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Lies, damned lies, and popular beliefs

By way of an afterwords on Monday's political blog entry, I'd just like to draw your attention to a worrying study that feeds into the issue of political failure modes. The Royal Statistical Society and Ipsos MORI commissioned a poll of public opinion on key social issues. Turns out that the British public are woefully misinformed:

* Teenage pregnancy: public discourse leads people to believe the level is 25 times higher than it actually is
* Crime: 58% don't realize that crime is actually falling
* Benefit fraud: most people think about 24% of social security payments are fraudulently claimed: the actual level of fraud is under 1%
* Foreign aid: more people think foreign aid is one of the top three budget items than the state pension (which accounts for ten times as much expenditure)
* Immigration: the average Brit thinks that 31% of the population are immigrants; even accounting for illegal immigration the figure is under 15%

Even assuming we can fix the damage inflicted on our democratic party system by the growth of the fourth party, how can we hope to elect governments that can engage constructively with actual social problems when the myths believed by the electorate deviate so wildly from the real picture? (And when those myths play so well in the mass media, because bad news makes for such good headlines?)

127 Comments

1:

How can one best encourage the media to not lie without also giving the government power to silence media for simply disagreeing or posting embarrassing secrets?

2:

Some of this is ignorance, but of the examples you give here, most seem like the kind of errors that are actively encouraged by members of all four parties for their own ends. Duncan-Smith a particular offender.

3:

I'm from Iceland but I lived in the UK 1987-91. What immediately struck me was how paranoid English people seemed to be. They were constantly worried about violence, crime etc that to me seemed rare and of little import.

I did some research and found that crime rates were (at that time) roughly comparable in Iceland and the UK with some minor differences (armed robbery was more common in the UK) that probably relate to logistics.

The difference seemed to me to be the media. The UK has roughly 200 times the population of Iceland. This means that the roughly 2 murders a year we see in Iceland equate to a daily murder in your morning paper in the UK. The same ratio for rape, kidnapping, child abduction etc. contributing to people's feelings that these are common everyday occurrences. Which they're not.

This effect of large population size is even more apparent in the USA, the population of which is even more paranoid.

4:

I can't help notice a strong correlation between the documented misconceptions and the what seems to be favorite headline-subjects of tabloid newspapers.

5:

One of the tricky things is a lot of these statistics come from the same entities people are suspicious of, which makes them unconvincing. Tell a conservative, "the rate of Social Security fraud is under 1%," and their ready answer will be, "that's because they don't look hard enough for it." This is usually followed by some anecdote about seeing a person pay for something with food stamps and then leaving in a Cadillac. (The "Cadillac-driving welfare queen" is a staple of US political discourse.)

6:

What parts of Royal Statistical Society and British public didn't you get?

("Welfare queen" isn't a recognized stereotype in the UK -- although there's an equivalent, it's not a racist dog-whistle as well -- and Cadillacs are extremely rare foreign imports -- not sold over here.)

7:

The disconnect between the truth and perception is mostly down to the Daily Mail. Other tabloids are also somewhat culpable.

And I'm only half joking.

8:

The problem with this primarily lies with the media who'd rather treat all eyeballs like they belong to a teen with attention issues.
Rarely do they actually try an inform as much as entertain people by reinforcing their "already established beliefs" in one way or the other, in what should be the news.

Publicly funded news channels are typically as bad in regards to this as the more commercial/advertisement driven channels, as the publicly funded channels still have to compete on viewership stats.

It's like showing the aforementioned teen two TV sets : One is showing explosions, action, villains, the other is showing a documentary on the public spending collapse and it's consequences. When there's 19 channels with the tv equivalent to crisps and 1 with wholesome but bothersome food, in the sense that you need to put in an effort, a lot choose to eat crisps.

9:

It is important to note, too, that the crime falling thing comes from the British Crime survey, which although there was a wee step change in the last decade due to a change in survey practise so as to stop unduly weighting cities, is generally regarded as being more accurate than crime figures that come from the police, because it is well enough documented (usually anonymously) that they are fiddled massively so some manager can look good or so the CPS get an easy charge.

The immigrants thing is "recent immigrants", no I haven't checked how they work that out. It's actually higher than at least one liberal lefty friend of mine thought it was, and is pretty big, but then that's what you get with free-er movement of people and a desire for lots of cheap labour to clean offices in the city of london along with the positive feedback effects of increased population and a credit boom.

Perhaps the real question should be, why is a significant proportion of the populace so paranoid? And why are people so susceptible to lies and propaganda - if you asked a lot of Sun, Mail etc readers if they believed what they read, they'd say NO, but yet the figures and concepts drip into their heads.

10:

Apologies -- although I assume the thought processes and social biases are similar there.

11:

Well most people are woefully misinformed on most scientific questions. Danger of dihydrogen monoxide anyone? Ok, this is American. But still...

And good knowledge of statistics is hard. You just cannot deduce such knowledge from watching TV and reading newspapers, independent of country and nationality. The observed set of events is both too small (1000-2000 a year at most) and horribly biased. You need to read and cross-check reports and papers, and you simply don't do this unless it is your job.

12:

What parts of Royal Statistical Society and British public didn't you get?

I guess you want to keep this a UK discussion. OK. But I also assume you realize the equivalent misconceptions exist in the US also.

I suspect that some of it (on both sides of the pond) comes from wanting to believe things that re-enforce our current biases. If we think "we" have problems "here" why are we spending millions/billions helping out others? While ignoring (not realizing/not wanting to know) that this is like budget dust in the big picture. But to an individual a million is a really big number.

While the foreign aid trope has been around in the US (and I suspect the UK) for decades I suspect much of this rest of these things has to do with more media coverage of things. Are there really more murders/rape/robberies/whatever per capita than 10 or 50 years ago or in a slightly different take on what the fellow from Iceland alluded are we just told about them more often now that CNN/BBC booms at us 24/7.

And I don't know about the UK but crime stats in the US are very hard to analyze as you're taking data from 50+ states/etc... plus 1000s of smaller districts and mashing them together. But these reports can have very different definitions of the various crimes stats.

13:

Here in the USA, I'd suggest a lot of entities simply have an interest in a frightened populace -- the police, the government, politicos in general, the military, security businesses, gun manufacturers, whole swaths of the media, etc.

Is this the result of an uninformed populace, or simply a profitable state of being for a whole bunch of folks?

Or in even simpler terms, isn't there money to be made from fear?

I'm not alleging a giant conspiracy, just a mutual level of comfort with a certain level of paranoia.

14:

People believe false things because they need them to be true in order to maintain internal consistency in their belief structure. Else the cognitive dissonance sets

My theory is that the ability of the human brain to accurately model complex reality is limited, and we run into contradictions to our working models we just edit them out

There are plenty of examples on all side of the political divide.

15:

Well, it’s a pre-revolutionary state. Soon the populace will be fighting a guerilla war against their own ignorance.

16:

I have heard reports of similar misconceptions in the US, and generally attributed the misconceptions to the political Right's constant barrage of fear on these and related topics. Is the UK similarly afflicted?

17:

To understand some of these seeming paradoxes, perhaps you should speak to psychologists, not statisticians. I'm going to suggest that there is something about modern UK society that is deeply psychologically unsettling to a great many people, and it's not a moral failing so much as human nature rearing its ugly head. At the end of the day, any political ideology which fails to account sufficiently for the human psyche is doomed to this kind of confusion and failure. I'm reminded of a quote from a Soviet dissident to the effect that their society didn't need help from economists, but from psychologists.

18:

I think many of these items are just a result of there being so many of us and the simple rules built into our brains. With 7 billion of us, rare events happen all the time and we learn about them from the news media. Our brains think that if we can easily recall and example of something then it must be common or likely. "Someone somewhere was murdered yesterday? Murders must be common and I should be afraid."

19:

I have heard reports of similar misconceptions in the US, and generally attributed the misconceptions to the political Right's constant barrage of fear on these and related topics.

Misconceptions are not restricted by political affiliation, income, age, sex, whatever. They exist amongst all groups on all side of these groups. Just not the SAME misconceptions. At least in the US. But I suspect everywhere. It makes life much more simple is we find "facts" (bogus or not) to support our current belief systems. Most folks don't want to evaluate their beliefs or who to accept as pundits on a daily or even yearly basis. So we seem to grab onto anything we hear or read that fits our current beliefs. True or not.

I see this all the time as I've re-connect with school friends from 40+ years ago via Facebook. Their postings make me feel they were taken over by aliens. Both right and left wing aliens.

20:

@8:
documentary on the public spending collapse and it's consequences. When there's 19 channels with the tv equivalent to crisps
---
You're watching the documentary, but how do you know what you're seeing represents the truth, or even a commonly accepted viewpoint?

At one time you could put a fair amount of trust in things that came from the BBC, but not any more. The American shows have mostly descended to "infomercials." The Canadian ones aren't quite so biased, but the number of jaw-dropping errors is alarming.

Which is worse - being uneducated or misinformed? Having had to tediously guide young engineers through the practical application of things like the Ideal Gas Laws, I figure misinformed is much worse than stone ignorant... unlearning wrong things is harder than learning new things.

"The truth is out there, but the lies are inside your head." - pterry

21:

These "misconceptions" do not emerge in a vacuum. They aren't some unfathomable force of nature that innocent policy makers must scale like an implacable everest. They emerge as a direct result of propaganda and half truths told by those same policy makers because they suit the policies that are desired by the ruling class. They are deliberate.

