John Oliver to US news media: stop ignoring the Indian election

It is commonplace to criticise the parochial Western media for its ridiculously sparse coverage of the ‘largest elections ever.’ However, it’s unusual indeed for it to be done as hilariously as John Oliver has managed in the first episode of his new HBO show. It’s well worth a watch:

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Even if he hadn’t abused children, Cyril Smith would still have been a loathsome human being

The former Rochdale MP not only abused vulnerable boys but also a corrupt reactionary. So why did Nick Clegg pay tribute to him?

 

http://i2.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article1434303.ece/alternates/s615/Cyril%20Smith%20Liberal%20MP%20for%20Rochdale%20Lancs%20posing%20to%20show%20off%20his%20enormous%20girth

Tim Farron in his capacity as Liberal Democrat Party President has today warned that Lib Dems and Labour need to “answer serious questions as to who knew what and when” regarding the abuses of the sexual abuse of children by the late Rochdale MP Cyril Smith. Both Greater Manchester Police and the CPS has concluded that Smith should have been prosecuted when the allegations first came to light in the 1970s.

It goes without saying that whatever contributions Smith made as a public figure count for nothing in the light of these allegations. However, what I hadn’t realised before I did some research on the late MP was that even were one to overlook his paedophilia, Smith still had a pretty malign legacy.

For a Liberal MP, he was not actually very liberal. He was in many regards a prototype for an unfortunate subgroup of Liberal activists who have little discernable commitment to freedom but instead subscribe to localism which they interpret as parochial populism and use as a pretext for being a local ‘big man.’ He was after all “the only Liberal to oppose the abolition of capital punishment and abortion law reform (“We are the backstreet abortionists for the rest of Europe,” he declared).”

However, I would not make too much of this: I try not to hold people’s political convictions against them personally. More concerning are his efforts to help the Lancashire manufacturing giant Turner & Newall (T&N) conceal the dangers of Asbestos:

“T&N also relied on the assistance of Cyril Smith, the larger-than-life Rochdale MP and parliamentary pioneer of the Saturday-night television chat-show sofa. During the summer recess of 1981, Smith wrote to Sydney Marks, the head of personnel, informing him that the House would debate EEC regulations on asbestos in the next parliamentary session.

The letter asks simply: “Could you please, within the next eight weeks, let me have the speech you would like to make (were you able to!), in that debate?”

T&N’s draft is almost identical to the speech delivered by the Rochdale MP, stressing the need for less regulation and arguing that substitutes for asbestos should be approached “with caution”. “The public at large are not at risk,” said Smith. “It is necessary to say that time and time again.”

Writing in the local paper, he claimed to have “worked very hard on the speech and have spent hours, both in reading and in being at the works, trying to master the facts about safety in asbestos”.

A year later he declared 1,300 shares in the company. Six months after that J B Heron, the chairman of T&N, wrote to Smith again, thanking him for his assistance with the Commons select committee meetings which followed Alice, a Fight for Life, the Yorkshire Television documentary that highlighted the plight of T&N employees.

When last month the New Statesman approached Smith for a comment, he said: “If you’ve got the documents, it is all true.”

This was all known at the time Cyril Smith died in 2010. Which raises the question why Nick Clegg chose to pay him a warm tribute claiming: “He was a true Liberal, dedicated to his constituency, always showing great passion and determination.”

 

Spare us this incessant football

A rant about the Moyes sacking turning the whole media into football bores

So David Moyes is no longer Manchester United manager. I’ve heard a lot about this fact, as I do about a lot of football related events. And I would like it to stop.

As background, this sketch from Mitchel and Webb sums up my attitude to football pretty well:

Which is not to say I have anything against football or football fans – alright, I do but that’s just me being a snob. Watching football is a perfectly respectable hobby. But that’s all it is a hobby, something people do for fun and to make friends.

What sets sport and in particular football apart from other hobbies is the assumption that they have some broader significance or interest. People who’ve never met and have no idea if you like football or not, will assume they can have a conversation about the merits of particular club or player. [NOTE: don’t do this to me unless you are ok with me in return boring on about how the end of Captain America II will influence the broader Marvel cinematic universe].

I love films but I don’t expect a section of every news bulletin and newspaper to be set aside for it. And if (to pick an analogy for the Moyes) Sam Mendes was booted out of directing the next Bond film I would think it absurd if that and not say Ukraine was treated as the big news story of the day.

Football is ultimately not that important nor for many people that interesting. Who will be Manchester United manager is not a question that matters to people who don’t follow football. So fans and media, I implore you please stop constantly telling us about it!

