July 1st Canada 150

What a wonderful place Canada is and has been for our family. Such a nice day yesterday – farmers market, a few drinks, cooking, some decent TV (thanks to the BBC) and just chatting. Then fireworks. I didn’t go (way past my bedtime), but Lynne did and enjoyed them. My friend and colleague Ron Dyck captured some great images of the best fireworks yet, as you can see:

So now, back to writing (well, correcting proofs of some new material and the second edition of our book Beyond Resilience).


Our Prime Minister got into trouble yesterday (he’s used to it). He forget to mention Alberta when he spoke of his love for each and every part of the country. Many of my fellow Albertan’s got mad with him for this (and for the fact that we went metric 43 years ago and that the Welsh dont speak English). Simple mistake (few of those who are critical would remember all of the Province’s and territories!).

Nice side story. Quite a bit of the early thinking about Canada and the British North America Act which created it was done in the library of Downton Abbey (real name Highclere Castle, home of the Carnarvon Family). At one time there was a chance that this great country would be called Franklin. Glad they sorted this out.

Wimbledon starts this coming week. Good luck Andy Murray!

July 6th, 2017

Vladimir Trumpkin is meeting his Russian colleague, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin tomorrow and the media are excited. What will he say? “Hello, Comrade? How is your politburo doing? Mine is fine! ” or perhaps “Shame you didn’t get your man Corbyn in Number 10 – better luck next time!”. Or “What went wrong in France – we end up with some smart looking, young guy and not Marie Le Pen, who you had sent so much money to…!”

The British media have some articles about Trump’s visit to the G20 marks the last vestige of US leadership in the world and the beginning of a new era, with Europe taking a leading role, especially after signing such a massive trade deal with Japan today. Germany as the world’s new superpower as the presumptive leader of the EU.

But don’t write off the Donald so quickly. He will likely win next time round too – we may be looking at an eight-year project aimed at dismantling the US State as we know it, giving more autonomy to States within the Union, less power to the Federal government and a leaner national government system. We will certainly see the rich get richer, the poor get poorer (and sicker) and the middle class continues to be caught in the middle. There will be more scandal, more excitement, more bashing of the media, more trouble for the GOP. But until the Democrats get their act together and rebuild the party and reassert the kind of policies which Bernie Sanders espoused, there looks like no real alternative.

This is not just my current view – it could change, of course – but also the view of several who take this stuff more seriously than do I. One is Mayor Bloomberg, billionaire, and a pretty wise guy. In an important interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN he said something similar. Basically: (a) don’t expect the Democrats to get their act together in time for 2020; (b) don’t underestimate the power of the Trump base of 30% of those who vote; (c) don’t underestimate the anger with the liberal elite and the notion that “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in!”, and finally (d) don’t discount the value of big money, which bought this last election.

He didn’t mention Russian meddling in the election, which they did in the US, UK, and France and are doing right now in Germany. If Trump has a good day with his colleague tomorrow, Russia could help him win again in 2020 too.

There are black swans – the North Koreans being more like a black hippopotamus – and the slow growth of the US economy which could derail this, but if I were a betting man I would bet on Trump winning a second term.

It is not a happy thought. But then George W Bush (doesn’t he look good now) won a second term too. Who’d have thought it!


July 7th 2017

One of my summer pleasures is keeping an eye on Wimbledon. The great tennis temple. We root for Andy Murray, despite his dour demeanour and apparent insecurity. The World’s #1, two times Olympic and Wimbledon champion and all round dour Scot.

We don’t play, we just watch. But sometimes watching is exhausting. In some games, we get so involved we almost feel as if we are playing. I don’t get that involved through watching any other sport. Andy has won his first two matches and plays again today – hope he does well.

Yesterday on court there was a dreadful scene – a women’s player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, slipped and fell badly and her knee blew out. It looks like a damaged patella. She is a talented doubles player and she and her partner were expected to win the doubles, making it the 4th grand slam for them in this season. She looked in absolute agony. It was dreadful to watch.

Lovely meal with family at Sofra. Simple but delicious Turkish food – lamb, shrimp, bulga wheat and a simple salad. Lamb perfectly cooked. Always good there.

July 8th 2017

Milos Raonic, the Canadian tennis player, reminds me of Pete Sampras. Couldn’t stand him. Dull, plodding and yet successful. Ah well. Give me drama, excitement, and energy. Not what you see in our Milos.

