Web of lies, policies and politicians

In the previous post in this miniseries I’ve used the example of Brexit referendum to explore how allowing lies to be systematically upheld in public discourse is poisonous for democracy itself. The bleak conclusion was that people voted Brexit on the basis of false information. In Cipolla’s terms, most of the Leave votes were stupid: their real effect will  be the opposite of what the voters wanted to achieve.

On the national scale, voters have consistently voted against their best interests (if my analysis is right!), turning Democracy in a farcical caricature of itself. Assuming there is some truth in this, it calls for some serious analysis: how is it even possible? I hope you won’t spot me claiming that this question allows for one single simple explanation, but nevertheless, one claim I do wish to make is that the neo-liberal world-view (the commonly accepted web of lies[1] described in detail in the previous post) is partially responsible:

  1. It is entrenched in public discourse, so much so that it is isn’t even questioned. For example have a look at these two BBC articles (on Banking and Energy providers) and look for the assumptions they rest upon[2].
  2. As demonstrated in the previous post, neo-liberalism rests on a number of wrong assumptions (there are more technical ones: for example, mainstream economic models rely on the fictional idea that consumers act rationally – an idea that has been debunked beyond reasonable doubt by Daniel Kahneman – see Neblo 2003, Aktipis et al. 2004).

We’ll see in the next post what kind of effect this may have on the electorate. For now, I’ll concentrate on the effect it has on policies, politicians and their ability to effectively respond to the challenges posed by an unpredictable world. Before I can continue, I should make it clear that what follows rests on a big assumption of my own [3].

Assumption: any given world-view, being conceptual, must be somewhat wrong. Thus, one should compare world-views in terms of how fit for a given purpose they are, or, in more general terms, in terms of how well they work when they are adopted for multiple purposes.

I’m mentioning this because the key to understand what is happening lies in recognising that a world-view finds its justification in how it is used. The most important variable is how fit-for-purpose it is, not necessarily how well it describes the actual state of affairs. To clarify, a clear-cut example might help: if you are reading this, it is almost guaranteed that you think astrology is nonsense. As a world-view, it is almost impossible to expect it to closely match the facts: you could say that its truth-content is low enough to approach absolute zero, so why does it even exist? Well, I think it does because, despite its overt purpose of describing the real world, it actually responds to other, deeply seeded needs. For the general punter, it may be soothing, a source of mild amusement, a comfort during troubled time, a way to keep anxiety at bay, and so forth. For a professional astrologer it is the source of livelihood and is closely tied to her own personal identity. Thus, the function of astrology for the general public does not require to subscribe to an astrological outlook: you can regularly glance at the horoscopes page on the newspaper without believing anything you’ll read. At the same time, the primary functions generate a secondary one: for an astrology professional, the world-view  is a source of income – to some, a perfectly fit-for-purpose source of income. Thus it’s interesting to note that whether astrology is true or not, or how well it approximates truth, if one considers both the primary and secondary purposes, is mostly irrelevant. The conclusion so far is that not all world-views need to be tightly related to how the world actually is, in order to exist. They can be abysmally wrong and still persist.

The web of lies I’ve described in the previous post belongs to this same category: it paints a fictitious picture of the world, but it is nevertheless described as true. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of this view is to justify policy decisions – as such, it doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to believed by many (unlike astrology). Austerity was justified by the idea that balance sheets of a state work exactly as (or closely enough) those of private entities. Much of the leave vote was justified by the belief that limiting immigration will have a positive effect on the living standards of the bottom half of the population, and so forth. To be fit-for-this-purpose, such a stance needs to be convincing enough, which of course requires to be somewhat linked to reality, in the sense that it needs to appear realistic. More importantly, it needs to be an attractive world-view. People need to find it easy to adopt it, for one reason or the other (something we’ll explore in the next post). For now, what’s important to note is that this particular world-view, given the purpose of justifying policies, needs to have relatively high truth-likeness: very few would approve a public spending round justified by the alignments of the stars, after all.
In turn, the truth-likeness requirement generates an all-important constraint on policy makers. This is a general requirement: to utilise any world-view for policy-justification, its truth-likeness needs to be preserved. Which means that once a politician has publicly upheld a given world-view, and justified his/her policies on this basis, he or she will find it progressively more difficult to suddenly change his/her position. The web of lies can capture enough votes, but by doing so it constrains its proponent degrees of freedom in a roughly proportional way. Empty rhetoric is a double-edged sword.

Once more, the example of Brexit elucidates my point perfectly: Cameron called the referendum, probably because he was convinced that the leave side will easily win. We know he was wrong, but we should also assume that he is neither an idiot nor that he lacked the means to evaluate the relevant facts. Nevertheless, his decision now looks stupid, a gross miscalculation, a mistake. Why did he get it so wrong? I think there are two concurrent explanations, with the first one being almost certainly relevant, while the second is more speculative.

Reason 1: he didn’t factor the self-inflicted constraints that his publicly held world-view would impose. Having had a track record of being able to successfully convince the British public of whatever suited him best, he probably thought that he’ll be able to pull the same trick once more, without much trouble. What I don’t think he realised is that maintaining the truth-likeness of his web of lies had a relevant cost: one that would significantly hinder his ability to make a convincing argument in favour of remaining in the EU.

Let’s look at a few examples: since the 2008 crash, standards of living have decreased or flatlined for the vast majority of the British electorate. The Brexit camp could easily blame uncontrolled immigration, lack of sovereignty and EU red-tape, exploiting the real situation of the country to spin up the current web of lies, they could simply build on the already established one. However, Cameron, being tied to the official government narrative, could not: in defending the status quo, his options were limited, the only possible strategy was to explain how the current situation was not as bad as the alternative. Of course, he could not go out and simply tell the truth: “look guys, our policies are causing your distress, the EU is not responsible, or it is only marginally so“. To avoid a guaranteed political suicide, he simply had to uphold his own web of lies and find a way to spin it in his favour. The trick may have worked in the past, but this time the world didn’t comply: the lies of the leave campaign had more appeal and fitted better in the existing web. In other words, Cameron got caught in his own web. If you are not convinced, take a look a how Cameron answers a question posed by one of his electors: he doesn’t answer at all, does he? Why? Because he did blame immigration for falling living standards, he got elected (also) because of this stance, and therefore he found himself unable to keep his new narrative attractive. Given the choice of sacrificing truth-likeness or attractiveness, he could only sacrifice the latter, because sacrificing the first would inevitably kill also the second.

The mechanism is generalisable: once a politician starts justifying his policies on the basis of wrong assumptions (by mistake or deliberate deception, it doesn’t really matter), the democratic constraints (or the need of fostering enough popular consensus in general, something which is necessary to hold onto political power in all cases, not only in democracies) starts eroding his or her degrees of freedom – since the purpose is to retain enough credibility, the web of lies will inevitably constrain what our politician can say or do. Give a lying politician enough time in power (or the in the public’s attention), and he/she will find herself with less and less viable choices, ending up being effectively forced into an uncontrollable roll of the events. From actor on the political arena, s/he will become a mere puppet, forced to play a part with little or no freedom to choose what to do next.

Reason 2: what if Cameron believed his own lies? Preposterous, I know! For argument’s sake, let’s temporarily answer “yes”, and see how it plays out. Perhaps he did believe everything he said to justify his own policies. Perhaps he did think that brutal austerity was needed and beneficial, and that immigration is bad for poor people. Perhaps his answer to the question linked above was sincere, he felt that leaving the EU was merely too risky. If that’s the case, it would be self-evident that he was even more constricted by his own web of lies. He would have calculated that failing to uphold it would destroy his credibility and would also have felt that sticking to [what he believed is] the truth could also give him a strategic advantage (because not having to lie through your teeth ought to be easier!). Unfortunately, this hypothesis is unsubstantiated and impossible to verify empirically: how can we reliably find out if politicians believe in what they say?
Be as it may, if Cameron actually believed his own lies, it means that his world-view is positively disjointed from reality in the important aspects that shape his own policies; in such a case, Cameron would be officially incompetent, making the explanation of his miscalculation trivial.
I am mentioning this (unverifiable) hypothesis because the nature of the political game itself makes it surprisingly convincing: lying systematically is hard. The more you lie, the harder it becomes to avoid contradicting yourself. Moreover, each word you utter comes at an increasing cognitive cost: all the time you need to remember the details of your own fiction, just to make sure you won’t destroy your credibility without even realising it. It must be exceedingly hard. On the other hand, we know that lies used to promote consent need to be credible, after all many people need to believe in them in order to fulfil their purpose. Thus, in the political arena, those who actually believe in  a greater proportion of what they say in public will have at least a marginal advantage (decreased cognitive cost). Moreover, in order to lower the cost of incremental lies, it could also be beneficial to retrospectively convince yourself of your own lies. This mechanism is (anecdotally) visible in extreme cases such as Berlusconi: I have little doubt that he eventually managed to fool even himself…
Furthermore, being always immersed in an environment where everyone publicly upholds the same web of lies, adds peer pressure to the mix: if everyone you consider an ally seems to believe that X, perhaps X might even be true, after all [4]. If this (unverifiable) mechanism does actually happen, it means that politicians who wilfully chose to lie to the public are actively setting themselves on a path that leads to increasing incompetence (you’ll excuse me if I think this last remark makes this speculative part instantaneously more convincing).


Before looking at the ill effects that a web of lies has on the people buying into the fiction (in the following post), let’s wrap up the argument so far. In the first part, we’ve seen how Brexit provides an example of the institutional damage made by systematically lying to the public. If  a large proportion of the electorate actually believes in a given web of lies, democracy itself simply ceases to exist. It remains as a facade, but the substance is different. Democracy becomes a system to allow the powers that be to control the population, subverting its main purpose in one single move. Instead of electors, you have useful idiots. Moreover, the same mechanism affects politicians just as much, it constrains them into ever decreasing degrees of freedom – from puppeteers, they become puppets of their own narrative. This is utterly dangerous: if things turn out well, the politicians in question will eventually be forced out of office (cfr. Cameron himself, Clegg just before, as well Blair and Brown). If, on the contrary, stuff goes wrong, the only route that remains open is a descent towards authoritarian rule, as exemplified by far too many examples (Putin himself, Berlusconi to some extent, Erdoğan more recently, or Mussolini in the not-so-distant past).

