Battles and bewilderment

An extract from Chapter 2 of the book Transcending Politics:

2. Battles and bewilderment

Politics has grown nasty – dangerously nasty.

In recent times, political topics such as immigration, sovereignty, the EU, Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Vladimir Putin have become increasingly toxic. Personal relationships fractured, as long-time acquaintances found themselves unexpectedly on opposite sides of spiralling bad-tempered political disagreements. Former friends dismayed each other by championing views previously thought to be beyond the pale. “How can you believe such nonsense?” they gasped to each other, in mutual bewilderment. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

For many people, social gatherings have become more delicate experiences. We have had to learn to tread gently on eggshells. A Private Eye cartoon captured this sour turn of events as it depicted guests arriving for a wedding ceremony. The guests were asked: “Which side of the family: Brexit or Remain?” Sitting with the wrong camp might provoke a bitter dispute that would overshadow what should be a happy occasion.

With political discussions dominated by hostility and suspicion, it’s no surprise that the conclusions of these discussions fail to take full advantage of the collective insight latent in the community. Our best ideas are drowned out by the loudest voices or flashy distractions. The unwarranted certainty of true-believers leaves little space for the collaborative exploration of more nuanced solutions. “The people have spoken”, we hear. “You lost. Get over it!”

Politics at the speed of light

Some might say that there’s nothing new here. Politics has long had its unpleasant side. Ours is far from the first generation in which people have been deeply troubled by the political opinions of their erstwhile favourite uncles or nieces.

However, six factors deserve special attention as we hurtle towards 2020…

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Recent Posts

A reliability index for politicians?

Reliability calcuator

Imagine there’s a reliability index (R) for what a politician says.

An R value of 100 would mean that a politician has an excellent track record: there is no evidence of them having said anything false.

An R value of 0 would mean that nothing they said can be trusted.

Imagine that R values are updated regularly, and are published in real-time by a process that is transparent, pulling together diverse sets of data from multiple spheres of discourse, using criteria agreed by people from all sides of politics.

Then, next time we hear a politician passing on some claim – some statistic about past spending, about economic performance, about homelessness, about their voting record, or about what they have previously said – we could use their current R value as a guide to whether to take the claim seriously.

Ideally, R values would also be calculated for political commentators too.

My view is that truth matters. A world where lies win, and where politicians are expected to bend the truth on regular occasions, is a world in which we are all worse off. Much worse off.

Far better is a world where politicians no longer manufacture or pass on claims, just because these claims cause consternation to their opponents, sow confusion, and distract attention. Far better if any time a politician did such a thing, their R value would visibly drop. Far better if politicians cared much more than at present about always telling the truth.

Some comparisons

R values would play roles broadly similar to what already happens with credit scores. If someone is known to be a bad credit risk, there should be more barriers for them to receive financial loans.

Another comparison is with the “page rank” idea at the heart of online searches. The pages that have incoming links from other pages that are already believed to be important, grow in importance in turn.

Consider also the Klout score, which is (sometimes) used as the measure of influence of social media users or brands.

Some questions

Evidently, many questions arise. Would a reliability index be possible? Is the reliability of a politician’s statements a single quantity, or should it vary from subject to subject? How should the influence of older statements decline over time? How could the index avoid being gamed? How should satire be accommodated?

Then there are questions not just over practicality but also over desirability. Will the reliability index result in better politics, or a worse politics? Would it impede honest conversation, or usher in new types of implicit censorship? Would the “cure” be worse than the “disease”?

Next steps

My view is that a good reliability index will be hard to achieve, but it’s by no means impossible. It will require clarity of thinking, an amalgamation of insights from multiple perspectives, and a great deal of focus and diligence. It will presumably need to evolve over time, from simpler beginnings into a more rounded calculation. That’s a project we should all be willing to get behind.

The reliability index will need to be created outside of any commercial framework. It deserves to be funded by public funds in a non-political way, akin to the operation of judges and juries. It will need to be resistant to howls of outrage from those politicians (and journalists) whose R values plummet on account of exposure of their untruths and distortions.

If done well, I believe the reliability index would soon have a positive impact upon political discourse. It will help ensure discussions are objective and open-minded, rather than being dominated by loud, powerful voices. It’s part of what I see as the better politics that is possible in the not-so-distant future.

There’s a lot more to say about the topic, but for now, I’ll finish with just one more question. Has such a proposal been pursued before?

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