Been thinking about leaking the transcript of the Trump-Putin meeting:

Vlad: Hello big boy!

The Donald: Oh, you are such a tease. Anyway, let’s get down to tricks.

Vlad: Always happy to help – what do you need, more money, more people, more stuff?

The Donald:  No, just ideas. I am desperate. This job is a lot tougher than the work I used to do. I mean, it’s  every day. North Korea one day, China and steel another, health care all the bloody time. It’s ruining my golf game…. I am all out of ideas. Oh, by the way, I am supposed to ask if you hacked into the election to help me win (wink-wink).

Vlad: Of course not, not me. I mean I can’t speak for other Russians, but I am a bit of a clutz with cyber hacking…now, a big missile launcher, that I can handle..

The Donald: He-he, well I had to bring it up, let’s just forget about it. After all, many on my side of the pond are truly getting their knickers in a twist about Russian hacking, collusion, spying. Me – I don’t give a monkey’s, after all, I am the President, and they are not.

Vlad: Of course you are, of course, you are. We made sure of it.

The Donald: So, do you have policy ideas?

Vlad: Well, less it be said that I am planting ideas in your head, yes we do. We sent them to you last year. In August, just after you won the nomination. Did you lose them? We had policies on NATO – its obsolete and should pay all it owes the US so that it will go bankrupt; North Korea, bomb it and that will end the China dominance, since all the refugees will flood into China and they wont be able to cope; health care, dont worry about the poor and the sick, just take care oligarchs and all will be well – its what we do.

The Donald: I’ll have to get Ivanka in here to write all this down, I cant keep so many ideas in my head at the same time. I mean, some of these ideas are more than 140 charaters…I do policy by twitter you know. My new one is really tremendous: “Stop Muslims, they hate us and we hate them”. Funny eh.

Vlad: I know what you mean. But the evidence is that more people in the US die from lawn-mower injuries than from terrorist attacks.

The Donald: Oh I know, and you should see the number of people who die from gun accidents in the home..its dreadful, but I get so much money from the gun lobby I have no interest in tackling the real issue, I am all about the theatre of the absurd. It’s what I do well, Vlad, absurdity.

Vlad: Yes, my team has noticed this. But then, this is what will make America Great Again, right.

The Donald: You really think so? I am not sure. I mean, the economy isn’t growing quickly, we have screwed up health care, we have no idea what to do on taxes, but we keep signing stuff which makes it look as if we are doing thinks – Ivanka writes most of them and Jared corrects them. My White House team is total crap, if it wasn’t for my family, we’d have nothing.

Vlad: Yes, my team has noticed this also. We thought you were going to nominate Baron, your youngest, to the Head of the FBI!

The Donald: Wow, that would be something. “The youngest ever Director of the FBI!”. He’s eleven you know!

Vlad: I was training for the KGB when I was eleven. It’s a good age to start, and why not start at the top and work down?

The Donald: You have such great ideas, tremendous, wonderful, gripping. Great!

Vlad: Well, we better keep everyone waiting to make it look like we had a real discussion, but we’re done with policy stuff. Wanna talk about the hotels and stuff Jared wants to build?

July 14th

Sometimes the appointment of a new Governor General captures the mood, tone and character of the nation. The appointment of Julie Payette is just such a moment. She captures the character Canada: energetic, focused, successful, young yet experienced, talented, respected and fearless. That is how Canada feels, as it celebrates its first one hundred and fifty years. It is ready for a dynamic, inspiring women in this role.

A scientist who flew in space twice – a remarkable achievement – and was later Chief Operating Officer for the Montreal Science Centre, she is a skilled linguist and has served effectively as a Director of the National Bank of Canada. She has significant expertise as a technologist who used her engineering knowledge to help develop speech recognition systems and support for space exploration. A mother of two, she has represented Quebec in the US and has been a role model for many Canadian women who contemplated careers in engineering and science.

On her desk she has a coffee mug that simply states “failure is not an option” – a message that resonates with many Canadians, whether they are thinking of the renegotiation of NAFTA, our national hockey team or more personal pursuits, such as the completion of a degree, diploma or apprenticeship. She has shown that persistence, determination and commitment is a route success. In her high school yearbook she wrote: “One day I’ll make an enormous pop right into orbit around the earth and contemplate the world.” How right she was.

