Friday, 24 June 2016

A post-Brexit world

The vote by the British to leave the European Union was remarkable on many levels. It was unexpected in the sense that an overwhelming majority of financial experts believed Britain was better in the EU than outside it. The rejection of their opinion speaks volumes for the disenchantment of voters with economics. In many ways this is understandable because the majority of Britons have seen little improvement (and often a decline) in their economic circumstances for many years - and the feeling must be "stuff the experts".

I certainly have some sympathy with this reaction. For many years the rich have become richer while the incomes of working and middle class voters have at best stagnated. There is a perception (in my view justifiable) that this is the direct result of fiscal policies promoted by the Conservative government (and a very weak opposition during this time).

However when the quality of their lives deteriorates the people become vulnerable to pernicious manipulation and I have certainly no sympathy whatsoever with the way that the immigrant issue has been presented by the Brexit campaigners. A particularly egregious example was the UKIP poster of migrants crossing the Slovenia-Croatia border that was nakedly racist. The immigration issue became the emotive central issue of the referendum and I am very sad that many Britons were sucked in to believing that their troubles could be alleviated by putting up immigration barriers.

A second respect in which the referendum result was remarkable was the different ways in which the four countries of the UK voted. The majority of English and Welsh votes were cast for Brexit but in Scotland and Northern Ireland the picture was very different. In Scotland the vote was 62% against Brexit. This raises once again the prospect of Scotland's destiny being held hostage to the opinions of their English neighbour and I am certain that there will now be strong calls for another referendum on Scottish independence.

Yet another remarkable consequence of the vote was the sudden way in which David Cameron's premiership ended. After 6 confident years he was one of the longest serving Conservative leaders of recent times and now he has gone. Despite some calls to the contrary it was his only honourable course of action - and how unappealing would it be for him to spearhead the details of the British withdrawal?  The bookies are predicting that he will be succeeded by Boris Johnson, another Etonian, a man without any semblance of a moral compass (see this evisceration) and one of the leading campaigners of the Brexit movement.

All in all it is easy to conclude that there is disaster in all directions. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The UK certainly is in a poor place at present but it is at least crystal clear that the policies of the Tory government have utterly failed and, in the short to medium term, things will only get worse. So in time a new government will come to power possibly after a short period of Johnson at the helm. I think that Jeremy Corbyn will also not last very long - his heart is in the right place but he has completely failed to inspire his party or the country. The people have rejected the status quo and the policies of the establishment and I do not expect it to regain its grip on the political landscape. An inspirational leader will be able to work from a clean slate and possibly lead us to a fairer society.

I shall end with a question that is almost certainly to arise. The dire economic situation the UK will soon find itself in is going to make public opinion very volatile indeed. What is going to happen if, during the protracted process in leaving the EU, the pendulum of opinion swings back towards Europe? This seems a fairly likely scenario when it becomes clear that any trade agreement reached with the EU is necessarily going to be conditional on an agreement to have (like Norway) open borders. I think it is going to be hard to carry through to the end an exit from the EU if the UK people become more aware of what they will be losing. And, surely, before the door shuts it will be necessary to consult the people once again if they are happy with whatever trade agreements have been agreed to replace full EU membership.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Cultural influences

This post was prompted by the excellent BBC Drama "The Last Kingdom" which is a fictionalised account of the struggle between Alfred (The Great) and Danish invaders of England in the late 9th Century. The TV series is based on the books of Bernard Cornwell who, apart from many historical novels, has also written some non-fiction history books. So far as I can tell he makes a careful effort to portray the times he writes about -- in which case England in the late 800's AD was a violent age where life was cheap, the people used to brutality, and everyone lived in the hope of eternal life and the fear of damnation.

Of course some parts of the world could also be described in those terms but England and much of the Western World is a very different place. As someone who grew up in England I began to speculate how my life would be if I had instead lived there 1100 years earlier. In some ways I would not have been very different since human biology has hardly changed in that time span; so, presumably, my cognitive power would be much the same and my physical strength would have been about the same (until accident or disease brought me to an earlier end). But in almost every other way my life would have been completely different.

