16 Jan 2019
Malcolm Gladwell has weighed in on, of all things, cannabis
legalization. And people are not impressed.
Not that anyone should really be surprised that Gladwell is a
shameless abuser of statistics; he basically said so
himself to Michael Lewis back in 2017. But this one is
especially egregious, and doesn’t even have an entertaining just-so
story attached to it.
This Metafilter thread has some good jabs, with the
knockout punch delivered by “Mayor West”, digging into the data to
show that Gladwell seems to have cherrypicked his start and end
years in order to make Washington State seem like it’s on the road to
ruin since legalizing cannabis.
Congratulations, Mr. Gladwell, you’ve learned that favored trick of
the desperate undergraduate: how to cherry-pick your data, by
conveniently measuring change between a low statistical outlier on
one end and a high outlier on the other end.
If you skipped reading Gladwell’s article, the most headline-grabbing
part of his fearmongering is an implied relationship between cannabis
legalization and an apparent increase in homicides in Washington
state, between 2013 and 2017. I say ‘apparent’ increase, because 2013
was a low outlier, with 160 homicides statewide; 2017 was a high
outlier, with 266. This makes it seem as if the homicide rate is on a
terrible upward trajectory. But if he had looked at 2012 to
2016—the same window width, just shifted back one year—he would
instead have seen a decrease, because 2012 had 217 deaths while 2016
It could be an example straight out of How to Lie With
Statistics, although that book at least has the honest goal of
enlightening its readers, not decieving them.
But why would Gladwell bother to pull his trademark statistical
shenanigans about cannabis legalization in particular? That’s where
things get… weird.
As it turns out, Gladwell seems to have a bit of a history in this
department: not anti-cannabis, but carrying water for industries of
ill repute generally. Enough so the “SHAME Project” even has a
profile of him. (Although the SHAME Project probably
shouldn’t be regarded as a totally agenda-free source, it points to
primary source materials which can be evaluated on their own merit.)
Most of it focuses on Gladwell’s apparent friendliness with tobacco
companies in the 90s and early 2000s, but he also seems to have a
thing for defending price-gouging pharmaceutical companies
and the Credit Crunch-era financial industry.
Cigarettes, overpriced drugs, mortgage-backed securities—it’s
looking a bit like a pattern: he sure does love to be on the wrong
side of history. Perhaps we should consider that Gladwell has a bit
of a thing for defending the indefensible? That, far from being a
statistical hitman available to the highest bidder, he’s actually
something much more common and far less interesting? Specifically:
that he’s just a troll? Nothing, really, but a faux-intellectual
shit-stirrer willing to say ridiculous stuff for clicks, enamored with
himself as devil’s advocate? Mistaking, in the way that trolls do,
having everyone shouting at them for bravery and originality?
I’m not saying that he is, just—in the spirit of his latest
Read more »
15 Jan 2019
It is not exactly an original idea that history seems to repeat
itself; one of Marx’s most frequently-quoted lines is that it happens
“first as tragedy, then as farce”. Except that sometimes it’s
first as tragedy, then again as tragedy, and again… there’s little
farcical about it, if it’s your first time through.
Janan Ganesh, writing for FT (paywalled, but you can get
around it by searching) back in December, shortly after
the death of George H.W. Bush, suggests that the current rise of
populism is rooted in our increasing historical distance from the
lessons of the Second World War.
Social order is to some extent self-cancelling. The longer people
have it, the more they take it for granted. Historic events that
warn them against such complacency pass from living memory to
folklore to something more like rumour. Ideas that would have made
their forebears shiver become credible, even exciting. Think of the
antic glee at the prospect of war in Britain in 1914. It defies
understanding, until you remember the country’s inexperience of
mass-mobilised conflict since Napoleonic times.
The Napoleonic Wars
(1803–1815) were just under a century removed from the beginning of
the Great War, meaning that if you were a person of draftable age in
1914, it had firmly passed into history. The last veteran of the
Battle of Waterloo died in 1898, while the last veteran of
the wars overall died in 1902.
As of the start of 2019, we no longer have anyone left alive who
fought in the Great War; it is now as remote to us as Waterloo was to
the men on the Western Front. The Second World War, of course, is
next. But the men and women with firsthand knowledge have largely
already left public life and its various leadership roles to their
children, and in many cases to their children, so the effect of this
collective ‘forgetting’ is already happening.
How telling that the populist fever in US politics flared in the
1990s, when power passed from the war generation to its children.
