Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A scab worth picking

I promise I'll move on from Francis Spufford's challenge to the New Atheists, (at least until his book, Unapologetic, comes out in paperback), but there's still a bit of arguable stuff left that I can't let alone (okay, it's a scab I can't help picking). Take it away, Francis:
I don't know if there's a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.) 
Agreed -  if by not 'knowable' you mean 'not disprovable.' Presumably if God unambiguously revealed His existence tomorrow, His existence would become a knowable item. Failing such a revelation, the list of people who don’t know for sure whether or not there’s a God would include you, me and Richard Dawkins. Not to mention the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Patriarch of Moscow, the Grand Mufti of Pakistan and the world’s most learned theologians. And, for the sake of completeness, we mustn't forget the ignorance on this point of non-theistic spiritual experts like the Dalai Lama.

Because neither set of people can resolve this problem this makes experts in spirituality just as authoritative or otherwise as experts in the natural sciences, right?

In a sense, it does, but that’s not very impressive if you’re coming to the question without a prior belief in God (or some spiritual reality). Even a non-expert can see trees of green, red roses too, and will be happy that the stuff being studied by a botanist or biologist actually exists. Your non-expert can also see clouds and stars, touch rocks, smell summer rain, or feel the force of wind or water. So, natural scientists study things that practically everybody agrees actually exist. They have a body of knowledge, however imperfect, about something real.

The natural world isn’t in question. If God or some spiritual realm exists, unbelievers wouldn’t have to junk their everyday perceptions about the world around them, or reject the expertise and authority of people who study various aspects of empirical reality, although the infidels would have to expand their minds to accommodate additional, hidden realms of reality.

If there’s no God or supernatural realm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Patriarch of Moscow, the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, the Dalai Lama and the world’s most learned theologians are just world authorities on something that doesn’t exist.

This asymmetry highlights the relevance of one central question: is it reasonable to assume that the specific beliefs of Christians  (or Moslems, or Buddhists, or whoever) are literally true? And don’t go telling me that my crude insistence in knowing whether something’s likely to be literally true or not is beside the point:
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue.
No, just don’t. Yes, it really is maddening. I’m neither completely stupid, nor somewhere on the extreme end of the autistic spectrum. I already know that there are things in this world which don’t correspond to literal truth, but which make emotional sense; metaphor, fiction, drama, art. And I know that elements of religion can move believers and non-believers for the same reasons that the arts can. In fact a lot of religion is art. Think of the poetry of some holy texts, gospel music, the Saint Matthew Passion, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the breathtaking beauty of some ecclesiastical architecture (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice).

If the claim being made for religion was that it was a form of art or metaphor that speaks to us without having to correspond to reality, then I'd be happy to listen to the explanation that religion makes deep emotional sense. But it's the truth-claim that makes religion more than just another branch of the arts. I know it's deeply moving. But a well-crafted fiction about imaginary characters can be deeply moving, too. I'm interested in what, if anything, makes the gospels, or any other religious text different from, say, this:
 She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The end of Joyce's The Dead. This passage touches profound, difficult emotions like sorrow, loss, shame and reconciliation, looks at the hard fact of our mortality and ponders the mystery and meaning of life, but it doesn't claim to be anything but a beautifully-crafted story about invented characters. Something may make emotional sense, yet still be fiction in the readily-understood sense of the word. Where's a convincing argument that faith is more than a beautiful fiction?

Which brings us back to what is a knowable. Yes, we can't be sure whether God exists or not. You might conclude that believing on God or not believing in God is like flipping a coin – a fifty-fifty bet on something unknowable, with belief and non-belief being equally weighted, equally likely to yield the predicted (or randomly guessed-at) result. You might decide to take Pascal’s Wager, or you might take The Atheist’s Wager, because there’s nothing in it one way or another.

I don't think the arguments are so evenly balanced. Bertrand Russell's metaphor of the celestial teapot is more than a ridiculous example dreamt up by horrid atheists for the purpose of holding religion up to mockery and derision. It makes a relevant point - all unknowable possibilities aren’t equally plausible. If so, belief and unbelief don’t look so equally weighted.

