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‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 5:12am in

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

RBG: We Are Here to Stay

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 3:05am in

I don’t know the precise moment when Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepped out of her august robes and lace collar and into the pantheon of popular culture. The Notorious RBG. -- Lynn Sherr Continue reading

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Constant distractions are leading to major declines in top-level reasoning. What to do?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/09/2020 - 9:22pm in

Till 20 year ago, IQ scores in the West increased about 3 points per decade ever since the 1920s, a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”. That rise in IQ test scores, which have an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, was attributed to improved schooling, improved nutrition, and the increased demands of the workplace. In recent decades that steady increase has turned into a sharp decrease. I want to discuss the evidence for this, the role of constant distractions, and what can be done.

The evidence.

Since about 1995, IQ scores have started to decline in the West, first in places that by then had optimised education systems wherein the vast majority of the population were stimulated to reach their cognitive potential. A good example of the data that shows this decline is in the graph below, taken from a 2018 PNAS study.

These graphs all show IQ scores derived from a test given in the period 1980-2009 to Norwegian boys aged 18-19 when they were considered for the military. Since Norway had a conscription army in this period, we are looking at the IQ scores of most of the male population. The graphs show that the cohorts born in 1961, who took the test around 1980, had lower IQs than those born in 1975 (the peak), after which there was a large drop.

The three graphs show you the differences in these trends if you look at different bits of the data. The middle graph uses only data on brothers within the same family, thus holding family circumstances relatively constant. The third graph is the one favoured by the authors of the piece because it corrects for selection problems over time, namely that over time those with cognitive problems became less likely to be given the test in the first place. The estimated decline from the cohort born in 1975 till 1990 is then about 5 points, or 0.35 IQ point decline per year.

A 2018 survey by Flynn himself (and others) surveys the results across many Western countries. The average IQ decline since 1995 turns out to be a phenomenon seen nearly everywhere, with the exception of the US where improvements in schooling meant the reversal was observed later in the general population, although already clear to see for the top.

The general pattern Flynn found was that abstract cognitive thinking, which is particularly important for understanding and forward planning, reduced the most, somewhat compensated by improvements in spatial awareness and pattern recognition. Interestingly, the drop is particularly pronounced at the top of the academic ladder: the “Pendulum” and “Equilibrium” tests in England among teenagers showed that the percentage able to get top marks in these tests declined from 20% to 5% from 1976 to 2006 (Equilibrium test), and from 24% to 12% (Pendulum test).

Tests done in Australia show a similar decline, though the last Australian data in the Flynn survey is 2003 and the only comparison data was from the 1970s. Still, if you look at the rapidly declining PISA scores for Australians aged 15 in the last 20 years, where the PISA tests mainly look at “higher-order thinking”, it seems the decline has progressed at a faster pace in Australia than elsewhere.


Likely reasons

The explanation of Flynn and others ties in with the “distraction” hypothesis that has been coming out of neuroscience work the last 20 years. This says that social media, mobile phones, and the internet have lead to a dramatic change in our attention span. We are now distracted much more frequently than before, and our minds are adjusting by becoming better at dealing with disparate information coming from many different sources, at the cost of being able to concentrate for long periods or think deeply about complex problems.

In the words of Flynn and co-authors (crediting Shayer):

“Children drifted away from formal toward concrete thinking. They became more and more immersed in modern visual and aural electronic culture. More time (four to five hours a day, more on weekends) spent on TV, computer games, and cell-phones, all of which decrease their attention span.”

Flynn and his co-authors also have something interesting to say about the boy/girl difference in teenage years. They note that in the 1970s boys did better at IQ tests on average, but that boys started to get worse at cognitively demanding tasks first such that girls overtook them, though both their IQs declined after the 1990s. One main explanation is that boys were seduced by computer games before girls discovered the internet.

These explanations fit the findings in neuroscience about the plasticity of the brain and how constant distractions are both addictive and lead to slow changes in our wiring. In a 2016 book “The distracted Mind”, Gazzaley and Rosen discuss these phenomena at length, predicting that it is only going to get worse, ie

“It is clear that our interruptive technologies are only going to become more effective in drawing our attention away from important aspects of life, so we urgently need to understand why we are so sensitive to interference and how we can find a ‘signal amidst the noise’ in our high-tech world.”

I basically entirely agree with these offered explanations. The economic version of these arguments is that individual attention is largely a commons and that we’re encountering a tragedy of the commons: those who manage to distract us are more likely to sell us something, without those distractors paying the price of the negative externality on our focusing abilities. Moreover, most of us are willingly distracted and our social information systems are now set up for distraction since we use the same platforms that distract for coordination and doing our work.