22:

Does multiplying parties help? In the US, I've seen that it's easier to take over an existing political organization (the way the right wing has taken over the Republican party) than it is to create a new self-sustaining organization. The UK has a different governmental structure, but, given recent history, it seems to me that organizing to change post-Blair Labour could not have been less effective than supporting the Lib Dems.

23:

The solution to ignorance is education. It's wildly optimistic, but I'm hoping that the new massive online education platforms, which are currently being used to teach traditional topics like science and history, will evolve to teach people the civics, politics, economics, foreign affairs and other things that they need to be informed citizens.

In particular, I'm looking forward to the first time that a newspaper decides to teach a massive online course in current events. I've written a bit more about this in my blog.

24:

You will probably not agree, or even like what I have to say Mr Stross, but Scottish Nationalists are pretty well inured to what we are told is truth.

Because it clearly isn't. There is a huge samizdat about the lies we are told.

The state is guilty, as a state must be, of lying to it's electorate in order to retain power.

It is because we are told untruths all the time that they get away with it and become the state. An abstract but powerful meme. Lie to your electorate and retain power.

It seems to me that all of us have to think for ourselves. That is, frankly, not easy.

25:

People aren't good at stats. I'm pretty hopeless. I think the operative concepts are medieval, too much, too many, not enough.
Do you think there's too much crime?
No, not enough.

26:

It's wildly optimistic, but I'm hoping that the new massive online education platforms...will evolve to teach people the civics, politics, economics, foreign affairs and other things that they need to be informed citizens.

It's probably massively over-optimistic - the web is used to propagate more myths and generate more fear than any other medium outside the self-styled "newspapers" of the UK, and the agenda of the web in the UK is dictated by the same media groups which own those newspapers

it's amazing how less frightening everyday life becomes when one stops reading local newspapers, national newspapers and stop watching television news, or watching any television channel with adverts on it.

27:

The solution to ignorance is education. It's wildly optimistic, but I'm hoping that the new massive online education platforms, which are currently being used to teach traditional topics like science and history, will evolve to teach people the civics, politics, economics, foreign affairs and other things that they need to be informed citizens.

My experience has been that people go to web sites that tell them what they want to hear. And THEN assume it's the truth. I think you're incredibly optimistic about human nature or maybe incredibly ignorant. I'll give you the former. I know I was of the later option when I was younger. Now I'm much more of a pessimist about human nature.

28:

People believe things for several reasons. Most people don't think statistically. (I'm tempted to say that no people think statistically, but some can calculate that way.)

Generally people think in terms of generalization of special cases into "typical cases". This is a very fast way of thinking and reaching decisisons, and often (usually?) one doesn't really have the information to actually reach a statistically defensible position...at least not one that isn't stated in terms of a complex of the form "if the probability of A or B is x, and the probability of C is y, and...then the probability of q is delta." And by the time you figure that out you're half-way down the gullet of a tiger.

Now given a large population and lots of reporting biased in favor of unusual events, people will encounter an implausible number of reports of rare events. Some of those events will create strong emotional reactions...in fact the news media are strongly biased in favor of reporting on that kind of event. If an entire community organizes to save a kitten from drowning in a well, you may well hear about it. If a cat drowns in a well, is fished out and thrown away, you won't hear about it. And negative events are easier to create strong reactions to than positive events. (But you sure hear about this or that movie star winning an Oscar, or whatever. So there's no active discrimination against positive events, for some definitions of positive.)

Note that larger populations with good communication encourage this. You don't need any other reinforcement. (Mind you, you GET other reinforcements, in several differing directions. Not just on the general news, but on blogs that allow commentary, too.)

29:

So we think in Bayesian terms, and the media (input) we absorb just updates our increasingly incorrect5 priors. The best solution is to cut off the input and look for unbiased answers where you can. Education and critical thinking can probably work better when the brain is not over stimulated, reducing the future shock due to the media hosepipe.

30:

Plains-ape psychology. If one member of your tribe gets eaten by a leopard at the watering hole every year on average, your tribe members worry about leopards every time they go to the hole.

Modern media mean that you see every time anyone, anywhere, gets eaten by a leopard.

Would people make better political decisions if they were actually less informed overall, so the fear triggers didn't get activated as much?

31:

Coming late to hbriem's comment, but the UK is hardly unique. Out here in Singapore, there's a constant rumble in the press and blogs about how unhappy Singaporeans are about immigrants coming in and taking the jobs/houses/schools/space. Hong Kong has similar (rage about people from the PRC coming down and taking all the baby milk formula / all the hospital beds / etc etc). Both these countries are around a tenth the size of the UK, but there's Daily Mail levels of fear and worry being whipped up about immigration.

That said, both of these are also countries with much higher population densities than their neighbours (and than UK) and with a much higher disparity in living conditions to their neighbours. Maybe the solution is to educate Brits that they aren't the only ones to believe they're in their supposed situation.

32:

Do we have any evidence on whether levels of ignorance have changed over time? I doubt that the situation was better in 1913, when most voters got far less school than today, and I am not sure about 1963.

I suspect that activists in the age of science have always needed to have both a rigorous argument to convince people who care about evidence, and one with ethos and pathos to motivate more people to action. Eg. sponsoring economists who tell useful stories and insure listeners that they are EXPERTS and SCIENTIFIC, while also talking about the advantages of a policy for you and your peers at a club.

33:

It would be interesting to see some analysis of this data against social class, education and principle source of media. Are Guardian readers equally confused or simply just as confused but about different things?

It used to be that the propaganda in your country was completely obvious, while my country's media was more truthful and any propaganda was more subtle. But apparently now we compete to show how biased our media is and mis-informed our populace are. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you!

34:

I find that I don't trust the survey data or the official data. For example, according to the survey details, 1% of respondents think that over 90% of the British population is "black or Asian". And it defies belief that less than 1% of the welfare dollar is lost to fraud.

35:

I'm sorry, but all this guff about how people just aren't very good at statistics, or how this sort of thing happens on all sides of the political divide, rather misses the point.

If people simply believed any old bulshit, that wouldn't show up in the large aggregate numbers like this. All the right wing types who wildly over-estimated immigration would presumably be cancelled out by all the lefties who thought we had very little of it.

The point is not that people believe any old bullshit, but that the bullshit that people believe is largely right-wing, in the sense of being alarmist about immigration, unsympathetic to the poor, concerned about law and order etc.

What we have here is a confirmation of that old line about how the left tries to be the reality-based community, and the right tries to create its reality.

36:

Even assuming we can fix the damage inflicted on our democratic party system by the growth of the fourth party

I'd actually question this. Where is the 4th party coming from, given that Cain Miliband seems to be trying to morph Liebour into a crypto-Con party, and the "Liberals" are effectively the provisional wing of the other 2 named in the case of a hung parliament (actually, can we experiment with having a hanged parliament instead?)

37:

If you want to get a good idea about how deluded a large portion of the British public are, just look at the comments section of any news article on Yahoo news. I sometimes go there just to get angry, I can't help myself. I commented on a news article after hundreds of posts by readers saying that the UK was a dangerous murder pit where you would be killed for the price of a sandwich. I pointed out that in Cambridge, in the late medieval period, there was a murder rate of two a day, parts of Victorian London were no go areas and there hasn't been a Viking raid on our coasts for a thousands years. The country is safer than its ever been. I got over a hundred dislikes and various comments about how I am deluded. I grew up in a disenfranchised Yorkshire ex-mining town with a lot of problems with crime and drugs. Never once lived in fear of crime.

38:

Having said that, we are hardwired to view threat. The amygdala, an old portion of our brain, causes us to seek out and remember threat. In the modern world there are lots of complex, low level threats, ones that aren't immediate or even likely, but our brains can't differentiate. News media capitalises on this to "sell" us news. It's covered in more detail in a book called "Abundance; the Future is Better than you Think" It mentions how we percieve the world to be dangerous and on a downward curve, when it is actually the opposite. I imagine many users of this site will have read it, but for those that haven't, I recommend it.

39:

That's how I read what you said. I think there are similarities, and the example you gave is a pretty instance of the lunacy common to our countries. I'd be wary of any comparison, but there's the same sort of underlying pattern of media lies that build this false image of the problems. And some of the problems vanish when you get straight figures.

40:

Statistics are mathematically complicated, but the British media get away with some pretty blatant bits of dodgy arithmetic. You can see scary-number headlines, and when you read the story the numbers given don't even come close to adding up.

I don't recall the figures, but one story I saw was about the number of immigrants who don't speak English. And the headline figure was the number of people who speak another language at home. Not even all the time, but if gran speaks bad English, the whole family will use her native language. Everyone else is bilingual, but the headline lumps them together with gran. And the story actually explained all this, and gave figures, and it was only a few thousand people who couldn't speak English. But that wasn't the headline.

41:

I wonder what the % figure was for MPs fiddling their expenses, verse those that were honest.
What's the betting it was higher than the % who fiddled their social security?

42:

@37:
just look at the comments section of any news article on Yahoo news
---
My local newspaper's web site is even worse, but the worst I've seen are the comments on YouTube. A good number of them aren't about the videos at all, just places where the disaffected and psychotic vent their rage against the world in general. There used to be a fair amount of that stuff on blogs in general; apparently most of them have moved to YouTube.