Unbelievers aren’t making detailed, specific claims about something that's complex enough to require a special explanation, yet unmeasurable and beyond disproof. Believers are. Christianity, for example, claims to be more than some vague, deist feeling that there must be some deeper meaning to the universe, something that might reflect underlying laws of nature that we're too ignorant to fully grasp, a bit like Stephen Hawking's conception of a Theory of Everything:
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.
No, Christianity claims far more specific knowledge about God (AKA the entity whose existence or otherwise 'isn't the kind of thing you can know'). For example Christians assert, in a way that makes me assume that they believe it, that there is a God, who created everything (not just us, or the earth, or part of the universe). He is, apparently, eternal and uncreated, so didn't come from anything else. He is also sentient - in fact He's way more than just sentient, He knows everything. He is good, as opposed to being, bad, indifferent, or capricious. He loves humanity (although some of His followers think that He also tortures sinful humans for all eternity). He is omnipotent, as opposed to being limited in any way. He had a son who came down to earth to redeem us all, was seemingly killed, but is, in fact immortal and who, by his apparent death has taken away our sins, (even the ones we couldn't help committing). He's male. He doesn't want us to worship idols, or alleged deities who don't share his characteristics, or to refrain from worshipping Him. And so on.

I don't need convincing that Christianity, or any other currently existing religion 'makes emotional sense.' The ancient Egyptians' complex pantheon, including a sun god, a jackal-headed god of the underworld and a bipedal hippo-crocodile hybrid goddesses of fertility and childbirth presumably made emotional sense to countless generations of Egyptians over thousands of years. I'm sure they found deep solace in the tale of Isis, faithfully gathering together the scattered remains of her murdered husband, Osiris, and lovingly bringing him back from the dead. I'm sure that their religious rituals felt profound and moving and provided comfort in times of trouble, and that that the sense of community felt real and powerful. But who's praying to Isis and Osiris now? Nobody (OK, there might be the odd New Age pantheist with a little shrine to Isis in the bedroom, but to a reasonable order of approximation, nobody).

I do need convincing that the supernatural beliefs of Christians are based on something that might be factual, rather than myth. I want to know why Christians are able to confidently dismiss the superseded beliefs of the ancient Egyptians as myths and confidently proclaim their their own beliefs to be more than poetic myths. If Unapologetic can shed some light on that, I'll be wiser for having read it.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Heads I win, tails you lose

Francis Spufford, teases the New Atheists again, this time in New Humanist. Well, you can’t accuse him of being too scared to step into the lion’s den:
For many of you, the point of atheism appears to be not the non-relationship with God but a live and hostile relationship with believers. It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe: atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. People who don’t like stamp-collecting don’t have a special magazine called The Anti-Philatelist. But you do. You do the equivalent of hanging about in front of Stanley Gibbons to orate about the detestability of phosphor bands and perforations.
From a purely tactical viewpoint, you’ve got to admire Spufford's psychoanalytical counter-gambit:

New Atheist: I’ve taken the time to examine your belief system in some detail, and I think it’s very silly. Specifically, it’s full of implausibilities, inconsistencies, assertions that contradict things we're pretty sure we know about nature, some dodgy history and some very dodgy morality. I can provide citations.

Doctor Spufford: Very interesting. I am sensing a great deal of anger. You have spent a very long time researching and talking about this this topic, which clearly shows that your repressed hostility is expressing itself in the form of an obsessive personality disorder, a scab you cannot help picking, if you will. Please tell me about your childhood.

So, Mr. New Atheist, it turns out that you're not so ignorant about religion that we can safely ignore your criticism. Unfortunately, you seem to have done so much swotting that you must obviously be some kind of obsessive anti-social weirdo dweeb, therefore your criticism is not valid. By the way, have you stopped beating your wife?

I'm not sure that the Anti-Philatelist gag actually moves the substantive argument forward, but that's some nifty debating footwork.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Plastic People of the Universe

I've read a couple of Francis Spufford's books and I've enjoyed them almost without reservation. He's a formidably clever guy who can be totally absorbing, as only a writer who both cares about his subject matter and knows his subject inside out can. He doesn't need an endorsement from me, but I don't think you'll regret diving in if you haven't done so already.

Spufford has plunged in to the culture wars between nonbelievers and believers. Surprisingly, to me at least, his new book, Unapologetic, is a counterblast to the usual, 'aggressive'* secularist suspects, from a Christian point of view. I'm sure his book will be a lot more nuanced, subtle and intelligent than a lot of the incredibly unconvincing arguments in favour of religion that I've come across (I recently tuned into a forty minute discussion about the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, which only convinced me that you can philosophically prove practically anything, however unlikely, provided you define your words and concepts in a sufficiently idiosyncratic way).