I have noticed the importance of incessant distractions for my own functioning and those of others. Distractions are addictive and difficult to avoid, even if you are fully cognisant of their long-term damaging effects. The loss of top-cognitive functioning is particularly bad for academia and for societal systems that rely heavily on the intelligence of its elites, like the UK.

The “modern university” is the worst of all worlds when it comes to the detrimental effects of distractions. For one, university administrations themselves distract students and academics all the time with their constant virtue-signalling messages of “health and safety” and many other matters: for administrative systems distracting the whole organisation has little cost and is simply seen as “informing”, “making aware”, etc..

Students are made into sitting ducks for attention-grabbing because of the good mobile phone and internet connections at universities. By offering online lectures in stead of forcing students to sit down and at least try to pay attention for some continuous period of time, universities are even diluting the pro-focus impact of its traditional teaching. Universities have also clamped down in recent decades on activities that would create a bit of a counter-balance, such as long field trips and writing long essays. Field trips are deemed too dangerous and long essays are both unpopular and take too much effort to police.


What can be done?

Supposed you agree that it is extremely important that our societies find a way to regain a large group of individuals who can keep their attention focussed on one thing for a long time. And you agree that the problem is one of incessant distractions coming from the extremely low price people pay when distracting others via mobile phones, pads, internet, email, social media, etc. You know that the effects of these distractions on the ability to concentrate are slow but they accumulate over several years.

The challenge is then that if you want to do something about it, you would have to shield groups from distractions for years. The key problem is that our social systems of communication and production use the very platforms that have optimised distraction protocols on it: we communicate by mobile phones, allowing others to constantly distract us, and we produce via computers and the internet that are also specifically designed to distract us as much as possible. How can one take out the distractions while keeping communication and production going?

The solution that comes to mind is to shield top students from distractions from an early age. One thinks of rules like “no more than 30 minutes of social media and mobile phone from the age of 4 onwards”, “Internet usage only for focussed activities, like writing essays and settling factual arguments”, “a sender-charge system for emails, text messages, and all other forms of distracting others”, and “no internet and mobile connections on most of a University campus, except libraries”.

These market-price and club-rule solutions unfortunately seem likely to fail when imposed on people because they do not address the fact of life that the rest of society will keep using the same super-distracting technology. Those technologies are completely integrated making club-solutions hard to enforce and easy to counteract. The teenager who is not allowed to use the mobile phone or pop-up internet sites at school will go back home and play internet games with friends, whilst constantly texting and apping. The teenager who does not do this is not merely a social outcast, but also is not learning the technology and social skills that the vast majority is learning, thereby cutting him or herself off from the ability to relate and interact with others later on.

The same holds for the student supposedly only allowed to send emails and texts via a university system in which she has to pay to distract others: she’d very quickly set up “free” email accounts to resume “normal life” with others students. If they cant use phones and emails on campus, they’d first of all complain that this puts their health in danger because they then cannot check on the health and condition of their children and parent, and of course they will simply go off campus and use the facilities there.

Even if you’d effectively seal off the student population for a few years on a remote campus (or a mountain retreat) where you do manage to keep distractions to a minimum by means of heavy interference with the technology they use, you’d most likely do more harm than good. Before and after their retreat, the distractions are in full force. More importantly, the students would be cut-off from the rest of society. That is bad for their social relationships and prevents them from being full members of their society, its civil discourse and political systems. One would thus be creating anti-social ivory-tower academics, which is the opposite of what you want for the social sciences. It’s probably not so bad for theoretical physics and chemistry, but who needs another economist with no interest in the outside world or in social relations?

What can one then realistically do as parents, universities, companies, and governments worried about this?

The first step has to be to make intellectuals and universities aware of the problems. Parents in particular will be motivated to do something about it. Governments will want universities and companies to find counter-moves. You’d think that high-status people and high-productivity places would first move against distractions if they’d be convinced of their negative effects.

Over time I can imagine whole societies decide to move against distractions, trying to price the externality into our behaviour. It would be yet another reason to get national control over the Internet. One can also think of social media free days and periods, extending the basic idea of Lent, Ramadan, and Sundays. One can think of compulsory use of sender-pay technologies for phones and emails inside companies and the civil services: think of electronic stamps one would have to put on messages that cost money depending on size. One can think of clubs of parents who recognise they need to shield their children and workers from constant distractions.

In essence, I think the tragedy of the commons that is eroding our best mind via continuous distractions can only be adressed by a conscious society-wide counter movement. At the minimum, a counter-move needs a whole social stratum to be convinced of the issue. That kind of thing takes decades and starts with a broader recognition of the magnitude of the problem.

