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Friday, January 09, 2004

Hants


Talking Points Memo draws attention to the latest ARG tracking poll which has Dean on 35%, Clark on 20%, up 2% for the fifth consecutive day.

At this rate, someone should be pointing out, Clark will overtake Dean in New Hampshire in about a week to ten days. I don't think that will actually happen, because Clark's heady ascent will slow down a bit; but wouldn't it be entertaining if he actually won NH?

Thursday, January 08, 2004

More evidence of BBC anti-semitism



It turns out that BBC presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk wrote a piece on the Arab world, in his Sunday Express column, which was so nuanced and carefully reasoned that the Commission for Racial Equality has reported it to the police. I don't think the piece is online, but the BBC has a couple of choice quotes:

"Apart from oil - which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the West - what do they contribute? Can you think of anything? ... No, nor can I... We're told the the Arabs loathe us. Really? ... They should go down on their kness and thank God for the munificence of the United States."

Lovely. The BBC has not yet taken any steps against Mr Kilroy-Silk.

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has linked to Karma Nabulsi's Guardian piece on Palestinian democracy and the right of return. The content of that piece is really just very depressing; it looks rather as if the only resolution of the issues she quite validly raises is a single-state solution, which just seems so far outwith the boundaries of the possible to leave us stymied, with perhaps the prospect of an unjust and oppressive peace along Geneva lines as the least-worst outcome. The point, though, should be made that Dr Nabulsi showed such extraordinary political skill as Junior Dean at Nuffield in the late 90s that if she were put in charge of finding a settlement, it would all be sorted out over a couple of dinners to everyone's cheerful satisfaction. (As Junior Dean, Karma not only repeatedly performed the miracle of making Nuffield take the welfare of its graduate students a bit more seriously, but there was also one potentially unpleasant occasion when she took all of the people shortlisted for a Nuffield job, including me and one of the Volokh conspirators, out for a meal the night before the interviews; I think all the applicants actually ended up having a jolly good time despite ourselves.)

UPDATE: The BBC has suspended Kilroy-Silk's programme.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Oxblogwatch XXXVI



OK, I know I shouldn't let this wind me up, and probably wouldn't if it were called Yaleblog or something, but...

Josh Chafetz is shocked - shocked! - to find a BBC reporter of long and distinguished service reporting a US customs official as saying "give them two fingers from me". Apparently Americans do the one-finger thing, but not the two-finger thing, which is good to know. I have tried to research how widely-known the two-finger thing is, in the US, but if you search on Google you get a certain amount of what-you-might-call inappropriate content.

Doubtless this report will be used to confirm the deepseated anti-Americanism at the heart of the most respected public institution of America's apparent ally, etc etc, but just let me just add one or two possible explanations before Kendall becomes a verb like "Fisk"...

a) One feature of having been a news junkie since the days before the web is that I know what Bridget Kendall's voice sounds like - specifically, that it doesn't sound American. Chafetz apparently thinks that US Customs officials are too dumb to use a British idiom when talking to a British reporter. (One hopes he doesn't let them know that as he passes by.) My own idiom would be "stick two fingers up at them" rather than "give them two fingers" - the US idiom being, I think, "give them the finger" - so the mixed idiom quoted makes that version sound quite plausible to me. But maybe other Brits say "give them two fingers"? I don't think so: a Google search reveals 24 instances of "stick two fingers up at them", mainly British or Irish and meaning what you'd think, but only seven of "give them two fingers", two of which are the Kendall story, two of which seem to be porn-related.

b) Or maybe, just maybe, the US Customs official said "give them the finger from me" and Ms Kendall engaged in the appalling, misleading misrepresentation of doubling the number of digits when she reported it for UK listeners.

c) Or maybe she made it up. I find this unlikely since my visits to the United States in 2003 involved Americans pretty much queuing round the block to say nice things about Tony Blair and nasty things about the French: it's unlikely she wouldn't have needed to make up an example like this.

One might think it would be hard to get outraged over such a minor detail in a BBC "soft" news program, but I guess hysterical fits of outrage against the BBC pay quite well in some circles.

Rationality



Last November's APSR has only just reached me after its usual transatlantic journey (which must presumably be undertaken by attaching it to a migratory seabird of some sort, given the time it takes). It has a fascinating article on the epistemological foundations of rational choice theory, by Paul K. MacDonald at Columbia. (Link is to the abstract but is probably subscriber-institution only).

MacDonald distinguishes between two competing and mutually contradictory accounts of the use of rational choice theory. On the one hand, you might say that the empirical plausibility of rationality assumptions (etc) is irrelevant, and what matters is that RC methods generate heaps of testable hypotheses; MacDonald calls this instrumentalist-empiricism. Or, you might say that the empirical plausibility of rationality assumptions does matter: that rational behaviour does actually cause observed facts about the world, at least in that limited domain in which individuals do behave rationally, and MacDonald calls this scientific-realism. He makes the telling point that many published works in the field flit rather carelessly between the two epistemological bases. One might criticize him, from a social-science-as-entertainment perspective, for using stylised examples of bad reasoning rather than really grabbing hold of that rare opportunity to rub the noses of distinguished colleagues in the dirt - although I see that he is still a PhD student, so it very understandable.

