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Dominic Cummings on how rational arguments don’t (but actually sometimes do) have consequences

I have finally got around to reading this notable blog posting by Dominic Cummings. I recently watched the Channel 4 DocuDrama about Brexit. This was fun to watch, but if you are a Brexiter like me, you might also want to read this denunciation of it. Upshot: I wanted to know what Cummings himself had to say.

And one of the things Cummings says, right near the beginning (this being as far as I’ve got so far) might well serve as the rationale for political blogging generally, and for Samizdata in particular:

I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields. But I have also learned that when you say or write something, although it has roughly zero effect on powerful/prestigious people or the immediate course of any ‘debate’, you are throwing seeds into a wind and are often happily surprised.

It’s actually not complicated. People read things like Samizdata when they are making up their minds, or because they have made up their minds that Samizdata is right and like reading about how right they are. They make up their minds as intelligently as they can, but when they have made up their minds, their intelligence is then almost entirely applied to acting in accordance with whatever political principles they have made up their minds to follow, rather than in listening seriously to anyone who wants to explain why these principles are mistaken. Critics are only attended to in order themselves to be criticised.

32 comments to Dominic Cummings on how rational arguments don’t (but actually sometimes do) have consequences

  • Fred Z

    Which is why sometimes crude, hateful invective is useful.

    Sometimes, rarely, it shocks people who are not used to being challenged, gets them thinking.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Fred Z is right. Which is why, every now and then, every country needs a Trump.

  • Snorri Godhi

    The last paragraph in the OP makes sense, but i have a small disagreement:

    [People] make up their minds as intelligently as they can, but when they have made up their minds, their intelligence is then almost entirely applied to acting in accordance with whatever political principles they have made up their minds to follow

    It would be more correct to say: … their intelligence is then almost entirely applied to interpreting any new facts on the basis of whatever political principles they have made up their minds to follow.

    See also Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

    People like me, who try to reduce everything to the smallest possible number of basic principles, have a particularly severe problem, because we cannot change our minds about one issue in isolation: any change of mind undermines our basic principles.

  • bobby b

    “People like me, who try to reduce everything to the smallest possible number of basic principles, have a particularly severe problem, because we cannot change our minds about one issue in isolation: any change of mind undermines our basic principles.”

    If you can examine a position and realize that you are in agreement with it, but also realize that you cannot hold to it because it conflicts with one of your basic principles, isn’t that a strong indicator that you’ve framed your basic principle incorrectly?

    Someone once wrote – wisely, I think – “There are no contradictions. If you find one, check your premises.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    If you can examine a position and realize that you are in agreement with it, but also realize that you cannot hold to it because it conflicts with one of your basic principles, isn’t that a strong indicator that you’ve framed your basic principle incorrectly?

    The shortest answer is: it is an indicator, but not a very strong indicator.

    The short-ish answer is: if a fact (or position, if you prefer) is incompatible with a principle, then you have 2 choices: you can decide that the “fact” is fake news, or you can renounce the principle.

    The full answer is that you can almost always find ad hoc hypotheses that allow you to reconcile any general principle with pretty much any facts. Just think of epicycles in the Ptolemaic system, or in the early Copernican system for that matter! The only reason people change their principles, is that eventually they get tired of adding epicycles and decide to try ellipses instead.

  • 1) I read Dominic Cummings’ paper when it came out, then I downloaded it. I have reread it several times in the two years since (and put a link to it in several comments and a post). Long before today, I felt slight surprise that so many on this blog seemed to be in the state that Brian himself honestly admits above – of only finally having got round to reading it, or not yet having done so.

    2) Dominic’s paper brutally exposes the Channel 4 programme in one area: as the review Brian links to says,

    This drama focuses on the real people who led the campaign to vote leave, yet the characters are given no reason. They are just introduced as members of UKIP, or professional campaigners, who inexplicably choose Leave.

    Whether the scriptwriter was determined never to let (any such) reason be heard, or was simply incapable of understanding Dominic’s thoughts, one thing they cannot claim is that researching him did not bring them across articulate explanations of the ‘inexplicable’ choice.