Why do we need to transform economics, and how do we do it?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/08/2020 - 2:21am in

In a profoundly invigorating keynote speech, Professor Jayati Ghosh, Chairperson of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the of Jawaharlal Nehru University, urges young economists to to take initiative and transform their discipline. Outlining eight problems with the status quo, and providing five clear ways to combat them, she inspires the next generation of economists to forge alliances, gather strength, and most importantly: be bold.

Keynote Lecture to UNCTAD-YSI Summer School 2020 

By Jayati Ghosh | It’s truly a delight for me to be able to address the UNCTAD-YSI Summer School. This is not only because these are two groups that I have huge respect for and sympathy with. It’s also because the theme of this Summer School (“From the Transformation of Economics to Economic Transformation: Pathways to a Better Future”) is something very close to my heart, something I and some of my colleagues have been grappling with for decades. It’s really quite energising to realise that there are so many young people willing to engage in this project. So I am going to treat this as an opportunity for me to think through some of the concerns I have, in the hope that all of you are going to be the ones taking forward this transformation. 

Mainstream economics, why do I not love thee? Let me count the ways. 

First, a lot of it is simply wrong: that is, it is misleading about how economies work and the implications of economic policies and processes. For decades now, a significant and powerful lobby within the discipline has peddled half-truths and absolute falsehoods on many critical issues: 

  • how financial markets work and whether they are or can be “efficient” without regulation; 
  • the role and nature of fiscal policy and the implications of austerity; 
  • what impact the deregulation of labour markets and wages actually has on employment and unemployment; 
  • how patterns of international trade and investment affect livelihoods and possibilities of industrialisation and diversification; 
  • the distributive effects of different macroeconomic policies; 
  • the extent to which private investment responds positively (or not) to policy incentives like tax breaks and subsidies or negatively to increased government spending; 
  • the effects of multinational investment and global value chains on producers and consumers in particular countries; 
  • the ecological damage created by patterns of production and consumption; 
  • whether tighter intellectual property rights are really necessary to promote invention and innovation; 

And so on—I could go on and on, these are just some of the more evident examples, and you can probably think of many more if you just take the time to do so. But if these are so wrong, why is this not widely known, and how are they so widely propagated? This is done through a fearsome combination of explicit and implicit controls within the discipline (which I will talk about) and without in the wider world through media and by imbuing policy circles with these mistaken notions. 

Some of this comes from the second major problem I have with the discipline: too much of it is in the service of power.

And the power that it increasingly serves is that of large capital and its supporting states: effectively the power of kleptocracy, at national and international levels. Many of the theoretical premises and empirical investigations of mainstream economics are conducted in ways that either divert attention from more critical issues, or assume them away, and thereby produce “results” and associated policy recommendations that reinforce existing power structures and imbalances. Therefore notions of exploitation of labour by capital and the unsustainable exploitation of nature by forms of economic activity, of labour market segmentation by social categories that allows for differential exploitation of different types of workers, of the appropriation of value, of the abuse of market power and rent-seeking behaviour by large capital, of the use of political power to push economic interests including of cronies, of the distributive impact of fiscal and monetary policies—all these are swept aside, covered up and rarely brought out as the focus of analysis. The deep and continuing concerns with GDP as a measure of progress are similarly ignored, and despite the conceptual and methodological flaws in its calculation, it simply continues to be used as the basic indicator to track, just because it’s there. All these slights of hand occur at the global level with regard to the international economic and financial architecture; they happens within countries at the level of macroeconomic policies; and they are evident in a lot of microeconomic analysis and in the development industry that claims to focus on poverty reduction. 

Once again, you will all be able to find many more examples of this tendency from your own study and experience—but the problem is that often these tendencies to reinforce underlying power imbalances are not immediately evident unless we actively look for them. They are reinforced because they are simply assumed away in the modelling and not accounted for in empirical analysis. And then the discussion on theoretical models or econometric results is shifted onto a purely technical arena, that moves away from their relevance to the actual world or their viability in explaining economic phenomena. 

This is related to the third big problem: the tendency to underplay the significance of assumptions in deriving analytical results, and most of all in presenting those results to a wider audience especially in policy debates.

Talk to most mainstream theoretical economists, and they will tell you that they have moved far away from the early neoclassical assumptions like perfect competition, constant returns to scale, full employment, etc., which bear no relation to actual economic functioning anywhere. But these assumptions still persist in the models that are explicitly or implicitly used to undergird far too many policy prescriptions, whether on trade and industrial policies, or macroeconomic policies or “poverty reduction” strategies. These are what give rise to so many of the myths that the next sessions are going to debunk. But because they are repeated so constantly, and because this repetition is done not only by the media but by people in authority, they get taken as axiomatic. 

