Quote #325

“But aren’t we guilty of being insultingly disparaging if we refer to chess as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, poised between one and the other like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique synthesis of all opposites; ancient and yet always new, mechanical in its structure yet animated only by the imagination, limited to a geometrically petrified space yet unlimited in its permutations, always developing yet ever sterile, a logic with no result, a mathematics without calculations, an art without works, an architecture without materials, which has nevertheless proven more lasting in its form and history than any works or books, the only game that belongs every era and among every people, of which no one knows what god brought it to earth to kill boredom, sharpen the wits and tauten the spirit? Where is its beginning and where its end?”

A Chess Story (1941), Stefan Zweig, tr. Alexander Starritt
intellectual self-defence

Twitter is now the bad friend

Originally published 2022-12-23 at

I joined in 2009, I’ve tweeted 30,200 times, I loved the good times I spent on twitter, but those days are gone.

Yes, I joined mastodon. I was inspired by Brian Nosek’s collective action experiment from the end of October.

Enough of the people posting content I like moved to mastodon that I don’t need to read twitter any more. Yes, I’ll post there, and check replies, but it’s faded into the background of my attention, like facebook before it.

Yes, Elon Musk’s attitude to twitter employees, unbanning accounts, and ridiculous new features (blocking links to mastodon, wft?) didn’t help, but for a long time it was obvious that twitter was a bad friend.

Social media plugs into our natural instinct to relate to information in a social context. Not what was said, but who said it, and what everyone else thinks of it. Elon said (and was ridiculed) that twitter was a cybernetic device for collective intelligence. There’s lots to be said about this, but I don’t think he’s wrong.

If social networks support a kind of collective intelligence — and in the weak form of a kind of collective sense-making, this is undoubtedly true — we can ask what the design features of a platform are that support or hinder collective intelligence. Do the affordances built into the software encourage collective intelligence or stupidity?

Some features of twitter

  • Quote tweets: i.e. a context removal device, promoting reacting without understanding.
  • Surfacing tweets you’ve liked or replied to in other people’s timelines: the social media equivalent of sidling up to a friend as whispering “Have you heard what Tom thinks about X? What do you think about that?!”. Offline we’d call that shit-stirring, in social media it is called optimising engagement.
  • Prominent counts of likes, replies and RTs: social proof on steroids, collapsing it into a unidimensional metric of How Important this is, deprioritising information on why it is important.

And now, logging onto twitter today, I’ve seen that they put the number of views marked on each tweet. Why? So we can all feel bad about how few people read our posts? I suspect it is a desperate bit of growth hacking from twitter, prompted by what must now be obvious —millions, like me, are turning the attention away from twitter.

You won’t see this in the headline figures. I still have an account, still follow thousand of people. But I’m not reading their tweets, and I’m not logging on every 5 minutes like I was, and I’m not replying (and people aren’t replying to me — for a couple of years now I have noticed less and less substantive engagement on twitter. Maybe I’m more boring, or have minimised my attack surface for replies, or something, but I suspect that we’re all collectively waking up from the fever-dream of twitter). The people inside twitter must have the stats to confirm this, must be able to see what is happening to the platform.

Mastodon isn’t a perfect substitute for twitter, but many of the differences are features, not bugs. As Clive Thompson wrote, mastodon is anti-viral design. It’s not trying to maximise engagement by provoking controversy, it hides how many other people have boosted or replied to a post, encouraging you to think for yourself whether you want to engage, rather that take social proof. And, more importantly, it isn’t a platform which is selling your attention to advertisers.

The outcome is a platform which isn’t as slick, but on which I can discover interesting information and have sincere engagement with many different people. That’s enough for me.

The thing mastodon doesn’t yet have, and which twitter is losing, is that sense of being a public space, a town square, where people of all types, and all institutions, were represented and could take part in discussion. For years twitter seems to escape the contradiction between looking like a public space, but being a private company with a mission to make a profit out of people. Musk’s takeover may have just made that latent contradiction manifest. Twitter was remarkable because of its elite capture of journalists, politicians and institutions. Maybe there was a path to building it out from there to a sustainable service which contributed to the public good and made a profit. Rather, it looks like — in the manner of a Greek tragedy — twitter will make itself irrelevant by working it’s dark magic on its new owner. Musk-on-twitter will become a hollow caricature: endlessly chasing of engagement, subservient to audience capture, holding onto the rising balloon of shrinking attention.

intellectual self-defence psychology

Facebook’s persuasion architecture and human reason

Originally published 2017-11-12 at

Facebook is a specific, known, threat to democracy, not a general unknown threat to our capacity for rationality

@Zeynep Tufekci has a TED talk ‘We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads’. In it she talks about the power of Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ and she make several true, useful, points about why we should be worried about the influence of social media platforms, platforms which have as their raison-d’être the segmentation of audiences so they can be sold ads.

But there’s one thing I want to push back on. Tufeki’s argument draws some of its rhetorical power from a false model of how persuasion works. This is a model in which persuasion by technology or advertising somehow subverts normal rational processes, intervening on our free choice in some sinister way ‘without our permission’. I’m not saying she would explicitly endorse this model, but it seems latent in the way she describes Facebook, so I thought it worth bringing into the light, pausing just for a moment to look at what we really mean when we warn about persuasion by advertising.

Here’s Tufeki’s most worrying example: targeted Facebook ads aimed at mobilising, or demobilising voters, which are effective enough in changing voter turn out to swing an election. She reports an experiment which tested a fairly standard ‘social proof’ intervention, in which some people (the control group) saw a “get out and vote” message on Facebook, and others (the intervention group) saw the same message but with extra information about which of their friends had voted. People who saw this second message were likely to vote (0.4% more likely). Through the multiplier effect of the social networks they were embedded in, the researchers estimate that 340,000 extra people voted that otherwise wouldn’t have.

Now 340,000 votes is a lot, enough to swing an election, but it would be a mistake to think that these people were coerced or tricked into acting out of character by the advert. These were people who might have voted anyway, and the advert was a nudge.

Think of it like this. Imagine you offer someone an apple and they say yes. Did you trick them into desiring fruit? In what sense did you make them want an apple? If you offer apples to millions of people you may convert hundreds of thousands into apple-eaters, but you haven’t weaved any special magic. At one end, the people who really like apples will have one already. At the other, people who hate apples won’t ever say yes. For people who are in between something about your offer may speak to them and they’ll accept. A choice doesn’t have to originate entirely from within a person, completely without reference to the options presented to them, to be a reasonable, free, choice.

No model of human rationality is harmed by the offer of these apples.

Our choices are always codetermined by ourselves and our environment. Advertising is part of the environment, but it isn’t a privileged part — it doesn’t override our beliefs, habits or values. It affects them, but it no more so and in no different way than everything else which affects us. This is easy to see when it is offers of apples, but something about advertising obscures the issue.

Take the limit case — some political candidate figures out the perfect target audience for their message and converts 100% of that audience from non-voters into voters with a Facebook advert. Would we care? What would that advert — and those voters — look like? They would be people who might vote for the candidate anyway, and who could be persuaded to vote for someone else by all the normal methods of persuasion that we already admit into the marketplace of ideas / clubhouse of democracy. They wouldn’t vote for a candidate they didn’t sincerely believe in, and the advert wouldn’t mean that their vote couldn’t be changed at some later point, whether by another advert, by new information, by arguing with friend or whatever.

