On Conspiracy Theories, Again

I wrote a few days back about America’s sometimes frightening addiction to conspiracy theories.

Now a professor who specialises in these – such academics apparently exist – has suggested the tendency is hardwired into the American psyche.

This is because America was born out of a huge conspiracy theory, that Britain was conspiring to do the colonists down and cheat them out of their rights, he claims.

Not implausible. Many of the perceived slights that triggered the American War of Independence may have been nothing of the kind, or no worse than the way Britain treated other parts of its empire.

I recall some years ago I was editing a humorous diary column and wrote about one of the original first men on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, I think it was. He had taken to giving motivational talks, for a decent fee, to US corporates.

I said the talks involved all the usual stuff, how the Moon landings were faked up in a back lot in Burbank, California, the flag that hung the wrong way, etc, etc. I would have thought it fairly obvious I was being satirical.

The emails started to arrive. “So you KNOW about that, do you? Well listen to this…” Page after page of this stuff. Deeply worrying.


Moral Panics, Causation And Correlation

“One of the most recurrent types of moral panic in Britain since the war has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture whose behaviour is deviant or delinquent.” Stanley Cohen, sociologist, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1972.

Up to four teenage boys have apparently killed themselves after playing the admittedly violent computer game Call of Duty.

Each death is a tragedy. The game is not rated for players of that age, which means they are not legally allowed to buy it. There is, as far as I know, no law that can forbid them from playing it in their own homes. The usual parties have attempted to whip up the usual moral panic. Our youth is in danger from these vile games, etc, etc. Anders Breivik played Call of Duty. Clearly there is a connection.

On a personal note, the Boy plays Call of Duty. And Grand Theft Auto, Zombie Apocalypse, Beat You Grannie to Death With a Bicycle Chain, Mass Slaughter For Beginners, 101 Awful Thing To Do With Kittens – I made some of those up. You get the picture.

He is, as far as we can tell, perfectly normal and well balanced. Not overly violent – he does not appear to have been in a serious fight at school, that we know of. His school reports suggest he is an engaging, popular, normal teenager. He just likes beating zombies to death with bicycle chains.

Except, not really. Not in real life. Before we get sucked into one of those moral panics and lose all sense of proportion, consider four factors.

One, we have here our old friend, correlation and causation. Just because event B follows event A, it does not mean that A causes B. You have to prove a link before proposing or taking action to break that link. The history of teenagers displaying wildly aberrant social behaviour of whatever kind, who have also played violent computer games, suggests other things badly wrong with their lives as well.

Meanwhile, the majority of teenagers play violent computer games but do not display wildly aberrant social behaviour. Correlation and causation.

Second, I make the choice to allow my son to play games that are deemed by others unsuitable for his age because that is one of the free choices I have as a parent. Our children have also been allowed to watch films and TV programmes that others might regard as unsuitable for their ages – Game of Thrones, for a start, or the Lord of The Rings films before their ages had reached double figures.

We have taken that choice, regarded by many as too liberal, I am sure, after consideration of their characters and how they react to those stimuli. It is our choice, and we retain the right to change our minds if we consider it to be the wrong one in the light of later events. It is called freedom to choose.

Third, this is another example of that tension between allowing freedom for the majority and risking damage to a vulnerable minority. Cf alcohol, porn, junk food and gambling. Generally, I err on the side of individual freedom rather than banning something because that minority might abuse it.

Fourth, these moral panics seem to follow an advance in technology which society has difficulty adjusting to, which suggests there may be plenty more to come. Porn and the Internet, obviously. The arrival of affordably video cassette players and so-called “video nasties”, whereby films that some might disapprove of could be bought for individual consumption rather than accessed only through heavily regulated TV networks.

My only regret is that I sometimes wish he did not spend quite so much time beheading zombies. That is down to my failings as a parent, then, in not having the energy to stop him and make him do something else.

On The Rise of Ukip

People have been surprised at the strong showing in the local council elections for Ukip, well ahead of what the opinion polls suggested. Some wonder if, when the result of the European elections is announced on Monday, the party will do much better than expected.

There is one factor here, I suggest, which may have been overlooked. The Tories tend to do better in the polling booth than earlier opinion polls would suggest because some people, convinced Tory voters, are embarrassed or ashamed to admit their intentions to pollsters beforehand. The nasty party, and all that. This is an accepted statistical blip.

How much more true is this likely to be for Ukip, the party that in smart metropolitan circles dare not speak its name? We shall see.

The Chelsea Flower Show

We have been to the Chelsea Flower Show.

It was a pleasant enough evening. It didn’t rain. But one thing troubled me. There didn’t seem to be a lot there for gardeners.

This is a growing trend. The event is being used, as I have written in my newspaper, as a way of allowing corporates and City folk to schmooze each other in exclusive, attractive surroundings. And a way of allowing financial services businesses to connect with clients who might be prepared to buy their services.