Now that may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth saying but I state it anyway because I think I am prone (and perhaps others too are prone) to an arrogance that needs to be reined in from time to time. In this arrogance I survey the world believing myself to be a thoughtful person, well read, capable of reaching conclusions stemming from an unbiased interpretation of what I assiduously try to find out about the world. I have opinions that I can defend and a naturalistic world-view which hangs together in a coherent framework. In other words, even though I am a card-carrying Skeptic, I believe that I have a good handle on what is real, what is important, and what can be dismissed as nonsense.  Most of all I think of this unified personal experience of the world as being of my own construction.

So, for example, I have a certain view about freedom of speech. I'm extremely liberal to the point that I would not ban anti-semitic opinions no matter how poisonous. And I hold these views because I have carefully considered as many implications of them as I can. To me they seem robust and defensible and they stem from some intrinsic part of me. My freedom of speech views are also coherent with many other views I hold - enlightened, informed and intelligent views.

But now comes the point. If I had been born, physically and mentally the same as I was born in 1946, but 1100 years previously I would certainly not  have grown up to be anything like the person I am today. Even if Dark Ages me had been educated as well as those times would allow, my intellect would more likely be engaged in the subtler aspects of Christian theology. I would accept without question that men should have greater societal privilege and power than women. If I ever thought about it all I would most likely share the then prevailing condemnatory views of homosexuals. And in many other ways I would have a totally different outlook on the world than 21st Century me. But one thing might not be different: I would still have an underlying certainty that my views were coherent, defensible and right.

I find this thought experiment somewhat alarming. It indicates that so many opinions that I thought were really my own are actually the product of the times and society in which I live. Should I conclude that these opinions are completely untrustworthy because, rather than having been reasoned through by me, they are as ephemeral as the current times and society?

Luckily I think that the answer to that pessimistic question is "No" (but I had better be much more humble about where my opinions come from). The first thing to say is that the times one lives in do not completely determine ones set of opinions; one only has to look around to see a great variety of different world views in the same society. Therefore if one has been careful and honest in working through all the facts available one may perhaps be in possession of a set of views that are pretty good compared to other world views around. Maybe that has happened in my case; I hope so but cannot be certain.

The second thing to say is that, despite many setbacks along the way, cultures do tend to evolve in the direction of most of the things I value: liberalism, secularism, skepticism, and scientific understandings. So even though there is no God to tell us that those values are absolute values, we might hope that humanity is selecting them in Darwinian fashion as conducive to the flourishing of our species.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Trump and the future

This is a prediction posting: what will happen to Donald Trump's bid for the American presidency? I'm doing it partly because it may provide some comfort if you've been entertaining alarmist scenarios but the major reason is to entertain myself -- I intend in about 9 months to do a follow-up post in which I discuss what I got right and what I got wrong.

As I write this, Trump appears to be on the crest of a wave. He is winning most of the Republican primaries, his rivals are dropping out of the race in droves, those that remain are divided, and the Republican establishment are panicking that there is nothing to do to stop him winning the GOP nomination in July. At the same time, if he does become the Republican candidate, he may not be a push-over opponent for Hillary Clinton if she is the democratic candidate. Clinton is very much an establishment candidate in a year when the electorate is very disillusioned with the candidate. In other words (say some) Trump may well become the next President of the United States.

I make two main predictions: Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate but he will easily be defeated in the general election.

Taking the first of these predictions: If Trump wins at least 1237 delegates before the convention then (normally) the nomination would not be contested. Pollsters are divided about whether he can achieve that. But if he wins fewer than 1237 delegates there will be ballots to choose the candidate. Nevertheless we will have a very large lead over his rivals (very likely a total more than the combined totals of his rivals). In that case we don't quite know how the bosses of the Republican party will play things but they would surely enrage the primary voters if they tried to set aside Trump in favour of another candidate (Cruz or Kasich or some Johnny-come-lately candidate). I think they would be more likely to bite the bullet and endorse Trump.

