Summer 1978

In my recent reminiscences about Peter Sinclair, one of the memories was that he had sent us pre-reading for the summer before we started at Brasenose. The one I could remember was Roy Harrod’s The Life of J.M. Keynes. As I write down in my notebook everything I read, I was able to go back to the summer of 1978 and see what else I had read before starting the course. Peter’s other choice, it turns out, was Economic Philosophy by Joan Robinson.

51ohbwolveL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_Our philosophy tutor, the late Michael Woods, recommended Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. Vernon Bogdanor, presumably mindful of the limitations of the British A level curriculum and the first term’s politics course, suggested: America in the 20th Century, Democracy in France since the 18th century and  20th Century Russia.

It underlines again how lucky I’ve been in the education I received.

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Experts: can’t live with them, can’t live without them

Thank goodness for some beautiful sunshine yesterday. We’re lucky enough to have a garden so I spent Sunday afternoon outside reading Sheila Jasanoff’s 1990 book The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers. If life goes back to something reasonably normal, I’m hoping we’ll be able to welcome her to Cambridge in the autumn. The issue of the role of scientific advice and scientists in policy decisions felt topical a while ago when we planned this kind of discussion; my goodness it’s topical now.

The book was researched and written during and after the initial Reagan assault on the legitimacy of government to regulate business. US politics was starting to polarise between free market, small government attitudes on the one hand and growing concern about environmental standards and other social issues on the other hand. In modern societies, the scope of areas where technical regulation is needed or useful is large. This context made the role of the expert adviser both more influential and harder to imagine as being completely impartial. It has also of course enabled some business lobbies – the ‘merchants of doubt‘ – to exploit the fact that scientists disagree about certain issues, even if majority opinion is clear. Although much of The Fifth Branch traces the tension in this specific American context – and particularly with the US adversarial legal tradition – it is now evident everywhere.

One of the threads runnning through the book is how scientists themselves act to establish their authority, the ‘boundary work’ to establish who is an expert to whom people (especially policymakers) should listen. Jasanoff also writes about the emergence of ‘science policy’ as distinct from science in academic or laboratory contexts, there being some important distinctions. Apart from the greater need on the part of policymakers for the state of knowledge rather than new work at the frontier, science policy incorporates some of the constraints of policymaking in the expert knowledge – for example, an understanding of what is politically feasible or what trade-offs policy decision-makers have to take into account. Decisions have to be made even if scientific evidence is inconclusive or not universally agreed in the expert community.

The growing band of experts advising government, as the complexity of societies increased and hence the need for technical input, constitute the ‘fifth branch. Michael Lewis’s terrific book The Fifth Risk (blog post here) alludes to this. He describes the destruction by the Trump Administration of the body of and access to scientific advice in the US now. It was a terrifying book even before the pandemic – for instance, this includes the nuclear experts safeguarding the stores of radioactive material in the western US. The Talking Politics podcast has an updated discussion here.

It is going to be interesting to see what happens to people’s trust in experts now. On social media there is some discussion among people realising that epidemiologists use models, and models whose predictions are highly sensitive to assumptions – in particular to the assumption of how widespread the virus is in the population. Will the post-pandemic era, whenever that is, lead to a re-evaluation of the epidemiologists’ authority? It will all depend of course on how things turn out.

One thing that’s clear is that – just as some economists predicted the 2008 financial crisis but never swayed the weight of opinion among financial policy-makers – some experts predicted a global pandemic but their warnings were not enough to get governments to prepare. As the Bennett Institute’s Steve Unger writes in this blog post, it’s hard to keep the sense of urgency about high impact but rare crises going for long in government. Now, though, thinking about ‘expertise under pressure‘ couldn’t be more timely. Any government would wish not to need science advice as much as they need it now – but they do, with all its uncertainties.

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Reading about AI

There have been quite a few general books about AI published recently. I’ve read a few and wrote about them here. The post also lists a number of books on the subject recommended by people on Twitter. Subsequently I also really enjoyed Janelle Shane’s hilarious You Look Like A Thing and I Love You – I literally cried with laughter. And actually there are many others that are less about AI itself and more about its consequences; Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction, for instance, on AI bias.

