Friday, February 02, 2007

Negativist manifesto - part two

Back to D-Squared's justification for negativism.

It's long, and I said that I'd respond to it like you eat an elephant - piece-by-piece. I almost lost the will to live in covering part one, it really is so rare for anyone to attempt to justify the permasulk that dominates to lower levels of public debate these days. It needs to be understood.

In part two, we're offered a vaguely liberal justification. Paraphrasing, 'progressives' always want government to do things, and it often better to just leave well alone. Now, leaving aside the fact that I'd largely agree with this, and have argued as such quite a lot, I'm puzzled as to how this can be used as an argument for criticism of public figures and institutions on any particular issue that doesn't give a credible outline of why and how action can be avoided.

So, if you want politicians to do less, it is worth understanding why they do more than they should. If you can remove those reasons, then maybe you will get a government closer to your tastes.

Or you can, of course, take the easy option and decide that it's just because they are bad people.

A few of the supporting arguments are a bit odd as well. We're told that 'there is no such thing as a general purpose expert'. I agree, as does Mr Bourdieu (passim). Indeed, I've argued that political parties should be encouraged to cultivate specialists, not generalists. I've also argued that the media is packed full of commentators who seem to be able to turn their hands to everything. Much of the negativism in public debate can be traced directly to the process that Bourdieu referred to as 'demagogic simplification' - a process that relies largely upon the collaboration of political generalists.

For instance, I'd agree that it's impossible for any one individual to be expert enough to expect to be taken seriously on a very wide range of subjects. So, if someone were to comment authoritatively on MMR, how relations between Muslims and the wider civil society should be handled, Iraq, Religious Education, security and surveillance, microcredit, statistics, physics, business takeovers, humanitarian intervention, tax loopholes, global trade agreements, regulation of the water industry, IPOs, the NHS, youth employment, or the golden rule.

Here, we are being either being burdened with low-value commentary, or we’re in the presence of a brilliant polymath.

I'd be happy to read a balanced article on any of those subjects from an acknowledged expert, by the way. But I don't know which of these is expertise, which ones are throwaway opinion, and which ones are naughty polemic dressed up as expertise. I’d certainly struggle to find particularly good investigative reporting on any of these subjects, so we have to put up with agenda-driven commentary.

I'd go further: This country would be a better place if columnists in general were decimated (not killed, obviously, but redeployed). Some of them could be given jobs as reporters, but I doubt if most of them would be capable of writing anything without sneaking in some pet thesis or other.

We're also treated to a defence of criticism here ("... easier to spot the flaws in someone else's work"). The thing is, if you can surpass someone’s expertise, you can spot the flaws in their work and then point them out - with precision or with wit, or a combination of the two. And you will be taken seriously if you can demonstrate that you understand what the real wrong reasons why real wrong decisions were taken.

But most of what passes for comment simply has a sulky adolescent quality. So much of it simply stakes out an uncomplicated moral high ground in which the need for consistency goes out of the window. Flicking v-signs at politicians is not criticism. It's corrosive, counterproductive and ultimately stupid. I'd like to see more authoritative criticism in print. As Jean Seaton points out, the current snarky negativism plays into the hands of the most powerful people and institutions. They get protected, journalists get their vanity stroked for them, and everyone else is the loser from this negativism.

At the moment, most reasonable criticism gets lost in a white noise of snotty abuse or it gets spiked because it's not interestingly knockabout. It simply gets ignored most of the time.

Elsewhere, we are told that positive change just happens anyway and 'progressives' (them again) are not factors in that ... er... progress. If this were the case, and D-Squared's views really are an expression of a desire to thwart 'progressives' (and not a post-hoc justification for freebooting abuse in public debate), then we have a contradiction. If I believed what DSq purports to believe, I'd just shut up and let them get on with it. I'd ignore it, leave it all uncommented upon. But that isn't what happens, is it?

You see, there is a positive way to argue for smaller government: Government in which less is done. Government that has fewer powers and where those powers are mediated. And this can be done in a way that communicates that the critic would like to see this change happen enough to try and come up with a means by which it can be achieved some time within the foreseeable. It is quite possible to argue for exactly the kind of governance that D-Sq argues for without really resorting to negativism. Here's proof! Check it daily!

Let's not forget, this is really very simple. Argue civilly. Sensibly and fairly. Try and know what you're talking about and play the ball - not the man. Why is that so complicated?

I'm all out of energy now. There were references to Orwell and Karl Popper in there that need dealing with anon.

And the next section of this negativism manifesto - "why progressives are in general odious" will follow in due course. It may contain conclusive proof that this negativism is simply old fashioned misanthropy dressed up as rational argument. I've already argued that it steps party from cowardice and partly from narcissism.

Misanthropy may round the trinity off nicely.


Cian said...

It should be taken as given that I have very little time for most commentators.

"Or you can, of course, take the easy option and decide that [politicians do more than they should] just because they are bad people."

