Why Liberals Are So Goddam Smug

There’s a recent book out called The Righteous Mind that has an interesting take on how we analyse morality, and how this analysis differs between Liberals and Conservatives. The thesis is that rather than being rational, morality is largely informed by instinctive feelings – and these feelings differ in a significant way between the two political groupings. While both groupings are motivated by considerations of Fairness and Care/Harm Prevention, the Conservatives also refer to notions of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity/Purity to which the Liberal wing are, on average, tone-deaf to.

One end result being that the Liberals get all aerated about how those dumb Conservatives spend so much energy on stuff that is Obviously Completely Irrelevant because they are So Dumb It Isn’t True (Or Maybe They Are Evil Instead).

The characterisation of Liberal concerns fits me well – the poem “Girls!” by Stevie Smith gets my take on Loyalty and Authority spot-on, and I view notions of Sanctity with the bemused incomprehension of a Martian Anthropologist.

That’s fine and all, but then the question is how a Liberal political movement can hope to engage a stable majority coalition if it’s blind to 60% of the base moral drivers of, say, 50% of the voting population. The answer is that they have to at least be conscious of these drivers and not pretend they don’t exist when framing political issues.



Girls! although I am a woman
I always try to appear human

Unlike Mrs So-and-So whose greatest pride
Is to remain always in the VI Form and not let down the side

Do not sell the pass dear, dont let down the side
That is what this woman said and a lot of balsy stuff beside
(Oh the awful balsy nonsense that this woman cried)

Girls! I will let down the side if I get a chance
And I will sell the pass for a couple of pence

- Stevie Smith, from “Mother, What Is Man?” (Cape 1942)

I Am Surrounded By Idiots

…who don’t vaccinate their children. That’s how I feel today anyway, since I am currently a few weeks into the joy of adult-onset Pertussis, more popularly known as “whooping cough” – there is a big uptick in cases in Surrey and South-West London at the moment. Not-entirely-coincidentally, uptake of the Pertussis booster vaccine is very low in at least one London borough, Wandsworth.

However once I get my irritation over my personal circumstances to one side, vaccination uptake is an interesting area.There will always be those convinced that vaccination is the work of the devil, but for the rest of us there are still some deep issues that people need to get past. Some of the issues thrown up in presentations like this:

  • ambiguity or doubts about the reliability of vaccine information, helped by the media “showing balance”
  • a preference for errors of omission over errors of commission
  • instinctive aversion to putting pathogens inside ones child
  • personal acquaintance with someone who thinks vaccines have damaged their child.
  • recognition that if many other children are vaccinated, the risk to unvaccinated children may be lowered

All of these need different strategies to counter:

  • Information could be improved by having a better web presence that was not funded by pharma companies (as part of the problem is distrust of those companies).
  • Omission/commission is an intuitive bias that is hard to counter – obviously not doing something is just as much of a choice as doing something, but this is hard to put across clearly.
  • Instinctive aversion is also hard to counter. A start would be to at least acknowledge that people feel uncomfortable about this, and to explain why they feel this way – rather than to dismiss their feelings out of hand.
  • Personal experience is very powerful. But this can be also used positively, eg by pointing up incidence of vaccination among the health procession.
  • Relying on others to provide herd immunity could be countered by explaining how some people really need others to provide herd immunity, because they are immunocompromised – so relying on herd immunity for a healthy child is re-framed as taking resources from sick people.

And in fairness, it is very easy to see associations where none exist – for instance, when one of my own children had just been vaccinated, they vomited that night. “Aha, side effects” I thought to myself. Then I started vomiting too. As did my other child. Because we all had a stomach bug.

Think I will look for more research in the vaccination uptake field. Once I can stop puking whenever I cough.

Physics Envy

Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth correctly diagnoses a problem in Finance – how people take models aimed at capturing aspects of material reality, and apply them to complex emergent social phenomena (such as pricing multi-tiered wobbly derivatives on top of US sub-prime mortgages).

Their solution is to have more quants - in other words to have more people with the level of mathematical knowledge required to engage with the models. I am sceptical.

If you can’t explain an idea in mathematical finance clearly, using plain English, on one side of paper, then it’s hard to see how things will end well. Mathematical finance needs more people whose primary focus is on how the maths is put to practical use – the last thing the field needs is more specialists in maths. The more people are labelling themselves as quants, the sharper the divide, the more severe the disconnect, and the bigger the eventual problems.

Let’s Kick Off With A Classic

Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents

“Even though people are capable of making decisions in a thorough and methodical way, it appears that most of the time they don’t. A growing body of research suggests that people unconsciously use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, to navigate the routine complexities of modern life. In this paper, I examine evidence that four of these heuristics – familiarity, social proof, commitment and scarcity – have influenced the decisions of avalanche victims.”