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A frank admission from the UK’s “academic” echo chamber

I decided to pick up a copy of a book by Leftist academic Danny Dorling, called Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis And How To Survive It, while I was at the Hay book festival towards the end of last May. I wangled a corporate invite to the event and must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Professor Dorling (Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, a former government advisor, Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers, etc, etc.) is eminent, although I hadn’t previously heard of him. And what intrigued me enough to buy his 438-page book is that the message, at least at first glance, seemed to be a refreshingly non-doomongerish one.

But… and there is a big “but”. Professor Dorling is perhaps sufficiently aware that being an anti-gloomster has its costs if you want to get on in academic circles, and certainly if you want to get lots of jobs advising policymakers about this or that disaster that has to be avoided by lots of state activity. And the ultimate nightmare for such a person is to be dubbed a “denier” and be put in the same bracket as the sort of lowlifes who deny mass murders of Jews in Europe and so on. And he certainly doesn’t want to be mistaken for any kind of apologist for capitalism and liberal free market economics. Oh good god, no! So rather than calling himself an “optimist” (terribly out of fashion) or a pessimist, he is a “possibilist”.

Now, Samizdata readers, you might think the preceding paragraph is a bit unkind. How dare I suggest that Prof Dorling says what he does due to worrying about his academic career and bank balance? Well, I might have been gentler on him had I not seen plenty of evidence from him about his desire to play the man, not the ball, so to speak.

To give some flavour of where he comes from, consider this:

“People who doubt that social inequality is a great problem can become exasperated when they cannot convince others of their views. When they find that their opinions are generally regarded as abhorrent and they cannot publish them in refereed journals, some turn to writing for right-wing think tanks and discover that they could in just a few weeks `knock out reports that would be presented at high-level meetings… and earnestly discussed in the press and in radio interviews. [They say] It was exhilarating to find an audience.’ Although it might be exhilarating for the former academic involved, it can be highly confusing for those who have to listen to half-formed ideas knocked out in a couple of weeks by someone who does not understand when their peers repeatedly tell them that there is a problem with what they are proposing.” (Page 130).

Prof. Dorling quotes Peter Saunders, who is has moved rightwards from the Left; he has committed the thought crime of casting doubt on aspects of British egalitarian post-war policy, and has ruffled feathers by a critique of a recent book in this area, called The Spirit Level. (You see Saunders’ website here to get a handle on just how much of a serious academic he is. His career has been every bit as distinguished as Dorling’s, if not more so.) There is something particularly nasty about Dorling’s words: the lazy, supercilious tone; the jeering claim that Saunders’ views and those like his are just blown together in a few days, and the assumption that anyone who challenges egalitarian ideas is “abhorrent” and therefore unfit to have their views published in peer-reviewed journals. It perhaps does not cross this man’s mind that because so much of modern academia has become an echo-chamber of the Left, that any academic with an ounce of independence of mind must go and write for some alternative institution in the hope of entering debate (as Peter Saunders did and explains in an account here of what happened to him.)

His book is full of ex-cathedra statements about equality. Much of his argument is that unequal societies are more wasteful than egalitarian, more tightly planned ones. He is very much a “watermelon” – green and red. Above all, Professor Dorling likes to get personal: For example, on page 5 he launches into the “Rational Optimist”, Matt Ridley, sneering that due to Ridley’s posh background and former chairmanship of the near-bankrupted Northern Rock, “it is not hard to mock his views”, but then goes on hastily to state “that they need to be taken seriously because they are part of the current mantra of many at the top of the tree.” Oh how jolly noble of him. If it were really the case that Ridley’s “rational optimism” is the dominant mentality of our government and its advisors, rather than the mishmash we have in the UK coalition government, I’d be much happier.

The ironies abound. Professor Dorling likes to play the high-level academic, but he also wants to take on views he disagrees with often by recourse to argument from motive. He wants to make out that he is an ultra-serious academic, but the book (which is a good read in some ways, if you can stand the bias) is full of such ad hominem digs at those he disagrees with; his discussion of nuclear energy, for example, includes suggestions that those who favour it are just motivated by money.

