Friday 30 October 2009

Deeply polarised debates

Because human beings are basically awesome, we're now able to build models of how political opinions take hold in a society by applying what we know about how ferrous metals become magnetised. How cool is that?

It works like this: you create a virtual society made of agents who have one bipolar attribute: they're either going to vote Blue or Red. Then you give them two means of making a decision: either external (mimicing political campaigning) or internal (driven from each agent's interactions with other agents). Then you use the external influence to set some initial conditions (say, 55/45 in favour of Blue) and then observe how your internal mechanisms affect the final outcome.

In the basic model, each agent is influenced by a local majority, so that they tend to vote for the same party as the agents they interact with. (This, of course, uses the techniques invented to understand magnetisation.) The basic model, however, is banal. As you can imagine, the initial majority usually stays the winner.

What's interesting is when you throw two new types of agents into the mix: "contrarians" (who vote against the local majority) and "inflexibles" (who never change their mind). These agents are hugely and disproportionately influential. For example, if you have more than about 1 in 6 contrarians, you end up with a 50/50 split. Similarly, if your inflexibles only vote Red, you only need that 1 in 6 to gain a Red majority as the vacillating Blues adapt their position by trying to meet them half way.

This is of course only a model. But I think you can see some current debates where a minority's utter unwillingness to compromise has given their position more influence that it might deserve, e.g: teaching creationism in schools; that immigration is basically a problem; that global warning is some kind of elaborate scam; that fruit and nut chocolate is anything other than an abhorrent mockery of all that is good and pure in this world. None of these positions has won influence on its merits: instead they've won favour because a) their proponents refuse to compromise and b) their opponents don't.

So contrary to what JS Mill/your better instincts/your parents might have told you, the way to win an argument is not to reason sweetly with your opponent, take their opinions on board, or otherwise engage with them. That only works if they're playing the same game. If not, you just have to stamp your feet harder, and yell louder, than they do.

Monday 26 October 2009

Lessons of history

From yet another article about the BNP:

This has led to concerns that Griffin has become too powerful. Several senior BNP members quit after he overhauled the constitution to make his position as leader practically unassailable.

Clearly, there are times when you can take emulation of Hitler too far.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Why not to bother watching Question Time tomorrow (or any other time, come to that)

Matthew Taylor shows why having the BNP on Question Time is pointless, when he explains his concept of the "transcendent moment in debate". Essentially, it's the point where all parties (finally) see what the debate is actually about - the fundamental difference between the sides. He quotes this example:

During the proceeding of the US Federal Panel on the use of human tissue in research he [Professor Michael Sandel] had asked an opponent of stem cell research whether he saw any fundamental distinction between using stem cells from a five day old embryo and taking the organs from a five year old child. The opponent had pondered and to his credit had said ‘no’. At this point, many undecided people on the panel had felt they had got to the heart of the difference between the two sides. It didn’t tell them what to believe, but it got them to see the basis for each side’s argument.

This is exactly what won't happen on Thursday night, or in any debate with the BNP. Griffin would rather French-kiss Trevor Phillips than publicly admit that his party's core political aim is a white-only Britain. And, indeed, has said so.

There’s a difference between selling out your ideas and selling your ideas. The British National Party isn’t about selling out its ideas — which are your [the KKK] ideas too — but we are determined now to sell them. That means to use saleable words.'...[selling our ideas] basically means using saleable words… free­dom, security, identity, democracy. Nobody can criticise them. Nobody can come at you and attack you on those ideas. They are saleable...If you hold that [fascist policy] out as your sole aim to start with, you’re going to get nowhere. So, instead of talking about racial purity we talk about identity.”

So, whatever happens on Thursday night, we're not going to see the BNP's policies laid bare. Instead, Griffin will mouth off about "our boys", "the working class", "terrorism", "jobs" and "Westminster insiders" in a manner so vague and platitudinous that he'll be more or less indistinguishable from the average Question Time panellist. Which makes the whole event something of a pointless circus.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Moronic Questions To Which The Answer Should Be Bloody Obvious

From the Mail:

Miracle or hoax? Russians puzzled as phrases from the Koran start appearing 'spontaneously' on baby's skin

You've worked out the answer just by reading the full headline. The Mail bothers to go into detail, but still fails to reach the obvious (or any) conclusion.

The one part of this story I do believe is this quote from the mother:

'Ali always feels bad when it is happening. He cries and his temperature goes up. It's impossible to hold him when it's happening, his body is actively moving, so we put him into his cradle. It's so hard to watch him suffering.'

I'm sure it is harrowing to watch your child writhe in pain. If only - if only! - there were some way she could stop her child being tortured twice a week. Should prayer fail, she might like to at least try not to (let people) rub chilli into her baby's skin. I'm no medic, nor theologian, but I suspect that might help.

This story is not about events beyond our understanding. It is not a challenge to our modern understanding of the world. It's the story of a baby being regularly abused by delusional obsessives and/or manipulative bastards for the sake of attention and status. But the Mail, which is normally so quick to demand that someone think of the children, won't just come out and say so. I can think of a number of possible reasons for this: it might be because unthinking respect for "faith" makes it unpalatable to suggest that the devout may be stupid or criminal; it might be that in the Mail's hierarchy of values "ooh, that's weird" trumps "save the baby!"; it might be because it's happening a long way away to someone very different from the editorial staff or readership and therefore counts as intriguingly exotic rather than meaningful. So, in the spirit of this post's title, let me ask a MQTWTASBBO of my own: The Daily Mail: Pandering, Ignorant or Prejudiced?

Thursday 15 October 2009


Tom Freeman has a couple of good posts about the arbitrary and unfounded nature of the retrospective limits being imposed on MPs expense claims. But I think there's an interesting exception to one of his conclusions, specifically that:

If politicians see the public and the media angrily demanding severe punishment for such a group, then they will do whatever it takes to make those people suffer.

As he points out, it's difficult to argue the applicability of this rule to asylum seekers. But there is a group who seem to skate. They've profited at direct cost to the taxpayer for actions that, although legal, were unquestionably ill-judged and arguably immoral. In their defence, they can only say that, "everybody else was doing it" and, "it wasn't against the rules". The public and the media have indeed angrily demanded severe punishment for them. But every time this has been discussed, both parties have reluctantly declined to make the finance industry suffer: we've had promises to "look in to" bonuses which are "unreasonable"; the statesman-like decision not to impose windfall taxes on bonuses has reluctantly been taken; radical reforms such as Tobin taxes have been carefully reviewed, then shelved.

All of these decisions may well have been the right ones - that is to say, proportionate, just, and unswayed by popular sentiment. It's simply curious that the political gravity which now demands that MPs pay back excessive gardening bills doesn't pull so strongly when the potential scapegoats are the high-flyers of the financial industry. There's a certain logic to this from opposition: if he'd spent time calling for penalties on bankers, how could Cameron appear at conference and say that "too much government" is to blame for the financial crisis? But from the government's perspective, there's just as much naked political value to be had from keeping the public's attention focused on the bankers' role in getting us all here. Instead, all discussion of that seems to be off the table. Even as Lloyds is calling for another £5bn from the government as part of a scheme to avoid paying for toxic asset insurance delivered by that same government.

There's obviously some downside to calling for the heads of bankers, in a way that there isn't for venal MPs. But what?