Election thoughts: South Africa, 8 May 2019

Along with many of you, today I made a difficult decision regarding which party to vote for in South Africa’s National elections – more difficult than any of the previous 10 (if you include the Municipal elections) were.

In one respect, I take that as a positive thing, because competition is good, and more than one option on the ballot today had merits to consider. It’s sometimes a sign of a more mature democracy that the choice of whom to vote for isn’t utterly obvious.

Continue reading “Election thoughts: South Africa, 8 May 2019”

Politics, science, and the art of the possible

Green policy_0Otto von Bismarck observed that politics is “the art of the possible”, but the statement holds true in many more domains than that. It’s only trivially true to say that anything is constrained by what is possible and what is not – yet that sort of retort is usually as far as the conversation might go (on social media in particular).

It’s more likely that Germany’s first Chancellor was trying to say that there’s frequently a mismatch between our ideals and what can reasonably be achieved. Not, in other words, that things are literally impossible – more that we need to bear the trade-offs in mind when making judgements as to whether people are doing a good job or not.

Cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect describe how we overemphasise our own expertise or competence, leading us to ascribe malice in situations where the explanation for someone’s screw-up is most probably simple incompetence, or simply that the job in question was actually pretty difficult, meaning that expecting perfection was always unreasonable. (As some of you would know, this paragraph describes a more gentle version of Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.)

So, instead of paying attention to the arguments and their merits when it comes to something like blood deferrals for gay men, we claim prejudice. Or, when someone dies after taking the advice of a homeopath too seriously, some of us might be too quick to call the victim stupid or overly gullible, instead of focusing on those who knowingly (because some quacks are of course victims themselves) exploit others for financial or other gain.

The point is that some problems are difficult to solve, and certainly more difficult than they appear to be from a distance, or from the perspective of 20/20 hindsight. So, when you accuse your local or national government of racism, or being anti-poor, or some other sort of malice, it’s always worth pausing to think about the problem from their point of view, as best as you are able to. They might be doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

In case you aren’t aware of two recent resources for helping us to think these things through more carefully, I’d like to draw a recent comment in the science journal Nature to your attention, as well as a response to it that was carried in the science section of The Guardian.

In late November this year, Nature offered policy-makers 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims, and even those of you who aren’t policy-makers should spend some time reading and thinking about these (though, don’t sell yourselves short in respect of not labeling yourself a policy-maker, because on one level of policy, you’d want to include for example parenting. And what you choose to feed your children, or the medicines you give them, would usually be informed – or so one would hope – on scientific claims of whatever veracity.)

The Nature piece talks about sample size, statistical significance, cherry-picking of evidence, and 17 other import issues, many of which you’d hope some scientists would themselves take on board – not only those scientists who might play fast-and-loose with some of the issues raised, but also simply in terms of how they communicate their findings to the public. If you’re asked to provide content for a newspaper, magazine or other media, the article highlights some common areas of confusion, and therefore helps you to know where you perhaps be more clear.

Second, and in response to the first piece, The Guardian (who had also re-published the Nature list) gave us the top 20 things that scientists need to know about policy-making. And this piece I’d commend to all of you, but especially the armchair legislators that routinely solve the country’s political problems on Twitter, or make bold claims about how little or how much governments might care for the poor, and so forth.

In short, making policy is difficult, and doing good science can be difficult too, because among the things we can be short of is time, money, attention, the public’s patience, and so forth. In the majority of cases, both policy-makers and scientists might be doing the best they can, under those situations of constraint. So before we tell them that they are wrong, we should try to ensure we at least know what they are trying to do, and whether they are going about it in the most reasonable way possible, given the circumstances.

They don’t get the luxury of ignoring what is possible and what is not when doing the science, or making the policy. When criticising them, we shouldn’t grant ourselves that luxury either.

Mandela, atheism and “borrowed interest”

flagAs I remarked in a post on the day after Mr. Mandela’s death, his value to South Africa (in particular) was in the unifying effect that his words, character and narrative offered to us. And while there’s certainly a risk of overdoing the praise-singing and mythologising when an important figure leaves us, it’s arguably more distasteful when such a figure becomes the subject of attempts to illegitimately bask in some reflected glory, through claiming some sort of kinship with them.

In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting what I’m told advertising types refer to as “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.

I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.

Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.

We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist. On the other hand, we do know that he was baptised as a Methodist, and we have Wikipedia quoting an interview with Mcebisi Skwatsha, in which Mandela apparently confirmed that he was a Methodist. In Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself, he says “I never abandoned my Christian beliefs”, and a comment on Pharyngula points to a CNN story, where it’s described how Mandela would regularly receive blessings from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Mandela also spoke at churches on a semi-regular basis, and in short, clearly seemed to have no antipathy to religion. Instead, his attitude to religion seems to have been exactly the right one for the leader of a nation to have – to hold it as a personal issue, and to devote himself to allowing others to exercise their religions, or lacks of religion, in the manner they see fit. In other words, regardless of what his personal beliefs were, he seems to have been fully committed to secularism in government.

