Fights and flights

Why people are too nice about women's football, how Alzheimer's scientists failed us, and what Boris Johnson understands better than most politicians.

England’s Leah Williamson. Photograph: Will Palmer/SPP/Shutterstock.

TOXIC POSITIVITY

The incentives of social media generate problems at both ends of the disagreement spectrum. On the one hand you see a lot of politicised, polarised conflict, even among experts in a scientific field. On the other it can create zombie consensuses. People who have doubts about the dominant view on a given topic observe the abuse that afflicts dissenters and try to avoid becoming victims of it themselves, even at the cost of honesty.

We’re now having a proper discussion about the origin of Covid-19, for instance, after a year of awkward insistence from scientists that the lab leak theory wasn’t even worthy of exploration. American economists are finally acknowledging they’re worried about the size of Biden’s stimulus after a period of feeling compelled to support it. Within any professional community, there’s a fear of being the one who speaks out and takes the brickbats. But as I argue in CONFLICTED, avoiding criticism and disagreement is, in the end, self-harming.

That’s why I found this piece on women’s football by Sophie Lawson so resonant. The women’s game is growing fast in the UK and around the world. It’s winning bigger audiences and more participation. It’s also getting a lot of abusive criticism from men who think football isn’t for girls. That’s obviously dumb and abhorrent, but Lawson picks up on a secondary effect: people within women’s football and their allies, who naturally feel somewhat defensive about the game, are reticent to say anything negative about it. Every good goal is world class, every game is high quality. The result is that women’s football isn’t developing and growing in a way that a healthier culture of disagreement and critique would allow. Lawson calls it “a culture of toxic positivity.”

I think this is a brilliant phrase, with applications far beyond football or sport. The modern workplace puts a huge emphasis on co-operation, getting along, being seen to be on the same team. Everyone likes to be told they’re doing well, and we like to make each other feel good, especially when the people concerned receive a lot of unfair criticism. But under the right conditions, criticism is actually an affirmation, a sign of recognition, and a promise of progress. As the poet Louise Glück says here, we like approval, but what we really want is to be heard.

WHEN SCIENCE GETS RELIGION
Science isn’t so much a body of knowledge as a process; a process for unlocking the benefits of disagreement among experts. Publish a hypothesis, invite the community of experts in your field to extend or demolish it, then move forward or change direction. At scale, that method has been extraordinarily successful, most obviously because it has brought us modern medicine. But it can malfunction. Now and again, the experts in a given field converge on a single hypothesis prematurely, exclude anyone who questions it, and ignore alternatives. A few years ago I wrote about the history of nutrition science and how, for many years, it became heavily dominated by a theory that turned out to be deeply flawed. So I got chills of recognition reading this long read by Sharon Begley on the failures of Alzheimer’s research.

For decades, research into Alzheimer’s has been dominated by one theory: that the disease is caused by a build-up of neurological detritus, specifically a protein called amyloid, in the brain. Design a drug to clear away this neuron-killing protein, and you can cure the disease. Scientists converged on the amyloid hypothesis about thirty years ago, and since then it has been the only ticket to professional advancement. If you wanted to be published, or speak at a conference, or get funding from institutions or pharma companies, or win investment from venture capitalists, you pretty much had to subscribe to it. It was the only game in town.

Recently, however, the amyloid theory has begun to fall apart, primarily because it hasn’t worked. Despite huge amounts of money poured into amyloid-targeting drugs, there has been almost no progress in treating the condition over this entire period. That’s in stark contrast to heart disease, for example. It’s now looking more and more like amyloid build-up is an effect than the cause of neurological degeneration. Amyloid doesn’t kill neurons, it accumulates around those that have already been killed by something else. Targeting amyloid with drugs is like removing gravestones in the hope of resurrecting the bodies underneath.

It’s not like this conclusion couldn’t have been reached much earlier. The flaws in the theory have always been evident to those who chose to look at them. Proponents of alternative hypotheses have been shut out, derided and ostracised. In other words, the scientists forgot how to do science, and practiced religion instead. The field stagnated and many people may have suffered and died unnecessarily as a result.