As for the general election: while it is true that Trump's campaign has had success until now - far beyond what pundits a few months ago were predicting - I think that the paucity of his policies, his outrageous lies, and the unsuitability of his temperament will tell very badly against him in the greater scrutiny that is bound to occur.

It is easy from over 10,000 miles away to think that the USA is populated by ignoramuses who have been swayed by Trump's rhetoric and that therefore a majority of the electorate will support him. But he has already seized the low-hanging electoral fruit - Republicans so disenchanted even with the wacky policies that their main stream often espouses. Less extreme Republicans and Democrats may not be so easy to beguile. Between now and November Trump's opponents are going to have so much ammunition that they will never run out of ways in which they can attack him. All that Clinton needs to do is make no major missteps and she will win by a landslide.

When, in 8 months time, I revisit my predictions the outcome could be rather boring if I was essentially right. Much more interesting would be any way in which I was wrong. More interesting because we could be living in a more dangerous world but (for me at least) it will give me something to think about: why was I so wrong in my current beliefs. That would be humbling and might help me to understand politics and my own biases better.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The price of human life

A debate is currently taking place in New Zealand about whether the drug Keytruda should be funded by the national drug agency Pharmac. It is reported that Keytruda is apparently a successful treatment in about one third of all cases of melanoma.  I have been unable to find the origin of this figure but few seem to doubt that the drug has significant efficacy and some other countries have made it available at a highly subsidised cost to patients. Pharmac itself decided recently that it was too costly to fund here but this decision may possibly be reversed by the NZ government.

Of course there is much more to the funding question than economics. The issue is partly statistical and it may well be that the "one third" figure is not particularly robust. There are also more human issues such as compassion and equity. However it is undeniable that economics has to play the dominant part in the debate and this leads to the question I want to ruminate about: what is the price of a human life?

Let me be clear. I am not asking a universal question. My question is directed to particular societies and I am sure the answer will not always be the same. Perhaps that is already an indicator that world-wide we are very far from being able to treat all human beings as equal but I am going to have to put that into the "too hard" box for the present. So let us admit that citizens of New Zealand are treated much better than, say, citizens of Syria or Mexico.

Within New Zealand (or pick your own country) the political parties would surely say that they stood for equal treatment of all their citizens. And therefore if a price is put on a human life this price should be the same for all citizens. If you don't agree then read no further and don't stand for political office! Well, perhaps that was a little unfair: after all you could argue that in a particular domain the common price of a life should be one amount but the price in another domain should be another amount. The trouble with that position is that one can partition domains into subdomains as much as one pleases, pricing every subdomain differently - and the consequences for the supposed equality of the citizenry soon vanishes in a puff of smoke. So bear with me and let's look at the ramifications of setting a fixed price for everyones life across every domain of the country.

If there was such a price many national funding decisions would become easier. Take road safety measures as a first example. Should we increase police monitoring of busy highways in Wellington? Well, how many lives would it save? And that tells us how much we should spend. Or should we install fencing at some of the trickier stretches of the Great Walks? Again: how many lives would it save gives us the answer. Such calculations would enable us to say which of many competing priorities in different domains should be funded and to what level.

So why don't we have an agreed price for a human life? I think part of the answer is that we can't help confusing "price" with "value". OK - let's admit that we can't put a numerical value on a human life; I'm happy to concede any descriptive word about its value (even "infinite) but still wish to distinguish between price and value. Having made that concession we can move forward and think about the price of a life purely in economic terms. A bigger reason for our hesitation to fix a price is that the way in which we would do it is very murky. Yet surely we could at least begin so long as we recognise an important caveat.

We want to have a price that we shall use for determining policy in general. So our price is an average price (averaged over all residents of the country). It is not to be used as a summary of how much a particular individual is worth. But an average should surely be easier to come by (do I show naivete!?): it will a ratio in which the denominator is the population size and the numerator is .....  Well, what? The Gross Domestic Product would be one possible numerator. Here perhaps is where the debate will be had and I would be interested in what readers thought would be most appropriate.

