June 2009

21 June 2009
The Mullahs will win

I am sure I am not the only one who finds the protests against Iran’s stolen election exhilarating.  They raise the possibility of an end to an appalling regime and the beginning of a liberal, tolerant and progressive Iran and, by extension, a liberal, tolerant and progressive Middle East.  Which would be nice.  It’s just that I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Let me explain.  Ask yourself: what brings down an ideologically-driven tyranny?  In the case of Hitler’s Germany, Hussein’s Iraq and Pol Pot’s Cambodia it was invasion from abroad.  In the case of the Soviet Union (and by extension the Eastern European satellites) it was time.  The ideology had exhausted itself.  And that’s it.  Street protests, as China, Burma and Cuba have demonstrated, just get a lot of people killed.

Ah, you say, but what about Marcos or Apartheid or the Shah?  Just not ideological enough.  And the end of Apartheid - I suspect - had an awful lot to do with the end of the Cold War.

By contrast the Iranian theocracy clearly has a long way to go before it burns itself out.  Which is why it will survive.

So, why do ideologically-driven tyrannies last so long?  Ideas I would guess. Most people are not prepared to kill unless it’s for a cause.  But if you give them the cause…

18 June 2009
How to spot a bogus argument - Part II

In Part I I listed out my 1-6.  Here’s the rest:

  1. Ascribing beliefs to entire groups.  “Libertarians believe that there’s no such thing as society.”  How does that feel?  Annoying I should think.  And should hope.  But watch out for statements that go the other way e.g. “The left believe that there is a fixed quantity of wealth.”  This is a sort of combination of the straw man and the personal attack.  As a general rule one ought to identify the ideas accurately and then debate them.
  2. Pejorative terms.  “Concreting over”, “Gas guzzler”...  The use of any term that includes judgement is an attempt to curtail debate.  And any attempt to curtail debate should get the alarm bells ringing.  This is in effect the flip side of Point 6.
  3. Numbers.  I am suspicious of any argument involving numbers e.g. the speed limit should be 70mph.  Why not 71?  Or 69?  Because you have to draw the line somewhere?  It makes me wonder if the line has to be drawn at all.  Or, who should be drawing it.
  4. What would change your mind?  Does the person express any doubt?  If you asked him: what would change his mind, would he have an answer?  And would it be a reasonable one?  Because if the answer is “no” then he’s being dogmatic and eristic and these people are terrible bores and likely to be wrong.
  5. Confusing intentions, actions and outcomes.  “When I say I want hard working families to benefit from prosperity [intention] you call me a socialist.”  To which I suppose the response should be:  “No, when you advocate socialist policies [action] that’s when I call you a socialist.”
  6. Distance.  This is to do with facts.  How much distance is there between you and the facts being used?  I am not just talking about physical distance, more how hard it would be to verify?  Because, if the answer is very hard then this should set the alarm bells ringing.  That is why I prefer arguments that depend on reason and facts either that everyone agrees or are close at hand e.g. the local newsagent is really good but the roads are really bad.
  7. Subordinate clauses.  At least, I think that’s what I am going to call it.  Anyway, here’s an example: “Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their deaths…” Doesn’t sound very good does it?  Let’s try some substitution: “Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who sent hundreds of thousands of British soldiers to their deaths…” Both statements are absolutely true and serve to reveal the author’s prejudices.  An attempt is being made to steer the reader to a conclusion without having to go to the effort of making an argument.  Not good. 

Anyway, that’s my list.  Hope you find it useful.

11 June 2009
How to spot a bogus argument - Part I

I’ve been meaning to write this for some time.  It started when, for the first time in many years, I was present at a predominantly left-wing gathering.  It was, if nothing else, a rich vein of nonsense.

It got me thinking.  Are there ways in which you can spot that an argument is nonsense or, at least, suspect?  Are there types of argument that should set the alarm bells ringing?  Would it be possible to look at an argument and say: “Well, that’s an X error and that’s a Y fallacy” etc?  I suppose I had it in mind that if enough people were aware of how to separate intellectual wheat from intellectual chaff then, well - because libertarianism is clearly in the intellectual wheat category - they’d become libertarians without the need for any intervention from me or my ideological soulmates.  How cool would that be?

Anyway, I didn’t get very far that time, but recently I started thinking about it again and started compiling a list.

