Newsletter No. 2:       January 2024




My purpose in this note is to take up some issues of which the observant reader may have become all too aware in previous notes: shoddy figures, possible excess of polemic and skimped analysis for instance.  For all the faults I can only apologise.  But it all began on an experimental basis and both text and media were for me at the developmental stage.  My early focus in the website was on computers and indeed publicising my skills in IT.  But no-one took any notice and so I widened the scope.  However, these remain occasional pieces not academic or other research reports.

It was not my intention to produce an academic treatise, nor to address an academic, administrative or other specialist audience.  My purpose has been merely to explore a new media with an array of comments whose methodology has some bearing on discussions of this media itself.  (Note here the singular of media, medium, does not sound at all right in this context and indeed ‘media’ is widely accepted as a singular noun in this context.)  Beyond that I wished to challenge some of the hypocrisies, pretensions and deceptions of modern British politics.

But there remain some further considerations to explore.  It is only too true to say that, in public discourse about society, numbers cited as evidence, in matters of social facts, are only too often erratic or faulty or can be contradicted by equally plausible alternative data.  This was very evident in one of the last Question Times with Boris Johnston as PM.  This is not a satisfactory state of affairs and demands comment.  A statement of numbers is not thereby a fact, however much it may be intended to convey fact.

Watching PMQ on parliamentary TV, I quite often hear an MP basing a generalisation on a single instance.  I do not recall now any particular instance, but the following illustrates my point.  “A constituent came into my surgery last week and said…” and hence to a generalisation.  The instance might be one of a multitude but “he said he had to wait three hours in A & E or wait days for an appointment with a GP surgery…” leads to the generalisation “waiting times are too long in NHS hospitals or surgeries”.  A generalisation of this form is one of the most frequent statements made in the House of Commons Question Time. 

Firstly an initial point.  This is an interested remark.  It shows the MP responding to his constituents’ needs.  In contrast it is noteworthy that no MP has raised a comparable question either in relation to a student’s complaint about university matters whether fees or degradation of courses under the pandemic.  Nor for instance about the failure of public transport in rural areas, even though transport failures in the North of England have drawn much criticism, and this strengthens the point that the cited generalisation may be interested (to show the MP’s constituency his concerns) rather than objective. 

I mention these cases because what we are dealing here with are single instances.  This it must be acknowledged is a valid process.  If the case is representative of a broad social circumstance then it may be worthwhile.  The ancient Greeks had a term for this usage – enthymeme.  It is defined as a rhetorical device using a syllogism with a suppressed premise.  It is often found in discourse.  The suppressed premise usually defines the conditions under which the generalisation is true.  But the particular instance can be true and that is important; it may be said to epitomise the situation.  However the generalisation of the instance is much more difficult and its truth value may vary according to the wider circumstances to which it is applied.

Thus such particulars are seldom a good basis for making generalisations about society.  They are selective in their content and limited in the circumstances they represent.  Social processes are hard to prove.  Each individual generalises from personal experience, but the models used to form these generalisations are drawn from ideology.  Experience may only confirm belief and beliefs too are drawn from ideology.  But even if a generalisation based on my experience is true within that context, when aggregated with other people’s experience it may get lost in that broader sum.

Yet an MP may have a much larger range of acquaintances over a life time than most.  However this range is only related to a given area and the UK is much larger than a constituency.  Moreover the population of the UK alone, a small country, is now at 67 million, far beyond that which can be known by acquaintance or experience.

The complexity of fact in society needs emphasis.  Social facts are difficult to establish – much more so than one normally recognises.  Part of the reason may be that a statement that is true in one area may be false in another.  Most people only see the facts adjacent to themselves that bear on their own lives.  Truth, myth and falsehood mingle interminably in social discussions and there are those who take advantage of this to press ideology, either through its distortions or in determined falsehoods.

There is a current circumstance that makes these issues particularly worth exploring and that is the growth of data collection systems viz. databases.  Data does not have a sturdy or reliable value like cash in a bank account.  It needs to be viewed with a sceptical and critical eye lest it should not be all that it seems.