In other words, Professor Dorling is a bit of an arse. I want my money back.

27 comments to A frank admission from the UK’s “academic” echo chamber

  • Mr Ed

    Human Geography

    Sociology with maps.

  • SC

    Tim Worstall used to take the occasional shot at Dorling.

  • Sigivald

    People who doubt that social inequality is a great problem can become exasperated when they cannot convince others of their views

    Me, I get exasperated when I’m told income inequality (related, variously) is A Great Problem, but nobody can tell me exactly why it’s the big problem rather than the material state of the poor. (The inference I can’t help but draw is that, for the most part, the material state of the poor is quite tolerable … and “quite tolerable” does not make for grant money and Crises that create chairs and jobs for people to talk about it.)

    I’m not sure exactly what sort of “social inequality” he’s referring to here, so I can’t comment more specifically.

    (Apartheid and Jim Crow were “social inequality”, and great problems. The Nuremburg laws were “social inequality”, and also great problems.

    “Not everyone having fiber internet to their house” is also “social inequality”, but by no means a great problem. “Income inequality” rounds to “social inequality”, too, but ditto, on its face.

    Problem is, of course, that “social inequality” refers to both sets of inequalities, and I don’t wish to take a denial of the latter set’s import as a denial of the former, on faith, from some Progressive twit.)

  • The most sensible answer I ever got to the question why inequality is such a bad thing, was that it incites envy, and thus contributes to societal instability etc. Personally, I can’t in all honesty and conviction argue with that point, as I guess that there must be at least some truth to that. Still, even with that point granted, one can still have an argument about the question what are the best ways to reduce inequality?

  • Mr Ed

    Alisa,

    Ok, let’s ban envy.

  • phwest

    Of course, most income inequality contributes next to nothing to mass envy. The only vague concept most people have of the truly rich is what they see of the celebrity rich, and does envy have much to do with how people view the Kardashians?

    The real envy (and the driving force behind much of this) is that of the upper-middle class of the rich. Or put another way, the 5%’s envy of the .1%.

    After all, the goal of reducing income inequality is not to bring the poor up, but the rich down.

  • Fraser Orr

    So @Alisa, I think what you are saying is that the real problem is ostentatiousness?

    I totally think we should ban tasteless shows of consumption. Warren Buffett should eat his caviar in private, and Richard Branson should stop talking about his freaking private island.

    I mean really, rich people, get some class!

  • No, that is not at all what I am saying, Fraser (although ostentation does rub me the wrong way now and then). What I am saying is that even though envy is far from being such a huge problem as some people may think, it exists. And where there is envy, there are people who are scared of it (the person who made that point to me is an example). So it is unwise to think that inequality is not a real problem – it is.

    My other point was (and that was what I should have told him at the time) that both the envious and those scared of them should deal with their feelings on their own, without forcing the rest of us to deal with them. It is their problem, not ours.

  • Paul Marks

    I see – so someone who does not hate rich people (i.e. does not think “inequality is a great problem”) is “abhorrent” and the opinions of such heretics should not be published in academic journals (perhaps they should be burned as well?).

    Well perhaps those academic journals should not get the money of taxpayers – indeed academics in general should not.

    I am sure that that Professor Dorling makes more money in month (or perhaps a week) than I make in a year.

    So, by his own arguments, I have a right to use violence to “redistribute” his income and wealth from him, to me.

    If Professor Dorling objects to me smashing him over the head with a shovel and “redistributing” his income and wealth (say any nice things in his home that take my fancy) Professor Dorling is being “abhorrent”.