Somewhen, someone will mine YouTube's comments for a sociology thesis...

43:

Hasn't changed much. And the explanation is quite obvious. Nothing whips up support like "OBVIOUS" indicators that your country is going to the dogs, preferably under external pressure.
Another example is UK attitude towards the EU. I have rarely heard so many bogus examples on how the EU behemoth is ruining the British way of life. And the justification for special status under the Schengen accord, that only with British passport controls the UK will be able to stem the tide of all those hordes crossing the Channel, because the neighbouring countries facilitate and enjoy the spectacle, ... please!
However the most hilarious if similarly sad sight is a LIBERAL DEMOCRAT leader in the pose of a What-the-Heck Law-and-Order advocate-vigilante.

Did you know the EU forbids school homebake fundraisers?

44:

I'm not sure there was ever a time when democracy "worked" in the way that people seem to expect it to, where an informed citizenry form a consensus based on the facts and then act on that consensus to make wide-reaching reforms. What people of all political stripes seem to do is look back or forward to a time when their faction have a major win. Personally, I'm feeling ground down by the political confluence in the U.S. between aggressive wealth and aggressive ignorance, so it is difficult to have a positive answer to your implicit question (which you were explicit about in an earlier post): how can the Ruling Party be credibly challenged?

The negative answer is to allow their own overreach to expose them. The risk, however, is that the damage the RP does may be unrecoverable. I think it's more realistic to work on strength: shut off the incoming supply of Very Serious People to the RP political and media establishments. This seems to be working in the U.S., where people like Cupp, Breitbart (even before he keeled over), Rand Paul, Palin, and Cruz have all found it difficult or impossible to get past the stage of being exposed for what they were and used as punchlines. The internet allows non-establishment media to vet new candidates for the RP and that's when these candidates are most vulnerable.

It's also possible to keep prying away at the established members of the RP with reality-based challenges. It's possible to dethrone them: look at what has happened to the reputation of Niall Ferguson or David Brooks. Look at how much Murdoch's organization has been weakened by the exposure of his news "gathering" methods. These may not translate into unambiguous wins, but by the time an unambiguous victory is achieved, the world has moved on anyway. In the long run we are all dead, and in politics the facts don't win on their own, they need the stimulus of human action.

45:

just look at the comments section of any news article on Yahoo news. I sometimes go there just to get angry, I can't help myself

everyone's probably typed something that looked psychotic to an observer, usually in reply to some equally psychotic post

My local newspaper's web site is even worse, but the worst I've seen are the comments on YouTube

Youtube is becoming as bad a hive of scum and villainy as 4chan, IMO, and local newspapers and their associated websites are the largest aggregations of concentrated cretinism and xenophobia.

I have never posted anything in response to a youtube video, I'm not sinking to that level.

Sometimes I think it should be renamed paranoidtruthers.com, judging by the stuff that gets recommended for me.

46:

The other problem of course is that pretty much everybody, myself included, think pretty much along the lines of a smart monkey. We're all hardwired to try to gain social status, and politicians try to achieve social status by a process a bit like a chimpanzee rain-dance.

For chimps this is a mostly male activity, involving running about hooting, screaming, throwing things and generally trying to put on a show of defiance against a nearby thunderstorm.

For politicians, this is all about talking up a fight, making more of negotiations and talks than actually can happen and even going so far as to invent troubles in order to have something to solve. Scottish independence is one of the latter problems; Scotland can be crudely summarised as a huge area of not very much with a couple of biggish towns and a rather larger number of smaller ones. Comparing economic activity and population of England to Scotland and you have the situation of a tiny dwarf screaming at the lower leg of a giant standing by his side; the wonder is that England even bothers to bend down to listen.

Finally, governing a country is mostly mindnumbingly boring. Most of the paperwork has been sorted out long ago; about 95% of the criminal justice system is petty-minded idiots being sorted out by magistrates. Most of running any country is automatic and completely sorted out. The only bits that are dysfunctional and need prodding frequently are those bits most exposed to political interference; get rid of the politicians (as happened in Belgium) and life ticks over quite nicely without them.

For this reason, I welcome anything which throws a spanner in the workings of politicians. UKIP and similar small parties are actually most welcome as they force coalitions instead of one-party tyranies; coalitions tend to spend much more time talking than doing, and hence reach better and fewer decisions than do single-party governments.

47:

You will probably not agree, or even like what I have to say Mr Stross, but Scottish Nationalists are pretty well inured to what we are told is truth.

Because it clearly isn't. There is a huge samizdat about the lies we are told.

On the one hand, you could be correct; that there is a Unionist bias to all major UK news sources. You used the word "lies", so I assume you believe that the bias is a deliberate act.

On the other hand, you could be wrong; and are having problems because the news is different from what you want to hear.

The "how closed is my mind" test is whether you actually listen to the stories that you declare to be lies - whether you've already decided that they're wrong because they don't support your belief, and you only listen to them in order to find a flaw...

...Nationalism does seem to be a subject that has its share of True Believers; it appeals to tribalism, it's almost impossible to debate, and in its milder Scottish forms it's not seen as discriminatory or otherwise socially unacceptable. I know some Nationalists who think their belief came after analysis of the facts; whereas their faith came first, and only supporting facts considered.

48:

Hey Charlie, maybe you should do a post on the policies of the ruling party.

For my mind they seemed to be based on the Chicago, and Austrian school of economics. They seem intent on destroying/weakening unions to the point that the collective bargining is all but disappeared.

Moderate social conservatism, i.e. no gay marriages is on the agenda, but only because they fear voter backlash from fired up little old ladies.

There does seem to be a tie in to libertarian philosopies, but often it feels like a mask to justify their decisions.

That's just the perspective of an Australian. And a very tired one at that.

49:

What we have here is a confirmation of that old line about how the left tries to be the reality-based community, and the right tries to create its reality.

Long winded response whittled down to: Yeah, right.

50:

Moderate social conservatism, i.e. no gay marriages is on the agenda

Wut?! Gay marriage is proceeding quite smoothly through Parliament, passing its third reading in the Commons.

Of course, you might be talking about Australia or the US, but this post and the one it references were about the British political establishment.

51:

No idea how much of the welfare dollar is lost to fraud; it is, however, the widely accepted figure for level of benefit fraud in the UK.

52:

Possibly, but I doubt it; the availability heuristic and people being awful at statistics covers most of the above nicely without resorting to the trauma of modern life.

Gerd Gigerenzer's Reckoning With Risk contains lots of examples of medical mis-assessing of statistics with the same kind of error sizes.

53:

I'm not so sure we're "hard-wired" to gain social status. In at least some primate communities (gorillas, both chimps, orangutans, and many others come to mind), the alpha male doesn't get the most breeding opportunities. The alpha female may have the best chance of offspring surviving, but her genes don't swamp the gene pool either.

No, it's better to say that we're hard-wired for group MEMBERSHIP, not for status-seeking within a group. Loneliness kills far more effectively than does membership in a suboptimal group. After all, the group may improve, but when you're alone, no one will help you when you need it.

There are a large number of ways to make a group work (in the Darwinian sense), and which ones work best depend on circumstances. The fundamental adaptation that humans do best is that we learn our social norms, we aren't born with them.

54:

ObXkcd

Btw, I don't think that human brain structure or prehistoric conditioning are an excuse for stupidity. Humans have culture that could overcome any physiological limits.

55:

Decided to answer my own question, and found out that it's quite tricky:

In 2011-12 MPs claimed £114M in expenses.
In total £163,867.00 was ordered to be repaid, although the total 'voluntarily' repaid was about £500,000*.

So, all in all approximately 0.5% of MPs expenses claims were embarrassing enough to repay, and about 0.1% were fraudulent.

So apparently British MPs are about twice as trustworthy as other benefits claimants. I may have to go recheck my maths.

*the link wikipedia provides for this is gone, but after roughly tallying up the amounts queried in the press (eg for moat cleaning) but not specifically ordered to be paid back, I got to £480,000 odd, so it sounds about right.

56:

Humans have culture that could overcome any physiological limits.

Ummm... no. That's like saying your software can overcome its hardware limits. A culture that's beyond the human brain's capabilities is a culture that humans can't enact. If we tried, we'd fuck it up just by being ourselves. See Marxism, Puritanism, Legalism, or any of the thousand other logical culture models that consistently fail when enacted by apes.

57:

Totally off topic, but the Flash on HMV has messed things up enought that I can't sign on or post there.

58:

Tp: Don’t know why this is so … partly daily Nazi (Mail) but, even so ….
Crime: Because there are peope going round shouting “It’s a conspiracy!” & refusing to believe the figures & ESPECIALLY refusing to believe the Lead Tetraethyl link – across all states & nations.
Benefit fraud: Daily Nazi, getting away with it, again.
Foreign aid: But, even though I know the correct figure, I don’t think we should be giving either a quasi-terrorist state (Pakistan) or a state that has its own space programme (India) a penny. The aid should be much, much more carefully directed. That is the real problem, but ISTM, no-one is doing this.
Immigration: Daily Nazi, Daily Express, Telegraph.