She succeeds the graceful, insightful and respected David Johnston, former Principal of McGill and President of the University of Waterloo. He dedicated a great deal of energy in his seven years as Governor General to strengthening the pillars of learning, innovation, philanthropy and volunteerism. He has also pursued issues associated with the wellbeing and health of and

was a stronger supporter if initiatives related to families and children. Some of his activities have focused on innovation and learning – building on his work when, as President of Waterloo, he chaired Canada’s first National Advisory Committee on Online Learning in 2000. He has always championed quality, accessible, flexible learning as the bedrock of innovation and as a creative response to Canada’s skills challenge.

David Johnston, the current GG, was a respected constitutional lawyer. His successor is a respected Canadian astronaut and engineer. Both know when to seek advice, support and assistance in exercising their official duties. Being an astronaut is all about teamwork and collaboration. As Canada moves to the next stage in its history, collaboration, teamwork and compassion will be driving themes for our future. A commitment to science, evidence based decisions and the rule of law are also part of this mix. As she looks at her new role, Julie Payette will need to identify what her focal points are to be and what she wants to be remembered for: failure will not be an option. But for now, we should wish her well.

July 21st

I have been pursuing, throughout the year, the music of composers not in the mainstream. As I write this, for example, I am listening to a wonderful collection of oboe concertos by a variety of Italian composers, including a wonderful one by Arrigo Pedrollo. I am also listening, on and off, to the symphonies of Villa Lobos (admittedly, well known for his guitar music, but not for his symphonies).  Also new to me was the music of Germaine Taileferre. I am helped in this work by a Facebook friend – Andrew Peterson – who I have never met, but we share a passion for interesting music. I am also helped by a subscription to the Gramophone magazine, which I devour with real fervor as soon as it lands on my iPad. This last method is how I “discovered” the music of Peter Gregson, who composed the film score A Little Chaos.

Music has always been a central part of my life. At school, I played the violin (lead the second violins in the school orchestra), sang in the choir (Mozart and Faure Requiems, Noye’s Fludde, Peter Grimes).  I had tickets to the Halle where we sat behind the orchestra and could also attend some rehearsals. This is where I saw many famous composers and conductors – including attending an interesting performance of Malcolm Williamson’s third piano concerto in 1963. Barbirolli was conducting and Williamson was playing. At the rehearsal, Williamson said to Sir John “I think you are taking this section far too quickly…” and Sir John replied, “I am just trying to get this damn thing over and done with!”. He clearly didn’t like it. (Williamson was later appointed Master of the Queen’s Music).

Since school, I have attended concerts in a great many countries as well as Ballet and Opera. Here we attend the Edmonton Symphony, whose concert halls is amongst the best in North America (according to Yo-Yo Ma) and the Edmonton Chamber Society, making donations to both. I spent three years on the Board of Alberta Ballet, chairing the Human Resource committee.

Not only have I seen memorable conductors – Arvid Yanssons at the Halle, Leif Segerstam at the London Phil, Sir Simon Rattle the Berlin Phil in Toronto and much more –   but I have also spent time with wonderful musicians. For example, the wonderful Dover String Quartet are a group of wonderful, young, vibrant musicians who produce a wonderful sound, which is why the won the Banff String Quartet Competition and continue to do wonderful work.  The composers Malcolm Forsyth, John Estacio, Alan Gilliland, Harrison Birtwistle and Alun Hoddinott are all people I have spent time with. Indeed, Alun and I served together on a variety of committees of the Senate of the University College Cardiff (I was a Senate member). I attended many concerts in Cardiff between 1969 and the time I left in 1985 at which his work was being premiered. Perhaps the most memorable was his Sonata for Four Saxophones.

When I write, I listen to music. When I read, I listen to music. When I can, I listen to music and do little else. Music is to me what water is to those who pursue health – it is a source of life.

July 23rd

(For the record, we have a West Highland Terrier staying with us right now – Alfie. He is our “grand-dog” – his parents (James and Lena, our son and daughter in law) are taking a short vacation).

We have been watching the BBC’s Pitch Battle in which choirs from across the UK compete for a cash prize ($100,000) and the prestige of having won the show. Gareth Malone is involved, as are a number of well-known singers (Seal and Bebe Rexha, for example). Two choirs go head to head in a showcase number, a riff-off and then sing a song chosen by the directors and the winner is joined by a celebrity. The winners were from Leeds, so must be an excellent show!