There are still plenty of reasons to worry about Facebook:

  • Misinformation —how it can embed and lend velocity to lies.
  • Lack of transparency — both in who is targeting, who is targeted and why.
  • Lack of common knowledge —consensus politics is hard if we don’t all live in the same informational worlds.

Tufeki covers these factors. My position is that it hasn’t been shown that there is anything special about Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ beyond these. Yes, we should worry something with the size and influence of Facebook, but we already have frameworks for thinking about ‘persuasional harm’— falsehoods are not a legitimate basis for persuasion, for example, so we are particularly concerned to hunt down fake news; or, it is worrying when one interest group controls a particular media form, such as newspapers. Yes Facebook persuades, but it doesn’t do so in a way that is itself pernicious. Condemning it in general terms would be both misplaced, a harm to any coherent model of citizens as reasonable agents, and a distraction from the specific and novel threats that Facebook and related technologies constitute to democracy.


I don’t read students’ drafts. Should I?

Originally published 2016-05-16 at

I don’t read students’ drafts. Should I?

Lots of students assume I will read drafts of their work before the final assessment. They do this despite me not offering to do this, or even saying I won’t do it.

Although I’ve sympathy for the students, I don’t want to do it, for a few reasons.

A first reason is that it is unfair to do for some students and not all. It isn’t possible to do for all students, when I teach classes of 200. Or, more precisely, if I took the time to give feedback on 200 drafts then I would have to take the time away from some other part of the course, or from students on other courses.

Not only would this be unfair, I don’t believe it would be the most efficient use of my time as an educator. It wouldn’t be efficient because I know from experience that the feedback I have to give on assignments is the same for the majority of students. In fact, I try and incorporate my advice on how to write the assignment into how I teach the course.

Also, me giving feedback might give a student a false sense of security — as if I have read their work and approved it. The truth is, you can fix the main weaknesses of an assignment and still write a bad assignment.

Most importantly, I think my job as a Univeristy lecturer is to train students to be autonomous learners. This often means asking them to take more responsibility for their work than they are comfortable with. It feels like there is a trade-off between offering reassurance, even if it is of limited value, and helping students come to trust their own judgement.

Obviously, it would be insulting to ask students to complete work without guidance, examples, structures to practice within or feedback of any kind. I provide these things. I give feedback on essay structures and things like question choice, but I draw the line at reading full drafts.

Perhaps this is wrong. Other University lecturers have obviously made different choices in how they design their courses and structure their time. A-level teaching is also obviously orientated around looking at (multiple) drafts. Should I continue that practice, or is it okay to use my courses as somewhere to do things differently?

What do you think?


Optimal training in aikido, part 1

Originally published 2016-04-17 at part 2 isn’t finished yet, but I’m still thinking about it.

How does anyone know what to aim for in perfecting aikido technique?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Traditionally, Aikido doesn’t feature competition or sparring, rather you take turns to practice the movements, consisting of various locks and throws. After a demonstration by the instructor (sensei), your partner (uke) simulates an attack and you (tori) perform the technique with a level of fluidity, speed and mercilessness matched to your skill and the skill of your partner. After a few goes you swop roles. After a few rounds of this, and maybe the sensei offering some one-to-one comments, the sensei demonstrates another technique and you find a new partner and take turns to practice again.

There are variations, and some other elements of practice, but for many people this is the main way they improve their skill at the art.

I am interested in the best way to get better at aikido (what should we do during training?), and the related issue of what the ultimate target of practice is (what defines a movement as good or bad, better or worse?). There are a few reasons why these issues, for aikido, are not obvious.

Martial arts in general are fighting systems, so they are meant to make you better at fighting. The problem with this is that you can’t train in real fighting (unless you like injury or litigation), so the different martial arts all adopt proxies, which introduce rules to stop people getting hurt. At the same time, the rules of the proxy-fights make them bad simulations of real rights, so if you optimise your skill to be good at a proxy-fight you may build into your technique blind spots for which you haven’t trained (or even for which you have trained yourself to be particularly susceptible). Examples: sparring which is stopped when it goes to the floor, outlawed moves (kicks to the head, eye gouging, various locks and breaks).

Many martial arts convey information about forms outside of ‘live’ contest situations. So Judo, Karate, etc all have a varying emphasis on practising the techniques separately from sparring or competition, and sometimes very formalised routines called kata, outside of competition.

Aikido’s situation is that it teaches some techniques which are too dangerous to do in competition. If your opponent resists it either won’t work or you’ll break one of their limbs. This means that when you practice these techniques you need a high degree of trust and consent from your uke. In a sense the uke is letting you progress the move to the end —they have to start the move as if they don’t anticipate what you are going to do (even though you’ve probably done it with them only seconds before), and then as the technique develops they have to react in such as way as to protect themselves from injury (typically by rolling or flipping).

So when we practice aikido we practice with the cooperation of someone who is, in some sense, letting us do the technique, but we are aiming to perfect a technique which will work on someone who isn’t cooperating. In fact, we want to develop technique which works on someone who is doing more than just not cooperating, they are actively trying to hurt us. The first issue is how to develop effective technique for antagonistic situations from practice which is predicated on cooperation.

The second issue is that, there are usually many ways to make a particular technique ‘work’ (and usually each school or each sensei will teach subtle variations). Is there any principled way to discriminate between these variations?

In a competition based martial art you have a method for answering the questions about the superior variations — if technique A helps people win, it’s good. If technique B is often defeated, its bad. Note that even here you don’t get away from doing some extra thought: because competitions are proxy-fights we still distinguish from legitimate wins and technical wins which are within the rules but would never work in any situation other than the one defined by the rules. People who train exclusively to win competitions, but using gamesmanship and techniques which exploit rule-loopholes are viewed with scorn — they’re optimising the wrong problem.

But in martial arts without competitions, like aikido, you don’t even have the opportunity of this objective but potentially misleading method. We practice the techniques, develop a feel for ‘what works’. And different styles teach different things. How do we decide between them? How do you know you are aspiring to an aikido which has even the possibility of being effective outside of the practice hall?

If you think the answer to this is “you just need to be honest with yourself” then I think you’ve overestimated our ability to do that, and/or underestimated the difficulty of gaining insight into the target of what we’re trying to learn.

Aikido is based around a system where knowledge of the art is passed down from the most senior grades. This system suggest that aikido has some true form which is passed down, like a secret, to each generation. This is obviously falsified, both by the historical fact that aikido was invented by a single individual in the 1920s and by the realisation that none of his students since can seem to agree entirely of how it should be practiced.

The idea of ‘revealed truth’ in aikido also contradicts what we know from the psychological science of motor learning, where self-guided discovery and practice based refinement of movements are known to be key to skill learning.

A useful contrast is other domains of motor skills, sports. Although coaching is important, in something like soccer, there’s a large component of learning through discovery — get on the pitch and kick the ball. The difference to aikido is that aikido doesn’t have a pitch. In soccer you can see how your practice has paid off in the match. In aikido, you practice for a match you hope to never play.

One response to this is to say “Fine, aikido isn’t realistic — I’m doing it for other reasons” which is fine (and probably the wise choice if you started out wanting to know self-defence, aikido is not first place to learn that). However, this response leaves the problem of what you are trying to learn unsolved. Aikido is fun, and beautiful, and patterned by the same constraints of human bodies and movement as dancing, but although it is a lot like dancing, it isn’t dancing. It references combat, but it isn’t clear to me how that reference can be meaningful when the people teaching it and practicing it no longer engage in combat as a profession (contrast the Samurai of feudal Japan).

intellectual self-defence

Too smart for facebook?

