Conspiracy Theory?

July 18, 2017

There is a well known argument, that faced with historical and policial complexity, people tend to reduce that complexity by implying that events arose because of secret and hidden actions. Conspiracy is something that is imagined to make the world seem ordered when its not. A recent academic version of this argument can be found at:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2308/abstract

Now we know that one of the results of complexity is that prediction is incredibly difficult. It is actually quite hard to make a social or political result that one wants. The pessimist thinks it is harder to get a good result than a bad result – perhaps because there are so many ways things can go wrong and so few ways they can go right. This makes the idea that the world is controlled by conspiracy unlikely. However, that does not mean there are no conspiracies

Conspiracy occurs pretty much day to day. We all conspire with other people to get results. This is what we call decision making or self-governance. It is also pretty minor. However, it seems unlikely that powerful people do not try the same thing, planning to have effects over your lives. Certainly they like decisions to be shrouded in secrecy. You can think of public/private partnerships where the reasons for spending taxpayer’s money on corporations is often held to be “commercial in confidence”. The capitalist State is not always open, so it is unlikely other States are open either.

So it could appear some conspiracies are not purely imaginary. The difficulty is learning to distinguish between the imaginary and the real.

Do businesses conspire to fix prices and lower wages? It was reported by Adam Smith. The answer is probably as often as they can. It makes more money all around and that is what counts. There are known cases of price fixing, price gouging and prices moving in tandem, and, in the absence of unions, wages for ordinary workers rarely increase. So it is probable, although it may not be deliberate joining together, people may just say to themselves; that is the standard price and leave it at that. It may even be normal. The usual idea is that business does things as cheaply as possible and charges as much as possible, and is occasionally constrained by competition: if people know about it.

Do scientists uniformly conspire to tell us climate change is real for political purposes? This seems extremely unlikely. Scientists are not politically uniform. Scientists tend to like putting other scientists down and getting noticed for being innovative. When they get money from science grants they generally don’t have to produce particular results. However, it is quite probable that fossil fuel companies conspire to make it seem that climate change is unreal, or not urgent. Climate change threatens income and profit. It requires change. These big companies have a long history of conspiracy, when it comes to preserving profit and getting rid of inconvenient political challenges. They also sponsor think tanks, who give them the messages they want – or they don’t sponsor them anymore. Again we might wonder if this is not really conspiracy, but profit leading to misinformation. However, we know Shell knew about climate change but sponsored deniers. So it seem possible it was conspiracy.

Did the Freemasons cause the French Revolution? Harder to say. If they tried they would not have succeeded without a lot of help. They may well have worked for it, but I doubt they liked the result. Did Lenin conspire with others to produce the Russian Revolution? Yes – but again they had a lot of help – there were other people involved. indeed some people say Germany sponsored them to get rid of Russia from WWI – certainly a more intelligent strategy than Hitler’s. Sometimes they worked with people who did not like the results being gained. Complexity again.

We can use these latter examples to make further claims. If big results came from the actions of few relatively powerless people, then big events can certainly result from the actions of a few relatively powerful people.

So the conspiracy, no conspiracy idea needs complication. The world is unlikely to be run by conspiracies, but it is equally unlikely there are no effective conspiracies, ever.

What is ‘Neoliberalism’?

July 17, 2017

I keep facing people who ask me what neoliberalism is, or who argue that as no-one calls themselves neoliberal, it is just a meaningless slur.

One definition is that neoliberalism is the corporately sponsored philosophy that makes ‘the market’ (not the economy) the only important function in society. And the market should, ideally, be ‘free’. Nothing else really counts.

The idea of free markets, in practice, means that governments should support and pander to business, as business is the only worthwhile activity. This becomes a moral imperative: if something cannot make a profit, then it should not exist. Everything should be administered as if it was a business, with profit coming before pleasure or effectiveness.

Furthermore, the free market idea means that government has to look after business by breaking unions whenever possible and lowering wages and working conditions to let business be ‘flexible’ and ‘responsive’ – although it is the workers who always suffer the discipline. As part of this process, government tries to reduce welfare spending, so that people are forced into working for low wages – but it always fails because governments simply spend more on bribing the prosperous middle class or in providing subsidies to business.

The free markets idea is used to argues for tax cuts for business, and wealthy individuals as they are the virtuous and they earned that money supposedly without any help from anyone, or without any history of theft.