“Yes”, you may say, “lying is bad. So what?” Well, systematically lying to the electorate is worse. Moreover, basing policy on systematic lies is downright dangerous. Therefore, we should all do our best to always challenge the web of lies spun by politicians, and perhaps more importantly, make all possible efforts to make sure we don’t buy any of it, regardless of our own political inclinations. After all, both left and right have identical incentives to manufacture their own version of the truth.

Notes and bibliography.

[1] I derive the “web of lies” expression directly from Quine and Ullian “Web of Beliefs” (1970 & 1978). The original concept applies to scientific knowledge, but is relevant in this context because of the emphasis on coherence. A web of beliefs can support knowledge and knowledge creation when the various parts are interconnected in mutually validating ways. In our case, a web of lies can justify policies only if to appears coherent both internally (between various components) and externally (with respect to the perceivable world). Failing to appear coherent would make it hard for people to buy into the fiction, reducing the web of lies to ineffectiveness.

[2] The official rhetoric forgets a simple fact: we want our money to sit safely in a convenient place, we need our bank accounts for practical reasons. We also want electricity and gas to reliably arrive in our homes. What nobody wants is having to constantly check whether we’re being ripped off, and frequently go through considerable discomfort in order to get the best possible deal. In such “markets” everyone is willing to pay a price in exchange of not having to think about energy providers or bank accounts. Thus, these are “markets” where by definition there is an upper-bound to competition, and a very low one as well. Going to the supermarket is different: we need to do it regularly: picking one chain or the other doesn’t necessarily increase the cost for us (in terms of effort). Once we are there, picking one or the other brand also doesn’t require a massive difference in effort. Thus, supermarkets can operate as functional markets, banks and utility companies simply can’t.

[3] Moreover, even if the practical examples I’m using come from the neo-liberal, conservative side, it is important to note that what I’m saying also applies to lies promulgated by the left, in exactly the same ways. I’ll stick to the right wing lies because my own biases allow me to see them more clearly and also because they are the more recent ones, fresh in my mind and presumably my readers’ memories.

[4] Plain old Cognitive Attraction would also play a role, reinforced by peer pressure in ways that resemble my interpretation of Boris Johnson’s ethical stance.

Aktipis, C.A., & Kurzban, R.O. (2004). Is Homo Economicus extinct? Vernon Smith, Daniel Kahneman and the evolutionary perspective Advances in Austrian Economics, 7, 135-153

Neblo, M. (2003). Choices, Values, and Frames, edited by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 22 (3), 491-493 DOI: 10.1002/pam.10145


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Posted in Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Politics, Stupidity

#Brexit: how systematic lying reduces democracy to a farce

I am shocked, horrified, incredulous, scared, very angry and, above all, sad. The UK has decided to turn its back to common sense, its best values, its own self-interest, and voted to leave the EU. A lot of ink has been spilled, trying to make sense of the result, analyses abound, making what follows a mere drop in the ocean. I still need to write it, because it is the necessary premise of what I hope can become a constructive interpretation. This post is intended to be the first of a series of three articles: to get started, we’ll look at the minimal list of lies that allowed the UK to shoot itself in both feet (or worse) – it’s a long list, with origins that can be traced back to the glossy eighties. The second post will look at how systematic lying affects politicians themselves, the third will do the same for electors. My hope is to identify a reasonable strategy to try counterbalancing the current trend.

The fact that the EU referendum result has been somewhat influenced by systematic lies, and that at least some of these lies were allowed to reach the status of pseudo-facts is well known, even passionate Brexiteers will admit that their side has proposed somewhat misleading arguments. Lots of people have already explored this outlook, see for example Peter Yeung  for the Independent, this analysis by Will Davies, Jonathan Freedland, and Carole Cadwalladr for the Guardian. Examples from the blogosphere abound as well, I’ll cite only Eleanor St Clair‘s eloquent article , because she speaks for my anger as well.

The bottom line is: Britain was conned (pun intended), the Brexit side won because a large proportion of the population was systematically misinformed. This is bad, but it entails a much darker consequence: in the process, democracy has been subverted and reduced to a despicable farce. Doublespeak is not just normalised, it is either expected or required. I am sorry, but I am not going to oblige. If you voted leave, what follows will be hard to read: I can’t help it, please do read it and please do let me know the reasons why you may disagree.

[Note that links are hereby used as evidence: with one exception (on the marginal subject of Neo-Liberalism) they link to sources selected on the basis of their reputation and independence.]

My main thesis: one of the main purposes of democratic institutions is to make sure decision makers do not systematically favour the already privileged. There is much more to democracy, of course, but this important aim is the one that has been violated more blatantly. In this context, the EU referendum was conceived as a con (it was not called exclusively in the interests of the electorate), and ended up being much worse: we’ve got to a situation where upholding the democratic process requires either to act against the best interests of the population at large (invoke Article 50 – no matter the consequences) or to ignore the “democratically” expressed preference of the very same population. It’s a lose-lose situation, but I will be arguing that doggedly proceeding towards Brexit, in the name of the Will of the People is manifestly not our best option. Why? Because a vast proportion of the population was systematically misled, and brought to believe in a sky high, steaming pack of lies. A vote cast on the basis of systematically disseminated, hardly ever challenged lies, is not and cannot be a democratic expression. On this basis, it should not be acted upon without further reflection.

In other words, my aim is to demonstrate that many leavers did vote on the basis of false information.

A key narrative of Thatcherism was that self-interest, when channelled through competitive markets, can be transformed into a force for good. There is some truth in this claim, with the keyword being “can”, under certain circumstances. However, the first foundational lie which made the current situation possible is that, thanks in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it is now fairly uncontroversial to imply that competition and market regimes can be used to solve almost any problem (Lie#1). This is not the place to debunk this idea, so I’ll have to appeal to my readers’ charity and ask to provisionally accept that perhaps there are some problems that markets can’t solve (or even that markets actually create their own problems, just like everything else). For the current purpose, it’s important to note that such a Neo-Liberal idea  has become commonplace since the early nineties, so much so that it is now assumed as fact: it is so pervasive that it is almost invisible. In this context, the Labour governments of Blair/Brown did not have any chance (and perhaps no intention) of challenging said assumption. As a consequence, an excessive (culpable) degree of laissez-faire allowed the financial sector to spin out of control, while the government temporarily enjoyed increased tax-revenues. We all know the result: by gambling with other people’s money, the financial sector undermined its own viability and had to be rescued with vast amounts of public money. Within weeks, tax-revenues dropped dramatically and at the same time the government had to spend unprecedented amounts of money to ensure the very structure of our financial institutions could survive. The above should be uncontroversial, it’s merely a dry description of what happened.

However, this narrative is not the accepted version, it has been in fact replaced with a lie: the Labour governments of Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by spending too much (Lie#2). This is false, Blair and Brown wrecked the economy by failing to prevent excessive financial speculation. They did end up spending too much, but this was an effect of the financial crash. Lie #2 is a lie because it inverts the causal chain: what was a consequence is now described as the root cause. Why did this happen? Because spinning the false narrative allows those who can to make more money. Pretending that “spending too much” caused the crash directly justifies reducing the size of the state, e.g. reducing the volume of public services. Reducing public services creates the opportunity of delivering the same services for a profit, it’s not rocket science. Now, I’m not saying that a big state is always better, it is not. All I’m saying is that the policies that followed were based (at least partially) on a lie, and a lie that was allowed to spread and be accepted as fact.

This leads us to Lie#3: to rescue the economy, the only option is/was austerity. At the propaganda level, this lie was sustained by maintaining that “we were living above our means” and that austerity is/was needed because the state budget works like a the household one, which is blatantly false, but feels reasonable. Why is it false? Because the state prints money and legally enforces its use (at the very least by collecting taxes in the state currency), families don’t. This tiny detail immediately breaks the analogy: if the state merely needs more money, it can print more. It is entirely true that doing so without limits would be suicidal (via hyperinflation), but it is nevertheless not true that it all works like a family budget. For example, it is an uncontroversial fact that Keynesian stimuli can work; conversely, it also uncontroversial that austerity harms the economy, even the IMF has now been on record saying that it harms the economy more than  expected. Do I need to highlight the key implication? “More than expected” implies:”yes, we already new that austerity harms the economy, we just didn’t think it was so bad”!

We all know what happened next: the coalition government implemented the Conservatives’ agenda, austerity was delivered, Britain enjoyed a double dip recession, the Chancellor’s predictions were never met, which, largely justified by Lie#3, allowed to keep pushing more and more austerity down our throats. So, what does austerity mean? It means less public spending, which means less public services. In other words, those who rely on public services are, by definition, the ones who will bear the grunt. Ultimately, living standards for the bottom half of the population (the half with less money) inevitably degraded. At the same time, inequality increased, adding insult to injury. Still, we do know that the public actually did believe Lies #2 & #3 because, guess what? They voted for more austerity, and (re)elected a Tory government. Go figure.