See also @ 7

@ 13
Yes … “The Kulaks are stealing all your food, so we must collectivise!”
& @ 14
“Believing false things” has a specific name: RELIGION.
Now, isn’t that interesting?

douglas clark @ 24
Scottish Nationalists are pretty well inured to what we are told is truth.
With the psychopathic weasel as your leader? Have you seen “Private Eye’s” glorious piss-take on Slimeond after Andy Murray’s Wombledon win?
See also @ 47
I mean Slimeond was going to use the Euro, because it was such a good idea & be like Iceland ditto, & now wants to use the Pound Sterling, with no backup from London & … I mean, does he have ONE single, consistent policy ? [ Other than more power to the Wee Eck, that is? ]

Other pete @ 36
Ahem: how the left tries to be the reality-based community
....like Pink Ken cosying up to islamicists who advocate murder, you mean? Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on either vice or virtue, I’m afraid.

@ 43
Unfortunately, the EU has become a classic bureaucracy and IS interfering in areas that are none of its’ concern.
Some of us want IN “Shengen” & OUT of the EU – like those terribly unfortunate countries of Norway & Switzerland! ( ? )

AV @ 53
See you the most recent XKCD & raise you a joke!

59:

What we have here is a confirmation of that old line about how the left tries to be the reality-based community, and the right tries to create its reality.

Really? I guess I've never heard that line. Maybe some on the modern right are like that, but the old-school right was supposed to be about respecting traditions rooted in history, human nature and organic cultural development. On the other hand, I think of leftists as being more apt to want to socially engineer their own reality, based on Marxist theory or what have you, with limited regard for the social realities on the ground. Remember, "neoconservatives" who tried to engineer their own reality in places like the middle east weren't conservatives or of the right, they were former leftists with a hard-on for Israel.

60:

On the other hand, I think of leftists as being more apt to want to socially engineer their own reality, based on Marxist theory or what have you, with limited regard for the social realities on the ground.

You're out of date: thanks to the shifting Overton Window "left" means "anyone who isn't an ideological Movement Conservative" -- including folks who would have been at home in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet circa 1979-83.

("Conservative" stopped meaning Burkean "hey guys, why don't we think very carefully before we rock the boat -- it's been floating this way for years?" some time ago, and now seems to be associated with a combined socially reactionary/economically libertarian (but playing to the interests of capital) political movement that is actually extremely radical.)

61:

On the other hand, I think of leftists as being more apt to want to socially engineer their own reality, based on Marxist theory or what have you, with limited regard for the social realities on the ground.

My take is that this used to be true, but has not been so for at least 25 years. In 1950's-70's period conservatives (in US, anyway) tended to be pragmatic -- willing to discard policies which clearly were not working, -- while liberals were determined to double down on what they knew were correct things to do even when they were not. Now it is other way around.

I find it telling that in 1950's-70's physicists and engineers tended to vote Republican, while now they usually vote Democrat (again, I am talking US). You cannot get more reality-based than that bunch!

62:

"left" means "anyone who isn't an ideological Movement Conservative"

and "left-wing" is Conservative shorthand for "someone vocal enough to complain about something or have a contrary viewpoint to ours, but nevertheless utterly powerless to do anything about it"

63:

Re: "... how can we hope to elect governments that can engage constructively with actual social problems when the myths believed by the electorate deviate so wildly from the real picture? (And when those myths play so well in the mass media, because bad news makes for such good headlines?)"

Suggestions:
1- Media report cards -- as in, publish errata performance scores for all media. These would be an on-going tally of obvious, blatantly incorrect information. (Perhaps someone would like to set up a web site/mash-up for this?) To make it more interesting, prepare such report cards for all of the G20 countries.

2- Content analysis of news/media. This type of research was first done in the 80s to determine the type, direction/nature and extent of sex and racial stereotyping on network TV. Content examined included all programming, TV shows (sitcoms, dramas, soaps, etc), movies, sports, news, and advertising (including station identifying voice-overs, i.e., 'you are watching XXX channel'). This methodology can be easily adjusted to examine what types of stories media are most 'investing in' and publish the results.

3- 'Bad news ...' After a while, some people become emotionally overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news and deliberately switch off the news. Not so good if you're an advertiser trying to sell to that niche. (Fantasy scenario: In the future neuro-scientists come up with a reach/frequency formula as part of an adverse event-weighting news algorithm that predicts the risk of x% of viewers being adversely affected by an excess of bad news. Media found guilty would be charged with criminal malfeasance(?)and liable for any/all damages re: health, medical treatment, loss of enjoyment of life, etc.)

Note re: #3
Please, don't say it's just human nature to want to see a train-wreck, therefore nothing can be done about it. First, there's a good chunk of humanity that suffers physically and emotionally when exposed to such 'news' coverage. Second, craving sugar is also human nature yet hard reliable data/info about excess sugar consumption has helped people be more mindful of the risks, therefore avoid that particular problem. Lastly, depressed people do not earn as much money (or for as long) as happy people, therefore it's in the advertisers' (and gov'ts) interest to protect the public from situations that can ratchet up depression.

Apologies if this sounds ramble-y or preachy -- just wanted to get some more info on the discussion table.


64:

1- Media report cards -- as in, publish errata performance scores for all media. These would be an on-going tally of obvious, blatantly incorrect information. (Perhaps someone would like to set up a web site/mash-up for this?) To make it more interesting, prepare such report cards for all of the G20 countries.

Just what totally unbiased organization do you suggest run this process? At a world level or even for a country?

And even if you get everyone to agree on basic facts (not a trivial issue) the "obvious"" conclusions draw by people of various backgrounds and beliefs wind up being incredibly divergent. Look at the comment on this blog.

There's a group in the US to does this to some extent. I can't remember their name just now but the do get interviewed regularly on NPR. Especially during elections. But even they admit that much of what is "not true" isn't fully false either. Much of it is in how statements are shaded to give inference to conclusions that someone with all the facts might not draw.

65:

Unfortunately, the EU has become a classic bureaucracy and IS interfering in areas that are none of its’ concern.

That'd be true if it was, but it isn't; The EU was founded on the principle of Subsidiarity, which basically means any legislative or authoritive body below the level of the EU is able to override anything the EU lays out.

Say the EU Parliament passes a bill into law that states that a bus journey should cost €2 per mile, the London Assembly and Transport for London would be able to set the cost of a ticket much lower or higher than that, similarly westminster could pass legislation to let the market and local operators to set the ticket price.

What usually happens in the UK though, is that the EU will pass something, like a regulation on how bent a cucumber can be to be considered a "straight" for reasons of standardising packaging, transport taxes per kilo etc... for cucumbers.

While every other country in the EU promptly passed legislation that allowed "bents" to be sold*, the UK doesn't...because no one in westminster wanted to, and the same goes for most of the trade and regulation issues that the EU gets criticised for in the UK - it's not the EU overstepping itself, because the EU is working as it's supposed to, it's setting out standards for the common market and letting internal markets and legislatures sort themselves out relative to that, and as they are entirely empowered and expected to do so by the EU's constitution.

Instead you end up with a problem because of the complete abdication of responsibility for control of UK legislation by MPs, that's where the problem lies, not in the EU.

* note that if this seems silly it's because farming is silly; Cucumbers have, since time immemorial, been classed as either straights or bents by cucumber growers, because not all cucumbers grow that straight and certain buyers prefer straighter cucumbers, while others are indifferent to the cucumber's shape because they slice and prepare them in various ways (like pickling), so market forces shaped cucumber selling into this two tier market that set aside bents and undersized cucumbers for the niche pickling and chopped cucumber markets while selling the "premium" straights to everyone else. However, Because bents are prepared in various different ways depending on local culinary customs, but EVERYONE takes and sells straights raw, the EU decided (sensibly enough) that it would be beyond its remit to impose a standard for bents, but useful for trade reasons to set standards for straights, ergo you end up with a rule about how straight cucumbers should be.

And because UK cucumber growers don't know about subsidiarity, they don't know to pressure MPs to put down a law letting them sell bents, and because rural MPs tend to be tories they tend to be eurosceptic and so prefer to moan about "EU Bureaucrats" rather than doing right by their constituents.

66:

" find it telling that in 1950's-70's physicists and engineers tended to vote Republican, while now they usually vote Democrat (again, I am talking US). You cannot get more reality-based than that bunch! "


Oh come now! Many of us here are British and I do assure you that WE can and Do do better than that!

Come to think of it ..even American Movie Pop Culture can do better than that ..

Closing scene of " Killing Them Softly "...


" You're a cynical Bastard !" ...replied with " America is not a Country, it's just a Business ...Now Fucking PAY me! .." See here ...


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V6GHnxEJjg

67:

physicists and engineers ... (again, I am talking US). You cannot get more reality-based than that bunch!

My schooling was in engineering. And I interact with such people, physicists and engineers, regularly. You'd be amazed (maybe not) at the wildly divergent views expressed by these folks on various topics. From where I sit age and demographics have more to do with their beliefs and politics than their higher level schooling.

