On dialogue with crazy people and the OECD

Am I one of the “paid up crew for the cratocrats*”? Am I “just instinctively carving a niche out of what’s available”? Am I “leading the conversation in a dance of small circles”? Buggered if I know what they’re on about, but this is what some people who have never met me think of me:
The implications of geoengineering schemes for NZ, third comment from end

Yes, it’s on a chemtrails conspiracy site and yes, they’re greatly misrepresenting what happened at the workshop I helped organise. But let’s ignore that for now, because I don’t believe it’s good enough to just say “nutters”. We shouldn’t ignore what anyone has to say, because at the heart of all conspiracy theories must be something that is personally useful to the people who have those beliefs. I’d put forward the idea that conspiracy theories are a comforting simplification of the complexities of the world. They are psychologically useful.

So that’s how they start, but why do they persist, when there is a colossal lack of evidence that supports those beliefs in any rational way? Is it just because it’s hard to back down from a public belief? The most interesting idea I’ve read recently about this is the idea that, for people to change their beliefs in the face of evidence, they need to have a face-saving way to back down, and that need gives you a lever to get in there and convince people.

Given that my job involves putting forward evidence with the goal of changing people’s minds, it’s a topic of perpetual fascination for me how little people’s beliefs and actions depend upon the evidence in front of them. The question for me is always “how I can I present the body of scientific evidence in a way that’s fair to the evidence and will convince people to act upon that evidence?” I think I’m doing it right, but I’m always keen on hints for how to do it better.

Alternatively, we have this statement from another group influencing New Zealand:
“Favourable tax treatment of housing… should be removed. These distortions exaggerated the surge in house prices, giving rise to wider wealth inequalities… Despite the slump in housing demand, property prices remain at high levels relative to rents and average incomes, keeping affordability low for less affluent households…”

Was that the Green Party? No, it was the OECD in their Economic Survey of New Zealand, released yesterday. (For those of you who aren’t employed doing economic policy, the OECD is roughly the equivalent of IBM, back when IBM mattered. You remember, “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM”? No policy wonk is ever going to get fired for doing what the OECD says, no matter how dead-eyed and slack-jawed that wonk is.

And of course, being the OECD, they also repeated the usual list of neo-liberal, Washington consensus recommendations that Don Brash will shortly be pushing on us: less government spending, more privatisation of power companies and state-owned assets, less environmental regulation, more market-based water charging, and the use of the police and armed forces to cull economically unproductive sectors of the population.

But hey, it’s the OECD, so you can’t just say “bunch of nutters” and ignore them, despite the lack of evidence for their macroeconomic policies. Instead, they’re in a situation of stating beliefs that are politically useful, rather than psychologically useful.

Still, those beliefs do change, as in the quote above. They were not suggesting capital gains taxes in their 2009 economic survey. So how to push them further?

Oh, and in other news, I arrived in NZ nine years ago. I will presume that any UK flags that I see in Wellington today are in my honour.

* – What the hell is a cratocrat anyway? I think it is being used to mean groups who are in power who have no dominant ideology other than being in power, as opposed to say technocrats who are in power coz they are technical experts in particular fields, or democrats who are voted into power. The only academic references I can find are in truely obscure stuff about power structures in post-Soviet Russia (like this one by Foursov), how that terminology made it’s way into the crazy corners of conspiracy culture, I have no idea.


8 thoughts on “On dialogue with crazy people and the OECD”

  1. Some things

    Cratocrat sounds like the kind of word I would make up to derisively refer to folks who are so much a part of bureaucracy that their entire existence is devoted to perpetuating said bureaucracy and have forgotten what they are actually supposed to be doing – if I were, you know, inclined towards making up words.

    Didn’t your nerdnite talk look at three options that have been mooted for geoengineering and then give fairly good reasons why we should point and laugh at them they would be uneconomic and almost impossibly difficult to implement, for little real result? And something about safety?

    I don’t understand how someone could watch that vid and go “OHAI CLEARLY THIS GUY’S INTO SPRAYING US ALL WITH ALUMINIUM!!!one”

    I danced in small circles after your nerdnite talk. But that’s cos I needed to go to the loo.

    1. Re: Some things

      I’ve not seen any videos of my nerdnite talk and I’m not sure what they’re referring to on Youtube. The vids for NN on vimeo miss out NN2, coz they buggered it up somehow, which is arse, coz I wouldn’t mind a copy of that. I’ll have to hassle Chelfyn and see if a copy does exist.

      But hey, there seems to be a disconnect there, a bunch of scientists going “geoengineering is a horrible idea but some people are pushing it so we need to research just what the effects are” somehow translates into “scientists recommend geoengineering”. That makes me go “huh”?

      I’ve not come across a single earth scientist who thinks that geoengineering will be easy, cheap, or safe. What I have come across are buisnesspeople who want to make money out of it and politicians who want to use the potential of geoengineering to avoid having to do anything about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Generally, it’s the scientists saying “hang on, your claims that ocean fertilisation will save the world for a cost of $2/ton are based on a whole bunch of untested and optimistic assumptions, let’s test them, shall we?”*

      So instead of looking at who is pushing geoengineering and why, NZ’s particular bunch of conspiracy theorists seem to be knee-jerk anti-science and pro-corporate, which seems downright odd.

      * – We tested the assumptions, they were entirely unrealistic. It’d be more like $200/ton so goodbye to that company’s business plan.

      1. Re: Some things

        And the problem is that I understand everything you just said and agree with it, and the people commenting about you clearly do not – especially on the understanding part.

        A discussion a couple of days ago highlighted to me that when someone doesn’t understand something, the path to understanding can often lead to the person feeling stupid. Some people are very good at explaining things without making others feel stupid, and some people really really aren’t.

        There ought to be a self-help book on this topic – “A geek’s guide to explaining stuff without offending people.”

        And even if the wording is as simple as you can make it and you’re in ultra-diplomacy mode, there are often people who will only hear what they want to hear and ignore the rest. And for those people, I will refer you back to an occasion when I witnessed a master at the art of planting the seed of an idea (you) at a particular meeting where most people were ignorant and anti.

  2. Cratocrat

    My guess from context is that it’s a {aristo,bureau,techno,…}crat that is (believed to be) one level further removed from reality, a meta-{aristo,bureau,techno,….}crat if you will — which is basically what suggests too. Or possibly a shorthand for “all of the above types of *crat”. However the word seems to almost be a googlewhack, so it’s pretty hard to be sure. (Obviously it’s much more ‘leet if no one else knows what you’re talking about!)

    FWIW, I’m not sure if Nerd Nite Wellington #2 ever made it beyond ustream (ustream: nerdnitewelly), which they were uploading to on the fly. There’s one video there that claims to be part 2 of your talk, but I can’t obviously see a related part 1. (I also found that some of the other videos seemed a bit incomplete, when I wrote up my notes at the time.)


    1. Re: Cratocrat

      Some further googling tells me that it’s from the Greek, kratos meaning power or rule, hence aristocrat literally means rule of the best and cratocrat means rule of the rulers. So I guess I’m just a lackey of the hollow men who have no goal other than simply being in charge.

      Given that, it’s odd how the only political groups to publicise my work seem to be the Greens.

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