Meanwhile, UKIP and the right-wing popular press were busy preparing the ground to establish another lie. Fostering fear and xenophobia, they prepared the grounds for the ultimate con. We all know Lie#4: public services are struggling because there is too much immigration. This lie is all too easy to debunk: what do you think happens when you spend less on public services? It happens that the public sector delivers fewer services, that’s what. It is well known that immigration positively contributes to the public purse. Claiming the opposite is just blatantly false and should not be tolerated.
Conversely, another partial lie has been established: immigrants steal our jobs, making working class people poorer. There is some limited truth in this claim, so it needs to be debunked with care: it is true that an influx of cheap labour makes finding low-income jobs somewhat harder; it’s also reasonable to think that it generates a downward trend to (already) low wages. We do know that these effects are marginal, but they do exist, meaning that the consequent problems should be addressed. How? In a nutshell, one needs to limit the decrease in wages and hike protections of workers’ rights. Guess what? Tory-led governments did the opposite: they have consistently tried to undermine the power and credibility of the unions, and then also managed to deliver an impressive additional lie via the “living wage” reform. Under Labour, to protect the lowest wages, two separate mechanisms existed: the minimum wage and the unofficial, but increasingly recognised concept of the living wage. The Tory government, in a spike of evil brilliance, managed to undermine this by effectively hijacking the “living wage” label: by setting up a new system to calculate the periodic increases to the legal minimum pay (what is, if words still matter, a “minimum wage”), they concurrently renamed it “living wage”. An example of doublespeak if there ever was one: unchallenged by the bulk of the media, they did little or nothing to help low wages workers while claiming to be their champions. One has to admire such crafty cynicism. Overall, the deliberate policies of the government made it possible to transform a weak claim into an all too powerful lie: (Lie#5) people struggle to find decent jobs because of immigration. In truth, people struggle because the economy has been strangled by excessive austerity while at the same time there has been hardly any protection of the lowest wages.
In short: lies #4 & #5 blame immigrants for the negative consequences of cynical policies enacted by two successive right-wing governments.
This leads me to the actual #EUref campaign: to finish off the list of lies about the economy, it is a well known fact that the leave side has been “creative” in depicting the economic cost of EU membership, claiming that we can save money by leaving (Lie#6), while all the evidence suggests the opposite (for some reason, it’s the only lie that is now uncontroversial).
Leaving the economy aside, the other big argument in favour of #Brexit is that the UK wanted to reclaim its Sovereignty. This argument has two horns: control of our borders, and control of our legislation in general. The need for controlling EU immigration is largely supported by the previous string of lies, but also relies on an additional falsity. The leave side repeatedly claimed that we’ll be able to retain free access to the EU single market without having to accept the freedom-of-movement flipside. Nobody knows if this will happen, so Lie#7 is simply the claim that “of course, it will happen”!
Still on Sovereignty, a major issue has been about the European Court of Human Rights. The leavers’ claim is that Britain doesn’t need a supra-national institution to protect human rights. This may or may not currently be the case, but it blatantly ignores the reason why the defence of human rights ought to be enforced by supra-national institutions. Question: what kind of entities perpetrate the worse offences against Human Rights? Answer: states and para-states, always. Thus, supra-national institutions are required to effectively defend Human Rights, it’s that simple. Lie#8 is that Britain doesn’t need an external Human Rights watchdog, while it manifestly does (it’s sad and shameful, I know). Still on Sovereignty, much of the rhetoric was aimed at establishing Lie#9: this is the claim that most of UK laws are undemocratically decided by “them” (some faceless, monolithic EU). First of all, this myth has been officially debunked. Second, to sell goods or services in a given market, the rules of the market need to be respected (whether you sit amongst the market regulators or not). Third, it is true that EU institutions are somewhat opaque and byzantine, but that is because they are designed to allow national governments to exert their own influence, not the opposite, as the leave side has systematically implied.
That’s it, I’m done with the list of lies used to misinform the electorate before the referendum. My claim is that the (non binding) referendum result needs to be ignored or somehow ratified, because it was based on false information. To do so, the necessary premise is that at least some of the lies listed (1-9) are actually lies and also that they were believed by a not-negligible proportion of the electorate. You should feel free to challenge me and claim that what I’ve labelled lies are in fact true facts, but please be careful: by doing so you will inevitably reinforce my claim that they are indeed believed. Secondarily, you should manage to demonstrate that at least the majority of them are not lies at all. The burden of proof is high: because most of them have been sold as “established facts”, it would not be enough to show that they may be true or somewhat true, you will need convincingly show that they are, for the most part, manifestly true. I have provided supporting evidence for all my claims in the form of links from independent and well-respected organisations, so I don’t think it’s even possible to demonstrate such a thing. To seal off my argument, I need to add only one thing: it’s necessary to show that people voted because they actually believed one or more of the deliberate lies I’ve listed. The evidence for this comes from a post-vote poll by Lord Ashcroft, where the “reasons to leave, reasons to remain” are investigated (I’ll leave aside the vast, largely anecdotal, evidence about “buyer’s remorse”, even if it’s now becoming hard to ignore). Once again, the evidence is uncontroversial: people voted to leave to regain Sovereignty (lies 7-9, accounting for the first and third “reasons to leave”) and to limit immigration (tied to all the lies, in different ways). It’s interesting to note that people did not choose to vote remain because “all the alleged reasons to leave are false”. If a considerable proportion of the population saw through the lies I listed here, you would expect that “there is no reason to leave” should have been a popular choice, but sadly it wasn’t among the choices offered in the poll.

First conclusion:

The outcome of the referendum has been unduly determined by deliberately false and misleading propaganda. As such it is not the result of an informed choice and should not be considered as the free democratic expression of the electorate.

Second conclusion:

At the very least, a second referendum should be called (a general election with a credible contender pledging not to leave, or to have a second referendum, would be my preference), this time it is imperative to allow enough time for discussion, so that deliberate lies may be challenged and exposed in the public forum. The option of simply not acting on the basis of a non-binding and hastily debated referendum should also be considered, although ironically, the “leave” side would certainly be able to denounce the practice as “undemocratic”.

Final remarks.

Unfortunately, all options on offer are bad: actually leaving would be (it is now clear) catastrophic for the economy and won’t have the desired effects, either because leaving is supposed to solve an non-existent problem (Sovereignty), or because the solution won’t work (Economics). Refusing to execute “the will of the people” will undoubtedly fuel poisonous and mendacious rhetoric on the leave side. Conversely, there is no guarantee that a second referendum will allow to better inform the public, although there is in fact some hope that it may be at least a little less misguided. Overall, this last option is not necessarily disastrous, so it seems to be the only one defensible on rational and democratic grounds.
Be as it may, the fact that all the conceivable options are bad, and have concrete undemocratic qualities (either acting against the best interests of the country as a whole, or ignoring a formally democratic mandate) demonstrates my larger point: if lies are allowed to poison the public discourse for long enough, democracy becomes an empty shadow, and a dangerous one. In the next post I’ll start exploring why.
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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Stupidity

Ecological representations: a reply to Golonka and Wilson

This is going to be a very unusual post, it’s an ad-hoc effort, responding directly to Sabrina Golonka and Andrew D Wilson‘s call for feedback: they have recently published a pre-print on bioRxiv, entitled “Ecological Representations“. In the accompanying blog post, they explicitly ask for comments, and since I’ve found their paper extremely promising, I’ve agreed to produce my detailed commentary here. This is also the proper follow-up to a brief discussion I’ve had with Sabrina, mentioned also in my reply to Epstein’s essay.

You are about to read a form of pseudo “open peer review”: it’s not exactly open peer review because I’m not really their peer. I’m not a psychologist and not even an active academic in related fields. Never mind: I have strong opinions and when I started blogging I’ve decided I will make them public.
For the reminder of this post, I will address Sabrina and Andrew directly (makes for easier writing), however, note that they are interested in collecting opinions (not my opinions in particular!), so please do feel free to chip-in with your own comments.
Before reading what follows, it’s probably better to read their paper in full (time well spent: you won’t regret it).


Sabrina and Andrew,
thank you for writing this paper, reading it confirmed my higher hopes: I think it’s a very needed move in the right direction, and could help cut through an impressive amount of conceptual knots. I really hope your paper will become a cornerstone of both psychology and philosophy of mind, so I am thrilled by the opportunity you’re giving me to try contributing. However, I do think you’ll find what follows difficult to take onboard, for multiple reasons, so I guess it’s better to make the main ones explicit.

First, our backgrounds are very different, my formal preparation is in molecular biology, biophysics and neuroscience (all growing steadily out of date). My interest in psychology is personal, pursued in my private time, not formal in any way (meaning it is patchy, as I only dig into what grabs my interest) and not focussed on Gibson’s work at all. Furthermore, in the last few years I’ve been actively concentrating more on philosophy of mind, not empirical psychology per se. Thus, my language and point of view is very different from yours, making effective communication harder; it is also quite possible that I’ll be barking at the wrong tree (as far as you are concerned), and that my views/comments will simply not apply to what you’re trying to achieve.

With this important disclaimer in mind, I can describe the structure of what follows.
In general, I found your paper to be well written, (mostly) clear, easy to follow and very promising. However, I also think that you have overlooked or misplaced an important conceptual step, which in turn justifies why I disagree with one important conclusion you reach. The possibility that I am misreading or misunderstanding you however is very concrete: it’s possible that I simply don’t grasp the concept of Ecological Information (EI) well enough, and that therefore my main criticism is misplaced. If that’s so, please feel free to expose my own mistake/ignorance, without sugar-coating. As you’ll see, I won’t be pulling my punches either: in the interest of clarity, I’ll be very direct (knowing/expecting that this is what you’d appreciate more than anything).

The big reason why I’m investing a few days of my spare time is simple (also insanely ambitious): I hope that addressing the step I believe you’ve missed will make the paper even more groundbreaking; as it is, your paper tries to bridge EI with almost “traditional” representations (as used in Cognitive Psychology), but in my opinion, it currently falls just short of the mark. If you’ll find my comments somewhat useful, you might be able to also bridge EI with Shannon’s Information (SI) and, for the same price, open the door to the field of prediction-based perception. If I’ll succeed (unlikely, but it’s worth trying) you may eventually see how to unify all four approaches (instead of “just” two), saving the best sides of each and concurrently solving related philosophical problems. A high-stakes, high-risk game, so I’m happy to take the risk as I personally have nothing to lose :-).
As it’s unlikely that you’ll find my high-risk suggestions useable, I’ll add a few low-risk, low-gain suggestions at the bottom of this post, hoping to be useful at least a little.