68:

" Apologies if this sounds ramble-y or preachy -- just wanted to get some more info on the discussion table. "

Well, it doesn’t really sound all that “Preachy “but ...if you have access to any Sat TV - or I suppose cable - news stream then just look at the reportage at any time that a major news event hits the 'air '

On my Hummax Sat Box replacement for my Sky Sat TV - that I had for a year at low cost on account of one of my family being a Jr. Exec of The Empire of Weevil, and that included everything inc Sports and movies - I have every news channel from B.B.C. to RTV and al jazeera and even france 24, which is actually quite good ..who would have thought it!? - and it’s not all that expensive, but...I suspect that whom so ever has the same Info Stream and access to the Web for Deep Research they will will come to the conclusion that ..Wot the Heel, Evil Work Shy Benefits Scroungers Have Their fangs sunk Deep in the Jugular of us Hard Working Families!!! Wots So hard to understand?Bloody French have their Euro Fangs Sunk Deep in ..and so forth.

To form an Informed Opinion you have to do the work and not that many people can be bothered to step outside of the Comfort Zone of their own prejudices and form that opinion.

People are just People and short of some sort of God like Examination for Saintliness they are going to bring their own prejudices to the table, or the voting booth, along the lines of...KILL THE ENEMY!! YOU KNOW IT MAKES SENSE! KILL THEM BEFORE THEY KILL US!!


IF you are lucky the Voter might just add ..KILL THEM in a human manner ..but I wouldnt count on it.

69:

@23:
The solution to ignorance is education.
---
Um.

"Who watches the watchers?"

Back in the day, I had a basic American public school education, when each school was funded and controlled at the county level, with only minimal state involvement, and no Federal involvement. That was spread across five US states as we moved about.

We were taught a number of outright, bald-faced, easily-disproved lies, like "John Glenn was the first man in space" and "the Pilgrims discovered America." And lots of "history" and "sociology" that was little more than propaganda.

Later in college, taking engineering and math, I'd be instructed to "use this equation to solve these problems."

"Cool. Where did the equation come from?"

"You think you're some kind of smart ass, don't you?"

In the end, most of them appeared to be little more than codified rules of thumb...


Paul Simon wrote a song called Kodachrome, with the line "When I think back of all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." For both my public and paid school years, that could be my theme song...

70:

Unfortunately, this is another step in the Americanization of the world. If 40+% of the American people believe "god" created the world in 6 days 7,000 years ago, it's no surprise that they believe in other magical numbers.

We've just expanded the whole nonsense to the UK.

71:

@47:
The "how closed is my mind" test is whether you actually listen to the stories that you declare to be lies - whether you've already decided that they're wrong because they don't support your belief, and you only listen to them in order to find a flaw...
---
You should do that to ANY information source, whether it agrees with you or not. In fact, you should be particularly critical of ones that agree with you.

72:

" Paul Simon wrote a song called Kodachrome, with the line "When I think back of all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." For both my public and paid school years, that could be my theme song..."

Hum...you do appreciate that for most of the present generation of, I phone; e photographs electronic 'photographer ' generation of now those song lyrics make very little sense at all?

Actually, even from the perspective of the photographer of way back then in the UK - I was born in 1949 - 'Kodachrome ' required some explanation " Nice Bright Colours .." isn't necessarily a Good Thing if you are a professional photographer. Still, these days? and also, ' High Schools' of America? Ah, that’s easier...I know all about American High Schools since here in the UK we did receive the Blessing that was " Buffy the Vampire Slayer” And so, Over Here, we know all about American High Schools.

73:

You should do that to ANY information source, whether it agrees with you or not. In fact, you should be particularly critical of ones that agree with you.

Also, every time you read a news article, you should ask:

* Who provided the information this article conveys
* What is the ideology of the media that published the article
* What message is the information being used to support
* How does this message support or reinforce the agenda of the editors (or their paymasters)

Sometimes there's no point looking beyond the first point -- if it's a recycled corporate press release all the answers are clear (editorial agenda: "this is cheap content filler to pad out the ads, roll the presses!").

But quite often asking these questions leads you to look at news items much more skeptically. Cui bono? It's not just good advice: it's the law.

74:

Oh, and I should add that I know all about the US of American Political process since I viewed the entire Complete Series Box Set of " The West Wing " AND, futhermore, I have spread this knowledge abroad in the UK by loaning several people my copy of The Complete " West Wing "

What would President Bartlet Do? ..

http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0018939/quotes


It all makes perfect sense!

75:

Here, quoted from Wikipedia (which provides a link to the original article,) is what "reality-based community" originally meant:

The source of the term is a quotation in an October 17, 2004, The New York Times Magazine article by writer Ron Suskind, quoting an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (later attributed to Karl Rove[1]):

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."[2]

As I interpret this, it seems to mean study of PRESENT reality. And the superiority of the other side is that they have infallible plans.

Or, put another way, it's supposed to be "Six months from now, the weather will be exactly the same as it is today," versus "Our plans will work out exactly as intended, with no unexpected side effects and no failures."

I don't think either of these works as well in politics as in military matters.


76:

fridgepunk @ 64
Bollocks.
EU regulations mean I'm breaking the "law" ... because massive lobbying by vested agrobusinees interests got the "law" written in such a particular way.
Don't believe you!

TRX @ 70
Like the lies told about the (Admittedly ghastly beynd belief) WWI when I was at school ... like "Which army had the LOWEST casualty rate? ... the British!
Who won ... we did!
Generals were never seen near the lines ... whereas their casualty rate was much higher in WWI than WWII ...
Um.

77:

Definitely. I had the "consider the biases of the writer and their paymaster" thing explained to me as a young teenager, and it stuck hard. As an nine-year-old I got to see a propaganda film being made in an Eastern European country; even at that age, you have to wonder why someone is filming men dressed as US soldiers burning a pile of books outside your flats, when you know very well that they aren't US soldiers...

I'm currently working to introduce firstborn to such ideas (to the occasional annoyance of my beloved, and the possible despair of his primary teachers) by asking him to look at the adverts played during a programme, and to consider who the expected audience is. Easy stuff when it's Childrens' ITV (note for y'all - it carries advertising, unlike the two Childrens' BBC channels) but it doesn't go down well when it's Mummy enjoying Poirot while doing the cooking, and the adverts are for Saga holidays and Werthers sweets...

The recent and truly excellent programme on the photographer Don McCullin (worth a watch if it's on BBC iPlayer) gave a great example in passing. Near the end of the programme, he explained why he thought he'd been "let go" by the Times, with an impressively calm and succinct analysis. It's worth watching for many other reasons...

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b036j3fp

One thing I do as a challenge is to read and enjoy things that play against my biases; ask yourself why you react against things. I typically read Private Eye and the Economist, occasionally the Times, and to keep my hand in I'll occasionally buy the Telegraph, Guardian or Independent (a shadow of its 1980s self, IMHO). The Financial Times turns out to have a great Saturday edition, who'd have thought? Russia Today and Al Jazeera are worth the occasional view, just to force a perspective shift. I enjoy Ken Macleod's books, but I've also enjoyed the occasional libertarian author.

I draw the line at watching Fox News and reading the Daily Mail, though. I mean, there's "challenge yourself", and there's cutting eyeholes in pillowcases...

78:

Generals were never seen near the lines ... whereas their casualty rate was much higher in WWI than WWII ...

Three Divisional Commanders (typically Major-Generals) were killed in battle in a single month at Loos; apparently, that's more than during the whole of WW2 (source: Richard Holmes lecture I linked to in the Fuller Memorandum thread)

79:

I should fucking well hope that generals and such stay well out of harm's way. It takes decades and millions to make a member of the general staff, training and experience and education and putting them where a sniper or a stray shell can cost your side that resource is stupid. When they do get killed it's usually when their army or div headquarters are being overrun and they can't retreat fast enough.

Carlos Hathcock was one of the finest snipers in the US military during Vietnam and he was tasked to go kill a senior NVA general at his headquarters, possibly in China (he was delivered to the area by the CIA and never told where he was going). He succeeded in killing his target after a great deal of effort and it apparently hurt the NVA's ability to fight quite severely for a time.

80:

I personally know of 2 different groups/agencies that have commissioned such 'report cards' ... one was a government/academic project (no surprise there) but the other was paid for by a major advertiser that wanted better information on their changing target audiences. (This latter research was later presented by the research buyer at an industry conference, re: changing face of TV viewers, therefore the findings/results were made 'public'.) There are some organizations such as Consumer Reports that do quality 3rd party/arms-length product evaluations. No reason why media evaluations couldn't be done using a similar revenue model.

81:

Another interesting POV/study would be how portrayals of westerners (North Americans/Western Europeans) has changed over the past 30 years, especially in terms of who's got the coolest gadgets vs. the tech/science dimwit stereotype.

82:

There are some organizations such as Consumer Reports that do quality 3rd party/arms-length product evaluations.

Perfect example. I subscribe to consumer reports online. I used them a month or so ago when buying my new washing machine.

But I read all of their articles with attention to their biases. And they have them. As long as you understand them on a particular review you can adjust your understanding of their rating accordingly. But if they want to emphasize something that you think doesn't matter then you really have to dig hard to figure out how to adjust things.

Everyone brings a bias to the table. Understanding the biases helps a great deal. Assuming there are none created issues. Maybe not in the short term but eventually.

83:

gravelbelly22 @ 76
Echo the sentiments/opinion on the "weekend FT" - a very interesting & diverse read.
Their "Lunch with the FT" series is fascinating - long conversations with very interesting people, including some total bastards ..... & the opposite.

nojay @ 78
Like the standard British tactic during The Peninsular war. The "green Englishmen" [ The Rifle Brigade, a.k.a. the 95th ] routinely picked off officers leading the French, thus seriously hampering their progress & co-ordination.

