Everything we don’t know

Michael Blastland’s new book, The Hidden Half: How the World Conceals its Secrets, starts with a tale of marmokrebs. You might well ask. These are a species of crayfish, which appeared out of nowhere, and consist only of females who reproduce, solo, producing genetically identical offspring. But their parthenogenesis isn’t the surprising thing about them. It’s that when genetically identical marmokrebs are reared in carefully controlled identical laboratory environments, they turn out to be – completely different from each other, in physical size and markings and also behaviourally.

This sets the theme for the book, which is about the limits of knowledge, and hence the need for caution in acting on knowledge. Successive chapters look at the replication crisis in science (bound to hit economics eventually), the limitations of medical treatments, the way reasonable, intelligent people can draw opposite conclusions from the same set of undisputed facts – in short, it’s a mediation on expertise and its role in decisions. The message from the multiple examples is that expertise isn’t all experts claim it to be.

This couldn’t be more timely, of course, and the book is a terrific read with many examples from different domains of research and policy. It’s a model of clarity of exposition. But I shoudn’t give the impression that it has a Gove-ian mission (that’s Michael “We’ve had enough of experts” Gove). Expertise has limitations but rejection of expertise has more. So the book ends with some advice for plying expertise responsibly: experiment and adapt if need be; triangulate between different sources and types of evidence; don’t leap to conclusions; accept the uncertainty and be sure to explain it; avoid mechanical metaphors (there’s no such thing as a policy ‘lever’ for example.

All very sensible advice. Like all sensible advice, so hard to apply. Modern hyper-democratic politics hardly lends itself to policy experiments and their reversal if need be, or the communication of nuance. But The Hidden Half should make researchers – especially those aiming for causal inference – to be modest in the extreme about what we ‘know’ and to reflect carefully on any policy advice we offer. It’s an essential read, especially for those who don’t think they need to bother reading it. It’s out this week and Michael Blastland has a blog on the book.

The Hidden Half: How the World Conceals its Secrets


Globalization 1.0 and 2.0

When I was a moody teenager living in a Lancashire mill town, the nearest bookshop was three bus rides away among the bright lights of Manchester. I’d ready pretty much everything of interest in the local library and school library (and thank heavens for those).

Luckily, the newsagent tucked away – on the bottom shelf in the far corner – some cheap paperback editions of classics. It seemed a more or less random selection but it did mean I devoured almost every novel ever written by Joseph Conrad. So I pounced on the paperback of Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World when I spotted it recently. It’s brilliant. Her basic argument is that Conrad is a novelist of globalisation – his novels: “meditate on how to behave in a globalizing world, where old rulebooks are becoming obsolete not nobody’s yet written new ones.” The term globalization dates from the 1980s but there was a late 19th and early 20th century version.

The Dawn Watch is so well written itself. One example: “History is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents.” The biographical tale zips along, interspersed with Jasanoff’s own travel adventures in Conrad’s footsteps – her trip to DRC and up the Congo, rereading Heart of Darkness bookends the biography. Jasanoff reflects on Chinua Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s novel as imperialist fiction, agreeing that it is a non-valid window on modern Africa. But she ends by concluding that while indeed the 21st century is not the 19th, the challenges of globalization are fundamentally the same as those Conrad identified: “The heirs of Conrad’s technologically displaced sailors are to be found in the industries disrupted by digitization. The analogues to his anarchists are to be found in Internet chat rooms or terrorist cells.”

I like this observation by Conrad himself, about fiction versus history: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents … on second hand impressions.”

As it happened, I’d recently read Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, a quotation of course from Heart of Darkness. That’s an impassioned reflection on the legacy of European imperialism.

The other book I polished off this week was Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads, the sequel to his best seller. Rather than a history, it’s a very readable account of the current context of the Belt and Road Initiative. Given that every day seems to bring some news about China’s initiative and projection of economic power, this is a timely book. I enjoyed its predecessor, The Silk Roads, more as I knew so little about the history of the region. But even if The New Silk Roads covers more familiar material, its Asian and China centric lens makes it well worth a read.



The Human Network

I’ve been thinking about social capital recently, so was eager to read Matthew Jackson’s The Human Network: How We’re Connected and Why it Matters. This is the version of his terrific work on networks and social capital (for example Social and Economic Networks (2010)) aimed at a general readership. Although the book starts with some of the concepts of network theory, it uses diagrams rather than equations to explain. (Anyone wanting a slightly more technical introduction to network theory needs to go elsewhere. Perhaps Barabasi’s Linked, as a still reasonably accessible read.)

