All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Indexing your book

You’ve just written a book and checked the proofs. Now it’s time to prepare the index. How do you go about it?

One option is for someone else to do it. There are some talented indexers available. This is easy for the author, but there’s one catch. Nearly always, you as the author know your material better than anyone. (If you don’t, maybe you’re a celebrity and didn’t write the book with your name listed as the author. In this case, you might learn something by doing the index.)

In my experience, the person most likely to rely on the indexes in my books is me! A few years after writing a book, I want to check a point or a name for something new I’m writing, but I can’t remember the details. So I turn to the index of one of my books.

Back to your book. Let’s assume you’ve decided to prepare the index yourself. How do you start? It’s worth looking at indexes in a variety of books, especially ones similar to yours. You can also read advice on preparing indexes; there is some good material available.

I once read that indexes are typically between 2% and 10% of the length of a book. You can aim for a minimal index, 2% or less, or a comprehensive one, closer to 10%. Sometimes the publisher will impose constraints, for example on the number of pages allowed. By using very small print, you can pack in more entries.

You as the author know your own style and your work habits, and it’s important to find an approach that suits you. What I’ll do here is describe a couple of the ways I’ve gone about indexing in case you might find a useful idea or two. I’ll use examples from my latest book, Official Channels; you can download it for free and see the index for yourself.

Here are the first few entries in the index.

academic exploitation, 81–83, 128–29, 133
acknowledgement practice. See plagiarism
activists, 59, 101–5, 187–89. See also political jiu-jitsu
Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

A page-by-page approach

Before word processing, indexing involved going through the text page by page, adding entries to a handwritten list. Word processing makes things easier. Here’s one way to proceed. Go through the text page by page. When you see a word that should be in the index, make an entry in your index list, in no particular place. If you see that the word is relevant for several pages, include those pages, but otherwise don’t worry about whether you’ve already included the word. When you get to the end of the book, put everything in alphabetical order. You’ll have to amalgamate entries with the same word. For example, after putting entries into alphabetical order, you might find:

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17
Acton, Lord, 166

Just put them together to form

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

What a computer can’t do well

Assuming you have an electronic copy of your book as it will appear, you can use a computer program that automatically compiles a concordance, which lists every mention of every word. The problem is that the program has no knowledge of what your book is about, so it chooses words without any understanding. That means there’s still a lot of work to do. Eliminating words such as “the” from the list is easy. However, there are two other problems.

Let’s say the program lists Zambia in your index. Did you really discuss Zambia? If you said, “Every country from Albania to Zambia,” then Zambia is not a useful entry. Someone using the index would expect that you’ve said something specific about Zambia. Maybe you did, just not at this particular page.

Suppose the program gives a list of page numbers for “community.” You did discuss the role of the community in your book, but you also used the word in a generic sense, for example, “In this community …” A useful index will include only those pages where there’s a substantive attention to the concept of community. This means that you need to check every instance where you used the word and eliminate the unhelpful instances.

Finding every use of a word is one thing. An index has added value when it includes relevant pages where you didn’t even use a word. Suppose you’re writing about torture. You might have some pages about sensory deprivation where you don’t use the word torture, but it’s useful to include those pages.

Some indexes stick to words found in the text but give little information about the connections between the words. This is where the author, or a highly knowledgeable indexer, can provide guidance, especially using See and See also.

bill of rights. See First Amendment

In my book, I do not discuss the US bill of rights, but do discuss one important part of it, the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Using See does not necessarily imply that the bill of rights is the same as the First Amendment; it just gives an indication of where to look for something relevant to the bill of rights.

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

See also points to related topics. If I’m trying to think of the First Amendment but can’t remember the name, maybe I’ll think of courts or the law. Under entries for “courts” and “law,” the First Amendment is listed after See also. Unlike the bill of rights, I actually discuss courts, so those page numbers are included.

A skim-and-check approach

After indexing quite a few of my books, I found a method that works well for me. There’s one important requirement: I have a pdf of the entire book. It’s most convenient if page 1 of the book is page 1 of the pdf.

I start by going through the book from page 1. Typically there are one to five entries on each page, though this can vary considerably. On page 5, for example, I discuss the whistleblowing case of Vince Neary, so I begin an entry for him.

