23 January 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – part 2

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.


The fact that the combination of the words cultural and Marxism is also found in the context of a conspiracy theory is regrettable, but does not change the fact that there is something deserving of the term ‘cultural Marxism’. Attempts by the Left to rule use of the phrase as taboo should be resisted. Such attempts should be seen as part of a broader programme to block discussion by seeking to control language.
   Using the term ‘Critical Theory’ to describe what is essentially Marxist ideology may have been an acceptable rehabilitation exercise in the 1960s, when it was still possible to ignore the horrors of Marxism as implemented in practice, and at a time when most intellectuals treated Marx as a kind of colossus or demigod, so that the qualifier ‘Marxist’ was practically unnecessary when discussing sociology or political theory. In the twenty-first century, given our knowledge of what happens under communism, continued use of this rebranding amounts to subterfuge.
   It is easy to see, however, why those engaged in ‘Critical Theory’ dislike having their work identified as Marxism. Highlighting the intimate connection between the two weakens their claim to moral superiority, and it is this pretence to moral virtue on which much of their current cultural and ideological power depends.
   It is part of the marketing strategy of cultural Marxism that it claims to have resulted in the empowerment of underprivileged social groups. However, there is little hard evidence of any effect in this area, beyond the observation that cultural Marxism has contributed to the associated debates becoming increasingly heated and polarised.
   One response to Critical Theory which has proved popular, particularly among the Right, is to evade the Marxism issue by diverting critical attention to the phenomenon of ‘postmodernism’. The latter concept is extraordinarily vague – which may help to explain why it has become an attractive scapegoat for commentators from both Left and Right.
   The labelling of cultural Marxism as ‘postmodernism’ derives from reactions to the work of a group of Marxists associated with the Paris Sorbonne – the primary home of cultural Marxism during the sixties and seventies. These Marxists began theorising in an even more ‘philosophical’ and less rule-bound way than their predecessors, and exhibited selective scepticism about some of the dogmas of Marxism, e.g. historical inevitability. We are talking here about individuals such as Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida.
   This group of academic Marxists is now often lumped together with anarchic and self-parodying trends in architecture and art, under the heading ‘postmodern’.
   There are two problems with shifting blame from Marxism to postmodernism. First, doing so means falling into one of the deception-traps of cultural Marxism. The trap involves accepting the theorising and pseudo-scepticism of postmodern Marxists as what it is held out to be, namely philosophising, in the classical sense of exploring possibilities and arriving at the most logically persuasive one; rather than seeing it for what it is. Namely, just another device used in a biased way to produce conclusions Marxists like. As with other branches of cultural Marxism, political collectivism appears to be the background goal and driver, and any conclusions arrived at via abstruse ‘postmodern’ theorising are required to fit with this goal.
   Second, by linking Marxist theorising to the playfulness of postmodern art, such theorising acquires an air of being ‘fun’. Who, after all, could see philosophical playfulness as threatening, other than the most rigid of cultural conservatives?
   It seems best to avoid such tacit legitimising or romanticising. Cultural Marxism, notwithstanding occasional pretend-playfulness, is simply Marxism with a prettier dress. Marxism is no more characterisable as ‘fun’ than Nazism.
   The concept of cultural Marxism, and awareness of the expansion of the realm of cultural-Marxist ideology via the university system, can help us make sense of a number of otherwise puzzling contemporary phenomena. These include the polarisation and intensification of attitudes about gender, race and inequality; the increasing monoculture of highbrow debate; and the gradual elimination of free speech from campus. These phenomena may not seem linked to obvious Marxist tropes, such as dictatorship of the proletariat or abolition of private property, but they can be connected to the cultural/philosophical parts of Marxist ideology without much difficulty.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)

16 January 2024

cultural Marxism’s obsession with Language – part 1

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

In other words, cultural Marxism is those elements of Marxist ideology that deal with cultural or philosophical topics, and which are currently found widely disseminated among the academic humanities, particularly in literature studies and other arts subjects, usually under the misleading label of ‘Critical Theory’.
   Here is an example of cultural Marxism, from literature professor Terry Eagleton’s undergraduate textbook Literary Theory.
... ‘pure’ literary theory is an academic myth: some of the theories we have examined in this book are nowhere more clearly ideological than in their attempts to ignore history and politics altogether ...