For example, across the world, there were Finance Ministers and other leaders who took it for granted that a public debt level of more than 90 per cent would result in a financial crisis—even though the empirical research that supposedly generated that result was quickly exposed as deeply flawed to the point that the result not only contained spreadsheet errors, but also vanished completely if just one country’s data were removed. While on that topic, it’s interesting to note that many of the governments in advanced countries, which had earlier refused to entertain the possibility of larger fiscal deficits to deal with unemployment because they would add to public debt, completely changed track when confronted with the pandemic. Suddenly large deficits were okay and rising levels of public debt were not a problem—not because the economics of this had actually changed, but because large capital and even finance capital now found it to be necessary. 

Being in the service of power requires the enforcement of strict power hierarchies within the discipline, and a system of marginalising and disincentivising alternative theories, explanations and analysis.

This gives rise to the fourth problem: the power structures within the profession that reinforce the dominant (mainstream) thinking, even—and possibly especially—when it is less relevant and applicable.

One way this works is through the tyranny of “top journals” and their gatekeepers. Academic jobs, as well as jobs as economists in other organisations, are dependent on the applicant’s publications; these publications are “ranked” according to the supposed quality of the journal they are in, in a system that openly and aggressively keeps out journals that publish articles from alternative perspectives; promotions and further success in the profession depend on these markers, which in turn continue to disincentivise those who would like to extend their analysis or break away from this mould. Certainly, for young economists, there’s no doubt that professional incentive structures are heavily loaded in favour of staying firmly within the mainstream. 

The fifth problem could have emerged from this: because of these pressures and incentives, many of the brightest minds are diverted away from a genuine study of the economy, to try to understand its workings and their implications for people, into what can only be called trivial pursuits.

Too many so-called “top” academic journals contain esoteric models that provide additional “value” only by relaxing one small assumption or providing a slightly different econometric test of some earlier versions. Yet in most cases they leave out some critical aspects that would actually provide a better understanding of the economic reality, because it would make it harder to model or because it might generate inconvenient truths. Since economists mainly talk to each other (and then proselytise their findings among policy makers) they are rarely forced to interrogate this approach. Instead, at the “apex” of the discipline, the more mathematically sophisticated the approach, the better it is taken to be. So economic forces that are necessarily complex, muddied with the impact of many different variables and reflecting the effects of history, society and politics, cannot be studied while recognising all this complexity. Instead they have to be squeezed into a mould that will make them mathematically tractable, even if this means that they cease to have any resemblance to the actual economic reality. This has gone so far that even some of the most successful mainstream economists have railed against this tendency—but with little effect so far on the gatekeepers of the profession. Given the seriousness of the economic and other problems facing humanity, and the importance of developing economic analysis and strategies to confront them, this is probably much worse than Nero fiddling while Rome burnt; it amounts to spending the time looking for little pieces of tinder to fan the flames. 

This lack of interest in other disciplines has meant a major and growing impoverishment of economics, leading to the sixth concern. The lack of a strong sense of history (which should imbue any current social and economic analysis) is a major drawback.

Recently it has become fashionable for economists to dabble in psychology, with the rise of behavioural economics and the “nudgers”. But this too is very often presented ahistorically and without a sense of the varying social and political contexts that affect how people actually behave and respond in particular circumstances. Over several decades, this also led to a shift in the discipline away from trying to understand evolutionary processes and macro tendencies to a focus on the particular, to microeconomic patterns and proclivities that effectively erase the background and context that shapes economic behaviour and responses. And of course, the underlying and deeply problematic underpinning of methodological individualism remains: it is unfortunately still taken for granted, because (unlike those who began the study of political economy) so few economists go anywhere near a philosophical assessment of their own approach and work. 

The short-termism and indeed short-sightedness, not just of some economists but also of the discipline as a whole also deserves to be highlighted, as the seventh problem.

It is true that John Maynard Keynes famously said “in the long run we are all dead”, but he also thought about “economic possibilities for our grandchildren”. But most contemporary economists, despite paying some lip service to issues like climate change mainly because they have to, display hardly any concern for issues that stretch into the future. The most egregious example of this is the inadequate factoring in of ecological damage and climate change concerns into assessments of policy choices and future trajectories. 

How can economists keep doing this, making such huge blunders and ignoring so much essential reality? Partly because of the eighth problem: arrogance.

Economics is a very arrogant discipline, even though this is completely unjustified. Most mainstream (and male) economists are especially and appallingly arrogant, whether consciously or unconsciously so, and are either openly or subtly into hierarchies. This arrogance is just one of the reasons that Claudia Sahm (the macroeconomist who formerly worked with the US Federal Reserve) declared that “economics is a disgrace”. There is a marked sense of superiority and unwillingness to engage with and learn from other areas of knowledge, especially other social sciences and humanities, which are brushed aside as “soft”. Several economists who have done so and thereby hugely enriched their own analysis and their contribution to broader economic insights, have been displaced from standard Economics departments and relegated to Sociology or Politics, joining the “second division” teams rather than the front runners of the discipline in terms of perception. 

