Sunday, 9 October 2016

Feedback and reflection

I've given this blog a wee rest over the summer not just because I was busy with other things, but also because I wanted to take a step back and reflect. As I wake it up again I thought I'd share some thoughts on feedback I've received so far. This post necessarily has a lot of first person prose, but I'll return to the more usual style in future posts.

You can read the 5 star reviews of the book over on Amazon, but most of the feedback I've received has been via Twitter because that's where I spent most time punting the book. Somewhat to my surprise the discussions have almost entirely been good natured and constructive. I've also had some feedback via email, and it's been a pleasure to meet a few folk in person who I've only previously interacted with across the internet.

As pleasing as it is to receive praise, I'm much more interested in criticism, especially of the constructive variety. So far no one has reported any factual inaccuracies but I've been very grateful to those who've reported typos and areas which could be clarified. I've updated the book a few times now in response to these.

I've been asked about my qualifications to write such a book. Well, aside from being an aspiring active citizen myself, I've spent most of my adult life explaining difficult concepts that I've managed to get my head around to people from a variety of backgrounds.

To give a few notable examples: I've explained the big bang to primary school kids; neural networks to a sheet-metal worker who was made redundant; environmental science to people I'll never meet (via OU texts); and Einstein's relativity to a person whose autism meant that he rarely spoke to anyone (though I had the advantage of not knowing that when I met him). Taking information from jargon-laden specialisms and attempting to explain it clearly to diverse and unknown audiences has occupied a lot of my working life.

One tricky issue that I've discussed with a few folk, and given much thought to myself, is my attempt to keep opinion out of the book. This presents two separate problems.

People are drawn to opinion


A book that's not driven by opinion is a difficult sell. The best way to get attention is to make a clear but contentious statement of opinion, especially one on a polarising issue such as the subjects of the 2014 and 2016 referendums. Indeed, the posts with most attention on this blog have been when I deliberately wrote provocative posts (at least by my standards) on Scottish independence and the fiscal deficit.

A few folk have told me, sometimes in roundabout ways, that I fail to appreciate that many people have an emotive approach to politics: they're not going to be rational or step through the facts as I try to do.

Not only am I well aware of this, but it is precisely what motivated me to write the book in the first place. Rather than just sit on my arse and despair at the level of political discourse, I decided to educate myself using public sources of information and in so doing found myself writing a blog and then a book on what I was learning. Even if there is no strong opinion present to draw in the reader, I do hope it will help readers in forming their opinions.

I know some may baulk at me saying this, but I honestly do not mind what people build on the work I have done, be it a case for an independent Scotland, an argument for staying in the UK or remaining in or leaving the EU. As long as folk engage with the facts all of these routes forward can be made to work; it's a question of weighing up the risks, rewards and sacrifices against what you want from society.

In discussing our society a clash of opinions is inevitable, but political discourse can be improved by separating the debate on what are the facts (marred by tribalism and truthiness) from the more vital debate on the core values of our society. The latter debate is of course much more difficult because "we" do not have a common "want". It can be very hard to compromise on conflicting values, but it's not impossible. In fact it seems to me that people have more difficulty in thinking about compromise than actually doing it: a communist can work for Microsoft, a capitalist can work for a government quango, an anarchist might subsist on state benefits, and some Scottish nationalists are married to unionists, and some remainers to brexiteers. In reality, most of us are not really '-ists' of any kind. If you doubt that, consider why the use of an '-ist' label is often used in derision.

So, yes, opinions do matter, and with them will come emotions that can disrupt constructive debate. But, neither the way society is now, nor the way people discuss it, is fixed. To believe these things are immune to change risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We should not let our current opinions blind us to the problems and possibilities of society. Instead, if we're honest with ourselves, we can learn from the reality around us and let that shape our opinions.

Opinion free?

Have I been objective? Of course not. Although I aimed for objectivity I knew from the outset it was an unattainable goal. I have a set of values and opinions and they are both a help and hindrance. They allow me to decide what information is interesting and guide me in how best I might explain it, but equally I might unconsciously overlook data that does not fit my understanding, or give undue emphasis to facts that substantiate a prior belief. Constant policing by the conscious mind can keep the worst subjectivity at bay but I know from bitter experience that too much policing can also lead to a form of paralysing writer's block. Better to do something imperfectly than produce a perfect nothing.