But there is something wrong with it – and it’s not just that it is based on the US show Sing-Off. I think the presenter – Mel Gledroyc from Bake-Off tries too hard to give it some energy and lift. Not working. Also, they have imported the guy who directed the music for Pitch Perfect 2, Deke Sharon, from the US and he is an over the top game show-like guy (e.g. US show Sing-Off), also not working. The singing and the musicianship of the band is what makes the show. Gareth Malone and his fellow judge, Kelis, have valuable (if overly gentle) feedback.  More back room scenes, a different host who does a better job of nurturing the choirs and encouraging serious comment from the judges might help.

Best moment of the final (which was last night) was when Chaka Khan (who is as thick as two short planks, but has a belting voice) clearly had no idea what shortbread was and wasn’t sure it would match her outfit! She has been in rehab for some time.

Look forward to the next season (assuming the BBC keeps it), but hope that can adapt the model to a more Britsh look and feel. I know it’s a franchise, but surely.

July 25th

So it is becoming clear that Vladimir Trumpkin intends to derail the Russia investigation inside the Justice Department. He is trying to force his AG to quit on the grounds that he no longer enjoys the confidence of the President (the big bully doesn’t have the balls to fire him, so he is trying to humiliate him). Having done this, he will find a patsy to put in as a “loyal” AG – Guiliani, Cruze or Christie – who will then fire the Deputy AG Rosenstein and also Special Counsel, Mueller.  You can just hear Trump shouting at the television “I’ll put a stop to this, just you watch me!” and his minions going off and making it happen. The hiring of the brash New Yorker, Anthony Scaramucci, is an indicator that street fighters and gangsters are in and smart people are out. Whatever you thought of Sean Spicer, he was no fool and definitely not a street fighter.

The guy is bonkers enough – as are some of those around him – to think that this will end the Russian stuff and they can move on. What it will do is humiliate the GOP, cause a major political crisis and intensify the Russia investigations in the Senate. Mueller would also go public with what he knows at some point, as will Comey. It’s just very poor chess playing on the part of the Trump.

This is also a great distraction. As all this plays out and occupies significant media time, the GOP are busy belittling health advisors and experts and dismantling health care for millions. The US has both the most expensive and least effective health care system for all of its people in the developed world. It ranks 35th in the world on the most recent indicators of health access and performance (see here). As an interesting article by Paul Krugman notes, the aim of the GOP is to make it impossible for those who are really sick and poor to get help and very easy for those who are wealthy to get the help they need. They also want to enrich their friends in the insurance business as they dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

What is important about this is that the promises made by then just Comrade Trump during the 2016 election – better, cheaper, prior conditions covered etc – are not part of any of the GOP conversations. In all, some 20-35 million people will lose health care coverage. What kind of country would do this to its people? Answer = a country with no moral compass led by an ignorant man. So ignorant is Trumpkin that he actually claimed this week that Obamacare had been ruining America for 17 years, even though it was only approved seven years ago.

The reality is that the Democrats have played into all of this. They have not suggested a set of amendments to ACA which would repair the problems which Obamacare has had, they have not championed single payer (the only real way forward) and they have not tackled the issues head on in a way that commands attention. With the exception of the various campaigns of Bernie Sanders (especially with respect to drug pricing), the Democrats are largely silent.Doesn’t help.

Those of who care about people worry about what is happening in the US, but feel helpless and useless. While some aspects of this are funny – Trump has made Saturday Night Live great again – the overall feeling is of desperation. Worse, as I have indicated before, Vladimir will get a second term (see my July 6th entry above) with a little help from his friends. By the time he’s done with the US we will have so many challenges that will spill over the Canadian border that we will all have become embroiled. Sad.

By the time he’s done, I will be 73-74. Maybe I will have other preoccupations by then (hips, knees, etc). But it does cause me concern.

July 27th

It is fascinating to watch the decline of a once great nation state. I am speaking of the US.

The decline is evident in a number of ways. First, its democracy cannot make critical choices and hard decisions, as the vote-a-drama in the Senate on health care demonstrates. Since the governing party can’t agree what health care in the US should look like, they are spinning a wheel of fortune to see what happens. Other major decisions – like who is covered by a human rights Act – are left to courts. On other matters – no one is really sure who is in charge. The Joint Chiefs didn’t know that the President was going to ban certain people from serving in the US military – including people who are already serving on the front line. You’d think they might.

