Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Brexiteers: The New North Sentinelese

A Leave Demonstration
Sometimes I think that some ultra-Brexiteers want to turn the United Kingdom into something like the North Sentinel island; cut off from the rest of the world because our culture and wellbeing cannot stand engagement with the outside world. See this:

Ignoring the irony of a Welshman suggesting that we're always bailing out the EU, he defends the prospect of a no deal by invoking our predicament in the Second World War, when we did indeed stand isolated in the world. Why in the world would we want to inflict this on ourselves? We are not facing an existential crisis from abroad, however often Brexiteers portray the EU as a fascist regime, so this hardship would be quite unnecessary.

Of course we would survive a no deal Brexit, in the sense that there will still be people living in the British Isles afterwards, but it's very much debatable that the United Kingdom itself would survive the economic hit and the isolationism that would result from a no deal.

Brexit will not be the end of the world; it's just a harm we need not inflict on ourselves, because, unlike the North Sentinelese, we do not suffer from our engagement with the outside world, or in particular our membership of the EU. Our problems stem from much closer to home.
Of course, it's the 'just sorting it out' which has proved intractable, hence the inability of the Tory party to agree among themselves what Brexit should look like, and even the ERG has struggled to come to a consensus:
It is impossible to state the true ERG numbers, because they are now internally divided. They are splitting on similar lines to how Remain split after the referendum - on principles and tactics. Some prioritise the survival of the Tory party above Brexit, some are prepared to accept a sub-optimal Brexit deal and then want to try to unravel it after we've formally left. But the ones that are pertinent, who'll define this whole thing, are those in the die-hard camp, the ones that consider this an existential, almost Biblical, battle and will prioritise a full-blooded Brexit above any other consideration. They are now going to war against their own party leadership.
The reason it's intractable is because of the incompatible promises made by various Leave campaigns. Until that fact is acknowledged by sufficient people we are condemned to suffer this appalling Groundhog Brexit.

(with apologies to Sidney Harris)

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Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Difference between Impartiality and Balance

"'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows" - Isaiah Berlin

"What I'm asking of the world's oldest public broadcaster is an understanding of the difference between impartiality and balance. What I mean is your nonsense bloody quota of giving equal coverage no matter what...we put up a Nobel prize winning economist to highlight the negative impact on Sterling if we leave, and then you feel you have to give equal weight to some batty backbencher who's just there to parrot "not true, project fear, take back control"" - Words put into Craig Oliver's mouth, played by Rory Kinnear, speaking to the BBC, in Brexit: The Uncivil War

I've written before about Isaiah Berlin's concept of positive liberty, a surfeit of which is really a prerequisite for a  properly functioning democracy. I previously described it as "the freedom to choose the ideal life; ideal, that is, according to informed reason". "Informed reason" is the key phrase here. Berlin contrasts this with negative liberty, which I described as "the freedom to conduct our lives without obstruction from other people or groups of people, including the state".

Firstly, positive liberty is a prerequisite because in a free market economy we need participants who are as well informed as possible to ensure that the market operates as well as it can.A market ignorant of derivatives, amongst other things, caused the credit crunch.

Secondly, we need citizens who are as well informed as possible to ensure they make the best choices when acting politically, either as representatives of the population, or as voters.