Originally published 2016-04-07

It interests me how the generations younger than me have changed their social media habits.

Whilst the professional-age world seems happy with twitter and facebook, younger people have moved their attentions elsewhere (you can google for the evidence of this, here I am relying on a completely unsystematic sampling from biased personal experience).

Is this because they want to avoid the social media that their parents are on? Because they are driven by a relentless and fickle need novelty and illicit thrills? Maybe in part, but there’s also a logic to the specific social media networks which are in vogue.

  1. WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption. As well as one-to-one messaging you can use group chat for the sort of thing you might use twitter @ messaging or facebook chat, with better privacy.
  2. YikYak offers anonymous location-based chat. Obviously they’ll bust you the moment the law wants your details, but if you are just after hook-ups or advice about embarrassing personal problems this is good enough anonymity to protect your identity from your employer (or partner, or friends).
  3. Snapchat messages disappear after a number of seconds, offering the illusion of impermanence for web-messaging. So different from message boards or most IM, where casual banter from years ago is stored for eternity.

So in this way new social media offers some sort of address to three of the big threats of life online: lack of privacy, irrevocable binding of your online actions to your offline identity, and permanent records of even your tiniest online actions.

Maybe The Youth aren’t so fickle and short sighted in their use of social media after all.


Cheap tricks for starting discussions in lectures

Originally published 2015-11-18 at

It is the beast all new lecturers fear, the crowd: a many eyed, many headed beast. A beast which will typically stare at you, unresponsive, as you stumble through your material.

The difficulty is that a crowd’s size reinforces passive behaviour. Why would any single student answer your question, ask their own question or join in a show of hands? No reason, especially when nobody else is.

A small group is something you can work with. Make eye contact. Get a response to a question. Sense a mood. But beyond a certain size the group you are teaching becomes a crowd. For me, a dozen people is a large group, but then at around 30 people the change happens. They’re all still individuals, of course they are, but it you can’t relate to them in the same way.

They won’t relate to you in the same way, and some inertial force takes over which makes getting a reaction incredibly difficult. Maybe I need more reassurance than most, but I like to hear from my student. I like to check they are with me during the lecture, and to engage them in what I’m talking about, even if only with a simple show of hands.

So, over the years, I’ve adopted a series of techniques which help me work with a large lecture group — which can mean a crowd of up to several hundred. As you’d expect from someone who lecturer in a psychology department, most of these tricks have some theory about human behaviour behind them, which I’ll try and explain along the way.

1. Discuss in pairs

I’ve heard discussing a question in pairs described as the “washing hands” of group interaction, something so fundamental that you should adopt it as a basic habit before trying to have any kind of group discussion. Allowing your students to discuss something before speaking out in front of the whole class breaks down the two fundamental reasons students don’t speak in class. The first is social comfort — nobody liked to stand out in social situation in which they don’t understand, where they don’t know the people. Sometimes we lecturers forget that not everybody finds lecture classes as familiar as we do, not everyone enjoys the same comfort and authority that we do with 100 relative strangers. By discussing an issue in pairs first, each student learns a little about their neighbour, which is essential for social comfort. What they also do is gauge how much they understand. Even if you’ve asked a question with an obvious answer, only the most comfortable confident will provide the answer. For most people, even though they’ll also know the answer and think it is obvious they’ll want to check in a way with less potential for embarrassment that this is what other people think too. Discussing in pairs allows this double-checking.

2. Hand signals for remaining time needed

I learned this from Alec Patton of High Tech High. Once you’ve given your class discussion time, you need to actively manage this. Usually I declare in advance how long they’ve got to discuss something, or I try and guess by watching if people are still discussing the issue, or if they’ve moved on to discussing what they did last night. Alec’s technique works by creating a simple feedback mechanism: you interrupt the discussion and ask everyone to show using their hand how their discussion is going: a number of fingers for how many more minutes they need to finish the discussion, a closed fist for if they’re done. It’s easy enough that you can get a clear response from everyone, rather than having to rely on catching mumbled answers or the shouts of a helpful minority.

3. No straight questions

A naive thought is that if you want students to speak out in class you should ask them an easy question. This is wrong. If you ask a question with a right answer then the fear of getting it wrong will, for many, loom larger than the pleasure in getting it right. An easy question will only magnify the anxiety about getting the question wrong. Even a student who is 99% confident they know the answer may be prevented from volunteering it if they weigh the potential embarrassment as 1000 times more serious than any benefit they may feel from getting it right (and let’s face it, speaking out in class has never been universally respected by students anyway).

In my classes I make point of principle never to ask a question with a single straight answer. This means “How could you criticise this experiment?” rather than “What is the flaw in this experiment?”, it means “What other theories might be relevant here?”, rather than “Tell me what cognitive dissonance theory predicts”, and so on.

Sure you can get my questions wrong, but they never come with a simple right answer. This diminishes the fear that there is a simple answer you’re not getting, and means that as long as you can think of a reason why your answer might be right, it is worth sharing. It also makes it more fun for me to teach because instead of questions resulting in me moving on, or being disappointed, I actually get to find out what my students are thinking.

4. Diminish responsibility

The famous “bystander apathy” effect is where someone in a public place obviously needs help, but nobody helps. One driver of the effect is diminished responsibility, whereby no individual feels like it is their job to help. In your lecture, if you ask a question, you have to overcome diminished responsibility where nobody feels like it is their job to answer your question (note that this combines with the social pressure to conform —nobody else is answering the question, so why should they stick out). It’s hard to overcome diminished responsibility. One way that is widely disliked by students is to pick specific individuals (this is what they tell you to do if you are in danger or otherwise need help in a public place — don’t shout “help”, point to a particular person and say “you need to help me”). This can work, especially if you have some rapport with your students (if I ever do this I give the students good warning that I will be picking on someone at random to answer, so they had all better be ready). Less severe is to try and merely narrow the focus, by identifying the kind of person you’d like to answer (“Now someone who doesn’t agree with this argument”, “Now someone in these three rows”, etc).

5. Positivity

When you have your answer, you have to confirm and extend the expectation that you will never belittle a student or dismiss their answer. Answering your questions has to be a positive experience (if you think that it is important that students are told they are wrong, you’re going to need a bigger stick to make their respond — like exam assessment — or a smaller group and more extended contact — like a weekly tutorial). There’s a subtle art to this, but it’s a worthwhile one to be able to take whatever someone says and weave it into a point that continues the direction of your lecture. In dramatic improvisation training, actors are taught to “Yes, and” rather than “No, but”. With a bit of practice you can learn to improvise off wrong — or at at least unexpected — answers to 99% of the time find something to say which you’d like to class to appreciate anyway.

To give flavour of this, if my question is “What is the capital of France”, this is bad:

Student: “London”

Me: “Wrong!”

This is better:

Student: “London”

Me: “Tell me why you think that”

But something like this is more fun for everyone:

Student: “London”

Me: “London is in fact the capital of England, which is absolutely right next to France, and — like France — an important western European nation which shares historical, economic and geographical ties with France”

Now my theory is that it doesn’t matter if the student knows you’re being generous in your enthusiasm for their answer. What matters is that nobody can think afterwards “Lecturer was displeased with the answer”.