Neary, Vince, 5

It’s more than a passing reference: I discuss Vince’s case for several pages. So I look forward to see how long this is.

Neary, Vince, 5–10


Vince Neary

There’s also an entry for State Rail, about which Vince blew the whistle, and “whistleblowing” as a general topic. I add these to my index file, in alphabetical order.

In the text, I say that Vince had come to Australia from England. Should I include “England” in the index? Perhaps, for a very comprehensive index, or maybe if I discuss other individuals from England. But in this book, I don’t discuss England as a country, so I don’t include it in the index.

Another issue: State Rail, for which I’ve created an entry, is a government organisation in the Australian state of New South Wales, commonly abbreviated NSW. Should I include an entry for NSW, with a See cross-reference from “New South Wales”? I know that later in the book I have lengthy treatments of two other NSW organisations. So it would be reasonable to include “NSW” in the index. However, I don’t actually say anything specifically about the state of NSW, for example the population, the government or the climate. Because of this, I decide not to include “NSW” in the index. This is the sort of decision that determines how long the index becomes.

There are numerous decisions of this sort in any index. Should a word be included? What cross-references should be listed? Making decisions requires mental effort. This is why indexing is not a mechanical process — or at least shouldn’t be a mechanical process, if the index is to be really useful. This is also why I don’t work on the index for long stretches of time. An hour per day is plenty. That way I keep fresh, and on the following day my mind has processed some of the issues I had confronted.

To keep everything on the screen, I use two columns and a small font. I keep adding entries and adding page numbers to existing entries until reaching the end of the book. Through this skim stage, I’m not too worried about being comprehensive. The main thing is to pick up all significant topics.

Next I glance through the index to pick up anomalies and start adding See and See also cross-references. Then I start through the index, searching the book pdf for each word or phrase. Proper names are the easiest. One of my entries is Lord Acton. I search the pdf for Acton, noting the pages where it appears. If I picked up all instances in going through the text, the pdf search will find all those instances. Sometimes, though, I missed an instance or incorrectly typed a page number.

For some entries, I don’t want to list every mention in the text. Many of the case studies in my book are Australian, so when I search the pdf for “Australia” there are a lot of hits. If I listed every one, there would be so many pages that the entry would be useless. No one wants to look at 50 or 100 different pages to find what they’re looking for. So I only include those pages where Australia is discussed, not just mentioned. Also, I have considerable discussions about several Australian organisations, for example Whistleblowers Australia. I add “See also Whistleblowers Australia” to the entry and don’t include the pages for Whistleblowers Australia under “Australia” unless there’s a comment about Australia as a country. The result:

Australia, 19, 22–26, 37, 43–47, 77–78, 119, 168–69, 172–75, 179–81. See also ASIC; HCCC; ICAC; Whistleblowers Australia

Because this entry has a fairly long list of pages, it is more unwieldy than most other entries. But it’s still more helpful than if I had listed every page where the word Australia appears. As well, the word “Australia” is not part of the name of the HCCC or ICAC. These are organisations in Australia, so the See also reference goes beyond a simple cross-reference to the word “Australia.”

Next consider a more challenging entry, discussed earlier:

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

I searched the pdf for the word “court” and decided to list some but not all pages where the word appears. Sometimes in the text I listed several examples of official channels — “grievance procedures, ombudsmen, anti-corruption agencies, and courts.” This sort of reference to courts isn’t worth including in the index because I haven’t said anything much about courts. It’s only when there is some substantive comment about courts that I want to include page numbers.

Along the way, I thought about other areas where courts are regularly involved, leading to See also references to defamation and the First Amendment. Courts are a type of official channel, so there’s a See also reference to official channels. Then, I thought, courts are intimately bound up with the law. At that stage I didn’t even have an entry for law. So I searched the pdf for all mentions, going through the same winnowing process, leading to this:

law, 33, 200–1. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs
     and crusades, 44
     defamation, 24–25, 176, 179
     and HCCC, 229
     and myth system, 37–38
     and operational code, 38, 46
     serving power, 33
     whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48

In this entry, I list pages where I discuss law in general at the outset (law, 33, 200–1) and then have sub-entries for when law is part of a discussion of specific topics. Note how these are in alphabetical order in a peculiar way, with the main word potentially either before or after “law”. For example, the first item on the list, “and crusades,” is connected as “law and crusades” whereas the second item, “defamation,” is connected as “defamation law.” The “and” is not taken into account in forming the alphabetical order.