So, it's probably worth a read - if you want to test your beliefs, you need to engage with the sharpest, most intelligent counter-arguments, not the lamest ones (unfortunately, it tends to be the lamest ones that are repeated most often - I guess that the most widespread versions of any belief tend to be the most simplified, therefore most easily-reproduced, ones).

So far, I've only read Spufford's piece in the Guardian. He's very good on the emotional aspect of religion, the sense of community, the ritual, the fact that it creates spaces to experience the specialness, the profundity of the parts of our lives that empirical observation, rational self-interest, economics and so on can't reach:
But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only those emotions I can prove. I'd be an unrecognisable oddity if I did.
No problem with that. Emotions are an intrinsic part of the way we're made - they're necessary, they're what motivates us. We need reason, too, but if an emotionless being like Star Trek's Mr. Spock existed in real life, he'd probably be almost catatonic, lacking the motivation to get out of bed and apply his vast analytical intellect to anything at all.

I do have a bit of a problem with some of the straw men Spufford knocks down, though. After lamenting the way that the New Atheists allegedly caracature all believers as stupid, irrational, infantile, guilt-ridden, judgemental and potentially violent, he goes on to lay into the Atheist Bus slogan 'There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life' as evidence that vocal unbelievers are irredeemably shallow, consumerist and bleak:
If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you'd think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you'd think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God's possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

These plastic beings don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping. But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there's no help coming.
In other words, you, Mr. smug, smarty pants Dawkins may not have a problem doing away with the consolations of religion from the pampered comfort of your ivory tower in Oxford, but what about all the millions of people living lives of squalor and hardship on a dollar a day, or the parents burying their only child, the refugees, all world's poor lost, lonely and oppressed, with only the emotional consolation of faith to hold on to? It's a point worth unpicking.

I think we need to separate two points here. First, the reality or otherwise of religion's revealed truths. As Spufford himself says:
Now don't get me wrong. I don't think there's any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don't believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in.
So although he doesn't advertise it on the side of a bus, Spufford's happy to assert in debate that the certainties of faith are, at best, uncertain. On that point, I don't think we're that far apart. As far as I'm concerned religions are founded on specific claims about a spiritual realm that are unproven. You might choose to accept these claims or reject them. Personally, I find them unlikely. I'm quite prepared to concede that there might be more to life than science and rational thought can currently conceive of, but I do find it unlikely that these deeper truths about the nature of reality have already been accessed and understood by spiritual leaders with a mystical hot line to some divine essence with a suspiciously human nature.

It is horribly bleak to contemplate some aspects of life. But I just can't get my head round point two - life's a bitch, therefore you must convince yourself of the existence of something which would make it feel better. It's as if the world was some giant, insane hospital where the only available treatments are placebos and the only way to prevent pain and suffering is to shut anybody up who might wander in and say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing but sugar in these pills.'

In a way, I do see the world as a giant, insane hospital. It's scandalously under-resourced and the treatments are hit and miss - they range from the pretty reliable to the almost useless, they're unevenly allocated by over-stretched doctors who can't possibly treat everyone, although many do their best and even manage to improve patent's chances in some areas. Placebos might certainly help a lot of patients suffering in the hospital (the placebo effect is a real thing, it does work), but every new real treatment, with actual active ingredients would help more.

Levels of religious affiliation tend to be higher in poor countries and anybody who's visited a poor country can see how a focus on some idea of deeper reality than the here and now might be almost inescapably necessary to keep sane when insecurity, miserable poverty, disease, premature death, unfairness and oppression are the reality of your world. In richer, more stable countries, levels of religious affiliation are lower. There are still intractable human tragedies that require emotional solace, but, with basic needs met, people are relieved from the level of day to day desperation that requires the constant dose of spiritual pain killers.

I've never really liked John Lennon's "Imagine" very much. Some people call it an atheist anthem - I don't know whether it was ever intended to be any such thing and I've never bothered to find out, but it annoys me from line one. 'Imagine there's no heaven'? Then, reassuring people that 'it's easy if you try' as if imagining no heaven required mastering some specific mental trick. For me, the whole idea of heaven requires an effort of the imagination and a conscious, wilful suspension of disbelief.