Unfortunately the rise of Trump and the emergence of far right narratives in the UK which have resulted in the vote to leave the European Union show that our society is in a dangerous place. The currency of facts is flowing very slowly, thanks to decades of misinformation and attacks on science and expertise. Many of these attacks are documented by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway  in Merchants of Doubt. They sum it up very well:
Our story began in the 1950s, when the tobacco industry first enlisted scientists to aid its cause, and deepened in the 1970s when Frederick Seitz joined forces with tobacco, and then with Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg to defend the Strategic Defense Initiative. It continued in the early 1980s as Fred Singer planted the idea that acid rain wasn’t worth worrying about, and Nierenberg worked with the Reagan White House to adjust the Executive Summary of his Acid Rain Peer Review Panel. It continued still further, and turned more personal, in the 1990s as the Marshall Institute, with help from Singer and [Dixy Lee] Ray, challenged the evidence of ozone depletion and global warming and personally attacked distinguished scientists like Sherwood Rowland and Ben Santer.
Why did this group of Cold Warriors turn against the very science to which they had previously dedicated their lives? Because they felt—as did Lt. General Daniel O. Graham (one of the original members of Team B and chief advocate of weapons in space) when he invoked the preamble to the U.S. Constitution—they were working to “secure the blessings of liberty.” If science was being used against those blessings—in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise—then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. For indeed, science was starting to show that certain kinds of liberties are not sustainable—like the liberty to pollute. Science was showing that Isaiah Berlin was right: liberty for wolves does indeed mean death to lambs. - Oreskes, Naomi. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (p. 238). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 
...the idea that free markets produce optimum allocation of resources depends on participants having perfect information. But one of several ironies of our story is that our protagonists did everything in their power to ensure that the American people did not have good (much less perfect) information on crucial issues. Our protagonists, while ostensibly defending free markets, distorted the marketplace of ideas in the service of political goals and commercial interests. The American belief in fairness and the importance of hearing “both sides” was used and abused by people who didn’t want to admit the truth about the impacts of industrial capitalism. - Oreskes, Naomi. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (p. 250). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition, my emphasis
On the issue of media balance they say this:
“Balance” had become a form of bias, whereby the media coverage was biased in favor of minority—in some cases extreme minority—views. In principle, the media could act as gatekeepers, ignoring the charlatans and snake oil salesmen, but if they have tried, our story shows that at least where it comes to science they have failed. As we have seen, it wasn’t just obviously right-wing outlets that reported false claims about tobacco and these other subjects; it was the “prestige press”—indeed, the allegedly liberal press—as well. - Oreskes, Naomi. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (p. 243). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 
This false balance has been, and continues to be, a serious problem in the BBC's coverage of the news. In 2011 Steve Jones wrote a report on the BBC's treatment of science and said this:
Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research. Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite. Conflicts of interest and outright dishonesty exist in science and these must be exposed, but not at the cost of an over‐literal interpretation of the guidelines. The BBC has tried to find a solution to this problem but has not entirely succeeded. It must accept that it is impossible to produce a balance between fact and opinion. The notion of due impartiality in science should be treated with more flexibility. The central criterion of the new Guidelines,  that the BBC should seek to achieve “due weight” in its coverage of  perspectives and opinions and that minority views should not necessarily be given equal treatment,  may do something in this regard although proof of that has yet to emerge. (my emphasis)
This recommendation has clearly gone unheeded by many in the corporation. Consider this tweet by Rob Burley, Editor of BBC Live Political Programmes. Politics Live, Andrew Marr Show, This Week, Westminster Hour & Newswatch:
No, no, no, this is not proof of impartiality. In response I tweeted:
The point being that simply giving a hearing to all sides of a debate will give rise to the false balance Steve Jones warned about and which has blighted our media ever since the 'merchants of doubt' started to wage their propaganda war against the truths that threaten their interests.

And it's not like some don't understand the issue. Last year BBC journalist Nick Robinson's views were reported in The New Statesman:
In Robinson’s view, the BBC doctrine of “due impartiality” should, when properly observed, enable his colleagues to “take account of how much support someone has and the evidence underlying his or her arguments before deciding how much coverage he is entitled to. We need to move beyond ‘he said, she said’ and ask ‘what is?’” Neutrality should not, indeed, deny the proper function of journalism.
And yet the BBC still don't do it. In 2017 the BBC had to apologise for putting the unqualified climate change denier Nigel Lawson up against a climate change expert in Robinson's own Radio 4 Today programme:
The Today programme rejected initial complaints from listeners, arguing that Lawson’s stance was “reflected by the current US administration” and that offering space to “dissenting voices” was an important aspect of impartiality.
This is the line pursued by Rob Burley in his tweet from December 2018, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong, as Bob Ward, the policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics explained:
“There needs to be a shift in BBC policy so that these news programmes value due accuracy as much as due impartiality.
“As well as taking account of the rights of marginal voices like Lord Lawson to be heard, the BBC should also take account of the harm that its audiences can experience from the broadcast of inaccurate information,” said Ward. “His inaccurate assertion that there has been no change in extreme weather was harmful to the programme’s listeners because they may have been misled into believing that they do not need to take precautions against the increasing risk of heatwaves and flooding from heavy rainfall in the UK.”
So we're back to the quote from Brexit: The Uncivil War; Craig Oliver's cry of anguish when talking to the BBC. Oliver was the leader of the Remain campaign:
What I'm asking of the world's oldest public broadcaster is an understanding of the difference between impartiality and balance. What I mean is your nonsense bloody quota of giving equal coverage no matter what...we put up a Nobel prize winning economist to highlight the negative impact on Sterling if we leave, and then you feel you have to give equal weight to some batty backbencher who's just there to parrot "not true, project fear, take back control"
I believe it is this false balance, in the BBC and elsewhere, that has reduced the positive liberty of UK citizens, and led them to make fateful errors when voting in the referendum and pursuing their political goals in other ways. In Berlin's terms, we have a surfeit of negative liberty (freedom for the pike), but a deficit of positive liberty.

It has been such a campaign of misinformation that I really think this is an existential threat to Western democracy. It is hard to see how, if we continue to pursue misinformed policies uncorrected, we can survive in the form we are now. I fear a breakdown of law and order as demagogues take power. Trump is a demagogue, as are Bolsonaro and Gündoğan; who will be ours?

I previously shared Stephen Pinker's optimism in the upward trend of humanity, but now I'm not sure those angels will save us :-(.

For further reading on the causes of Brexit, see:

Peter Jukes - A Duty to Inform as Well as Entertain: The BBC on the Edge of an Abyss

Chris Grey - Britain is on the brink of an historic strategic decision

Simon Wren-Lewis - Experts and Elites

Ian Dunt - Backstop breakdown is a product of the oldest Brexit lie

Perfect knowledge is impossible, of course, but disinformation will tend to corrupt the operation of a free market economy. And we must accept that humans are not a perfectly rational animal, even if they were omniscient, so we can only aspire to perfect reason.

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