The final sub-entry in this list, “whistleblowing,” is connected to “law” as “whistleblowing law.” Technically, it would be more appropriate to refer to “whistleblower law.” However, elsewhere in the index I made a major entry for “whistleblowing,” and for the purposes of the index it seemed to me unnecessarily discriminating to have separate entries for “whistleblowing” and “whistleblower.” Perhaps on another day I might have chosen differently.

For this index, I laid out the complex entries using the format above. Another option is:

law, 33, 200–1; and crusades, 44; defamation, 24–25, 176, 179; and HCCC, 229; and myth system, 37–38; and operational code, 38, 46; serving power, 33; whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs

This format is more compact, and I’ve used it in the past. However, it is not quite as convenient to read.

After completing a draft of the index, it is worthwhile looking through it all again, noting any obvious problems. It is definitely worth checking the alphabetical order. If you use a sort function, it may not result in an order that you want.

There are a few complications in arranging entries in alphabetical order. Consider these two entries:

Whistleblowers Australia, 2, 5, 9, 14–16, 19–20, 52–54, 236–37
Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, 19–20

I’ve ignored the apostrophe for the purposes of alphabetical order, but my sort function put the two entries in reverse order.

Then there are numbers:

Ferguson, Adele, 172–75
5th Pillar, 69
First Amendment, 175–81

I’ve included “5th Pillar” as if it were spelled “Fifth Pillar.” You might prefer to put numbers at the beginning, before letters.

For “#MeToo,” I ignored the #:

medical dominance, 225–27
#MeToo, 114–15
Milošević, Slobodan, 166–67

Then there are titles with indefinite articles:

political jiu-jitsu, 144–52. See also backfire
The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 145
power, 27–29

I could have written the book entry as Politics of Nonviolent Action, The, 145. There are rules for most of these sorts of issues. I usually follow the rules because they are designed to make things consistent and easy, but sometimes I use my own judgement. Given that I’m the one likely to use my index more than anyone else, I want it to be convenient for me.

Ideally, you should find someone to check your index. Spots checks would involve looking at random pages, seeing words or topics, and seeing whether the index includes the words or topics with those pages. Though I can’t remember ever asking anyone to check my indexes, it’s a worthwhile precaution. A friend told me about a book by a well-known author for which the page numbers listed in the index were in disarray, with few of them correct. How could this happen? Imagine that you accidentally use a version of the text with the wrong page numbers — even just an extra paragraph added early in the book could cause subsequent pages to be changed — or the publisher adds a foreword and renumbers all the subsequent pages. Not a pleasant thought.

When preparing an index, sometimes I wish that I could rewrite aspects of the book. The index alerts me to inconsistent uses of words, of words that are overused, of repetitions in the text, and of important concepts that I’ve not addressed. Preparing the index offers a perspective on what you’ve written that may be slightly different from what you gained from the writing and proofreading. If you gain insights from the index, write them down for later. It’s possible you’ll prepare a second edition of your book!

Is there a politics of indexing, in other words does indexing reflect the exercise of power? Any book has a politics in this sense. It’s your way of making sense of something, and in doing this you make assumptions and give a partial perspective via the words you use and don’t use. The index reflects the book’s politics, namely its perspective, and sometimes highlights or accentuates it. Does your index include emotive words such as abuse or exploitation? Does it include contentious topics?

If there’s a book about the politics of indexing, it would be fascinating to look at its index.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jason MacLeod for valuable comments on drafts.

Natural talent and beyond

A lot of people believe in natural talent. They believe that some individuals have a genetic advantage, enabling them to perform far better than others. For example, Mozart is assumed to have a natural talent for music and Einstein for physics, and there are numerous star athletes whose performance seems so fantastic that they must be genetic freaks.

Researcher Anders Ericsson challenged this belief. With two colleagues, he studied violinists at a violin academy in Berlin. They divided the students into three groups: the most highly accomplished, those least accomplished and those in between. They then asked students how much violin practice they had undertaken in their lives.