 

N.B. I’m really talking about club football. I would accept that international football is one of the few sporting events like the Olympics that genuinely is a national event.

In defence of Nate Silver and Data Journalism

Leon Wieselter accuses Nate Silver of “intimidation by quantification.” I accuse Leon Wieselter of idiocy.

Note: this was a post I drafted at the time of the time FiveThirtyEight launched. For various reasons I never got around to publishing it. The time that has passed has left me convinced that Silver’s new website is nowhere near as good as his old subsite at the New York Times was. However, I think that is because of problems with the execution and I stand this defence of what he is trying to achieve.

Since its launch a week ago: Nate Silver’s new data driven news site FiveThirtyEight has acquired plenty of detractors. I’m a big fan of Silver – my Kindle is signed by him – so unsurprisingly I’m supportive of his new project. However, at least some of these criticisms are valid. For example, Jonathan Chait’s warning that “Silver’s great added value was to bring basic statistical literacy to the fields of political forecasting and sports commentary, which are dominated by old-line hacks who rely on horse sense and either disdain data in any form or use data very badly. The new FiveThirtyEight tries to expand this revelatory contribution to other fields. The trouble is that many of those fields, like economics and climate science, already have real experts.”

That said there have also been some very weak arguments made. Chief among them those by Leon Wieselter, the literary editor of the New Republic and “one of the ideas men of the liberal intelligentsia.” He accuses Silver of a “slander” against Op-Ed journalism for his claim in an interview with the New York magazine that it “leads to a lot of bullshit.”

The contrasting approaches of the two men essentially represent another phase in the ‘Two Cultures’ debate. Like the coiner of the phrase, the scientist turned novelist C.P. Snow, worries that the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities don’t inform each other enough. For example, he says in his New York interview that “a weakness of conventional journalism [is] that you have beautiful English language skills and fewer math skills, and we hope to rectify that balance a little bit.” Wieselter by contrast follows his fellow literary critic and Snow’s nemesis F.R Leavis who believed that the application of science to areas traditionally studied by the humanities was degrading. He was written that “in the struggle to establish accurate and respectful relations between the sciences and the humanities, I am for a two-state solution.”

So what are Wieselter’s problems with data journalism?

1. He thinks Silver wants to make all journalism quantitative

he [Silver] cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization.

This is transparently not true. Silver does not think all journalism has to be quantitative and you can see this elsewhere in Wieselter’s piece where he says that Silver “honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism.” Two of these are primarily qualitative.

2. He thinks data journalism can’t cope with questions of values

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide.

This is true – trite indeed – but the reverse is also true. How likely the Republicans are to take control of the Senate in the Mid Terms is a factual question and Silver’s data driven approach has shown itself better able to predict such things than the prognosticators of the Op-Ed pages.

3. He seems to have a problem with objectivity

The intellectual predispositions that Silver ridicules as “priors” are nothing more than beliefs. What is so sinister about beliefs?…..He should be a little more wary of scorning them, even in degraded form: without beliefs we are nothing but data, himself included, and we deserve to be considered not only from the standpoint of our manipulability.

And why would one boast of having no interest in the great disputations about injustice and inequality? Neutrality is an evasion of responsibility, unless everything is like sports. Like Ezra Klein, whom he admires, Nate Silver had made a success out of an escape into diffidence. What is it about conviction that frightens these people?

What worries them is not convictions per se. Rather it is the risk of facts being bent for the sake of supporting a conviction.

Unfortunately this is how the brain works

Ezra Klein writes here at some lengths about the psychology of confirmation bias and how this screws up our political decision-making. And a famous study of the predictive abilities of political experts found that those “who had one big idea they were certain would reveal what was to come were handily beaten by those who used diverse information and analytical models, were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty and kept their confidence in check.”

People like Silver and Klein are alive to these risks. Silver discusses the Tetlock study at length in his book the Signal and the Noise. Thus what they are doing is not coming up with ways to banish convictions. Rather, they devise methodologies to ensure that convictions follow from facts and not the reverse. And anyone interested in an informed debate about public policy should wish them good luck in that.

A broader view

Appropriately enough, Wieselther’s hostility to data journalism is part of his broader convictions. He recently had a debate in the New Republic with the psychologist Stephen Pinker about the relationship between science and the humanities. Wieselther’s position was essentially that the methodologies of the natural sciences are never appropriate for studying human affairs. An argument which Pinker ably rebutted by among other things pointing out that subjects like archaeology and linguistics could never have made the progress they have without a host of scientific insights and methods.