Above all, The Human Network motivates the use of the network lens on economic and social questions, from epidemics to the diffusion of technology to financial crises to social immobility. Why did one long-discredited individual who made up his results for a 1998 article manage to trigger an anti-vaccination movement which is still leading to epidemics of infectious disease? What is the difference between a financial system that diversifies risk and one that concentrates it? Why are social media influencers a thing?

The Human Network is a very engaging and worthwhile read. I was for the most part familiar with the material it covers, but nevertheless enjoyed reading it, and also gained some insights about the different ways information can cascade through a network, either amplifying a single (possibly incorrect) piece of information, or pooling different sources of information for a more accurate picture. Given that our societies are highly interconnected in vast networks, and saturated with sources of information through online media, understanding the way networks function seems essential. One would hope at least public health authorities (to deal with epidemics) and financial regulators (to monitor the risk of systemic crisis) have their network diagrams at the ready. One of the messages I came away with is how easy it is for epidemics, real or metaphorical, to spread in the modern world of six degrees (or fewer) of separation.


Morals and markets

I’ve now finished Elizabeth Anderson’s Value in Ethics and Economics, with mixed reactions. The part I really liked is her critique of utilitarianism/consequentialism. She advocates a ‘pluralist-expressive’ approach to value.

Consequentialism “promises to provide a single, simple, precise and determinate procedure of justification that employs objective calculation to overcome disputes about what to do.” Deliberation – be it rational or not – aims to deliver an optimum result on a single dimension. This is inevitably reductionist because all goods need to be made commensurate. This approach has the merit of making decisions easy to explain, and an inherent pragmatism because after all choices are always inevitable.

Anderson’s ‘expressive-pluralist’ alternative requires choices to be guided by norms which refer to ideals or evaluative concepts such as ‘respect’, ‘friendship’, ‘charity’. “Because their constitutive concepts are essentially contestable, the expressive theory cannot provide a procedure for respolving conflicting interpretations.” Confusingly, Anderson also describes this as pragmatic; I think she means realistic. This is, of course, what we do. “No compelling theoretical or practical reasons demand the global maximization of value. Evidence form our actual practice and failures to construct plausible global measures of value suggests there is no single measure of value valid for all contexts.”

The realism here is attractive, the reductionism of the former is not. And yet in public policy contexts where people’s conflicting values have to be considered, consequentialism has great force. This is more than pragmatic, I think. It serves in its own right as a form of evaluative concept to try to build consent for decisions. Having said that, of course one has to wear the pluralist spectacles too.

The weaker part of the book is the second half, applying the philosophy to an analysis of markets and cost benefit analysis. Like many critics of ‘markets’ she treats markets as an abstraction characterised by anonymity and concerned ‘merely’ with ‘use value’, absolutely failing to recognise that they are social institutions taking many forms and embedding social relations. Some economists are equally abstract, many are not. None I know would disagree with the statement that “the market does not provide a sufficient domain for the expression of all our valuations but must leave room for other social spheres to operate on non-market principles.” And while there are certainly major  limitations with cost benefit analysis, some of which I’ve written about here and here, there is a choice when it comes to issues like valuing life (QALYs) or intrinsic environmental or heritage value: either try to do this in a common metric (money), or implicitly value them at zero.

Still, it’s an interesting book. And I’ve just been recommended her Private Government by my esteemed co-author Leonard Nakamura.




Economists, utilitarians, and individuals

I started reading Elizabeth Anderson’s Value in Ethics and Economics, having read an intriguing profile of her in the New Yorker recently, and am about two chapters in. The book is in Michael Sandel territory. It got off to a bad start by setting up the usual straw man version of economics: “Markets are represented as the generically rational form of human organization,” she writes. “To count as rational, any other domain of human interaction would have to be governed by the same principles as the market.” This is passive voice, but it most economists I know certainly don’t think like that (there’s also clearly an issue about different meanings of the word rational’ but that’s another matter.

However, the book quickly improves by pointing out the limitations of the focus on individual choice with too little attention in economics to social influence. This for me is a problem in terms lack of conformity with reality, never mind ethics. The second chapter then hones in on the inadequacies of utilitarian consequentialism as a foundation for conceptions of economic welfare (although a Very Distinguished economist told me recently that if I wasn’t a utilitarian, I wasn’t an economist). Interestingly, Anderson seems to see a feedback loop between ethical value and social norms – “social norms are constitutive of rational attitudes” – it reminded me of Robert Sugden’s recent book, The Community of Advantage.

It’s slightly heavy going, as so much philosophy is. Oh for an equation or two to clarify the logic! But I shall carry on. I’m reading a second hand copy and amusingly one of the previous readers has heavily marked the book with references to God as the source of ethical value, challenging Anderson with citations to Corinthians I and so on. But luckily only for the intro and chapter 1, giving up on godless ethics at that point.