If some of the violin students had natural talent, you would think that they could be in the most highly accomplished group with far less practice than others. But no, all of the top performers had put in large amounts of practice. Although the correlation between practice and performance was far from perfect, nonetheless none of the students seemed to be able to reach the highest level without thousands of hours of practice.

Furthermore, the practice needed to be of a particular type, involving students intensely concentrating on performance challenges at the edge of their abilities, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” Just playing through the same easy pieces didn’t enable improvement. Deliberate practice did.

Ericsson went on to further investigate what is called “expert performance,” which refers to high-level performance in a domain where there are well-established and relatively objective criteria. Such domains include classical music, chess and competitive sports. In art, law or business, for example, measuring performance is more subjective.


Practice is essential for success in classical ballet

            Although practice may be essential for outstanding performance, lots of practice does not guarantee such performance. It is difficult to determine the quality of an individual’s practice, given that this involves the level of focus interacting with the suitability of the challenge for one’s development. One person’s ability and willingness to focus may differ quite a bit from another’s. There is still much to learn about deliberate practice.

The strong interpretation of research on expert performance is that there is no such thing as natural talent. In some sports, like basketball, inherited physical attributes such as height make a difference but, other than this, the key to high-level performance is practice.

When you learned to drive a car, you had to practise. However, most people, after they can drive competently, stop practising. After you obtained your licence, you had no need to continue to improve. You can gain experience by driving a lot, but this does not do much for your skills. If you want to learn to drive a bus or a race car, this requires additional training.

In most domains, people practise until they are competent but then use their skills without additional focused practice. This applies in sales, carpentry, nursing and indeed most occupations.

Not everyone accepts the research on expert performance: belief in natural talent is deep-seated. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m no good at maths.” Underlying such statements is an assumption that they lack natural talent and hence can never hope to achieve even a modest competence. Additionally, some researchers contest claims made by Ericsson and others who study expert performance.

In 2008, science writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was published. Gladwell popularised expert performance research, including the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that to become a world-class performer in any field, it’s necessary to devote 10,000 hours to deliberate practice. Gladwell gave the example of the Beatles, who spent long hours performing in German night clubs before their breakthrough into stardom. Unfortunately, Gladwell’s account of expert performance research was flawed.

            Ericsson, in collaboration with writer Robert Pool, wrote the book Peak, published in 2016. I reviewed it at the time. Peak provides an accessible treatment of research on expert performance and its implications for a variety of endeavours. Along the way, Ericsson and Pool address Gladwell’s example of the Beatles.

They say that Gladwell had one important point right, namely that developing high-level skills requires a great amount of practice. However, contrary to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is not a special number for attaining world-class status, nor is any “rule” involved. The Beatles did indeed spend many hours performing in German nightclubs, but this was performance, not practice, and would contribute little to their skills. In any case, the Beatles never became great performers. Their most significant contribution was in song-writing, especially by Lennon and McCartney, so attention should be on the amount and quality of time that Lennon and McCartney spent becoming better song-writers.


Lennon and McCartney at work songwriting

            David Epstein is another popular writer who has addressed expert performance. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, he explored the role of genetics in sporting eminence. It is a fascinating book, with many examples. Epstein gives an account of research on expert performance, arguing that genetic factors play a much greater role. As a counter-example to the requirement for extensive practice, Epstein describes the case of a basketball player named Donald Thomas who jumped an impressive height at his first attempt at the high jump and before long won the world championship.

Ericsson has made a special project of studying claims of elite performance without much prior practice and found all of them wanting. In Peak, Ericsson and Pool point out that Thomas had competed in the high jump in high school. Subsequently, as a basketball player, he prided himself on dunking the ball, something that involves many of the same jumping muscles and skills as the high jump. So actually he could not be considered as lacking practice relevant to high jumping.


Donald Thomas

            Having read The Sports Gene, I saw Epstein’s new book Range, and read it hoping to see how he would respond to Ericsson’s analysis. Range is an engaging account of what it takes to succeed in a variety of fields. Epstein argues that early specialisation and training may not be the best option. Instead, it is worthwhile to explore a range of activities until you find the one that best matches your interests. Range gives many revealing examples of individuals who have sampled diverse careers before finding one at which they excelled. Epstein also tells of how non-specialists can sometimes solve difficult problems that stump specialists.