Imagining no heaven (or rather not having to put much imaginative effort into accepting the reality of a world where I can find no compelling reason to believe in a spiritual reality as described by religions)** doesn't always put me in a particularly great place. I don't for example, tend to wake up thinking 'there's probably no God - whoopee, that means more time to go shopping!' It doesn't mean that I never have difficult or troubling emotions or that I never struggle to find meaning in a life that's occasionally not easy for me and which I know is many times harder for millions of others in less fortunate places. But it's just the way the world seems to be, from where I'm standing and I try to make sense of it as best I can. Quite a lot of the time it doesn't make sense, and I'm left with 'I don't know.' But 'I don't know' feels better, more real and more honest than, 'I'll try to believe in this although it doesn't seem to be real or true, because if it was real and true then the world would be a better place.'

'There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life' Well, 'stop worrying' is a pretty good goal to set yourself, although it would be more realistic to say 'worry less.' Most of us realise in retrospect that most of the time we've spent worrying was time wasted, so if we can train ourselves to worry less, or re-frame worrying, that would be A Good Thing (and I speak as a habitual worrier). As for 'enjoy your life', that might involve doing something mind-numbing for long enough to earn the cash to spend your leisure time vacuously drifting around shopping centres looking for shiny things to buy. Or it might involve enjoying learning something new, a significant achievement, friendship, love, wonder, beauty, even reading one of Mr Spufford's excellent books. Things that aren't necessarily shallow and don't necessarily involve being wilfully blind to how life can also be baffling, difficult and full of pain.

I think the description of unapologetic nonbelievers as incomplete, plastic beings who don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping does many of us a great disservice.*** On the subject of shopping, you might be interested to learn that some of us even approve of the "Keep Sunday Special" campaign. You might not see us in church, but there's little that we, as fully rounded, non-plastic human beings can find to disagree with in the proposition that there's more to life than the relentless, mechanical cycle of getting and spending, or as the campaign's mission statement puts it:
We believe in having time for family, friends and community. We believe in time to rest and enjoy ourselves. We believe in working hard and living life to the full. 
 We just don't like being told what to believe, that's all.

*I'm unapologetic about the quotation marks - I really don't think these people, rude and disrespectful as they may appear to some, have ever done anything as aggressive as requiring other people to unquestioningly assent to their particular set of beliefs  without being prepared to accept that those beliefs require justification, or might be in any way arguable or provisional.

**Sometimes, even the side of a bus isn't big enough to write a nuanced belief on.

*** I say 'many of us', advisedly. Non-belief is just a judgement call about what's probably true. Just because somebody doubts the truths preached by clerics, doesn't mean that I'd want to endorse everything else they've said. It'd take more than their godlessness to make me see very much good in Nick Clegg or Ayn Rand, for example.


More petty bullying from those shrill, bigoted New Atheists:
An 11-year-old Midsomer Norton boy has been banned from joining his local Scout troop because he says he believes in God.

Because of his strong views, George Pratt said he is not able to make the Scout Promise which requires Scouts to promise to do their duty to Richard Dawkins and humanist values.
You wouldn't catch people of faith being so intolerant.

After all, where's the harm in just shutting up and agreeing with people who tell you what to believe in?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The parable of the vineyard

Red Vineyards near Arles, the only painting Vincent van Gogh is known to have sold during his lifetime, which sold for 400 Francs (about a thousand dollars in today's money).

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by van Gogh, which sold for $82.5 million in 1990 (about $146 million at today's prices).

And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

Matthew 20 11-16, a passage remarkable for brazenly flying in the face of the most basic concepts of fairness and natural justice and sanctifying the idea that it's OK for those in power to decouple the amount of value somebody adds to a process from the reward given.

If we're going to get 21st century economic policy right, or even just correctly model what's working and why, we have to start moving to a model that measures value creation rather than value capture.

From a fascinating article by Tim O Reilly. It does make me wonder who the 'we' is, though. Unless they unexpectedly lose their appetite for power, that 'we' probably excludes a lot of existing politicians, rent-seekers, corporations, lobbyists, intermediaries and other beneficiaries of a political economy driven by value capture. Why would they have any interest in moving to a model that empowers people unlike themselves?

Which still leaves the exciting possibility that, one day, distributed ways of producing value might escape the control of intermediaries who want to capture that value, so that the future might contain fewer niches for wannabe rentiers and more for potential Teslas or van Goghs.* In among the niches occupied by people making videos of cats doing mildly amusing things, obviously.

*Who might even get to avoid dying in obscure poverty next time round.