Karl Popper in the Open Society and Its Enemies said that generalisations stood until they were falsified; verification was not enough.  But this is problematic.  I use simple models containing few generalisations.  Any one such, if stated without conditions relating to circumstance, may be both verified and falsified, depending on the precise circumstances that are introduced.  And this is particularly the case when one is considering circumstances on a global rather than national scale, as with the spread of a pandemic.  The complexity involved in the establishment of truth in human and social affairs must be recognised; otherwise fraud and deception will continue to hold their unchallenged sway in public life.

So how does one make satisfactory generalisations about society?  Firstly one should note that generalisations involving numerical data vaguely of an economic character, are often not satisfactory because the categories are not well clarified.  But further one should remember that much is said that is false, and many of these falsities are known by the speaker to be false; they are deceptions.  There are well known examples of such speakers already in the public domain so I shall name no names.  Figures are often cited because they look factual; but they ae not necessarily so. 

This matter is worth exploring in depth because the difficulty in establishing social facts is much greater than most realise.  Experience alone is not enough.  Polls are often used to investigate opinions.  But these are based on samples, and from a necessarily small sample broad generalisations about the entire society may be drawn, regardless of sectional or local differences.  Almost all social facts are based on surveys and surveys are limited in scale and therefore unreliable as a basis for generalisation.

Moreover, the selection of the sample may create scope for bias, to the effect that the poll produces a desired opinion, not the truth.  There is as a result a major industry engaged in producing social statistics.  Here we get into very deep water indeed; unemployment statistics are a well-recognised case of data manipulation, with changes in criteria resulting in changes in figures.  Change the model and the facts change.

On a broad social front, the National Statistics Office (NSO) produces many statistics, thorough and extensive.  But they are very difficult to understand because in part the underlying conditions are complex and obscure.  Aggregated figures may obscure important detailed trends.  Average wages may be a mean or a median and the mean which includes high earners is much higher than the median which points to the maximum earnings of the lower 50% only.  But average earnings may be full-time or part-time and male or female only.  Average full-time male earnings are not reached by a large majority of a working population.  From a different perspective, the exigencies of the secret state may force deceptions upon the public including undisclosed earnings.  These matters are worth exploring if by doing so we can foster a better understanding of our society.

So let me start by considering further the matter of truth, a subject much in the public eye currently.  It traditionally has attracted the attention of philosophers more than scientists, while all others generally steer clear of it.  But scientists should pay more attention to it.  Today it is not only fraud that is widespread in the present world; fraud is accompanied by a widely spreading general denigration of truth.  Trump complains about fake news but perpetuates falsehoods more than many.  Disregard for truth is a widespread problem – not just in the newspapers but throughout the public sphere.  And by that I mean public administration – whether government administration or public services including the system of education, not to mention anything else like organised crime.  But beyond the deceit there is also an increasing denigration of the value or need for truth.  “Everyone has their own truth” is not a healthy attitude.  Failure to use a clear model has the result that an unscrupulous official or other person can change the meaning of the categories he uses for corrupt purposes.  Definitions of unemployed and of cost of living indices are very flexible indeed.

De Jouvenel quotes Montesquieu to the effect that “the generalisation of lying would, by itself, dissolve human society”.  I have met in my lifetime many people who lie with deliberation, determination and force and I should say this is not a desirable trend.  In the following remarks my aim is simply to draw attention to the difficulty of stating the truth when generalisations about society are in question.  A better understanding of the social sciences I hope will lead to a better understanding of the social necessity of truth and also of the difficulty in ascertaining or stating the truth.  A seemingly objective report or a simple quantitative statement may be no more than a vehicle of deception, a whitewash.

I have heard so many times the demand for evidence when a criticism or a comment on a social matter is made.  Yet the fact is that the public evidence needed is not available and those who make this demand are frequently those who conceal the evidence.  Such is the extent of the secret state.  I return to this matter below.