What follows is rich in quotes (I hope you don’t mind), I’ll start them with the indication of the page where they appear, to aid navigation.

Take-home message so far: please be aware of the distance between our backgrounds, also do keep in mind that I’m deliberately taking a long shot, so the chances I’ll miss my self-selected distant mark are high. In the rest of this post I will try to:

  1. Expose what I think is a (very big) gap in the picture you are painting.
  2. Explain why I think the presence of this gap doesn’t allow you to justify some of your conclusions.
  3. Propose my own way of filling the gap.
  4. Briefly explain why I think the proposed addition is worth the risk.
  5. Finally, I’ll close up with minor suggestions and general praise.

Main Commentary

I will start by declaring my main problem with your aim and conclusions, you write:

[P3-4] We propose that Gibsonian ecological information perfectly fits the definition of a representation.

I think this is wrong: Gibsonian ecological information (EI)  does not fit the definition (on its own), but what you propose as “neural representations” do fit the definition of representation you’ve adopted. This ties-in nicely with what I think is the main gap you’ve failed to bridge.

The way I read you, you claim that EI is “out there”, it is collected by sensory organs, transformed into “neural representations” of EI and then used to both control and select actions. At worse, this picture is sketchy to the point of being wrong (my biophysics background comes to the fore).

In plain terms, what we do know is that sensory organs collect and transduce (transform into nervous signals) a vast amount of data. I’m not using the term “information” yet, for reasons that should become clear below. At any given time, touch receptors, smell-cells, photoreceptors, proprioceptors (and more) are all active doing this: they collect everything that hits them (if it’s able to influence their specific receptors) and send a corresponding signal towards the brain. Once transduced, what was before unspecific energy or molecules becomes something which can be directly interpreted as a signal (the action potentials travelling through the axons of sensory neurons). Nothing particularly new in this, but this very general and universally accepted picture is apparently hard to reconcile with the vision you are proposing.

In your view, EI is out there, it is collected by the senses and then used to control/select action. This isn’t plain wrong, but glosses over important details:

EI is indeed out there, but is bathed in a sea of unspecific stuff. All this unspecific energy and molecules will disorderly hit receptors and all of it has the potential of being transduced (within the boundaries of what sensory organs can collect). Thus, the first signals that are transmitted within an organism are unspecific, they potentially contain also EI, but they actually “contain” a lot more. At this point the task for the organism is to discard all the information that isn’t currently useful and retain only what counts as EI. Crucially, in your paper you mention something that is close to this need only when you briefly comment on “learning to perceive”, but otherwise you ignore the whole subject. This for me is a deal breaker: if I were formally peer-reviewing your paper I would recommend to reject unless you are willing to show how organisms manage (or may manage) to extract EI from unspecific stimuli. Unfortunately, doing so is potentially negating one of the things you find exciting: EI is indeed present outside, but already considering it a representation is at the very least misleading, as it is effectively hidden by the vast amount of potentially irrelevant data. At “collection time” EI is present, but useless: one needs a way to extract it, and a way which is flexible enough to accommodate the somewhat unpredictable ecological needs of the perceiving organism.

Thus, one of the main points of the paper:

[P9] we propose that ecological information simply is the representation that closes the poverty of stimulus gap, though it is external and ecological rather than internal and mental.

Is strongly undermined by what I’m proposing here (sorry!). Specifically: I’m not convinced that it is already useful to consider EI, when external, as a representation. To be considered as such, one needs to take as a given (gloss over?) the context and internal state of the perceiving organism: depending on contingent factors, including the task at hand, what counts as EI changes all the time, so I think we’d be better off by accepting that EI is such in virtue of internal factors as defined by the organism itself and, crucially, its own ecological needs.
To use the example you make of coordinated rhythmic movement: the dynamic pattern of “relative direction” used to coordinate action is external in the sense that it is potentially available to any third party observer. This is of extreme importance when it comes to empirically reverse engineering how organisms produce behaviour. However, in the world out there there is a hell of a lot more structures and dynamics, all of them co-existing in a seemingly chaotic mixture. A priori, all of them may have important ecological implications for a perceiving agent. Importantly, in your own example, what makes the “relative direction” criteria relevant to the subject is determined by something inside the subject (in this case, what the subject is trying to do).

Of the collected signals, what comes from visual (and I’d guess propioceptive) sensors can be used to determine in what direction each limb is moving. From there, you can also derive the relative direction, and use it to coordinate. Thus, functionally, the Shannon’s kind of information (SI) that is available outside is massively filtered at the level of sensory organs (only some physical properties can have effects on the activity of a given receptor), it is then processed, and via this processing, the ecological information is “extracted”. The process is computationally analogous to compression: you have a hell of a lot of bits outside, transduce only some (the potentially relevant, as defined by evolutionary processes) and “process” it further in order to progressively reduce them, ending up with the minimal amount of bits which are enough to react appropriately (coordinate, in this case). If we change the task, what information is thrown away and what is instead retained would change accordingly. Thus, if we are trying to explain how an organism does all this, the fact that the relevant information, AKA Ecological Gibsonian information is out there is indeed important, at least because it enables to design solid empirical investigations. However, the crucial functionalities that can allow an organism to function are:

  1. Ability to collect whatever is potentially relevant.
  2. Ability to extract what is actually relevant for a given task.

Because what is actually relevant is a function of the organism, the context, and of the contingent organism’s state, saying that the representation is already external hides the fact that what counts as EI is determined by the organism itself. For this reason, I fail to see why it’s useful to declare that external EI is representational (apart from saving a signature aspect of radical embodiment). Photons bouncing around can be seen as ecological information only if someone is detecting them.
Time for a little detour: one factor of extreme importance is that something like the “relative direction” of the organism’s limbs is something that can be detected, using the vast amount of (potentially) detectable stuff in the world. Crucially, this data is collectable by virtually any third-party observer: it is an objectively measurable property of the environment, and thus, directly amenable to empirical investigation. This enables doing science, justifying the successes of radical embodiment; one can hypothesise: “this particular pattern is what the organism uses to coordinate”. With such a hypothesis, you can make predictions and on this basis, verify if the hypothesis seems to hold. In this way, you get to specify what kind of signals may be collected in 1. and how they need to be transformed (filtered/compressed) to perform 2. Paired with good old boring biophysics (specifying what and organism can actually collect, in terms of SI), you’ve narrowed down the possibilities to a tremendous extent.

Yes, in a sense the EI is out there, it is external, but what makes it “ecological” or, if you prefer, what makes it possible to extract the signal, differentiate it from the irrelevant (not ecological, not relevant for the organism for the current task) is exclusively internal. Since we are interested in understanding how the organism detects the relevant information (from the messy bulk of stimuli collected by lots of sensory organs), the information needed is by definition out there, but it actually becomes proper Ecological Information because of how it is internally processed.

This leads to what you call “neural representations”. What your paper seems to suggest is that EI is directly collected and transformed into “neural representations”. What I’m suggesting is that the “directly” part is (if implied, as I think) misleading. Furthermore, how neural representation of EI are generated is exactly the interesting passage in the whole story. I appreciate you probably have consciously decided not to tackle this aspect, but I think it’s a mistake:

a. It makes your paper vulnerable to the kind of criticism I’m making.
b. It misses a tremendous opportunity, while weakening your claims.

Specifically, your paper already tries to unify traditional Cognitive Psychology and Radical Embodiment, while keeping the best sides of both views. To do so, you gloss over a major aspect of perception, opening up to criticism. Instead, you could bite the bullet, strengthen your argument, and get additional unifying powers:

I. As hinted above, the revised story I’m proposing is also mapping the relation between Shannon’s Information and Ecological Information. (See also my attempt to link structure and dynamics to SI.)
II. Showing how information is filtered/compressed in order to extract EI from raw sensory input allows to slot-in the other main hot-topic in neuroscience: the predictive approach. Doing so solves a problem and reconciles apparently antagonistic views…

I’ll allow myself to briefly discuss this second benefit. We already know that all sorts of raw unspecific signals are collected by sensory organs, we know they are processed along neural pathways at each identifiable step (at the very least, when signals pass from one cell to the other). The story I’ve been painting starting from your paper then allows to clearly define what is the main function of the transformations that happen during and after the first transduction. The aim is to isolate EI and to discard the rest.

The problem is that what counts as EI is both context-dependent and internally defined (depends on the state of the organism). Thus, the system that extracts EI needs to be potentially universal (we agree on this, apparently), or at least, as versatile as possible. It’s like designing a targeting system while not knowing what kind of projectiles and targets will be used. Such a system needs to be dynamically able to identify the correct kinematic projections from the original (outside world) dynamics. At any given time, the set of possible kinematic projections is effectively infinite. How can a system optimally isolate the correct ones when it can’t make many assumptions on what will make them “correct”? [If you wish, I’m merely restating the framing problem.]
One solution comes from the prediction-based approach: if you can manage to transform input at time A in such a way that it efficaciously predicts input at time A+1, you are guaranteed that you are keeping as much potential EI as possible, while at the same time you are discarding everything else – you are distilling the potential EI while filtering out all the noise. For brevity, I’ll leave this as a hint, but do note that I have a lot more to say, so in case I’ve tickled your curiosity, feel free to ask. [Note also that, like Andrew, I still have to read Clarke’s latest book, but I do usually agree with him. See also this brief article by Tim Genewein on why Bayesian approaches can be understood in terms of lossy compression.]

This concludes the highly challenging and propositional side of my comments. To close off the main commentary, I still need to address the one conclusion you make which I don’t think is appropriately justified. It will take just a little longer.