It claims that these activities are all about getting the government off your back, which it does if you are wealthy and wish to pollute as part of your business, but the government is necessary to stop ordinary people from protesting or organising, and prevent them from taking power.

Neoliberalism has proven completely incapable of dealing with ecological despoliation and climate change, because as far as it can see, if nature or the environment is not owned by someone then it is simply an externality and a cost. It cannot effectively be factored into the ‘free market’ model. All costs should be minimized.

Few people would actually vote for this mish-mash – hence no one calls themselves neoliberal and neoliberals pretend they are about liberty, and something called ‘values’. These ‘values’ are used to hit dissenters, but are rarely important if there is a clash between values and established profit. Hence the promotion of the supposed ‘culture wars’ by neoliberals, as a distraction, as a way of recruiting conservatives to their cause, and as a way of getting government back on your backs, more stringently than before.

In the English speaking world we have had neoliberalism as the dominant ideology since the late seventies or early eighties of the last century (with Thatcher, Reagan and Keating), so we have had nearly 40 years of it. We know what it produces. It is not a mystery.

Neoliberalism uses “free market talk” to support and entrench corporate power.

Over-optimism and renewables

July 16, 2017

I’ve almost written this before, but what the hell?

I think there is way too much optimism in certain parts of the ‘alternate power’ or renewables movement. Over and over again you hear things like good design wins out, or the economics of renewables will win through, or that change is resisted by old fuddy duddies, then it arrives successfully and everyone is happy.

This is crap.

There is very little evidence that humans always manage to resolve life-threatening issues – indeed people in power can resist any change that appears to threaten them, threatens their loyalties, threatens their world view, or threatens their sense of order.

When that happens, and it is happening now, then there is always a powerful lobby trying to prevent change, and that lobby often wins until everything breaks down. They can keep resisting change, and making change awkward for a long time – and if they have access to real power (law, regulation, violence etc) they can stymie beneficial change completely.

Once society gets into a destructive habit, reinforced by the power relations, then it is hard for that society to change voluntarily or with any control.

That is shown over and over by history. People go on poisoning the ground they depend on, keep building temples at the cost of food, keep fishing the lakes until they are empty, keep turning the army into a barbarian militia or keep expanding beyond the possibilities of supply lines working. It is what happens.

However, despite this victory of the old order’s disorder, the disruptions and pressures keep building and eventually everything falls to pieces. The empire or the nation lies in ruins. Helpful organized change was stopped. Massively destructive change happened instead.

Beneficial change, does not always just arrive because its sensible, or the alternative is social destruction.

It requires political action, campaigning and good stories. It is not enough just to have good design and be cheaper.

Why are experts less respected?

July 6, 2017

There seems to be some general argument that experts are now no longer valued because all opinions are held to be equal, and because of “the rise of popularism,” rage, or “anti-estabishmentism”. These positions both beg the question of whether these are separate conditions, whether anyone actually thinks that someone else’s opinion is as good as theirs and which ignore analysis of the question of the socio-psychological basis for these views.

It seems to me that people judge information by information they already hold, which is backed up by the groups they are in allegiance with. This is the socially reinforced aspect of what is known as “confirmation bias” (where a person seeks evidence and opinions which agrees with their existing opinions), or of “belief bias” (where people first of all accept a conclusion as correct and then are largely uncritical of the arguments leading to that conclusion, or engineer arguments for the conclusion.)

People who seem to be good members of groups that other people see themselves as allied with (ingroups) are always more persuasive than people who seem to be exemplary members of groups they are opposed to (outgroups). The more groups can be made to separate, and the more people can fear exile from their groups, then the more this group bias occurs. Communication and reasoning are more about group bonding than about the nature of the world. During our evolution, group bonding, cooperation with our ingroup and maintaining a good reputation, was probably far more important to human survival than anything else.

Since the end of communism, we have had experts in one group (largely privately sponsored) claiming that free markets will produce liberty and meaning, which they don’t; in practice they produce corporate domination, distribution of wealth away from most people, unemployment, inflation of the economy to the be all and end all of life, and a less useful and participatory State. These results produce massive discontent, and thus risks disturbing actions.

In self-defense, the elite of this group seem to have made a very determined attempt to use the above ‘facts’ about human communication to attack those experts who dispute the virtues of privatizing everything or who dispute the universal beneficial consequences of such policies: they do not belong to our group; they are politically biased; they are immoral unlike us; they are sick; they are engaged in socialist conspiracies to thwart human freedom; they are an elite with nothing in common with us; they are out of touch; they want to take your money, and so on.

