Monday, 26 March 2012

Landlings and sea creatures

This is a post I've been meaning to write for quite a while now. I've been aware for some time that there seem to be two distinct groups of people in the world of politics and economics, who see the world in fundamentally different ways and don't really understand each other. It's as if one group are landlings, only secure when they have hard land under their feet and terrified of drowning in deep water, and the other group are sea creatures, happy floating in an unstructured, boundary-less medium but parched and shrivelled on dry land.

Today, I commented on an article in the Guardian. I agreed with some of  what the writer was saying, but was concerned about his factual errors and inaccurate statistics. This is not uncommon whenever I am reading articles by people of left-wing persuasion.  Forgive me: I do not mean to make a political point, and I do not intend this as criticism. But it seems to me that hard facts and figures don't sit well with many people whose political views are left of centre, and some who are more right-wing, too. So many times facts and figures are few and far between, and those that are used are poorly researched, maths is wrong, logical analysis is not followed through and anything complex is glossed over. These are my sea creatures. Whether their politics are left or right, their priorities are understanding human emotion, caring for people and for the planet, and "fairness". And to the extent that facts and figures interfere with these concerns, they may feel justified in ignoring them or adapting them to fit. Structure and accuracy is less important to them than emotion and belief: they do not need to anchor themselves to the rock of information, but can float freely in a sea of  philosophical and social constructs. And they are very uncomfortable with the dry, structured world of the landlings. To them, the landling obsession with facts & figures indicates that they don't care about people.

Anyway, I corrected the facts and supplied accurate statistics. I looked up and read the article by Eoin Clarke that the writer had referenced for one of his comments; I obtained figures from the OBR's Economic Forecast for the forecasted 50p tax take; I researched the recessions of 1980-81 and 1973-5. And I wrote my findings in a comment which I admit was fairly critical of the writer.  This is what landlings do, you see, when faced with something that looks decidedly watery. They anchor themselves to the information rocks so they don't get washed away by the tide of emotion and belief, and they develop thick shells to protect themselves from the sun and from the fierceness of the waves. Have you ever tried to prise a limpet off a rock? I have. It really isn't easy. So, many landlings hold rigid views, which may be seen as right-wing or extreme: they like mathematical models and they may prefer to see economics as a natural rather than behavioural science. They see people as essentially rational - well, as they are themselves. And they are very uncomfortable with the inconsistency, illogicality and emotional behaviour of the sea creatures. "Where are the facts? Where is the logic?" they cry.

Now this is the surprising bit, at least to sea creatures. The landling obsession with facts & figures doesn't mean they don't care about people. Generally, they do - just as much as the sea creatures. But their way of dealing with the world is through information and structure. And because of that, the conclusions they come to about the best way of dealing with problems in the world is likely to be entirely different from the conclusions that sea creatures reach. Both groups are after the same thing - the best outcome for people. But one group wants a watery, free-floating world, because that is where they are most comfortable, and the other group wants a world of hard dry land, because that is where they feel at home.

Needless to say, I was challenged. And what I was challenged on was my landling act. I suppose I should have expected it - this was the Guardian, after all, by far the most "watery" of the quality newspapers. The comment was typically sea-creature: he accused me of only being interested in statistics and caring nothing for human emotion, the care of the people of this planet or fairness. And he invented what he thought I believed, and even what he thought I had said. I suspect he decided, because of my criticism of an article that he liked, that I must be a Tory and therefore attributed to me the beliefs that he thinks Tories hold. This is not the first time that someone of sea-creature persuasion has attributed to me, on the basis of no evidence, beliefs that I do not hold. In fact the last time this happened I wrote an entire blog debunking what had been said about me.  And I have no doubt that I will be so challenged again. Because I like water, you see. Yes, when I write about banking and finance - and economics - I research my facts and figures and I do a very good landling act: these are dry subjects, after all. But I am drawn to the sea of emotions and beliefs, even though I may seem a stranger there.

Those of us who, like me, try to bridge the divide between these two groups can end up belonging nowhere. We cannot tolerate the drought and the two-dimensional nature of dry land, but when we are in water we need to feel solid ground under our feet. Many moons ago, I studied coastal ecology for my A-level Biology, and the strangeness of the intertidal zone and the creatures that inhabit it struck a chord with me. These creatures need to be bathed by the tide twice a day, or they shrivel and die, but they cling firmly to the rocks so that they are not washed out to sea. Perhaps that's why Holy Island (Lindisfarne), which I visit at Easter every year, appeals to me so much: this strange place is an island at high tide, but at low tide you can walk across on dry land. For someone who needs both sea and land, this seems an ideal place.

So I defended myself......as a creature of the intertidal zone. At least I think I did.  I justified my use of statistics, but I talked about people's lives. Perhaps my original comment was a tide-out comment, and my second comment was a "tide-on-the-turn" comment? And now I am writing this blog, which is definitely written from a "tide-in" place!

Tomorrow I go back to my day job, teaching singing to young people. And in that job, I need to bring together the scientific basis of singing technique, acoustics and musical theory, with human understanding and communication of the emotions contained in the songs that my students will sing. Music is a highly-structured discipline, but without emotion it is cold. So too with economics. A system of economics that has no place within it for human emotion and belief, and that cares nothing for the lives of people, is dead. But complete lack of structure and discipline, eschewing all mathematical models and rigorous analysis, is equally dangerous: the sea is an unpredictable and chaotic place, and without the information anchor we are at the mercy of freak tides and waves. For no-one lives entirely on dry land or in the water. Humans are partly, but not wholly rational: facts and figures tell part of, but not all, the story. Sea creatures and landlings need each other, for each has only half the world.

