Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #81

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Fake news and our "watch the world burn" problem

Who spreads “fake news”? Most popular accounts portray misinformation campaigns as either attempts to gain partisan advantage or efforts by hostile foreign actors to sow confusion or undermine faith in democratic institutions. A new study, one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen, suggests something arguably scarier: domestic nihilists who basically just want to see the world burn.

The study, well summarised here (and also in the NYT), constructs a psychographic measure the authors call “Need for Chaos” and finds that it predicts sharing hostile misinformation, irrespective of partisan leaning - and, strikingly, that this trait may be present in up to 40% of the US population. They also find that Need for Chaos is associated with “frustrated status seeking” - i.e. those who are “status obsessed but socially marginalised”.

Can a democracy can function if a sizeable fraction of the electorate just wants to bring the whole system down? It would be lazy to equate Need for Chaos with Brexit/Trump voters - but equally it does raise uncomfortable questions for liberal elites, questions whose answers are no clearer than they were in June 2016. It also exposes what I see as the fallacy on both sides of the Atlantic of hoping that the next election (or referendum) will take us back to the status quo ante. The electoral surprises of 2016 were the symptom, not the cause, of our problems.  

The future of economic thinking on the right?

Policy thinkers (and TiB readers) Stian Westlake and Sam Bowman have an excellent new pamphlet on “Reviving Economic Thinking on the Right”. I’m not a Conservative, but it’s a stimulating read - and many of the policy ideas wouldn’t be out of place in a Lib Dem manifesto or perhaps even the platforms of either major US party. Indeed, the economic diagnosis is not so far from that of the left-leaning Commission for Economic Justice.

Stian and Sam focus on the undersupply of housing (which they call Britain’s biggest problem; they'd combat it with street-level devolution of planning permission and a “Flexible Right to Buy”), tax (scrap stamp duty and introduce full expensing), infrastructure (introduce regional transport funds and use land value uplift to fund new infrastructure), and tech and innovation (increase R&D funding and create regulatory “sandboxes”).

One striking thing, though, (and something Stian commented on earlier this year on “The Strange Death of Tory Economic Thinking”) is how little economic questions represent the dividing line in the Conservative Party or British politics broadly today. Some of the 21 MPs expelled from the Tories this week for being too “moderate” on Brexit are far to Boris Johnson’s right economically. It's possible that the next (imminent) UK election will bring about a major realignment. And, if that’s right, will there be a home for economic centrists? 

How tech can save the humanities

One trend that I think is underrated is the impact that tech will have on study of the arts and humanities. Tools like Google nGrams allow us to ask and answer questions that would have been impossible just a decade ago. I was reminded of this this week by this interesting piece that examines quantitatively the impact of literary prizes on a book’s reception (Spoiler: quite a big impact).

This sent me down the rabbit hole of the excellent work done the Stanford Literary Lab, especially this pamphlet that tries to quantify the literary canon. The data suggests that the most canonical book of the millennium so far is The Road. (Incidentally, a lower tech attempt to construct a “canon so far” of the 21st century was one of the most clicked links in TiB last year)

I encounter a lot of anxiety that tech will kill off the humanities (coupled with equally questionable assertions that tech’s ethics problem would diminish if Google et al hired more arts graduates), but I expect the opposite to be the case. The ability to machine “read” the literary canon at scale (or interrogate more or less every university syllabus at once) should open new horizons in the humanities - a renaissance, even, if you will... 

Quick Links

First, apologies for the broken link in last week's issue on “What is the one piece of data that is most important about how the world is going to change in the next ten years?” The correct link is here.

  1. Here be dragons. The largest early world map is visible to the public (and online) for the first time.
  2. Dense literature? Which city has the most book shops per capita? (I was surprised)
  3. Everything is a machine learning problem. Amazing thread (and paper) on solving the fundamental equations of quantum mechanics with deep learning(!)
  4. Divided we stand. Striking chart on the East-West divide in Germany nearly 30 years on.
  5. Voting with your feet. Fascinating paper that uses migration flows to rank countries' well being based on people's revealed preferences.

Your feedback

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Until next week,