Keeping an open mind

I do like to try and keep an open mind – and also recognise that this is different from having a hole in the head.  Of course, being human – as far as any tests yet applied are able to ascertain – my mind is a rag-bag of ill (if at all) considered default positions, contradictory beliefs and prejudices.  Some of these I can recognise, some of the time, and try not to be too foolish about – and have, thus far at least, managed to avoid blogging (tweeting or the like) while drunk or under the influence of other mind altering drugs (with the obvious exceptions of cheese and cake).  I also try to avoid being needlessly offensive to other people – not as a result of any particular attachment to the much maligned “political correctness” but as a matter of common courtesy, which strikes me as basically being the same thing (under an older name).

Often my opinions are generated “live” as I’m speaking (or typing), as unlike so many we hear or see in the media I do not have well developed views to deliver in response to any question asked.  Sometimes they surprise me!  (If it’s a nice surprise, I’ll hope I remember them later).  On the whole, I work on the principle that every question has (at least) two simple answers and they are both wrong.  If something seems obvious, without having previously gone through a lot of detailed research and mature reflection, then I probably haven’t understood it.  Even when I have put a lot of effort into an opinion, it still tends to be contingent on new knowledge presenting itself – though like everyone else, it is hard to let go of a long cherished view merely because it clashes with reality (though, in the multi-worlds model of quantum mechanics you may be able to comfort yourself with the thought that at least it is still viable somewhere in the multiverse).  New input comes from many places – but usually a good book or decent podcast (often courtesy of Radio 4) – and is always a joy, even – and sometimes especially – when it disrupts a long (or just firmly) held view.  I fear I would make a very poor fundamentalist – I am far too inconstant (sometimes changing opinion within the span of a single spoken sentence).

Still, I think that’s enough set-up and we should probably make a start on the actual content.

It is all too easy for me (and I am sure many others) to view this government’s actions as an unwanted alloy of wickedness and incompetence (and also appropriate given its composition).  This task is made much easier by its consistent trumpeting of its wickedness and the fact that its incompetence stretches to include its generally transparent attempts (at least to the regular More or Less listener) to try and conceal its uselessness.  In an attempt to be fair to our political masters, many of them probably don’t attempt to be actively wicked but are just thoughtless and fail to consider (or care overly about) the consequences of their actions.  This is probably aided by an overly tight attachment to the random bunch of opinions and ideologies that (presumably) served them well as they climbed the greasy pole to relative political eminence.  In this respect (and so many others), this government is not so very different from many of its recent predecessors.

In my desire to think good of others, I have oft tried to think of something positive that the current incumbents of Westminster have achieved – to offset their botched interference in the public sector (and beyond) in an attempt to find an easy way (for them, but few others) to save some money.  It always seems to be easier to remove biscuits from meetings than to tackle the actual issues in a country or corporation.  Of course, governments tend to be more successful (with some help from their friends in the media) in convincing many that biscuits are the cause of all their woes than any of the companies for which I’ve worked (whilst continuing to give the choicest biscuits away free to themselves and their friends).  Still, I did manage to come up with only one positive achievement: equal marriage – which strikes me as an unalloyed good.

However, as so often I was wrong – and as is (almost) equally common it was The Life Scientific that set my straight.  I know I’ve probably banged on about how great TLS is before – but I will continue to do so until I have firm evidence that every man, woman and child on this planet (and any others we stumble across) has become a regular listener.  This time I was corrected by Professor Dame Sally Davies – a truly remarkable person and currently the Chief Medical Officer – who actually (and quite rightly) expressed pride in another achievement of this government.  This was the hospital just established in West Africa to help tackle the spread of ebola.  If I wanted to cavil, I might say that this took rather a long time to do – but I will freely admit I have never tired to set-up anything of this complexity so far from home so may be talking bunk.  She also suggested that the government is finally starting to recognise and act on the fact that mental illness is just illness – it is no more the fault of the patient than a head cold or dodgy spleen.  At a stroke, the positive things I could say about the government have trebled – and this does lead one to suspect there are probably more.  Oddly, the government does seem very shy about advertising the good it has done (unlike the ill) – for fear of upsetting its supporters?  Or just natural modesty?

She also made beautifully explicit how important competition was to finding the best solutions to medical problems but also that we cannot rely on the market to deliver everything that we need.  She highlighted not only the problems with finding new (and generally unprofitable) antibiotics but also diseases supposedly of the poor (like ebola) which the modern world can deliver to Chelsea or Mayfair in a matter of hours.  I cannot help but wonder how far the money now being spent in the richer parts of the world to manage a tiny handful of cases (or feared cases) might have gone in West Africa a few months ago (or in research several years ago) to ensure the dreaded virus was never allowed to reach its current extent.  But, as so often, I don’t know the answer (and nor, I suspect, does anyone else).