13 comments:

  1. More in similar vein here:

    http://johnredwoodsdiary.com/2012/03/25/will-the-media-ever-report-the-real-increases-in-overall-current-public-spending/

    I’ve often wondered what proportion of Guardian journalists have science degrees relative to the equivalent proportion for other newspapers.

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  2. What a fabulous blogpost..really enjoyable read and struck a few chords with me (no pun intended!)

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  3. Nice.
    The problem with the landlings and the sea creatures is the both think mathematics is a science when it is really a language. A very precise one and also very discrete too.
    Hope to see you on the beech more often.

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  4. Getting statistics from Eoin Clarke? for an article (theoretically) aimed and grown-ups? Wow.. just.. WOW.

    I know lots of people take what Dear Richie write seriously, but I thought that even the most ardent left-sea-creatures only read Eion's stuff for the lolz.

    It's a challenge being someone who wants to dig through the spin (of both sides) and find the facts. Criminal misuse of statistics is widespread, and perhaps the left are the biggest offenders at the moment because they're in opposition. I rather wish I'd been reading the writers I read now prior to the election/crisis so that I could compare and contrast.

    I have no time for the mainstream on either side.. perhaps because both are dominated by the sea creatures, who are only interested in arming their troops with rhetoric and misunderstood graphs. This is why we have UKUncut fighting a good fight, but with all the wrong weapons. If I try and point this out then it's, apparently, because I'm a Tory.. not because I think that if we proles are ever to be taken seriously we need to inject some credibility into our debates.

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  5. Great post Frances....

    Lesley x

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  6. Let me see if I've got this right. The other morning I was following a car to work. We went through a 50mph limit road and the driver was doing 35mph according to my speedometer, then we entered a 60mph road, the driver continued at 35mph, we then went onto a 20mph road, the driver left me way behind so I will assume the speed was still 35mph, by the time we reached the 30mph road the driver was way in the distance, but I continued to lose ground on the driver's position. I would say the driver was a sea creature clinging to the 35mph rock. On the other hand, later that day when I was driving, I was following a car and the driver was sticking to the exact speed limits showing on the signs. To stay safe most people drive at near enough the limits, but follow the speed of traffic flow. I would call the second driver a landling. Have I grasped the gist of your types Frances?

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  7. Hiya Clay.

    Sea creatures don't cling, they float. However, if your 35-mph merchant ignores speed limits because he believes he is a good driver who can judge safe speeds well enough himself, so the actual speed limits don't need to apply to him, then he is relying on belief in defiance of facts, which is sea creature behaviour. Alternatively he could be a very worried landling whose cruise control has got stuck.

    Your exact-speed-limit person, apart from being a tad OCD, is quite possibly someone who has recently been through a speed awareness course...in which case he's behaving rationally, which would suggest a landling. Or he could be a sea creature who believes that signs should always be observed exactly. Sticking exactly to speed limits regardless of the conditions wouldn't be landling behaviour.

    It's never that simple, is it?

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  8. Interesting post. I'm not convinced that the left is inherently less interested in factual accuracy than is the right: in the USA the Republicans have lost almost all contact with reality. As TTG suggests, being in opposition may be a factor.

    Personally, I think I find left-wing truthiness more jarring because I want the best arguments to be made for the things I believe in.

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  9. And I thought landlings stuck to given facts, shows how wrong one can be when interpreting another's reasoning. Perhaps I should stick to calling them plebs, because they(the drivers) abide by rules which are neither here nor there.....

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    1. Clay,

      Clay,

      Haha. Since they like facts, landlings would be likely to know that according to the Highway Code speed limits are the MAXIMUM speed you are legally allowed to go, but the actual speed that you should drive may be lower than that depending on road conditions. They might also be well-read on the consequences of driving faster than appropriate for the conditions. As I said, it's never that simple.

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  10. This isn't a left-right thing. There is as much spurious crap from rightwing politicians and commentators as there is from leftwing ones. For every Johann Hari and Polly Toynbee there's a Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips. Chris Dillow pointed out that the job of columnists is not to be right, it's to reinforce the prejudices of their readers. And these readers don't like it when their beliefs are challenged.

    That said, I wouldn't have had William Keegan down as a 'sea creature'. I'll put his quoting of Eoin Clarke down to a momentary lapse.

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  11. Quantitave economics depends on measurements from the past.

    There are four things wrong with this - the measurements are imperfect, the past is past and often either irrelevent or not contextually coherent to the present or future, people do not have consistent let alone linear and reversible responses and the models may well be wrong because they have been derived using data which have the first three errors.

    The alternative is to derive models that understand how people actually think and act, allow for the heterogeneity in life as well as incorporating the complexity of finance. This is as very tall order and we are a long way from this I think.

    Like you I populate that area which the tide washes over. I despair of journalists not understanding or at least not representing the facts properly but also of a largely innumerate population that doesn't seem to want to understand them.

    But it is a highly complex picture in many dimensions that is very difficult to describe. So it is very easy to claim a simple knee-jerk explanation and of course to blame anyone who complains of bias or stupidity. Unfortunately this is what sells newspapers - they pander to our prejudices so don't expect too much from any British publication - only the FT IMHO has a chance!

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  12. Yet another great blogpost Frances. It never ceases to amaze me how left-leaning people, and liberal evangelicals, do exactly as you said - pick up on something you say, misunderstand or assume you are of a certain political bent, and then think they can deduce from that your opinion on every single issue - political, social, economic, whatever.

    It is frustrating and infuriating in the extreme!

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