To sum up: having an agreed national average price of a human life would enable us to make economic decisions on how much to spend on certain social goals, and it would enable us to prioritise social goals.  It would also torpedo arguments of the type "Country X does this, therefore so should we". To do this we have to recognise that the price would only be used for societal decisions not individual decisions and we have to be very clear of the difference between "price" and "value"; I am certainly not proposing that we estimate the worth of people - communities or individuals - by a dollar amount.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Intentions and the road to hell

The shocking attacks in Paris have brought home to many Westerners the horror of war and the sufferings of similar victims in Syria and Iraq. In this post I would like to reflect on whether there are significant differences between the various acts of mass killing brought about by the war in the Middle East.

I'm sure we can all agree that the degree of personal anguish suffered through the loss of a loved one does not depend on how many others were killed at the same time. Therefore our empathetic response to the bereaved should be the same whether or not the murder occurred in Paris (120 dead) or in the Beirut attack (41 dead) the day before. Nevertheless, judging from the degree of media coverage, the Paris tragedy seems to be regarded as more serious than the Beirut tragedy.

Why do we have such differing reactions to apparently similar events around the world? Well, one response is that perhaps we wouldn't if we saw equally detailed media coverage. In my opinion that is not the the whole story because, to sell their products, the media give us the coverage that is most likely to resonate with their readers - and readers in the West naturally tend to read Western media. So I think that Western readers as a whole do find outrages against their own kind more culpable. No doubt non-Western readers exhibit a similar bias in favour of their own as well.

So, having come to the conclusion that we have a natural bias towards our own culture, let's return to my original question and ask if there are culturally independent differences between acts of mass killing. We can focus on this question more clearly if we consider degrees of culpability.

I suggest that there are two key ingredients about how much culpability we attribute to a crime. The first is not very controversial: we ask how much harm was done. How many lives were lost? What was the value of the property stolen? What physical damage was done? Some types of harm may not be so easy to quantify and we can have different opinions on things like "How much long-term psychic damage was done"; however often the amount of harm can be readily measured. By the way, although we can agree that culpability is proportional to damage it is one of the sadder facts about our society that punishment seems not to be correlated to harm done.

There is a second ingredient of culpability that we take into account: the intentions of the individuals who committed the crime. This can be much more controversial because much of the time the only information we have about the perpetrator's intentions is from the perpetrator himself. However most of us would accept that there is a difference between a deliberate shooting and an accidental gun discharge even if both of them result in a death; so we do accept that intent matters.

It is the job of courts to judge how intentional was the crime of a defendant. However here we are considering acts of violence for which there is no defendant in court. Two notable examples were recently debated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky (in an email correspondence in which there was no meeting of minds). They had no trouble agreeing that the intention of the 9/11 attackers was to cause loss of life to civilians (well, they are intellectuals so nothing is certain).

However they disagreed heatedly about the US bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 1998. The bombings caused thousands of Sudanis to die because they were deprived of essential medicines. The Clinton administration claimed the factory was making chemical weapons and it was not their intention to be a mass murderer. Basically Harris is sympathetic to this justification: for him the claimed lack of intention mitigates the crime. Chomsky on the other hand believes that the consequences of such a carefully planned attack must have been plain to the instigators.

This example captures the difficulty about allowing intentions to mitigate culpability. Do we try to discern the personal intention of President Clinton? His team of senior advisers? Or do we try to define the governmental intention? None of these is really possible. There are some philosophers who evaluate actions entirely by their consequences - for them the bombing is condemned despite the aggressors pleading lack of intent to kill. Our present traditions and legal practices are somewhat out of sympathy with such consequential ethics. It would be a brutal legal system that operated by these principles and our more nuanced approach certainly seems preferable at national or local level. But at the international level, where we are judging actions by nation states, consequences are often all we have to go on. That should not prevent us from trying to assess intent but we are often groping in a fog of ignorance.

I hope it is now clear why we find such lack of unanimity even when we make a determined effort to make judgements independently of our cultural bias. But where does that leave us when we formulate our reactions to the next act of killing? I suggest we should condemn with our gut rather than with a measured amount of ferocity that depends on who was the aggressor, how much harm was done, and whether we think the act is calculated. Dead innocents are dead innocents and we should condemn their deaths no matter the circumstances. Following this logic also means that we should condemn reprisals if they include killing innocents. And therefore, inevitably, we shall often find ourselves condemning "our side". Well, so be it.