I think this has only reinforced my desire to stay away from the news until the level of debate has risen above that I thought I’d escaped when I left my primary school playground behind.  (Actually, this is doing a disservice to Lansdowne CP – where the rhetoric available at playtime was of a very high standard.)  But also acts as a reminder that one is rarely right – especially when certain!   A case of the old “confident, but wrong” syndrome which we must always guard against – impossible though that may be (or is it?).

Self-Obsessed

Clearly, today’s title could have been applied to the vast majority of the 463 posts which proceeded it – but, for once this is not all about me.  OK, if you insist, at least some of it isn’t about me and it was inspired by another.

On Friday, I caught our Prime Minister talking on the news about the situation in Crimea.  I am under few illusions that I am as egocentric as the next man (even when the next man happens to be a rampant egomaniac), but even I would have struggled to start quite so many sentences on the subject of the Crimea in the first person.  In the majority of cases, it wasn’t even the first person plural – no, Mr Cameron prefixed most the sentences I heard with the word “I”.

This started me thinking that perhaps, despite the evidence of this blog, I am still insufficiently self-obsessed for a career in politics – or at least one at (or near) the top.  Whilst the last 400 years have generally seen a move away from an earth-centred universe towards a heliocentric one and finally one which lacks any kind of centre at all (and, indeed, makes the whole concept meaningless), many politicians seems to have placed the centre a lot closer to home.  I suppose the clues were there to be seen…

Anything which might be considered a success, howsoever caused, is claimed as proof of the correctness of the path being taken.  Only this week, the Business Secretary congratulated the government for Hitachi moving its rail division HQ to the UK.  I notice he (and his predecessors and colleagues) talk to the press much less rarely to take the rap when a large corporation leaves the UK taking its jobs with it.  In fact, if things go wrong there seems to be a general hierarchy to the excuses – you blame the previous government, failing that the international situations (out of our control, mate) is a decent backup and failing that you blame something like the weather (or, as I heard this week, I think a corporation – rather than the government – blamed the timing of Easter for its substandard performance.  How foolish of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to fail to consider the impact of its work on corporate results in the 21st century).  Actually, the current government has – on occasion – taken a rather novel approach to deal with the disastrous economic and social consequences of some of their policies: they have decided that things going so badly actually supported their plan and proved it was the right thing to do (presumably, had things gone better they would have abandoned the policies in question and issued a grovelling apology?  Or perhaps, the government – like me – grew up watching Paul Daniel’s Bunco Booth, and unlike me took it as a model to be followed?).

I think a lot of these problems arise from the unfortunate human habit of believing that one is right.  I am afflicted by this particular malaise myself – but do have the benefit of being extremely fickle in my opinions.  So much so, that I have been known to start a sentence with one opinion and finished it convinced of the completely contradictory one.  I often only discover what I think by listening to what I am saying (never wise) – this seems to be particularly true at work where I seem to do some of my best “thinking” by flapping my mouth in public.  I do go to some trouble to seek out views that are not my own, particularly if they are articulated by someone with some skill in cogent thinking and explanatory power.  It is usually, initially at least, irritating to find someone can argue a viewpoint you disagree with and do so convincingly – but it does tend to lead to a more complete and balanced understanding of the issues.  I would give honourable mentions here to Roger Scruton (a philosopher with whom I share almost no political common ground but whose Points of View are always full of insight) and Victoria Coren-Mitchell (who both in Heresy and her Observer column always manages to come at an issue from a new direction).

Problems can even arise if you doubt your own rightness and refer to others.  I once arrived at a meeting very early indeed (about 6 hours) as a result of an error of this type.  I was the secretary to the meeting and wasn’t quite sure when it began, so checked with the chairman.  He confirmed my belief – and so we both arrived incredibly early.  It later became clear that his information had, in fact, come from me – and so I had, inadvertently, checked with myself!   Even checking with many others can go wrong, I well remember a situation where a particular part of a market design was believed to be so poor that anything would be an improvement.  After many, many hours (and £s) of work, a new design was produced and everyone was able to agree about one thing: it was MUCH worse than the thing it was intended to replace.  The dear old Coalition seem to have fallen foul of much the same issue with its change to student funding – it would seem that not only is it rather unpopular (especially with the young – though luckily they tend not to vote) but it also seems to be even more expensive that the system it replaced.  Since its sole benefit (so far as I can determine) was to reduce costs, this seems to have been somewhat of an own goal.  I am beginning to wonder if when you have a system that everyone can agree is so bad it can’t be made any worse, the last thing you should do is try and change it – “Do Nothing” really is always an option and often (I suspect) to quickly rejected.  I fear our whole society, and government in particular, feels it must be seen to be doing SOMETHING (anything!).  Again, I am guilty of this myself: feeling guilty if I’m doing nothing (and now feeling guilty about that guilt.  Arghh!).  Perhaps it is time to embrace indolence and finally realise my ambition to become a flâneur.  Well, it’s either that or take my self-obsession to the next level and run for office!