It is not the fact that literary theory is political which is objectionable ... what is really objectionable is the nature of its politics ... [Literary theory] assumes, in the main, that at the centre of the world is the contemplative individual self, bowed over its book, striving to gain touch with experience, truth, reality, history or tradition ... It is a view equivalent in the literary sphere to what has been called possessive individualism in the social realm ... it reflects the values of political system which subordinates the sociality of human life to solitary individual enterprise.
Both conceptually, and in terms of academic practice, there is a cultural/philosophical part of Marxism that is distinct from the overtly political part. This more philosophical part includes ideas about the individual, about psychology, about culture and about other related topics. It can appropriately be referred to as ‘cultural Marxism’, to distinguish it from political Marxism.
   In the West, cultural Marxism some time ago acquired an identity and momentum of its own, relatively independent of the oscillating fortunes of political Marxism. It can be – and is being – taught to students without the requirement of thinking in any detail about the associated politics. One needs to bear in mind, however, that since these more cultural elements of Marxist ideology were invented with the political goal in mind, that goal is likely to be embedded in all cultural-Marxist material, even when not immediately visible.
   The history of cultural Marxism goes back to the early days of Marxism following the death of Marx; rather than beginning in the 1950s with the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’ based at Germany’s Institut für Sozialforschung, as some analysts argue. Georgi Plekhanov’s Art and Social Life (1912) and Franz Mehring’s The Lessing Legend (1893) are early examples of cultural Marxism.
   Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism describes Mehring’s ideas as follows:
In his works on literature Mehring generally endeavoured to show that the greatness of a writer was measured by his success in presenting the aspirations and ideals of the class which he historically represented ... He held that no artistic values or tastes were permanent irrespective of history, but that all were relative to social situations.
The above two quotations illustrate one way of interpreting cultural Marxism: the collectivist mindset applied to cultural/philosophical topics. Culture, which might, in the absence of Marxist ideology, be seen as individualistic, is to be reinterpreted as a collective activity that should be subordinated to collective needs and interests. Pure art – art that does not involve politics – is to be regarded not only as unacceptable but as impossible.
   I will consider the idea of ‘collectivism’ – and its popularity with intellectuals – in a later instalment, but we should note straight away that the concept is not equivalent to some kind of pure democracy in which everything is decided by ‘the people’ (that is to say, everyone acting collectively). Collectivism involves massive state control (supposedly in the interests of all citizens), and since the state must operate through authorised agents, it inevitably means – as under Soviet communism – the existence of a large political elite.
   Analogously, cultural collectivism is likely to involve culture being controlled and policed by an intellectual elite.

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (second edition), Blackwell 1996, pp.170-171.
Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism Volume 2, OUP 1978, p.59.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’ (extract from my forthcoming book)
part 7: Language (extract from my forthcoming book)

21 September 2023

Wikipedia and the culture war

• In January 2018 I published a post about the Ethics-and-Empire scandal. This was a shameful episode in the history of academia, centred on the University of Oxford, in which a number of junior and senior academics engaged in a bullying exercise against one of their own, for daring to flout the prevailing taboo against discussing the topics of empire and colonialism other than negatively. I had, and still have, no personal interest in this topic, but I felt that the behaviour of the dons in question was wrong and harmful.
   My post was intended to make the perpetrators of the bullying look bad, and I guess it succeeded in doing so. It can't have been pleasant for the academics to have been exposed and censured in this way, but I do not think bullying of dissidents should be tolerated, and there was nothing underhand in my critique. The academics in question should have taken it on the chin.
   Ten days after my post appeared, two Wikipedia users, acting in apparent collusion, succeeded in getting my Wikipedia article (which had been there for 15 years) nominated for deletion. The timing was so close to that of my blog post that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the vandalism was a revenge attack.
   Rather than demoralising me, the vandalism encouraged me to write a full-length article about the Ethics-and-Empire issue. This generated a significant number of views, and seems to have widened awareness of shenanigans within the humanities well beyond what would have happened if I had not written anything more than the blog post. So the action of the vandals backfired. (The deletion attempt, incidentally, failed.)
   I have no idea who was behind the attack: whether it was some of the academics themselves, or one or more of their minions, or some fanboys/girls of one of the academics, or simply one of the global army of SJWs who believe they are fighting on the same side as intolerant humanities professors.

• As anyone who has been observing political and cultural affairs for the last few years should have noticed by now, there is — in the words of the Home Secretary — a war out there. If you don't observe things with a critical eye, the war can seem invisible, but that is because the media is largely on the side of what has become the culturally dominant team.
   Calling it a culture war captures only half the truth. Physical violence is rarely involved, but the war goes well beyond mere intellectual and moral positioning. People's lives and careers are at stake. Many of those who consider themselves on the 'right' side — and SJW is as good a term as any for them — seem to feel justified in using whatever methods are available, including dirty tricks.
   They like to present themselves as being on the side of the deserving underdog, and the opposition as hostile to underdog groups. Since they control cultural institutions and hence the dominant narratives, this myth has become easy for them to perpetuate.
   In reality, the war is about oppression versus tolerance. Ironic, since it is they who have always claimed to oppose oppression and intolerance (though there is less reference these days to the latter, presumably because their claims to be on the side of tolerance have become hard to sustain). It is they, rather, who are the oppressors, or wanna-be oppressors.
   Every day they no doubt convert hundreds more to their cause, using their control of parts of the education system, particularly in the tertiary sector, to indoctrinate students. Given their apparent dominance, the counter-struggle to maintain openness and tolerance can easily seem doomed. Fortunately, the Brexit and Trump phenomena demonstrated that there are many ordinary people on the side of anti-oppression. Contrary to the wisdom of the il‑liberal elites, those ordinary people are not stupid, or racist, or any of the other slurs SJWs like to throw at them.

