In the UK, you know you’re working class if you own one of these…
Indeed, the guilty secret of psychology and of behavioral economics is that their experiments and surveys are conducted almost entirely with people from Western, industrialized countries, mostly of college age, and very often students of psychology at colleges in the United States. This is particularly unfortunate for evolutionary psychologists, who are trying to find universal features of our species.
Anthony Gottleib, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (via noideasbut)
Hardly a secret, but always worth remembering!
Predictions of perpetual peace are the highlight of any history of hubris. Chamberlain is classic and quotable. The various Paxes (from Austrialana in New Guinea to Romana in Europe) are inevitably followed by a decline and fall. Francis Fukuyama famously prophesized the end of history and the triumph of a pacific liberalism – only for his tower to topple with the return of ideological violence in the form of 9/11.
Steven Pinker, however, is clever than that. The Harvard professor – psycholinguist by training, public intellectual by trade – is careful to avoid playing the futurist. The Better Angels Of Our Nature finds it surprises in the past instead, with Pinker working hard to prove to us that violence has in fact declined, using some three score graphs and hundreds of pages of analysis. Marshalling together the datasets of obscure criminologists and military historians, he ably demonstrates that homicide rates, battle casualty rates, execution rates, abuse rates and hate crime rates have all fallen over the last millennium.
Pinker believes we have been conditioned to believe that these are indeed the worst of times – school history consists of little more than World War Two and the Holocaust; TV shows like Law & Order meet rapists and serial killers every week; and the news media obsesses over civil wars and psychopaths. But was the 20th century really the most violent in history? The absolute figures speak of 50 million deaths in WW2, including six million victims of Nazi genocide. Nonetheless for Pinker – a secular Jew – this body count is too simplistic an analysis. The numbers may horrify but what do they really say about how violent the century was?
The thesis of the book depends on using proportions rather than plain figures. For instance, archaeology and anthropology have revealed that pre-state societies often kill up to 15% of their people in war, while the figure for the entire 20th century is just 3%! The decline is very real: for homicide, we have up to 300 deaths per 100,000 in pastoral tribes, then 50 per 100,000 in medieval England, and 8 per 100,000 for the planet today, which to falls to just 1 per 100,000 in Europe. By using rates instead of absolute numbers we get a nice figure for how likely it is a particular person will die a violent death in a given society.
Yet from a God’s eye perspective six million deaths is clearly worse than six. It seems crass and offensive, for example, to suggest the Holocaust is a lesser tragedy than a raid in New Guinea. But compare six million murders in a population of one billion to six in a population of a hundred. From my perspective, I’m ten times as likely to die in the second society – I’d have a better chance of surviving the genocide than the raid!
I expect a full Tumblr dissertation on Marx’s critique of Adam Smith
I had started reading Wealth of Nations like a month ago, but the book was too heavy and the library return date was in 3 weeks and it was on hold by 10239847129384 other people.
Adam Smith didn’t seem like the uber capitalist libertarian guy that libertarians make him out to be.
Smith is actually quite interesting. He had a much healthier view of the market than modern American libertarians. (Who I doubt are even capable of reading the Wealth of Nations.)
Plus, as its title suggests, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” is more an examination than a proposition. Smith had good analysis about the benefits and downfalls of metal-based currency, and a pretty good explanation for the wealth disparity of his time. (Risk is what drives the economy.) Of course, that explanation holds zero water for the modern economy, where the modern capitalist never takes any real risk.
I read this a couple of years. It’s actually a rollicking good read, especially if you’re interested in British economic history. He provides all these lovely examples and anecdotes of what idiot merchants in London were up to. (i.e. making monopolies)
Jared Diamond’s diagram answering the biggest question in history - why the West won.
The most profound insight modern psychology offers us is the impossibility of true equality of opportunity.
Imagine we take one thousand babies born today and we take them to a school-orphanage on an isolated island. We raise them all exactly alike, we give them all the same help and chances, we have them do all the same work, we have them supervised night and day to make sure everything is fair. We spend eighteen years giving them equality of opportunity.
Then on their eighteenth birthday we test them on everything they have all learnt. This is their first exam ever and we organize it such that they all sit the test in the same environment, at the same time, and with the same quality and quantity of preparation with their teachers. They come out of the exam nervous because today is the last time in their lives they will all be equal.
When the test results come out, to our chagrin, they are not all equal. But, we protest, the children were nurtured equally and identically! How can this be! In fact we are surprised to see that the test results plot a bell curve:
Most of the students get middling marks, a few fail miserably and a few pass with flying colours. We are astonished. Yet there seems to be little correlation between the babies’ race, or parental wealth, or parental religion, or parental occupation and their test scores. They all got educated and grew up in the same environment, we made sure of that, with equal opportunities. What then accounts for the variation?
We plot the students height on a graph too. It also makes a bell curve.
Yet we protest. They were all fed the same meals, given the same food, the same chances to do sport and work out, they all got the same opportunities. Yet most kids are of middling height, a few are short and a few are tall. Just like most test scores were middling, a few were crap and a few were Nobel-prize winning. Yet the kids were all equal.