  • Current

    “People who doubt that social inequality is a great problem can become exasperated when they cannot convince others of their views. When they find that their opinions are generally regarded as abhorrent and they cannot publish them in refereed journals, some turn to writing for right-wing think tanks and discover that they could in just a few weeks ‘knock out reports that would be presented at high-level meetings….and earnestly discussed in the press and in radio interviews. [They say] It was exhilarating to find an audience.’”

    A related question. Which UK libertarian or conservative outlet still puts out long form articles online? I haven’t been able to find any except the ASI and I’m a bit bored of short blog posts at the minute.

  • pete

    I’d be just a bit more convinced about capitalism if our cities didn’t have extreme wealth and extreme poverty within walking distance.

    As a libertarian and a right winger I’m disgusted by how this government has punished the poor.

  • I’d be just a bit more convinced about capitalism if our cities didn’t have extreme wealth and extreme poverty within walking distance.

    Non sequitur. What does that have to do with capitalism?

    I could not care less about ‘extreme wealth’ per se (other than rather liking the idea of having it myself that is). Moreover, when you regress the causes of ‘extreme poverty’ back far enough, as close enough to 100% of the time as makes no difference you will find state action as the root cause.

  • Mr Ed

    Pete,

    How does capitalism stop people earning a decent living? (Unlike planning laws, taxes etc.).

  • Paul Marks

    I could talk about how extreme inequality is pushed by high levels of government interventionism – by regulations and monetary expansion (the Corporate Welfare of the Bank of England and other Central Banks), but it is not really relevant to this hatred.

    This was brought home to me the other day when watching the spiritual home of the “libertarian” left – Russia Today.

    Max and his friends (such as some English person who has just made a film with Noam Chomsky, the Pol Pot supporter [see the “Anti Chomsky Reader” and big government George Stiglitz) were denouncing Britain before 1914.

    Before 1914 – i.e. when Britain had low (ish) taxes, was not very over regulated, and where monetary expansion was very limited.

    Yet they still hated the inequality – because they hate rich people.

    Yesterday I went for a walk, and “extreme inequality” is “within walking distance” even in Northamptonshire (many miles from London).

    I went along a footpath that led from a main road (via an entrance that was almost invisible.

    Eventually I came upon a fine house (not a ruin – but a real one), with a tennis court and people riding horses. nicely dressed people, attractive and happy.

    They did not see me (I made sure of that) – I did not want to upset them (I would have appeared to be monster, misshapen and dressed as people in my social context dress).

    So according to the LLs (the “Libertarian” left) I am supposed to hate these people. I am supposed to love the idea that (government backed) “Kettering East” (and the Eco Fuel plant) will destroy their little hidden corner of the world.

    Well I do not hate them.

    Any more than I hate the Bishop of Bath and Wells for living in a stone palace (with a moat).

    Actually I hate the people who hate them.

    The people who demand the “free” roads and drainage for the endless housing estates in Northamptonshire, and who want to forbid the Bishop from living in his castle in Wells.

    The world of “squires and spires” (of the “rentier class” with their “land monopoly”) is not my world – my world is vile (and will get worse), but it is good (not bad) that some people (in “walking distance”) live in a different world to me.

    I grieve that my world expands and their world contracts.

  • Paul Marks

    As for “how this government has punished the poor” – the only way to make some sort of sense of that statement is to point to low interest rates on savings.

    Interest rates are artificially low and this does hurt small savers (who tend to be poorer than big borrowers).

    However, interest rates were not artificially low in the Britain of before 1914 – and there was still massive inequality (duly condemned by the “libertarian” left on “Russia Today”).

    By the way to talk of a country “capitalist” where about half the entire economy is government spending (mostly on the Welfare State) and the rest of the economy is saturated by regulations, is very wrongheaded.

    Still at least we have been spared “rentier class”, “plutocracy”, “land monopoly” and the claim that foreign policy is determined by the interests of “the capitalists” and “the corporations”.

    I grow up listening to the “liberation” left and “Russia Today” – only then they were called “Marxists” and it was called “Radio Moscow”.