[P18] Our developing solution begins by identifying that information can not only control actions; it can also select them

Yes, no problem with this. Once the organism has isolated an applicable form of EI, it can select actions, not only control them. Interesting here: to select, one discards most of the collected SI, and remains with the amount of bits necessary to discriminate across the available options, so very few bits. In controlling action, frequent and highly tuned corrections are needed, so less SI is discarded. This leads to a vision of “higher order” cognition as the most impoverished form of cognition! It is also the only cognition which we consciously experience, so putting the two things together, you end up explaining a few interesting things:

i. Traditional cognitive psychology starts from the ideas of impoverished signals and of enriching representations because, well, that’s what we experience, so makes intuitive sense. It’s also somewhat wrong. The most impoverished signals are objectively poor because they are very rich in EI. One could say they are objectively poor and subjectively rich (!).
ii. A signal rich in EI, can be used to produce high-level predictions, making it possible that such signals are indeed sometimes used to fill-in the blanks, as assumed by cognitive psychology.
iii. The enrichment/filtering process is likely gradual: if used to control movements the signal can be routed towards outputs without being impoverished to the max.
iv. This also directly explains why [P19] “there is no convincing evidence that we can instantiate a neural representation of information sufficient to support action control unless the relevant information is present in the current environment“. We only store the most enriched EI, why would we store anything else? But because of that, the information is poor (objectively) and thus, not sufficient to drive highly refined behaviours. It only suffices to effectively select behaviours. In other words, I agree with your entire “motivation 3” discussion (from P16), and think it should be extended.

This brings us to my last problem, appearing at the bottom of p20:

But these neural representations, while internal, are not the mental representations of standard cognitive theories.

Unfortunately, you have not convinced me that the two kinds of representations aren’t one and the same. You describe impoverished representations which can produce perceptions (hear my inner speech, for example), and can be used both to produce inferences and select behaviour. Without other context, I would be recognising these representations as the classic cognitive psychology ones. The one thing you’ve added is showing why they need to be intensional (because by being so they solve the problems associated with representations and therefore make representations ecologically useful!), and thus you are showing why cognitive psychology is wrong when it understands representations in a way that can only make them extensional.
In other words, you are correcting a very big and frequent mistake made in cognitive psychology, you are showing what the representations we talk about actually are, but you are not negating their existence. Perhaps is my relentless drive towards unification that is speaking here. [Side note: the intensional/extensional distinction you make is spot on, and the main reason why I agree that your view actually goes a long way in naturalising intentionality. I would love to see your paper published for this reason alone.]

Other comments

While re-reading your paper, I took a lot of notes. I will include them here with minimal editing. If the ambitious commentary above will prove to be useless to you, perhaps you’ll find something useful in what follows.

Across the whole paper you sometimes refer to “information”, sometimes to “ecological information”. When I read (unqualified) “information”, I automatically understand “Shannon’s information” – problem is, I don’t think you ever refer to SI, so the effect is confusing and (for me, a non-Gibsonian) an extra effort is required. I guess most scientists would experience a similar effect, so why not introducing the EI acronym and using it throughout?

[P3] They have yet to develop any widely accepted explanations for the ‘high-order’ cognitive activities driving Motivation 3.

Not sure I follow the grammar, here. What is the “3” for? Why “driving motivation”?

Use of “intentionality” on P3: it’s not immediately clear whether you are talking about having “intentions/plans” or intentionality as “aboutness”. P4 clarifies that it’s the latter, but:

[P4] a cognitive system must be able to behave as an (almost) arbitrary function of the environment. In other words, a cognitive system has to be able to be ‘about’ anything it encounters in the world.

I do see the link between these two sentences, but only because I already agree with it, thus I fear this passage might be confusing to others.

[P5] We take Motivation 1 (getting intentionality out of a physical system) to be the primary job of representations. Motivations 2 and 3 are constraints on exactly how Motivation 1 might be implemented given the existence of the two gaps.”

Do you need the second sentence? After re-reading the rest of the paper I don’t think you need to qualify.

Note 5 on P6: I don’t understand it! This note confused me more than anything else.

[P14] Ecological Information Supports System-Detectable Error

This is the only section where you hint towards the big problem you are otherwise largely ignoring: how is the correct EI isolated? The fact that you do mention this makes me hope that my main criticism may not be too wrong.

[P16] Motivation 2 is that representations are required to bridge a poverty of stimulus gap.

I found the bit that follows a little confusing. For me the poverty of the stimulus refers to the fact that we don’t collect all possible signals from the environment, and that sometimes the signals are very indirect (i.e. a pawn print isn’t the tiger, but still a worrying sign, I guess). However, as I’ve explained above, a huge issue is the one of isolating EI from the raw incoming signals, it’s a matter of reducing a huge amount of bits to much, much fewer (i.e. to specify whether to do this instead of that you end up needing only one bit!), but of course, the problem is doing it effectively. Thus, once we have a grasp of how to collect intensional information (see above: I think you can bridge this gap with the predictive approach), reducing it to its bare minimum, AKA impoverishing the signal, is precisely what needs to be done. It goes without saying that the result is necessarily symbolic/representational.

The good stuff

Before concluding, a little praise, in the form of a selection of quotes I’ve absolutely loved (there are many more!).

[P4] These informational representations solve both the symbol grounding and system-detectable error problems [yes, they do], and they constrain the form (and empirical investigation) of neural representations caused by interacting with information.

If we do fill in the blanks (see above), this hits the nail on the head.

[P4] these two ecological representations then address all three motivations for representational accounts described above, including, as we develop below, the major challenge of supporting ‘higher-order’ cognition.

Yes! If you’ll manage to get this view in the mainstream, major problems could be finally surpassed, great stuff.

[P9, on coordinating rhythmic movement] The kinematic information variable ‘relative direction’ is standing-in for the dynamical world property ‘relative phase’ and it requires no additional enrichment from a mental representation in order to do so.

[P12] understanding the function and structure of neural representations requires understanding the structure and environmental cause of ecological information, which is not how cognitive neuroscience currently guides its work.

These two quotes, along with the ones below, summarise why I’m so excited, you are fixing stuff that has been broken for much too long…

[P14] Informational representations [ecological information, once distilled inside the organism], however, are immune to the grounding problem.

Agreed, with the modification I’m proposing.

[P14-15] because, from an ecological perspective, perceiving and acting are fundamentally intensional (Gibson, 1979, Turvey et al., 1981) and because the content of informational representations is accessible to the perceiving-acting organism, organisms can be aware of when these representations are wrong and this awareness can have a consequence on future behavior.


[P16] because information specifies properties and not individuals (Turvey et al, 1981) informational representations can explain our behavioral flexibility. When we encounter a novel object or event, it will likely project at least some familiar information variables (e.g., whether it is moveable, alive, etc), giving us a basis for functional action in a novel context.

In a way, I’m paradoxically disappointed by how quickly (but, in my view, effectively) you sweep through the solution to the problems of intentionality, of grounding representations and the role of the intensional/extensional distinction. I realise this isn’t new, but does bear repeating and re-proposing because it is exactly right. Failing to focus on intensional content is the source of so many errors and confusion in traditional cognitive approaches.


I am very aware that I’ve grabbed your ball, took it to a different court and started playing my own game with it. I’m doing so because I have some hope that you’ll like my modified game. If you don’t, please do feel free to tell me to give the ball back and eff-off. I’ll comply and won’t be holding a grudge, it’s a promise. If, otherwise, you do like some of my lucubrations, please feel free to use them as you wish (no strings attached). What you are doing is immensely useful to what I’m trying to put together here, so I do know I’m not wasting my energy (just thinking about these things is useful to me a-priori).
Finally, if, in virtue of some extraordinary stroke of luck, you think I can help you some more, please do let me know, I’ll be very happy to try.

In all cases, I’m looking forward to your feedback. Thanks for reading!


Golonka, S, & Wilson, AD (2016). Ecological Representations bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/058925

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Posted in Evolutionary Psychology, Philosophy, Psychology

#EURef: a how to vote flowchart

A couple of weeks ago I posted a long post complaining about the low level of the discourse around the upcoming UK’s EU referendum. Since then, I had a few discussions on- and off-line. I’ve concluded that the original blog post is both too long and too short. It’s too long for its intended purpose: if you are undecided, it is relatively unlikely that you are ready to read a long essay written by an Italian living in the UK. Thus, I’ve decided to try a very different, not too serious strategy. Below you’ll find a flowchart, in Q&A style: a little guide on how to vote, according to me. Very patronising, so do note my apologies. The whole thing is based on the reasoning explained in the original post, if your curiosity is tickled, do check it out!
Some parts of the chart below are clickable, hovering over them will make the cursor change and will show a short text. Clicking on them will send you to the second half of this page, where my own explanations are written in short-form.



Not Voting:

I know this suggestion will make many people howl in exasperation. Still, I do think that, for any vote, if you don’t care enough to think about your decisions, you shouldn’t vote. By voting you are making the result more dependent on the marketing machinery than anything else (without engaging, the superficial impressions count more), thus, you are most likely going to be exploited by demagogues than not. Stay at home, avoid making systematically bad choices and just trust those who care enough. Furthermore, if you don’t care and vote, your vote will count as much as the ones cast by people who do care, which does look marginally unfair.


Yes, this is to help the undecided!

A personal note: I’m wasting my time writing this because chatting with friends and colleagues I’ve realised how puzzled most people are. Thus, since I have an idea about how to resolve the puzzlement, I may as well try to make it known (FWIW). This whole little effort is really intended to help the undecided. If you already have strong opinions, that’s OK, do hold onto them.


Economic self interest.

In the main post, I do argue why “self interest”, when intended as direct economic self-interest, is a self-defeating position. It’s as if what happened in the world at large didn’t have economic effects in the UK… Furthermore, simple economic interest can’t help deciding, because the outcome is unknown: everyone says that for sure voting with their side will work best for all. That’s nonsense: in all cases there will be winners and losers, while overall we can only bet on a period of turmoil if the “leave” camp leaves. After that, nobody, I repeat nobody knows what will happen!


OK, how about cooperation outside the EU?