Well I suppose you could, but given that nobody was doing this...
A common problem of the C20th has been the need to do something. We destroyed inner cities and replaced them with freeways/concrete monstrosities. Architects destroyed problematic (but working) communities and replaced them with socially destructive cities in the sky. The green revolution massively increased crop production, but at the expense of using vastly more water and destroying soil fertility. Managers of companies frequently destroy shareholder value through vanity projects, foolish mergers, etc. Educational policies carried out for the best of reasons having a negative effect on the three r's. Many of these had theories supporting these and a strong argument for doing *something*, yet in retrospect doing nothing would have been better. Others were driven by an inability to see that there were other viewpoints and stakeholders. Others were driven by the inability of many successful human beings to sit still and do nothing.
In fact the only common theme I really can draw from this is that very few projects have happened because somebody was 'bad' (though I guess greed comes close).

There does seem to be a very powerful driver in the modern world towards progress, improvement and change; often supported by naive-utopianism (technology is rife with this).

"The thing is, if you can surpass someone’s expertise, you can spot the flaws in their work and then point them out"

Well yes, but you don't have to suprass their expertise. Certain flaws require only a generalised expertise (I can spot a logical flaw in an argument on a topic about which I know nothing). At other times you may simply be more expert on a tiny aspect of what is being discussed.

Often when somebody is pushing an idea they become emotinally attached to it, and become blind to flaws. Again it can be relatively simple for an unbiased observer to see the flaws in it, expertise be damned.

Furthermore, there is the fact that when one is dealing with complex socio-technical systems, nobody can be an expert on the entire subject, and that nobody can be an expert on the unrealised future. Joe Blogs may be an expert on health-care management and propose an idea for reforming the NHS that Peter Unperfect (as a social psychologist) knows is unworkable.

And then there is such a thing as the good generalist. They're comparatively rare, but they exist. People who know how to ask the right question, and to evaluate what they're given. Who have a basic understanding of a number of fields, and know the weaknesses of each. Who know how to probe arguments for weakness*. About 50% of good management (which is something this country doesn't really have - in industry, or the civil service) relies upon this (bad management assumes its about measuring things, or "leadership"). Back when I was a programmer, I had managers who didn't even pretend to be technical, but who were very good at spotting flaws in the systems that I (as a genuine expert) was proposing. Experts are two a penny, whereas good interdisciplinary generalists are very rare and are probably what political parties should be cultivating instead.**

* In theory this is what consultants do. In practice they spout ideology, but that's another story.

*Though is partly due to my fear that we'd simply get a bunch of neoclassical economists if we cultivated specialists. Or worse, pencil necks with MBAs in government. God knows we don't need that.

dd said...

This is really weak, Paulie. In particular, you're actually self contradictory here. The entire point of my having commented on a wide variety of subjects is that I've made only negative comments on all of them - as an economist and econometrician, I've pointed out when people said things that are known to be false. Other than that, you're still lacking specifics in exactly the way you do in every other post.

Cian: Chris Dillow makes this argument too (and he takes me seriously, although Paulie doesn't). But I don't think that either you or he have a very good explanation of why it was that the 20th century, which was so terribly burdened with the dead weight of management, also managed to show the greatest improvement in living standards there has ever been. I really think, in general, that people who want to have a go at scientific management ought to recognise its huge successes.

Richard said...

"The entire point of my having commented on a wide variety of subjects is that I've made only negative comments on all of them"

This seems very revealing.
I really don't get it. It seems a very odd and pointless way of carrying on, that's almost just a highbrow version of trolling.

Your comments are always welcome at Bagrec, Daniel, but it'd be nice if you agreed with me occasionally....

Anonymous said...

But they are 95% negative in a certain direction Daniel.

dd said...

I explain it in the manifesto. I don't like generalised suggestions. If someone's making a proposal, it ought to be concrete and specific, and it ought to be about something they actually know about. Very few people are in a position to make a positive contribution to any particular field. Lots more people are in a position to make a "negative contribution", by which I mean pointing out an error.

It's a point that goes back to John Locke, who said that the man also makes a contribution who does not plant anything, but merely clears the ground of rocks and nettles. I make plenty of positive suggestions every week, on the few specific areas on which I'm an expert.

I sometimes do agree with you! And I sometimes makes detailed enough criticisms of what I think are incorrect strategies that some sort of positive program is more or less implied - viz my piece in the Guardian about "Britishness" and marketing theory.

But in general, about 90% of what I write is going to be from the point of view of criticising something else, because there is so much stuff generated every week that I view as either dangerous or irritatingly wrong, and that has to be the priority because it's something that is here right now. Ben Goldacre appears to substantially agree with me on this point, as does Nick Cohen, although I'm sure we'd suggest different targets. It's a tradition that goes back at least to HL Mencken and arguably to the Englightenment itself, although I'm sure that someone can claim that Addison and Steele were just "post hoc" rationalising their disagreements with the 18th century Paulie.

Anonymous said...

You can't get away from the point that without new ideas and innovations there is no progress.