    3) Dominic notes that

    One of the few reliable things we know about advertising amid the all-pervasive charlatanry is that, unsurprisingly, adverts are more effective the closer to the decision moment they hit the brain.

    Channel 4 may have had that in mind when the decided to show the programme this month. It would be richly ironic if one effect of a programme from people opposed to Brexit caused the public to become very aware of Dominic Cummings (a name the great unwashed hardly knew, I think, compared with Boris or Farage), and so started to treat his explanations of Brexit as the official Leave line. Now they’ve put him on the box, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, it may not be so easy for them to keep him off the box, played by himself, between now and April.

  • polidorisghost

    “People read things like Samizdata when…”

    I read Samizdata because it is packed with entertaining, and sometimes interesting, semi-nutters.
    And because I think I am in love with Natalie Solent.

  • pete

    I’m better educated than most Remainers and that’s why I never listen to their arguments.

    It appals me that they even have a vote.

  • Paul Marks

    I think rational argument can have consequences – which is why the left (the establishment) are so desperate to BAN it.

    The vast amount of work that is undertaken by the left to take over the schools, the universities, the television stations (anti leftist television stations are BANNED BY LAW in Britain) and so on, is not for no reason. The left establishment understand the power of rational arguments – and, therefore, seek to prevent most people from being exposed to them.

    Hence, for example, the massive efforts to CRUSH DISSENT on Social Media – the left know that one voice can bring down their vast House of Lies (the television networks and all), so they are determined to rip-out-the-throat of every dissenting voice.

    From their point of view, what they are doing is entirely rational. What is disturbing is that “Big Business” appears to be joined-at-the-hip with the radical left, and does not care about “mere” money making.

    For example, D.C. Comics must have observed the financial disaster that far left politics led to at Marvel Comics.

    So what is D.C. Comics doing? It is COPYING the “Diversity” and “Social Justice” agenda of Marvel Comics (even knowing that this will lead to financial disaster), and crushing dissent in their own company. This is because “some things are more important than money” – and, clearly (to them) far left politics are “more important than money”.

    Big Business (like the education system that produces Corporate Mangers) has decided that profits do not matter, and that rational argument must be CRUSHED, as the leftist agenda can not survive rational argument (and they are CORRECT – “Social Justice” and so on, can not survive rational examination).

    How long can all this utter insanity (including commercial insanity) survive? I just do not know.

  • bobby b

    Fortunately, once the new “Newsguard” service gains traction, we won’t be troubled by having to even hear of the existence of arguments and facts that challenge our green progressive worldview.

    (Newsguard is a new app that will examine the sources you are accessing, and tell you if you should believe them or not. It will also help brand managers ensure that their advertisements don’t appear on icky content. It is run by a bunch of former government officials and techies, and it refuses to release its financing details.)

    We should all fear this. This takes the Twitter/Facebook/Patreon problems of deplatforming of bad-thought to new levels.

  • Chester Draws

    On the face of it, it is stupid to say that people never change their minds. How do elections work then, swinging wildly between parties at times?

    Instead:

    1) people change slowly — sometimes even they don’t notice it. Obama was against gay marriage, and then for it, without ever having openly changed his mind. No-one much noticed, because most of the population was making the same change at the same time. That logic doesn’t change people’s mind quickly doesn’t mean it doesn’t change them.

    2) people lose or gain fervour. They might still believe in the same basic values, but they might lose heart with a particularly useless party or position. If the Conservatives don’t deliver Brexit, expect a lot of their core voters to simply not vote (they sure as hell won’t be voting Corbyn). So although no-one has shifted position very much, the effect on political discussion can be large. Logic might not change core beliefs, but it can easily undermine people’s confidence in them.