The problem is exacerbated however by the nature of the social sciences.  Since many still do not recognise the value of the social sciences, scientific posturing is prevalent and it is worth investigating this in more detail.  All public relations activity including marketing and advertising depends on questionable practices that are not adequate as social science.  This is unavoidable but it needs understanding.  The reason is clear: marketing and PR are interested and therefore will seek out facts and evidence that supports that interest and disregard other data.  But underlying this issue is the fact that social generalisations are founded on models and parties with an interest use their preferred models.  Models contained in ideology are often too simple to bear any worthwhile content.  Sociology has not been a well-regarded discipline but it gives us some much better clues as to how to investigate this issue than anything else.  So I shall start at this vantage point and pursue my enquiry from that place.  Let us look at its methods. 

The social and political sciences are complex.  Three points may be made.  Firstly, they cannot be founded on simplistic models drawn from the physical or biological sciences.  For this reason, some, often historians, claim that the study of society, whether historically or contemporaneously, is not a science at all.  But nor is this correct; the social and political sciences are properly speaking scientific forms of enquiry.

The model of the physical sciences elides into another model making a distinction between the ‘hard’ facts of the natural world and the emotions, utterances and actions of human beings in their social intercourse.  This might be called the positivist view of science.  It has the consequence of implying a degraded interpretation of all the social sciences except economics.  The science of economics follows the example of physics most clearly and facilitates the proliferation of generalisations about society as economy.  But its numerical emphasis is harmful, recycling generalisations about growth, inflation, etc. and fostering cliché-ridden controversies about money supply, deflation and productivity.  Growth is not the only legitimate goal for society and technological advance is over-weighted and hollow when separated from accompanying social responsibilities.

Economists amongst others never seem to stop making assertions about the importance of ‘facts’ and an ‘empirical’ approach to society.  Two ‘buts’ are in order: firstly economics is laden with ideology; not only of the ‘free’ market but also for instance the ‘wage-price’ spiral or the specious ‘natural’ level of unemployment.  Secondly the ‘facts’ they cite are much more problematic than they acknowledge.  In public discussion, fatuous generalisations beyond number are made about society and people; they very often include one numerical ‘fact’ with no explanation of the conditions under which that ‘fact’ might be true or even the source of the fact.  That tax cuts for the rich generate economic growth is a currently fashionable generalisation from tory circles.  Likewise one may hear that income cuts for the poor make them work harder.  This is far right bigotry not science, for these comments are not based on any rational analysis.  Here the economist’s model breaks down; for it disregards the human motive, a necessary element in the analysis.  Cost-benefit studies may be useful for justifying capital expenditure but may not be relevant when considering purely social concerns such as need for exercise or the value of leisure; and as for quantifying happiness, that is ridiculous. 

Economic facts as with all social facts are not simple like the facts of the biological or physical sciences.  It is true you can count the number of objects produced on a production line or packets of powder from a process plant.  It is also true that you can measure pollution along a main urban road; or delays and cancellations of train or air services or number of containers on a ship.  But these are facts grounded in the physical sciences that have a direct and important bearing on society.  Social facts are usually more complex.  Certainly you can count numbers of schools, or exam passes; but if you look on the Internet you will find different accounts of the number of hospitals in India, or indeed number of languages spoken there.  Even within economics, money supply has been broken down into several measures, each relating to a different aspect, whether cash or bank balance or other form.  Financial transfers cannot be understood without more knowledge beyond the fact of transfer: payment for goods, payment of a bribe, payment of a demand for ransom, payment to another private account for purposes of concealment.  Sum totals of transfers without further knowledge are incomprehensible.  As I have mentioned before there are at least two measures of unemployment in use today; and cost of living indices abound, varying as to the inclusion of housing costs or other consumables. 