And then I thought: “I wonder if anyone’s ever had a go at this before?”  Hmm, it turns out they had.  Of course, they had.  See, for instance:

A List of Fallacious Arguments
Logical Fallacies: shorter but prettier

Wikipedia also has pages on propaganda and rhetorical techniques etc.  Even so, there were members of my list that I didn’t feel quite fitted into any of these pre-existing categories.  So, here goes:

  1. Vague and shifting definitions.  I hate these.  Shifting definitions - words that are used to mean one thing in one place and another in another are the worst but any word or phrase that could mean more than one thing should get the alarm bells ringing.  “Racist” is a good example.  Do you mean gas-chamber racist or blacks-run-faster racist?  Big difference.
  2. So what?  Can often sound rude but it’s a devastating question.  It’s a useful practice when someone makes a point to ask: “Well, so what?”  For instance, and I’m not making this up, one criticism I’ve heard made of Austrian economics is that it hasn’t advanced since the 1920s.  Well, so what?  Good theories don’t have to “advance”.
  3. Do you understand it?  OK, I don’t understand fluid dynamics but I appreciate that if fluid dynamicists hadn’t got their models right planes would fall out of the sky.  But that does not apply to the average political debate.  If you don’t understand the terms that are being used or the argument that is being made it’s probably nonsense.  Brian Micklethwait holds that when it comes to technology if you don’t understand it that is their problem, not yours.  Much the same applies to politics. Actually, it gets worse.  If you don’t understand it there’s a good chance they don’t either.
  4. Is this the most important thing?  I once read an article criticising the career of Winston Churchill.  Nothing wrong with that - there’s plenty to criticise.  But at no point did the author address himself to Churchill’s actions in 1940.  Which was a shame because if it hadn’t been for his actions at the time he wouldn’t have had a reputation worth criticizing.
  5. Changing the subject.  God, I hate this.  Why can’t people just say:  “That’s a good point, I think you’re wrong but I can’t come up with a good counter argument right now.”?
  6. “Key”, “strategic”, “essential”.  Beware any arguments involving these words.  How would you know if something was key, strategic or essential?  There’s no test.

Part II is here.

05 June 2009
Why is Top Gear so successful?

It is hugely successful.  It attracts a large audience, a big fan base and a huge waiting list for studio tickets.  It has spawned DVDs, a live show and local versions in the US, Australia and Russia.  Satellite channel, Dave, has based an entire business model around Top Gear repeats.  Stars clamour to drive its Reasonably Priced Car and a nation held its breath when one of its presenters was badly hurt in a 300mph car crash.

Jeremy Clarkson even once got a custard pie in the face from an environmentalist.  High praise indeed.

All this for a show based around two elements, namely: cars and blokes - neither of which the BBC, the show’s broadcaster, particularly likes.

So, why is it so successful?  I think it revolves around two elements.

First of all, it brings out the nine-year-old in all of us.  So, it has the values of a nine-year old.  Speed?  Good.  Power?  Good.  Noise?  Good.  Futuristic looks?  Good.  Gadgets?  Good.  Worries about global warming?  Boring.  Sure Mr Megastar you’re a star but how fast are you in a Suzuki Liana?

But it also asks the questions a nine-year old asks:

  • Can you turn a car into a boat?
  • Why don’t you have convertible people carriers?
  • Can you drive to the North Pole?
  • Which is faster, a car or a train?  Or a plane?  Or a boat?
  • What happens if you put Boadicea spikes on your wheels or drive into a brick wall?  In a lorry?
  • Or if you strap a Reliant Robin to a rocket?

Top Gear has at one point or another asked all these questions usually with results that are as disastrous as they are predictable as they are hilarious.  No wonder “ambitious but rubbish” has become the show’s unofficial motto.

Secondly, and this is thing they keep quiet about, Top Gear is clearly the result of a lot of hard work.  Don’t believe me?  Watch any episode and ask yourself where the camera is.  You’ll quickly realise that that it’s in all sorts of funny places.  The other day I spotted that they’d managed to get on the top of a suspension bridge.  Think of the health and safety forms.  But often it’s a helicopter.  Think of the cost.  Oh, and the co-ordination.

One of the sadnesses of this is that you realise that if the races themselves are not fakes, most of the shots are. 

But the hard work continues.  There is frequently a dialogue between narrator and presenter.  Often the same person.  But often it reveals an extraordinary degree of planning an preparation.  Let me put is like this. Top Gear presenters do not simply jump in a car and ad lib.  They write it down first.  Top Gear is quite prepared to put a day’s work into 5 seconds of footage.

Or, to put it another way, you have to be awfully grown up if you want to be that childish.

Top Gear is also remarkable for the way it survives repetition.  I have watched some of the Dave repeats 3 or 4 times.  This is partly because they are very funny.  Watching a man attempt to negotiate his Triumph Dolomite Sprint over a cobbled road with a collander full of eggs directly above his head usually is.  And it is partly because of the in-jokes that you miss first time round.  It took me ages to realise that there’s one running joke about Jeremy believing that for every mechanical problem there’s a hammer-based solution, another involving James May having no sense of direction and another involving Hammond crashing into May.  I don’t believe for a minute that all this isn’t also carefully planned.

To sum up, Top Gear is successful because it deserves to be.