It is perfectly correct to be negative about such ideas, the good ones will survive. This is classic Karl Popper: Conjecture and Refutation. You seem to be confusing this with nilhistic negativity.

We learn from our mistakes. Your position is we shouldn't make mistakes: therefore progress should not occur. Popper called himself an optimist, and argued that on a number of issues such as slavery, welfare and war, mankind could progress. This was a process made by making steps forward, some of which would fail, and some of which would succeed.

You state:

In general, things are how they are for a reason. Not necessarily the best of reasons, but always for reasons, and people who don't understand those reasons are engaged in exactly the kind of activity that the Hippocratic Oath was meant to prevent; a regrettable tendency of mankind called "fucking around with things you don't understand".

So when slavery was rife in the Western world, the 18th Century dsquared would have been against interfering in the slave trade, since that was the way it was for a reason. Not necessarily for the best reasons, but always for reasons. The unintended consequences of interfering would be "fucking around with things you don't understand".

Sometimes an act of omission is the worse action. Much of your negativity seems to sit in this sphere. Everything we do could fuck things up, so do nothing. It's negativity for no purpose.

Where's your conjectures?

Cian said...

Christ, even by my standards that was poorly worded, poorly thought out, etc. I'll summarise the point that I fucked up.
Two points:
1) People act often for very good reasons, but the results can be disastrous. Intentions are irrelevant, unless you're going to confession.
2) The problem with acting on the world is that outcomes are long term, and that even actions positive in the short term can have bad long term affects (the green revolution may look very different in 200 years than it does today).

point two, Based upon my novice understanding of complexity theory is a good argument for a government limiting the number of programs that it kicks off. Not only is it hard to predict what the outcome of these will be, but also its hard to predict how the will interact with each other.

What's scientific about management? Next you'll be telling me that economics is a serious discipline...
I thought Chris Dillow's argument was that Britain's modern woes are to do with the rise of the MBAcracy? Criticism of the concept of management is just silly.

Cian said...

"It is perfectly correct to be negative about such ideas, the good ones will survive. This is classic Karl Popper: Conjecture and Refutation. You seem to be confusing this with nilhistic negativity."

This is a bit naive. It just about works for science (though less reliably than Popper believed). But there's plenty of evidence that in any other arena ideas survive for a whole host of reasons ranging from the power of their backers, money, inertia, etc.

You're also making the classic mistake of assuming that change is progress. New ideas, new technologies and change is not necessarily progress. Sometimes its just change, sometimes its regression. It also assumes that we can agree on what constitutes progress.

For example, on the issue of labour, the right would argue we've had 30 years of progress, while the left would argue the inverse. Most political problems are of this type (welfare, from Popper's list, is another).

War is an example of a different kind. While we can all agree war is bad, when it comes to choosing between war and other values, it seems war is always necessary. And we certainly haven't progressed on war to date (indeed our progressive leader seems to like starting the damn things).

Paulie said...

It's a good point Richard.

Surely Daniel should be eating his own dogfood and asking only for negative responses to articles or posts that he writes - or indeed, he could add a disclaimer on all comments asking only for negative responses?

I've noticed another hasty post-hoc rationalisation here as well. Daniel seems to have noticed (in the comments here) that his most recent article on CIF (described as part of the 'One Minute MBA' series, not only endorsing Cameron's approach to managing relations with the Muslim community, but also offering a few hints of his own) is nothing like a negativist article.

It it, he has stated that he is straying beyond his stated area of specialism (economist / econometrician) and moving closer to the ground marked 'general purpose expert'.

Cian, you say "While we can all agree war is bad, when it comes to choosing between war and other values, it seems war is always necessary."

Argue for those values then. I, for one, am always interested in any suggestions that would result in a more legitimate international community and for less by the way of unilateralism.

This negativist agenda (and it's been around for a while even if it is only now being rationalised) has the effect of intimidating people with something constructive to say.

It privileges the peer-reviewer over the author to the point that it reduces the incentive to authors. It seems somewhat akin to book-burning to me. You simply can't make the case for anything if your interlocutors are able to shift ground all of the time without ever offering an alternative.

There are plenty of people with interesting and constructive things to say (including those who argue for less active government). They are disincentivised from saying those things because they can just find themselves fighting blindfolded in a snarky and malevolent pit.

And that is fine if - like Guido - you are arguing that all politics and all politicians are complete gits. If you are arguing for his version of conservative anarchism, then negativism is a powerful tool. But for everyone else, it's just corrosive and obnoxious.

Cian said...

you seem to have misunderstood me. The values aren't mine. I'm not in favour of war. However while peace may be a value, war is a tool that we believe (usually wrongly, but lets bracket that) will enable us to force other people to do what we want. So unless we are willing to accept that other countries will do things that we do not like, disapprove of - war will probably always be with us.

And any discussion that starts with "would result in a more legitimate international community" is not one that I'm terribly interested in, given its starting assumptions. Legitimacy comes down to representation (does the organisation/group adequately represent the opinions of the world's states), not whether the opinions/decisions of that community are one's we agree with. So unless you are arguing that the UN is illegitimate because powerful countries are overrepressented, your bounding assumptions are inappropriate.