Then it hits us. There is natural variation in all populations, in height, in attractiveness, in intelligence. Even if we feed kids the same food and the same information, there will still be variation in their height and their test scores, because it is innate.
And then we mourn, for our experiment has failed. We tried to make the kids equal. We gave them equality of opportunity. And now as they send their test scores into UCAS, and some get into Oxbridge and others end up in McDonalds, we think, what was the point?
Twenty years down the line, these children have married and had their own kids. But these kids don’t have equal opportunities, some are the children of top lawyers and go to Eton; some care for their drink-addled parents and don’t even get to school.
The point of this story is that if we could take 1000 children and given them perfect equality of opportunity in their ‘nurture,’ we wouldn’t create equal children, we would simply allow the genetic variation and inequality of talents existent in all populations to assert itself without being obscured by any kind of social inequality in upbringing. Yet once these 1000 children attained adulthood and entered the real world, the cleverest and most beautiful children would go onto to become rich and successful. These cleverest children would go onto have children of their own who would inherit that cleverness, but who would also benefit from the advantageous upbringing allowed by a parent with a big salary. The least intelligent children would have below-average kids themselves, who would be disadvantaged and have fewer chances than the kids of the cleverer people. Inequality would widen, and keep on widening down the generations, in spite of the fact our experiment gave the original set of 1000 kids equality of opportunity.
In a free society, natural variation will inevitably lead social inequality. This can be assuaged by universal education and the welfare state. However the only way to truly eliminate social inequality is to take all babies at birth in every generation and turn the world into a massive version of our experiment. This way at least we would give everyone the equality of opportunity to exercise their natural talents, even those these themselves will vary and be unequal.
True equality is impossible unless we genetically engineer humans to be all exactly the same. True equality of opportunity is only available if we force every parent to give up their newborn babies to a giant version of our experiment. We can strive to give everyone the best chance to utilize their natural talents, however we can never get away from the fact that as happened in our story, natural variation is the ultimate cause of social inequality.
We had a talk from a Jesuit priest in school today. He seemed like a guy who had led an interesting life, working in India etc, and engaged in a bit of banker bashing, which is always fun. There was one thing he said that irked me, however. He talked about leadership, classifying leadership into three different ‘forces’ by virtue of the goal or product of that form of leadership:
Politics … Power
Economics/Banking … Wealth
Religion … Redemption
I accept that political leadership tends to be motivated by the desire for power - not always a bad thing, Martin Luther King wanted the power to change the status of black people in America, even most career-politicians want power in order to achieve their aims, whether they be conservative, or social-democratic. Power for its own sake, or power such that history remembers you is, I think, a very special kind of motivation, which drives only very special leaders, such as Napoleon. Although even Tony Blair seemed to want power in order to build himself a legacy.
Whether bankers are wholly motivated by greed, I don’t know. Leaders in the world of finance, I suggest, get so rich that they reach the stage that wealth itself is not a force, merely the praise and reputation gained by accruing wealth. Its easy to bash money-makers but I guess many economists really do want to improve the lot of the poor. I mean if they just wanted personal wealth these economists wouldnt work for NGOs would they? Its easy for a Jesuit to chastize people for valuing the material but for much of the devoloping world, including where the order operates, prosperity means improving economic conditions. Fr Colin in Equador for instance has dealt with the material welfare of his parish because, for 40,000 dirtpoor shanty-dwellers, that is the most important thing!
The obvious thing to say is that many religious leaders are not driven by redemption or a desire to help but by base human desires. We all know this so I’m not gonna dwell on it. Moral leadership as undoubtedly shown by the likes of Jesus or the Buddha is also shown by, say, a civil rights leader like Martin Luther King. Even the rascal Tony Blair saw himself as being driven by a desire to better the world, morally not just materially, as do many social conservatives in the current government. Finally, moral leadership can be part-and-parcel of business too - in philanthropy, if we don’t take too cynical a view.
The point I’m trying to make is that the priests’ three-point schema for leadership was dreadfully oversimpified. In my opinion, leaders of politicis, economics and religion are all of the same ilk - leaders of conviction and rhetoric. I propose we see leadership as being of two kinds:
Politics, Economic, Religion, etc: lead you
Science: lead you to truth
In my opinion politics, economics and religion produce leaders who lead you because they want you to follow them - these spheres of life are a mechanism for producing leaders. What they lead you too is their goal, whether it be power, wealth, redemption, even death. They require leaders in order to move, not progress, just move. The cult of the leader blinds us to the veracity of the leader’s claims, we take them on authority. There is no real mechanism for checking the leadership of the leader. This does not mean that they are wrong or evil, merely false - Gandhi was of the opinion India deserved independence, his was value judgement, which he persuaded others to believe. Value-judgements are false in the sense of being unchecked … historical processes like politics or economics only happen once: we cannot rerun the experiment to see what would have happened had Gandhi not been a peace activist, history provides no controls. History is dependent on how it is led - the leaders cannot thus then use their own unfolding history (future) to turn their value-judgements into truths. The curious circularity of this form of leadership is what leaves it false.
