Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Last – incentives, and stasis)

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

[This is the last in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook’s programme on Newstalk].

Note 1: The full series is available as an article:  Where did it all go wrong article in pdf.

Note 2: Dermot Desmond has just published a remarkable document addressing some of the same issues as treated here from a sociopolitical reform point of view.

A truism of human behaviour is that people are incentive-driven (even by perverse incentives). Our economy became focused lopsidedly on property development because of tax incentives which people rationally responded to, resulting in a huge excess of un-needed properties. Groupthink suggests bulldozing them. However, we could incentivise property purchases by granting Irish residency to non-EU Nationals who purchase these properties for cash (no mortgages please)! If it is possible to incentivise investment in fixed assets such as property, it is possible to incentivise investment in new asset classes and businesses that are tradeable and saleable. Anglo-Irish Bank would not be in such trouble if it had a diversified loan book. Ireland Inc would not be in similar trouble, if there were multiple investment vehicles for rational investment in intellectual property, as opposed to the singularly obsessive concentration on investment in commercial and residential property. If we want an entrepreneurial culture which creates desperately-needed mass employment, then entrepreneurial activity needs to be incentivised. Adding taxes and other burdens on the self-employed reduces the risk-taking required to create employment on the scale needed to rescue the economy quickly. Risk-taking needs incentives; otherwise, why bother?

There are many other cognitive errors (for example, availability and affect heuristics, motivated reasoning, competence illusions, illusory superiority) which humans are also prone to (especially under duress). Memory (particularly recall) is badly affected by stress and lack of sleep. The decisions taken on the night of the infamous bank guarantee surely would have been better, if the Government had access to expertise and bought itself time (for example, by having a forced bank closure for 48 hours). This would have led to decisions in the cold light of day, with appropriate supports and inputs (of course, having an Economic Advisory Council in place would have helped). Memory for the precise sequence of events would be improved too!

Our elites must recognise that individual rationality and cognition is limited and error-prone. A system driven by the unrestrained cognition of individual ministers or others will fail; imposing political control where good policy formation should obtain is a recipe for disaster. And we know this, but this is the mistake we repeatedly make. Thus, our institutions must be re-engineered to be adaptive, plastic, and capable of learning (especially upsetting and unpleasant truths). Robust institutional processes are required to recognise error and failure quickly and to change course rapidly. However, the glacial pace with which our elites move leaves me believing this is a forlorn hope; we have seen little recognition of the need for change, despite the disaster that has occurred.

Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Part III: Empathy, mirror neurons)

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

[This is the third in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook’s programme on Newstalk].


Theory of mind’ is the name given to our ability to see the world as others might see it (‘other-centred perspective-taking’). It is central to our social behaviour and capacity for empathy. Recent studies have disclosed a brain area (the mirror neurons of pre- and supplementary cortex, if you must know) that allows you to simulate what others are likely to be thinking by mirroring their behaviour. Being able to take the perspective of others is vital for preventing catastrophic errors of social judgement by understanding what others will make of your decisions and actions. It is unlikely that Brian Cowen would have attempted to ‘refresh’ his Cabinet via the bizarre attempt to parachute in a bunch of new ministers if he had first tried to imagine himself into the shoes of his Government partners, or indeed, the public at large to imagine what they would have thought of this stratagem.

Clay Shirkey on Collapsing Societies, Institutions and Business Models (… and how about universities?)

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Clay Shirkey in a much-commented upon post addressing collapsing business models, institutions and societies (this post has been around a while). Read the whole post – it seems very relevant to the way all sorts of instutions are actively resisting the call of the future at present. Universities in general seem resistant to this sort of institutional collapse, as they have survived for so long (but will particular universities be able to resist such institutional collapse, given the host of pressures that are building?). To re-write the financial watchdog warning: perhaps past survival of a university is no guarantee of future survival!

A quote:

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.


Now here is a great piece of news: Simon Singh’s appeal successful

This is great news. Truly important for science that robust debate and analytic, evidence-based peer-review be allowed as part of public discourse.

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Dear friends

A very quick note to make sure you heard that Simon Singh’s appeal in his case with the BCA was upheld today. It means that Simon can now defend his article as comment rather than as fact, as Justice Eady had originally ruled.

