Dick Taverne

Dick (ie Baron) Taverne came along to the CLHG book club discussion of his “March of Unreason” last night. Interesting to meet and spend time talking with him.

Since his book is now 10 years old he gave us a 10 minute update on how he saw things different now. I actually thought all his main points were valid anyway – clearly his focus on topical issues was of its time, and limited by the evidence then available – that’s the point – but the underlying points are really unchanged for me. Perhaps because we were an atheist / humanist audience the politician in him gave us what he thought we wanted to hear – rising theistic religious fundamentalism as the main dogmatic threat to rational science (though he cited Pinker’s Better Angels to remind us to keep a sense of proportion and progress.) In his book the rising fundamentalists were the back-to-nature eco-warriors – those who saw science as either unnatural or driven by big business or both. Some so-called “science” is alien to humanity – feeding ground-up animals to herbivores in the BSE scandal for example, though the risks were always tiny and managable when it came to empirical evidence.

I have a counter point to the Sense About Science “show me the evidence” campaign. It’s an error to think everyone should be informed on all the technical nuances of every science-based issue affecting life enough to actually recognise good evidence and spend the time to consider it. We have lives to live. The mantra should be show me the evidence that you have considered enough evidence that I should trust you. If you’re selling “scientific” cosmetics products – I already know you’re selling product. I’ll find my own evidence thanks, by trial and error, if I care. If you want funding for a multi-billion particle physics project, I want to know I can trust who is advising you. Outside of laboratory conditions, evidence is about trust; trusting authority. After the size of the human population of the planet, trust is the no.2 issue for us all. Risk aversion (Taverne’s take on the stultefying “precautionary principle”) is a part of the optimism / pessimism balance of trust. – Nuclear Power, GM crops / technologies, Animal testing. etc.)

Interestingly Taverne is a staunch supporter of the BBC, as I am, and cited recent improvements – whether as a result of “Sense About Science” or otherwise – one example being that the meaningless idea of having balanced reporting by simply giving equal time to any counter spokesperson on every issue was a thing of the past. Based on a recommendation from Prof Steve Jones, it was now normal for producers and editors to take scientific advice on the “weight of evidence” before deciding on balance. Simple but effective stuff. Again it may be a right, but shouldn’t be a necessity, for the public to assess all evidence, when there is an authoritative institution we can trust. We should focus on building trust. Confidence. Living.

I’ve used the idea of focussing on demands for quantifiable objectivity as a fetish previously, akin to autism in economics. Taverne referred to Merkel as a deficit fetishist (quoting another source) in the Grexit saga, focussing too narrowly, applying a rule, without vision or imagination. Rules being for the guidance of wise men, and the enslavement of fools. It’s obvious to anyone that the Greek situation is not really about the debt as a number – some large proportion of it will obviously be written-off – once the fuss dies down. Hands-up anyone who conceived it would ever be repaid. The negotiations should be a game to encourage tackling of previous productivity and corruption problems in public services, with the threat of a little austerity as an incentive. It’s not about using austerity as a punishment, a big stick to achieve a zero deficit. That’s dumb. Wiser and less-public negotiations would achieve the right result. Public pronouncements on numbers are mere hostages to fortune. Naive. Autistic. Counterproductive.

Some discussion on Daniel Kahneman followed; the psychologist with the Nobel prize for economics. Economics has always been about psychology to its practitioners; about perception, sentiment and confidence. I think this was confirmed for me back in my 1980’s MBA days, budgetting and accounting as psychological games. The simplistication (dumbing down) in the media, and thence in public pronouncements by the politicians and Robert Pestons of this world, create a focus on numbers we can fight about – wars make for media-selling headlines (see “fuss” above). Someone also previously coined the idea of “autistic economics” for this problem. We can all do arithmetic, right? Jeez. Come back Stephanomics.

Finally, joining up the German and Greek dots with a conversation about Egyptians specifically and Africans generally, leading naturally to Scots and Brits, Taverne reinforced his aversion to “national” identity and support for the “federal” post-WWII European project – powers delegated upwards by member agreement –  notwithstanding massive problems with the current EU arrangements. The US wants, we and the world need, us (all) to be bigger than little-Englanders.

A man after my own. A fascinating evening.

(Will add more links to the implied references in due course if asked.)

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