The aim of the process seems to be to separate groups and stop members of each group from talking to each other, and to stop trust in experts, by upping the abuse levels (see the Murdoch media), suggesting that talking with these outgroup experts means you are not really one of us (RINOs) and by engaging in largely distractionary “culture wars” – although the culture wars help reinforce the idea that the other groups are immoral and not worth listening to on anything. If there are other social processes reinforcing the separation of social groups into physically separate enclaves or conversational groups, then this move is easier.

The more fantastical the propositions being defended, ie ‘free markets’ produce liberty, corporate power is always good, coal is great for ecological and public health, then the more this kind of process becomes the best way of winning arguments, and supporting established power – until it breaks down and violence becomes more necessary to enforce the order being defended.

This movement against ‘experts’ is not an anti-establishment movement, it is a movement which is tied to an establishment which contradicts known things about social and ecological dynamics in the support of its power, even if it eventually leads to break down of that establishment.

Attacks on experts are socially motivated and proposed solutions have to bear this in mind. Simply defending expertise or attacking the groups attacking the experts will not persuade them of the experts virtues, it will likely do the opposite.

Trump and “Energy Dominance”

July 4, 2017

It has just been dirty energy week in the US. If you look at Trump’s speech, then the priorities are clear. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/06/29/remarks-president-trump-unleashing-american-energy-event

First he attacks the media, and the democrats, and once the essential stuff is done away with, he is very specific.

“Energy dominance” means removing any restrictions on coal and gas. Approving pipelines, including one taking oil to Mexico under the wall. Ending the EPA, so poisoning the population is ok. Expanding nuclear energy. Financing overseas coal plants to support US coal exports. Opening public land (that presumably include national parks) to mining. There is an implication that dirty fuel exports will increase, and imports will decline.

There is a further statement which clarifies all this, should you need it.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-energy

“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

“reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”

There is also a sop to Republican Environmentalists “with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.” But there is no evidence of this.

With this kind of government help, fossil fuel could survive and flourish. Certainly renewables could be set back. For Trump, and established business, Climate change is ignored and ignorable. Just a burden on profit.

Conscience, knowledge and Action

July 4, 2017

Stephen Hawking has been talking about Earth becoming like Venus: unliveable.

Generating conditions such as those on Venus, is probably unlikely – and its probably not useful to mention them, as it gives people an excuse not to believe anything about ecological crisis, or to cop out from action, claiming these are just tales of gloom and doom, nothing real.

I have also heard tales of gloom and doom my entire life. However, it is true that we only avoided nuclear war by the finest of margins. Both Russia and the US were about to make mistaken responses on several occasions, and it was only the reluctance of the people on the ground to launch that saved us. We have depended on individual people acting according to their conscience and understanding. They risked unapproved action. Avoiding catastrophe now, requires the same conscience and understanding and action.

It is a simple matter of logic that you cannot keep destroying, and demanding more from, the environment that you depend on for ever. It would seem that we are reaching the ends of what we can demand from the world in quite a few different systems, some of which get no media attention at all (peak phosphorus for example). The breaking of these systems will produce massive tumult and destruction.

If we continue as we are doing, conditions for any complex civilisation will get more and more precarious. Continuing is not a conservative policy, it is a destructive one.

It is not Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that is the problem. It is Trump’s slackening of rules which allow corporations to poison people and the environment, together with his regulative hostility to renewables that is the problem.

Basically, action in the US has to be at the State level. It has to refuse more coal mines and coal based power stations and phase out those which exist. We have to stop fracking, and stop the leakage of gas through crappy pipelines. We have to encourage renewables. We have to make corporations responsible for the pollution and poison they produce. There are no economic externalities in a (more or less) closed system. Non of this will be easy and it may have deleterious consequences as we sort things out and change expectations.

It will involve a massive political conflict, but Trump just makes this explicit. Under Clinton it would have been obstruction in Congress, and the hope that things will be alright. Under Trump there is no Congressional obstruction to destruction, and people have to take back their own power and conscience. There is no alternative. It is up to you and your ability to cooperate with others.