The second broad point is that generalisations about organisations and other social objects cannot simply be classified with statements about the physical world.  For statements about an organisation or other social object may be verifiable only on the basis of complex procedures and have a truth value that is variable according to the definition of the terms used.  Further, certain rates such as crime rates or mortality rates suffer from difficulties in the assembly of such data.  Returns of a statistical character from branches of an organisation or from many small organisations to a central authority, have an inbuilt tendency to unreliability.  They are generated by people who may complain about the excesses of bureaucracy and do not wish to be troubled by such demands.  Mortality rates may be sourced by many different officials each acting according to his own organisation’s procedures.  Covid returns were made primarily by hospital intensive care wards, but also might be made by any official with mortality responsibilities, whether coroner, police, GP or other.  A national health database may collect returns from multiple sources, every GP surgery and hospital official completing the information according to their own lights.  This inevitably leads to data unreliability or degradation.

Moreover an organisation may be much less identifiable than one commonly assumes, when its branches, subsidiaries, overseas units and websites are all taken into account and this may make accounting and auditing difficult.  An organisation may also contain many rules and principles as to how its members conduct themselves with complex implications.  From these rules, conclusions, indeed instructions, are routinely drawn as to what a member may or may not do.  The structure of social organisation needs to be very precise and in the failure of this requirement it may be very problematic.  The consequence of this is that arguments in politics have real substance and are not simply the trivial product of emotions and feelings.  Negotiations about wages, salaries and working conditions concern rules and principles of considerable substance.  The opening and closing of plant, redundancy and on the sales side strictures or their absence about concessions including bribes to purchasers are of major significance.  Health and safety requirements are often abbreviated putting employees in danger.  These types of issue have significant consequences for our ‘facts’.  A saw mill with high productivity returns is no use if all the safety rails and guards have been removed to speed up production.

So social science is much more troublesome than positivism acknowledges.  Keynes is reputed to have said ‘when the facts change I change my mind’.  Whether it was he who said this or someone else, and whether these are his exact words, if it were he, I do not know.  But this is an interesting remark and it is consistent with the common guideline – study the facts and draw your conclusions on the basis of this evidence.  In the social sciences this is not useful because when the model changes the facts change.  It is very difficult especially in social sciences to get from a few certain facts to a generalisation about a large society.  Moreover facts can mislead and the selection of facts by a historian is often misleading.  Very few history books through school and university do anything but select the facts that glorify or celebrate national history.

That is why we use models.  Models require that assumptions be made clear.  They also enable us to see the limits set on the validity of the ensuing generalisations.  When a trained statistician creates a generalisation he may include a reference to its truth value.  A clear example may be found in a statement of a correlation between two factors.  The added statement gives the ‘confidence limits’; in broad terms, the confidence, expressed as a percentage, one can have in the truth of the generalisation.  Strict use of statistics in this form is seldom practised.

But there is a further point.  Generalisations about organisations and other social objects cannot simply be classified with statements about the physical world.  As a result statements about an organisation or other social object may be verifiable only on the basis of complex procedures and have a truth value that is variable according to the definition of the terms used.  This to my mind is the frequent experience of data used in financial reports and audits.

However there is another reason perhaps why social science is disparaged: it enquires into areas of society which would prefer not to be opened to public scrutiny.  Charles Beard remarked in 1913 on the lack of research into the structure of the legal system.  The same comment could well be made more widely.  Both the financial system and the health services need analysis based on a sounder methodology than mere journalistic accounts yield.

My third point lies with something more fundamental.  So far I have only touched on the fact that the object of study in the social sciences is not an inanimate object but a living human being, or a social institution such as a school that is amongst other things a collectivity of human beings.  There are clues in the above.  Keynes divided human motivation into two categories, animal spirits and rational or economic man.  Now consider rational or economic man in relation to the above-mentioned circumstance of man in an organisation – organisation man.  He is not be ridiculed as ‘one-dimensional’ man as Herbert Marcuse suggested.  His motivation has become far more complex.

Between the animal spirits of man in his social relations not least family, and economic or rational man (they are not synonymous terms) there may be found a major range of interested motivations – increasing your earnings, keeping your job, getting on with your boss, keeping up to date with your knowledge, skills or craft, and no doubt much else besides.  These are not just manipulable bargaining chips; there are principles of high commitment involved when unsafe pit props, dangerous car tyres, hygiene in the operating theatre and hospital ward are in question.

