23 April 2009

Politicised Science

Science is about truth. We do science in order to find out the truth. If politicians are taking control of science, that isn't likely to make it better, because politics is about other things than truth - it is about marketing, compromise and decision.

That is pretty generally agreed. "Politicised Science" is a bad thing.

However, it is also generally agreed that politics, or more specifically policy, should take account of science. If you're looking for the best policy, science is likely to help.

That all sounds reasonable, but it leads to an interesting political dynamic.

It's not "politicising science" to decide a policy on the basis of science. Science finds the truth, and the truth is both beautiful and useful.

However, once you have a policy which is the result of some science, anyone who questions that science is no longer just affecting science. They are affecting science, and they are also affecting policy. At that point, they are politicizing the science.

They can't help it. If a scientist discovers that the moon is made of green cheese, just in the normal way of non-political science, and then a politician advocates a policy of sending a cheese-mining expedition to the moon, then another scientist who claims that the moon is really just a huge turnip is, whatever his political affiliations, necessarily is in the position of opposing the cheese-mining policy. (Sending a mission to the moon just to get turnip would be really stupid).

So if our science is not to be political, what do we do? We're really stuck. We suddenly have opposing politicians on opposite sides of a scientific question, all motivated to have the science go their way. If the turnipist stays quiet, to avoid the problem, that's even worse - a scientific position has been completely stifled for political reasons.

There are only two answers. Either we decide we have to live with politicised science after all, or else we refrain from drawing conclusions about policy from any scientific theory that is not established beyond question.

The second option is not a complete solution. It is hard to decide whether a theory is sufficiently established. None the less, it is easier than deciding whether it is true or not. It is also a major sacrifice. A theory that is pretty good but agreed not to be certain, could still influence policy in a beneficial way. The question is whether we give up the good effect in-progress science can have on policy in order to prevent the bad effect politics has on science.

I don't think that's possible - it would mean standing up and saying we weren't going to act on good but immature science. Therefore we have to take the first choice - we have to live with the fact that any science with relevance to policy is political science, and hope that cheesist and turnipist scientists can get to the right answer despite being co-opted by political parties. This is hard, but I can't see any way around it.

That means that scientists have to overcome their (justified) fear of politics. Because if they don't, there's a very bad effect. Going back to the moon-mining issue, it's not the cheesist scientist who politicised the question. It was the cheesist politician, but the first scientist to enter into politicised science was the turnipist scientist. Therefore, if scientists remain wary of politics, we should expect to see a strong bias on the part of scientists towards the theory that is first invoked by politicians. The supporters of that theory are just doing what scientists do, and whether politicians agree or disagree is nothing to do with them. The opponents of the theory, though, are entering a political debate.

And the closer the scientists and politicians are to each other, the stronger this bias towards the first policy will be. If political action is essential to doing science, the result is Lysenkoism. If politicians could at least make a show of not caring what the results of scientific investigation are, then we would be in with some kind of chance.

As things stand today, I think we are at the beginning of the end. Some kind of valuable science will still be done for the next 20 or so years, but it will be gradually swamped by politics.

22 April 2009

Dying Government

In the political news of the last few weeks - the minister's husband's porn, the dirty tricks website, the home-video address to the nation - we have the stereotypical last days of a failing government.

What causes this syndrome? It could be an effect of desperation on the part of the government; knowing the odds are against them anyway, they try long shots to get any chance of winning. Most or all of the long shots backfire, but they don't have that much to loose.

Another possibility is the media attitude. The media is often accused of bias, but I have always felt they are more biased towards what seems like a good story than to any political position. Part of what makes a good story is a familiar overriding narrative - history may be one damned thing after another, but there's no satisfaction in reporting that. The tragedy of a dying government is a good strong theme you can fit events into, so events that fit the theme are more likely to be reported.

I don't think either of these is the real reason, plausible as they are. The real glue that keeps government - particularly the party-political part of government - together is loyalty founded on the expectation of future favours. A government without a realistic chance of still being in power in twelve months just doesn't have any leverage to keep people in line. The result is petty treason: leaks, frauds, and personal vendettas overwhelm the overall direction.