There are some stalls in the main marquee that allow you to order plants, and there are also some wildly extravagant displays, impossible to replicate in the average garden.

The actual specimen lay-outs are even more so, impractical concatenations of plants that would last about two months before disintegrating, as this specimen plant outgrew the rest, this border was overrun and that foliage display failed to thrive. Fun to look at, but hardly inspirational.

The rest of Chelsea has become a wildly over-priced, upmarket tat-fest. Stalls selling watercolours. Stalls selling Panama hats. Stalls selling endless mangled bits of metal that might pass as garden sculpture. One stall selling rocking horses, for Christ’s sake. At £1,000 a pop, you are hardly going to leave it out in the rain overnight, are you?

Chelsea will inevitably attract the sort of well-heeled clientele that can afford such luxuries. It all suggests, again, that in some reaches of society there is too much money sloshing around and not enough to spend it on.

Sorry to be a grump.

Crass Insensitivity

The situation in Ukraine and the Crimea is a little more complicated than some pundits would have us believe. Including that walking counter-indicator, Prince Charles.

Comparing Vladimir Putin, and by implication today’s Russia, with Hitler and Nazi Germany is not merely rude and hyperbolic. It is unbelievably offensive to a national that lost 20 million or more in the fight against the Nazis.

The fight against fascism was won in Stalingrad and Kursk, not on the beaches of Normandy. The Russians have just held their own Victory Day celebrations. Unbelievably insensitive, not that our Royal Family is known for its sensitivity.

Much of that body count, of course, was down to Stalin’s utter indifference to how many troops he lost in the struggle. A historical note: the machine that won the war in Europe was arguably the Russian T-34 tank.

This was smaller and less well armoured than its German equivalents, in particular the brutish Tiger II, and outgunned. But the Russians could produce in a single month as many T-34s as the total number of German tanks on the Eastern front at that time.

Lose eight T-34s and kill one Tiger II, and it was a net victory to the Russians. Not much consolation if you were in one of those T-34s.

And what is the difference between Putin and Prince Charles? At least someone got the chance to vote for Putin.

A New Dark Age

This is well worth reading:

The US is increasingly in the grip of irrational conspiracy theories. Obama is not American, Bush engineered 9/11. Vaccination is bad for you, but Big Pharma is hiding the truth to maximise profits.
The writer blames the Internet for allowing wingnuts, as the Americans call them, to congregate and share their theories. Present them with the facts, and this merely reinforces their views. “You would say that, wouldn’t you? That means you must be part of the conspiracy.”
America seems to be slipping into an abyss of irrationality and illogic, a new dark age. Free speech is increasingly challenged, in the media and in academe. As I have said before, the road to the Enlightenment is not a one-way street.

On My New-Found Wealth

Apparently I am extremely rich, which comes as a pleasant surprise.

A feature of the past couple of years has been the arrival in my household of letters from various wealth managers suggesting I put any spare millions I have no pressing need for their way for safe keeping. St James’s Place, a company I have occasional dealings with in my day job, is always keen to help out.

Now I receive a letter from Crispin Odey. He is offering me FREE access (his capitals) to his current thinking to show “how we can help you to manage your family investments”.

This is enormously flattering. Crispin, as I think I may call him since he signs himself thus and seems so keen to make my acquaintance, is one of the City’s richest hedge fund managers, latest worth estimated at more than £300 million, shared with his wife Nicola Pease, a scion of one of the founding families of Barclays Bank.

They are now known as “the Posh and Becks” of the City, though I would be cautious over this because as it happens I know the writer who first made it up.

There is a minor problem you may have spotted about my plans to make myself even richer, with the help of these City geniuses. I don’t have any money.

It is all down to the ridiculous explosion in London house prices. These wealth managers, or whatever idiot algorithm their firms use to identify potential clients, plainly believe that someone like me, living in a street where homes change hands for the best part of a million, must therefore be rich.

It is not necessarily so. People of fairly modest means live in London homes worth large fractions of a million, because there are no London homes left worth less.

To misquote Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t trust my money with any firm that managed to delude itself that I actually had any.

Uninhabitable London (An Occasional Series)

A study by an employers’ organisation has found that two firms in five say high house prices in London make it hard for them to hire and retain skilled staff. Alternatively, employees are having to move a long way out and commute so far that this is affecting their punctuality and reliability.

This has been a problem for some years now, though it became less pressing when the economy turned down and those staff that had jobs were presumably prepared to put up with anything to retain them. It has become pressing again because of the mad spiral of house prices in London and the south east, which have far outstripped ordinary people’s ability to afford the mortgage on them.

It will get worse again as mortgages become harder to get, even if you are prepared to put up with the financial pain, because lenders are now required to ask more searching questions over whether applicants can really afford them.