6. Hand down, not hands up

This one really is a cheap trick. If you ask your students to put their hands up to indicate something then everyone who doesn’t put their hand up could either be answering in the negative, or just opting out of your question through laziness. You see this when you ask both options of a two choice issue (“Put your hand up if you came on Tuesday”, “Now put your hands up if you didn’t come on Tuesday”), and the total number of hands you see is less than the number of people in the room. In methodological terms, a show of hands has a response bias issue: the bias is towards not putting your hand up, which deprives you, the lecturer of information (and undermines your authority because people demonstrably aren’t following your instructions honestly).

I try and turn this situation on the head by asking everyone to put their hand up at the start. Now, with everyone with their hands in the air, I ask people to put their hands down if they can’t answer yes to my question. This changes the default choice to be participating in my poll, rather than ignoring it (apart from the really recalcitrant who won’t put their hands up in the first place, but they are unlikely to do this as they’ll stand out from the crowd. Conformity again).

7. A question document, and other technological fixes

This is a technological fix, which may not work for everyone. However good your rapport with a class, some people are just not going to want to speak out in front of everyone. One way of hearing what they have to say is to, before the class, create a Google Document with open edit permissions (meaning anyone who has the link can edit), then to visit which is a link shortener which use common English words, so you end up with a link you can shout across the room, something like (it works because links expire within 12 hours, so it never runs out of common English words). Then, in the lecture, I tell the class they can find the document via the shoutkey link. Before the end of the lecture I check the document and can answer any questions which anonymous students have left.

There a range of neat technological solutions which are becoming more and more plausible now that most places I lecture have wifi and most students I lecture have laptops or smartphones. Two which I haven’t used extensively but which seem to have lots of potential are and which are both simple ways for an audience with smartphones to provide answers to polls and the feedback the answers in the forms of percentages or graphs.

Like all the best digital technologies, these make the “real” experience more worthwhile, they don’t replace it with a “virtual” substitute.

There are many tricks, but these ones are mine

Now my lecturing experience is particular to me — and some of this advice may not travel. I know that students in different cultures may be more willing to shout out in a group. Because conformity and social comfort are such massive drivers of social behaviour, the history of a particular cohort of students can have a large effect on how they’ll respond in a lecture situation (so, for example, if they have been together for a year already half your job is already done).


Tools, substitutes or companions: three metaphors for thinking about technology

This reposted from the Cyberselves blog, which has died. Original date: 2018-02-05

Here are three metaphors for how we think about digital and robotic technologies:

File:Centaur (PSF).jpgFirst, as tools. Passive instruments which extend our own power. Hammers enhance your hitting, video calling extends your presence, algorithmic trading merely implements the rules you designed for trading. Tools seem like passive objects, without their own desires, but a moment’s thought will tell you that even passive objects have psychological effects (that’s why we say ‘to a man with a hammer every thing looks like a nail’).

A second metaphor is to think of technologies as substitutes. This is the metaphor which dominates robotics – and the ever repeated image of the humanoid robot, whether doing human labour (and potentially putting them out of work), or rising up and a waging a war against humans to replace them. Here’s an interesting post from Marginal Revolution, which pours cold water on self-driving trucks, explicitly because it rejects the idea that all the functions of a truck driver can be replaced by technology:

truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever. [and on]

But there is another metaphor for technology, that of working companions. This is a metaphor where technology complements human abilities, rather than merely extending them (like tools), or replacing them (like substitutes). Ironically, the quote above is a comment on an article which takes the companion metaphor as its premise, not the replacement metaphor (“Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?“). Clive Thompson, in the compelling first chapter of his Smarter Than You Think labels human-technology teams ‘centaurs’. For Thompson the question “Who is better at chess – humans or computers?”- is simply the wrong question. The best chess, the most interesting chess, can be played by computer-human teams which fluidly interact and can draw on the strengths of both:

In essence, a new form of chess intelligence was emerging. You could rank the teams like this: (1) a chess grand master was good; (2) a chess grand master playing with a laptop was better. But even that laptop-equipped grand master could be beaten by (3) relative newbies, if the amateurs were extremely skilled at integrating machine assistance. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer,” Kasparov concluded, “was overwhelming.”

Better yet, it turned out these smart amateurs could even outplay a supercomputer on the level of Deep Blue… They did it using their own talents and regular Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers, of the type you probably had sitting on your desk in 2005, with software you could buy for sixty dollars

Read an excerpt here.

The technologies of the future will be more exciting, more dangerous, more mind-altering than either tools or substitutes. How we relate do our new companions will require an exercise of the imagination, as much as anything else. Letting our thinking be captured by restricted metaphors for these new technologies will only hold us back.

Related: How To Become A Centaur at 2018-02-07


Most things may never happen: this one will,

By Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


Quote #323: Perdido Street Station

It was not a purer realm that loomed vastly over the city. Smokestacks punctured the membrane between the land and the air and disgorged tons of poisonous smog into that upper world as if out of spite. In a thicker, stinking haze just above the rooftops, the detritus from a million low chimneys eddied together. Crematoria vented into the airborne ashes of wills burnt by jealous executors, which mixed with coaldust burnt to keep dying lovers warm. Thousands of sordid smoke-ghosts wrapped New Crobuzon in a stench that suffocated like guilt.

The clouds swirled in the city’s filthy microclimate. It seemed as if all of New Crobuzon’s weather was formed by a massive, gradual crawling hurricane that centred around the city’s heart, the enormous mongrel building that squatted at the core of the commercial zone known as The Crow, the coagulate of miles of railway line and years of architectural styles and violations: Perdido Street Station.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000), p78

Cover by Edward Miller


What is imperative is that you be there and speak

One is called to the deathbed of a parent, and one, facing her, does not know what to say. Yet one has to say something.
The other has arrived at the limit – the limit of her life – when she can do nothing more. But she has yet this to do: to die. It is something she has to do, alone, and without any experience to appeal to, any means or resources. It is something she, nevertheless, has to do and will do well or badly, bravely or in collapse, resolutely or cowering. She has always known she will have to do this, has often thought of it, has often willed to die the one way or the other. For every time she did something bravely, or cowardly, it was an anticipation of this final confrontation. Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise in the West on rational ethics, listed courage first of all the virtues. It is not simply first on the list of equivalent virtues; it is the transcendental virtue, the condition for the possibility of all the virtues. For no one can be truthful, or magnanimous, or a friend, or even congenial in conversation, without courage. And every courage is an act done in risk: of one’s reputation, of one’s job, of one’s possessions, of one’s life.
And you, called upon to be there when the other is at the limit, and also at the origin, of the virtues, the powers, that a life can have, find yourself at the limit of the powers of language.
The nurses say, “I am so glad you have come!” They know you can do, must do, something they cannot do – say something to the dying one. What can one say? Anything one tries to say sounds vacuous and absurd in one’s mouth. It seems to you that the problem is not simply that you do not have the skills in speaking or that you cannot come up with the right things to say because you have no experience in this kind of situation, but that language itself does not have the powers. There is not, in the words and the combinatory possibilities of language, the power to say what has to be said. Yet you have to be there, and you have to say something. You have never been more clear about anything. There are those who do not go, to the bedside of the dying one, demoralized by the terrible impotence of language to say anything. It seems to them that, in their speechlessness, they are carried away already into the region of death and silence with the other. But if you somehow find the courage to go, you are sure you have to be there and have to say something. What is imperative is that you be there and speak; what you say, in the end, hardly matters. You end up saying anything “It’ll be alright, Mom” – which you know is a stupid thing to say, even an insult to her intelligence; she knows she is dying and is more brave than you. She does not reproach you for what you said; in the end it doesn’t matter, what was imperative was only that you say something, anything. That your hand and your voice extend to her in accompaniment to the nowhere she is drifting on to, that the warmth and the tone of your voice come to her as her own breath gives way, and that the light of your eyes meet hers that are turned to where there is nothing to see.
Everyone has known such a situation in which the rift between the saying and the said opens up. A situation in which the saying, essential and imperative, separates from the said, which somehow it no longer orders and hardly requires.