Some of this is down to dysfunctional mechanisms. For instance, researchers who wrote papers based on non-amyloid theories found it impossible to get published in journals, simply because their theory hadn’t already been published - like people who can’t get credit because they don’t have a credit record. But it really comes down to an age-old problem of human nature: we are uncomfortable with rethinking our beliefs, and will come up with endless justifications to avoid doing so. Science is the best correcting mechanism to this tendency yet invented, but even science is sometimes overcome by it.

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CULTURE CLASH
Tom McTague’s superb profile of Boris Johnson for The Atlantic may help those who dislike Johnson understand why, despite his glaring shortcomings, he has reached the top of British politics and seems quite secure there, for now. Grasping the nature of his appeal is of course a necessary step towards defeating him, if that’s what you want to do. Best to read it all but I’ll pick out a few points. First, here is the perfect illustration of what I talked about in the last Ruffian - the way Johnson’s confidence in who he is enables him to break the standard rules of political engagement:

When David Cameron was mocked for admitting that he didn’t know the price of a loaf of bread, a reporter confronted Johnson with the same question. He got it right, but then added: “I can tell you the price of a bottle of champagne—how about that?”

If you want to know why despite endless attacks on him for being an arrogant Etonian he remains stubbornly popular with voters, including working class voters, the answer is there. Asked (in a previous interview, cited by McTague) about his performative incompetence, Johnson called it “a very cunning device. Self-deprecation is all about understanding that basically people regard politicians as a bunch of shysters.” This an acute insight into the minds of voters and it’s delivered in a way that basically obliterates our normal distinctions between candour and deceit. He lets us in on the “cunning” tricks of politicians, even as he uses them himself.

McTague dwells on Johnson’s relationship with Englishness:

‘In one of our conversations, Johnson had said that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. He told me that he doesn’t think of himself as a nationalist, but he argued that individuals need to feel that they belong, and they shouldn’t be patronised for worrying that their traditions and connections are being eroded. Was this why he opposed the European Super League. “Absolutely,” he said. “This is about the deracination of the community fan base.” Soccer clubs, he continued, had turned into global brands and were leaving their supporters behind, “taking off like a great mother ship and orbiting the planet.”’

Most people on the left associate any kind of patriotic pride with “nationalism” and therefore the sins of imperialism, xenophobia and racism. Johnson believes that for most people it has nothing to do with those things. His swift and decisive intervention in the Super League saga was brilliant politics, and a product of his core belief or intuition: that there is such a thing as Englishness or Britishness, as distinct from global culture; that many voters cherish it, and that that’s a good thing.

Relatedly, Johnson revealed to McTague his distaste for the term “special relationship” with the US (later confirmed at a No.10 press briefing). He is clearly an Atlanticist and fan of America (and indeed gave this interview to an American magazine) but hates any hint that Britain must be subservient to its more powerful ally. I think this is the lens through which to view Johnson’s antipathy to “wokeness”, including his refusal to condemn the booing of the England team as they ‘take the knee’.

The ‘culture war’ is at heart a culture clash, between British traditions and American cultural politics, the latter now exported globally thanks to the internet. Britain’s institutional elites have in recent years swallowed, rather uncritically, a whole set of concepts, slogans and jargon from the US. Many British voters are somewhere between unaware, wary of, or outright resistant to the new discourse, even as it has quickly become second nature to those who have adopted it.

The result is that even when elites are talking about something that in substance has widespread support, like anti-racism, the use of this imported lexicon can make the message feel jarring, alienating, and a little bit pathetic, as if we can no longer reflect on our society, or have our own game, without borrowing from - or literally confusing ourselves with - America. That not only muddles the message, it also leaves non-initiates feeling that those who have enthusiastically adopted this arcane language regard them as ignorant or backward. It’s a basic rule of human relationships that when people feel as if someone is talking down to them, they will push back, even when that means acting unpleasantly or irrationally. Hence the booing. (My own view, probably quite a common one, is that I don’t like England taking the knee and I don’t like them being booed for it).