Range in some ways seems to be a reply to Peak. Indeed, Epstein at various points argues that the 10,000-hour rule is relevant only for a narrow group of individuals and activities. As I read through Range, I found many valuable insights about what it takes to succeed, but also an unfortunate dismissal of insights about expert performance. It makes sense to try out different activities and then to pursue one that appeals to you. But once you’ve obtained what Epstein calls “match quality,” namely matching your interests to an endeavour, then it’s time to put in lots of practice. However, Epstein hardly mentions the effort required after finding your ideal match.

            By my reading, deliberate practice is a necessary counterpart to finding the activity you want to pursue. I asked myself, why didn’t Epstein give due acknowledge to the role of practice? Why didn’t he take on board the arguments in Peak? I can’t answer these questions, but I did make a more detailed analysis of the arguments in Range in the light of expert performance research. This has been useful for my own understanding.

To become a best-selling author, like Gladwell and Epstein, perhaps it helps to make striking and memorable claims. Few scholars are good at this: to be published in academic journals, it’s usually necessary to write in scholarly style, with citations of previous work, exhaustive details about methods and results, and commonly in indigestible prose. When scholars seek to write in a more accessible way, often they are assisted by co-authors or editors, indeed as with Ericsson and Pool’s Peak. Some popularisations are true to the underlying research but others may have misrepresentations. How can you tell the difference? There’s no easy answer. All I can suggest is that if a topic is important to you, it is worthwhile exploring some of the underlying research papers yourself, reading reviews, and looking for contrary points of view. Along the way, you’re developing your own understanding. After a few thousand hours of this exploration, you might become really good at it!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Layers of corruption

In April 2013, Frédéric Pierucci was arrested in New York and taken in chains to a  prison. Thus began a long ordeal that taxed his survival capacities and also provided deep insights into corruption.


Frédéric Pierucci

Pierucci was an executive for the French multinational company Alstom. Part of its operations were in the energy business, including manufacturing boilers for large power plants. Alstom sought contracts in countries around the world and, like many Western multinationals, used bribes to obtain them. As anti-corruption efforts stepped up, Alstom set up internal systems to control bribery.  Instead of paying bribes directly, Alstom hired “consultants” who organised the bribery. Everyone knew what was happening but the corruption was more covert.

In Alstom’s hierarchy, Pierucci was several levels down from the CEO. He had no idea that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) had ordered his arrest, so when he was taken into custody, he was caught unawares. Eventually he learned that his arrest was related to an Alstom contract bid in Indonesia years earlier.

He couldn’t figure out why he, of all people, was arrested. The contract in Indonesia was long ago, and he wasn’t the senior figure involved. Gradually he pieced together what was going on.

The DOJ relied on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This law allowed the arrest of anyone anywhere in the world if they were involved in corruption with the slightest connection with the US, for example using US currency or Internet servers based in the US. Even if the individual was not a US citizen, did not work for a US company, and the alleged corruption was in another country, the FCPA could be applied.

This use of the FCPA is called extraterritorial, meaning it applies outside the US. It is a prime example of what might be called imperial overreach. The US government asserts that its laws apply throughout the world, not just in the US. But on the other hand, the US government notoriously refuses to be bound by non-US laws that affect its own citizens. For example, the US government refuses to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The double standard involved — the US government applies its laws to citizens of other countries but rejects their laws applying to US citizens — reflects US economic and military power.

It might seem that the FCPA, despite its imperial reach, is being used for a good cause: stamping out corporate corruption worldwide. In this picture, the US government is applying its high anti-corruption standards as widely as possible.

Pierucci, caught in a nightmare in the US criminal justice system, gradually learned otherwise. He was being held in a maximum security prison though he had not been convicted of any crime, and he was not a violent offender. Naturally, he applied for bail, thinking this would be routine. He discovered the DOJ didn’t want to release him no matter what. Why couldn’t Alstom post bail? The DOJ wouldn’t allow it. He had to post an exorbitant amount personally. Then there was an additional requirement: a US citizen had to be willing to mortgage their house as part of the bail requirement. This was difficult to arrange, because Pierucci had been living in Singapore. His wife, taking care of their four children, was not allowed to interact with Alstom because of the DOJ’s case against it. She had few contacts in the US, but eventually a friend offered to put her house up as security for bail. Even this wasn’t enough.