Meanwhile, the US fails various kinds of assessment related to health, education and social services. It isn’t great at any of these things by world standards. Sure, some people are incredibly well educated and healthy, but the nation doesn’t see these things in terms of equity but in terms of competition and markets.

The democracy itself is problematic. One person wins the popular vote by close to three million but doesn’t win the Presidency because the popular vote is about electing people to serve in the electoral college.  Gerrymandering is also rife, as the Supreme Court will soon determine.

The Democratic party has little to say of substance. It is not enough to oppose Trump – there is a need for economic focused, meaningful strategy, leadership and rebuilding on the ground. No real sign of this happening. It looks and feels like “same old, same old”.

Lying is a common place from the Commander in Chief, who seems to think that he doesn’t represent the people, but is, in fact, an oligarchy – a new kind of rich, Imperial ruler.

News stations and news papers are also getting more vitriolic. I have never bought into the idea that the press “reports” the news without interpretation since data never speaks for itself. The evidence is a product of ideologies and understanding. It is always interpreted even if the data seems straightforward. But the Fox news vitriol or the CNN bias is getting to the point where analysis is becoming a new kind of media paralysis.

It’s all sad, maddening and tragic. Yet I suspect we have seen nothing yet.

July 28th

If I were writing scripts for a gripping TV show, it would be difficult to beat what is actually happening in the US White House, Senate, and House. If it weren’t so serious, it would be very funny – making West Wing and Veep look lame.

After seven years of pushing the idea of repealing and replacing Obamacare, the GOP just demonstrated that they have no real thinking on health care.

After claiming to be a champion for LBGTQ issues, the US President has made a series of moves which reduce the support, respect and rights of LGBTQ persons.

After championing the idea of running the US Government as a business, the US system of governance is demonstrably dysfunctional. No business could effectively operate in the way the GOP and White House currently are.

After championing a tough line on Russia, the House and Senate now await the decision of the President on legislation almost unanimously agreed by Congress. There is no certainty that the President supports tough sanctions, and even if he veto’s the Bill there enough votes in both houses for an override of the veto. (Meanwhile, Russia imposes new sanctions on the US).

After championing tax cuts and a new approach to finance, the most recent financial plans from the Treasury suggest that this will go the way of healthcare and not deliver anything like the GOP promised. The border tax – so often promised by Trump – is dead.

What all of this (and much more) means is that the Republican party is simply not capable of governing. It has no clear policies, plans or processes to get things done. While some of this is about an incompetent Presidency and White House, it is also about incompetent leadership in the Senate and the link of mindful planning.

The Mooch, recently appointed Director of Communications at the White House, complains that the press is not reporting the significant and substantial achievements of the President and the GOP. He does not seem to notice that such achievements are few and far between – even landmark Executive Orders are tied up in the courts. Trump has made fewer appointments, passed fewer bills (many of which are just one page), made fewer key decisions than any President in memory. In-fighting amongst his own staff – which the President seems to enjoy – coupled with the policy by tweet way of decision making are further signs of dysfunction and incompetence.

As I already mentioned this month, this is becoming compulsive viewing. The trouble is that it really matters. Trump IS President of the United States – there can be no doubt. What we now need is to see a President who behaves like one.

I am not hopeful. Indeed, I pretty well guarantee that he will not “pivot” to a new behaviour. The Mooch has been hired to encourage and enable Trump to continue to be a reprobate President.

July 30th

[Dog walking a large Newfoundland hound is hard work! Especially when accompanied by a West Highland Terrier! Just Saying…]

I am reading 600+ abstracts for a major global conference on the future of learning. In part, it is an exciting task – connecting to the work of over a thousand researchers. But it is also depressing. So little is actually happening. In fact, progress in higher education is very slow indeed. We still have people asking whether online learning is an effective way of delivering education. Why? The evidence is clear – “no significant difference in learning outcomes between face-to-face and online”. In the US, some 1 in 4 learners are studying at least one distance education course as part of their program of studies – that’s over 6 million people.

We still have people asking whether online learning is an effective way of delivering education. Why? The evidence is clear – “no significant difference in learning outcomes between face-to-face and online”. In the US, some 1 in 4 learners are studying at least one distance education course as part of their program of studies – that’s over 6 million people.