There is of course a strong machismo to all of this, and so it is no surprise that a macho ethos permeates the mainstream discipline, just as an atmosphere of clever aggression dominates a lot of mainstream economics conferences. Male domination (similar to chimpanzee societies) has very much been part of this as well, whereby males compete aggressively with one another but also bond together and gang up to dominate over females. Some strong young women with voice in the profession are just beginning to make inroads into this—and more power to them! —but the spread of patriarchy is still vast and deep. It’s not just machismo, of course: the adverse impact of relational power also affects other socially marginalised categories, whether according to class, race, ethnicity, language, and so on. And then there is the huge impact of location: the mainstream discipline is completely dominated by the North Atlantic, whether in terms of prestige, influence or the ability to determine the content and direction of what is globally accepted in the discipline. Just as an example, all the 84 prizes awarded by the Swedish Central Bank Prize in memory of Alfred Nobel (falsely called the Economics Nobel Prize) have gone to economists resident in the North, and essentially living and working in the US and Europe. The North Atlantic still dominates in publications and in setting the research and policy agenda. The enormous knowledge, insights and contributions to economic analysis that are made by economists located in the Global South are largely ignored, almost certainly by those in the North, but even (sadly) by economists in other parts of the South. There is an even worse tendency in development economics, of treating the South as the objects of study and policy action (with its economists often becoming glorified research assistants in international research projects), while “real” knowledge is supposedly created in the North and disseminated outwards. 

And finally, there is the proclivity of economists to play God. In perhaps no other discipline is there so much power to engage in what can only be called social engineering, couched in technocratic terms so as to make it largely incomprehensible to ordinary people who are told and persuaded that rigid economic laws make particular economic strategies the only possible choice. Increasingly, this attitude verges on or collapses into the unethical. The recent craze in development economics personified by the randomistas exemplifies this. There has been a lot of valid outcry and disgust about some Randomised Control Trials being conducted (inevitably) on poor people in the developing world, that have involved cutting off water supply to see if that incentivises bill payments, or checking whether poor parents will send only their better performing children to school once they are informed about their results. Clearly, quite apart from the numerous methodological problems with such studies, this shows the extent to which at least some economists have completely lost moral compass, and the strong class/region forces at work whereby the poor, and especially those in developing countries, can be experimented on in this way. The rot goes beyond those conducting such studies, to the research funders, the international organisations, the editors of journals and the university teachers who put such studies into their course material. 

But I want to remind you that while such RCTs and the underlying neo-colonial attitudes they carry are certainly objectionable and distasteful, that this is only the latest example of economists playing God, trying out their pet theories of what will make economic processes change, often regardless of the impact on human lives. Think of the shock therapy so blithely imposed on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the human tragedies they generated as well as the oligarchies they ultimately gave rise to. Think of the structural adjustment measures in Africa that reduced public health spending and created systemic fragilities that cost so many lives in previous epidemics like Ebola and have rendered health systems completely unfit to deal with the current pandemic. You get the idea: this is not the first time that economists have played with the lives and livelihoods of masses of people, secure in the knowledge that there will be no impact on their own safely distant lives and no accountability for their prescriptions. 

So here’s the thing—economics is too important for the present and future of humanity to be left in this appalling state.

It’s certainly true that economics is too important to be left to economists, and that greater genuine economic literacy is required through society to enable people to call the bluff on supposedly technocratic decisions that only favour particular groups. But even within the economics discipline, we simply cannot let one stream, which is currently unfortunately the mainstream, dominate and colour everyone else’ views on how economies work. Fortunately, this is not the only stream: and over the course of the next few days you will be exposed to some of the finest minds who have made important contributions in developing realistic and applicable analyses of economic phenomena. It’s sad that we still have to refer to them and to ourselves as “heterodox” and “non-mainstream”, but that only reflects the power imbalances in economics and in economies, that I have already talked about. 

So how do we change all this?

At first sight it appears almost impossible: the structures are so entrenched; the vested interests are so strong; there is so much at stake for global capital and the ruling powers that they will most certainly resist efforts to change. Let me also be honest and admit to you that I speak to you from a position of relative failure, as someone who has tried for nearly four decades but without much success, to make a dent in this power structure and to change both the content and the direction of the economics discipline to a limited extent. The need for drastic change in the discipline has never been so drastic and so urgent. We are facing major existential crises as a species; the global economy was already limping and fragile and is now effectively devastated by the latest blow of the pandemic; environmental threats are already translating into awful reality; inequalities that seemed impossibly large have grown even more, creating societies that will soon become dysfunctional to the point of becoming unliveable. All this requires urgent, major economic action. Yet mainstream economics persists in doing business as usual, as if tinkering at the margins with minor changes will have an impact on these fundamental problems. 