I'm not sure who you are arguing with in the rest of your post. If its me, I'm not sure what you're responding to. If its Daniel, you might want to make that clear.

However, you seem to be simultaneously arguing two things:
1) That people should only engage in these debates if they have some constructive to offer (so if you can't push a counter-proposal, and it seems do nothing is not acceptable, you should shut up).
2) That only people who are genuinely expert should contribute.

The implications of this are fairly undemocratic. Essentially most of us should put up and shut up. Is this really what you're arguing for, and have you considered what the long terms of this would be socially? If you want to promote public disengagement, that's a pretty good way to achieve it.

Paulie said...


I'm arguing with Daniel for the most part. Apologies - hasty drafting, should have made that clear.

I'm not arguing that only experts should take part in debates - I'm trying to get to the bottom of Daniel's views on general purpose experts - he seems to have a distain for them in policymaking (which I share, as it happens), but takes what seems to me to be a general-purpose-expert position in being critical whilst - at the same time - saying that he's simply an economist offering his two-cents worth.

My own view is that it is unwise to present yourself as an authority unless you are, but you can and should say anything you think appropriate - the more comment, the better I think? But a spot of humility and open-mindedness is always a good thing.

It seems to me that snarky negativism (and you rarely get the negativism without the implied snark) drives down both the quantity and quantity of debate. Most of it seems to be more designed to denigrate other participants to parade the cleverness of the negativists in question.

It wears you out.

Or it wears ME out, anyway.

dsquared said...

Surely Daniel should be eating his own dogfood and asking only for negative responses to articles or posts that he writes - or indeed, he could add a disclaimer on all comments asking only for negative responses?

This looks like an equivocation between two senses of "negative". The whole point of the comments facility on my blog is for people who disagree with me to say why, and that is in fact what at least half of the comments (the rest being jokes by mates) do.

I am, to be frank, tiring rather of being accused of "post hoc rationalisation". Your entire critique of negativism is a post hoc rationalisation of wanting to stick up for your own kneejerk Blairism, if you ask me. You also might want to think a bit before throwing around claims that anyone else is "snarky" and lacking in "humility and open-mindedness".

I am really rather pleased with my CiF article - it was an endorsement of a sensible proposition by a politician, which could be seen as a sensible proposal because it didn't inolve being nasty to people or telling them what to do. Cameron was (in this specific case) showing the antithesis of progressivism and taking seriously the idea that government is there to provide benefits for people rather than vice versa.

That's the difference between me and Guido Fawkes, as I also explained - he might think that all politicians are the same. I don't. I think that some of them are very plainly better than others, and that the ones who are worst need to be criticised, in the hope of either changing their minds or helping them fail to win election next time. If they do something sensible, and if I have a bit of spare time and interest, I'll say so. But usually, enough bad ideas are generated every week to take up all my blogging time and a little bit more.

I don't believe in this pool of fantastic ideas out there which we could tap if onlyyyy the nasty loudmouthed negativists would just let the shrinking violets who have them have a chance at the talking stick. It all seems rather hippyish to me.

Cian said...

this seems to be largely a criticism of tone. I agree that tone can be unhelpful, but it doesn't invalidate criticism per se. A depressing amount of useful academic criticism also seeks to denegrates rivals. It would be helpful if it didn't, but it doesn't invalidate the criticism. The content is the thing.

And yes humility and open-mindedness are good things - but then our government isn't exactly known for either of these qualities.

Mediocre criticism wears me out. Intelligent criticism is often how we learn things. Now if you were to argue for a more intelligent form of criticism you might have a point. But then Daniel's CiF posts (when he's not trolling) seem fairly intelligent. I don't necessarily agree with them, but they force me to consider the issue from a different perspective and that's worthwhile. Similarly, I think the better columnists offer a similar service.

Paulie said...


For fuck's sake, I AM arguing for a more intellegent form of criticism. Is that not clear?

Daniel, let's get something clear. As far as I can see, you wrote your 'negativist manifesto' in response to my objection to negativism. My objection (read it again) was to unconstructive, snarky, context-free, value-free criticism. I didn't specifically accuse you of being 'snarky' (though you often are), lacking in humility (though no jury in the land would acquit you of that one), or closed-mindedness (of which I could produce evidence if you like).

I did object to the constant ubiquitous (n.b. not from you, or at least not ONLY from you) hum of snarky closed-minded comment though - as is my right to do so. It bores and irritates me. I also think that it ensures that those who do exercise power end up responding to all of the wrong things. In our current state, we allow politicians to get away with simply batting back the bullshit that is generated by the amateurs in the Press Gallery, and this is not, I believe, a good thing. Chris has said this better than I can here:

I too was pleased with your CiF article. I agreed with parts (and disagreed with others). I was also pleased that it showed you contradicting your position on negativism - one that I think is untenable anyway. In it, you WERE NOT NEGATIVIST even though you professed that you would always offer "negative comment or nothing". Neither are you an expert in political communications, despite your professed intention (in this thread) that you only comment from the point of view of an economist or an econometrician.