In the rational community the other situation is the normal one – that where what is said is the essential and the saying inessential, that where what is imperative is only that whoever speaks, he say this.

Alphonso Lingis (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (essays). This is the start of “the element that faces”, p107ff


Quote #321 Naipaul on writing

I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which one arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good.

VS Naipaul, in The Enigma of Arrival (1987), p94


Quote #320 Orwell on Dali

One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

Orwell, George (1944). Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

Quote #319

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent

Attributed to John Maynard Keynes, but probably Gary Shilling
science technical notes

Chromosteopsis: colophon

Over at, an introduction to chromosteopsis. Here: how I made some of those images. Github repo: chromo

It turns out that you get the nice speckled pattern just by randomly colouring pixels with 0.3 probability. I thought you could probably combine with other depth cues (such as a texture gradient) to enhance the illusion, but didn’t get to this.

I thought the effect might interact with motion and/or eccentricity so I made a gif

quotes Uncategorized

Returning to Reims

No one thinks about how the order of things actually works, because to do so would require being able to see oneself from a different point of view, have a bird’s eye view on one’s own life and the lives of other people. Only if you actually manage to move from one side of the border to the other, as happened in my case, can you get out from under the implacable logic of all those things that go without saying in order to perceive the terrible injustice of this unequal distribution of prospects and possibilities. And things haven’t changed all that much: the age for leaving school has shifted, but the social barrier between classes remains the same. That is why any sociology or any philosophy that begins by placing at the center of its project the “point of view of the actors” and the “meaning they give to their actions” runs the risk of simply reproducing a shorthand version of the mystified relation that social agents maintain with their own practices and desires, and consequently does nothing more than serve to perpetuate the world as it currently stands—an ideology of justification (for the established order). Only an epistemological break with the way in which individuals spontaneously think about themselves renders possible the description of the mechanisms by which the social order reproduces itself. The entire system needs to be apprehended, including the manner in which dominated people ratify their domination through the choice they make to drop out of school, thereby making the choice they had been intended to make. A theory’s power and interest lie precisely in the fact that it doesn’t consider it as sufficient simply to record the words that “actors” say about their “actions,” but that rather, it sets as a goal to allow both individuals and groups to see and to think differently about what they are and what they do, and then, perhaps, to change what they do and what they are. (p.46-47)

So we find ourselves back at the question of who has the right to speak, who takes part—and how—in decision-making processes, which is to say not just in the elaboration of solutions, but also in the collective definition of the questions that it is legitimate and important to take up. When the left shows itself to be incapable of serving as a space in which new forms of questioning can be elaborated and tested, when it ceases to serve as a locus in which people can invest their dreams and their energy, they will be drawn to and welcomed by the right and the extreme right.
Here, then, is the task that social movements and critical intellectuals must take up: the elaboration of theoretical frameworks and of political modes of perceiving reality that enable not an erasure—that would be an impossible task—, but as great a neutralization as possible of the negative passions that are at work within the social body, especially within the popular classes. Other perspectives must be offered and a different future sketched out on behalf of what might then deservedly once again be called the left.(p. 148-149)

Didier Eribon (2009). Returning To Reims. Trans. Michael Lucey (2013)


Quote #317: Beyond the suburbs where I went to school

All I knew was that somewhere,
Beyond the suburbs where I went to school,
It seemed there were heroic deeds,
Irrational acts and holy fools.

Stewart Lee, “I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass“, collected in “How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian” (2010)


Quote #316: Against parochial standards of transparency

Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. As Drucilla Cornell, in the tradition of Adorno, reminds me: there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. But formulations that twist grammar or that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? … The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view. Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of the nation and said, “let me make one thing perfectly clear” and then proceeded to lie. What travels under the sign of “clarity” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?

Judith Butler in the Preface (1999) to Gender Trouble (1990)

technical notes

New hosting

After many years with Positive, I’ve switched the hosting to Webarchitects. Webarch are a cooperative, using green energy to power their servers and have been great in helping me move this site to their servers. They are also based in the great city of Sheffield, England

Thanks to Dan for the recommend


New Roots, 1987 – 2020

new roots shop front

New Roots was a non-profit wholefoods “shop for justice” on Glossop Road, Sheffield. Owned by the Ashram Trust, but run by Grace Vincent (until 2013), it was staffed by a community of volunteers, including many students (the shop site is about 2 minutes from the University of Sheffield Students’ Union).

Last week I went past the shop and saw it was being cleaned out. The Ashram Trust is planning to sell the shop. It had been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and had been open less regularly even before then.

I have happy memories of New Roots and think of its passing as a success. The values that made New Roots unusual in 1987 are now more mainstream – The Student’s Union has it’s own zero-packaging shop, you can buy vegan food almost everywhere, get fair trade and organic veg in supermarkets and so on. All things have their seasons.

New Roots is now passed into legend, but leaves behind a community which stretches out across generations of volunteers – I’m still in touch with many. A community forged by decades of shop floor chat, of protest planning, bicycle powered smoothies, cake cutting, and tens of thousands of hot veggie burritos.

I was hosting the New Roots website, but have recently changed my hosting plan so will disappear forever at some point. I’ve scraped the site and put it here. Local heroes Webarchitects have scraped the site and archived it here. Also in existence are New Roots pages on facebook (see this link for photos), twitter and there’s a nice roll of pics on instagram.

Grace Vincent. Thanks for everything Grace

If you’ve memories of New Roots you’d like to share please leave a comment, or send me any pictures and I can add them here.


Quote #315: a secret reservoir of courage

All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968. Tim O’Brien: a secret hero. The Lone Ranger. If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990), p39-40


Quote #314: a dark circus

So the grey arena formed itself and the crowd grew, while the domed ceiling of the dark place dripped, and the lamps were re-filled and some held candles, some torches, while others had brought mirrors to reflect the light, until the whole place swam like a miasma. Were his shoulder not hurting from the grip it had sustained Titus might well have wondered whether he was asleep and dreaming. Around him, tier upon tier (for the centre of the arena was appreciably lower than the margin. and there was about the place almost the feeling of a dark circus) were standing or were seated the failures of earth. The beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits, the conversationalists, the human oysters, the vermin, the innocent, the snobs and the men of straw, the pariahs, the outcasts, rag-pickers, the rascals, the rakehells, the fallen angels, the sad-dogs, the castaways, the prodigals, the defaulters, the dreamers and the scum of the earth

Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone (1968), Chapter 58


Bad group logic

The day before the UK general election, and there’s a lot of political communication flying about on social media. There are positive persuasions (“Vote Labour!”), negative persuasions (“Don’t vote Tory”), and a curious kind of message which interests me now: “Tories are evil”. Here’s an example:

The Conservative Party is an eternally irritating force for wrong that appeals exclusively to bigots, toffs, money-minded machine men, faded entertainers and selfish, grasping simpletons who were born with some essential part of their soul missing”. Charlie Brooker

The first curious thing about this quote is the logical content, which is either ridiculous or sinister. The Conservative Party got 13.6 million votes in the last election, more than any other party. Brooker’s claim is weirdly specific, and if we assume the number of “toffs, money-minded machine men and faded entertainers” is small, we are forced to conclude that Conservative voters are either “bigots” or “selfish, grasping, simpletons”. Either Brooker has made a mistake about what Conservative voters are like, or millions of ordinary people are bigots or simpletons. This view leads two places: First, to the conclusion that people who aren’t as insightful as Brooker shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Second, that there is no point trying to persuade most people honestly – bigots and simpletons can’t understand the evidence and arguments.

