21 March 2007

"The Trap": fallacies #8 to #12

I have been watching Part 2 of the BBC's The Trap. (Again, a summary of the messages — I hesitate to call them arguments — is available at Blairwatch.) If I had time, I'd love to unpack (and fisk where appropriate) every statement Adam Curtis makes — many are pregnant with absurdities and/or unanalysed assumptions. As I don't have time, I have to confine myself to pointing out what strike me as being a few of the more obvious fallacies.

To those from Part 1:

the Prisoner's Dilemma has been used primarily to reinforce a model of humans as essentially selfish (no it hasn't)

John Nash invented the PD in response to the Cold War (no he didn't)

the PD involves the assumption that opponents are bent on your "destruction" (no it doesn't)

the PD had an important influence on Cold War politics (I know of no evidence for this)

R D Laing was associated with the movement of psychiatry away from subjective self-assessment towards mechanical quantification and treating individuals like robots (no he wasn't)

game theory has been an important factor in making us think of people as selfish individuals (extremely doubtful)

there was a drive to free us from the control of experts (on balance, I'd say there has been, all along, a drive to bring us more under the control of experts)

we can add the following from Part 2:

"Governments were committed to creating freedom of choice in all areas" (I can't see how that applies to the present British government, which has surely added more legal restrictions per annum than any previous peacetime administration).

"Politicians have given away much of their power." (I wish — where's the evidence?)

The Arrow Impossibility Theorem has been used to demonstrate that it is "logically impossible for politicians to express the will of the people" (no it hasn't).

• Curtis talks several times as if there are only two alternatives: (a) market (= selfish) and (b) big government (= public-spirited, at least formerly). Conveniently ignoring the fact that there are plenty of private transactions that happen outside the market system. The whole issue of whether "nice", unselfish actions are more or less likely with state involvement is left unanalysed.

• At one point Curtis elides two completely distinct ideas, in a way which seems ideologically motivated but is actually very revealing once you think about it. He says that free market philosophy undermined "the very ideals of democratic politics and the politicians' belief that they could change the world". Whatever you may think about the desirability of politicians wanting to change the world, I don't see what this has to do with "democratic politics". It is a completely separate and independent issue. It could be argued that the two things are incompatible: democratic politicians shouldn't want to change the world, they should simply want to do what they were voted in to do.

Interestingly, at another point Curtis skips from discussing the "application of markets to public services in the name of freedom" to implying this was expected to mean "freedom for public servants". Very telling, though probably unintentionally so.

On the plus side, there are some themes (e.g. reductionism) drawn on by The Trap which are worth thinking about, although Curtis's explanations of them seem to me seriously misplaced. I will try to comment on this in a subsequent post.

Unintentional humour
Having told us how modern psychiatry has become a bit like The Stepford Wives, i.e. obsessed with changing behavioural symptoms from 'unhappy' to 'well-adjusted', Curtis wheels on John Nash at the end of the programme, now (we are told) cured of his former paranoid schizophrenia (during which he made up all those horrid game theory models). Now, surprise surprise, the 'enlightened' Nash partially renounces his former models, saying they overemphasise self-interest. This makes me wonder: if certain other people, e.g. Richard Dawkins or Germaine Greer, were to be admitted to psychiatric care, what other interesting intellectual conversions might result?

I suppose it demonstrates how starved we poor graduates are these days of programmes with a bit of intellectual meat, that a lot of people seem to be getting rather excited about The Trap. Even I, who find every minute of it grating, have to admit that it's a pretty exceptional programme (by current standards) that makes reference to people such as John Nash, James Buchanan and R D Laing, and actually manages to convey some information about them — albeit in a hopelessly biased way.

There is a more sympathetic discussion of Part 2 at Not Saussure.


Anonymous said...

first two episodes are here:

Paul said...

The Civitas Blog's verdict was rather entertaining (via the delightful HGI).