It is an issue as to how you understand social science if you are to give a valid account of its handling of such factors in human motivation.  But here I want to take forward one single matter.  It is implied in the foregoing considerations that an object of study interacts with the observer, and this does not rule out science, as so many think, but shapes its definition.  The objectivity of science belongs in a context and outside that context it is less transferable no matter how much it is still needed.  The model is clear.  Science is a matter of observation; there is no room for intervention by the observer.  This model has limits when the object of study is in the social rather than natural world.

Psychology, the subject of my first degree, seems scarcely to exist in the public mind; even less present than sociology, it has been dispatched from contemporary discourse.  It is important because as a science it must have a method to handle human motivation.  Moreover people are very ready to find descriptions of each other and when these comments are not abusive or otherwise emotive, they are likely to involve seeming concepts of psychology, e.g. ‘paranoia’ without understanding.  I leave it to readers to explore these matters as they see fit.  But I must give a warning.  Everyone believes they understand psychology – for, after all it is just a matter of knowing one’s own mind.  No.  What one learns in psychology is that theories of personality are far removed from science as science is conventionally understood.  These theories concern motive and this does not lie within the normal concept of fact.  Besides the religious interpretations of the spirit, and the Freudian and other psycho-analytic interpretations of the mind, beside the various theories of the behaviourists, the professional psychologists and the medical ones, the psychiatrists, there are the countless phrases of everyday life used to explain or describe how other people are.  This is a fraught subject and one needs to tread with care.  False psychology and false social science abound, just as false practices are to be found in all the professions.  And there are also some very strange, if not plain evil, applications of psychology:  brain-washing, thought-games, ‘conversion experiences’, Facebook strategies, Pavlovian dog training.  These all indicate the variety of approaches and strategies for analysing the motivation underlying behaviour.  This can also take us crucially into the issue of origins of religion and myth.  

But that is not the end of the matter.  There have been two major abuses of psychology.  The first is the dubious area known as eugenics.  I say abuse because it is closely tied to racism which has no foundation in science, and has little or nothing to do with the science of psychology.  The second is false psychiatry.  Here one sees the misuse of technology to cause harm or, if not that, fear.  ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) is claimed to be harmless but the associated area of brain surgery is far more dubious and may be intended to cause harm as in the case with lobotomy.  This is an area where a constitution may well be justified in establishing a ban.  But bans on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ are already in constitutional documents and nevertheless given short shrift in certain areas of society.  Progress will be difficult.

It is worth bearing these considerations in mind when you look at the economist’s discussion of motivation.  I have discussed the problem of analysing financial transfers above; here I need add no more than that it is closely analogous to the problem of knowing another person’s motive or intention.  It has to be inferred.  For, immediately, the extent to which economics uses unclear models becomes visible.  Models involving an assumption of the economically rational man, or containing conclusions such as ‘greed is good’ can be seen to be of small value when looking at human behaviour in the market or board room.  Adam Smith had a view about greed leading to common good; but greed is not necessarily the same as self-interest or rationality.  Maynard Keynes used a concept of animal spirits when things go wrong and a man does not act rationally, but this is not good psychology.  Almost all human beings need to make judgments about other people’s motives, and this is an important requirement in all administrative and professional positions.  In courts of law it is necessary consideration in the process of reaching a verdict.

The economist’s assumption of rational man mostly boils down to self-interest.  But self-interest is highly subjective.  Banks and other organisations are assumed to act on a rational or self-interested basis.  But this can vary on a huge scale.  Maximisation of shareholders profit is one current interpretation; but the long-term interests of a firm may be very different and involve product development, and support for effectiveness of organisation (low levels of churn for instance).

                In the contemporary world also, realities are unclear for another reason.  Much data about society is secret.  There is simply no way of obtaining the data for an enquiring social scientist.  Sometimes this is purely a result of certain types of research not being encouraged.  For instance failure rates of businesses are not widely known beyond simple bankruptcy rates.  But medical statistics are not publicly available.  Public statistics relating to society are not reliable. 

