Why we fight

the crimean war by orlando figesI like to read fiction and non-fiction parallel to one another. Right now on the fiction front I’m tackling William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive. My current non-fiction book of choice, on the other hand, is The Crimean War: A History Orlando Figes. I like non-fiction because it tends to make me think. Contrary to what you may have learned in school all history is written from a particular point of view, and emphasizes a particular narrative. The best history is quite thought-provoking. In fact it makes you question things happening in the present.

With that in mind, a quote:

As the great historian of the Crimean War Alexander Kinglake wrote (and his words could be applied to any war): “The labour of putting into writing the grounds for a momentous course of action is a wholesome discipline for statesmen; and it would be well for mankind if, at a time when the question were really in suspense, the friends of a policy leading towards war were obliged to come out of the mist of oral intercourse and private notes, and to put their view into a firm piece of writing.”

If such a document had been recorded by those responsible for the Crimean War, it would have disclosed that their real aim was to reduce the size and power of Russia for the benefit of ‘Europe’ and the Western powers in particular, but this could not be said in the Queen’s message, which spoke instead in the vaguest terms of defending Turkey, without any selfish interests, ‘for the cause of right against injustice.’

Nothing plays better with the mob than a selfless war waged with righteous fury. Convenient, too, that it’s members of the mob who end up dying of dysentery in the trenches, rather than members of the political class.

Why I believe in technocracy

Roman Senate

“The good old days,” where democracy is concerned.

I am down on democracy. Partly it’s do do with all this debt ceiling/government shutdown nonsense. I do, however, have more longstanding gripes with the democratic process. Once upon a time, when I was young and naive, I believed the world’s problems could be solved if only we, as a species, could come up with enough good ideas. If there were enough good ideas, and experts presented them in a convincing enough fashion, we could solve the pressing problems of our age.

The problem is people aren’t so much interested in developing well-reasoned solutions to serious problems. They prefer to push their own short-sighted agendas, even if that flies in the face of empirical evidence.

People don’t want to approach an issue rationally if it means re-examining their preconceptions. Nothing underlines that fact more boldly than this study, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.” From the abstract:

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy — a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information — did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized — and even less accurate — when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoetical and practical significance of these findings.

Again: “more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

More and more I believe in technocracy. If individuals are incapable of objective reasoning, why not simply leave governance to the experts? Italy’s technocratic government, headed by Mario Monti, did a rather impressive job of managing the country’s finances in the depths of the Eurozone debt crisis (the mob has since ousted him, opening the door for clown Berlusconi’s return to Italian politics).

I will admit that technocratic governance provides fertile ground for abuses of power. Ultimately, however, which is it better for society as a whole? A “legitimate” democratic government that must pander to the mob, or a technocratic government made up of capable experts?

Is the world now too complex a place to leave in the hands of Joe the Plumber?

I rather think it is.