• Perhaps I am getting too close again to exposing some of the intellectual frauds at the heart of the academic humanities profession. Last year I began to critically analyse Oxford professor Paul Collier's socialist handbook, The Future of Capitalism (see here, here and here); earlier this year, I highlighted the contradictions of anti-individualists such as Daniel Kahneman.
   This time, the interval between critique and counter-attack has been longer. And rather than attacking my page — which may have been deemed unsuitable as a target since it survived a take-down attempt too recently — they have gone for the page of my colleague Celia Green.
   Via what appears to have been another hostile double act, within a 48-hour period starting on 31 May my colleague's article — which had remained largely stable for over ten years — was first nominated for deletion, and then given a makeover to reassign her to the derogatory category of 'parapsychologist'. The effect of the hostile edits was detraction from what she is best known for: philosophical scepticism, through books such as The Human Evasion, and pioneering research on lucid dreams and false awakenings which helped to put those two phenomena on the map. At the same time, the article on our organisation, Oxford Forum, was also mooted for deletion by one of the double act (by adding a notability tag).
   Oxford Forum is of course a thorn in the flesh of the University, not because we pose any meaningful threat to an organisation hundreds of times larger than ours, but simply because, like most other members of the il-liberal elite with comfortable positions, they find it hard to tolerate serious challenge of any kind.

• Inevitably, Wikipedia is becoming yet another locus for the culture war. The gradual woke‑isation of many of the articles with political themes highlights the weakness of the wiki model, which in other ways seems to have been surprisingly successful. The model works well in uncontroversial areas such as most of the sciences, history and general knowledge. It can be argued there is excess volume in certain areas — whole pages devoted to minor cartoon characters or individual soap opera episodes — but those can be ignored. By and large, Wikipedia has become an incredibly helpful tool.
   However, the wiki model works less well with controversial topics, or with living persons. No meaningful "NPOV" is possible when it comes to issues such as Trump, or alt-right, or cultural Marxism, or communism. It boils down to a battle of numbers: how many Wiki contributors have the skill and energy to spin the article in one direction, versus those who would like to spin it in the other direction.
   Take the article called 'Collectivism'. In 2012 this reflected a reasonable balance between positive and negative. (Here is a link to a saved version of the old article; note particularly the section 'Criticisms'.) By 2021 the article had turned distinctly biased, with collectivism being given a largely positive spin (paraphrasing: "it's so much better than individualism, which is selfish and uncaring!"), and the Criticisms section disappearing. Unfortunately I didn't keep a copy of the 2021 version — I assumed I could come back to it later — because the article has now been removed altogether. What remains is an article on Communitarianism which is almost entirely favourable, and dominated by woke-speak such as the following:
Early communitarians were charged with being, in effect, social conservatives. However, many contemporary communitarians, especially those who define themselves as responsive communitarians, fully realize and often stress that they do not seek to return to traditional communities, with their authoritarian power structure, rigid stratification, and discriminatory practices against minorities and women. Responsive communitarians seek to build communities based on open participation, dialogue, and truly shared values.
Such woke-speak is not exactly false, but hopelessly vague and one-sided, rather like material in a religious manual.

My verdict on Wikipedia:
Do not consult it on any topics to do with political theory; articles in this area are (by now) likely to be unreliable and/or biased. For such topics you are better off with Encyclopedia Britannica. Or supplement with Conservapedia to get a different perspective, for the sake of balance.

21 July 2023

Gender Pay Gap ideology

This is a story about a yoghurt manufacturer. This yoghurt manufacturer makes excellent yoghurt. So much so that the firm now has a dominant market share. Having become hugely successful, the yoghurt manufacturer decided to employ a marketing director. The marketing director announced that, as the company had become dominant, it no longer needed to focus its advertising on product quality, and should switch to virtue signalling. It was decided that this should be done in two main ways, one to do with the environment, the other to do with gender.
   With regard to the environment, it was decided that the company should abandon plastic lids, and leave people to rely on the film covering. This, the company announced, would avoid many tonnes of plastic waste. Instead, people could apply to the company for a reusable lid. However, this required customers first to collect points on their phone by scanning QR codes on the yoghurt tubs. Unfortunately, this scanning technology often failed. Also, for many months the company was out of reusable lids; however, it assured customers that the lids would soon be back in stock, and to "keep checking back on the website!" Meanwhile, supermarkets delivered many lidless tubs of the yoghurt to customers. A significant percentage of these tubs were damaged in transit due to lack of lids, leading to spillage of yoghurt over customers' deliveries, and resulting in much wastage of food. However, those losses were outweighed (from the company's point of view) by its enhanced public image.

With regard to gender, the company smugly announced on its website that it was working hard to reduce its "gender pay gap" (GPG), providing statistics to prove this was indeed the case. Since no target GPG was mentioned, readers were left with the implication that the most desirable level of GPG would be zero, and that this was what the company was aiming at. Readers were also left with the impression that a non-zero GPG was somehow morally wrong.