Friday, 11 September 2015

14 years on from 9/11

The Al-Qaeda attack on the USA on September 11, 2001 was a landmark event. It and its aftermath will be discussed by historians for centuries. No doubt every faction will develop its own mythology and these myths will obscure the sober appraisal of exactly how the twenty-first century kicked off with such a bang. Fourteen years into "The War on Terror" I would like to reflect on how successful were those 19 hijackers (mostly Saudi nationals).

Of course no-one can doubt their immediate military success. From the point of view of those who supported the attack it was the stuff of heroism against overwhelming odds - hundreds of times more successful than, say, the British "Dam Busters" drama which so caught my own schoolboy imagination.

In some ways though the success of the aftermath is even more interesting. Immediately after the attacks there was a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support around the world for America and its citizens. In my opinion, the greater Al-Qaeda victory was turning around world opinion until today America is the most feared and hated country in the world. What went wrong for the Land of the Free?

The answer is that it had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda and everything to do with the American reaction. Their enemies had the inestimable advantage of a hopelessly inept American administration whose knee-jerk response was as bad as it could possibly have been. They began by retaliating against the wrong country, they woefully misunderstood that war against a minor military enemy state was much more more than having greater firepower, and they expended trillions of dollars that could have been used to repair their own domestic social fabric. But that is by no means all that went wrong.

The US administration have co-opted the word "Terror" as a convenient catch-all to justify a raft of policies that would have been once unthinkable. They have enshrined the word in their criminal justice system as an excuse to trample on the civil liberties on their citizens. They have used it to snoop on their own nationals (to say nothing of foreigners) in a way that uncannily recalls Orwell's 1984. The "War on Terror" has such a nebulous enemy that it can never be won in the same way that Oceania could never defeat Eastasia. And if "Terror" really is something against which war can be waged just ask the average American how safe they now feel: a poll last year showed that about half of all Americans feel less safe than immediately after 9/11.

Think of that! 19 men robbed the USA of a vast amount of their national wealth, caused them to lose their moral credibility and international respect, and made their citizenry permanently anxious. Can you describe that as anything other than a victory?

So what should America do to climb out of the pit of defeat? It won't be quick and it won't be easy but the rest of the world has an interest in helping them do so. I would like to propose an approach that addresses one of the fundamental problems underlying the American disaster. The world should make every effort to make Americans engage with nationalities beyond their borders. Ignorance breeds fear and suspicion and it is significant how few Americans hold passports to travel. These efforts can be made at all levels but every city outside the US could do its bit by twinning with a city within the US. The twinning protocol should offer funds for a handful of people in an American city to visit their twinned counterpart for a month say, living with local families. In this way, over time, there would build up a nucleus of Americans familiar with some culture beyond their own. They would see that other nations have cultures that are perfectly acceptable alternatives to their own and that "American Exceptionalism" is a myth without foundation.

Maybe that is too naive a proposal. Does anyone have a better one?

Saturday, 22 August 2015

How robust is empirical science?

I'd like to begin this post by admitting that I am writing far outside my own research experience. Nevertheless the paper that prompted it ("Likelihood of null effects of large NHLBI clinical trials has increased over time" by Robert Kaplan and Veronica Irvin) sounds such a potentially alarming message that I think it is worth publicising.

Kaplan and Irvin looked at all "large" research trials funded by the NHLIB (the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute) between 1970 and 2012 ("large" here was precisely defined in their paper). These trials examined a variety of drugs and dietary supplements for preventing cardio-vascular disease. The authors recorded whether the trial had a positive outcome (statistical evidence that the treatment was successful, a negative outcome (statistical evidence that the treatment was ineffective) or a null outcome (no evidence either way).

 There were 30 studies prior to 2000 of which 17 produced a positive outcome, and 25 afterwards of which only 2 produced a positive outcome. This is a large decline in the number of positive outcomes and the authors discussed various possible causes.