Instead, you offered suggestions based upon your perspective for a wider application. This is a good thing. I like it. I think that the unpaid blogosphere is absolutely the place for this kind of thing and I look forward to reading more of it from you. But you will keep getting your rather odd manifesto chucked at you whenever you do. This is, of course, your problem and not mine.

I'm still completely baffled with your free-form definition of 'progressive' and 'progressivism' though, and how it connects with this discussion.

Nothing here helps me very much.

Perhaps you could find anyone else who shares your definition of these words and they could explain it to me?

daniel said...

Well no. I had never heard of you previous to your deciding to have a go at me in Justin's comments. I then wrote a long essay in response to your challenge. Since then you've done nothing but have a go at me - specifically, you have repeatedly accused me of dishonesty ("post hoc rationalisation") on the basis of no evidence. You may not like me on the basis of other things I've wrote, but your actual behaviour in direct interaction with me has been 100% a drag; you're not polite, you're not pleasant, and you seem to be addicted to misrepresenting things I write. I'm not writing any more long essays in reply to you until I see some traffic coming back the other way.

I mean for god's sake, get a fucking load of yourself:

But you will keep getting your rather odd manifesto chucked at you whenever you do. This is, of course, your problem and not mine.

you appear to believe that you are in a position to patronise me. this is very far from being the case.

Anonymous said...

dsquared = Japanese knot weed for blog comments.

Highly invasive and widely seen as a weed.

Digging out is possible, but due to the depth that his rhizomatous roots penetrate re-growth usually occurs.

Best not to allow in your garden to start with.

Paulie said...

Well, I'd hoped I wouldn't need to spell out the 'post-hoc rationalisation' argument, but ... well, here it is.

Beforehand, though, I hope you're not going to use some imagined personal animosity as a pretext for avoiding a legitimate argument. We have got into an argument in which neither of us have been an absolute model of civility. For what it's worth, I can prove that I didn't start the rudeness though. Does the phrase "I shit on the progressives of this planet" ring any bells? Please don't come the wounded puppy about any lack of reciprocal respect when you've doled out - and even defended as a principle - snarky personal abuse as a tool in debate.

I was also totally unaware of your existence until we crossed paths in Justin's comments. My only objection to what you have said here or anywhere else is the way you have argued with me (though I started to register your presence elsewhere since and I thought that your behaviour in Bagrec's MMR thread was pretty revealing).

For reference, it's here:

If you recall, my use of the word 'progressive' made you "reach for your revolver", and you made a rather cheap jibe about me being a hippy. This was - I believe - not calculated to elicit an entirely civil response. Refresh your memory here:

Since then, I've only responded to what you yourself have said - and most of it was - it seemed to me - a knee-jerk response to my own position.

Here's why I think this is the case. Your 'negativist manifesto' had two major features (here is the link, for reference)

1. A defence of the position that I was criticising - that of 'negativism'. You claimed that negativism was a good thing, and you provided a lengthy justification for it.

2. The opposite of negativism was - according to you - something called 'progressivism'. Now, I had a quick check, and I couldn't find any example of you attacking 'progressivism' prior to the exchange in Justin's comments. And the actual word 'progressive' came up in what I intended to be a concillatory reply to Justin - I said that he seemed a fairly 'progressive' blogger. By this, being obviously a bit of a lefty, I intended this as a complement.

I guessed that Justin is a bit of a lefty as well, and my point was that cynicism conflicts with the essential optimism that is (IMHO) a pre-requisite to a lefty perspective. You can remind yourself of that exchange here:

The use of the word 'progressive' was somewhat throwaway, and I had no idea that - two months later - I'd still be dealing with a definition of it that I'd never come across before. A definition that is - I still believe - entirely one that you have invented (awaiting correction on this though).

So, when you came up with your slightly baffling definition of 'progressive' - first in Justin's comments and then in your lengthy 'negativist manifesto', I wondered why the two things (prog and neg) were being conflated. The only point that they met was in my / Justin's comments.

Still with me? Since that point, I've argued with you on the basis of your manifesto post.

The reason that I think that you were indulging in post-hoc rationalisation is because your defence of negativism / attack on 'progressivism' seemed bizarre. It is - as I believe I've said a few times now - a completely unsustainable position - for the reasons I've already given in this thread. You declare yourself a negativist - and the FIRST article you write afterwards reeks of healthy positivism. I think that it is a reasonable conclusion to draw that your 'negativist manifesto' was an extension of the argument started on Justin's blog. It's almost as if you had taken a bet that you could come up with a justification for the 'negativism' that you started to defend on Chicken Yoghurt.

Since your initial manifesto, you seem to have shifted ground significantly anyway, and I'm not sure what I'm arguing against now. In December, you offered a general distain for people who try to discuss things in a constructive way under the pretext that they are somehow bossy - a charge that you've only really asserted - never demonstrated. Because - as I think I've proved to you with examples - it is possible to offer a constructive and persuasive argument for inactive unbossy government.