This applies also to the press. As has been evidenced again by the McBride saga, the lobby journalists are very much insiders in the system. They are as keen to qualify for future favours as any backbench M.P. And, like the backbenchers, when there is no expectation of future favours (or punishments), they find themselves free to report what a year previously they would have covered up or at least spun in a less damaging way.

My reason for bringing this up is that it is impossible to understand our system of government, with its millions of employees, contractors and valueless activity, without understanding that patronage is the gravity that shapes it. Almost every political question, whatever the theories and ideals that seem to impinge on it, is eventually decided on the basis of who gets the loot - either in economic value or in more influence, meaning more opportunity to channel loot to others and thereby control them.

To quote one of my favourite lines of Mencius Moldbug's:
If seventeen officials need to provide signoff for you to repaint the fence in your front yard, this is not because George W. Bush, El Maximo Jefe, was so concerned about the toxicity of red paint that he wants to make seventeen-times-sure that no wandering fruit flies are spattered with the nefarious chemical. It is because a lot of people have succeeded in making work for themselves, and that work has been spread wide and well.

21 April 2009

Cheques and Balances

Apparently Gordon Brown is clamping down on M.P.s' expenses. It's good to see the executive branch fulfilling its traditional role of holding Parliament to account, particularly on spending matters.

Actually that sounds slightly odd somehow... well, whatever.

Being serious, I think M.P.s turn to shameless looting as they come to terms with their dwindling influence. It's not that they're completely powerless. If that were the case they would have nothing to lose by actually taking a principled stand against the government, and might cause some actual disturbance. But as we know, the job of the civil service is to make sure the chips stay up, and M.P.s are left with just enough power to keep them playing. However, this is not enough to justify having devoted one's life to climbing the greasy pole, so they satisfy themselves with mere money.

Neocameralism

Thanks to those who came to my talk on Neocameralism yesterday.

The "Word of God" is Unqualified Reservations. There is a "Gentle Introduction" there which starts here.


Alternatively, there is another reader's summary at corrupt.org: Condensed Moldbuggery

The Time article I handed out is American Malvern. The other article on the continuing influence of Unitarianism was in American Thinker

Another source which Mencius frequently refers to is an essay by Charles Francis Adams on the future (in 1900) relationship between the academy and the government - An Undeveloped Function

If anyone would like to continue the discussion, feel free to use the comments here.

16 April 2009

Quote of the Year

Clay Shirky (my emphasis)

... the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.

Read the whole thing.

13 April 2009

Gordon Brown: Genius

Back when Gordon Brown looked like a competent politician, he held out against Britain joining the Euro. He said that, amongst other things, tests would have to be passed that:

Are business cycles and economic structures compatible so that we and others could live comfortably with euro interest rates on a permanent basis?

If problems emerge is there sufficient flexibility to deal with them?

and he correctly determined that neither test was passed.

Current events prove him right. Britain, with its property-speculating populace and large international financial sector has been hit hard by the crash, and this has produced a large fall in Sterling, leading to the market pushing towards the structural changes that are needed.

Even the EU agrees:

One senior EU policymaker told the FT that, in his view, the UK was in breach of article 124.

Brian Lenihan, the Irish finance minister, in January directly accused the UK of running a policy of “competitive devaluation”, putting other countries under “immense pressure”.

Apart from the fact it's not a "policy" - Gordon couldn't prop the pound up if he wanted to, and a good thing too - it's dead right. Britain is benefiting enormously from not being in the Euro, for exactly the reasons Gordon gave when he chose not to go into the Euro. He was right, and those that said Britain would be better off in the Euro were wrong, and even the EU itself now admits it (and is trying to nullify the benefit to Britain by other means).

Right-wing Blogosphere?

We're told the ultimate cause of the McBride fiasco was that the Labour party feels threatened by the existence of "right-wing" blogs, and is trying to redress the balance.

I don't really think there is much of an imbalance to correct. The Conservative party has Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie, but that's about it. The important blogs are the ones that fill gaps left by more prominent outlets. Guido is right-wing, but he isn't Tory. The effect of a Labour party blog would be negligible compared to, say, www.guardian.co.uk , and the Tory blogs are insignficant compared to www.telegraph.co.uk .

