Exact Thinking in Demented Times

I bought Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Karl Sigmund for the genius title, and absolutely loved the book. The subtitle explains what it’s about: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science. Karl Sigmund, the flyleaf tells me, is a maths professor at the University of Vienna and one of the pioneers of evolutionary game theory. He also co-curated an exhibition on the Vienna Circle, the inter-war group of philosophers, mathematicians and physicists who between them revolutionised the world’s understanding of – well, the world. Against idealism and metaphysics, seeking the unity of science, their logical positivism transformed Anglo-American philosophy, not least because so many of the Circle’s members had to flee Austria in the 1930s.

Who would have thought this could make a rip-roaring read? The book explains the philosophy and maths in just enough detail – there were a few bits about the maths I decided not to re-read – and weaves the ideas with the personalities, friendships and jealousies. It adds up to a wonderful intellectual history of a place and time. Jenny Uglow’s equally wonderful The Lunar Men would be a good comparator.

I’m not a big fan of logical positivism, or so I thought. Exact/Demented sent me back to my undergraduate copy of A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, which introduced the ideas to the British public (well, bits of it). I wrote the date inside, and I must have bought it enthusiastically in my first week at Oxford. Looking again reminded me how frustrating I found what seemed like meaningless quibbles about words – “easily understood by the layman”, the back cover claims. Hah! However, Exact/Demented gives a much richer account of the strands of thought in the Vienna Circle and makes it clear that the linguistic rabbit hole was but one element of the underlying empiricism. The account also completely reinforces my belief that Wittgenstein’s work is objectively meaningless and what’s more he was a complete pillock. (Although when I tweeted something from Douglas Hoftstadter’s intro to the book to the same effect, it turned out there are a few pro-Wittgenstein trolls on Twitter, so I’ll get into trouble with them again.)

Other obvious characters feature in the story, such as Kurt Godel, Rudolf Carnap and the positivism critic Karl Popper, as well as Einstein, and lesser known (to me) people, including the Circle’s leading light Moritz Schlick, and some economists orbiting around (Oskar Morgenstern, John von Neumann). The story is bookended by two murders of philosophers, and two tragic world wars. The Vienna Circle survivors ended up split between universities in the US and UK – on one occasion Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel and Wolfgang Pauli all ended up socialising in Princeton, discussing time travel. What an occasion.

Given my own research interest at the moment, I was particularly pleased to learn about Otto Neurath’s innovative data visualization method, through his Institute for Pictorial Statistics, designed to present socio-economic statistics in a form most people could understand. The signature style was the use of rows of little human figures, which ended up being called ‘Isotype’. Who knew infographics were invented in the 1930s?

Poignantly, in 1939 Otto Neurath published a bestseller called Modern Man in the Making. “It employed a tight mesh of texts and pictures to describe the dawning world of globalized exchange, international migration and limitless progress.” How his readers must have been wishing that were true.

And this is the other attraction of this wonderful book. Its subtext throughout is both the need for and the threat to Exact Thinking in Demented Times, a message relevant today.



From ‘Arab Spring’ to Fake News

I’m late to Zeynep Tufekci’s excellent Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. It analyses the impact of social media on political events such as the Arab Spring – remember that? – and Occupy. Her thesis is that online organization is a powerful political tool when combined with offline organization, but cannot substitute for it; and the evidence presented here from a range of mass protests certainly convinces me. The problem mass socially-networked protests have lies in their norms of decision making, which are slow and non-hierarchical. This makes them unable to change tactics quickly when hostile authorities respond to the protest, and so the moment passes. If, however, there is a parallel offline organisation with more conventional decision-making structures, the political protest can adapt and continue.

The book is informed by the author’s experiences visiting protests since long before Twitter and Facebook (and this makes it an engaging read). There is a lot of intriguing detail. Why, she asks, do longer-lived protests like Occupy Wall Street or Gezi Park set up libraries? Even clinics and clothing exchanges are probably unnecessary. She argues that the spirit of protest involves expressiveness – taking part is a meaningful or even joyful activity, often with a sense of ritual or transcendence..

A later interesting section of the book concerns the way authoritarian governments are fighting back against protests using social media themselves – not so much by cutting off the internet (which happened more in the early, Arab Spring, days than it does now) as by flooding social media with confusion and false information. I think the book was written before we all became familiar with the phrase Fake News, but here it is presented as a tactic of repression. Even in tightly controlled China, online comment is rarely shut down unless it looks like becoming organised offline action.