We still have concerns over whether or not we are using the “right” learning management system (LMS) – yet the world has coalesced around a small number of such systems which have very similar features. Also, all of the ones worth having have API hooks to other products and services, enabling “add-ons”, which is what smart institutions are doing.

But the big issue is the Professoriat – their slow adoption to different ways of working, such as using open education resources (OER) or machine intelligent supported simulations and virtual reality. Why is this? As a recovering academic administrator, I understand what faculty are like and how they work and think. They don’t like change (especially those who teach change and innovation). They especially dont like to made to change because of decisions made by Deans, Vice President’s Academic or others. Despite the evidence that is growing – student egagement increases in blended and online environments where design principles are used to shape courses – faculty persist in the view that “they know best”.

But faculty are often not experts on learning – they have expertise in a particular subject or set of subjects. Or are they?

When we think of “experts” we think of them as knowing, informed and more likely to be right than wrong about that in which they are expert. Macro economists who specialize in understanding the economic dynamics of nations must be better at understanding and predicting the economy of a nation (especially one they have studied in depth) than the man in the street. Climatologists must understand the dynamics of the climate and are able to predict the future climate.

It turns out that this assumption of “knowing” experts is problematic. Experts in the stock market are often no better than a dice thrower at predicting the future of a stock. In a systematic study of hundreds of trades it was found that the stocks that traders sold did significantly better than the stocks that traders bought.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman  who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on decision making, has looked at the issue of “experts” and why they often get things wrong. In his new book Thinking Fast and Slow he points to several aspects of their psychology as factors, but highlights two: the illusion of understanding and the illusion of validity. These are primary causes of experts getting it wrong.

The illusion of understanding refers to the idea that the world is more knowable than it actually is. In particular, experts believe that they have an in-depth and insightful understanding of the past and this enables them to better understand the future. They use what Kahneman refers to as the WYSIATI rule – “what you see is all that there is” and this provides the basis for their confidence. For example, it must be the case that high levels of government indebtedness (levels of debt:GDP above 90% is the most recent version of this) stifle the economy and reduce investor and entrepreneurial confidence. Or it is obvious that human generated C02 is the major cause of climate change. Both of these understandings are based on a particular view of historical data and “facts” and an extrapolation of these views into the future.

The views exist independent of the evidence to support them. Just as financial advisers are confident that they are successful in predicting the future behaviour of stocks, so macro-economists are confident that their views of austerity have the weight of history behind them. Those committed to the view that human produced CO2 is the primary cause of climate change are not deterred by evidence that it may not be or that climate change has stalled for the last eighteen years.

Experts are sustained in their beliefs by a professional culture that supports them. Austerians have their own network of support as do they Keynesian who oppose them. Anthroprocene climatologists have their own network of support among climate change researchers and politicians while the skeptical climate scientists also have their networks. All remain ignorant of their ignorance and are sustained in their belief systems by selected use of evidence and by the support of stalwarts. These supportive networks and environments help sustain the illusion of validity. It is an illusion because evidence which demonstrates contrary views to those of the “experts” are dismissed and denied – the expert position, whatever it may be, is valid because they are expert.

Indeed, using Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 work on Tolstoy (The Hedgehog and the Fox) , austerians and climate experts are “hedgehogs” – they know one big thing, they know what they know within a coherent framework, they bristle with impatience towards those who don’t see things their way and they are exceptionally focused on their forecasts. For these experts a “failed prediction” is an issue of timing, the kind of evidence being adduced and so on – it is never due to the fact that their prediction is wrong. The same is true for macro economists  Austerians who look at the failure of their policies in Europe, for example, suggest that the austerity did not go far enough; anthroprocene climatologists see the lack of warming as proof that they are right, it is just that the timing is a little out.

Phillip Tetlock, in his powerful 2005 book Expert Political Judgement – How Good is it? How Can We Know? (Princeton University Press), demonstrated these illusions in a powerful way. He interviewed some 284 of the leading political pundits in the United States and documented over 80,000 predictions they may with confidence during his interviews. He then tracked what actually happened against these predictions.  The results were devastating. As Kahneman observes “people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart throwing monkeys”.