The second curious thing about this quote is the intent. The kind of contempt seems unlikely to work on anyone voting Conservative. Nobody would recognise themselves in Brooker’s list of villains, or – if they did – be motivated to weigh his values highly. It’s persuasive currency for the political opposition is zero. It might even be worse than nothing, since any Conservative voter is likely to be incensed, rather than dissuaded.

Messages like this, from simple slurs to more complex arguments that assume the irrationality or stupidity of people who vote differently, don’t exist to persuade. They are cheerleading for political partisanship, playing to the home crowd. Social media is rocket fuel to this kind of performative tribalism, which has it deep roots in our psychological capacity for groupness.

By ‘groupness’ I mean our tendency to identify social groups and use these to navigate our informational worlds. It means that we make decisions about who to believe and who to help based on which group we think they belong too first, using this group membership to filter all other information about them, including what they say or do.

This tendency is usually on on a high trigger, as demonstrated by a phenomenon called the ‘minimal group paradigm‘. I saw a nice demonstrate of the phenomenon recently from David Hauser on twitter:

Let’s just walk through this, since a seemingly trivial classroom demonstration of the minimal group paradigm has important implications for understanding political tribalism.

First, Dave asks the class “is a hotdog a sandwich?”. Question one can be any question, as long as the there are two different answers which are both chosen by some of the class, and as long as the those answers are of no relevance to question two. Some classic research used people’s art preferences. Dave asks if a hotdog is a sandwich. 69% of the class think Yes, 31% think No.

Next, Dave asks people to pick from two options

A: Give $3 to everyone who agrees with me and give $4 to everyone who disagrees with me.

B: Give $2 to everyone who agrees with me and give $1 to everyone who disagrees with me.

Most of the class, 71%, pick B.

Take that in for a moment. Most people are choosing less money for themselves ($2 rather than $3), and less money for many other people in the class – which is bizarre, or at least at odds with economic rationality in itself – and they are doing it because of social groups which didn’t exist until moments before, and have been conjoured out of the air by the instructor asking a stupid question about hotdogs.

Based on this arbitrary grouping, people would rather those who disagreed with them get less ($1 rather than $4) even to their own cost and the general cost of everyone who agrees with them! The are controls you could run to confirm that the effect is driven by the grouping induced by the first question, but the general conclusion must be that tribalism is a hell of a drug, and dangerously easy to invoke.

This helps us understand the attraction of “They Are Evil” messaging. These messages are not persuasive. Thinking like this is the opposite of persuasive – it is polarising, driving people further apart in their views and making communication across the divide harder. We do it because it feels good, awarding us and our tribe the moral equivalent of $2 when we could have had £3, but at the vindictive gain of awarding the opposing tribe $1 rather than $4. Collectively it diminishes us, and encourages a view that people who disagree are biased, selfish or otherwise beyond redemption and persuasion.

Please don’t give in to this kind of thinking. And please be careful of creating new tribes by asking unnecessary questions with binary answers.

intellectual self-defence

Epistemic crisis

In this article, With impeachment, America’s epistemic crisis has arrived, David Roberts, argues that impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will be the stress test for a right-wing alternate-reality. This alternate reality has been fomented over decades, through the cultivation of a right wing media ecosystem – from talk radio, think tanks and talking points. Now, Roberts argues, the Fox News junkies have taken over the White House and are going to try and get away with carrying on as if the crimes Trump committed are not obvious and impeachable – throwing up enough doubt and uncertainty over the proceedings that they can get away with it.

Two elements of this Roberts highlights are:

Tribal epistemology: “… when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.”

And strategical exploitation of consensus: “The right has hacked the cognitive biases of voters and reporters..[there is] a strong tendency, especially among low-information, relatively disengaged voters (and political reporters), to view consensus as a signal of legitimacy. It’s an easy and appealing heuristic: If something is a good idea, it would have at least a few people from both sides supporting it.” Robert’s argument is that by denying consensus they deny legitimacy to mainstream (i.e. Democrat) positions, and keep alive the legitimacy of the alternative (i.e. Republican) reality.

As a wail of despair, or prophesy of doom, I find this piece as appealing as the next liberal, but the lie in it is revealed by its impracticality. The piece doesn’t tell us what to do about hyperpartisan alternative realities, and it can’t, because at root it subscribes to the same model of human irrationality it decries.

The idea that epistemology can be subverted to tribalism implies that there are ways of knowing – or people who know – which aren’t influenced by their social group. The idea that the right-wing base have had their cognitive biases hacked implies that the rest of us have resisted this, or never had a vulnerability in those biases in the first place.

I’m not claiming that there aren’t biases, or tribalism. Reality exists, errors exist and sometimes tribalism does provoke the sacrifice of accuracy. But a useful view of these things will tell us what do when epistemological realities seem to diverge.

My problem with the “alternative reality” account is that is plays to a model where people who disagree with us are irrational. And once you have decided that people are irrational it blocks any possibility of rational engagement – why try to persuade these people (the model suggests), isn’t it hopeless?


Pressure Vessels

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in May 2019, reports an escalation of signs of stress among University workers. Using FOI requests about referrals to University counseling services and occupational health, the report finds, since 2009, widespread, ‘sharp’, ‘astonishing’ and ongoing rises in the number of staff referred every year.

The report describes University work as an ‘anxiety machine’, where pressure to support student satisfaction, workload intensification, work allocation models, performance management and casualisation all combine to ramp up pressure on individual members of University staff. (These issues are precisely those which are the subject of the current UCU dispute and planned industrial action).

Sheffield Hallam UCU used this report, and the underlying data, to identify these statistics for their University: between 2010 and 2015 a 56% increase in staff referrals to University counselling; between 2015 and 2016 a 240% increase in referrals to occupational health.

This is in line with the industry-wide pattern. Extracting the data from the report, I drew the graph of total reported referrals of University staff to counselling (red) and occupational health (blue):

The data is broken down by institution, so I can pull out the data for the University of Sheffield. Here referrals to counseling grew by 2700% (from 30 in 2009, to over 800 in 2016). The occupational health data is not complete, so a comparison is not possible.

Here are graphs for a few other Universities:

A few “data caveats”

  • The data are incomplete, so the total increase could be inflated by more institutions keeping records. Looking at the average figures reported each year, as well as these per-institution figures, shows that this possible confound is not driving the increase.
  • If anyone wants to make some more FOI requests and get data for 2016-2019, I’ll make the graphs
  • I have made graphs for all the institutions in the report. Look for yours.
  • There are large differences in absolute numbers between institutions. If I had the number of employees of each institution I would like to calculate the rate of referrals per employee to allow better comparison across institutions.
  • Many institutions have been making more effort to respond to poor staff mental health, however I think it would be wrong to view the increase in uptake of counselling as an entirely a positive thing – the bottom line is that increased uptake, and increased provision, are responses to the same underlying forces: unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on University staff.


intellectual self-defence

The organising functions of fake news

Lots has been written about the dangers of misinformation, including how to innoculate people against it, or debunk it once people have swallowed it. A common theme is the idea that the risk of fake news is that people will believe it.