All in all, a highly recommended book, albeit not a particularly cheering one. The Arab Spring feels a long time ago, those days when democracy looked like it was still spreading rather than retreating. Tufekci herself ends on a slightly positive note, reporting a conversation with a young activist (one of Sain’s Indignados) about where things might go. The young woman replies with a phrase echoing one the Zapatistas used much earlier: “We will keep walking and keep asking questions.” As long as pepole have the energy to keep on, there’s hope.

I read the book on my trip to the ASSA meetings, also reading Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, a second book by the wonderful new discovery Mick Herron, and Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc. All highly recommended.


Poverty, money and emotion

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey is written by someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family in a very poor estate near Glasgow. It’s a first person window on the harshness of life in places where many people with tragic inevitability visit the poverty and powerlessness on themselves through alcoholism, addiction and violence. The state is – at best – uncaring. Professional do-gooders can’t help demonstrating their lack of awareness of the experience and culture of those they genuinely want to help, and come to be regarded with suspicion, perhaps as careerists in it for themselves. (I don’t like the title, but it refers to the perspective of outsiders surveying an alien population from the safety of their tour bus.)

For all the grimness of the old tenements, McGarvey sees the removal of poor families to the new high rise estates, combined with deindustrialisation and loss of working class jobs, as the trigger for the social catastrophe described here. “Thousands of families, already struggling to make ends meet, were placed under so much strain that it altered them physically, psychologically and emotionally.” Relief is sought in fast food, alcohol and drugs, bingo and betting, embedding social and public health problems.

Community attempts to improve things face almost insuperable hurdles. To get any government or charitable funding requires groups to have boards, constitutions and bank accounts. Such groups then have to do the funders’ bidding – which might be ok, but removes agency from the community. The political voice of local people – here, in the face of a plan to build a motorway cutting off the area from neighbouring parkland – is minuscule.

The book emphasizes the emotional impact of poverty and strain. “The experience of emotional stress, how it affects us and what we do to manage it through our lives, is one of the most overlooked aspects of the poverty experience,” McGarvey writes. This is consonant with the work of Sendil Mullanaithan and Eldar Shafir on the physical and psychological effects of poverty, reported in their book, Scarcity. I’d add that we need to take account of the emotional response of those with money and power to poverty – namely fear, as Julia Unwin underlined in her book Why Fight Poverty?

The bottom line for society, and policy, is how serious we are about tackling poverty and addressing the embedded social challenges it has caused, two generations after the waves of deindustrialisation began. It will take money. The book quotes a local organiser: “There is a discrepancy at government level between the desires for the kind of society we want to live in and the resources that are allocated to help this happen and where they are directed.” Yep. There won’t be any quick solutions, but there won’t be any at all without putting money and energy into it. And especially money. The energy ultimately has to come from people themselves, with agency over their own lives.


Epidemics vs information cascades

As I was looking at publishers’ websites for my New Year round up of forthcoming books, I noticed OUP billing Paul Geroski’s The Evolution of New Markets as due out in January 2018. This is odd as it was published in 2003, and Paul died in 2005; it isn’t obvious why there’s a reprint now. He was Deputy Chairman and then Chairman of the Competition Commission during my years there, and was a brilliant economist as well as a wonderful person. I learnt an amazing amount from being a member of his inquiry team.

Anyway, the catalogue entry for the reprint sent me back to my copy of the book, along with Fast Second, which Paul co-authored with Constantinos Markides. Fast Second challenges the received wisdom of first mover advantage: Amazon was not the first online books retailer, Charles Schwab not the first online brokerage, and so on. The opportunity lies in between being early in a radical new market and being late because a dominant design and business model have already emerged. The Fast Second business competes for dominance – and supposed first mover advantages are usually fast second advantages.

Paul’s book The Evolution of New Markets – in which I found a handwritten note he’d sent me with it, which made for an emotional moment – does what it says, and explores models of innovation diffusion – so in other words, models of S-curves. His view was that the epidemic model of S-curves, which seems to be the standard one, was a misleading metaphor. He argued that information cascades best fit the observed reality. The epidemic model assumes that a new technology is adopted as information about it is diffused. Each user passes on the info to the next user. However, as the book points out, information diffuses far faster than use. Users need to be persuaded rather than just informed.

More appropriate is a model whereby new technologies arrive in a number of variants at slightly different times, making adoption risky and costly – especially when there are network externalities or when people realize there is going to be a standards battle. Most new products fail, after all. But once one variant starts to dominate, the cost and risk decline and adoption will occur much faster.

It’s a persuasive argument, and a very readable book. Although the list price is surprisingly high for a short paperback, one can be confident second hand copies are just as good.