The good news is that there are apparently winds of change blowing. The world— and the world economy—may be in an unbelievable mess, but we have more economists, especially young economists, recognising this and thinking about how to avert the immediate dangers and transform the future. There are movements that have been led by students, demanding that the discipline and the pedagogy change, like Post Autistic Economics that transformed into Real World Economics. There are hundreds of you who have registered for the Summer School from across the world, suggesting that there is a real intellectual hunger for change. The Young Scholars Initiative and similar groups have huge potential, and I’m hoping that many of you who are based in developing countries will also get more involved in International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs) to take that network forward in raising the voice and enabling exchange between economists based in the Global South. 

It’s clear from my earlier interactions with YSI and some young dynamic economists who are at the forefront of these movements, that you don’t really need advice from people like me. Nevertheless, let me offer whatever little insight I have gleaned from my years of trying to do this. 

First, something I think you all already know: diversity matters.

Diversity of gender, of race, of class background, of ethnicity and so on: these are essential to enrich the discipline and have now been widely commented on. Currently there is a raging discussion on social media about this, with expected pushback from those accustomed to their privileged positions. But there is also the aspect that is often overlooked, diversity of location, which I mentioned and which is also necessary for enriching the discipline. So I request all of you, in your own work, search out readings by scholars and economists from different parts of the world, even if your teachers have not made you aware of them. Fortunately, the internet now makes this much more possible than ever before. Be mindful of whom you quote or refer to when writing up your research. Don’t look only for “empirical validation” from Southern economists while taking your theoretical knowledge from the North: many economists based in the developing world have made far more insightful and profound contributions to economic understanding, even if they have not found a place in the so-called “top” journals and rarely find their way into reading lists. 

Second, remember to be respectful of diversity of approaches, which is really what being “heterodox” is all about.

Recently there has been some discussion about whether this is a useful term at all, and a tendency to be slightly shamefaced about it, which I believe is completely misplaced. To me, a heterodox approach is defined by pluralism, which means that I may adopt a particular theoretical framework to understand how the economy works, but I should be willing to learn from other different approaches. The whole point is that we should be willing to engage with diverse perspectives and draw insights from one another without getting locked into sectarian squabbles. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have arguments, which are of course essential; only that we should try to be as inclusive as possible and encourage diversity in as many ways as possible. 

Third, —and this is really important—don’t let identity substitute for analysis.

It’s essential to hold ourselves and our work to the highest standards of rigour and careful, systematic research. This rigour need not be mathematical, but it must be logical, and it must be empirically grounded and aware of history. 

Fourth, don’t be too purist and don’t obsess about classifying everyone into their own little methodological boxes.

Try to make allies, across other disciplines, in wider society and also among mainstream economists who are beginning to see its limitations. In searching for and finding allies, it’s also necessary to make ourselves easily comprehensible as well, and not create a miasma of verbiage or formulas that can obscure the argument. In this regard, I have a simple “grandmother rule” for my students: you can be as complicated, nuanced and sophisticated as you like in your work, but ultimately you must be able to state your basic argument in words comprehensible to your grandmother (who is usually a very smart woman, even if she is not as educated in economics). Try it: it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

Finally, be bold!

Don’t be afraid to ask awkward questions of anyone, don’t let anyone slap you down using the well-worn techniques of the socially powerful, don’t be intimidated by institutional hierarchies and power structures. The more fearless you are, the more you accomplish; and the more other people whom you can persuade to be fearless with you, the more unstoppable you will be. And also, I think, the more fun the whole process will be. 

So here’s hoping that you will indeed be unstoppable and that this Summer School becomes another step in forging alliances and gathering strength to transform the discipline of economics and make it once more the moral yet worldly philosophy it was originally intended to be. 

About UNCTAD | UNCTAD is a permanent intergovernmental body established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1964. The organization is governed by its 194 member States and is the United Nations body responsible for dealing with economic and sustainable development issues with a focus on trade, finance, investment and technology. It helps developing countriesto participate equitably in the global economy. UNCTAD carries out economic research, produces innovative analyses and makes policy recommendations to support government decision-making.

UNCTAD YSI Summer School | Entitled “From the Transformation of Economics to Economic Transformation: Pathways to a Better Future”, this year’s summer school took place from August 15-23,2020. It’s aim is to connect the intellectual challenge of rethinking economic analysis to the practical challenge of building a healthier, more resilient, more equal and greener future for all.

