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Liberal debate

There is a liberal point of view that believes in free speech and in everyone being heard. That liberal stance is being subverted so that it works against itself. There is no point in free speech in the face of massive, global misinformation campaigns: all that happens is you miss the chance to oppose the evil machinations of corporates and governments that are only ever in their own interest.

The subversion of democracy is possible because of the rules of democracy. Autocrats get votes loaded in the their favour to give a veneer of popular support to something that has no vestige of interest to the people who vote: only smoke and mirrors. The UK’s much vaunted democracy has been a sham in this direction for a long time.

I once did a long period of consultancy for an IT Manager of a health insurance firm. He had trouble with the board understanding the costs and timescales of his department and this got focused around prioritizing projects. He asked me in all seriousness to come up with a matrix scoring scheme that would guarantee that when the projects had been scored they would come out in the order that he knew they needed to be done.

The opposite of this is the common procedure by which orchestras select new players. Maybe ninety top musicians play one at a time behind a screen, and existing members of the orchestra score their playing. When the total scores are summed for the competitors, very often the scores don’t make the preset threshold, and no-one is appointed, no matter what the calibre of the players.

There is no actual debate and no actual exchange of information and views until the outcome can be affected. If the outcome is essentially predetermined then the process is a sham. The vast majority of consultations I have been involved in have had this sham character. I remember speaking at a public meeting about changing the local school system from a middle school system to a primary/secondary system. Every single speaker in a long evening spoke passionately about keeping the existing middle schools, then the education officials made a decision based on the need to rationalise some underfilled secondary schools. And no apology or even acknowledgement of wasting everyone’s time on a debate that was irrelevant to the criteria being used.

Think now if you will of trying to persuade Exxon that they had a duty to even people in the US to speak truthfully about climate change. It was a non-starter. Campaign till you are blue in the face, you need to find a lever that affects their bottom line a lot.

Debate on US campuses

I picked up The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which is concerned with whether you can have open debate, especially on US campuses recently. They describe a change in students dating from only 2013 when there is a sudden concern for safe spaces and for warnings about material that may trigger strong emotional reactions. The authors think all this is unhealthy. And that makes me queasy.

One of the routes used to diagnose the unhealthiness of this phenomenon is to look at the “flawed” thinking styles that CBT identifies. If we use these styles of thinking, CBT claims we will be unhappy and ineffective: we will need treatment. It is a long long quote but I think it is useful to have the full list here:

Emotional reasoning. Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed, therefore my marriage is not working out”

Catastophising. Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as the most likely. “It would be terrible if I failed”

Overgeneralisation. Perceiving a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things”

Dichotomous thinking. (Also known variously as black and white thinking, all or nothing thinking and binary thinking. Viewing events or people in all or nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone” or “It was a complete waste of time”

Mind reading. Assuming you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I am a loser”

Labelling. Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable” or “He’s a rotten person”

Negative filtering. Focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom noticing the positives. “Look at all the people who don’t like me”

Discounting positives. Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgement. “That is what wives are supposed to do — so it doesn’t count when she is nice to me” or “Those successes were easy so they don’t matter”

Blaming. Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; refusing to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now” or “My parents caused all my problems”

Leahy, Holland and McGinn, adapted by Lukiannoff and Haidt

My big problem with all this is that the book authors are not sensitive to the way they themselves commit most of these same sins. They say that CBT is the only therapy that can be shown to work. They focus almost exclusively on the negatives of campus protest about controversial speakers. They are very dichotomous in contrasting the current situation with how things used to be. Etcetera.

CBT per se

Philip reports a conversation between a therapist and a colleague of his on the subject of CBT. The message is “you will hate this”. Because you are so intelligent and articulate you will hate the material, the concepts, the books, the layout in its 16pt easy-read fonts. But it will work.

How that last statement, it will work, is like a red rag to a bull on this blog. What I hear when someone says that is that they have narrowed the scope of something so far that it has become trivial, and therefore it is possible to say that the original expectations of it have been fulfilled. The basic project mantra. Or the learning objectives of too much that calls itself education.

So now we have a therapeutic method that you will hate being used to justify the statement that what is going on in US campuses is “coddling”: an over-protective response. The book’s subtitle is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up and Generation for Failure. Like the current generation is not a failure and the whole situation is not completely dire. But that is me committing CBT sins.