  • Mr Ed

    Almost no one watches RT and those that do are beyond help. It is a comic TV station run by sinister clowns. It is not worth worrying about, it is as relevant as Pitcairn TV would be, if it existed.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – if only what you say was true.

    In fact the leading “libertarian” leftists (and many other people – such as people trying to sell gold) regularly appear on “RT”.

    Indeed many elected politicians (including some from the Conservative party and UKIP) allow themselves to be used by RT – after all the attractive female presenters will keep telling them how clever they are (remember “swallows and ravens” from the old days?).

    As for such propaganda films as the “The Four Horsemen” (with Noam Chomsky, George Stiglitz, Max Keiser…..) sadly they influence many young idealistic people. Leading them to be believe that the rich “the corporations”, “the plutocracy”, “the land monopoly”, “the rentier class” are the source of all problems – even that it is “free market” to believe so.

    How many of these young idealistic young people will ever see this blog? Very few.

    Sadly many get their ideas from the university lecturers and from films such as “The Four Horsemen”

    There will always be resisters – those who go off to Hillsdale Collage and listen to Glenn Beck on the radio.

    But that MINORITY of young people do not grow up to influence the world (in business or in politics).

    The people who do – think “the rich” are the problem, even if they are rich themselves

    They either become jaded and cynical (and corrupt – the very image of what the left TEACHES that rich people are), or they retain their “idealism” even in commercial life.

    Justifying their “evil” wealth by giving millions to such organisations as the “Tides Foundation”.

    Who financed the French Revolution Mr Ed?

    The Duke of Orleans did – the richest man in France.

    In his own mind he was “Citizen Equality” – because equality was the highest virtue.

    Of course his own “friends” later murdered him – but such events do not stop the “educated” rich either becoming jaded and cynical (and corrupt), or “retaining their idealism” by working to destroy the rich (including themselves).

    Money is not enough.

    Political office is not enough either.

    Not without a moral core of beliefs – TRUE beliefs.

    “RT” is just the mainstream media (and the education system) with the sharp edges left on.

    Last night I watched a couple of minutes of a James Bond film – one evil character told another evil character how the people of Haiti elected a priest who did the noble thing of increasing the minimum wage………

    But the evil corporations (who make the running shoes and clothing) “called us in” to overthrow the noble priest.

    THAT is an example of the world view that the young are fed Mr Ed.

    Not just on “RT” – but in their school, universities, television, cinema, EVERYWHERE.

    They (the young) are fed intellectual poison – every day.

  • Paul Marks

    Note to the “educated” – one can not improve wages and conditions (even among the very poor) by waving a magic wand called “a government regulation”.

    Your wealth is NOT the cause of the poverty of the people in Haiti (or anywhere else). Whether in “walking distance” or not.

  • Jason

    Don’t most people start off on the left (subconsciously statist) of the spectrum and gradually drift to the classical liberal right? I thought that was generally how life works (I can think of enough exceptions to lend it credibility, as I’m sure most people can), whether you’re an academic or not.

  • Mr Ed

    Mr Ed – if only what you say was true.

    In fact the leading “libertarian” leftists (and many other people – such as people trying to sell gold) regularly appear on “RT”.

    What is a ‘leading “libertarian” leftist’ (apart from a wannabe TV pundit so desperate to be on ‘TV’ that they would go to RT)?

    Average daily reach of RT, as I have pointed out before, 90,000 or 0.2% of British viewers, 1 in 500. So 99.8% of the population do not watch RT, and of those 90,000 that do, 1 is a despairing libertarian who knows it is all lies, 500 are stoned sociology students, 10,000 are media studies students, 5,000 are FSB agents waiting for coded messages, 300 are BBC monitors, 200 are US diplomats ‘monitoring’ media output, and the rest are ex-CIS diplomats, embittered ex CPGB members or fruitcakes, I hazard a series of wild guesses.