Politics is as much about tone and sensibility as policy. Johnson gets that and most people on the left do not, which is why they keeps being surprised by how popular he is. The culture clash pits American-style earnestness and piety against British irreverence and perversity. Johnson’s clownishness happens to have found its perfect foil in the grimly humourless, relentlessly prosecutorial, technocratic and yes, deracinated tone of wokeism. Voters do not necessarily believe Johnson is competent, which will in the end be his downfall, but they do know he will never lecture them. He likes them too much.

MISCELLANY

  • EconTalk, hosted by Russ Roberts, is one of the all-time great podcasts. I’ve been a listener to it for many years, so it was a delight and a privilege to discuss the themes of CONFLICTED with him.

  • I enjoyed my conversation with Rachel Botsman about confrontation and arguments. She really made me think, a sign of a good interviewer.

  • Gareth Southgate has a way of talking about race and racism and love of country that politicians can learn from.

  • See also Joe Biden - note here how he takes a progressive cause (confrontation with the sins of the past) and wraps it in a patriotic story (“that’s what great nations do, and we’re a great nation.”) That’s what good politicians do.

  • A new book called Fractured, by Jon Yates, is out this week, suitable for anyone interested into how to make our culturally diverse society more cohesive.

  • Andrew Sullivan on political language (Orwell is too often cited by political commentators but here I think it works).

  • “A Bethesda, Maryland home-buyer included in her written offer a pledge to name her first-born child after the seller. She lost.”

  • Pity about the subject but this is indeed a fantastic political ad.

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    POD OF THE WEEK
    We’re going to be hearing a lot more of the debate over transgender participation in sport. There may well be a transgender weightlifter at the Tokyo Olympics, representing New Zealand. In the coming months and years you’ll hear a lot of superficially-plausible-but-fallacious arguments and sciencey-sounding nonsense. If you want to tell what’s what and get a solid grounding in the issues, listen to this edition of The Real Science of Sport, co-presented by the sports scientist Ross Tucker, who has done more research and thinking on this than almost anyone on the planet. Having started off believing that there was a compromise to be found between protecting women’s sport as a category and including transgender athletes he came to conclude there is not, at least for now. Whether your instinct is to be pro or anti ‘inclusion’ I highly recommend you listen before settling on a view; it’s reasonable to say that until you’ve absorbed the evidence Tucker presents, you’re not fully qualified to hold a view. This discussion raises some fascinating wider questions about the purpose of sport, the inclusion vs fairness trade-off, why it matters that sport’s governing bodies are male-dominated, and how debates can become unmoored from reality.

    GEM OF THE WEEK
    I’ve only just come across this demo of If I Fell that John Lennon made at home in 1964. If I Fell is a gorgeous song and an example of Lennon’s ability to write melodies that could compete with those of his primary creative partner. (In an interview he gave in 1980, just before his death, Lennon said about the song, “It shows that I wrote sentimental love ballads, silly love songs, way back when.” Silly Love Songs!) It’s him and a guitar and a little tape recorder. The sound is very muddy, but it’s an amazing document. Maybe Lennon threw off the song as an exercise in style, as he sort of implies in that interview, but certainly it doesn’t sound like it here. Singing high in his register, he sounds painfully vulnerable, like a scared little boy, as he pleads for reassurance. One of the themes of Lennon’s emotional life was an intense fear of abandonment, which makes sense if you know a little about his upbringing. He later said, rather guardedly, that the song was “semi-autobiographical”. If he was addressing someone in real life, who was it?

    HIRING ME
    I give talks and run workshops on creating workplace cultures of curiosity and positive disagreement, and on the principles of effective communication. Drop me an email or hit ‘reply’ here to discuss!

    WHAT I’M READING
    The Conversations: a series of, well, conversations between the writer Michael Ondaatje and the great film editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now). Fascinating on the movies, on storytelling, and creativity.

    QUOTE OF THE WEEK
    It’s very hard to persuade someone from whom you see yourself as having nothing to learn. Agnes Callard.

    How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).