I'm not really a philosophy-of-social-science geek, so I may be overstating the novelty of this, but it's yet another interesting article from the Perestroika-inspired recovery of APSR, so hurrah for that. My own inclinations would pretty clearly be towards scientific-realism, with a very limited domain (and an exception which I will explain below): basically, rational choice is (waves hands to indicate vagueness) probably going to be useful for only a few sorts of situation: assessing evolutionary-type situations where non-maximising actors get kicked out (legislative elections?); massively repeated situations where individuals may become very competent at getting what they want through learning (persuading one's spouse to do the washing-up); situations where actors have come to think that they (in some sense) "should" behave rationally (perhaps voters are now persuaded that this is what they are doing?; lottery non-players with some training in the mathematics of probability might also fall into the same category); and situations where major interests are very clearly at stake such that actors face enormous risks from non-optimizing behaviour (amateur tightrope-walking?; Supreme Court in US v Nixon).

However, I have started to think that the primary benefit of rational choice theory is not really derived from its potential status as a scientific theory at all, but more from its descriptive utility. I think at least one version of this account is widespread: I have somehow inherited, without exactly knowing where the analysis came from, that the transition from the problematisation of non-voting to the problematisation of voting came about as a result of the questions raised by people like Downs in the early days of rational choice, although in fact I don't know whether studies of non-voting were more common pre-1957 or whenever it was. But I think the point is more generalisable: for any given social situation, the structure revealed by an account of what each actor's rationally optimised behaviour would be is itself of interest. This is not because the revealed structure is necessarily something that it's even worthwhile treating as a hypothesis about the behaviours that will in fact result (i.e. contra the instrumentalist-empirical account) but because the gap between the structure and the empirical outcomes will reveal much more precisely the influence/costs of broadly non-optimising factors. (For example, it might not even occur to the observer that it there exists a norm that US Supreme Court Justices should not trade votes in different cases; but it turns out the absence of logrolling does require some explanation, and moreover that the norm is occasionally tweaked in specific circumstances, and... and there you have an entire research question which is not itself dependent on the rational-choice-inspired thinking that would start it going.)

Monday, January 05, 2004

Long time no blog



That was a Christmas break involving rather too much contact with the crappier parts of the National Health Service. At least it's over.

Anyhoo, Tyler Cowen at the Volokh conspiracy actually has a thought-provoking question: why haven't there been any more al qaeda attacks on the US mainland?

Cowen proposes two speculations:

Firstly, what he calls "terrorism as theatre" - the terrorists get so carried away with the fun of planning stuff they never quite get round to doing anything.

Secondly, what he calls "terrorists as fundraisers", an argument that al qaeda organisations may have become addicted to organisational maintenance and growth rather than to their purported purpose.

These thoughts are, I think, quite fun, and they have a certain plausibility; it seems quite possible that terrorism does attract attention-seekers, and most organisations do, as time passes, start to commit a lot more to self-maintenance for its own sake than they do to their original goal. That said, I think they are still wrong (and betray an odd confidence that people apparently willing to die in attacks on the United States are not all that serious, are somehow still merely consumers looking to maximise their income and fun).

There seem to me to be four further "speculations", at least, which might need to be taken into account:

The third is that there probably just aren't all that many people in these organisations capable of entry into the United States and of the kind of technically sophisticated organisation needed for a substantial attack. You can't just drop someone in the United States and expect them to be able to research, plan and carry out an attack without discovery. (Even the 9/11 attackers seem to have had only a few really skilled or competent people in the group.) Of course, if these people are a limited resource then losing them in suicide attacks will be problematic. If this is true, then we would expect simpler attacks on soft targets, closer to home - like the bombings in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, and perhaps Iraq.

The fourth is that these organisations have so many worst enemies that the United States is really only one among many; again, many other interests have been attacked, and Westerners in general seem like a major target. In that sense, the view that there have not been further terrorist attacks is very US-homeland-specific.

The fifth is that, although we really do lack a serious and convincing account of events leading up to 9/11, it does appear that there were a number of occasions on which slightly more vigorous security policy would have disrupted the group's planning. It may be the case that much of the increased effort on homeland security is essentially wasted, or is primarily about controlling public confidence in government, but even small changes might impact on the capacity of a dispersed group to come together to carry out a complex plan. If this is true I guess terrorists would be wise to try constantly to create the impression of impending attacks in order to complicate the pursuit of homeland security, and eventually to create the sense that warnings of attacks are simply "crying wolf".

The sixth is related to all the others: it simply has not been the practice of al qaeda and related groups to attack the US frequently. There were long gaps between attacks on US interests in the 1990s and early 2000s - from memory, I think gaps of about eighteen months to two years, even if all the relevant attacks are classified as al qaeda inspired. There were eight years, weren't there, between the two attacks on the World Trade Center? The dreadful truth is that the absence of an attack on US interests so far says nothing about the long term prospects for another horrific attack, and really there is little reason to be confident that we won't in three or four years' time see something just as bad in a major Western city.

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