Being Sir Humphrey

Sir Humphrey Appleby was the most memorable character in Yes Minister, one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite telly programmes. You can see how this satirical portrait of the slippery, obstructive, manipulative mandarin would have appealed to Thatcher's self-image. Sir Humphrey represented the old world of the post-war consensus with its complacency, vested interests, feather-bedded public servants, resistance to change, outmoded working practices and centralised, statist power structures. Mrs. T was the anti-establishment rebel, the outsider, the new broom* ready to sweep the fusty, dusty old world of the Sir Humphreys away for ever.

I don't know what the old girl might have made of Conservative MP and attorney general Dominic Grieve and his Sir Humphrey-like explanation of why we can't possibly be allowed to see letters that might reveal whether or not the Prince of Wales has been lobbying ministers about whatever he's had on his Royal mind:

Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales' most deeply held personal views and beliefs. The letters in this case are in many cases particularly frank...

They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality...

It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the monarch is a politically neutral figure able to engage in confidence with the government of the day, whatever its political colour.

The Guardian

In other words, we can't possibly allow the public to know whether or not an unelected public figure has been trying to exercise undue influence on our elected representatives because if we knew whether or not he'd done anything that he shouldn't have done, that would undermine his authority, although our decision to keep this information secret should not be interpreted as an indication that he might have done anything wrong.

Fantastic stuff, and one to remember next time Thatcher's heirs try to spin the myth that they're some breed of iconoclastic outsiders who haven't been wholly assimilated by an out of touch and unaccountable establishment.

*An image still popular at Conservative Party conferences.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Downed Robin branding clinic

I'm not that interested in 'branding' and I'm bit cynical about the whole over-hyped process. It's only when I see it being done really badly that I realise that effort put into branding something isn't always a complete waste of time.

Dashing into a local Co-op for some bread and a bottle of wine, my wife was accosted by a middle-aged woman who wanted to know whether she'd be interested in subscribing to 'a nice little magazine for ladies'.  My spouse, a busy working mum, took umbrage at the suggestion that she might look like the sort of person who'd go for 'a nice little magazine for ladies' and expressed a forceful lack of interest.

It doesn't take a marketing genius to work out that the magazine (Candis magazine) is going to actively annoy quite a lot of women if its representatives promote it with the strapline 'a nice little magazine for ladies.'

I've taken a quick look at Candis magazine's web site. The forthcoming November issue promises autumn updates for your home, wardrobe and hair, six ways to boost your brainpower, an exclusive chat with Daniel Craig, free moisturiser for every reader and much more. Not very challenging, then, but neither are most lads' mags and you don't see FHM promoting itself as 'a nice little magazine for boys.'

And Candis probably does rather more good in the world than FHM. According to Mister Wikipedia, the magazine evolved from the 1962 Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter, which subsequently expanded to include football pools and reader competitions, before becoming a fully-fledged magazine, which was eventually re-named Candis in 1986. In recent years, as well as raising money for the Cancer and Polio Research Fund, the publication has helped to fund several other health charities, including Marie Curie Cancer Care, the National Asthma Campaign and Macmillan Cancer Support, various childrens' charities and the Douglas Cyclotron Centre.

If I was pitching this magazine, I'd be making far more of the social responsibility and good causes angle and instructing promoters to avoid patronising women with the 'nice little magazine for ladies' line, which has all the charitable brand appeal of digging up an old celebrity endorsement from the late Jimmy Savile.

As it happens, that wasn't the last of yesterday's branding stupid, as we found out at dinner when we opened the bottle of wine from the Co-op and winced at the taste. The bottle looked like a perfectly ordinary bottle of red wine, with the manufacturers' name (First Cape) and the words 'fresh and fruity red' in large, friendly letters on the label. It was only on closer examination that we found, in smaller print, that this wasn't actually wine, but an 'aromatized wine-product cocktail' which was 'fruity and refreshing' and 'perfect for all occasions and at 5.5% alcohol, suits today's busy lifestyle.'

It was sort of 'fruity and refreshing', with a taste somewhere between a light Beaujolais nouveau and Vimto, which would have been OK if we were people who didn't really like wine, looking for an sweetish, inoffensive, low-alcohol wine substitute. It  wasn't OK for a hurried shopper trying to grab a generic bottle of actual red wine to have with dinner. Branding tip 2 - don't put this stuff in a bottle that makes it look even vaguely like real wine.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Chicken and egg

It isn't employment that makes wealth; it's wealth that makes employment.