* * * * *

Treating a gender pay gap as an automatic negative, thus implicitly calling for action to reduce it to zero, is not about making sure that a woman doing the same job as a man is paid the same as the man. It is — in effect — about arranging that women do the same jobs as men. In other words, if there are four company directors, two of them should (it is implicitly demanded) be women. If there are six secretaries, three of them should be men. If there are two cleaners, the gender split should again be 50:50. That seems the more obvious way of eliminating the GPG, by equalising proportions.
   The less obvious way of eliminating the GPG would be to equalise pay between different jobs. If directors, secretaries, cleaners, and other jobs were all paid the same hourly rate, the gender pay gap would disappear, because everybody would receive the same rate of pay.

The idea that the female members of a company’s workforce should, on average, earn exactly the same per hour as the male members rests on a particular theory of gender differences. Namely, that they should not exist.

* * * * *

Let's start by clarifying the terminology. Discussions about whether women have a greater or lower level of X than men, where X is some characteristic such as intelligence or management skill, are befuddled by the fact that talking about differences between populations requires a different approach from talking about differences between individuals. We can say "women have Fallopian tubes, men do not" without much risk of error, but saying "women are shorter than men" is misleading. What is really meant is:

average-height-of-women has a lower value than average-height-of-men.

If you want to abbreviate this, you could write it as:

{women} are shorter than {men}

where curly brackets round the word "women" indicates that what is meant is "the average woman" or "the population of women, considered in terms of its statistical properties". Note that although {women} are shorter than {men}, there are many women who are taller than the average man.

The red (green) bell curve shows the distribution of men's (women's) height.
The shaded area represents women who are taller than the average man.

We could easily pick a group of tall women (call them T-women) and a group of short men (S-men) where we could say:

T-women are taller than S-men

without risk of being misleading, since every single T-woman would be taller than every single S-man. Similarly, we could easily pick a group of women ("alpha-women") and a group of men ("beta-men") where it would be fine to say "alpha-women are cleverer than beta-men" (meaning every alpha-woman is cleverer than every beta-man) — just as easily as it would be to do it the other way round, and find two groups where we could say, "alpha-men are cleverer than beta-women".

* * * * *

Having got that out of the way, the question arises:

Are {women} the same as {men}?

In other words: we know that men are different from one another, and that populations of them normally exhibit bell curves for any given characteristic (height, intelligence, artistic skill etc). Do {women} have exactly the same bell curve as {men} for every single characteristic? Or, to rephrase that, to exclude physical differences such as strength or height:

Do {women} have exactly the same bell curve as {men} for every innate characteristic relevant to white-collar jobs?

Prima facie, this is highly unlikely. Take any two populations that have been selected by two different criteria, and the chances that the two populations have identical averages on every one of a group of measures is extremely small. The probability of exact equality on a single measure is already very small — though if you sampled data often enough, equality of a single measure might happen occasionally by chance, especially if you have to allow for errors in measurement.

* * * * *

How then can it make sense to aim at zero GPG? We know that childcare (still) makes a difference to what women currently choose to do job-wise, so that is one reason we would not expect to see perfect equality between the jobs that {women} and {men} do. Even if we allow that some of what happens is not due to innate differences, but the result of cultural factors, so that in theory things could be different, the assumption that:

innately, {women} and {men} are identical in terms of all preferences and talents

is without empirical support, and a priori highly implausible.
   Of course, that doesn't imply {women} are less intelligent [or: insert other required employee property] than {men}. Depending on how you define intelligence, for example, it could well be that {women} are more intelligent than {men}. The chances that {women} are exactly as 'intelligent' as {men}, however, can safely be taken to be negligible.

The requirement for UK firms with more than 250 employees to calculate and publish their gender pay gap data came into force in 2018. The legislation was invented by Labour but its implementation was resisted by the Conservatives for some years, until David Cameron's pledge in 2015 — to "end the gender pay gap within a generation" — triggered its go-ahead via the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act.
   Employers do not have a legal duty to take action to reduce the gap. However, the requirement to publish their figures is clearly intended to put pressure on firms to find ways to make the gap disappear — regardless of whether it's efficient for them to do so.

16 May 2023

subcontracted ‘caring’

• How does one improve society? Simple: find an individual who needs something but is unable to get it, and give up some of your own resources to help him or her get the thing they need.*
   Since you've chosen your altruistic action, rather than having it forced on you, you will hopefully feel better — at least on some level — as a result of carrying it out. Hence you're better off overall, as well as the other person. It's win-win.
   As with other voluntary transactions between two individuals, both parties benefit, and so 'society' (meaning: everyone in a society, considered in aggregate) can be said to be better off than before.
   Important caveat: make sure no one else is worse off as a result of your help. Example: helping someone build an outhouse in her garden which will accommodate her grandfather is good for her, and good for him — and good for you, if it makes you feel pleasantly virtuous — but not good for the neighbours if it spoils their view. Once you have to weigh pluses for some people against minuses for others, the goal of 'improving society' ceases to be a simple one, and becomes difficult or impossible.