Probably the most relevant aspect of this science/humanities debate to considering Silver’s new website is Wieselter’s absolute paranoia that once scientific methods are allowed into the humanities; they are all that will be allowed. He seems incapable of imagining a situation in which traditional approaches can co-exist with new ones borrowed from the natural sciences. This despite the fact that Pinker provides several examples of how the humanities have informed his own scientific work.

Wieselter seems similarly incapable of envisaging that data journalism and traditional journalism can co-exist. He therefore winds up attacking Nate Silver for something he has no intention nor prospect of doing. Far from making a convincing case for the merits of op-ed journalism, Wieselter winds up producing a misleading and overwrought piece that illustrates the potential deficiencies of his favoured medium.

Locke (review)

An unconventional film delivers a compelling portrait of a man’s life disintegrating

There is an XKCD comic of charts showing which characters are on screen together over the course of a film. It starts with elaborate designs showing the interactions in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It ends, however, with 12 Angry Men which unsurprisingly consists of 12 parallel lines. The graph for Locke would potentially be even simpler. The only character who appears on screen is Ivan Locke, a construction manager played by Tom Hardy. The story unfolds through a succession of phone calls he makes while driving down a motorway at night.

I’ve seen it described as a thriller in a number of places. That’s not really the correct label. While it’s certainly suspenseful, the events are more mundane than one associates with a thriller. What it is in effect is the descent of man has built is identity on self-control seeing his life move out of his control.

If you have hesitations on account of the unconventional format, I’d urge you to put them aside. It has a first rate cast including not only Hardy but also Olivia Colman, Ben Daniels, Ruth Wilson and (a very un-Moriarty like) Andrew Scott. That’s combined with a carefully crafted script and complemented by cinematography which amplifies the claustrophobia of the situation and makes you feel Locke’s isolation.

That’s not bad for a film made in little more than a week for less than £2 million.

Verdict: 8/10 – an understated triumph

In a “Christian Country”, Christianity rots

 Calling a country “Christian” will just make its Christians complacent

Steve Bell's If … 21.04.2014

Steve Bell in the Guardian. I was rather taken with the notion of the Treasury as a faith based organisation!

David Cameron has – in the process of promoting the Big Society – argued that Britain is “a Christian Country.” A claim which has earned him a rebuke from a group of notable non-believers. I at least partially share their concerns but my main issue with what the PM said is rather different.

I suspect there is an incongruity he has not appreciated between calling Britain “a Christian Country” and in the same article arguing Christians should be “more evangelical” about their faith and “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” I’d suggest that believing oneself to be living in a “Christian Country” would be liable to make a Christian complacent, conformist and consequently less likely to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.”

In the 19th century, the Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard warned that identifying a political unit with Christianity endangered authentic Christian faith:

Kierkegaard described himself as “a Socrates of Christendom”. The idea of Christendom is rather out-of-date in today’s multicultural western societies, but in the 19th century it was commonly used to signify the “kingdom” of Christian states. However, Kierkegaard uses the term negatively to criticise the idea that being a Christian is simply a matter of being born and brought up in a certain kind of society, and fitting in with its customs, such as being baptised and attending church on Sundays. Just as Socrates challenged the Sophists’ claim to possess knowledge, so Kierkegaard suggests that people who considered themselves to be Christians “as a matter of course” are deceiving themselves. In fact, he argued that it is more truthful to talk of “becoming a Christian” than of “being a Christian”. In other words, Christianity is a task that is never completed – at least not within this lifetime. According to Kierkegaard, the Christian life involves continual striving. From a personal point of view, this means renewing one’s relationship to God repeatedly, at every moment.

There’s not much in the Gospels I can see to suggest that Kierkegaard was wrong. Jesus and the Disciples made no effort to create a Christian nation. Their ministry was amongst an unconverted population living under a hostile state. And the emphasis of their teachings on human imperfections makes me doubt I will see a nation that meets the moral standards Jesus laid down in this life.

Looking to the US does seem to vindicate these concerns. The relationship between American nationalism and religiosity with the Republican Party as its offspring has to alarm anyone who takes Christianity seriously as a humane force. Something has gone very wrong when a religion that teaches charity, peace  and mercy winds up associated with the political movement for gutting safety nets, mass gun ownership and continuing the death penalty.

Calling a country ‘Christian’ is impossibly high praise for something composed of individuals scarred by original sin. The reality is that Christians need to “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” not because this is a “Christian country” but because it clearly isn’t. As a result there will always be people who need our help.