Now it's true that among political groups unrepresented by the mainstream, Libertarians are much better represented than, say, Marxists or nationalists. Given the tendency of the centre-left to label even Devil's Kitchen as "Tory", what looks like a Tory bias is mostly a Libertarian bias.

Why are Libertarians better represented than other non-mainstream groups? One answer is that technologists are disproportionately libertarian, and libertarians are very disproportionately technologists. That has always been true - I came to libertarianism via Usenet, and those people now all have blogs. That is less convincing as a reason than it used to be, as the technological bar to clear to get a blog presence is now negligible, compared to when Samizdata and Instapundit started up. There could still be momentum from that early lead, but I think it's small.

I think it's more that they are just closer to the mainstream. Also they have fewer existing organisations - Marxists and nationalists have the SWP and the BNP as long-standing centres to organise around.

Consistent with this, the Liberal Democrats seem to me to be strongly represented in blogs. That is to be expected, as they are mainstream but do not have the resources of the two main parties, particularly in terms of friendly press outlets.

Parallels with the US are confusing. The big difference there is that they do not have nearly as strong a right-wing sector of the mainstream media as Britain has with the Telegraph, Mail, Sun etc. You also don't see monolithic party machines as we have here - their parties are fragmented geographically, and at the end of the day answerable to Primary elections). So when you look at the US, you see a strong right-wing presence which is very much mainstream Republican. Here we see a strong sort-of-right-wing blogosphere, which consists in fact of dissidents from the Conservative party. At a glance, there seems to be an equivalence.

At the end of the day, the Labour party doesn't need Labour List, Red Rag or anything like them. Their blog presence will flop not because they're doing it badly, but because it's redundant. They have the Guardian and the BBC.

12 April 2009

A good cheat

Apparently the pirates who captured the Maersk Alabama were involved in negotiations on board a US warship when their hostage was rescued.

Normally I would be concerned by this - it is important to keep faith, even with people who don't deserve it, so as to maintain a reputation in future.

But here, I can't see a problem. The principled position would be to refuse to negotiate with pirates at all. That is difficult in practice, because of the human element, but if this means that it will be harder for pirates to negotiate in future, that just discourages piracy - negotiating the ransom is an essential part of the process for them.

If pirates know that the authorities will negotiate with them (even though they really shouldn't), but will double-cross them at the first opportunity, that is more of a problem for the pirates than for the authorities.

10 April 2009

CCTV Warning

Don't look at the cameras! Anyone who looks at the cameras is a terrorist! If you see anyone looking at the cameras, call the police!

http://www.met.police.uk/campaigns/counter_terrorism/index.htm

The cameras are for your protection: that's all you need to know. And anything you don't need to know, you're not allowed to know. Only terrorists care whether they're on camera or not.

This is a public service announcement from Anomaly UK.


Seriously, I find this much more disturbing than the presence of the CCTV in the first place.

09 April 2009

Proved

A commenter on my Propertarianism piece asks "isn’t this the moment when Libertarianism is totally proved wrong?" On reflection I think that deserves an answer.

Many libertarians predicted the crash very accurately. Ron Paul and the hardcore Austrians have been totally proved right. I would be pretty smug around now, except that I had thought they were a bit loony on the whole money & credit thing.

To a libertarian, "libertarianism" is the stuff they talk about at length, in their ineffective folk activism. To a non-libertarian, "libertarianism" is whichever bit of that actually gets practised. The difference between the two was largely what my post was about.

Of course, everyone whose policies have failed always claims that they failed because they weren't carried out thoroughly enough. Russia wasn't communist enough, James II wasn't royalist enough, insufficient threats were made against Saddam Hussein, and when the threats failed insufficient military force was used.

For such excuses to have even the possibility of being worthwhile, one has to say not only why the right policies failed, but also why it is that next time they are tried, they will work better.

For what it's worth, the economy has failed because it wasn't deregulated enough, because the state wasn't sufficiently separated from the financial markets, etc. etc. etc. But it's not worth much, because next time libertarian idealists get into bed with big business interests to attempt to deregulate the economy, exactly the same thing will happen. So, yes, inasmuch as libertarianism means "anti-statists getting into bed with big business interests to attempt to deregulate the economy", which is pretty much what it does mean to outsiders, it has indeed been proved wrong.