I know of three couples affected in this way. All in solid, professional jobs. The problem is children. One pair are off to that remote part of the provinces where one comes from, on the grounds that it is more possible there to raise the two children they have and enjoy a decent living standard than in over-heated, over-crowded London. Fine, if your job is exportable.

Two others jacked up borrowings to the limit and bought the property, had the offspring and then found that child care was no longer affordable. The numbers do not stack up; child minders or nannies can wipe out one small salary. Nursery places and after-schools clubs are few and far between, and do not always provide the hours of care that modern jobs require.

It makes having one child, on typical salaries, hard enough. It makes having two out of the question. Expect lots of only children among the urban middle classes, then, the “little emperor” syndrome seen in China after the one-child policy.

In a proper free market, which of course is a concept all employers pay lip service to, then wages for such professional jobs would have to rise to make mortgages and child care affordable again. The numbers suggest they will have to rise an awful long way.

Employers won’t countenance this, which is why you will hear much about how the Government should Do Something. Thereby interfering in that free market, which tends to be something corporates encourage when it is in their interests and scream blue murder about when it is not. Funny, that. This is not a problem that is going to go away.

On Homeopathy, and Related Idiocies

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has come into some stick for asking the chief medical officer for a review of the medical evidence for and against homeopathy.

I have some previous in this, because at some stage in my youth I was given a homeopathic treatment for hay fever. (It didn’t work. Oddly enough.)

The chief medical officer apparently then reviewed various studies, all of which found that it didn’t work. Oddly enough. This is hardly surprising, if you know any basic science. The “active ingredient”, often a tiny amount of whatever is supposed to work against the ailment being treated, is then diluted to such an extent that the laws of chemistry can demonstrate mathematically that, in some of the treatments being sold, there is simply none of it left. It has to be pure water. See Avogadro’s Law.

This is fact. The good news is that the public mood seems to be turning against homeopathy, even if the son of our Sovereign still seems convinced it works. He is what we in the City call a counter-indicator; much of what he believes in one can reliably assume is therefore nonsense, and the converse often applies too.

The “treatment” is getting harder to find on the NHS. Some years ago some rationalists, annoyed that a big pharmacy chain was still charging for such “treatments”, staged a demonstration outside one branch where they deliberately overdosed, taking many thousands of times’ the recommended dosage. Mercifully, none of them suffered any ill effects. Or any effects at all, for that matter.

Now this idiocy is at last on the wane, we can turn to astrology, something else that apparently sensible people spend good money on and which is, to anyone with any grounding in science, clearly nonsense. For any number of reasons, including statistical and astronomical.

That just leaves creation science/intelligent design, Ayurvedic medicine, Rolfing, iridology… the list goes on.

On Leslie Thomas

Leslie Thomas has died.

I suspect the name will not mean a lot to those aged 35 or younger. Thomas had his heyday as a novelist in the 1960s and 1970s. He continued to publish into the last decade, but largely, one suspects, for his own amusement.

Thomas seems to have been a very decent chap with an appreciation of the good things in life, even if he is a member of that irritating tribe, the journalist turned successful author. In his time, he was hugely popular, partly because his books were rather more racey than whatever else was on the shelves at the time.

As it happens, my father did his National Service in the Far East at the same time as Thomas and the protagonist in his first (autobiographical?) novel, The Virgin Soldiers. This was published in 1966, just six years after the Lady Chatterley trial, and was seen as daring stuff indeed. It was an overnight success.

(My father, unlike Thomas’s central character, has never admitted to an affair out east with a Chinese prostitute. I suspect the chance would have been a fine thing.)

Thomas is therefore heading off into that section of Valhalla reserved for enormously popular novelists who, within a couple of decades of their death, are almost entirely forgotten. Does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days? Nicholas Montserrat? Neville Shute? CS Forester?

What they seem to have in common is one huge blockbuster at the start of their career. Thomas, with The Virgin Soldiers. MacLean with The Guns of Navarone. (Which you may have caught on film on a Sunday afternoon once or twice. Unless you have been clinically dead for three or four decades.)

Nicholas Montserrat wrote The Cruel Sea, Shute A Town Called Alice. They then all seem to have settled down to turn out regular potboilers of decreasing success until death and obscurity claimed them. Thomas at least wrote Tropic of Ruislip, a very funny account of adulterous housewives which upset the inhabitants of that sedate north west London suburb. He will have enjoyed that.

The blessing from all this is that one day, if history plays out true, no one will have heard of Jeffrey Archer.

The exception is if you are a female novelist. You may, too, slip below the waves of obscurity, but there is every chance you will one day be rediscovered by a feminist imprint. Probably as some sort of proto-feminist too. Rosamund Lehmann. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Winifred Holtby, author of South Riding. Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy. The last two were made into TV series.

Unfortunately, you will probably have to be dead to enjoy the privilege.