Lies, Damned Lies and Fake News
"There is so much Bullsh**! that one hardly knows where to begin,"
Laura Penny, author of "Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullsh**!"
"When governments and societies lose their capacity for critical thinking the results can be catastrophic however sympathetic we may be to those who bought into the baloney"
Carl Sagan, 1934-1996, "The Burden of Scepticism"
"Group wisdom emerges whenever information is dispersed among different minds. To achieve group wisdom you need wise individuals. But you also need diverse individuals otherwise they will share the same blind spots" Matthew Syed "Rebel Ideas" 2019
"Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision" Winston Churchill
Since my IFA career began over 47 years ago I’ve learned (the hard way) that it’s best to disregard all media-hyped forecasts of experts who "enjoy" accompanying accolades such as "renowned," "top," "leading," "eminent," or "legendary." In November 2010 a group of 10 "renowned" economists; "top" academics (including Prof Niall Ferguson of Harvard); and "leaders in business" wrote an open letter to the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. No, it wasn’t a thank-you letter for his efforts in saving the global financial system following the Great Financial Crash of 2008.
Their letter was published in the Wall Street Journal. You can still read what they wrote and predicted. The 10 "eminent" know-alls argued that his monetary stimulus, known as QE (Quantitative Easing) should be dropped immediately to stop the inevitable rampant inflation, higher borrowing costs, a weakening of the US dollar and heavy unemployment.
So what happened? Did their pessimistic predictions come true? Well…no. Not one. Inflation rates AND interest rates fell, the dollar got stronger and unemployment halved. Now there’s nothing wrong in making mistakes. Married men make them all the time and aren’t allowed to forget them. The world is awfully complicated these days. So it’s easier to get it wrong even with computer models. But when you get it wrong, why not admit it and learn from it? That’s how knowledge grows.
So have they owned up to their errors? Nope. Not one little bit. Amazingly all this time later they still insist they were right. "See when I said inflation" said one "legendary" economist, "I didn’t specify what kind," or words to that effect. Another said "I didn’t say when." I guess he’s fond of big whisky measures too.
This is a classic case of "collective blindness" and "cognitive dissonance." Sadly it’s still widespread amongst cults of scientists, economists, politicians and medical "experts." It’s about never admitting they were wrong. And that’s dangerous, especially when the media refuse to challenge them or give exposure to others with different views, which is clearly the case right now.
JK Galbraith, the contrarian economist (must have been his Irish and Scottish roots) said "Always remember the experts chosen by the media for comment are those who will give credibility to the media’s angle on any story they choose to highlight." Evan Davis in his book "Post Truth" (Subtitled Peak Bullsh**! – What we can do about it) explains how he’d "sell" a story to editors whose job it was to exaggerate it. Meanwhile of course, experts with different views are completely ignored.
Research into the effectiveness of groups embracing diversity compared to groups of clones, including the research at Princeton and Columbia Business School, found that groups with diverse thinkers outperform the clones by up to 44%. And established that a group of similar-minded experts simply reaches the same conclusion as an individual, but ends up wrong faster, but with more conviction.
Here are some books you may enjoy that explain the value of challenging consensus and embracing diversity. It would be most helpful if after you’ve read them, you could pass them on to your local MP and MSP. They might learn something for a change.
"Rebel ideas" and "Black box thinking" both by Matthew Syed.
"The perils of perception" (subtitled why we’re wrong about nearly everything) by Bobby Duffy…. Previously CEO of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute
"Factfulness" by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
"The misinformation age" (how false beliefs spread) by O’Connor & Weatherall
"The other half of macroeconomics" by Richard C Koo.
Unfortunately we seem to have regressed in group-think this last 78 years since a team of wise and diverse individuals from mathematicians to crossword fanatics put their cognitive diversity heads together as rebels in Bletchley Park, to crack the German Enigma codes. It’s been described as "the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-1945, perhaps of the 20th century."
But what did our Governments do about the coronavirus scare? They bought into the computer models predictions of another Professor Ferguson of Imperial College, dire predictions confirmed by Harvard models yet again. If you’re going to take the advice of any expert doesn’t it make sense to conduct some due diligence of their track record? Here’s Ferguson’s…
- In 2001, Foot and Mouth disease, his model predicted up to 150,000 people could die. There were fewer than 200 deaths.
- In 2002 he predicted up to 50,000 could die from Mad Cow disease - 177 died.
- 2005 he predicted that up to 150 million people could die worldwide from Bird Flu - 282 died.
- 2009 his advice was that there could be "as a reasonable worse-case scenario" 65,000 British deaths from Swine Flu - 457 people died.
- And in March he apparently admitted his computer model of Covid (that predicted up to 500,000 UK deaths and led to panic lockdown measures) was based on an undocumented 13 year old computer code intended to be used for a flu epidemic not Coronavirus.
Today any expert in Pathology or disease who didn’t buy into the Neal Ferguson cult is ignored. And some like Dr John Lee (who you can follow in The Spectator) or Hugh Pennington, ignored in Scotland, should have been part of a diverse group advising Government. And why aren’t undertakers, the last people to let us down, not included? Ask them about all the empty hospitals or what they think of death certificates being doctored. Ask them, as I have, about their experiences of Covid being shown on death certificates as primary cause of death when it wasn’t. The statistics are seriously flawed. Wonder why? I also wonder why an anagram of coronavirus is "virus or a con".
Now that Prof Flawedson has gone, can we look forward to progress towards diversity? ‘Fraid not. A spokesman for SAGE announced they would be carrying on "his good work". Cognitive dissonance is alive and unwell. Private Fraser isn’t too impressed.
At ASAM we have long believed in encouraging diverse views, both within our team and in finding wise but different thinking fund managers of differing skills to make up a winning football team steady in defence and exciting in attack. Such an approach creates an energy. It’s far from comfortable though. We call it uncomfortable diversification.
Personally, long ago I learned from my Grannie McKay (who survived two world wars and a Spanish flu virus that killed some 50 million people. Thankfully she passed her genes to me) to keep an open mind and stay curious. Years later that curiosity led me to discover the Santa Fe Institute in the US where different thinkers and disciplines are encouraged to mix, listen to each other, and embrace open-minded progress. That sort of discovery allied to discovering our friends at Ned Davis Research together with our interest in diversity has helped through these difficult few weeks.
One last thing. Do have a look at our previous letters. Apart from Steve’s Informing You, a new Points of Few has started. Short and sweet. Easy to read. And do please forward this to anybody you feel could be interested in what we have to say. And thank you for being so understanding lately.