But fake news has other functions besides getting people to believe something that isn’t true, and understanding these other functions may be as important as understanding its belief-altering properties.

Topic change. When a blatent untruth is put out, it becomes something to talk about, orienting attention. This can be deliberate – as in the dead cat strategy.

Energy sink. Untruths evoke refutations, further orienting attention and redirecting the energies of your opponents.

Loyalty test. Propaganda doesn’t exist to be believed, it exists as a flag around which people must organise, or display their opposition. The more blatant the untruth the stronger the test of loyalty.

Status display. What better display of power than asking people to humiliate themselves by affirming an untruth merely because you said it?

Misinformation is about power. As long as we try and deal with it as a class of information we’ll be vulnerable to its use by the powerful.

More: “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt

Update: Fake news is a terrible bucket term which is used to cover everything from incorrection information to state propaganda, via all sorts of misinformation.

Related: Podcast: YANSS 157 – The psychology behind why people don’t speak out against, and even defend, norms they secretly despise – which covers, inter alia, norm engineering


Diet choices

Do our individual actions matter when faced with global climate change?

There’s an argument that the collective action required to combat climate change is undermined by focussing on individual consumption choices. Encouraging people to think that responsibility for the environment involves choosing the right kind of teabags, drinking straws or washing powder distracts from the real culprits for emissions (corporations?) and the most effective levers of change (legislation?).

This view is buffered by the blunt logic that a single individual’s behaviour won’t affect the collective outcome. If I reduce my emissions, but nobody else does, then my efforts will have been in vain. If everybody else reduces their emissions, it similarly wouldn’t matter whether I did too, or not.

Diet seems like a prime example of a highly individualised choice. The idea that each of us can and should choose what to eat, and can do so for personal reasons, based on everything from taste to ethics, is widespread. A plant-based diet is associated with lower emissions than a meat-and-diary one, so seems appealing to anyone worried about climate and carbon emissions.

But, sings the critical chorus, if you change your diet, are you just allowing yourself to be distracted from the structural causes of climate change, seduced by an illusion that you can solve collective problems through fashionable lifestyle choices?

Dietary choice is also an example of something highly cultural, as well as highly individual. And food culture is changing. The number of people eating plant-based diets is increasing, as are the options for anyone who want to eat meat and/or diary free. Individual dietary choices take place within this context, and contribute to it.

So here is my question: Knowing what we know about the extent of our carbon emissions, and the reduction required in them, how consequential will individual changes in diet be? Are the ~5% of the UK population who are vegan substantially affecting UK emissions? If not, what percentage would need to be vegan to have a substantial impact?

So, speculating wildly (this is no rhetoric, I am mostly ignorant about actual carbon emissions sources and targets), if a timeline of our carbon emissions and target looks like this:

What does the contribution of human diet look like? Something like this?

And what are the possible projections if different proportions of meals are plant-based rather than meat-and-diary?

The answers interest me because they seem to suggest a bridge between seeing diet as a solely individual choice – and so one which suffers from the brute logic of the collective action problem – and seeing diet as a part of the collective response to climate change. Certainly effective action on climate change requires more government action, but it is also interesting to know how large an effect this particular individual choice could have.


Christian Reynolds has related work, which shows generational changes in diet, and a corresponding change in associated emissions: The greenhouse gas emission impacts of generational and temporal change on the UK diet

Further clues may be in here Zero Carbon: Rethinking the Future, from CAT.


everything whole has been smashed

only what happens is possible, says K., the great, the sad, the wise one, who already knew from individual lives exactly what it would be like when criminal lunatics look upon the world rationally and the world in turn presents a rational aspect to them, that is to say, is obedient to them. And don’t tell me, I most probably said, that this explanation is just a tautological way of explaining the facts with facts, because yes, indeed, this explanation, hard as I know it may be for you to accept, that we are governed by commonplace felons—hard even when you already call them commonplace felons and know them as such— nevertheless as soon as a criminal lunatic ends up, not in a madhouse or penal institution, but in a chancellery or other government office you immediately begin to search for what is interesting, original, extraordinary, and (though you don’t dare to say so, except in secret, of course) yes, great in him, so you are not obliged to see yourselves as such dwarfs, and histories of the world as so absurd, I most probably said; yes, so that you may continue to look upon the world rationally and the world in its turn may present a rational aspect to you. And that is entirely understandable, even entirely commendable, even if your method is neither “scientific” nor “objective,” as you would like to believe, it is not; it is sheer lyricism and moralizing insofar as it seeks to restore a rational, or in other words endurable, world order, and those who have been banished from the world subsequently edge their way back into the world again through these back and front doors—anyone, that is, who is inclined to do so and who believes that the world will henceforth be a place fit for people, but then that is quite another matter, I most probably must have said, the only problem is that this is how legends are born, we can learn from these “objective” lyrical works, these scientific horror stories, say, that the great man had an outstanding tactical sense—right?—as if an outstanding tactical sense were not precisely the means by which every paranoid and manic madman misleads and befuddles those around him and his doctors, and then that social conditions were such-and-such, while international politics were such-and-such, and then some, once philosophy, music and other forms of artistic hocus-pocus had corrupted people’s capacity to think, but above all that, when it comes down to it, the great man, let’s not mince words, was a great man, he had about him something of the disarming, the fascinating, in short: something of the demonic, that’s it, a demonic streak that was quite simply irresistible, especially if we have no will to resist, seeing that we just happen to be hunting for a demon; a demon is just what we’ve been needing for a long, long time for our squalid affairs, to gratify our squalid desires, the sort of demon, of course, who can be persuaded to believe that he is the demon who will take all our own demoniacality on his shoulders, an Antichrist bearing the Iron Cross, and will not insolently slip through our fingers to string himself up before time, as Stavrogin did. Yes, you see and label them as common criminal lunatics, yet from the moment one lays his hands on the orb and scepter you immediately start to deify him, reviling him even as you deify him, listing the objective circumstances, reciting what, objectively, he was right about, but what, subjectively, he was not right about, what objectively can be understood, and what subjectively cannot, what sorts of hanky-panky were going on in the background, what sorts of interests played a part, and never running short of explanations just so that you can salvage your souls and whatever else is salvageable, just so that you can view commonplace robbery, murder and trafficking in souls in which we all, all of us sitting here, somehow play or have played a part, one way or another, in the grand opera-house limelight of world events, I most probably must have said, yes, just so that you may fish partial truths out of the great shipwreck in which everything whole has been smashed, yes, just so as not to see before you, behind you, underneath you and at every turn the yawning chasm, the nothingness, the void, or in other words, our true situation, what it is you are serving and the prevailing nature of the prevailing régime, a dominating power which is neither necessary nor unnecessary but simply a matter of decisions, decisions that are made or not made in individual lives, neither satanic nor unfathomably and spellbindingly intricate, nor something that majestically sweeps us up with it, no, it is just vulgar, mean, murderous, stupid, hypocritical, and even at the moments of its greatest achievements at best merely well organized

Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990, trans. Tim Wilkinson)

politics psychology systems

Collective intelligence in twitter discussions

The UCU strike has shown how effective twitter can be. University staff from around the country have shared support, information and analysis . There has been a palpable feeling of collective intelligence at work. When the first negotiated agreement was released (at 7.15 on a Monday evening) my impression was that most people didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Pensions are complex, and the headline feature – retention of a Defined Benefit scheme seemed positive. Overnight on twitter sentiment coalesced around the hashtag #NoCapitulation and at 10am on the Tuesday union members around the country held branch meetings – all 64 of which resoundingly rejected the agreement. The subsequent – substantially improved – offer suggests that this was the right thing for union members to do, and the speed and unanimity with which they did it wouldn’t have been possible without the twitter discussion that happened over night.