At least accoding to Adrian Bowyer (alternative link here ).

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The first draft of Cameron's speech ...

... might have looked a bit like this:

... the Conservative party is for everyone: North or South, black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor

Unless the speechwriter had already realised that it wasn't even worth trying to disguise the Tories' declaration of war against the plebs. In which case, you've got to give the writer some credit for knowing that you can only only stretch people's credulity so far.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Are ignorant opinions worth hearing?

Economist John Quiggin got some flak for a post on Crooked Timber posing the question 'who needs a navy?' In particular, some folk thought he lacked the necessary expertise to have a meaningful opinion on a subject best left to the experts. Here's part of his reply:

First, there’s the question of specialist expertise. Criticism of the original post relied heavily on the claim that specialist knowledge is critical here, and that as a non-expert I should defer to people who with better knowledge of things like the classification of battleships. Much the same response is often made by economists when arguing about issues like macroeconomics and finance. The problem in both cases is that, unlike the case with the natural sciences, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the dominant view of the experts is wrong.

Macroeconomists and finance theorists mostly failed to predict the global financial crisis, and disagree violently about the appropriate policy response. I’ve argued at length that the views that have been dominant in these fields since the 1970s are mostly wrong, and have received responses quite similar to those of the naval experts in this case. Looking at the track record of military and naval experts, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s any better than that of economists, rather the opposite. So, I’m unconvinced by the view that this is a field where expertise is a guarantee of correctness, or even positively correlated with correctness.

In the comments, somebody turned the question round to 'who needs economists?':

I would read with slightly more charity a post suggesting that most if not all funding for university departments of economics since, say, 1960 has been not only a waste of money but actually actively harmful. At least most warships have spent most of their careers doing nothing worse than floating around idly being repainted. The same cannot be said of the economics profession, which has caused a lot more misery and avoidable suffering to a lot more people in the last 30 years than every aircraft carrier in the US Navy.
Quiggin and his critics focus on experts getting stuff wrong ('unlike the case with the natural sciences, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the dominant view of the experts is wrong'). Evidence of economic policies failing, or of economists failing to agree on the big questions in their discipline is easy to find. History books are full of experts' failed military plans. Is it the experts' fault?

Two initial possibilities occur to me - either the majority of economists (and military theorists?) are less competent than natural scientists, or they are just as talented, but the problems they're trying to understand are more complex and intractable than the problems which have been already cracked by successful scientific theories. Maybe economics is like a particularly hard branch of the natural sciences, for example meteorology, where what's going on remains too irreducibly complex for anyone to give accurate long range predictions about important things, like where and when the next freak storm will hit.

I think that another factor is just as important as competence or complexity - inherent bias. Economics and military planning are too bound up with people's self-interest to be objective descriptions of how the world works, as opposed to ideologies about how it ought to work. It's harder to take an objective view about things that affect your prospects or position in society. An expert opinion about the nature of electromagnetism, or the age of the universe has nothing to do with the price of fish, so most non-experts don't fret about such things.An expert with a theory about what the correct level of taxes should be, whether something approaching full employment is achievable or desirable, the relative efficiency of private versus public heath care, which things the state should take care of and which should be left to the free market, immigration, free trade or anything which would directly affect people's lives, is bound to upset somebody.
And what exactly is 'objectivity' in economic terms? Not all economic decisions are zero sum games, but change almost anything and there will be relative winners and losers. What looks rational and efficient from where you're sitting might be a disaster for my prospects and vice versa, so we're into political choices about how to fairly share out the gain or the pain and then making further political decisions in response to the results of those choices feeding back into the system. Economic reality is yesterday’s political choice.

It seems to me that the size and shape of the military is a sub branch of economics. You've got the same allocation of finite resources, ideological differences about what the military are for and competing interests (the military vs. the rest of the economy and different branches of the military vs. each other).

In most fields, an expert opinion is worth more than an ignorant one (although there are exceptions where an ignorant, but bright, outsider with a fresh viewpoint might have some insights to trump the narrow technical knowledge of an expert). But there are some subjects that are so purely ideological that ignorance of the subject matter needn't invalidate anybody's opinion. In my opinion, theology sits on that end of the spectrum, resting as it does on a priori beliefs about subject matter that may not even exist. As far as I'm concerned, the theological opinion of any random person in a bus queue is no more unlikely to be correct than that of the most learned theologian on the planet. At the other end of the spectrum lie things like quantum mechanics, computer programming, string theory, plumbing, speaking a language fluently, mathematics, playing a musical instrument, brain surgery and rocket science,* where you just won't understand and things won't work if you don't know your stuff.