This week I added to the roster also The Road to Conscious Machines: The Story of AI by Michael Wooldridge, which is another very good introduction. It is for the most part a chronological account of how AI developed to where it is today, with clear explanations of the successive approaches (with some appendices setting out more detail). The final chapters turn to possible risks and consequences. Wooldridge is impatient with the obsession about ethics and the trolley problem but alert to challenges like bias, the effect of automation on jobs, and safety of autonomous vehicles. He’s rather positive about the potential for AI alongside humans to make great achievements in some areas such as healthcare.

The Road to Conscious Machines is probably closest to Melanie Mitchell’s Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Humans. Having read so many of these books now, quite a lot of it was pretty familiar. But I still enjoyed reading it. This is a clear and accessible history of AI, one that performs the useful service of debunking both the hype and the hysteria. If you’re only going to read one book about AI, this would be a good one to choose. But whichever you go for, you should read at least one book about AI: this is an important technology and it will still be there in the post-pandemic world.

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Peter Sinclair

Yesterday evening I learned from his nephew that Peter Sinclair had died after spending some weeks in intensive care battling Covid19. The tide of emails and tweets today, as people heard this sad news, is testament to the overwhelming affection and respect so many feel for him.

My memories are typical of those people are emailing. I pitched up at Brasenose College, Oxford to read PPE at the age of 17, completely out of my depth socially and intellectually, although pretty sure I was going to become a philosopher and sit in a Parisian cafe all day reading and writing. Peter’s absolute vocation for teaching, his brilliance, his kindness, soon turned me into an economist. He’d sent pre-reading before we turned up – Roy Harrod’s biography of Keynes for instance (this pre-dated the publication of the Skidelsky books). In the first term all his students were driven in batches of four for afternoon tea at the Feathers Hotel in Woodstock. One of our group came from Kenya and Peter tried a bit of conversation in Swahili – my first experience with his knowledge of at least one phrase in every language he’d ever encountered.

In tutorials with Peter, even poor essays were kindly treated – one learned to interpret comments such as, “That’s very, very – very – interesting,” as signalling a terrible error. He was a brilliant teacher. His explanation of different social welfare functions is still vivid in my mind. He eviscerated the inefficiencies of the CAP by pointing out that at the time the EEC butter mountain weighed more than the population of Austria. He responded to any sign of mild student interest in anything by sending one off with additional readings, perfectly pitched, and embracing everything from classics to the latest books and papers. He scheduled one-to-one tutorials over breakfast in the cafe in Oxford market if one was very interested. He knew everything: whenever I’ve discussed any subject with him over the years, he was able to cite the entire literature and send me scurrying off to catch up on all the references. In meetings, he would listen carefully to the discussion then chip in with some deep and important point.

Unsurprisingly, his joy in teaching meant he has taught what seems like half the UK economics profession and a fair proportion of economists elsewhere in the world. This continued through his years as a Professor at Birmingham University and at the Bank of England’s Centre for Central Banking Studies. He was a driving force in the Royal Economic Society’s educational initiatives including the easter school for PhD students. Just before his illness and death he was writing chapters for a new online Office for National Statistics text on economic statistics – Joe Grice, who has known Peter for 50 years since his doctoral days at Nuffield, will shepherd those now.

We celebrated Peter’s formal retirement with a dinner in 2012 hosted by the then CEO of Standard Chartered, Peter Sands, with dozens of economists attending. There will be crowds at his memorial service, when crowds are allowed by this cruel disease to gather again.

For all his decisive influence on my intellectual formation – not just turning me into an economist but shaping my values and world view – I will always remember Peter’s kindness and warmth. It is a patient and loving person who puts up with a long-ago pupil and her young children dropping in for lunch at the Bank of England canteen. He was always genuinely delighted to see people.

Peter was devastated by the death of his first wife, Shelagh Heffernan, after her long illness. We were all overjoyed when he later found such happiness marrying Jayne Ivimey. My heart goes out to Jayne and all Peter’s family.

Peter with former pupil Sir Dave Ramsden in November 2012

Peter with former pupil Sir Dave Ramsden in November 2012

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Peter at the University of Birmingham a few weeks ago

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