• One benefit of capitalism is that it can make it easier to provide such help by simply giving an individual money. If markets are sufficiently developed, a better way for the individual to get what they need may be by purchasing it, using money provided by the donor, rather than the donor trying to provide the help directly.

• Is there any way of doing such uncontroversial improving-of-society on a larger scale? You can try to encourage others to follow your example, of providing help on an individual-to-individual basis. Or you could get together with others to provide help to particular individuals. (If your group tries to make assistance available to everyone, it may find itself swamped with excess demand — unless the service is one only required in emergencies, such as sea rescue.)
   There are overseas charities that try to operate on this principle, getting volunteers to give hands-on help in villages, with basic things such as building wells.
   You can try to get other individuals to fund your group's society-improving activities — not the state, however, since that would involve involuntary funding by individuals, via taxation.

• This simple at-least-one-person-is-better-off-and-no-one-is-worse-off formula provides a basic model for interpreting — objectively — the idea of 'social improvement'. Beyond that, we are in the territory of subjectivity. There is no way of objectively adding gains for some to losses for others, in order to determine whether a change produces a net positive increment for 'society'.

• The above types of action are not, however, what most people mean when they think or talk about 'improving society'. What is meant tends to be one of two things.
1. Demanding that the state engage in some activity ostensibly intended to improve the position of the less fortunate, or demanding an increase in the level of an existing activity of this kind. Implicit in such calls for state action — though rarely expressed — is a demand that taxation be increased to finance the activity. In other words, this version of 'social improvement' involves the coercive removal of resources from individual citizens, for the supposed benefit of a subgroup of citizens. The target subgroup may constitute anything from a tiny minority to the majority of the population.
2. The second kind of 'improvement' that gets discussed is one which more blatantly involves removal of resources from one group in society, in order to reduce economic inequality. Such reduction of inequality is supposedly a good thing in its own right. Action of this kind on the part of the state is often described as redistribution, the implication being that it involves taking from some and giving to others, à la Robin Hood. This is misleading since most of the time, nothing is given to individuals in the way of spendable resources as a result of such 'redistribution'.
   What additionally confiscated funds are typically spent on (if it's anything beyond financing the deficits from programmes already committed to) are state-supplied services. Such services are ones for which (a) an individual normally has to demonstrate entitlement, often laboriously, (b) the content is determined by the preferences of service providers, rather than by users.

• There are of course many different ways of arguing in favour of any given policy, including policies of type (1) and (2) above. One can vaguely talk about "making things better", or "making things fairer". Or one could simply say "a lot of people want this", and have the issue put to a vote via an election. It's clear, however, why such concepts as "social improvement", or "increasing social welfare" are relatively attractive. They sound scientific. If a politician wants to look like he has the backing of expert opinion, he is more likely to want to talk about "society" or "social welfare" — because it generates an (erroneous) impression of objectivity — than about something that seems more nebulous or populist like "the good of the nation".

• In the nineteenth century, when social theorising first became all the rage, the issue for many intellectuals was merely one of which candidate system would generate the solution of universal human happiness. Should we have communism or anarchism? Voluntaryism or syndicalism? Given the horrors of the twentieth century, we should by now have grown up, and moved beyond the idea of a single answer that can magically make things marvellous for all. No social formula, when applied, is going to make everyone in a society feel better than before. Any given policy is going to be good for some and bad for others. To press ahead with a policy means, in effect, to write off the concerns of those who disagree. It's inevitable in government. No amount of analysis, science, or emphasis on spurious 'rationality' is going to get round this basic problem of politics. Pretending there is an objective solution to the conundrum, and a way of prioritising some policies as more 'rational' than others, or of regarding some voters' interests as more valid than others', is merely an invitation to authoritarianism.

• Notwithstanding these considerations, an ideology has developed in the West according to which 'improving society' is not only an admired but, increasingly, a required objective. There is now moral pressure to conform to the social improvement goal. Leaving things be and not doing anything (where doing typically means some new state action) is not regarded as an acceptable option, at least not among most bien pensants. If you're not seeking to improve society you should be, the ideology says. It's called caring (and failing to do so not caring), except that you typically express your 'caring' by contracting it out to the state, both in terms of providing the supposed help, and in terms of funding it via enforced subscription from taxpayers.
   Given that these versions of 'social improvement' and 'caring' involve people being coerced, it's not clear whether those who seek social improvement should be regarded with admiration or suspicion.
   An individual may of course feel strongly that something should be done in some area, e.g. climate change, the position of women, freedom of speech. Other individuals — and that includes me — may agree with some of the changes that are urgently proposed. To demand change, whether on behalf of oneself, or on behalf of a group one doesn't belong to, is legitimate. What is questionable is the claim that the change will "make society better".