 Two possibilities that might, a priori, explain the decline are

  1. researchers prior to 2000 were more influenced to produce positive outcomes because these are preferred by drug companies, and 
  2. the use of a control group to which a placebo was administered occurred less prior to 2000.
However possibility 1 was refuted in that the proportion of trials sponsored by drug companies was essentially the same for both periods, and possibility 2 was refuted for similar reasons.

Kaplan and Irvin did however advance quite a compelling reason to explain the discrepancy. Before I tell you what it was, it is worth saying something about the culture in which such experiments take place.

Imagine you are a scientist who is testing the efficacy of a drug to combat high blood pressure (say). You set up your clinical trials complete with a control group to whom you administer only a placebo, gather your data, and analyse it. This may take a long time and you are heavily invested in your results. Naturally you are hoping that the results will demonstrate that your new drug will prove effective in reducing blood pressure.

But maybe that doesn't happen. Oh dear what could you do? Doesn't it seem rather lame to simply report that you found no effect either way (or, worse, a negative effect)? Since you have gathered all this data why not look at it again - after all, it might have some significance. Maybe your drug has had some unexpected positive effect and, when you find it, you can report a positive outcome.

What's wrong with that? Isn't it perfectly fair since your data did demonstrate some form of efficacy?

No, it's not fair for several reasons. One reason is that your experimental procedures were perhaps not so well-tailored to assessing the result you did, in fact, find. Perhaps a more important reason though is that any such conclusion only comes with a statistical likelihood and, in the regime that you actually implemented, you gave yourself many opportunities to "get lucky" with a statistical conclusion.

It has become increasingly recognised that such researcher bias should be minimised. In the year 2000 the NHLIB did introduce a mechanism to prevent researchers from gaming the system in the way I described above. They began to require researchers to register in advance that they were conducting a clinical trial and what hypothesis they were testing. So once the data is gathered the researchers cannot change their research question.

Pre-registration of trials is what Kaplan and Irving believe explains the drop in positive outcomes since 2000. They could easily be right and, at the very least, their work should be scrutinised and critiqued.

Now, just for the moment let's assume they have hit upon a significant finding. What would this mean? Surely it means that, for the 30 trials conducted prior to 2000, we might assume that, rather than a fraction 57% of them having positive conclusions (17 out of 30), the fraction should be closer to 8% (the fraction of trials post-2000 that were positive). Since we have absolutely no idea which of the positive-outcome trials lie in this much smaller set we should dismiss 30 years of NHLIB funded research. Worse than that thousands of patients have been administered treatments whose efficacy is unproven. I'm not suggesting a witch-hunt against researchers who have acted in good faith but surely there are lessons to be learnt.

One lesson to learn is that we should value trials with a negative or null outcome just as much as we value those with a positive outcome. In particular the bias towards publishing only positive outcomes must disappear. This is already becoming increasingly accepted but, as Ben Goldacre has demonstrated in his book Bad Pharma, there is still a very long way to go. In fact Goldacre shows that pharmaceutical companies have actively concealed studies with null outcomes and cherry-picked only those studies that shine a favourable light on the drugs they promote.

But there is another lesson, one with potentially much wider implications.  Many disciplines conduct their research studies by the "formulate hypothesis, gather data, look for statistical conclusion" methodology. In fact hardly a discipline is untouched by this methodology and, in most cases, they are years behind the medical disciplines in recognising what can contribute to researcher bias. It is therefore not an overstatement when I claim that it is a strong possibility that such disciplines have a track record of generating dodgy research results.

This shocking conclusion should be taken to heart by every research institution and, in particular, it should be taken to heart by our universities which claim to have a mission to seek out and disseminate truth. In my opinion it is now incumbent on the relevant disciplines (most of them) to at least conduct an analogue of the work carried out by Kaplan and Irvin. We need to extent of the problem (if indeed there is a problem) and we need to repeat, with all the new rigour we now know about, many previous investigations even their conclusions have been accepted for years.

It is not enough to aggregate the results of several investigations to raise confidence in their conclusions (meta-studies). We will often need to begin afresh. Well, at least that will give us all something to do.