On consensus: scientific and otherwise

July 4, 2017

It is always useful to point out that scientific consensus is an agreement amongst scientists in the field about what the evidence implies. So the consensus on climate change means that by far the great majority of climate scientists are persuaded by the evidence that climate change is real and that this real climate change is humanly caused. There is also a theoretical back drop which explains how and why this climate change is occurring, and there is no obvious contradiction or failings in the theory which is leading it to be challenged. Scientists may later modify their positions if the evidence changes. However, it is unlikely they will modify their position to the extent that they argue climate change is not happening, and is not going to produce massive disruption.

We might compare this with the consensus amongst right wing people that free markets are wonderful.

There is no empirical evidence for free market theory – indeed one school of free market theory says no evidence is needed. There is no agreement amongst economists or social theorists that free markets always work or deliver what is promised by their advocates. When applied the theory does not appear to deliver the results promised. It does appear to deliver what cynics say it is meant to deliver (that is more corporate power and more plutocracy). There is no empirical or theoretical consensus. There used to be no political consensus either, Conservatives were well aware that capitalism destroyed all values and traditional social institutions that got in the way of profit. Such real conservatives are no longer common.

Yet the right insist that free markets are the fundamental truth of governance, liberty and prosperity.

Usually the problems with free market theory and its lack of acceptance by independent economists or social theorists is explained away as “left wing bias”, or even “communism” or “conspiracy”. Sometimes it is explained away by saying free market theory is never applied, but in that case we cannot know it will result in goodness when it is applied in full purity. The point is that when it is applied, in the way that it is applied, we get political situations like the present one.

A change in speech away from consensus to persuaded by the evidence, is important because in right wing speak, consensus simply means that people gathered around a table and decided on a position, usually for political reasons as in “there was a consensus amongst Republicans that Obamacare was evil” or “the general consensus amongst evangelical Christians is that the Pope is the anti-Christ” or “the consensus amongst business people is that capitalism is good”. etc.

Persuaded by the evidence takes us back to arguing about the evidence. This is more productive if people are well intentioned, and don’t keep returning to evidence which has been refuted. However in our day, people are being encouraged not to be persuaded by evidence.

Reason and politics

July 4, 2017

I read yet another blog post saying that people voted for Trump because they “abandoned reason”, that they kicked against reason… but…

I don’t think there is any evidence that people got fed up with reason. They thought that what was being presented, by people who they did not like, as reason would lead them to behave un-normally.

They would have to abandon tenets which had guided their entire lives, and there was no viable replacement for those tenets which they did not think would bring chaos. So they reasonably chose a man who seemed to placate them and agree with them and their tenets, and had no truck with those they blamed for destroying their certainties.

He had been successful in the way success was measured by them, so maybe he could do something, and the reason of others was as likely to be wrong as theirs was to be right, so why not give it a try.

Reason does not lead you to places your assumptions cannot take you. It can only tell you if you are consistent….

Being in complex systems

June 30, 2017

We are entangled in a dangerous situation of our own making, although it was not made deliberately. There is no point to blame other than assuaging personal guilt. We are all responsible, even if some are more responsible than others.

We are entangled in a set of complex systems with no straight lines and few determinable borders. These systems are not systems of firm bounded objects, they are systems of untidy, overlapping flows, with no absolute rigidity; things merge and blend.

These systems may not harmonise and may be subject to abrupt transitions to new states.

in such systems there are no lone individuals. There are no people not interdependent upon others, borrowing and transforming, and being borrowed and transformed.

Flux and chaos is Everywhere.

In these systems, we cannot know the totality of the systems (which compose us), or all of the interconnections, we operate within a swarm of unintended effects. Outcomes are unclear –as it is hard to determine what is the immediate cause of outcomes, as outcomes have multiple interacting causes and may look like they had nothing to do with us. We may not even perceive the outcomes we part-produce.

What we do will have unintended consequences, and we may not be able to recognise them. We also need to know lots of different facts and theories to make it clearer when we might be ignorant.

In these systems, lack of knowing is basic – we cannot accurately or definitively model complex systems (and if we could then acting on the model would change the system). This does not mean there are not degrees of lack. We don’t have to be claim everyone is equally ignorant, or that some ideas are not more accurate than others. Ideas are actions and actions are ideas.

However, given the lack, then we might have to educate towards conscious ignorance. Not unconscious ignorance, or thinking our knowledge is complete.
Knowing what we don’t know, to the extent we can know.