The post Why do we need to transform economics, and how do we do it? appeared first on Economic Questions.

Interlinking our Struggles in Gender and Queer Issues

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/07/2020 - 4:02pm in

image/jpeg iconGender statement.jpg

Men in anarchist spaces need to step up to make our spaces safer and more inclusive. Lacking experience of being queer or women is no excuse to stay silent. Staying silent on oppression just contributes to that oppression.

We hope that this document can be part of the discussion to fundamentally abolish the patriarchal and cisheteronormative norms present even and especially among the anarchist spaces in the archipelago.

Bandilang Itim

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How to Make, and Maintain, Close Friendships

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/07/2020 - 9:29pm in

How to forge friendships that provide a secure base, a safe harbor, adapt to changing circumstances, avoid racism’s trapdoor, and address conflicts that arise in all relationships.

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/07/2020 - 7:48am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

July 9, 2020 Erin Thompson on art crime and the history of toppling statues • Jennifer Cohen on gendering the health and economic crises [back after another brief vacation break]

Demographic Trends in the Philosophy Major Might Be Mostly Due to Pre-College Factors (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/07/2020 - 1:47am in

This guest post* looks at two questions related to demographic trends among philosophy majors. First, are women disproportionately less interested in the philosophy major at the beginning of their first year of study? And second, is the recent apparent increase in interest in philosophy reflected in first-year intention to major? 

Authored by Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Morgan Thompson (Pittsburgh), and Eric Winsberg (South Florida), the post first appeared at The Splintered Mind.

Félix Armand Heullant, “Edle junge Dame im Salon”

Demographic Trends in the Philosophy Major Might Be Mostly Due to Pre-College Factors
by Eric Schwitzgebel, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg

As we mentioned last month, we recently obtained data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) on intention to major in philosophy among first-year students in the U.S.

Today we will explore two questions.

First, it’s well known that undergraduate philosophy majors in the U.S. are disproportionately men. For example, recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics show 36% of graduating Philosophy majors in the U.S. to be women, compared to 57% of graduating majors overall. Our first question is this: Are women also disproportionately less interested in the Philosophy major at the beginning of their first year of study?

The answer to this question is crucial to understanding the causes of the low proportion of women among graduating philosophy majors. If women begin their studies with less interest in philosophy than undergraduates as a whole, then the causes of disproportion trace back to something prior to college enrollment. In contrast, if women begin their studies with approximately proportionate interest in the Philosophy major, then their underrepresentation among Bachelor’s recipients in Philosophy suggests that something in students’ college experience is driving the disproportion.

Second, as Eric Schwitzgebel noticed last fall, the Philosophy major seems to be back on the rise in popularity while other humanities majors continue to fall. We wanted to see if the recent apparent increase in interest in Philosophy was also reflected in first-year intention to major. This is relevant to evaluating both the causes of and the likely persistence of the trend that Eric S. noticed last year.

First-Year Intention to Major by Sex, 2000-2016

Every fall, HERI gathers information from first-year undergraduates at a sample of U.S. colleges and universities, with about 200,000-400,000 respondents per year. One question asks respondents’ sex, with response categories “male” and “female”. About half of one percent of respondents decline to state. Another question asks for intended major, with “Philosophy” as one among dozens of choices.

This graph shows the percentage answering “female” among first-year students, both overall and in Philosophy, excluding students who declined to state.

As you can see from the figure, first-year student respondents were about 56%-59% female across all majors throughout the period (54%-55% if nonresponse bias is taken into account; see below). From 2000-2012, 32% to 36% of first-year student respondents intending to major in philosophy were female. This compares with about 30-34% of women among graduating majors in Philosophy in the same period. Thus, female students appear to be disproportionately less interested in the Philosophy major from the beginning of their undergraduate studies. These results match with some earlier analyses of the HERI database by Christopher Dobbs and Philippe Lemoine.

There may be some further loss of interest among women—about 2% in absolute percentage terms (32-36% vs 30-34%)—between first year intention to major and completion of the major, but due to differences in methodology between HERI and NCES it’s difficult to be confident about effects of this size, and we note that “female” and “woman”, though approximately comparable, are not identical categories.[1]

The second striking feature of this graph is the recent increase in percentage of respondents intending to major in Philosophy who reported being female: 40%-43% in 2013-2016. This suggests that the increased percentage of women among Philosophy BA recipients that appeared in the NCES data from 2018, which we noticed last fall, may not be a blip but might be the beginning of a trend that showed up in first-year students in 2013. In fact, the timing is perfect. With a national average of five years to Bachelor’s degree, a change in first-year students in the 2013-2014 academic year should be reflected in a change in graduating majors in the 2017-2018 academic year.