So, I have to satisfy myself with being honest about subjectivity. There are two ways to approach this. The first is to take a step back, hence the reflection I mentioned at the start of this post. I'm not quite the same person I was when I wrote the book, so now I can see flaws that were previously invisible to me. But of course it's far better for me to listen to others as they have the luxury of never having been me.

Readers who have shown an interest in the book and this blog seem to come from across the political spectrum and roughly equally from either side of the Scottish constitutional question. This pleases me far more than reading a 5 star review (but please keep them coming!).

So, although I make no claim to being objective I can just about agree with one comment I received on Twitter that said I had "nae axe to grind".


A few folk have noted my interest in economics. A few days ago I was even called a "wannabe economist". It's not possible to understand society without economics, nor is it possible to separate economics cleanly from politics. Even if we could agree on our wants for society, we cannot realise it without a functioning economy. Equally, what's the point in having a well-oiled economy that supports a society we do not want? To talk of society without referring to the economy makes as much sense as trying to understand the climate without physics. Still, I've seen people do both.

But, as it happens, we live in a society that few are happy with and with an economy that's clearly been malfunctioning since 2008. In fact, it went wrong before 2008 but it escaped our notice. It has now become a right, royal question as to why economists failed to see that financial crisis coming. It's foolish to dismiss all economic theory and modelling as being worthless in light of this failure, but there's a need for some serious reflection in the economics profession. Unfortunately, this may take some time because, as the famous physicist Max Planck once said about his discipline, such change proceeds one funeral at a time. (Edit: I just checked and Planck's actual statement was in German and much less pithy).

The political response to the aftermath of the 2008 crisis kindled my interest in economics and politics, and the debates around Scotland's 2014 referendum drew me deeper into the issues of fiscal deficits and currency. As a result I have spent quite a bit of time educating myself on macroeconomics. (Macroeconomics considers the economy as a whole whereas microeconomics deals with questions of why a consumer would buy one product over another or what motivates a firm to invest.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was one aspect of macroeconomics that was in robust health. Over the latter half of the 20th century, there's been a practical and useful interaction between economists and civil servants with the result that many countries have national accounts produced on a solid and comparable basis. Not only that but this rigour is reflected in the fundamentals of macroeconomics (specifically identities). So although the modelling and forecasting side of economics may be unable to properly describe our booming and busting economies we can have some confidence that we are at least doing a reasonable job of observing the macroeconomy.

Unfortunately, many, if not most politicians let short-term interests and ideologies prevent them from learning from the valuable history of economic data that their civil servants and academics have been carefully documenting. Worse still, some politicians have successfully transmitted economic mythologies to the population to win votes using what Simon Wren-Lewis has called Media Macro.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to have advanced maths skills to engage with a lot of economics. If you can do basic arithmetic, then you should be able to take a look behind the curtain for yourself and understand a surprising amount. The difficult bit is in approaching it with an open mind and letting go of common preconceptions. For example, what is said about time in this quote is also applicable to money and debt: in everyday life I feel I understand what time is, but when I stop to think about it I find I don't understand it very well at all. (I can't recall where I heard this, and can't find it on the web, so I'd be grateful if someone could enlighten me.)

So yes, my take on Scotland's society involves a fair bit of economics, partly because it interests me but mostly because it's necessary. Also, I'd say I'm more of a hadtobe economist than a wannabe one.

So what next?

I plan to update the book in light of a year's worth of new data being made available in many areas. But, to be honest, adding one extra data point to each graph doesn't alter any conclusions significantly. What interests me much more is finding new ways to look at the information, and I've one or two blog posts in the pipeline that will do that. Hopefully they will find their way into a future edition of the book itself.

One last thing. If there's something you'd like to suggest, contest or feel I've not explained well enough, please do get in touch with me via twitter (mcnalu), by email (twitter handle AT twitter handle DOT net) or in the comments of this blog. I will be grateful for any constructive criticism, especially if you convince me I was wrong. I'm doing this because I want to learn.

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