    In general logic will only work if it is tied to observable events. Belief in full on Socialism drops as Venezuela crashes. When people argue why Socialism is brilliant, they struggle to get past that. When people argue why Socialism sucks, they are more likely to be listened to. Global warming hysterics knows this, which is why *every* heat wave needs to be touted as “caused by global warming”, because without observed events people likely won’t believe. Of course when people recall the Beast from the East their belief does tend to dip somewhat.

  • Umbriel

    I would qualify Mr. Marks’ observations by noting that business is caught between a rock and a hard place here. While some in management might be true “SJWs” for whom profits are secondary, I suspect that most are simply afraid that if they try to concentrate on good business practices, they’ll run afoul of the leftist media mobs. Thus they’d end up with not only their profits, but their personal reputations, harmed as a consequence.

    While some courageous sorts like Dan Cathy at Chick-fil-a might buck that trend, they’re likely in positions of unusual strength. As a private company, Chick-fil-a likely has little in the way of internal threats to Cathy’s authority. A good contrast would be Papa John’s pizza, where Founder/CEO John Schnatter was effectively backstabbed by a hostile board who helped blow incidents offensive to the left out of proportion with the objective of getting him out of their way.

  • Fraser Orr

    The idea that rational argument would change people’s thoughts on something political seems to me to be a failure to understand what actually motivates people. We are not homo logicalis, although we are homo sapiens we are in practice more homo groupus. What drives and motivates people is a desire to build lasting and effective connections and relationships. Of course not everyone is like that, not no everyone is like anything — any statement about the human condition is going to be general in nature.

    FWIW, the data is clear that relationships with others are (aside from genetics) the primary controlling factor in an individual’s level of happiness. Even those who seek money are a primary goal are doing do to improve their relationships, ultimately, because they think being rich will make them powerful, and powerful people attract relationships.

    Consequently, politics, like almost everything else, is mostly about the acquisition of quality relationships. So logical conclusions that lead you to believe something anathema then it is extremely detrimental to you to accept that belief. Unless you are twiddling on the margins it often means the massive upheaval of changing you social group entirely, which is extremely expensive.

    For example, let’s say you are a religious person, and have a massive social network connected to your church. Let’s say you meet me and I put forward the very clear set of arguments that convince me that atheism, or at least non devotion to the Christian religion is the more logical approach. No matter how convincing my argument the social cost of you doing so is one that very few people will undertake.

    This isn’t just a religious argument, but it impacts almost every connected relationship in your life. If your Mom and Dad are Republicans and you logically decide that you are a Democrat, or a brexiter, or a remainer, or whatever, the impact is really quite dramatic.

    The genius of science, in my opinion, is not even so much the creation of the scientific method, but rather the creation of the scientific community. A community with a shared moral code of the scientific process, and a place where people can safely have logic base arguments around empirical data, and disagreement is an asset rather than the road to ostracisation.

  • bobby b

    “The genius of science, in my opinion, is not even so much the creation of the scientific method, but rather the creation of the scientific community. A community with a shared moral code of the scientific process, and a place where people can safely have logic base arguments around empirical data, and disagreement is an asset rather than the road to ostracisation.”

    97% of scientists agree with this.

    And before we get into a “no true Scotsman” discussion – “but they’re not truly scientists!” – I’ll just say that it is becoming clearer with every passing year that the “community of scientists” is no more immune to ego, profit, or power than any other group of humans. This has been borne out through our fairly-recent ability to see through some of the more egregious “scientific” pronouncements of our times – pronouncements that have long been accepted and supported by all “scientists” who wish to remain members of the club.

    And, in fact, due to the methods of funding science and choosing science leaders, the rank boosterism and bias seems worse in the “scientific community” than in most other communities. Or, at least they’re better at quelling dissent and badspeak amongst each other.

    So, I’d praise the method, but the community these days mostly gets my scorn. Sure, people are doing great work in some areas. But, as the leading experts on what the scientific method entails, they are the best qualified to comment when the method is bastardized, and they’ve all seemed very willing to just live and let the bastards live.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    So, I’d praise the method, but the community these days mostly gets my scorn.