Take-home message. The concept of a policy improving society is, strictly, illegitimate. (Unless the policy is one to which, implausibly, every individual in the society assents.) As a scientist or an academic, one should avoid making use of the concept, either explicitly or implicitly.
   For a non-professional campaigner, it may be acceptable to talk about improving society — for the reason that he or she may be asked to justify their advocacy in such terms by others. I.e. "will your proposed change improve society?", to which it seems fair enough to respond "yes" rather than "possibly", "no", or "don't know". Provided the response doesn't come labelled as 'expert' or otherwise authorised, the questioner is free to take it or leave it — in contrast to a professional context, where there is an implication that one should accept the response as authoritative.
   I leave it as an exercise for readers to consider which of these two categories should apply to a politician. Is it ethical for politicians to talk about improving society, given the dodginess of the concept? If we think of them as merely campaigners for a particular position which reflects either voter demand or their own opinion, then it may be acceptable. If, on the other hand, as is increasingly common, a politician talks as if his proposals are somehow linked to scientific or other expertise coming out of academia, there is a case that he should make every effort to avoid invoking concepts such as 'social improvement' or 'social welfare'.

* Okay, so perhaps it's not as simple as I've made it sound. But the ways in which it's complicated don't disappear when you start thinking in terms of groups or classes rather than individuals — though they apparently become easier to ignore.

16 March 2023

hyper-rationalists and their biases

• There is a category of person who believes the world would be improved if people could be made to act more rationally. Let us call such persons 'hyperrationalists'. (The prefix hyper- is not intended as pejorative.) Clearly there are many economists and psychologists working in, or associated with, the field of cognitive bias who fall into this category. The problem hyperrationalists need to deal with, but tend to avoid, is: what exactly is rational, and what is irrational? How does one (scientifically) define a 'good' or a 'better' decision, versus a 'bad' or 'worse' one?

• Hyperrationalists need to tread carefully when publicising their conclusions, especially when these come labelled as being 'expert' or 'scientific'. The insistence that some things are indisputably correct and others are not, and the ability of some group to claim authority in this matter, is one of the ingredients of totalitarianism. On a less extreme level, the belief that one is part of a group which has acquired the wisdom to see through illusions can lead to a kind of lazy arrogance. 'Oh yes, we know all about that point of view, we can safely dismiss it.' Or: 'Applying the nudge strategy is fine, because we have worked out what is in your best interests – and you don't even need to know about it!'

• Hyperrationalism is part of the post-Enlightenment programme that believes humans can be improved; and that humans can use logic, rationality, critique and science to make better decisions, improve their own lives, and improve society. But many of the assumptions of this programme have been tested and found wanting. Science and technology don't invariably improve people's lives, at least not without costs that are often not apparent initially. The belief that societies can be improved, or made perfect, has ironically led to human suffering on an appalling scale.
   The basic problem, which a long line of rationalists — culminating in the hyperrationalists — have tended to ignore, is three-fold:
(1) How do we define 'better'?
(2) Is 'improvement' going to be undertaken by individuals, or collectively? If collectively, which individuals will be making the decisions about 'improvement' on behalf of everyone else?
(3) How are differing ideas of what is 'better' to be reconciled?
Ignoring these issues leads to a kind of casual authoritarianism, where potential doubts and disagreements are dismissed or ignored, and the 'correct' answer is simply imposed on others, with or without their consent.

• As a result of the biases/irrationality research programme initiated by behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman (and before him Richard Thaler), and the subsequent pop-economics bandwagon (involving such books as Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational), there is now a general presumption that it has been proven that people are irrational. This is far from being the case. Yet the presumption — now habitually treated as a truism — has passed into popular intellectual mythology.
   Take an article published 2016 in online magazine Quanta, and republished by Pocket last year. Entitled 'The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions', with the subheading 'Irrationality may be a consequence of the brain's ravenous energy needs', the article simply takes it for granted that humans are irrational, the only thing remaining being to investigate when and why.
   To illustrate its thesis, the article cites research by Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University. Glimcher and his colleagues "asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite — say, a Snickers." If offered a small number of competing candy bars along with a Snickers, participants would always choose the Snickers.
But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers [... However, when the experimenter removed all the candy bars] except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn't chosen their favorite.
The results are interesting, and perhaps tell us something about human cognition and decision-making. But like all experiments of this kind they cannot tell us anything about 'irrationality', because there is no objective way of defining it.

• In the case of the NYU experiment, as in many others cited by behavioural economists, 'irrationality' or 'bad decision' is defined in terms of a person's subsequent remorse, or his/her wish to give a different answer after the event. Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational is peppered with examples of this kind. E.g. in the evening you make a decision about how much to drink, and the next morning you say that you definitely chose wrong. Then the next evening you repeat the whole cycle — possibly leading others (and/or yourself) to label you a fool.
   In an everyday context, there is nothing controversial about another person commenting, 'you are not acting in your best interests', or 'you are not giving sufficient weight to how you will feel in the morning', or even 'in the morning you are rational but in the evening you are irrational'. As someone being rigorously scientific one cannot make judgments of this kind, and one is not entitled to conclude anything about irrationality, or supoptimal decisions, from the data. The subject may have a good reason for recurrent heavy drinking, which he himself may not even be aware of. Even if he is aware of it he may not tell you, if he doesn't expect it to pass the reasonableness criterion of the average outside observer — let alone that of a scientific investigator.
   The phenomenon of subjects wishing they had made different decisions may tell you something about human psychology, but it cannot tell you anything about human rationality, unless you first assert norms of rationality which have no particular scientific basis. E.g. you impose the requirement that 'for a choice to be rational, one must not express regret about it later'; or: 'for a choice to be rational, it must depend only on material end results and not on the way the options are presented'.
   Of course our drinker may decide to mend his ways, and may do so by deciding his abstaining self is his more rational self. Impartial observers may opine that he has improved his life, by making better choices. What one cannot do is to assert that any of these perspectives is more rational than the one where it seems right for him to go on drinking, and to claim this assertion has scientific backing.

