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:

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?

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.

The man who changed everything

Jesus seems to defy the impotence of individuals in the face of historical forces

As you likely know already, today is Easter Sunday. This is the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. For believers this is the central moment of human history: the moment of humanity’s redemption. However, I would argue that even seen in secular terms Jesus stands out in history.[1]

Generally speaking it is beyond the power of a single individual to profoundly shape history. This is a point made by Michael Gove’s bête noir the historian Richard Evans in the process of explaining why historical what-ifs are a largely futile exercise:

…every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense. The problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn’t the case, as many a tyrant in history, from Napoleon to Hitler, has found to his cost. To suppose otherwise is to regress into a “great man” view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.

Yet it is hard to see Christianity’s emergence as the pre-ordained outcome of larger historical forces. Yes they had an impact: the unity of the Roman Empire sped up the transmission of new ideas. But from my limited knowledge of Ancient History[2] it does not seem Christianity was filling a vacuum or bringing a situation back to equilibrium. There little reason to think that without Jesus and his teachings that Christianity or something like it would have emerged.

There were religious movements with similarities to Christianity but none of these seem likely to have spread in its absence. Surprisingly given their harsh treatment in the Gospels, the Pharisees bore many theological similarities to Christians. However, even when the destruction of the Temple left them the dominant strain within Judaism it never emulated Christianity’s success amongst gentiles.

As an alternative we could speculate that without the Jesus the rise of a monotheistic religion based on adherence to a holy book would simply have been delayed a few hundred years until Islam’s arrival. But there are reasons to doubt this. For starters, Jesus is a profound influence on Islam – the Qur’an mentions him constantly. So who is to say what Islam would have looked like without Jesus or whether it would have existed at all. And even if it had, by the time of Muhammad the unity of the Roman Empire which had facilitated Christianity’s spread across Europe was gone. It thus seems likely that without Jesus and Christianity, Europe would have stayed pagan for the foreseeable future.

This would have had extraordinary historical implications and not just for the religious history of the lands that eventually became Christian. Our current view about ideas as fundamental to the modern world as capitalism, human rights and science emerged out of an intellectual culture defined by Christianity.

In the light of Evans’ criticisms of counterfactuals, I shall refrain from trying to predict what a world without Jesus would have looked like beyond suggesting that it would have been very different from what exists now. In short, one does not have to be a Christian to see the man we celebrate today as pivotal for human history.


[1] For this article I am assuming that Jesus was indeed a historical figure.

[2] Seriously I don’t know much about this. Correct me if I’m wrong!

What have bunnies got to do with Easter?

Having an opportunity to post a photo of this adorable pair is justification for this post right?

For this Easter day post, I’d been trying to think of something profound to say about the resurrection. Unfortunately, profound insights don’t arrive on cue. So here is instead is what Vox has to say about the origins of the Easter Bunny:

In case you’re unsure — no, there are no Easter Bunny cameos in the Gospels. The first historical references we have to an Easter Bunny dates to the 16th-century German tale of Oschter Haws. According to this legend, a mysterious creature named Oschter Haws, or Easter Hare, visited children while they slept and rewarded them for their good behavior (similar to Santa). The children made nests for these hares, who would then lay colored eggs in them.

The tale was then brought to America when Germans emigrated here in the 1700s. The legend of the Easter Hare continued to grow in America, especially as books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Easter Bunny That Overslept (1957) were published. In 1971, ABC aired a television special called Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which was based on the 1957 book.

But where did Germans get the idea to associate a hare with Easter? The history here is murky. Some people suggest that in antiquity, hares were associated with new life, due to their high fertility rate. Some have theorized that there is a connection between hares and the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre — the goddess from whose name “Easter” may be derived, according to one source.

In a democracy, civil disobedience is not ok

Where there are constitutional means to bring about changes in the law, there is no justification for breaking it to achieve political ends

A few days ago, Green MP Caroline Lucas and a group of co-defendants have been cleared of breaching the Public Order Act during a protest outside an oil exploration plant in Boscombe.

Now I do not want to get into the question of whether or not Ms Lucas and her fellow protestors broke the law.* The judge seems to think that it has not been proved that they did and that’s enough for me.

However, there is a broader issue. There seems to be a view that whether or not Ms Lucas broke the law did not matter because she was doing it to further a political cause. This is a view she herself seems to sympathise with.

I think this is misguided. I would argue that having a political motivation does not excuse law breaking or mitigate it but rather is an aggravating factor. I’ve already quoted this week from a speech by B.R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, on preserving democracy. In it he was very critical of civil disobedience:

If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

Essentially Ambedkar was arguing that while civil disobedience had been justified in resisting the British Raj, now that India had its own democratic constitution efforts to bring about political changes.

We have developed a political and legal system conferring rights and responsibilities on groups and individuals. There are agreed channels through which these can be modified. Just because one holds the strong conviction that a particular activity that say fracking, same sex marriage or whatever is wrong does not entitle one to go outside these. It is the whole purpose of having a constitution to balance different convictions. Restrictions on ones freedom should only imposed in an accountable manner after proper public debate (as happens in the legislative process) not arise from the self-appointed champions of a particular cause. Regardless of whether or not, Caroline Lucas did try and block the entrance to a business going about a lawful activity, she would not have been within her rights to do so. The proper way to stop fracking or any other right is through the exercise of our right to free speech (including the right to peacefully and legally protest) and the deliberations of democratically accountable members of parliament. Anything else is an illiberal and undemocratic attempt to impose one’s views on one’s fellow citizens, their rights or the views of wider society be damned.


*There would also be the question of whether any breach was more than a technical infraction.