When Christians or other religious folk try to claim deathbed conversions, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful [it is] to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same. In this instance, exactly because of Mr Mandela’s apparent reluctance to choose sides in this matter, it’s perhaps even more distasteful than usual.

Russell Brand, celebrity and imputed authority

As you no doubt know, Russell Brand has recently been calling for revolution. The revolution will most likely be televised (younger readers, that’s a reference to a Gil Scott-Heron song/poem that’s worth listening to, regardless of how you feel about Brand or revolutions), but that’s pretty much all we know about it. Things are broken, politics doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t vote.

You can read Nick Cohen or even another comedian, Robert Webb, for arguments as to why Brand’s comments – even if well-intended – are wrong-headed. What I’m interested in adding to the conversation is the observation (not a unique one, of course) that while Brand’s interview on Paxman and subsequent columns have certainly been entertaining, and certainly deal with important issues, that doesn’t make them interesting or worthwhile as political commentary. Continue reading “Russell Brand, celebrity and imputed authority”

The limits of our language

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Curricular revisions in the area of religious instruction in South African schools have been the subject of a previous column, in which I argued that political expediency could compromise Constitutional freedoms, as well as handicap the development of a citizenry which is capable of significant intellectual engagement with policy. A related trend, with the same negative consequences, can also be observed in our universities. More recently, the teaching of the most basic foundation of language – grammar – is being threatened. And so, another potential blow is landed against clarity of thought and expression. Continue reading “The limits of our language”

Mark your X in the box labelled “stereotype”

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Democracy and liberty are not equivalent, despite the fact that they are so often conflated in popular discourse. There is no logical obstacle to a dictator being democratically elected and then leaving us with little freedom. Likewise, a dictator could in theory be benevolent, and allow for more freedoms than we currently enjoy in South Africa.

This is why being silent in the face of oppression, tyranny, or abuse of power by the state should not be considered an option by those of us committed to both democracy as well as freedoms of various sorts. Fortunately, democracy and liberty are often positively correlated, so that an increase in the one tends to coincide with an increase in the other.

But because this connection is not a logically necessary one, we are sometimes required to fight these battles on independent fronts. Among the dilemmas and difficulties presented by these battles, we can identify the tone of our arguments as a significant complication, because sometimes struggles for liberty involve butting heads with majority sentiment – in other words with impulses arising from democratic discourses and ideals. Continue reading “Mark your X in the box labelled “stereotype””

SA Elections: The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign

The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign has me (a historical DA supporter) concerned – so much so that I was compelled to agree with 6K, which is rare on matters political.

The DA probably has the best pollsters and analysts of all the SA parties, but they got this one wrong. I’m convinced that it will be a vote-loser. As “Dismayed” comments at 6000 miles… (linked above), it will only appeal to a small set of current DA voters, and perhaps turn a few current DA voters off too.

Helen Zille has done a great job of undermining the negative perceptions of the DA under Leon, particularly the perception that they were all about being “anti”, rather than building their own profile as a party fit to govern. The campaign (until “stop JZ”) was great, as it did exactly that – far less carping about what others were doing wrong, and far more trumping of the DA’s virtues as a party ready to lead.

“Stop JZ” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the “Fight back” campaign, easily caricatured as “Fight Black”. The undecideds who were thinking that maybe the DA is no longer a “white” party, and that perhaps it’s time to give them a chance, have now been given a firm shove away from voting DA.

To be clear: I do think Zuma should be” stopped”. Not necessarily stopped from being President, but stopped from riding roughshod over the rule of law, and stopped from undermining some of the values people have fought so hard for in SA’s short democratic history. But our best chance of stopping him – and cynical populist rabble-rousers like Malema – is to create a genuine democracy in this country, where it’s feasible that someone other than the ANC can win an election. The only power the voter has is that parties and leaders feel that they can be (and are being) held to account for their actions, and for as long as the ANC is guaranteed election wins, that’s not going to happen here.

To make that happen, we need to strengthen the opposition, and the opposition is not strengthened by confirming the prejudiced view of the majority of the population: that the DA is a shrill, reactionary – and white – party. I do not believe that the DA fits this prejudice, but can certainly understand why some people believe it. The average voter makes their cross based on these perceptions and prejudices, not necessarily on a careful weighing of options. We simply don’t have the maturity to be that kind of democracy, and nor do most of our population have the educations that those sorts of choices presume.

It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.