84:

There's a few persistent myths about the Peninsula War, some based on rather bad research.

For instance, Sir Charles Oman is the main source of the idea that British Infantry, in line formations, drove off the attacking French columns by firepower alone. It's based on his account of the Battle of Maida. But the contemporary accounts, including letters from soldiers on both sides, and the French tactical manuals, reveal a French attack which advanced in column and then deployed into line (the column would be a lot like the formation used for the march-past at Trooping the Colour). And the British counter, as it is routinely reported in letters home for the whole Peninsula War, is a close-range volley followed by a bayonet charge out of the smoke.

Clausewitz warned against relying on firepower. It bogs down the unit, loses you any mobility, any chance of decision.

Wellington built on that recent history, and used the terrain better, screening his troops from enemy fire, but the basic sudden resolution was the same, and the idea must have been in British military thinking for longer.

I can't call that instance an actual lie. But the way the story stuck, for a hundred years or so, makes you wonder what future historians will make of our time. If the digital media are more fragile, will the evidence of reality survive to be compared to the lies in the stacks of archived newsprint? We can read the letters and diaries of one and two centuries ago. Where will the emails from soldiers in Helmand be in a hundred years.

We've talked of that already, in connection with Glasshouse. It would be a tricky story to write, but what would today look like from the point of view of the future? That, in part, is what Glasshouse does. What might come out of a history driven by newspaper reports of a riot, and fragments of a review of a Zombie movie?

"It's the end of the second day, Phil, and we've found nothing that we expected."

"That's right, Tony, and that's what makes archaeology so interesting. We expected to find a layer of ash and rubble, even human skeletal remains, from the Zombie War of which we have written accounts. And they're not here."

"And that means that there can have been no successful defence of this area."

"I'm not so sure, Mike. Was the clean-up even more thorough than we expected? We know from the contemporary accounts that Zombies were seen as a plague, an infection."

"But we don't have any evidence, Guy!"

"That's right, Tony. Phil, is that your finger in the ashtray?"

85:

IMHO a large part of the problem is population size and density. For most of its existence the Roman Empire had a population smaller than that of today's UK. Nationalism is a natural response to living under an Empire

86:

"You should do that to ANY information source, whether it agrees with you or not. In fact, you should be particularly critical of ones that agree with you."

That's why, on the rare occasion I pick up a paper newspaper, I tend to go for the Telegraph. It's generally got some decent reporting in it, and I understand the biases well enough to have an idea of the original story.
However, if I pick up the gurardid, I find myself in danger of being too busy agreeing with what they say to spend time question what's been written.

That said, I've not read an actual paper in ages, but I try and keep my RSS feeds pretty broad.

87:

I should fucking well hope that generals and such stay well out of harm's way.

On the other hand, if the generals stay safe in their bubbles, then they only talk to people who have strong incentives to avoid giving them bad news. I spent about five years in US Army labs. Generals were fairly universally regarded as smooth, political, and completely out of touch with reality.

We invaded Iraq during the period in question, so having the brass exposed to some common sense might have made a difference for large numbers of people.

Maybe not though. The old (> 100 years) joke is that officers will sacrifice their lives for their country, but not their jobs.

88:

There were one or two senior US military figures who told their civilian masters that the Great Iraq Adventure was going to take longer and cost more. They got fired and replaced by commanders who were OK in public at least with the idea of a small occupation force, the disbandment of the Iraq army and assorted other obvious no-nos. Note that the combat phase of the GIA was a textbook example of a first-world army smashing a degraded second-world military operation without command of the air. It was the aftermath, the "now what do we do" part of the process that went majorly tits-up.

I refuse to use the words "common sense" because they never apply; being "sensible" is usually wrong, and intelligent decision-making is rarely common.

89:

I should fucking well hope that generals and such stay well out of harm's way. It takes decades and millions to make a member of the general staff, training and experience and education and putting them where a sniper or a stray shell can cost your side that resource is stupid. When they do get killed it's usually when their army or div headquarters are being overrun and they can't retreat fast enough.

You say that the General is expensive; you should instead consider the cost of them making a mistake because they didn't appreciate the situation. That's the approach that gives you Chateau Generals, and a vulnerability to Blitzkreig (as the French GOC discovered in 1940; he chose a nice HQ that didn't have a fixed phone line, so every message required a dispatch rider and incurred a time lag).

Consider also Lloyd Fredendall's performance in North Africa...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lloyd_Fredendall#Tunisia.2C_Oran.2C_and_Kasserine_Pass

If you command, then you site yourself where you can understand what's going on (often this needs to be with your own eyes), talk to the person running things (often this needs to be face-to-face), and then make a difference.


The bloke fighting through a building doesn't run backwards to tell you what's going on the next building; you go forward to find out. Now scale that up. The Company Commander (about 100ish soldiers) is close behind the lead platoon (about 30ish soldiers). Guidance by radio just doesn't cut it, and the platoon commander "in contact" isn't going to come backwards; you go forward. As a Company Commander, you might find the Battalion Commander (600ish soldiers) coming forward to find out what's happening. The Brigade Commander (1000s of soldiers) might well turn up at the Battalion's tactical HQ if that battalion is on "Main Effort" for the current operation.

In close country (e.g. jungle, forest, or a built-up area) it is entirely possible to find yourself simultaneously too far back from the fighting and unable to see what's happening, whilst still too far forward and trying to avoid the contact battle. It certainly happened to me on exercises (I should point out that I was an infantry reservist, and was never mobilised to try it for real).

You can either try to impose order on what is essentially a chaotic activity, and risk having someone operate inside your decision cycle; or you can try to "surf the chaos". I can say the tactical phase of my Combined Arms course was one of the most intellectually challenging things I've ever done; best described as blindfold speed chess against multiple players, with nobody taking turns.

At one point, I was trying to figure out what my platoon commanders were up to, while trying to move one tactical bound behind them, referring to a map, listening to our radio net; trying to send SITREPs to the Battalion HQ on another radio net, listen to the SITREPs being sent by the Company on our left flank, not get squished by the rather large tank that was driving through Imber village towards me, tell the tank troop commander what support I needed, and climb through a window into the back of a building, all the while carrying about 35kg of assorted equipment...

90:

How do you expect a general in charge of a 100-kilometre front and several divisons of combined-forces troops (artillery, infantry, armour, support and logistics etc.) to personally put his or her eyeballs on the entire area of operations? Especially when any attempt to do so involves putting them and their HQ company of bodyguards under direct enemy attack?

Put yourself in the Orange forces place -- your intel intercepts strongly suggest a very high-ranking officer, red tabs or 4-star rank, general staff or Marshal of the SU is going to be turning up at point X close to your forces to personally observe what his chosen subordinates are up to, look over their shoulder, nudge their elbows and generally get in the way like a middle manager pissing in the pot. You would bend heaven and earth to get a shot at him, wouldn't you? That's how the USAAF got Yamamoto in WWII with a maximum-effort interception of a transport aircraft by long-range fighters and boy was it worth it.

Eyes on the spot are tactical and best left to expendable juniors, generals are strategic big-picture people. Pushing themselves forward just so they can be "real" soldiers by putting themselves at risk is pointless and will cost you when shit does go wrong -- see that gloryhound Lt. Col Jones VC (posthumous) during the Falklands War for an example.

91:

Even assuming we can fix the damage inflicted on our democratic party system by the growth of the fourth party, how can we hope to elect governments that can engage constructively with actual social problems when the myths believed by the electorate deviate so wildly from the real picture?

We can't. The billionaire media owners are getting their money's worth; they've skewed debate and politics wildly to the right, much to the detriment of the economy and living standards. The Labservative Democrats will rule the rump British Empire until the system explodes, as your last post suggested if I understood right.

It'd be interesting to know whether or not these misconceptions were as bad in Scotland as in the UK as a whole, incidentally.

92:

There are many levels of General Officer. if you're an American, or Commonwealth Forces before 1917 or so, then a Brigadier-General commanding a Brigade may only have a frontage of 10km; maybe only 1km if it's in a city. Scale it up; a Major-General commanding a Division might have a frontage of 3km to 30km, and a Lieutenant General commanding the 60,000+ soldiers of 1(Br) Corps in NORTHAG with a Corps frontage of about 65km. The general isn't going to visit the front line; he's going to visit his Brigade Commanders. He doesn't get a Company for protection; maybe a few military policemen (they are the ones who provide the bodyguards). It may be that those Brigade Commanders are close to the front line; that's why they get their own armoured vehicle...

There's a good explanation of German thinking on the subject here:
http://www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Auftragstaktik#2nd_Element

If you google "auftragstaktik", you'll find a wealth of debate on the subject. I agree that Lt.Col Jones was in the wrong place doing a bad job, but at most he should have been 500m further back; prior to the assault on Mount Harriet, 3 Cdo Bde HQ was on Mount Kent, only a few km behind the forward positions

93:

Cantering Sergeant @ 91
The misconceptions will be different, but worse, in Scotland.
They still have a calvinist, deeply nannying tendency ... one reason Sliemond is (or was) doing so well.

94:

Eyes on the spot are tactical and best left to expendable juniors, generals are strategic big-picture people.

Expendable juniors always make the situation on the ground look better than it is. Good leaders know that if middle management is saying the conditions for growth are present, junior management says the situation is well fertilized, and the grunts are using a simpler, more accurate word.