So why, on this occasion, does twitter work as a platform for collective intelligence? Often enough twitter seems to be a platform which supports idiocy, narcissism and partisan bickering. The case of UCU strike twitter contrasts with other high volume / high urgency discussions, such as the aftermath of disasters, where twitter is as likely to be used to spread fake news and political point scoring as it is for useful information and insightful analysis.

Collective intelligence: what helps, what hurts

There is a literature on collective decision making, which highlights a few things which need to hold for a group discussion to be more productive than individuals just making up their own mind.

  • Arguments must be exchanged . First off, and a factor which should hearten committed rationalist everywhere, the exchange of arguments – not just information – seems to be key to productive groups (“studies that have manipulated the amount of interaction or that have examined the content of interactions have found that the exchange of arguments is critical for these improvements to occur”, Mercier, 2016 ).

  • Agreed purpose . Productive groups need to have a shared idea of what they are trying to achieve. If, for example, half of a group like solving problems and half like having arguments, their contributions to the discussion will, sooner or later, push in different directions ( van Veelen & Ufkes, 2017 , Sperber & Mercier, 2017 )

  • Diversity, in viewpoints . The literature on the effect of diversity on collective intelligence is mixed. Too much diversity between participants may hinder group discussions ( Wooley et al, 2015 ) and demographic diversity alone certainly isn’t sufficient for the wisdom of crowds to emerge ( de Oliveira & Nisbett, 2018 ). Instead enough ‘ view point diversity ‘ to produce a cognitive division of labour without impairing group cohesion. A corollary is that the more group cohesion you have the higher your opportunity to harness group diversity.

Bang & Frith’s fantastic 2017 review on group decision making also highlights some traps which successful group decision must avoid:

  • Herding Herding is excessive agreement. This can happen when group members lack independent information or suffer overly similar viewpoints. It can also be caused by group members having the desire to align to the group for its own sake, or if they believe that others have better knowledge. The result is the same: an information cascade where a popular viewpoint attracts adherents because it is popular, and so appears more correct because it is popular, and on in a vicious circle.

  • Group decision biases One of these, according to Bang & Frith, is ‘shared information bias’ which is a bias to discuss the things everyone knows about rather than share information or discuss aspects of the decision which aren’t yet common to the group

  • Competing sub-goals As well as lacking shared a shared purpose in discussion, group decision making can be derailed by status issues(think showing off, excessive pride preventing admission of error, etc), accountability issues (such as people avoiding unpopular opinions if they will be punished if that position turns out to be in error) and ‘social loafing’ (this is the textbook phenomenon whereby people try less hard in larger groups, effectively free-riding on others’ contributions)

The #USSstrike discussion on twitter

Before trying to apply the factors identified from the literature on collective intelligence / group decision making to the #USSstrike, let’s throw up a quick list factors which seem plausible candidates for why twitter was the site of a productive conversation this time. Once we have a list of candidates, we can see how they map to the features identified in the literature as necessary conditions for useful group decision making.

So, the #USSstrike twitter conversation may have been productive because:

  • twitter discussion built on top of existing networks (academics have local connections to colleagues at their own institutions, as well as disciplinary connections at other institutions across the country.)

  • twitter discussion built on top of IRL discussions on picket lines (lots of opportunity to chat on picket lines).

  • common interest (participants in the conversation are invested in understanding the issue, and want to same thing – a positive outcome to the dispute – even if they don’t agree on what that actually means).

  • niche interest (most of the population is not that interested in academic pensions, which means fewer trolls, troublemakers and idle speculators).

  • participants have training in critically evaluating sources (i.e. hopefully have good filters for unreliable information, recognise important facts)

  • participants have experience discussing substantive issues in public, daily using twitter -as it is at its best – as a platform for information synthesis and recommendation

Combining these lists we get some traction on why academic twitter was suddenly able to transform into a vehicle for productive collective intelligence on pensions (and maybe how we can help keep it that way).

In short, our three criteria for productive group decisions were met:

  • Arguments were exchanged: arguments are the daily tools of academics, of course we exchanged arguments, not just information

  • Our purpose was agreed: the nature of the dispute did that for us. Those in the discussion had a common purpose to understand an issue with high stakes . Not only do we face the same pension cuts, but the logic of collective bargaining and action puts us all on the same side

  • Diverse viewpoints were represented: maybe it is less clear this criteria was met, but perhaps we can thank the fact that academics from all disciplines have been discussing the dispute for at least some boost in the diversity of backgrounds and assumptions that participants bring t the discussion.

The three decision traps – herding, bias and competing sub-goals – are all warnings for the future. We seem to have avoided them for the moment. but there are plenty of individual behaviours which can encourage them. Most of us, with notable exceptions, are guilty of some social loafing. Blindly following others (leading to herding) seems a particular risk given that the logic of collective action is an important part of Union identity. I also note that bad manners, such as abusing people who make mistakes or adopt alternative viewpoints, as well as being bad manners, also works to effectively punish viewpoint diversity, with a corresponding decrement in our capacity for collective intelligence.

As a student of decision making the dispute has been exhilarating to take part in and I’ll watch with interest the next rounds (and the corresponding twitter discussion).

My quick primer on the UCU strike action is here .


Bang, D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups . Royal Society Open Science, 4 (8), 170193.

Mercier, H. (2016). The argumentative theory: Predictions and empirical evidence . Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (9), 689-700.

de Oliveira, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Demographically diverse crowds are typically not much wiser than homogeneous crowds . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (9), 2066-2071.

Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective intelligence and group performance . Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (6), 420-424.

intellectual self-defence

Seeking perspectives: how to arbitrate among our desires?

Because our values have arisen in a process of debate, inference and generalisation, they are no longer even distant consequences of our basic needs. Our nature arises from choices that were not determined by our biological make-up. It is enabled, but not determined, by biology.

So writes Ronnie de Sousa in an essay for Aeon called ‘Natural-born existentialists

I accept that nature doesn’t tell us what we ought to desire. I also think that some of what feel like our most essential desires are social products. Here’s an extreme example of that: If I was born a viking warrior I would want to die in battle (or at least want to want that). Viking-me would recognise that desire as defining of my self, but from our modern standpoint we also recognise that it is entirely an accident of history. Those of us who want to die in battle, or to avenge their honour, we seek to rehabilitate, not encourage.

If some of our most strongly held desires are social products, and there is no divine or biological nature which tells us which desires are good or bad, how do we know which desires should be the foundation for our selves, and which we should disavow, and so strive to un-want?

Possibly related: moral dumbfounding. When we cannot explain our intuitions, when is this evidence that they are, or should be axiomatic, and when is it evidence that we have no sound basis for what we belief and we should abandon our beliefs?

Clues, perspectives, historical and empirical notes welcome!