The change could be explained either by an increase in female students’ interest in the Philosophy major or a decrease in male students’ interest or both. This is a slightly complicated question which will first require us to address changes over time in the Philosophy major in general.

One big methodological caveat here is that the HERI data have some nonresponse and sampling problems: Not all colleges are included, with lower prestige public colleges especially undersampled, and not all students respond, and this skews the HERI demographic data.[1] Furthermore, the number of participating colleges declined substantially over the period in question. Some preliminary analyses we’ve tried suggest that nonresponse and over/undersampling might be an especially big issue with student race (which we hope to analyze in a future post), but only a minor issue with sex.

HERI provides researchers with a calculated variable “Student Weight”, which represents their best attempt to overweight the responses of students from underrepresented portions of the sample and underweight the responses of students from overrepresented portions of the sample, with the hope that the weighted responses are representative of first-year students in the U.S. as a whole. (The NCES data, in contrast, are reported by administrators and are approximately complete.)

The results above are based on raw responses. We attempted to correct for sampling and nonresponse bias by multiplying all responses by HERI’s Student Weight variable, but statistical noise became a problem. For example, using this method, estimates of the percentage of philosophy majors who were female jumped implausibly from 27% to 37% from 2013 to 2014. Since the Student Weight variable weights some students’ responses several times more than others, it should be expected to amplify noise, and given the small numbers of female philosophy major respondents (207 in 2013), it’s unsurprising that noise might be a limiting factor.

Overall, all trends reported in this post are confirmed when data are weighted by HERI’s Student Weight variable. However, the percentage of philosophy majors overall might actually be somewhat lower than reported (due to disproportionate representation of elite schools, where Philosophy is more commonly chosen as a major) and the percentage of female students might be slightly lower (due to slightly higher response rates among female students at the included schools).

While History and English Continue to Fall, Philosophy Has Partly Recovered

In 2017, Eric S. noted sharp declines in completed Philosophy, History, and Language majors in the NCES database, followed the next year by a slight recovery or stabilization in Philosophy, while the other big humanities majors continued to decline.

We were curious to see if this would also reflected in the HERI data on first year intention to major. As with the data on sex, examination of the HERI patterns could give us insight into mechanisms (are these changes due to something happening before college or in college?) and also perhaps some basis for projection into the future.

This chart shows rise and decline in intention to major, normed to the year 2000.

As you can see, the percentage of students majoring in History and English is about 2/3 of what it was in 2000. Philosophy showed an equally sharp decline in the early 2010s but seems to have partly recovered and is now at 86% of 2000 levels, while History and English continue to fall. As with gender, the timing shows a nice offset between HERI and NCES: The decline in first-year intention to major started in about 2010, while in the decline in completed Bachelor’s degrees started in about 2014 or 2015.

As with sex, the timing offset and similar pattern in the HERI and NCES data suggest that the primary factors behind these demographic trends are pre-college.

The decline and partial recovery of interest in the philosophy major interacts with sex, as shown in this figure:

As you can see, the percentage of female first-year students’ intending to major in Philosophy has recovered fully to 2000 levels, but not so for male first-year students.

We conclude that those of us who are interested in exploring the causes of demographic trends in the philosophy major should look more carefully than is usually done at factors that might be influencing students’ perceptions and intentions even before they enroll in college.


[1] Most non-women in the undergraduate population are men, but a small percentage will be non-binary. We are unaware of any good data source on the rates at which non-binary students choose to major in philosophy. This dataset from HERI does not ask for gender, so it is possible that many respondents are answering with gender rather than sex. HERI’s Freshman Survey did not revise the question to be about one’s gender identity until 2018 and did not add a question about whether the student is trans or cis until 2019. Unfortunately, we were unable to access those data due to temporary embargoes on more recent years’ data.

[2] Unlike the NCES data, which is reported to the U.S. government by adminstrators at each institution, HERI collects data by selling U.S. universities and colleges the results of their survey for that particular institution. Wealthier institutions appear to be more likely to pay for this data collection and thus more likely to be represented in the HERI Freshman survey dataset than lower prestige colleges. The “Student Weight” variable discussed below is partly intended to help correct for demographic differences between wealthier, higher-prestige institutions and lower prestige public colleges.

The post Demographic Trends in the Philosophy Major Might Be Mostly Due to Pre-College Factors (guest post) appeared first on Daily Nous.

The Tangled Web of Familial Homophobia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/06/2020 - 9:00pm in

When I sat down to watch A Secret Love on the day it premiered on Netflix, as part of a...

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The Pride Wore White

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/06/2020 - 6:00am in

The Brooklyn Museum has a sunken forecourt that makes it something of an amphitheater. I’d arrived there on this bright...

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