Simon said today: “It is ridiculous that it has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a handful of words. I am delighted that my meaning has been vindicated by three of the most powerful judges in the country, and I relish the opportunity to defend this meaning in court. However, I am still angry that libel is so horrendously expensive. That is just one of the reasons why the battle for libel reform must continue.”

You can read more comments from campaigners and supporters at

And the judgment and Simon’s lawyer’s notes on what this means for Simon’s case and for libel reform is here:

Jack of Kent has blogged on the ruling here:

The Guardian

The Daily Telegraph

BBC Radio 4 World at One

BBC online

And check here for updated lists of press coverage:

Keep an eye out for Simon, his lawyer Robert Dougans and members of the libel reform campaign on Channel 4 news, the BBC News channel, Sky News and BBC radio stations this evening.

Simon, and the campaign for libel reform, both still have a very long fight ahead of us. We are very pleased  the three most powerful members of the Judiciary in England have recognised  the need for libel law reform. We need to make sure everyone else does too.



Síle Lane

Public Liaison

Sense About Science

25 Shaftesbury Avenue

London W1D 7EG

Reg. Charity No. 1101114

Tel: +44 (0)20 7478 4380

Sense About Science is a small charity that equips people to make sense of science and evidence. We depend on donations, large and small, from people who support our work. You can donate, or find out more, at

And from Jack of Kent:

BCA v Singh: An Astonishingly Liberal Judgment

Simon Singh today won in the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal held he was expressing “honest opinion”.

It is a stunning judgment, quoting Milton and expressly adopting a US legal maxim that: “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation“.

You can read the judgment in full here.

And so the British Chiropractic Association – which happily promotes bogus treatments even though there is not a jot of evidence – lost.

The BCA – discredited since the plethora – has announced that it is “disappointed” and that it is “considering its position” in respect of what has always been a staggeringly misconceived libel claim.

The judgment is packed with interesting things and will repay careful study.

Latest in Simon Singh case: Judgment in Simon Singh’s appeal tomorrow

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

***To get in touch with me use Reply-To Address:***

Dear Friends

Tomorrow morning the appeal judgment in Simon Singh’s case with the British Chiropractic Association will be handed down at the Royal Courts of Justice. It is going to be a very important day for us as this judgment will have implications beyond Simon’s case on science writing and on libel law reform.

The judgement, written by three of the most senior judges in England and Wales – Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley – is on Simon’s appeal against the preliminary ruling on meaning given by Mr Justice Eady in May 2009. It will determine whether Simon can defend his writing as fair comment or will have to justify it as fact.

Please do come to Court 4 at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London tomorrow, Thursday 1st April, at 9.30 am to hear the result and show Simon your support.

Simon was interviewed about his case and the wider campaign for The Times on Saturday. Read it here:

For a round up of the case so far, and possible implications of the judgement, see Jack of Kent’s blog here:



normblog: Higher education and democracy

March 22, 2010 Leave a comment

normblog: Higher education and democracy.

Thought-provoking post from Norman Geras on the purpose of third-level education (post reproduced in full):

Higher education and democracy

Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, writes of the false alternative, as he sees it, often posed in discussions of the purposes of higher education:

Today there seems to be a black and white choice between “what is higher education for”, bristling with instrumentality, and “higher education for its own sake”, all blue-skies. The truth is neither serves.

Setting out some cognate pairs of options, Scott rejects the either-or they offer, and then explains why. His explanation in short: mass higher education’s ‘essential link with democracy’. The link is better appreciated in the US, Scott says, where going to college is understood as being connected to ‘the founding values of the republic’. For us too, higher education must no longer be about elites; it is about citizens.

That’s all fine and dandy in my book. But Scott’s conclusion rebounds against his premise. If higher education is about democratic citizenship, then I’d want to challenge his dismissal of one of the choices from which he began: namely, higher education for its own sake. I’d challenge his dismissal of this on the grounds that I doubt there is a better way of educating citizens, educating participants in democracy, than making available to them the free and open environment that goes with the traditions of a liberal education. Shaping higher education towards some special programme of learning-for-citizenship doesn’t sound at all appealing. It’s reminiscent of civics lessons at school. It would narrow rather than broaden. Let people teach and study what interests them, but with the discipline that true study demands; try to ensure that it really is study and not merely farting about.

Posted by Norm at 01:47 PM | Permalink