Again, that was my point, which is why I initially didn't think this response needed to be made. But I might as well repeat myself a little if it makes things clearer.

What I was primarily addressing was that because the only approach that has put libertarians anywhere near political power has failed, and will fail again, other approaches must be considered. Ron Paul got 10% of the Republican Primary vote. Bob Barr got 0.4% in the presidential election. There is a fundamental reason why libertarianism cannot win elections - political parties are built on patronage, and libertarianism is incompatible with patronage. You cannot win a political struggle on a promise to grab power and not use it.

The best that can me done is to make more people (not necessarily a majority) understand that all governments impose bad policies in order to stay in power. That would not solve the problem, but perhaps limit the bad effects in future. It also fits very well into a Marxist or other far-left viewpoint. The left is not much closer to power than are libertarians, but it does have much greater impact on the culture, through its strong position in education and the media. Ideas leak from the left into the mainstream all the time, and this one could too.

Visual Security

The story of Bob Quick's exposure of secret anti-terrorist documents to photographers outside Number Ten, and his subsequent resignation, is of course highly amusing. It does also highlight some significant issues.

The changes that information technology make to privacy and secrecy are changes what can be done with information that was always available. Most obviously, information once captured can be stored, searched and shared. But also, what was a glimpse can now easily be turned into something that can be analysed at leisure. The implications are not immediately obvious.

In the current case, new technology doesn't really come into it. People have been taking pictures outside 10 Downing Street with good-quality cameras for a long time. Nonetheless, we now need to be aware that anything exposed to public view is potentially public property.

One example is the "Fake ATM" fraud, where criminals fit an extra magnetic strip reader onto an existing ATM, and also add a video camera to record the user entering their PIN. They then can clone the cards and use the PINs.

A possibility I've not heard of, but which occurred to me when I worked in a large shared office building, involves barcodes. The building issued temporary passes to guests which opened the security gates with a barcode. It should not be difficult to take a picture of somebody wearing such a badge, read the barcode from the image, and print a fake temporary pass with the same barcode which would then open the gate. I never got round to trying it, because I couldn't find free software for reading and printing the barcodes.

This is just the beginning. The ubiquitous security video cameras do not, these days, produce images of sufficient quality to resolve text, barcodes etc. (except of course in CSI and the like, where they can resolve even minute off-screen detail via incidental reflections). But they are getting better. The same goes for cameras in phones, and "toy" concealable cameras. But the high end today of both security video and cellphones are probably about at the level where exposed text can be captured, and it is a matter of only a few years before such image quality becomes the norm.

Confidential documents are often exposed by people reading them while in transit, on trains and planes as well as getting in and out of official cars. Bob Quick got caught out because he was in a place where it was natural for him to be photographed directly with proper cameras. But someone hanging around Canary Wharf underground with a T929 could quite likely grab a fair bit of confidential information surreptitiously.

So if your documents are worth shredding rather than dropping in the bin, they're worth keeping inside an opaque folder when in any public place.

Update: Via a commenter at Bruce Schneier's, this has happened before

08 April 2009

New powers are different

This, via Radley Balko strikes me as a hugely insightful point.

It was easier for Obama to fire the CEO of a private company than it is to fire most federal employees.

Corporatism doesn't just lead to massive inefficiency in the economy and cause a dangerous increase in state power. On top of those problems, it also changes the balance of power within the government. As observed, the president has more personal power over a newly semi-nationalised company than he does over a government agency.

Existing state powers get fossilised into the permanent (civil service) structure, largely out of the control of the executive. When new powers are acquired, they are normally under much more direct "democratic" control than old powers. Over time, as the consequence of the powers being used "politically" or even (gasp!) by a "populist", they are taken over by the permanent establishment.

In this country, we have seen it most clearly in relation to the E.U. Something that would be very difficult for a politician to do directly is much easier for the same politician to do by proposing it to the European Commission and running it through as a directive.

This could be a major reason for the steady drive for more state power. It is not that politicians think the government doesn't have enough power, it is that they need the government to have new power that they can actually control.