More recently, you've moved closer to a more anodyne defence of criticism. Surely it's reasonable, you argued, for an expert to point out fallacies when they see them - without having to establish their own position on the subject in question? Now, this is a reasonable position to take - I don't agree with it mind - but I'd be interested in the argument.

But this is not what you do, is it? This is why I think that your whole argument is a post-hoc rationalisation. I don't think that even you agree with your own position. You certainly haven't stuck to it when you reached your first CiF deadline. I think that you could have simply left our initial argument after the brief exchange we had - honours even-ish. But you had to get all riled up and come up with the position that I think you are about to cease defending on the pretext that you've been insulted.

I understand if you think that I insulted you in the last post here - but I've simply given you back what you've said here and elsewhere. Anyway, you yourself have defended what you called 'obscene and scatalogical polemic' and Cian - who has seemed to me to be fairly even-handed in these comments (if taking your side more than mine counts as 'even handed')* has acknowledged that you have a bit of a penchant for trolling. As you seem to be defending this anyway, why object to me noticing it? You've said that the negativist cap fits snugly. Surely you'd want to wear it with pride?

*Cian: There is an implied ;-) in this sentence.

dd said...

I hope you're not going to use some imagined personal animosity as a pretext for avoiding a legitimate argument.

You are wrong on two counts here; it is not an imagined personal animosity and you haven't yet made a legitimate argument. You currently don't understand my article (proof: your seventh paragraph) and to explain myself to you is, frankly, not looking like a rewarding task to me at present, given that here is a summary of the "arguments" you make:

Para 1. short introduction, no argument.

Para 2. no argument

Para 3. "I'm puzzled"

Para 4, 5: false assertion that I think politicians are bad people, and attempt to characterise this as an "easy option".

Para 6: "a bit odd"

Para 7,8,9: misunderstanding of my position, which I have explained to you in this comments thread.

Para 10: assertion that you can't tell the difference between good and bad commentary, as if it were a fault of mine.

Para 11: No argument, although if you think my argument was that "politicians are bad people", I suppose you might regard your own assertion that columnists are bad people as an argument

Para 12: This is an argument, but it is based on the false premis that you have to "surpass someone's expertise" to point out their errors.

Para 13: An unsupported assertion about "most of what passes for comment", which itself is meant to support a restatement of your original position.

Para 14: unsupported and false assertion about current political debate

Para 15: your argument here appears to be based on what you would do if you believed what you thought I believe.

Para 16: it is not correct that I am arguing for "smaller government" and I specifically say I am not.

Paras 17,18,19,20: no arguments

This is not really the sort of cut and thrust I am used to. Maybe it is just because I am a "negativist", but in my view (and you can confirm this by checking on the links in paragraph 7), if you are disagereing with something, you have to provide reasons and evidence. Just saying "I think he believes X and I don't" isn't interesting.

If you want to do some work yourself, rather than constantly saying "I don't understand this" and "I've never seen anything of this sort" as if it were an argument, then you can read "Heresies: Against Progress and other illusions", by John Gray. You will note that it was published before last year. I was one of Gray's students in 1992, which was almost certainly before you started blogging. I don't believe every word Gray's said, but I do take his definition and critique of "progress" very seriously.

Finally, if you are talking about "my behaviour in Bagrec's MMR thread", you probably ought to know that the person I was arguing with had previously asked me to keep a secret for him, and was taking advantage in that argument of my doing so. I thought he got off very lightly in the circumstances.

Cian said...

but you're arguing in the abstract for a more intelligent form of criticism, which in isolation isn't terribly interesting. I'd like for the schools to be filled with better educated and more intelligent children, but without details and a plan for getting there, its not much of a manifesto. And your points on criticism appear similar.

You lack a definition, or even much of an example, of what intelligent criticism might consist of. The only concrete suggestion that you have made is that criticism should be accompanied by positive suggestions. Which is an opinion, but one which seems to contradict the available evidence. For example, in my field (and the fields which touch upon my own), plenty of progress is made by people critiquing previous work. This is how ideas get improved (or sometimes discarded as hopelessly flawed). I'm not sure why political administration should be any different.

Furthermore, your criteria for acceptable criticism would be a subtle form of censorship, and it seems to assume that criticism is bad (I think this is also true of New Labour), which I don't agree with. Ideas are improved through criticism and disagreement. I don't trust ideas that have not been batted around, critiqued and aggressively tested. All ideas have flaws, and the world is sufficiently complex that a single individual (or a group sharing an ideology/mindset) can consider all the complexities of its implementation.

Sometimes ideas are improved when the person criticising them suggests solutions to the problems raised, but just as often it happens when the person whose idea has been criticised addresses these concerns.