There is a genuine objection to be made here. If the UK leaves, wouldn’t this allow to cooperate more with the whole world? Maybe, but the obstacles that the EU poses in this direction are small. For example, if we wanted, we could allow anyone to have a student visa, that’s not prohibited. Fact is: the current government doesn’t want. [See also below]


The EU will fail. How do you know?

It may well be that the EU was always destined to crumble before delivering its promises. Fine, but how do we know it? If you have strong arguments to make this conclusion, please let me know. I am genuinely interested. One word of caution: saying people are selfish/short sighted doesn’t count. They may be, but they may not. What counts is how the political discourse unfolds: it can bring out the best or the worse, there are plenty of historical examples of both. Since here we are talking about what kind of world-view we do want to work for, appealing to the fact that people are (by definition) somewhat responsive to populist arguments simply isn’t enough.


I’m almost joking.

It’s reasonable to say “Yes, international cooperation is important, as well as solidarity, but other things are more important”. The trouble is demonstrating that other things can’t be done while also favouring cooperation. Moreover, why would being in the EU preclude cooperating with other countries? Yes, certain trade agreements are bound to EU-wide negotiations, but others aren’t, and there are other tools to be used besides trade agreements. Thus, if you really think cooperating is OK only if it’s cheap, I do feel entitled to suggest to prepare for the upcoming fights: you won’t be making many friends anytime soon!


Not joking.

So, you really think it all comes down to dog eats dog, don’t you? This conclusion really is bad. If cooperation, international law and political solutions are not worth your consideration, then I’d suggest retiring to the proverbial desert island…

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Posted in Politics, Uncategorized

Robert Epstein’s empty essay

Sometimes reading a flawed argument triggers my rage, I really do get angry, a phenomenon that invariably surprises and amuses me. What follows is my attempt to use my anger in a constructive way, it may include elements of a jerk reaction*, but I’ll try to keep my emotions in check.
Dr. Epstein recently published a badly misguided essay on Aeon, entitled “The empty brain“, the subtitle makes it clear what the intended take home message is: “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer“.

DNA as both structure and Information. From Wikimedia

Unfortunately, the essay is systematically wrong: virtually every key passage is mistaken, and yet, overall, it tries to make an argument that is worth making. Thus, I grew annoyed by the mistakes and misrepresentations (my immediate comment was “this is so wrong it hurts”), and then descended into anger because Epstein is actually damaging the credibility of an approach that I find promising, but is all too often misunderstood or straw-manned.

In what follows, I will blatantly ignore the first rule of civilised debate: I will not try to give a charitable reading of the original essay. I won’t because it would effectively hide the reasons for writing my reply. Instead, I will report the key arguments proposed by Dr. Epstein, explain why I think they are wrong, and then finish off by outlining why I nevertheless sympathise with some of the science it endorses (as I understand it).

Epstein’s essay starts by defining the overall aim:

The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

My nonsense detectors already started to make noises: we can remember lots of stuff, so it’s undeniable that we do contain memories. Perhaps he meant that memories are surprisingly different from what we might think they are? The essay then states that:

For more than half a century now, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and other experts on human behaviour have been asserting that the human brain works like a computer.
To see how vacuous this idea is, consider the brains of babies.

Unfortunately, what follows doesn’t show “how vacuous this idea is” it merely re-states the point. The real trouble starts when actual computers are described:

Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeroes (‘bits’) organised into small chunks (‘bytes’).
I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Uh oh. Dr. Epstein made it very clear that he doesn’t understand computers. In fact, computers don’t contain zeroes and ones (or images, or symphonies, or texts…), they contain physical stuff, highly organised in precise and changeable structures which can be interpreted as zeros and ones, which in turn, can be interpreted as representations of virtually anything. This point is crucial and something which I’ve discussed at length before (in the context of “brain/mind” sciences, see here and here): importantly, computers are designed to make their behaviour predictable and understandable. Because of their designed features, the interpretation of their inner working becomes relatively easy, and thus it becomes possible (not utterly wrong) to say that they “really” do operate on symbolic representations. However, this is true because we explicitly design the interpretation maps (we write the software), in other words, the symbolic nature of what happens inside our computers is true in virtue of what happens within the brains of people (who design, program and use computers), there is nothing intrinsic in a computer that makes its internal patterns of electrical activity “stand for” this or that. That’s to say that one could also make the opposite case, and point out that physical computers are just a bunch of mechanisms in motion, and conclude that computers don’t process information at all. That would be formally defensible, but absurd, right? Indeed, it would be: the whole point of computers is to process information, thus, even if producing an explanation of how they work which completely ignores any concept of information is entirely possible, it would be useless if our aim is to understand why computers behave in certain ways. Information is in the eye of the beholder, and that is precisely why it’s a useful concept. Furthermore, it is entirely possible and appropriate to describe information in terms of underlying structures.

To make the concept even more clear, let’s look at another biological phenomenon: inheritance and DNA. You can (and should) describe DNA in structural terms: things like the double helix, the shape of nucleotides, the molecular mechanisms of DNA replication, of protein synthesis and so forth. However, once all of the above is done, it is handy to also describe stretches of DNA in terms of pure information, namely the sequence of nucleotides, represented by the letters A, T, C and G. Thus a stretch of DNA can be effectively described by something like this:

The image above is a representation of the gene which encodes for Insulin. Crucially, it is this kind of description which enabled the production of synthetic Insulin and thus the production of cheaper and safer medication. My point: both a purely structural and a purely information-centric descriptions of the Insulin gene are possible. The latter is more abstract, and because of that it is frequently more useful.

In the same way, describing the inner workings of computers in terms of information makes perfect sense, but doesn’t negate that a more accurate description would involve physical mechanisms.

Back to Epstein’s essay. So far, we’ve established that his crucial point (“Computers, quite literally, process information“) is at best misleading: they do, but we may say so because it is a useful way to conceptualise how computers operate. In another sense, computers don’t process information, they just shuffle electrical charges, Information Processing (IP) is merely a useful interpretation, arbitrarily added by us, the observers.

The essay continues by remarking that historically bodies and then brains have been described by means of metaphors, employing the most advanced technologies known at a given time. Currently, digital technologies are used, so we may be entitled to predict that as technology advances, we will stop using the silly metaphor of IP and jump on the next bandwagon (also: where is the dichotomy between metaphors and “actual knowledge” coming from?) . This may be, but again, it’s a misleading way of looking at what happened: once technology started to produce complex-enough mechanisms, it became possible to conceive the idea that organisms may be nothing more than complicated mechanisms. Subsequently, once Information Theory (Shannon’s – SI) was developed, it became possible to describe dynamic structures in terms of their informational content (storage, signalling and processing). As exemplified by my detour on molecular biology, it happens that this new, more abstract way of describing stuff is frequently very useful, and thus people are looking at the inner workings of brains and nervous systems also by employing the informational metaphor. When an action potential travels along an axon, it is natural, handy and useful to describe the shuffling of ions as a travelling signal. If you do, you are already using the IP metaphor: if it’s a signal, we are already describing it in SI’s terms.

The following step should really clarify where my anger comes from. Apparently Dr. Epstein finds it surprising that neuroscientists don’t know how to describe their subject without deploying IP. He believes they should avoid IP altogether, because, according to him, it’s clearly wrong:

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Few little problems here! First of all, the IP metaphor is pervasive because it’s useful, as I’ve demonstrated above. Second, I’ve never heard, and have no need to deploy such a silly syllogism. The reasoning I’m defending is that it is reasonable to interpret complex control mechanisms in terms of information processing. Brains are complex control mechanism, and therefore it is reasonable to deploy the IP metaphor when describing and studying their inner workings.

Moving on, Dr. Epstein then attempts to demonstrate that the IP metaphor is damaging neuroscience. To do so, he makes a really important observation: when asked to draw a one-dollar note, people will perform poorly if they do so without having an actual note to copy. This is an important thing to note: people can draw something which resembles the original in important aspects, but most of the details will be missing. The correct conclusion is that our brains are not optimised to store faithful representations, and that whatever it is that they store, it is usually very sketchy. In other words, efficiency and efficacy are normally favoured, accuracy isn’t. Jumping from this observation to the conclusion that the information needed to produce a gross sketch of a one dollar bill isn’t somehow present in the brain is so blatantly wrong that I don’t even know how to refute it. Unfortunately, it seems that Dr. Epstein wants us to actually draw this absurd conclusion (the “any sense” clause is deal breaker):

[N]o image of the dollar bill has in any sense been ‘stored’ in Jinny’s brain. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.

In fairness, Dr. Epstein then tries to make a subtler point:

As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences.
no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions.

In other words, seeing a banknote, hearing a song – even more, singing a song – will change some structural element inside us, presumably in the brain. Fine, this is manifestly what every neuroscientist thinks is happening. Thus, because we can link structures and structural changes to information and information processing, we can, if desired, deploy the Information Processing metaphor. In other words, Dr. Epstein has so far proposed a number of questionable claims, peppered with one interesting observation (which manifestly refutes one of the intended take-home messages): whatever it is that our brains do store, it apparently is surprisingly inaccurate.

At this point it goes on to both promote and misrepresent a branch of Cognitive Science which I find very interesting, promising and rightly controversial, that is: Radical Embodiment.

The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but Chemero and others describe another way of understanding intelligent behaviour – as a direct interaction between organisms and their world.

Why do I say “rightly controversial”? Because if one interprets it as above, the whole idea fails to make sense. Hypothesising “a direct interaction between organisms and their world” means that there would be nothing to learn in studying the mechanisms which mediate the interactions and happen to occur inside bodies (would count as indirect?). In other words, it declares the reductionist approach a dead-end a priori. Trouble is, nobody does this: we do study how sensory signals travel along nerves towards the central nervous system and also what happens within brains in similar ways. The only problem I have with Radical Embodiment is that it might superficially seem to espouse such a view, while I happen to think that it tries to do something which is much more important, and orders of magnitudes more useful.
Radical Embodiment is challenging our understanding of “representations” and showing how they are far less “information rich” than what our common intuitions would suggest. It is doing so by showing how much the interaction with the world is necessary for guiding and fine-tuning behaviour. It does challenge the idea that we hold detailed models of the world and interact with those (instead of interacting with the world), and does so for a lot of good reasons, but, as exemplified in this brief exchange, it does not challenge the IP metaphor, it is merely showing how to apply it better!