    So go to a very crowded football stadium with 40,000 people and maybe 80 will watch RT. More watch S4C (Welsh language Channel 4), or the Horror Channel +1, or even the terminally torpid Eurosport, possibly the least slick channel outside of North Korea.

    Worrying about RT is about as worthwhile as worrying about Kraken.

    Coming back to ‘inequality’, it matters as much in respect of income as it does in looks. If people are poor, they should be told to either get richer or shut up if they object, unless they object to the state-imposed impediments to their own enrichment. Those who affect concern for others, they should be told to start businesses to improve the lot of the poor, or shut up if they propose any state intervention.

  • Richard Thomas

    Alisa is right that, idealism aside, there is the concern that the poor might rise up in their inequality. But I think the truth is that people are usually fairly comfortable where they are and it takes something out of the ordinary to set them off such as direct injustice (police violence), food shortages or, say, poll taxes. Keep things stable and there’s little concern. Probably the biggest concern with the very poor is people with too much time on their hands.

  • Tedd

    …(which is a good read in some ways, if you can stand the bias)…

    If I had a dollar for every time I’ve felt that way!

    Alisa:

    I would say it the other way around: clearly, envy is a problem. People who exhibit envy toward those with more material wealth than themselves know they’re behaving badly; they know they’re giving in to base instinct that they ought to seek to overcome. That’s why the argument that uneven distribution of material wealth is bad because of envy is rubbish. You might just as well argue that marriage is bad because of infidelity.

    What annoys me is that I think there might actually be some worthwhile ideas buried in the otherwise nonsensical arguments of the redistributionists and Gini-fetishists. Biology argues against a pure meritocracy being either the best or the most fair kind of society in that some people, through no fault of their own, are much more limited in their ability to participate in the economy. (By which I mean people with very much less than average intelligence, or some other such condition of birth or accidental circumstance.) But the redistributionists almost never make arguments of that kind, which tips their hand and allows us to see that fairness and “social progress” isn’t what motivates them at all.

  • Tedd, I agree with everything you said, other than the assertion that people who feel or exhibit envy know that this is a bad instinct and bad behavior, and something to overcome – some do, and some don’t, and it greatly depends on one’s upbringing and the surrounding culture. You and I may think that envy is a problem, but other people will differ.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed I repeat what I have already said – many people (not just left “libertarians” but Conservatives and UKIP also) are used by these people.

    By the way… the Spectator (the leading conservative magazine in Britain) had a Marxist analysis of the United States in this week’s issue. The author did not say it was Marxist of course (nor does RT), but all the standard features were there – the United States run for the benefit of a rich oligarchy, even Obamacare just there for the benefit of big business…. (and on and on).

    The only thing about RT is that it is more blatant – the ideology it teaches is the ideology that is taught in almost every school and university in the West, and in almost every media (including entertainment media outlet).

    True – BBC people do not (on air) give graphic descriptions of the torture and death they would like to inflict on the rich (as Max Keiser does),but the ideology they teach is the same.

    Tedd there are no “good ideas” buried in the stuff of the redistributionists.

    Life is not “fair” and it can not be made “fair”.

    A politician (or other such) who promises to make life “fair” (and really means it) should be hanged.

  • Mr Ed

    many people

    Relax, it’s only one in five hundred who watch RT, and that is a figure I take to be generous. No normal person routinely watches RT, can you not see that? It converts no one, it is just clown TV, clowns may be sinister, but they are still clowns.

    The Spectator, published at one point by a woman who was shagging David Blunkett, the Labour Home Secretary, that’s how conservative it is.

    The real problem is not that the Left fill people’s heads with their ideas, it is that they do enough damage to stop people knowing, or believing in anything. That is all they need.

  • Paul Marks

    Jason – that is true of some people, but not enough (and academia is rather a “reality free zone”).

  • […] few days ago I had a bit of a rant about a UK-based academic, Danny Dorling, who among other things seems to be scathing about those academics who have the effrontery to […]