Conversely, science progresses, improves, is led forward, but is not itself led by anything. Pioneers certainly lead the way, open up new areas of inquiry, say when Crick and Watson discovered the genetic code. But the story of molecular genetics has not been one of following Crick and Watson but of overtaking and going beyond them. When a scientific discovery is made, when someone leads their field, other scientists do not wait in an orderly queue behind them waiting to see what happens next - instead they jump ahead and start exploring the world opened up by the discovery. What is leading them to do this? Their own curiosity. But curiosity alone does not lead the progress of science - what leads the prohress of science is science itself. Science as a process - hypothesis-generation, experimental testing, data analysis, peer review - functions as a kind of blind algorithm to progress. Through the curious scientists, science is furthered as a whole body of knowledge, moving forward with each cycle of the algorithm. So while politics, economics and history are led by falsehood, science itself leads forward into truth. Science is always eating away at mystery to gain truth and constantly attacking istelf with the algorithm to make sure it is truth. The kind of leadership which suffuses politics, economics and religion is a barrier to this process as it usurps it for its own goals, masking truth with opinion, ideology and value-judgement - we see how empirically-testable models of economics become justification for the rule of various leaders. When the models fell apart as in 2008 rather than face the algorithm many of the leaders used their influence to hide the truth. But the court of public opinion which, of all things fuels leaders, turned against them, revealing the one truth-seeking method of politics, economics and religion - a leader’s success or failure.
We see then how what leads science forward is the fact it is leaderless. I believe that politics, economics and religion are the enemies of science:
politics, economics, religion etc: led by lies
science: leads to truth
Leaders ply falsehood, do science - question them!
Appreciate that languages change over time; that they are in a constant flux; that there is no Platonic Form of (or “Queen’s”) English. All you have to do is watch Shakespeare:
Appreciate that different languages express thoughts in different ways – to this end, learn a second language, absorb its grammar, it will open your ears. Appreciate that even in globalized world, language is an important marker of identity for people. Google the Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics and read Stephen Pinker on the subject:
Finally, see my post on the dangers of Linguistic Determinism
By science I do not mean scientific knowledge* but the scientific method. It’s our best tool for making sense of the world. Observation, the experiment, Occam’s Razor, Popper’s falsification.
(*Chemistry. Biology. Physics. Maths. All wonderful. But they have enough people defending their camps. Personally, I’d argue no one should leave school with no knowledge of Newton. But, I decided I’d stick to one scientific idea and that one was gonna be evolution)
Here’s a concise and clear step by step guide to researching scientifically:
I don’t mean Darwin and the Beagle. I mean Fisher, Haldane, Mayr – a decent grasp of population genetics is a must. Plus google Gould and his “punctuated equilibrium” for the controversies. Appreciate that Natural Selection and Evolution are two distinct things. Skip the God Delusion and read Dawkins’ books on biology – the man’s enthusiasm shines through. Finally, if you decide to click on any of my links, make it this one:
Picture a map of the world in your head – know where countries are in relation to one another. This is a biggie: maps are fun, while away an afternoon just flicking through an atlas. Learn where exactly your latest holiday destination actually is. Pick up any fantasy novel and appreciate the effort that’s gone into making the maps – the story is written into the hills. My advice, draw your own maps and realize what a great tool for art and expression cartography can be. Check this guy out – tis an astonishing feat of the imagination:
This is a word I detest. My advice is: either read a daily newspaper or spend 15mins a day reading analysis on a news website. You can get the actual info of the headlines but its the analysis what counts. For a daily dose: Guardian, Independent, Herald (in print or online) and Newsnight on BBC2 at 10.30pm. For a weekly dose: the Economist magazine. Moreover, I’d advise getting to grips with A) Economics: Keynesianism, Monetarism, what a recession actually is, what interest rates do; and B) Politics: learn the spectrum, what the parties stand for, appreciate what different governments and ideologies hold sway in the world.
Not the school subject with its evidence, analysis and sources, important though that be. Instead, make sure you have a general overview in your mind, a historical consciousness, of what happened when and where. Of who conqured whom. A grand sweep of the past. Maps help:
It’s astonishing how many people believe the Aztecs and the Romans were contemporaneous.
Also, find out about the biggest of Why? of history: what made the West and the Rest. What made Europe overtake everyone else and then conquer them. Jared Diamond is the best and most rigorous if you want answers:
Above all, know that America didn’t used to have white people living there and that Jesus did in fact not speak English!*
(*he spoke Aramaic)
This is the real “humanities” subject. Learn the order in which the Homos come. Research the debates as to the origins of art, language, culture, etc.
Find out about Chimpanzees, our closes cousins. About human migrations.
Join this with your appreciation of Human History and ‘Current Affairs’ to create a three-pronged attempt at making sense of humanity through time. Use your map skills to evaluate humanity through space. Check out the transcendental values and customs, reported in all societies, and think that they might possibly be there cos of evolution – use to science to test this idea. Realize that the one thing we all have in common, thru space and time, is language.
Appreciate that we begin with language and end with language. It is this which makes us truly human.
Oh, and NEVER use Comic Sans…!