Dr. Epstein goes on by citing reputable sources and even mentions Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka’s blog (see also their excellent Twitter feed), which happens to be one of my favourite corners of the Internet.

This is one reason why I’m writing all this: if I’m right, Dr. Epstein is badly misrepresenting the Radical Embodiment idea, and in doing so he is unnecessarily making it look mistaken and indefensible. Far from it, it is something that is worth a lot of attention and careful study. To say it with the always thought-provoking words of Wilson and Golonka (2013), the main idea behind the movement is:

Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems.

To me, it is self-evident that this radical idea is basically correct, and at the same time, it is a reason why it is so difficult to figure out how brains work. One needs to account for much more than just neurons… At the same time, while I do accept the basic idea without reservations, I am also worried that, as exemplified by the short discussion I’ve linked above, radically rejecting all uses of the “representation” concept isn’t going to work: what needs to be done is different, but perhaps something that is best left for another time.

Overall, Cognitive Neuroscience is tricky, it is prohibitively hard, and, as I argue in the introduction here, it is of paramount importance to carefully select the correct metaphors in order to convincingly describe the vast number of different phenomena occurring at different scales (from the psychological, to the neural, down at least to the molecular). In this context, expecting that at one or more of these levels the IP metaphor will prove to be useful (as it is in the case of computers) is entirely justified. Challenging the consensus is something that scientists probably aren’t doing enough, but alas, Dr. Epstein’s attempt is unfortunately failing to do so.

Notes and Bibligraphy:

ResearchBlogging.org*It’s even more interesting to note that when I write an angry reaction the resulting posts frequently happen to be among the most popular on this blog, see for example here (with follow-up) and here. It’s also worth noting that the essay I’m criticising has collected a very high number of negative comments, see the one from Jackson Kernion in particular.

Wilson, A., & Golonka, S. (2013). Embodied Cognition is Not What you Think it is Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00058

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Posted in Psychology, Stupidity

The Brexit debate: no matter what, don’t mention the war!

There is something deeply troubling about how the debate about the UK’s EU referendum is unfolding. Deeply troubling and, dare I say, a little bit disgusting. Most opinion articles/interventions that I could find will start along the lines of “the UK is facing a decision of historic proportions…” and then completely forget the matter, preferring to discuss why voting yes or no will make you (the public) richer and happier in the foreseeable future.

Copyright: see notes and further reading.

Copyright: see notes and further reading.

Typically, whether the author favours the in or out camp usually matters very little, the framing is usually the same (with exceptions, of course): “you should vote X, because X makes economic sense”. This “economic sense” (I can’t emphasise the scare quotes enough) may be described either in the short/medium term (typically by the Remain side) or medium/long-term (favoured a little more often by the Leave camp). From my perspective, both approaches are blatantly misleading, they qualify more as misinformation than anything else.
I am of course aware that I have exactly zero chances of influencing how the debate is framed, but I will try nevertheless: my aim is to highlight why the choice that Britain is facing is of historic proportions, show that they are far-reaching and ominous, and finally highlight how this more holistic framing helps making an informed decision. That is: looking at the big picture makes picking a side much less a matter of taste/guessing/gut-feeling and much more a consequence of our generic world view and inclinations.

Having said this, an important disclaimer: I’m Italian, an EU citizen, I live and work in the UK and have no wish to leave. This makes my opinion naturally influenced by a relatively significant conflict of interest: I do wish my personal and professional life not to be threatened by a victory of the leave side. Furthermore, my world view and inclinations clearly point in the same direction: I think the remain option is very obviously the best one, furthermore, I refuse to believe that Britain as a whole will fail to recognise what’s best. Thus, be warned: what follows is an opinion, coloured by the sort of biases that grip all of us.

Self interest is about much more than GDP.

When deciding whether to participate in any activity, it’s clearly useful to know what the purpose of such activity is. In the case of the Brexit referendum, this basic rule of decision-making seems to be almost forgotten: most of the debate revolves around whether the UK will prosper more from within or without the EU. The fact that the EU has bigger aims, and treats prosperity as an important goal as well as an instrumental tool is, perhaps conveniently, brushed aside. As a result, we read lots of statements, boldly declaring that UK will clearly benefit from leaving, counterbalanced by the opposite view, also declared to be obviously true. This can’t be, the truth is that very little is obvious and much is unknown. Specifically, the only thing we can forecast with relative confidence is that if the UK will vote to leave it will enter a period of uncertainty and turmoil, as a consequence, the short-term outcome will almost certainly mark a net loss in economic development. After this initial period, if we are to believe that both camps base their claims on some element of truth, the logic conclusion is that nobody knows whether the UK will gain or suffer. It’s as simple as that: the clear proliferation of opposite and irreconcilable forecasts, all claiming to be obviously true, should suggest that in fact, no one can tell without reasonable doubt what the consequences of either options will be.

For this reason, the debate as I’m experiencing it is both deeply flawed and depressing. The, most common approach, shared as a sort of implicit agreement by both camps is that Britons should vote for the option that strengthens the UK economy. This approach is wrong, as it rests on false/questionable assumptions such as:

  1. A strong local economy is the most important factor. Self-interested voters needn’t think about anything else.
  2. Direct economic self-interest (even if not tied to the national economy) is the most important motivation for picking a side: one doesn’t need to be concerned with the long-term global consequences of whatever Britain will choose.
  3. Finally, as hinted above, the approach assumes that it is possible to reliably predict which option will maximise wealth creation in Britain.

All three assumptions look blatantly false to my eyes: the first point is weak, because a strong economy may or may not in itself be good news for the overall population. We all know that the global trend is towards wealth accumulation in the hands of an ever more restricted super-rich elite, we can probably agree that a strong economy will certainly favour these elites, but it is not clear if it will help raising the standard of living of the population at large (let alone the lower layers and the disenfranchised). The second assumption is trickier: given the current concerns on the planetary scale, my take is that one should, besides direct economic outcomes, consider also questions about geo-politics (will a vote for Brexit produce a more or less stable world? Will far-right nationalistic movements around the world benefit or suffer as a consequence? What does ISIS prefer us to vote? Would it favour or diminish Putin’s influence on the political world?), global economy (What will happen to the remaining EU economies? Will globalisation work in the interest of a wider or narrower range of people?) and ecology (Will it become easier or harder to coordinate efforts against global warming?) – ignoring this sort of questions looks inherently narrow-minded, bordering on wilful ignorance. The third assumption is just wrong: the consequences of Britain’s choice will certainly have a wide range of effects (certainly on other EU member states and EU policies, but it’s hard to deny that the ripples will propagate further than that). Thus, anyone who tells us that they already know how things will pan out in the medium/long-term is either delusional, a wilful liar, or blessed with supernatural powers.

In other words, the most common, almost universally accepted criteria of choice (“what option will leave Britain better off?”) is flawed and should be rejected. The reasons are simple: even if we interpret “better off” as a direct measure of GDP, we can’t tell with decent confidence and accuracy what will happen in either case. Furthermore, I am sure that most voters are actually concerned with much more than GDP alone: questions as “would I be better off?” should also be part of the equation, but also “would the world be better off?” should be considered, at the very least because what happens around Britain certainly influences what happens therein, for better or worse.

Be as it may, even if we accept to broaden our view, we have made little progress: we still don’t know what criteria should guide the choice.

Know your history, fool!

To start looking for better criteria, knowing what is the purpose of the EU would help, but curiously, it is very hard to find  information about it, even the EU official pages seem quite happy to gloss over irrelevant details such as why we even talk about political integration, monetary union, and the like. Let me be perfectly clear: voting for leaving can make sense, but it implies that you either don’t want to achieve the aims of the EU or that you have reasons to believe these aims will not be achieved anyway. However, the common discourse seems to ignore such overall aims, and if one ignores them, voting either way doesn’t make much sense: it would be a vote cast for irrelevant or secondary reasons.

Understanding the overall aims of the EU institutions, and understanding the instruments it utilises to reach such aims, should certainly help. It would also allow us to ask some crucial questions: are such aims worthy? Are they achievable? Are the current institutions actually working towards such aims?

So, what is the EU for? I’ll quote a certain Winston Churchill:

[T]here is no reason why we should not succeed in achieving our aims and establishing the structure of this united Europe whose moral concepts will be able to win the respect and recognition of mankind, and whose physical strength will be such that no one will dare to hold up its peaceful journey towards the future.

Oh, the aim is to establish the structure of a united Europe, a process seen as a peaceful journey. If this wasn’t clear enough for you, I’ll borrow some more words from the Schuman Declaration:

By pooling basic industrial production and setting-up a new High Authority whose decisions will be binding on France, Germany and other member countries, these proposals will bring to reality the first solid groundwork for a European Federation vital to the preservation of world peace.

[Before anyone thinks I’m cherry picking: both quotes come from the very beginnings of the EU project and are indisputably linked to the foundation of the institutions of the EU, namely the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community and of the European Economic Community shortly after. More documentation on Churchill’s reasons to promote the European project are here.]

These two quotes allow to put aims and tools in the proper order: the aim is no less than world peace, while the EU as a whole, and in particular the single market and the pooling of productive and economic interests are tools towards this aim. I’ll summarise the whole idea in my own words and provide some further reading at the bottom of this post.

