Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

8 11 2012

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:

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Raising the Bar

10 09 2012

To argue or not to argue. That is the question that underpins my latest missive on The Drum about the state of political and public discourse in Australia (and translatable to most other modern liberal democracies), as motivated by Malcolm Turbull’s latest speech.

And when it comes to those who spout sophistry or invective in the guise of a genuine argument, then the best strategy is simply to sideline them. Let’s not waste our energy attempting to battle head on those who have no intention of engaging in rational discourse.

Let’s raise the bar from the rock bottom, and set it at least to the level of demanding reasoned arguments, supported by evidence and devoid of fallacies or spin. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And if someone doesn’t conform to these basic standards, they disqualify themselves from the conversation. They’re only welcome back in when they decide to clear the bar.

What I’m talking about is like issuing a kind of social contract over how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a society. If we’re not happy with the emotional, irrational, biased and deadlocked discourse we have today, we agree that we’re all going to conform to a basic minimal set of rules about how to argue. If someone breaks those rules, they’ve broken the contract and don’t deserve to participate.

All this does mean we need to be better at argument. It might be too late for many of us, but one of the best things we can do to improve the world of the future is to ensure our children don’t fall into the same blather trap that we have today.

As such, the best long term solution is really quite a simple one: we should teach reasoning and critical thinking in school.

Like we all agree that no-one should leave school without being able to read, write and do maths, we should also add the ability to spot logical and argumentative fallacies to that list.

This ought to be core curriculum stuff, because reasoning and critical thinking make everything else easier – and lack thereof makes everything else harder.

Reasoning is hard, we’re not naturally good at it, but we can’t afford to live without it. So let’s teach everyone how to do it better.





The Old as a Barrier to the New

19 04 2012

Techdirt has an interesting piece on the follies of the publishing industry in shifting its business model over to ebooks and digital publishing, focusing on the utter and infuriating pointlessness of DRM, or digital rights management.

It makes the salient point that DRM fails because it makes a legitimate product less useful, and therefore less valuable, than a pirated one, which can be acquired easier and cheaper than the legitimate product.

However, the piece also raises a bigger point about the impact of change on existing industries. And there’s a little psychology and decision theory to explain why almost all industries almost always screw up the transition phase, largely motivated by their desire not to go extinct, and then go extinct anyway. This is particularly true of publishing and the media.

Here’s the story:

Company A has an existing product, X,  which sells for a high price and achieves a good margin.

A new disruptive technology emerges which, like most disruptive technologies, make things less expensive to produce and/or disseminate.

This results in a cheaper product Y that competes with the more expensive old technology product X.

Company A now has a number of choices – and it’ll always choose the wrong one:

1) Lower the price of X to compete with Y, thus crippling its margins and forcing it to lower the quality of X to appalling levels. This is what most newspaper publishers have done in response to the internet. Now their print editions and online editions are scraping the bottom of the barrel, while online outlets, like the Huffington Post, boom.

2) Sell both X and Y. However, now they’re competing with themselves, and Y will win, putting the long-established X department out of business. But X makes a good margin and the company doesn’t want to lose that, or change its business model. So the company raises the price of Y well above its cost to make X competitive against it. However, now Y is unreasonably overpriced in the eyes of consumers, who can probably easily get Y free illegally. This is what book publishers are doing by pricing ebooks at only a fraction lower than print books, and television and movie studios with DVDs vs. downloads. Then company B comes along, unhindered by the old technology, and it only produces product Y, and puts company A out of business anyway, like iTunes did to the music industry.

3) Transition from product X to Y, and either phase out X entirely, or find an equilibrium between the two. Y will rarely entirely replace X, and X will likely have to change, such as bestseller fiction moving to ebooks while quality hardbacks remain in print, or top 10 music going digital while vinyl lives on. Y will be priced such that it’s competitive, and it’ll supplant X fairly rapidly, with the business model adapting and departments probably closing. Businesses almost never take this option, even though it’s the most rational.