    Unfortunately, I’m going with the no true Scotsman, being Scottish myself. But it depends on what you mean by science. Ultimately science comes down to falisifiability and repeatability. However, a lot of people like to tag the label “scientist” onto things that have little do do with these things (I’m sure you are thinking climate scientists here.) Donning a white coat does not make one a scientist, doing science, according the the scientific method, does.

    Once you get away from these two core principles science loses a lot of its power. Once the basic idea of any “scientist can retest the results” is lost, then you quickly move from “experts” to “authorities”, and thus endeth science.

  • bobby b

    “I’m sure you are thinking climate scientists here.”

    I’m thinking climate science. I’m thinking nutrition science. I’m thinking medical science.

    I’m thinking of so many accepted, adopted, consensus-based pronouncements over the years that haven’t merely been shown to have been wrong – after all, if you’re not wrong sometimes, you’re not pushing any boundaries – but have been the product of fake, falsified, unrepeatable means and methods that, upon very superficial scrutiny, were so obviously fake, falsified, and unrepeatable.

    I’m talking about the many “scientists” who willingly ignored huge gaps in method, even though those gaps were an attack on the very thing that science is supposed to be, on the very thing that makes a scientist into a scientific person. The entire community of scientists (with notable exceptions) quietly allowed these things to become political arguments, when they were the very people we look to to be the gatekeepers, keeping out the shoddy and the transparently biased movements from science.

    I worship science – the method, the goals, the discipline. I despise much of our current craven, selfish, willfully unseeing scientific community that fails to enforce its own professed standards on each other, but insists that we show them the respect that is due to science qua science.

  • Greg

    If “science” is part of the name, it isn’t science. Same with “studies”. Great place to cut education costs is to start with zeroing out these departments. Sorry if I’m taking this farther off topic.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    I’m thinking climate science. I’m thinking nutrition science. I’m thinking medical science.

    Yeah,but they aren’t even close to Scottish, they wouldn’t know a skean dhu from a sporan. The disgrace of nutritional science and the “low fat diet” is beginning to emerge as a real scandal (though the science community does seem to be changing its view on this. MY doctor recommended fried eggs and sausage for breakfast — just hold the bread.) And medicine is pretty scary, with their minuscule sample sizes. But again the problem here is that their science isn’t falsifiable or reproducible. So,these guys are plainly wearing underwear beneath their kilts.

    There is a lot of really great science going on in chemistry, astrophysics, microbiology, virology, nanoscale material science, and on and on. This is generally conducted well and in accordance with scientific principles. It isn’t perfect, but nothing is.

    The thing is that the reason we “worship” science is that it gives us the ability to predict and shape the future. You drop a rock science tells us it falls. You insert this gene science tells us it fixes sickle cell anemia, you observe this gravity wave in Washington, you will see it x seconds later in Louisiana.

    When so called science fails to predict results with any reliability it isn’t science anymore, and if the community of that science doesn’t call it out, then that community is badly broken. But there is plenty of great science going on. Just look around you — engineers apply it and transform our world for the better. That’s not something a social scientist ever did.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Ultimately science comes down to falisifiability and repeatability.”

    Those are important, but the most important principle is systematic sceptical challenge. It’s not enough that a hypothesis be falsifiable – it has to have people actually trying to falsify it. It’s not enough that it’s repeatable – there have to be people trying to replicate it, and shouting loudly if it fails. And the community dumping the hypothesis when that happens.

    Science works like evolution, not intelligent design. It doesn’t produce robust results because a bunch of very intelligent people sit down and figure out what the answer is. It works because lots of people produce lots of crap ideas and variations and all the bad ones get shot down. Science depends on sceptics, opponents, challenges. Gazelles are fast not because the creator was very clever and designed them that way, but because all the slow gazelles got eaten by lions.

    The most essential feature of science is that bad hypotheses get killed. Everything else is a precondition of that.

    “So, I’d praise the method, but the community these days mostly gets my scorn. Sure, people are doing great work in some areas. But, as the leading experts on what the scientific method entails, they are the best qualified to comment when the method is bastardized, and they’ve all seemed very willing to just live and let the bastards live.”