First and foremost, it should go without saying that conflict, any conflict, requires a distinction between two or more actors. You simply can’t have a fight if there is only one actor. Thus, nationalism and national borders act as war enablers: they frequently are a precondition for war. If we could eliminate them, we would make war much more difficult (at the very least). Fine, but how could we? The problem here is that eliminating borders by means of brute force doesn’t work: national identities aren’t erased, and can even be enhanced as a justified reaction to what would count as forceful imposition. Furthermore, democracy in itself doesn’t help: elected representatives inherently draw their legitimacy from their own internal electorate, they can only represent and work in the interest of their own constituency (at best). Thus, to wilfully create a political-economic institution with the mission of working towards pacifying the world by gradually dissolving national institutions, one has to find other instruments. Coercion and democracy would both fall short. You may disagree with the alternative tool of choice, but nevertheless, the choice that was made (and which influences the shape and operation of the EU today) was the economy. It’s simple and ingenious at the same time: prosperity, even if understood only as wealth generation, isn’t a zero-sum game. Cooperation and trade act as wealth multipliers: they allow all/most players to benefit, not necessarily in equal measure, but that’s a secondary concern. Thus, by favouring cooperation, integration of economic interests and trade links, the non-zero-sum nature of the game is highlighted, and in turn, this allows to gradually erode the otherwise instinctive distinction between us and them. If I need your coal to make steel and can then sell you a car made with your coal, my steel and someone else’s rubber, I would have no interest in destroying your ability to extract coal and you will have even less to gain from destroying my car-factories. Clear? (Naturally, there is more to this idea, please see links in the Further Reading section.)

Furthermore, free movement of capital, of people and labour are, once again, instrumental: to see why, take my example. Can I easily think of “us” as a national entity and “them” as another, within the EU range of nationalities? Me personally, given where I live, find it impossible: who would “us” be? The Italian, the British, both, the EU workers in the UK? For me, the whole concept of national identity as a representation of my own private interests makes little practical sense, and like me, it is fading away for all the people who have personally gained from freedom of movement. Furthermore: unregulated immigration can indeed be a problem. As a consequence it becomes in the interest of every member state to make sure living standards are not too unequal across different member states. Thus, the well-being of all member states becomes, at least to some extent (Greece notwithstanding), a positive interest of all other EU members: this again is expected to have the beneficial effect of weakening nationalist interests and fostering greater collaboration.

Interestingly, the plan behind the Euro follows the same blueprint, it is merely geared towards more specific aims: to progress towards an erosion of nationalism, one has to weaken the link between political institutions and national borders/identities. This is a difficult thing to achieve, for a simple reason: it requires (national) politicians to actively seek to give away their own powers, and put them in the hands of a distinct, super-national set of institutions. Since politicians are selfish exactly as all other human beings, it seems unlikely that they will do so just in the name of the common good. As a consequence a special tool is needed. This instrument is the Euro: it promises greater prosperity, but comes with the need of greater coordination (of financial/fiscal policies, at the very least). In this context, the current crisis of the Euro zone is happening exactly according to plan: we are in the phase where it is becoming perfectly clear that the Euro will become (/ is already?) a huge problem unless the members of the Euro zone will stop caring only for their own national interests and will start collaborating more (i.e. work towards a common fiscal policy achieved through the operation of super-national institutions). Once again, economic prosperity is expected (as the inevitable consequence of more collaboration and less destructive competition) and used as a tool to facilitate the creation of a shared, not-forcefully imposed, super-national identity. The overall grand scheme aims at facilitating world peace because, if the EU will succeed, it will become self-evident that the process works.

Right, but does the process work? The truth is that we don’t know for sure. On one side, it has already worked in the sense that war between major western European states has become truly unthinkable (for now). The pull that the EU exerts on near neighbours is also a clear sign of success: the fact that so many states are keen to join directly testifies that the expected domino effect is happening, and also that the tool of choice (economic prosperity) is indeed effective. On the other side, there are problems, and they aren’t small. Prosperity doesn’t grow without worrying bumps, just ask the Greek for confirmation. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the European institutions is becoming more and more questionable (for good reasons!). This is worrying, especially because the reasons to criticise Europe are real and concrete: the downward drive that immigration has on worker wages, the opacity of institutions such as the European Commission, the blind faith in Neo-Liberal economic policies of many important European players and the problems that are being generated by the Euro are real and legitimate worries, they all threaten the overall project. What may happen is that people may ultimately withdraw their support and stop thinking the project could succeed (many have already): unfortunately, this would count as a clear case of self-fulfilling prophecy. The whole project rests on the (very much justified) belief that more cooperation fosters better results than direct or indirect conflict, but if the problems that afflict the EU will start to look insurmountable, the EU will automatically fail. With it, the dream of making the world more peaceful, via careful planning and persuasion, will also die.

What role do you want to play?

All this digression, should, if I’m doing it right, help deciding how to cast your vote at the Brexit referendum. How? First: I should have convinced you that in the big picture, the EU should count as a typical example of a problem that is good to have (at the very least).
Second, I should have convinced you that short/medium-term economic self-interest should not be your main criteria. In the short-term, by leaving the EU Britain will almost certainly be somewhat worse off. In the medium-term, it’s anyone’s bet. In the long-term, it depends on whether the EU will survive. If it will, there is little doubt that being amongst the founding members (not a side-adjunct, special-status, “I’m out, but want the benefits” opportunist anomaly) will be advantageous. If, however, the EU will fail, then again, it may be useful to be already out, but one thing is clear: it will be a disaster, perhaps not a catastrophic disaster for an “outside” UK, but nobody with a functioning brain can think that the disappearance of the EU will be a pleasant walk in the park. Thus, one of the questions that I’ve posed above becomes very important: what would be the global consequences of an “Exit” vote? It seems undeniable to me that such a decision will:

  1. Weaken the EU in general and fuel Euro-scepticism in particular. This counts as working towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of generalised misery, and who wants that?
  2. Reduce to zero the chances that Britain may actively help solving the problems that the EU currently faces. They are real problems and it is in everyone’s interest to solve them. [True: there is a chance that a leave vote will force the remaining members to do a better job, I don’t know how likely it is, but it is possible.]
  3. Give a boost to the nationalistic, far-right, Euro-sceptic movements across the whole EU (and beyond). If we want these forces to become even more relevant and shape more policies across the board, then a vote for Brexit sounds like a good plan.

Overall, I do think that it’s possible to vote to leave, and do so coherently, but I also think that the way the debate is unfolding doesn’t clarify what one is actually voting for, when choosing to leave. Let’s see a few examples:

a. If you think that world peace isn’t a worthy aim, or, if you’re OK with war, as long as your own pockets are full. Then sure, voting for Brexit makes perfect sense.
b. If you think that nationalism, fences, barriers and confrontational competition are good things, then the EU clearly isn’t for you. But please have the courtesy of not talking about freedom: if the only freedom that counts is yours and yours alone, it’s not freedom at all.
c. If you think that the whole project is clearly doomed, if, in your opinion, the European project doesn’t have the slimmest chance, then why not? Voting either way will only make a small difference for a little while. We’re doomed anyway!

Of the three coherent options that I can envisage, the last is the only one I can also respect. If you happen to espouse it, I would be interested in hearing the reasons why you think the project is doomed. From where I stand, it seems to me that it all depends on whether we will all work for or against the EU. If enough people will keep working for it, the EU will survive and will deliver its lofty promises.

If you espouse reasons a or b, please go AWAY, I have nothing to discuss with you.

Finally, if you have more coherent options to vote for leaving, please mention them in the comments. All the others, please vote, and Vote “Stay”!


Notes and further reading:

In writing this I’ve carefully avoided stomping on party lines. I could have done otherwise, which would have allowed also to highlight the campaigning efforts that are not afflicted by the narrow vision I criticise here. After consideration, I’ve decided not to take this route, primarily because revising various positive and negative examples (on both sides) would make this essay even longer, and is by itself a different and interesting exercise (it’s also difficult to be exhaustive, so would still risk being accidentally partisan). I apologise for this shortcoming: inevitably I may seem to over-simplify and paint all campaigning efforts with the same brush, which isn’t my intention. My aim is the general, bird’s eye view of the current discourse; I do see some recent improvements, but they are few and far apart.

The EU official websites contain some (notably little, or well hidden) background information: there is a history section, which is naturally well documented and full of facts. However, it contains little in terms of the intellectual history. Well worth a read, nevertheless.

The quotes from Churchill and Robert Schuman come from the Council of Europe about pages.

This brief history (no nonsense, almost only the bare facts) can provide a handy little summary: it also clearly mentions how difficult it is to achieve voluntary integration and how the process is by necessity one which requires imperfect compromises (page 2).

To satisfy the academically minded, here is a good (peer reviewed and OA) article on the EU as an instrument for peace, lots of historical background and plenty of supporting references, in case anyone thought I’m making this up.

Anastasiou, H (2007). The EU as a peace building system: deconstructing nationalism in an era of globalization. International Journal of Peace Studies, 12 (2), 31-50.

The relevant Wikipedia page is naturally packed up with references (there is also a separate page for the monetary union). If you can’t get enough (the well hidden) history pages in the European Commission website provide access to an impressive amount of original documents (fascinating!). Notably, the role of monetary union as a catalyst towards increasing political integration is frequently left “between the lines”. To find official documents which reference the larger scheme, one needs to start digging, see for example the Conference Paper by Otmar Issing (Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank), published by the European Central Bank itself (“[The economic and Monetary Union] is a milestone and will, at the same time, be a catalyst for some form of political integration…”).

If you wish to dig in the origin of these ideas (federalism as an antidote to war, an European Federation as a feasible option), and/or are interested on the interplay between this area and the UK left wing parties (a subject which is very much under close scrutiny right now!), a compelling view is offered in Chapter 9 of Ann Oakley’s:
A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, social science and public policy in the twentieth century (2011). London: Bloomsbury Academic. (I’ve played a tiny part in the preparation of the chapter, available for free here.)

Image Credits: the EU flag I’ve used for the featured image was taken by Håkan Dahlström and is available here. Churchill’s foreground comes from the Council of Europe about pages. The cheeky collage is my own.

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