• Identifying one cognitive bias may be useful, as a way of expanding knowledge of psychology — though whether this knowledge can be used to 'improve' anything is a far less straightforward question than many hyperrationalists seem to assume. Collecting together several cognitive biases, and basing a grand theory on your collection, risks generating a bias of your own, given that the individual biases — and your collection — are unlikely to have been selected randomly.
   Daniel Kahneman is happy to let the biases he selects in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow lead him to the conclusion that others should, in general, be more involved in a person's decision-making. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that rigorous respect for individual autonomy is "not tenable":*
[...] a theory that ignores what actually happens in people's lives and focuses exclusively on what they think about their life is not tenable [...]
However, the biases he chooses to include — or that have previously been picked for experimental investigation, by himself and others — mostly tend towards one particular implication. There are other biases, however, which do not. So far in my reading of his book I have not come across any mention of social biases — biases that arise when people make decisions or judgments in groups, such as the bandwagon effect. It's clear that emphasising such biases would undermine the policy conclusions Kahneman seeks to draw from his data.

* In a book seeking to lecture readers about objectivity and rationality, Professor Kahneman should perhaps have avoided the phrase "not tenable", which sounds like it means "logically inconsistent and hence necessarily false" but in this case merely reflects a subjective reasonableness standard, set by him and others with the same outlook.

• Human psychology is complex. By focusing on findings of a particular kind, it's easy to generate a biased picture. There are experiments purporting to show that, in certain contexts, individuals express overconfidence about their own (erroneous) judgments, and these experiments form part of Kahneman's narrative. But this is only one side of the story. In other contexts, individuals appear unduly willing to devalue their own judgments in favour of those of another person, if that person receives reinforcement either from numbers ('there's more of them than of me') or from some accreditation that supposedly makes him more knowledgeable or otherwise authoritative ('he is a someone, I am a nobody'). The Milgram experiments, where individuals obey an instruction to administer electric shocks in spite of their own misgivings, provide a classic illustration of the latter phenomenon.
   In other words, people may be just as likely to have too little faith in their intuitive judgments (e.g. 'I felt it was wrong to give painful electric shocks to the experimental subject but the scientist from the university told me to go ahead') as too much (e.g. 'I'm certain I remember correctly what happened at the accident'). Highlighting one type of bias at the expense of another in a popular book gives readers – well, a biased perspective.

• The pop-economics bandwagon re bias/rationality can itself be seen as a grand experiment about bias, with the following hypotheses being tested.
Is it possible for the author of a popular economics or psychology book to:
— exploit an emotional bias in readers (call it 'insecurity') in favour of believing they are poorer at making judgments than they thought, and that they would be better off deferring to others, at least in some areas where they previously did not?
— invoke the image of science (experts, experiments, peer-reviewed journals etc.) to create a framing effect, in which people become less critical about what they are reading?
— present information in a way that manipulates readers, so that they believe adequate evidence has been adduced to support a radical thesis, when in fact it has not?
   The reception given to books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow and Predictably Irrational suggests the answer to all three questions is: yes.

Quotation by Daniel Kahneman is from Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus & Giroux 2011, p.410.

30 January 2023

de Tocqueville: enervation & stupefaction

When Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of his Democracy in America in 1840, democracy was still in its infancy. Some of de Tocqueville's fears and predictions about what it might lead to now seem misplaced. The following extract however still strikes a chord.
Above [the multitude in a democracy] stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. [...] For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances — what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. [...]

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform [...] The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. *
It's not known whether Nietzsche read Democracy in America, but his reflections on the 'Last Man', written four decades later, sound a similar note.
Alas! There cometh the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There cometh the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself.
Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN.
"What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?" — so asketh the last man and blinketh.
The earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground-flea; the last man liveth longest.
"We have discovered happiness" — say the last men, and blink thereby. [...]
No shepherd, and one herd! Every one wanteth the same; every one is equal: he who hath other sentiments goeth voluntarily into the madhouse.
"Formerly all the world was insane," — say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby. They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery.

(from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, transl. Thomas Common)
While Nietzsche's version seems more poetic, and perhaps more profound, de Tocqueville's is the more politically astute. Unlike Nietzsche, who talks of "no shepherd", de Tocqueville recognises that a society in which passivity, compliance, and homogeneity have become norms provides enormous scope for some to have power over others.