As we are ignorant, the unconscious (systemic and psychological) is everywhere. Our self bleeds into the world. It is not separate from that world. We do not know our self or where it ends, or what we are entangled with. Yet our self seems concrete as do the systems. This concreteness may be an illusion. We think with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. We also feel with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. The world comes to being in us, and we come to being in it. There are no lone individuals. Mind is extended, there are no lone minds. And yet: can we only respect the lone or be moral with the lone? We do not exist without the multiple, and that multiple appears to have no known border; it blends.

AS we are entangled then we (to some undetermined extent) involve the rest of the systems. How then, as we exist and attempt to extricate ourselves from the problems we created, do we involve the non-human without modifying it so that it exists for us? Speaking for the non-human renders it human, and risks erasing it. Yet if the human does not speak for the non-human then it does not exist to the human. This gives us the paradox of representation it represents and distorts at the same time. It may be that in dealing with complex systems and unintended effects we are always dealing with apparent paradox…

One way is to change ourselves (a small action with possible systemic effects). Knowing we do not know.

There is no way out of the systems we are entangled within. We have no option but to work on us or it and in it.

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It may be that people have embraced the term ‘complex adaptive systems’ rather than simply ‘complex systems’, because the idea implies teleology and purpose – “to adapt, and adapt well”. The term suggests everything will adapt constructively, rather than that things can adapt destructively, or injuriously. It removes the spectre of disorder and suggests beneficence. It suggests an ordered cosmos once again, with aims and ends.

Individual vs Systemic change

June 30, 2017

The problem with promoting individual change to deal with large problems, is that it often operates without recognising that the individual is part of a set of systems and those systems make demands, or set up the parameters of action…

Thus the destructive action that one person may take, say using a leaf blower, driving a car several hundred metres to the shops, using new plastic bags or wrapping, planning a residential area that needs cars, may not make much difference in itself, but in their billions they do. One of our current problems is that if the ‘developing world’ emulates our way of life, then we are lost. The destructiveness is too great.

In our defense, we can easily use the examples of others’ behaviour to show we are not doing much harm. Using a new plastic bag is not as harmful as clear felling the amazon, or poisoning whole populations with waste from a single factory. Building one coal powered energy source is not as bad as building hundreds. Using a leaf blower is less harmful than building hundreds of coal power stations. It may even be less harmful than something else that is minorly harmful – such as driving a car to the shops. We can say we use a leaf blower because we have kept so many trees or because it is easier on our back or whatever. We can manage to feel proud that our destructive acts are less destructive than other possible acts.

And it is true that stopping by yourself will not change anything. But if millions of people stop, then it does change things. So, if you believe that something you are doing has the possibility of harm, then it might be your responsibility to a) stop that harm, as much as possible, b) be aware of the harm you do without making excuses, and c) exemplify the change and show others it is possible.

Humans learn through imitation of respected others. We have to exemplify the change we wish to see, and prevent exemplificatory capture by the powers that be. Donald Trump is perceived by more than us, and becomes an exemplar of behaviour and thus of what we can and should do. But despite this, we exemplify as well, and may well exemplify more relevantly to our audience, than the US President does.

By our behaviours, we make those behaviours normal, and it more likely that others will take them up and thus that the system changes. One of the problems with Revolutions is that individual behaviours do not change, and the new system becomes as harmful as the old. So changing behaviour is worthwhile.

The systems we are entangled in provide a degree of resistance, and this is what keep systems stable for periods of time. Learning to go against the system, helps us learn how the system reinforces its trajectory. For example we may learn that we are over busy without time to think and we do destructive acts simply to avoid more friction and consumption of our lives. We need freedom to live as well as to survive.

Changing even minor behavior can lead to calls for major changes as well.

Ultimately, what we do, and the systems’ responses to this, creates the future. There is no excuse for not doing what you think is right, but learn to recognise if it does not work. Failure is learning. Try something new.

Over time multiple changes in small parts of the system may reconfigure the system and so it was all worthwhile.

This also suggests that the solutions are found in the doing, and that we try and act small scale. Large scale may produce catastrophe – the point is we do not know. We can approach things with care, knowing that good intentions are not enough, they may even stop us perceiving what we need to know.

Small ways can lead to big things, although the small ways may need support. Even small acts can help. There can be ripple effects. Let’s not always get tied in the importance of big drama.

The systems may do the important work, not us.