Economics has a sounder empirical basis than theology and an infinitely more technically rigorous superstructure, but it's also built on foundations of ideology and value judgements. Unlike fields 'where expertise is a guarantee of correctness, or even positively correlated with correctness.' Which is why I don't think that we non-economists should necessarily shut up and defer to the experts, (or that economists should necessarily shut up and defer to military experts who, for all their technical expertise can be just as driven by ideology and bias).

Sei Shōnagon included this in her list of hateful things:

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as if he knew everything.

I liked the phrase so much that used it as the strapline for this blog before changing to something a bit more surreal. I'm fine with people with nothing in particular to recommend them discussing all sorts of subjects as though they knew everything. When discussing some subjects, such as economics, their opinions might turn out to be as interesting and valid as the experts'. I might take random opinions on topics like brain surgery with a bigger pinch of salt, though.

*So-called - as far as I can see it's rocket engineering, in the same sense that the Hollywood's stereotypical 'mad scientist' is really a mad engineer.

Friday, 5 October 2012

I get e-mail

... from the company formerly known as Yell:
I am writing to inform you about an exciting change to our Group company name from Yell Group plc to hibu plc.

Our new global company name and brand reflects the transformation of our business and ongoing development of a range of new digital services that will help businesses succeed in the online world. 
Which would be accurate enough, if you stretched the definition of 'exciting' to include the sort of terrifying, but brief, adrenaline spike that would accompany a rope-less bungee jump, and the 'transformation' you had in mind was into a lifeless splatter on the concrete.

The death spiral of a formerly thriving company is nothing to celebrate - the last thing we need is yet another headline about hard times, failure and lost jobs - but I won't be shedding that many tears for Yell, either. As a former Yellow Pages customer, I found that my advert in their dead tree publication was too expensive and generated practically no business for me (which wasn't necessarily their fault - I should have realised, as someone with a business to business service, that nearly all businesses will google for what they need and it's generally just householders who've grown up with directories who still grab something from the bookshelf rather than going on line).

What did annoy me, though, was their refusal to take no for an answer, once I'd realised that having a Yellow Pages ad wasn't working for me. I know that you've got to have persistence and a thick skin to work in sales, but ending my relationship with the keepers of The Incredible Shrinking Directory showed me what it must be like to be stalked by an unsuitable but obsessive ex ('no, we are not having a 'moment' - you just need to stop calling me, accept that I'm cancelling my account and realise that it's over').

High-pressure sales techniques aside, I get the impression that many customers aren't finding Yell's on line offer any better value than their paper one (at least according to one Adam Bradford, although, as he's in direct competition with Yell for clients, there might be an element of 'he would say that, wouldn't he').

Whether Adam's right or wrong, there's a feeling of desperation about Yell. I don't think trying to excite former customers with the news that Yell's now a subsidiary brand of something that sounds like a Pokémon will be enough to turn that around.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The hairy face of the establishment

It's probably entirely fortuitous that a conglomerate tasked with stripping public heath care assets has been spared the brand-tarnishing ignominy of being stripped of its train operating franchise. Comparison with FirstGroup would make anyone look good. This, combined with the total shambles of the franchise system may be sufficient explanation for t he abrupt u-turn.

But when Virgin Group's own corporate web site boasts of the organisation's 'unrivalled network of friends, contacts and partners', you can't help wondering whether a group that's enjoying a three-way romp with Jeremy Hunt, Jamie Oliver and Lord Sugar has simply become too big a part of the establishment to fail.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

A local shop for naughty local people

The pairing of womens' BDSM erotica with DIY products doesn't create the world's most obvious marketing synergy, but top marks to our local hardware shop, Sid Telfers, for giving it a punt.

Sid Telfers usually have a chalk board outside the shop advertising whichever product they're trying to shift that day. Yesterday, the board was headed 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and reminded potential customers that Sid's stocked rope, cable ties and duct tape.

Even better, they undoubtedly didn't pay a crack team of skinny latte-amped Bartle Bogle Hegarty ad execs the gross national product of a small African country to brainstorm that one.