* Part 4, Chapter 6, transl. Henry Reeve. Via George H. Smith & Marilyn Moore, Individualism.

08 November 2022

Kahneman: pseudoscience on a grander scale

• I thought it would be interesting to alternate our reading of Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism with a book by another highly decorated economist: Daniel Kahneman. Professor Kahneman is a well-known name among economics students. Research carried out by him and Amos Tversky in the 1970s highlighted some of the limitations of conventional economic analysis, by showing that choices made by the average person often fail to conform to what economic theory predicts. But in Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow, this awareness of theoretical limitations is inverted, and spun into a grand narrative about human rationality.
   The work has become hugely popular with intellectuals. "Daniel Kahneman has done us a great service" is a typical comment by a reviewer working in the humanities. Why has the book struck such a chord with intellectuals? Various explanations are possible, including that proposed by another reviewer, claiming that Kahneman is on a par with greats like Freud in advancing understanding of human psychology.
   I suspect one of the principal reasons the book has proved popular is its central thesis, according to which research shows that humans are irrational. Why does this thesis appeal to intellectuals? Because it provides ammunition for the interventionist-paternalist programme, which tacitly assumes that intellectuals should rule society (in the sense of controlling, among other things, education, medicine and cultural output — supposedly in everyone's best interests) rather than leaving things to the decisions of individuals and the markets.
   It's ironic that, having carried out research which usefully demonstrated that some of the assumptions of economic theory about how humans behave were plain wrong, Kahneman’s book assumes another theoretical model of rationality, and in effect says that where theory and practice differ with regard to behaviour, it is practice which is wrong!

• The issue hinges on the concept of rationality, and whether it is possible to define it objectively. The short answer is: no, it's not. There is no behaviour, or belief, about which it is possible to assert irrefutably "this is irrational".
   Take for example a textbook illustration from economics: you are bargaining with a buyer, who could be an employer, for the sale of an object or your own labour, and the buyer offers a choice between you getting £1000 and £1100, all other things being equal. Some would argue that you are definitely irrational if you strongly prefer the £1000 option — after all, you could (they would say) dispose of the extra £100 easily enough. But you may well have reasons for making that choice which cannot simply be dismissed. You may not even be aware of what the reasons are, but it would be impossible to disprove the proposition that ultimately, in some sense, this choice is in your interests. (All sorts of effects could be present here to complicate the picture but being left out of the equation; some of them known about, such as reputational effects; others not known about.)
   Or take a belief in something supernatural, for which (a sceptic would say) there is no good evidence. How about belief in the existence of God? Richard Dawkins has argued this belief is irrational, but that would make a lot of clever people from history irrational. In any case, the concept of God is too ill-defined to say what would constitute evidence. How conclusive would the evidence have to be? The evidence for global warming, or the carcinogenicity of tobacco, is strong, but not completely conclusive. At what level of evidence does a belief stop being irrational, and start to be rational?
   The point is: the question of what is rational is ultimately subjective. Kahneman, and the psychologists he cites, may have done experiments which comply rigorously with scientific standards and which generate interesting results, but such experiments are — and arguably always will be — incapable of yielding the sorts of conclusion that Kahneman draws.
   Conclusions such as the following; Kahneman is here referring to an experiment in which subjects are asked to express a preference between two types of experience involving mild pain (my italics):
An objective observer making the choice [on behalf of an individual] would undoubtedly choose [differently from the individual].

... The choices that people made on their own behalf are fairly described as mistakes.
Again, there's an irony in the fact that Kahneman at other points in the book criticises evaluations made on a gut basis, in ignorance of reality being more complex, yet is here guilty of the same thing. He appears to think we can obviously dismiss some judgments as being irrational or inadequately thought out, and that some preferences are just wrong. "This person says she prefers strawberry jam because it leaves a nice aftertaste, but she ought to prefer blueberry jam because it is more satisfying while it is being consumed" is a statement Kahneman does not make — but it's analogous to some of the things he does say.

• Some beliefs or preferences may strike a high percentage of ordinary people as bizarre or unjustifiable. Others may strike an even higher percentage of intellectuals as ridiculous. No doubt some intellectuals would like to have conclusive scientific support for rejecting certain beliefs or preferences. Attempts to use science to justify the decisive rejection of one preference over another, however, inevitably involve the abuse of science.
   I don't wish to de-legitimise the concept of 'irrational' as used in an everyday context, but we have to recognise that judgments about rationality are judgments, not scientific findings, and are ultimately not capable of being given irrefutable justification.
   Whether something is true or not may seem simple in some cases (is London the capital of the UK or not?) but most questions do not have easy yes-or-no answers, meaning there is little conclusive basis for assigning irrationality to one answer rather than another.
   With regard to preferences, there is certainly no adequate justification for intruding on individual choices to argue: your preference for A is wrong, our data shows you should be preferring B [*said in severe tone, by figure in lab coat carrying clipboard*]. Believing such intrusions are justified by science is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

• In the next instalment we'll take a look at the experiments on which Kahneman bases his conclusions.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011. Quotes are from p.409.