Saluting officers in the field is commonly referred to as a "sniper check", and is reserved for officers considered deserving.

95:

Eyes on the spot are tactical and best left to expendable juniors, generals are strategic big-picture people.

Actually, no; not if you're working to strict definitions. Most Generals do "tactical level stuff" (up to about Corps level, and Lieutenant-General). Above that is "Army"; four-star, or "full" General. They do "operational level stuff" (the part where the USSR pwned the Wehrmacht). "Strategy" is for the General Staff, and Field Marshals. "Grand Strategy" is for War Cabinets and Alliances.

96:

At least regarding the US Army, those definitions are mostly obsolete. Tactical is defined as company-level and below, operational as brigade and battalion, and strategic as division and up. This obviously results from a shift away from the total war in WW2 to the counterinsurgency doctrine used now (reading a field manual showing big arrows showing corps movements elicited a big 'WTF does this even mean!?' from me).

97:

Except for an indirect acknowledgement by anonemouse, no-one chided me for saying "dollar" rather than "pound", so I'd better do it. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I fail at cosmopolitanism.

98:

I wasn't after you for saying "dollar" - I was using the fact you did to imply that your disbelief that only 1% of benefits are lost to fraud may or may not be correct in the US, but is almost certainly wrong in the UK.

99:

@78:
Three Divisional Commanders (typically Major-Generals) were killed in battle in a single month at Loos; apparently, that's more than during the whole of WW2
---
Now, for your amusement, look up how many British generals were captured by the Germans in WWI vs. WWI.

...and then you'll know where Rommel's famous sunglasses came from.

100:

I remember reading of an incident (which Google will not find for me tonight) of an American general who found himself closer to the enemy than he wanted to be when his Jeep came around a blind corner and rear-ended a German tank. He'd have been one of the highest ranking POWs had someone in the Jeep not tried to shoot their way out...

101:

...only 1% of benefits are lost to fraud may or may not be correct in the US, but is almost certainly wrong in the UK.

What figures do you have on that? Or are you basing your view on the frequency of talking heads on TV whinging about benefit fraud?

102:

This is one of the things I try to bring to the highly fictional Rain Island Army Union I sometimes write about. The Naval Syndicate (like just about everyone else pre-WW2) looks to the Royal Navy as the standards setter. My view of the Army Union was heavily influenced by the German Army of WW1 in terms of organisation. Senior NCOs rather than Subalterns.

Turns out that some of the differences are a bit misleading: a lot of those Subalterns in 1918 were ex-NCOs.

I have wholly invented background details, such as various German veterans being hired to provide training, and something very like Auftragstaktik is the result.

Unfortunately, the USA is to the South, and the Rain Islanders are Anarcho-Syndicalists, and there is much sabre-rattling.

Well, the Yankees still rattle sabres. Standard issue in the Army Union is a Hudson Bay Tomahawk. It's a tradition.

103:

jay @ 94 & others
Read the memoirs of one of the best Brit Generals of WWII (far better than jos over-rated boss, Monty) ... Brian Horrocks.
He mentions Brigadier-&-above coming to (or very close to) the front line ... and specifically states that he always removed his distinctive rank markings [ the "red tabs" ] & asked others to do so ... as it always attracted enemy attention & tipped them off that an attack was likely.
Incidentally, Horrocks was himself very seriously wounded (aircraft attack) during the N Africa campaign, but survived & recovered.


@ 98/101
Are you sayiing that the 1% figure is actually too low, & that the actual "benefit fraud" is higher, or the other way around - sorry you are not clear (to me, at any rate!)

104:

The figures are linked to in Charlie's post. Mitchell Porter is apparently expressing disbelief that benefit fraud is sub 1%, anonymouse is pointing out that whatever the figures may be in Dollarland, that's what they are here.

I suspect Mr Porter has succumbed to the big lies that are the issue here, the lies that over here the repellant UKIP/BNP/EDL and the Daily Mail/&c are peddling.

105:

The Artists Rifles (as mentioned in OGH's emissions) was originally a militia unit recruiting from London's Bohemian set. During WW1 it was turned into an OCS operation to convert NCOs into junior officers who then went to France and got themselves killed leading assaults over the top.

A while back I was actually a member of the Artists Rifles club at Bisley, a hangout for the weirdos and ne'er-do-wells at the far end of Club Row. Gordon, the guy who ran the club was ex-SAS, no really really ex-SAS as in he'd occasionally ask us to go out to the ranges for an hour or two as he was having visitors... He was involved in the Iranian Embassy siege operation but he wasn't one of the team who actually carried out the assault.

106:

Snipers aren't stupid. A fat old soldier giving orders in a crowd of deferential officers at the front line is high-ranking enough that he's an obvious high-value target even if he's taken his red tabs off. Usually though the smart sniper is looking for sergeants -- knock off a three-striper and the junior OIC loses his platoon's brain. Kill the butterbar instead and the platoon goes on, possibly functioning better than before.

107:

Another common formulation is that tactics is about winning battles, strategy is about choosing which battles to fight (remembering that the enemy gets a vote), and grand strategy is about choosing which wars are worth fighting and which allies are worth supporting.

The most relevant feature of counterinsurgency is that it never works. We've tried it in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, and it fails regularly. The only strategies I know for fighting an insurgency are draining the swamp (i.e. killing the civilians the insurgents hide behind) or the self-cleaning oven (going away long enough that the insurgents fall on each other).

108:

The old saw about tactics, strategy and logistics is topped by finance; it takes money to fight and win a war (hence the phrase "war chest"), to provide for the logistics that allow the strategy to be implemented as tactics. Sunk costs are another pitfall of those in charge, especially if they're not paying for the war themselves.

By "we" I presume you mean America, a land created from an insurgency by courageous freedom fighters and proud of its heritage born in battle. Of course cowardly skulking terrorists refusing the benefits of freedom and liberty brought to them on the point of an American bayonet are nothing like the heroes of the Revolution lauded each year on July 4th.

109:

Or, if you prefer, the British experience in the American Revolution was another example of counterinsurgency not working.

As you inferred, I am American. Brits may feel free to include themselves in my statement about failing at counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Ditto Russians, Greeks, Persians ....

I'd qualify your statement to say that it takes money to wage some sorts of war. We were fighting wars before the invention of money, and chimpanzees (p. troglodytes) still do. Insurgencies are remarkably affordable and don't require much of a logistical base.

110:

Bellinghman @ 104
Thank you for the clarification.
But
UKIP are emphatically NOT "repellant" - though some of ther members might be (Like any other political party) - that's the way the supposedly "Popular left" want to portray them ... given that I know quite few "old labour" voters (of various skin shades) who all loathe the EU (but then they are all allotment-holders) ... I think your estimation is a little off, shall we say?

Nojay @ 105
Yes
I have a friend exactly a year younger than me who was "Artists Rifles" - 23 SAS (Terratorials) ... did some very intersting things in his time ....
& @ 106
Or better still (see earlier post) knocks over the junior commanding officers present [ Long live the 95th Rifles! ]

Jay @ 107
You are obviously USSAian & talking bollocks as in: The most relevant feature of counterinsurgency is that it never works
Tell that to the commies in Malaya, or the rebels in the back-country of Yemen/Quatar/ etc or "EOKA" or even NI (with a HUGE dose of political interaction as well) - hence the "peace process" & ....

Nojay @ 108 ...
Needs a little re-wording there ....
By "we" I presume you mean America, a land created from an insurgency by huge slave-owning vested interests and proud of its heritage born in battle. Of course cowardly skulking terrorists refusing the benefits of freedom and liberty brought to them on the point of an American bayonet are nothing like the moneybags of the Revolution lauded each year on July 4th.
There, fixed that for you!

Jay @ 109
See my comment above ...
WRONG.

111:

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is easy as long as you don't fall for the lure of occupation (see Elphinstone et al. ad nauseam) and, God forbid, "nation building". All you do is hold the passes and sow discord. Pay off one group to fight another if you want but they'll usually kill each other for free.

Afghanistan is a bit like Ankh-Morpork, it welcomes free-spending invaders. One report I read a few years back reckoned that the NATO military occupation contributed about 30% of Afghanistan's national GNP. When NATO finally comes to its senses and pulls out there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

As for talking about money that was more along the lines of tokenisable wealth rather than pallet-loads of dollars airfreighted into Iraq. Britain was beggared by fighting WWII in main part because of the loans arranged by our good friends the US who made out like bandits from it even at preferential interest rates. I've seen analyses that explained why Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union when they did, they were basically bankrupt themselves and needed the territorial gains in the East and the resources like oil and agricultural land to keep going.

112:

Most of the difficulties in counterinsurgency, American style, come from the fact that the insurgents can easily identify Americans but not vice versa. The sorts of fighting you cite in Malaya, Yemen, Qatar, and North Ireland aren't really comparable; distance and cultural unfamiliarity are a huge part of the problem. EOKA, on the other hand, was a rather successful anti-British insurgency that didn't do well in the postcolonial civil war.

Another big part of the problem is that the counterinsurgency has a long, expensive logistics operation while the insurgents can work from home.

Nojay, your plan for Afghanistan is what I referred to as the self-cleaning oven, and is an old LAPD drug war favorite.