Newt Gingrich, that smash-it-all-up merchant, was the first Speaker
of the House of Representatives born after the Depression. What his
predecessors saw as a concert of grown-ups against the extremes, he
saw as a venal, backslapping Washington ripe for “revolution”.
Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post builds on this, in the
context of France’s ongoing “gilets jaunes” protests, which cut across
traditional left/right politics and have “a somewhat inchoate mix of
ideologies”, but can be broadly termed ‘populist’.
The unrest in France underscores an atmosphere of uncertainty and
crisis looming over Western societies. Widening economic inequality
and deepening political polarization are straining democracies built
through decades of moderating, consensus politics.
Increasingly, that consensus is being rejected; the reasons for making
the compromises on which modern democratic societies rest have been
Moderation and consensus politics, like truth itself, are no
longer in style.
On one hand, to a public that has never known the dangers of populism,
a firebrand who promises change is far more appealing than
cookie-cutter, boffinesque ‘insiders’. On the other, elites
whose greed and rapaciousness might have once been curtailed by the
dim recollection of what can happen if they overfeed themselves at the
public trough – of relatives, perhaps, who did this and ended up
being torn apart by those left hungry – no longer
feel constrained, and take whatever they can grab, even using the
apparatus of the state to pillage where they can.
And so we have an increasingly destructive oscillation, fueled by
public anger and discontent, and no longer buffered by a broad
understanding that the preservation of society and government is more
important than achieving short-term policy goals or self-enrichment.
Again, Ganesh in FT:
[I]t is not so much the malevolence [of populist politics] as the
innocence that unnerves: the assumption that real life comes with a
fuse or fail-safe that will shut down an ideological adventure if it
ever runs out of control.
It seems unlikely to me that the population will suddenly wake up one
day and realize they have been playing with the political equivalent
of matches in a very dry house. More likely, we’ll have to get
burned, and learn it the hard way. How badly burned we’ll get in the
process is the question.
Read more »
14 Jan 2019
A bit more than a decade ago, in a post called “The Survivalist
Fallacy”, I mentioned an article quoting Sir David
Omand – former Director of British GCHQ, more recently a visiting
professor at King’s College London – which outlined various serious
threats to civilization and attempted to put them into a number of
broad categories: “political threats, including wars, terrorism, and
governmental de-stabilization by other groups; […] environmental
threats, including the end of petroleum fuels, global warming, and
pollution; and […] economic threats, including a ‘meltdown’ of the
The article has disappeared from its original home, but remains
accessible thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback
Machine. It’s still interesting reading.
Sadly, we have done little as a civilization in the last decade to
mitigate many of those incipent problems; some have been actively made
worse. (The bit about ‘governmental de-stabilization by other groups’
seems particularly prescient. One wonders what Sir David knew in 2008
but couldn’t say aloud.) But the “‘risk management’ approach” it
discusses is as valid as ever. It is simply not practical to
eliminate every threat, whether to a nation or to the international
order generally; instead, we have to analyze and prioritize various
threats, responding to them in ways that mitigates the potential
damage, and assigning resources proportionally.
This approach is valid at an individual level as well. It’s not
possible to completely eliminate the risk of a disaster, whether
manmade or otherwise, from adversely affecting your life. But you
can manage the risk, and take steps to make yourself more resilient.
Those steps should be taken proportionally to the seriousness and
immediacy of the risk.
Building apocalypse bunkers is stupid, but having a ‘go
bag’, particularly if you live in a wildfire area, or in a flood zone,
or downstream of a dam, or near a chemical plant or power station, is
only prudent. The ‘go bag’ can come in handy in many scenarios, which
together are far more likely to occur than the one demanding the
More prudent still is to build relationships in your community. In
the event of a breakdown of civilization, whether temporary (think
serious storm) or permanent (zombies), it’s your relationship with
your neighbors, and your local community in general, that will
probably influence how well you fare. In the worst case, it could be
the difference between whether you end up getting shot and robbed of
your stuff, or welcomed by your fellow refugees as you work together
to break into some rich asshole’s bunker to liberate his supplies.
Plus, those relationships are valuable even if nothing goes wrong at
all. They’re not just contingency planning, but a way of enriching
life on a day-to-day basis. Knowing people – knowing who you can go
to if you have a particular problem – is always a valuable thing, in
every social context. It’s probably the only truly universal currency
As we wait for the democratic process to grind along and put us in a
better position to collectively deal with the big threats to free
society, working at the ‘micro’ level can be a good antidote to the
frustrations of the ‘macro’.
Read more »