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In defence of wonks

The most recent contribution to The Baffler, ‘Eat Your Chart Out’ (Jan 2, 2019) by Jon Greenaway, highlights a phenomenon I was not in any way aware of, namely the prolific use of dubious charts and graphs by online right-wing commentators. These are used without much statistical nuance to demonstrate that the positions of Trumpian demagogues have scientific validity. One embarrassingly awful example outlines that reading fiction more than non-fiction leads to people to vote Democrat, while reading non-fiction over fiction leads to voting Republican. The piece is entertaining for the most part, but towards the end Greenaway highlights another group that is overly fond of the use of charts: centrist liberals.

The wonkish liberal crowd loves information, and devoutly fetishizes facts and smart graphs that can reduce the complexities of political reality into banal platitudinous data points. In this narrow compass of wonkery, matters like survival under the pressures of late capitalism ca…
Recent posts

Maybe just a little bit obsessed...

Philosopher and intellectual-of-quite-a-few trades Joseph Heath hasn’t found the time recently to post anything to his blog In Due Course (well, not his blog as such, but a blog he regularly contributes to). I’m not paranoid enough to think that this is because I left a very ill-tempered comment on his most recent post all the way back in May. But still...anything is possible.

But luckily he hasn’t been completely off the radar, giving this keynote speaker address at a Canadian college in the beginning of October and in the process dropping the real reason for his absence from his blog (he's writing a book on climate change): 

It’s only been viewed about a hundred times, and the one comment amusingly notes that Heath is a much better writer than a speaker. It is true that Heath talks a lot like a highly enthusiastic IT service officer, and he did drop the interesting biographical detail that he was interested in AI design when he was still in his “anarchist phase”. (This certainly e…

Books I had a hard time putting down

There are some books where even getting through the publisher’s blurb is a chore. Others you discover in the first ten or twenty pages are not worth reading. Within the category of books that you end up having a good relationship with, however, it is possible to create sub-categories and/or rankings. This is because while you get to read many interesting books in a lifetime, there are a select few that are unusually stimulating and pleasurable all the way through.

It's been possible for me over the years to extract many great ideas, insights, observations, facts and general information from books that nonetheless had dull, forgettable and even disagreeable passages. As an example, recently I’ve been reading quite a bit about the welfare-state capitalist model favoured by social democratic parties in the twentieth century. While there’s a lot of great stuff in these books – stuff that allows me to call myself a social democrat with some understanding of what that means – I can’t sa…

Books I stopped reading and why

It's a frustratingly apt cliche that there’s too much out there for us to consume, and this is no less true with the realm of books. With the kind of books I tend to read – semi-serious non-fiction (history, politics, sociology, philosophy and economics) – the paradoxical evolution is that the more you read the more ignorant you feel. This sounds counter-intuitive because learning what you previously did not know should justifiably eradicate any ignorance you had. But this almost never works out when reading books in the social sciences and history. Books tend to reference other books, which are themselves dependent upon the research of other books, and so on. Never do you feel that you have a complete grasp of any branch of knowledge when you’re constantly being referred to other branches of knowledge that you feel you should know by now. 

What most of the books I've given up have in common is that they are very long. Reading long books is exactly the same as reading short boo…

Why read political economy?

Well, if you’re a Very Bad Person, the kind who presses traffic light buttons repeatedly in the hope the lights will turn red faster, then sitting down to bore through a thick hardback on politico-economic analysis is a relatively cost-effective way to punish yourself.
‘Boring through’ is an apt description of my recent effort in completing Politics, Economics and Welfare by Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, published originally in 1953. Considered a classic upon arrival, it is five hundred and fifty-seven pages of more than I ever wanted to know about union bargaining, details of the command-and-control economy during wartime, the virtues and vices of the price system as a coordinating mechanism and a whole lot on marginal costs.
What made reading the book to the end worthwhile is the same for what makes reading all (ideologically inoffensive) books on political economy worthwhile, which I hope to elaborate briefly below.

Political economy I believe represents the peak of how …

Knowing things, with strings attached

The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains make us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was science is in us but opiniatrety. 

This line from philosopher John Locke has been quoted in two (relatively) recent books I’ve read, with opposing interpretations of its legitimacy.

In both books, The Internet of Us and How Do You Know?, the passage from Locke assumes critical importance in assessing both the desirability and the costs of knowing and understanding in today’s information-saturated world.

In The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, Michael P. Lynch, a philosopher from the University of Connecticut, quotes Locke in his attempt to summarize one of the dominant currents of Enlightenment thought, that of cognitive self-reliance. One of the accomplishments we credit the Enlightenment with is the downplaying of tradition, custom, hearsay and rumour when it comes to forming our world-views. Nullius in ver…

Dwight on YouTube

As far as I am aware, this video of the critic and activist Dwight Macdonald debating William F. Buckley on an episode of Firing Line is the only video of Macdonald on YouTube. 

This is not so remarkable a fact that it demands an intense analysis, but a few observations do I think follow from it (I won’t go too deeply into the video itself).
Firstly, the fact that this forty-eight-minute clip from a television episode first broadcast in May 1967 is available to view for free in its entirety on a website known mainly for cat and prank videos, is remarkable. It speaks to the surprising element of YouTube that among its line-up of flashy-but-meaningless material, a great amount of serious intellectual content can be found.  
Speaking for myself, I’ve benefited enormously from the hundreds of lectures, debates, conversations, interviews and documentaries featuring scholars and academics uploaded to YouTube. These videos have constituted an education in their own right, providing of cours…