Tetlock observes that “experts in demand were more overconfident that those who eked our existences far from the limelight”. We can see this in spades in both economics and climate change. James Hanson, recently retired from NASA and seen to be one of the worlds leading athropocene climatologists, makes predictions and claims that cannot be supported by the evidence he himself collected and was responsible for. For example, he suggested that “in the last decade it’s warmed only about a tenth of a degree as compared to about two-tenths of a degree in the preceding decade” – a claim not supported by the GISTEMP data set. This overconfidence and arrogance come from being regarded as one of the leading climate scientists in the world – evidence is not as important as the claim or the person making it. Hanson suffers from the illusion of skill.

Kahneman recognizes people like Hansen. He suggests

“..overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”

There are other psychological features of the expert which are worthy of reflection. For example, how “group-think” starts to permeate a discipline such that those outside the group cannot be heard as rational or meaningful – they are referred to as “deniers” or “outsiders”, reflecting the power of group-think. The power of a group (they will claim consensus as if this ends scientific debate) to close ranks and limit the scope of conversation or act as gatekeepers for the conversation. Irving Janis documented the characteristics of group think in his 1982 study of policy disasters and fiascoes (Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes). He suggests these features:

  1. The illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks. We can see this in the relentless pursuit of austerity throughout Europe.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions. We see this in relation to both climate change and austerity economics.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions. Austerians appear to willfully ignore the level of unemployment and the idea of a lost generation of youth workers, especially in Greece and Spain. Anthropecene climate researchers always present themselves as morally superior.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary. Climate “deniers” and suggestions that they be prosecuted are not uncommon.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. This has occurred in climate change research community, since grants appear to favour those who adopt the view that man made CO2 is the primary cause of climate change.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. The illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous. This is especially the case in “consensus” (sic) climate change science and amongst austerians.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

– all of these characteristics can be seen to be in play in the two examples used throughout this short note.

There is also the issue of the focusing illusion. Kahneman sums this up in a single statement: “nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it”.

“Government debt is the most important economic challenge facing society today” says a well known economists, or “climate change is a life and death issue” says former US Secretary of State, John Kerry.  Neither of these statements are true for anyone unless they are obsessive. Society faces a great many challenges, much will depend on our own preoccupations and what focus one take for the concerns you have. Some are more concerned about the future of Manchester United or Chelsea football clubs than they are about debt, deficits or climate change. The illusion is that one person’s focus is, by definition, better than another’s because they are expert in this field.

The bottom line here: beware of experts, especially those who behave as if their focused illusion is the “ultimate truth” and they threaten dire consequences of failing to follow their predictive prescriptions. There is good evidence that they are likely to be wrong.

This is the case when faculty members talk about learning “as if” they were experts.

July 31st

The last day of July and it’s not too warm, at least in the West End of Edmonton.

I am almost at the end of reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. It’s an account of how rich (exceptionally rich) Americans seized control of the political agenda and secured a variety of established positions adopted by the GOP and the Trumpkin. It is a gripping reading, revealing how the tax code for Trusts and philanthropic giving enabled the Koch brothers and others to create significant policy influence through both take over of key university programs (Harvard, etc.) and key “think-tank” organizations as well as political campaigns.

The focus of Koch and Co is to dismantle the State, focus on freedoms from regulation, taxes, and accountabilities and promote the idea that the market is the only mechanism which should shape policy and practice. They also focus on trickle-down economics – tax breaks for the rich – as a basis for building a robust, resilient and adaptive economy.

The motivations here vary – almost all the billionaires sponsoring the alt-right were being pursued as a result of illegal activity (EPA regulatory violations, tax avoidance, criminal negligence, health and safety, sanctions busting, etc.), which provides one layer of motivation. But these guys (and it is very much white men) seriously believe that the idea of the benevolent State is abhorrent. They believe it passionately.

So when we see so many very wealthy people in the Trump cabinet, we see these people having secured their influence. Bannon made clear that the fundamental agenda is nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning the system of taxes, regulations, and trade pacts that the President says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty. Bannon has said that the post-World War II political and economic consensus is failing and should be replaced with a system that empowers ordinary people over coastal elites and international institutions. He fancies a nationalist economy – America First – and deregulated systems to enable industry to do what they want to do.

We can see this in the GOP’s thinking about taxes, health care, trade and other issues. We know who will win here – the rich. We know who will lose here – the poor and the middle class. It is tragic to watch.