    Actually, quite a lot of them didn’t. There were plenty of scientists (20%+) who were spitting feathers over the fiasco going on in climate science – and formed the core of the climate sceptic movement against them.

    The scientific process did actually work, although not through official channels, and it wasn’t presented that way. The climate sceptics thoroughly discredited climate science, and while it’s kinda being kept on life support as some sort of rotting zombie by politics and the needs of making a living, the heart has been knocked out of it and no one really takes it seriously. It’s currently in the process of being pushed down the memory hole. At some point soon, official figures will deny it ever happened.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Niall — Your link is somehow messed up. (Always happy to re-read you!)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nullius,

    “At some point soon, official figures will deny it ever happened.”

    I can only say it can’t be soon enough!

    .

    Fraser’s sausage & fried eggs:

    Who’s your doc? Sounds like my kinda breakfast.

    It’s true, we’ve come a long way. But still, it’s not that many moons ago (sometime in the last year, I’m pretty sure) that a read a statement by some Authority or other saying cautiously that “one or two eggs per week shouldn’t hurt you.”

    Good grief. And I’ll bet it took the courage of Joan of Arc to say so!

    .

    In general, if all you’ve got is statistics then all you’ve got is, at best, leads. What’s wanted is to know the mechanism. This is extraordinarily difficult in nutrition, in medicine, in the proper understanding of climate. Heck, it’s extraordinarily difficult to even agree on what measurements to take.

    There’s a reason why they say “medicine is more art than science.”

    I’m not saying stats aren’t useful. They clearly are. But they’re too often misused by folks who should know better, and for the most part they don’t get you all the way to knowledge.

    And let’s not get into the weeds about “what is knowledge” and “how do you know it’s true” and What Is Truth Anyway.

    I never pay attention to the nutritionutters regardless of “credentials,” and personally I hang out with Richard Lindzen and John Christy and like that. Hm, I feel vicious at the moment, so here goes — Bill McKibben is a pimple on the backside of some stemwinding, stereotypical hellfire-raising preacher, which is exactly what he makes me think of.

    I hope that my comment, especially the parting shot, has added immensely to the intellectual value of this particular discussion. 😀

  • I am sure that Boonderick Cumminghedge playing the role of Dominic Cummings (somewhat further up the management hierarchy than mere Vote Leave plebs like myself) was meant to virtue signal some bullshit or other to those smart enough to understand.

    For myself, it provided a more detailed appreciation as to why we had done things in specific ways.

    Having read the entirety of the post over the last few hours, I’m more surprised at our having won the referendum vote then I was at the time.

    For all the campaigning I did in Perth and Kinross I doubt I changed the mind of more than a handful of people, maybe that was enough. I don’t know.

    What Dominic writes is interesting, especially the aspect of achieving change by getting rid of (and distracting) interruptions from those actually doing the work.

    I’ll have to read more in the morning…which is to say after the sun gets up, since it is already 2.40 AM

  • Julie near Chicago

    JG,

    “For all the campaigning I did in Perth and Kinross I doubt I changed the mind of more than a handful of people, maybe that was enough. I don’t know.”

    From CCiZ, and maybe from Samizdata, you might recall my going on and on about “the cumulative effect of tiny increments.”

    If each of 5% of the population persuades 5 people, and 1 of them persuades 5 more, and so on, then eventually enough people will be persuaded that the desired effect will be reached (given enough time). Brexit will happen, Shrillary (and Bernie!) will be defeated. And so on.

    In the name of the Mother Country, I thank you for your efforts.

    .

    Umbriel, above: Yes, that is a very good point.

    That’s why moral fiber is a virtue, even for him who has it. He might feel better about himself and his effects in general. If John Allison, as well as others, can make money even without pandering, then that would hopefully be a lesson to all.

  • Thanks Julie.

    In truth I am tired and ill, but above all I am disappointed.