A further problem that I would raise, is that its simply not true that you need to be as expert as the proponent of an idea to criticise it. If for example I was an expert in statistics (and I'm so far from being that), I might read a paper that misused statistics to reach an erroneous conclusion. Even if I knew nothing about the subject domain, I could still criticise it. And this is true in all kinds of areas - I regularly read studies which I simply don't believe because of the research methodologies used. A particular argument might use faulty logic to reach its conclusion (stand up John Reid), or it might be a multidisciplinary paper which strays into an area where I'm more expert than the author.

And even if none of these things are true, there is a point that you've simply not considered. It is extremely rare for the originator of an idea to get sufficient distance from that idea so that they can see it "objectively"*. Often major flaws are simply not apparent to the author, while blindingly obvious to people who know far less about the subject domain than him.

You have also failed to define "more intelligent criticism". You've provided examples of what you consider to be better, but the only difference that I can see is that these thinkers (by and large) agree with you. Which leaves the impression, possibly unfairly, that your real problem is that you think that New Labour have by and large been a good party and cannot see that people who think otherwise may be arguing in good faith. This is partially confirmed by your tendency to psychologise certain people's motives, or to focus on style/technique/structure/form.

*I realise all the problems with this phrase, and am using it in a fairly loose sense. Call it the intersection of multiple subjective interpretations, or someowt.

Cian said...

Even handed eh? Not something I hear very often.

"though I started to register your presence elsewhere since and I thought that your behaviour in Bagrec's MMR thread was pretty revealing"

Well it is. It reveals that Daniel can be a bit of pedant, and is a little obsessed with foundational issues. He was also right (though its a fairly banal point - if one that 99% of people on the internet, and 100% of scientists, seem to be ignorant of*), and Anthony was (deliberately?) misunderstanding him and arguing against a straw man. And at one point Anthony was simply wrong. Anthony also came across as mildly unhinged (but then doesn't everyone on the internet. Terrible medium, they should ban it, etc).

The working definition of progressive that Daniel is working with is a fairly common one. Certainly it predates John Gray, and arguably goes back to Nietzsche, who interestingly was also accused of negativism. So there you go. Although I'm not very familiar with that thread of continental philosophy**, my understanding is that its one of the central points made by those who critique the enlightenment.

*Yes this is entirely unfair, but having just skimmed Opelia Benson's mangling of Bruno Latour's arguments in "What is Truth", I'm feeling pretty unfair.

**I realise that continental philosophy doesn't actually exist in a meaningful sense, and might be better described as philosophy that isn't anglo-philosophy.

Anthony said...

"at one point Anthony was simply wrong"


State your case.

Cian said...


The following:
"Your revised statement "It was know to be very small" is therefore still wrong. There is no evidence to know if it was a small, large, medium or miniscule."

This is simply wrong for precisely the reasons laid out by Daniel. There are other errors made by you in the same discussion, but frankly who cares. You obviously don't, otherwise you wouldn't have behaved in the way that you did in that thread.

I have zero interesting in discussing this with you any further, btw.


Paulie said...


Sorry, that won't do. I can't see how Anthony misbehaved in that thread. It was a robust argument, I understood why Anthony thought that the subtle distinction was an important one and I couldn't see why Daniel wouldn't concede the point. BUT, you should probably continue that discussion in BAGREC's comments and not here. Please.


This can go two ways now. I can either provide a point-by-point rebuttal of the comment above with an accompanying commentary on your argumentative style and a list of the questions that you have ignored or sidestepped*.

Or we can try and get back to something a little less needlessly argumentative in which we nail down what you mean by 'negativism'.

I think that it's outlines are becoming clear and I think that I could probably write out a set of short bullet points in which I offer my understanding of it - bullet points that I think you would agree with. I would be happy to amend it if you think I've misrepresented what you are saying.

Because, while we may argue about who said what, where, why, on what basis, what books they've read to support them, etc, we can probably have a civil conversation in which I say... "are you saying...." and then I try and find a language that is as neutral as possible in which I describe what I think your position is.

Shall I do this?

Once I've done that, I think that what we are disagreeing on will be a lot clearer.

* I should say that I've already written this, and I think that posting it here would be very satisfying. But it would probably end up getting us further from generating any content of any worth.

Paulie said...

Oh, one more thing.

Cian, could you send me an e-mail? There's something in your comments that I'd likke to raise with you offline, but I don't have your e-mail address.

Mail me at pauliewaulie (AT) gmail dot com.

dd said...

Paulie, you can do what you like on your own blog, and I will continue to respond to anything where I have a point to make. So I guess decide how you're going to prioritise your time really. But just to make this clear - chuck around as many insults as you like, but I am not cowardly and I am not dishonest and I always take any implication otherwise seriously, no matter how slight. If we're going to have a constructive dialogue, you are really going to have to drop those two assertions, which don't add anything to your argument anyway.

Anthony said...

I have zero interesting in discussing this with you any further, btw.

The feeling is mutual now I see the redundant point you have raised.

Cian said...

"The feeling is mutual now I see the redundant point you have raised."

Okay, that was wierd...