The best approach to this question may be made by taking a case from the advanced physical sciences, namely quantum theory and the Heisenberg Principle.  One must distinguish the physicist’s understanding of Heisenberg from the layman’s.  This principle states, to put it in untechnical language, that measuring the velocity of an elementary particle alters its velocity; the principle is expressed by the physicist in terms of position and momentum.  In short, measurement disturbs that which is being measured, in this case making it impossible to determine both position and momentum of a particle.  This principle specifies the limits of physical science.  It is a consequence of the fact that, in quantum physics, you are dealing with sub-atomic particles and these cannot be satisfactorily be regarded as like ordinary small objects.  They are not objects: your measurement uses one particle to measure another say an electron and herein lies the difficulty.  The same principle or a variation of it defines the starting point of social sciences.

If you start to inquire into a financial system, assume:

                1              your enquiries may influence the behaviour of participants in the system;

                2              further you may or may not obtain true answers (in contrast to a meter or other measure which ought not to lie);

                3              the data you seek may be private and confidential;

4              in short even though scientist and observer, you are now a participant in the system.

There is much participants in the financial system may wish to hide, even if it cannot be described as criminal.  But beyond the personal aspect of this protectionism, the secret state may be at work.  Yet here we have only a glimpse of the truth.  For the secret state must conceal its activities and it follows from this that those outside it not party to its secrets will be denied access to the truth and fed deceit to protect the secrecy.  Research is indeed problematic in these circumstances. 

Alfred Sloan in his memoirs remarks that if you are buying small parcels of land to build up a large plot and this becomes known, then prices will go up.  The same phenomenon on the stock market is the reason for the emergence of ‘dark pools’ in which trades of large quantities of a stock take place outside the market and are only reported on completion; for the comparable reason that otherwise the prices would go up or down to one’s disadvantage. 

In a very different field, Jean Rouche on ethno-cinematography has a somewhat comparable point.  He suggests that the photographer or cameraman is never merely an observer; at some point he becomes a participant in the scene and thereby influences what he is trying to observe and film. 

On the most widely accepted model, the photographer or cameraman merely observes; he records what he sees, just like the scientist.  The cameramen at a football match do not intervene, they merely record.  But the film director instructs his actors and in the documentary the film maker also intervenes in the actions of his subjects.  Today television production has moved beyond this as instanced by ‘Reality TV’.  It is no longer a matter of filming an event in which the director or camera man plays no part.  Instead the director is trying to engineer situations which lead to unpredictable results, at least for participants.  The director is actively attempting to influence the behaviour of the participants.

There is a particular point in these considerations.  The model of science has dominated public thought for at least two hundred years.  But while this remains a foundation, our concepts must be expanded.  Social websites and indeed other aspects of the web have built upon and radically extended ideas emerging as television developed its interactive side.  They are social structures but of an unusual kind.  They may be easily manipulated by back-office or other influence.  In these new circumstances we need firstly to develop our idea of science especially social science; and then secondly develop a conceptual framework for the analysis of social interaction, whether in everyday life, interactive TV or indeed multi-participant web activities.

The point is persuasion and expression of emotions are part of social intercourse and ideology in politics is part of this.  Yet it is intimately bound up with generalisations about society.  Models cannot be separated out from ideology.  I myself write in these notes to persuade and to change views and opinions.  But my analysis rests on science.  Considerations of ideology, belief and value bear inevitably on the generalisations I make in social science. 

In the final analysis this goes right to the heart of the state.  The foundations of the state lie in necessity, but this alone does not take us far enough and the contingent, whether interest or ideology or emotion, takes over thereafter.  The model of objective science is challenging to implement in the social sciences as I have tried to show.  But it must remain an ideal to be pursued.  Reality is complex.  Knowledge is contained within social and political structures; it is organised, formed and shaped by social structures; and while knowledge is driven by objectivity, it may also be permeated by the subjective, whether ideology or other personal beliefs, and contained within structures such as organisations that shape attitudes, or indeed the state.  We need to be much more aware of this foundation in discussing social and political affairs; the present excess of deceit is damaging to the state as well as to society.


1 January 2024


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