113:

No offence, but when it comes to snipers you sound as if you're listening to second-hand statements (partially made in jest). First point is not to confuse snipers with sharpshooters or marksmen; the media are fond of doing this. Secondly, the sergeant isn't standing next to the subaltern telling them what to do except in the imagination of chippy inadequates; typically, they're responsible for the platoon logistics (running around with a rucksack of spare ammunition, trying to sort out casualties and prisoners of war) and are often well behind their 2Lt and doing their own job.

So, snipers are not "usually looking for sergeants". They are a battalion asset, working to the battalion plan, unless it's a rather amateur army. They will be tasked to go after high-value targets, according to the current operation. They may be looking for commanders, or anti-tank crews, or sappers, it all depends. If an old bloke with entourage turns up (apart from thinking Xmas has come early) they may well be calling for mortar or artillery support instead. At one extreme, AIUI in the Winter War the Finns regarded Soviet field kitchens as high-payoff targets; no hot food in he Arctic is a very effective way of reducing a force's effectiveness.

114:

"The most relevant feature of counterinsurgency is that it never works."

There is a very simple, effective and historical proven method of winning a counter-insurgency:

You exterminate the local civilian population.

The Assyrians exterminated whole tribes and kingdoms, often relocating entire populations to far corners of their empire.

The Romans called this "creating a desert and calling it peace" and it worked from Carthage to Judea.

The Mongols depopulated northern China to eliminate opposition and later did the same to Muscovy.

Via war and disease Spanish Conquistadors and American pioneers eliminated Native American guerrilla opposition.

The Bolsheviks engineered a man-made famine in the Ukraine in the 1920s to eliminate nationalistic and class opposition.

The Nazis effectively eliminated guerrilla movements throughout Europe. After the war Albert Speer was asked about the French resistance and he responded "What French resistance?" The Warsaw uprising was easily crushed in a matter of days by second hand troops.

(Tito's Yugoslavs being the only exception, they survived because of the rough Balkan terrain and in true Balkan fashion spent more time killing each other than their German and Italian occupiers).

In fact, every totalitarian government of the past century (Nazis, Soviets, Maoist, Khmer Rouge, etc.) easily eliminated guerrilla opposition via democide.

Defeating guerrillas is remarkably easy.

115:

In the post you quoted, I called that "draining the swamp". It works fine, but it's politically impossible for a democratic government fighting a distant insurgency in a world with easy communications (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria (coming soon), Iran (coming eventually, unless a miracle happens and we actually learn from experience)).

116:

I glanced through an old sniper manual online, and apparently repairmen are a high priority target. It seems the guy who gives the orders is a lot more replaceable than the guy who keeps the tanks rolling.

117:

The Warsaw uprising was easily crushed in a matter of days by second hand troops. ... Defeating guerrillas is remarkably easy.

I suspect you are not a military man.

You also haven't read up on the Warsaw Uprising lately. It was a full-up army with armor, artillery, and air support against rag-tag insurgents, in a battle that lasted two months and cost the Germans thousands of infantrymen and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles; it also killed somewhere around 150,000 to 200,000 civilian bystanders and leveled a major city.

The Germans eventually won, since the Soviets betrayed the Poles, but nobody would call it easy. Consider some quotes from people on the scene:

"We have one point from which every evil emanates. That point is Warsaw. If we didn't have Warsaw in the General Government, we wouldn't have four-fifths of the difficulties with which we must contend." – German Governor-General Hans Frank, Kraków, 14 December 1943

"There was no difficulty in finding Warsaw. It was visible from 100 kilometers away. The city was in flames but with so many huge fires burning, it was almost impossible to pick up the target marker flares." – William Fairly, a South African pilot, from an interview in 1982

"The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth and serve only as a transport station for the Wehrmacht. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation." – SS chief Heinrich Himmler, 17 October, SS officers conference

118:

Jay @ 112
IIRC, Cyprus became an independent republic, without union (EOKA) with Greece? How does that NOT qualify as a counterinsurgency success?
Ditto the Brits in both Malaya & Borneo (fighting the Indonesians under Sukarno) were very easily identifiable … didn’t stop us winning, though, did it?
Basically the problem is that the US lacks subtlety

Oh, & Warsaw has arisen, has it not?
There is a City - like the YouTube video says, & once a year, it STOPS.

Talking of which [ Health warning, given the source ] …
It looks as though Dr David Kelly really was murdered … though whether it was Blair’s cronies or US special operatives is quite unknown & possibly unknowable ….

119:

One of the newspaper reports I recall from the early days in Afghanistan was that the US Army air-freighted in cement from the USA for the reconstruction. The British Army sent a bunch of sappers with a truck to the local Afghan cement works. (And maybe paid cash.)

The particular instance being reported on was a damaged bridge. The US approach seemed to be to bring in everything from the USA--workers and machinery and materials. The other NATO countries used more of the local resources, and the suggestion was that the locals were much less hostile as a result. It's very much the Ankh-Morpork effect.

But the pattern of Anglo-Afghan Wars is that it isn't a good idea to stick around. The aim of the Raj was to keep the Russians out of Afghanistan, and keep the Afghans out of India. There's a lot which hasn't changed.


120:

The URLs aren't in those links (I checked the HTML). What I see is a structure like <a>this</a>.

121:

If Wikipedia doesn't mislead me, the Greek Cypriot insurgency forced the British out and led a coup for control of the country. At that point, Turkey got involved on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot population. I'd call that one victory for EOKA over the Brits in an insurgency, followed by one victory for Turkey over EOKA in a border war.

As for the rest, the British Empire used to get away with a lot of stuff that wouldn't fly today. The Brits were not, generally, subtle. At all. Those methods don't work as well now that even the third world has plenty of cheap digital cameras. The cheap automatic rifles don't help either.

122:

"The Germans eventually won, since the Soviets betrayed the Poles, but nobody would call it easy."

Former USAF officer actually.

To destroy resistance in a heavily built up urban area of 1.3 million inhabitants in only two months does count as relatively easy.

Especially when you consider that the Wehrmacht had just been devastated and nearly broken by the Soviet summer offensive, Operation Bagration (aka "The Destruction of Army Group Center"). The Germans had just been driven back over 200 miles in some areas, from the outskirts of Smolensk to the outskirts of Warsaw. The German casualties amounted to half a million men (a quarter of their entire force on the Eastern Front), several encircled and completely destroyed armies and panzergruppes, and proportional losses in equipment and material. The Wehrmacht never recovered from this defeat, a defeat far greater than their loss at Stalingrad, and was a shell of its former self..

And yet this defeated, broken army was able to crush the Polish/Jewish Warsaw uprising in a matter of weeks using weak, second rate, understaffed and under supplied units.

So let me repeat, if an Occupier is willing to commit mass murder like empires of the past and the totalitarians of the last century (or even herd the civilian population enmasse into concentration camps like the British did to the Boers), they can easily defeat a guerrilla force.

123:

zochaka @ 120
In which case something has gorn horribly worng with the dit &/or cut-&-paste process ....

Jay @ 121
The usual Brit method was to enrol the help of one of the local rulers (Divde & rule, in fact) if they possibly could. It's why large chunks of India were never directly ruled by Britain, for instance ....

124:

Actually, the high number of inhabitants and the urbanized terrain makes it even easier; there is high consumption of food etc. and less production.

For weapons, this is somewhat the other way around, actually the Polish Underground managed to do some in the factories at hand, but still, you need materials.

125:

Benefit Fraud.
Here in the US, the same 1% figure is the assertion (by officialdom) for welfare and "Food Stamp" "fraud".

What is astonishing/disgusting is the whinging on the right about people buying groceries with their Food Stamp benefits. What they don't understand is, you can only buy groceries with SNAP (Food Stamps); Toilet Paper, Toothpaste, ammo, you have to pay cash for those. But you can buy anything defined as food with them, so people do buy potato chips (crisps) and other junk foods part of the standard American Diet, which many seem to resent or want to control.

Are Twinkies Food, and who gets to decide?

Sorry, stores about their scheduled reappearance at Walmart, forgot to check yesterday.

But the 1% seems to really bother people, contrast with the FAR higher fraud rate (and dollar value of the individual fraud) in the American Farm subsidy program. But it if is legal for congressman Fincher to collect $70,000 in subsidy payments (last year), it isn't fraud.

For our UK audience, traditionally the US "Farm Bill" combined agricultural subsidies (for the rural constituencies) and food stamps (for the Democrats); Last Thursday (7/11/13) the Republicans in the house voted out a "subsidy only" bill; They refuse to take any action to reauthorize the food stamp side of the equation. The house bill will (probably) die or be vetoed in it's present form, but the "Conflict of Interest" should be noted, Congressman Fincher (Republican, Tennessee) Chairs the house agriculture committee. He has received at least $3.5 MILLION in crop subsidies as a cotton "farmer" since being elected to congress. Nice work if you can get it, I guess.

126:

"Are Twinkies food?" - From memory, and borrowing heavily from "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" (Season 2, episode "Inca Mummy Girl") Xander says of Twinkies something like "Since they contain no ingredients that any human can pronounce, they don't fill you up like actual food does*".

* The details don't matter as long as the point is correct.

127:

Update
This article re-visits the Kelly affair from another viewpoint.
Interesting.
However, please remember Charlie's strictures ( @ 73 )about what biases the writer may have - in this case, Andrew Gilligan.......

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