Bike-shed logic

Bike-shedding comes from Parkinson and his notion that the amount of time that is spent or allotted on a board’s agenda for an item is inversely proportional to its importance or cost. Bike-shed logic (very prevalent in today’s boards, private and public sector) is important because it paralyses action on important items. If we go back to those protesting students, the bike shed question is whether they or there critics are responding more accurately to their underlying situation.

Philip and I went through the ten CBT thinking problems one at a time on your behalf. We asked for each one whether there were circumstances where the problem thinking might be appropriate. For example take black and white thinking: when might it be just what is needed or an evolutionary adaptation to something important? And the general answer is yes, there is always a circumstance. Black and white thinking is appropriate in life-and-death situations, almost by definition. We have evolved to act first and think later when we are threatened.

Is it conceivable that the generation of students that started college in 2013 are reacting to a real threat? Well their directly articulated requests are for safe spaces. Which implies that they do not feel safe on current campuses. My extrapolation from there would be about containment: do they feel that academic and administrative staff and governing bodies are up to the challenges they face? Is climate change being faced with liberal debating values? Is the current lurch is US politics something that is being handled well?

When there is a severe symptom, like huge campus protests about incidents that appear trivial to outsiders, and when staff are forced from their posts by these protests, do we simply say that students are misguided and are not doing their own education any favours? Or do we look to wider breakdowns and ask ourselves whether the wider system is delivering for the people in it? Is “education” worth what US students are paying for it?

My close colleague Raj Thamotheram is a radical voice in the world of pensions. He and I worked on material to help pension trustees and professionals to understand the potential impact of climate change on their funds. Raj recently posted a statement from a report to members in a huge pension scheme, that they were not commenting on what was possibly the largest risk to those funds and therefore to future pensions. They were not commenting because it was too difficult and did not affect their short-term options! Pension scheme members should be erupting at the threat to their futures, at the failure of the scheme to address the underlying (climate) risks to the world, at the sheer professional wilful blindness.

Neither the students nor the pension fund members are having their situation contained. The threats are as they say, existential. Which group are behaving in an appropriate way?

Let’s mention the elephant

Maybe from my risk management days I am sensitive to elephants in the room or as I used to call them, stinking hippos. The facts are not well collated but it seems that there are more deaths from hippos than elephants and I can confirm they smell worse. The outcome of bikeshedding is stinking hippos to mix metaphors quite dreadfully. If you won’t discuss the most important, pressing issues by degrees they become undiscussable because they make everyone look stupid.

As I write, Hurricane Florence is about to strike Carolina. Various commentators have noted that the public planners are forbidden to use the current science in understanding sea level rise when designing coastal defences. A built-in hippo if you like. This is the world in which people are arguing for liberal debates between people with opposing views on campus or elsewhere. It is no longer about the science or about testing the arguments, it is about predatory delay where some people get rich by saying and doing things that are in no-one’s interest but their own.

Let’s deal with the balance question as well, a stinking hippo in its own right. The BBC has only just got over putting up a climate denier every time they have a news item about climate change. They felt, weirdly, that they needed to balance urgent radical views with pure self-serving fantasy. Not to mention the airtime given to Brexiteers both before and after the referendum that has only obscured what political arguments there are. Balance can be real and valuable, but it takes a really insightful and often iconoclastic editorial push to maintain a live balance rather than the aftermath of past skirmishes.

What counts as balance to a BBC editor is something like “will this pressure group who give me earache about this issue be somewhat set against this other power bloc who will make the opposite complaint?” It is about being perceived to hold the ring between the warring factions in an even-handed way. But that is all about who is shouting loudest and threatening most convincingly, not about the issues. What does it take to get the material into public view in a way that supports actual informed debate?

Remember that creationists still find a ready platform in UK schools. Remember that global food policy is largely set by Seventh Day Adventists who are creationist in their beliefs. Remember that over a hundred years ago Procter and Gamble started turning their waste product cotton oil into Crisco vegetable fat that has probably done more harm to human health in the developed world than any other product. Do any of the advocates of balance feel a need to put up an alternative view?



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works