Basically, management, when faced with the decision of competing with themselves or continuing business as usual, will almost always continue business as usual. And, in doing so, they effectively let other companies compete with them and put them out of business anyway.

This is because most management are intrinsically conservative, they seek to protect the business model they know (and thus their own jobs), even at the expense of the business at large. Few managers have the courage to actively destroy part of their company in order to compete in a new environment, and thus passively destroy the entire company.

I’ve seen this phenomenon unfold a dozen times in my career, and I expect it’ll continue as long as new disruptive technologies emerge.

The upshot is we’re currently living in a transition time where many industries are busy making their mistakes, but they haven’t gone out of business quite yet. When they do, and new business emerge that embrace the new technology, then things will settle into a new equilibrium – and BitTorrent will suddenly decline in popularity, as did music filesharing systems once iTunes emerged.

I look forward to that day.





Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

7 11 2011

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.

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Norway, Mental Illness, Ideology and Computer Games

25 07 2011

Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:

Reality Check

Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.

It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.

Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.

Extremism Starts with Psychology

It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.

It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.

Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.

What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.

What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.

Games Don’t Make Killers

S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.

This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.

The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.

Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.

And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games religion” then the game religion should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits evangelism of the games industry religion and selfishness dogma of games libertarians the faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.

A Better Way

We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.

But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.

With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.

Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.





Ends and Means

19 07 2011

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

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Speak Up Against Irrationalists, But Speak Well

11 06 2011

Some say that it is not wise to engage with those who fail to respect reason.

Some say it’s folly to attempt to correct the misinformation spouted by climate change deniers because engaging with them only gives them more exposure, it legitimises their voice and fuels the controversy.

Some say it’s imprudent to argue with persons of faith about the folly of believing in a supreme being responsible for creating a rational universe yet who hides behind a veil of unreason, demanding his followers shun reason in order to to demonstrate their love for him.

Some say pushing back against wildly spurious claims such that legislating to allow gay marriage will entail a slippery slope that will end up permitting polygamy and incest is pointless; just let those extremists continue to tout their positions and further alienate themselves from the reasonable views of the mainstream.

I disagree. We who do respect reason should push back. Vigorously. But we should do so well.

Yes, engaging with extremists and Irrationalists of all flavours does elevate their voice. And engaging with them is almost certainly not going to change their minds. But the Irrationalists often have a loud voice, and their voice is heard by those who are as yet undecided, or those who are too busy living their lives to read up on the details of each issue.

So it’s up to those of us who do respect reason and facts to speak loudly against unreason, not to convince those who have committed to a path of irrationality, but to demonstrate to those who are still open to reason that there are better ways to engage with complex issues, and to change the nature of the discourse to elevate reason to where it deserves to be: a prerequisite for any argument meant to persuade.

But we should argue well. Engaging in ad hominem attacks against those perceived to be irrational, ignorant or stupid does the cause of reason no favours. Remember, when voicing dissent against the Irrationalists, we’re not trying to convert the purveyors of unreason but those who hear their loud rantings.

And we need to maintain the standards of rational argument, first and foremost acknowledging the first rule of thumb of rational discourse: there must be something that can prove us wrong.

If anyone utters a belief or argument and there is no possibility of it being proven wrong, either by logic or evidence, then that belief doesn’t qualify to enter into rational discourse. Such an utterance is little more than an opinion, a subjective attitude, a conspiracy theory, pseudo-science or a expression of faith, none of which belong in rational discourse about serious issues.

But we can also wield this rule of thumb as a weapon against our irrational opponents. If we can encourage more people to acknowledge this rule of thumb of rational discourse, then we can brand those who fail to conform to it as Irrationalists – a new pejorative that ought to enter our discourse to counter the ‘elitist’ and ‘intellectual’ flung about by the Right – and as disqualifying them from rational debate.

This rule of thumb also means not tackling irrational arguments head on – which is surely an exercise in frustration, if not folly – but by undermining irrational arguments as a whole.

And if they accept this rule of thumb, then it’s game on; it’s time to engage in vigorous, rational and respectful debate – and let the best argument win.