiveness built by design into many of the apps they use. Before smart devices (more on this name later), this time would have been spent on pastimes such as chess, reading books or playing outdoor games, probably in a more haphazard and less dedicated fashion. Just imagine what a cumulative 3 to 5 hours per day of practice of any of these disciplines would create, chess grandmasters, erudite thinkers and elite athletes. We risk swapping those for champions in the dumb use of smart devices, with overdeveloped thumbs and passive brains. This may not be catastrophic to our future as a species, as we over time outsource complex thinking and problem solving to machines, but it does not strike me as an evolutionary step  Length:984 char

157. The debilitating effect of corruption on a society

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed, at many levels of what were perceived to be transparent and honest societies, shocking levels of corruption in the political and civil service system. UK and Spain are examples of this, where massive orders for PPE and other essential supplies have been given to organisations closely connected to the current government, costing the taxpayer huge amounts of money and shutting out bona fide suppliers who are losing the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to develop their business to the benefit of the local economy. Corruption has a high social cost. It impoverishes society, getting taxpayers less value for their money and hurting the prospects of honest businesses, to line a few pockets with fortunes which are, in the main, not spent or invested locally. These practices seem to carry on with the connivance of a large section of the population and, whilst there is no price to pay, they will continue. Citizens hold the key to cleaning their society 

156. The danger of typecasting in the workplace

You may not often feel like a Hollywood star in the workplace, but your career is at the same risk as theirs of the phenomenon called typecasting. From your early working life, the system, through its actors (your employers, other employers who might interview you, etc.), tries to put you in a box. You become an accountant specialised in budgeting, a speciality chemicals sales manager or a business manager for medium size businesses with a manufacturing focus, just as Bela Lugosi became a vampire or Errol Flynn a leotarded hero. This is, most importantly, liable to be very boring for you. It is not intentional, the system does not do it to you on purpose. But it does do it, because most of its actors dislike risk and don’t want to try you out at something completely different. This limits your choices to experiment and try and learn new things. But ultimately, you don’t have to accept typecasting. Instead of Lugosi, you could choose to be Oldman, instead of Flynn, Di Caprio  Length: 99

155. Can WhatsApp and SnapChat be the berths of great ideas?

Great social, political and philosophical ideas used to be brewed at meeting venues where intellectually engaged people would gather regularly to debate and discuss. My father, a philosophy teacher and political activist, used to have one such group, where philosophy, ethics and sociology would be discussed, providing fuel for the books and articles that several members were regularly publishing. Ideas are developed, shaped and tuned by debate and presentation, even hearing yourself present your own thinking to others allows you to further it. These environments are fertile ground on which the Marxist understanding of capitalism, neoliberalism and many philosophical and ethical currents were sowed and harvested. I am missing this custom with our generation, and certainly with millennials, more used to communicating and dialogue via apps. They may exist, and I may just not be aware. If they do not, we will struggle to develop new thinking with a potential to change the society we live i

154. What is education and what is it for?

Education is critically important to the success of society and the wellbeing of its citizens, its ultimate purpose. One concern I have of late is that education, following the Anglo Saxon model, is becoming too utilitarian. Educational institutions promote themselves as educating to cover employers’ needs, preparing pupils for the job market. This, I fear, is a mistake. Education needs to be more, it must develop learning, reasoning and criticising skills and a wide range of concerns and understanding. Firstly, because job market needs are not fixed and, therefore, educating for today is doomed to future failure. But more importantly, because efficacy without the right purpose is dangerous. Our brightest, most educated young people focus their efforts on creating wealth shifting complex financial products or strategies to keep kids glued to their screens longer, rather than on solving major social challenges like climate change, infectious disease, antibiotic resistance or inequality

153. Competition or collaboration. What is the XXI century answer?

Most people’s understanding of business is that it operates as a highly competitive environment, where you keep your cards close to your chest, do not share any secrets and negotiate as hard as you can to win. This may have been true in the last century, but in many cases it no longer holds, most likely because of the arrival of the internet. The technological innovation challenges which hold the keys to the next great sellers, the next blockbusters, are huge (think climate change solutions, atmosphere cleaning, recovery of lost species, curing cancer,…). The internet has made collaboration easy, and it is by far the most effective way to reach these goals as soon as possible. Making your competitors your collaborators reduces risk, as you will take a part of the prize, sharing with them, rather than risking the all or nothing of competition. Thus, traditional businesses with no potential for innovation may be highly competitive but, in technology, the name of the game is collaboration

152. The bystander effect

In 1964 a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was the victim of a murder, in three separate attacks witnessed by thirty-eight different people in a respectable neighbourhood of Queens, NYC. None of them did anything about it, not even calling the police for nearly forty minutes. This event shocked the World and cast dire judgment on human nature. The psychologists Bibb LatanĂ© and John Darley, seeking to explain such apparent callousness, conducted experiments that unearthed what is now called the bystander effect. Nobody did anything because they all knew many of their neighbours would be witnessing the same thing. They all left it to someone else to help, and Kitty died. The same effect explains our current attitude to today’s problems. Global warming, inequality, refugee crisis. We all expect someone else, another country or citizen, whether at a national or individual level, to do something about it. While we do, and we remain passive bystanders, we risk the same outcome that befell Kitty 

151. There is no money left, my friends

The keen observer will have noticed an unexpected, amusing and somewhat shocking phenomenon in the last few days. The plan by the UK conservative party to balance the accounts after the coronavirus economic shock by taxing the rich and corporations. This policy is anathematic to the Tories, who have built their proud electoral record on the opposite, the liberalisation of capital. Their U-turn, the last of many to date and the first of many more to come, is the consequence of a startling fact. There is nowhere else to get money from, no other politically acceptable way to balance the books. The Tories have exploited the working classes to such extent that, on exiting the latest shock, they dare not, despite their fanatically ideologic penchant to do so, tax the rank and file of British society. It is akin to watching the shipwrecked turn to eating each other to survive, when all else fails. We, the no longer targeted, watch in mirthless bemusement as they fall on their neoliberal sword

150. The need for more assertive wise people

There is a Bertrand Russell quote which is as apt for our World today as for the time it was coined. ‘The whole problem with the World is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts’. This is right on the money. It is wise to understand your World view isn’t unique, the facts your opinions have been built on may be subject to challenge and your reasoning may be affected by unconscious biases. Fools and fanatics (the latter are just a subset of the former) are unencumbered by those reservations. In an age when ideas gain exposure without curation, unmediated, this poses a particular risk, as those repeated most quickly and unchallenged have a huge advantage in gaining traction and popularity, entering the public arena whilst the wise reconsider whether it is appropriate to spread others. The wise must get more vocal, risking the occasional mistake. It may be contra natura, but we are fighting a battle of ideas we cannot afford to lose