    My campaign against EU tyranny has consumed too much of my life. We won the referendum against insurmountable odds (more than I had realised before reading Dominic’s post) and with only 75 days to go before BRExit day I feel that we are simply being toyed with, that the fix is in and the knaves and charlatans of Westminster and Whitehall are simply waiting until the last minute to call BRExit off.

    The only question is whether it will be by withdrawing Article 50 and remaining in the EU or accepting Theresa May’s piss poor deal and “Leaving, but not really”.

    As the Sibyl prophesied “Bella, horrida bella, Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine.“.

    I really am a bit too old and worn down to be a foot soldier in a civil war, but they just couldn’t let it be.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yeah, JG. And the rest of you guys too. 👿

  • Julie near Chicago (January 14, 2019 at 1:57 am), the sole link in my post above is to the third link in Brian’s OP – the ‘denunciation’ (I would say, ‘critique’) of the Channel 4 programme. The link works for me, but just click on Brian’s OP link if mine fails for you.

  • once the new “Newsguard” service gains traction, we won’t be troubled by having to even hear of the existence of arguments and facts that challenge our green progressive worldview. (bobby b, January 13, 2019 at 6:46 pm)

    Orwell (in Homage to Catalonia) notes how an incautious brief reference to the Spanish government’s propaganda minister showed where a left-wing UK journalist was getting his communist-supplied ‘facts’ about the Barcelona fighting,

    though one would think the very name of this ministry would be sufficient warning.

    Similarly, the name ‘NewsGuard’ clearly means something that guards you from the news. 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh. On still further examination, I see your actual link, Niall.

    For some reason when I mouse over any part of Pt. 2 up to the real link, The Machine shows, falsely and I’m sure knowingly and deliberately, that that is a link. Only, of course, it’s not.

    Thanks for the reply. :>)

  • John Galt (January 14, 2019 at 4:44 am), look on the bright side. When remoaner fanatics shout that Jeremy Corbyn is “a tory-supporting lickspittle”, then they are clearly not having a great day (nor enhancing their reputation for being the ones who see things correctly).

    I hope expedients like those of John-shut-up-the-rules-are-whatever-I-say-Bercow will fail immediately they are tried, but I also think such desperate shifts have a naturally short life span – provided Brexitters don’t give up.

  • Julie near Chicago

    bobby,

    And I should believe this Caitlin Johnstone and medium.com because why? The GF knows I may be smelling Friday night’s supper, but it smells to me of fish. I take it you also caught the odor.

    (I looked at newsguard.com, by the way. I’m not sure how different it is, really, from Sourcewatch for instance, but from the other side. Once in awhile I check Sourcewatch just to see what the Dark Side is saying, but I don’t feel much moved to take this “NewsGuard” even that seriously. And anybody can start out by claiming their team consists of “trained journalists.” Anyhow, I know that VOA has had many detractors, among them the Usual Suspects, but I think that at least VOA thinks it’s on our side. RT, OTOH…well…I don’t go to Alex Jones for the real skinny, and I wince when I see a well-meaning naïf like Tim Ball and lots of others on RT, so I ignore them too. Nor did I go to Al-Jazeera* for the correct take….)

    I may well have missed it, but why do you say NewsGuard is a project of “government techies”?

    Following from Wiki:

    “During its two-year history, Al Jazeera America won several media awards including the Peabody, Emmy, and Shorty Awards and citations from groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists and Native American Journalist Association.” !!!

  • Paul Marks

    The idea that the left will be confined to “just” the humanities and social sciences is WRONG.

    The left, who control most universities and so on, have made it quite clear that they intend to control the study of the physical sciences – in order to promote the “Diversity” “Social Justice” agenda and to destroy the concept of OBJECTIVE TRUTH.

    If anyone really did not know the above – well you can not still claim you do not know now. Either the left will be defeated or they will destroy the sciences (the physical sciences) – the position of “well we will just do our thing over her in the physical sciences whilst the left control the humanities” will-not-work.

  • lucklucky

    Well BBC is an organization that only exists due to Violence.

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