You asked me to point out one of your errors, so I did. How could that possibly be redundant? Even if I was wrong in identifying it as an error (which I'm not), it would hardly be redundant. Given that you didn't challenge the accuracy of my claim, I take it that you accept you were in error.

Cian said...

well I don't want to continue that discussion for various reasons, not least of which I don't agree with either of them. However look at how it starts.

Daniel states that measles is not terribly serious in the first world, as measles mostly kills malnourished kids. He cites as an example the fact only one kid has died in the last ten years in the UK. He also states that measles is not terrifying.

Now my response to this would be:
a) mass vaccination has greatly reduced the number of cases of measles, which might be why there has only been one fatality.
b) That measles can also kill children with encephalitis, or leave them brain damaged. While the numbers are far smaller (about 20 a year killed prior to MMR), it can still be very serious. Roughly 1 in 10,000 who get the disease are killed by it. Me, I'm vaccinating my children against measles.

My initial assumption would be that Daniel (in common with the majority of people) didn't know the full facts about measles, and that he might well change his mind if he did. Certainly assuming he was an idiot, or a dangerous anti-MMR nut would be unlikely to change his mind.

Instead Anthony does the following in a post combatively entitled "ignore the last post". In his first sentence he accuses Daniel of voicing his views on the MMR vaccine, despite the fact he had done no such thing.
He then sort of makes point (a) above, but spoils it by saying "due to the very vaccine you seem to be suggesting isn't necessary", despite Daniel stating no such thing. He also then partially contradicts this point by stating "we have been lucky that more severe outbreaks have no occurred", suggesting that maybe its not due to the vaccine.

He then attempts to make point (b), but fails to even mention encephalitis, and instead supports it using a Guardian article of all things. He produces no statistics, despite boasting later in the thread about the journal article he has written on MMR - indeed he doesn't seem to know what the fatality rate of measles was, despite confidently pronouncing it was very bad.

So in his first post (and it gets far worse from there), he attacks Daniel for something he hasn't said, is unnecessarily insulting (was there any reason that he couldn't make the same points in a more temperate style), fails to make the strongest counter argument and acts in a very patronising way despite apparently not knowing the full facts himself. Its not a particularly impressive performance - though it gets worse when the debate moves into epistemological debates over the bounds of scientific knowledge/ignorance.

Anthony said...


You say that my statement is wrong:

"Your revised statement "It was know to be very small" is therefore still wrong. There is no evidence to know if it was a small, large, medium or miniscule."

You are wrong, hence my suggestion that your point was redundant.

There was no evidence for a risk in 1998. If you know where such evidence exists, rather than a theoretical statistical potential for a risk (which I do accept - see later), then please cite it.

Another way of testing this argument that a known risk existed, would be to ask experts in the field whether there was a known small risk of autism related to MMR vaccine. Amongst the various reputable experts in pharmacovigilance, vaccination and drug safety I have talked to, or listened to in presentations, at conferences over the past few years, I have yet to come across one that said there was a known small risk of autism being associated with MMR vaccine.

Nor I have I seen such a statement in an editorial or paper from a reputable author on the subject (I have two boxfiles of papers on MMR vaccine behind me as I type this).

Of course, there are people who have alleged such a small risk - notably Dr Andrew Wakefield - but they had no evidence for such statements. In fact, the paper I have written, with a co-author, specifically deals with one such accusation of a link made in 1999 in a letter to The Lancet. This involved the graphical misrepresentation of data in an attempt to show that rising autism rates were linked to the introduction of MMR vaccine.

I am not raising this paper in order to boast, but to draw attention to the fact I have actually read the literature in this field very closely, and therefore have some credibility when I say that there was no known risk in 1998 of autism being linked with autism in the scientific literature - whatever you may have read in the newspapers.

That there is a potential for a reaction to be real, without any evidence for such a reaction at a particular point in time, is undeniably true. It is one of the key points I put across in my lectures on drug safety and the reason that drug safety monitoring is crucially important.

Statistically, if we treat n patients with a medicine, and none suffer a particular adverse effect, then we can be 95% confident that the incidence of that adverse reaction will be somewhere between 0/n and 3/n.

So if we treat 2500 patients with Drug X and a gastric bleed does not occur, then there is a 95% probability that the incidence of a gastric bleed lies between 0 in 833 and 1 in 833.

That does not mean you can go around saying that you have evidence that Drug X causes gastric bleeds. You have no observational evidence!

As for the mortality rate of measles, I cited a reputable citation for the fatality rate (1 in 5000, BMJ 2006). I'm confused as to why this can be construed as not knowing the fatality rate. Indeed, at the same time as criticising me for not knowing the mortality rate, you cite a mortality rate (1 in 10,000) that is half that of the generally accepted rate in developed countries.

Kind regards,

Anthony said...

Apologies, this:

"I say that there was no known risk in 1998 of autism being linked with autism in the scientific literature"

Should of course read:

"I say that there was no known risk in 1998 of autism being linked with MMR vaccine in the scientific literature"