Pierucci realised he was being held as an economic hostage. The DOJ had no intention of releasing him while its case against Alstom proceeded. Pierucci’s plight was a message to top Alstom executives that they might also be imprisoned.

Alstom’s top executive, Patrick Kron, was fully implicated in its corrupt practices. Unlike other companies targeted by the DOJ, Alstom had refused to cooperate, admit guilt, pay a huge fine and allow a DOJ agent to work in the company to monitor compliance, of course paid by the company. The DOJ was playing harder because of Alstom’s resistance.

Patrick Kron

Pierucci discovered a pattern: numerous European companies had paid huge fines to the US government following DOJ anti-corruption investigations. The DOJ had a large workforce for this purpose, and it was reaping large rewards. There was something else. The DOJ apparently had access to electronic monitoring of European communications, as later revealed by Edward Snowden. It was using information gained through surveillance, justified as countering terrorism, for economic warfare.

There was yet something else besides. The DOJ’s operations enabled US companies to take over their competitors. This is what happened to Alstom. Its primary US competitor was General Electric (GE), a massive multinational. Alstom’s CEO, Patrick Kron, commenced secret dealings with GE that eventually led to the sale of Alstom’s power division, its largest, to GE. The price was huge but the benefits to France were minimal. Furthermore, GE did not fulfil any of its promises, for example to create new jobs in France.

The sale of a crucial part of France’s energy sector, in particular its nuclear power production, was a blow to its economic independence. For such a sale, various government approvals were required. Pierucci tells how the US government used the corruption proceedings as a lever to achieve the sale. The tale is complicated, but essentially the US government used various types of power to serve the interests of GE.

The official name of the game was anti-corruption, but behind the scenes was a deeper level of corruption: US surveillance capacities, diplomatic power and economic power, tied to the anti-corruption gambit, were corruptly deployed to serve US corporate interests.

Pierucci was a pawn in this game. To induce Kron to proceed with the sale, Pierucci had to be on the hook. It was apparent that the DOJ did not want to sentence Pierucci until the sale was settled. Pierucci was finally allowed out on bail and returned to France, but had to come back to the US for sentencing. Finally, he was — four years after pleading guilty. The DOJ forced Pierucci to plead guilty to being the central figure in Alstom’s bribery. He was the fall guy. He served another year in a US prison.


Wyatt Detention Facility, a maximum-security prison where Pierucci spent some of his time behind bars

Through these travails, Pierucci had to rely on his US lawyers, who kept promising things that didn’t pan out. The DOJ presents itself as the paragon of justice — what else? — but its treatment of Pierucci was anything but. Yet Pierucci could not afford to challenge decisions made because, if he had, he would have been treated much worse.

Here is another injustice: the US legal system. Pierucci was threatened with decades in prison. If he said he was innocent and went to trial, he risked a long stretch in prison. So wisely he pled guilty. He was not alone in being pressured to lie. The entire US legal system is based on plea bargaining. People are charged with crimes and warned that if they contest the charges, they will face a long prison sentence. Hence most of them plead guilty.

In his time in several US prisons, Pierucci saw the country’s penal system up close. As other observers have noted, it is horrendous. Prisoners are humiliated, treated harshly, subject to abysmal conditions and given little encouragement for rehabilitation. In some prisons, prisoners are forced to work for a few cents per hour: they are slave labour.

Pierucci, throughout his time in prison, wrote about his experiences and his study of the interactions between Alstom, the DOJ and GE, and sent his writing to a French journalist, Matthieu Aron, who is the second author of their book, completed just five weeks after Pierucci was finally freed. It is engaging and alarming, covering Pierucci’s personal experiences and what he found out about corruption.


Matthieu Aron

The title of the book, The American Trap, can be interpreted in several ways. It refers most obviously to US economic warfare using the legal system, warfare in which the rhetoric of anti-corruption is used for a higher level of corruption. The title might also be taken to refer to the US legal and prison system. In the name of justice, this massive system beats down its victims in the most appalling ways.

Superman famously fought for “truth, justice and the American way.” Unfortunately, this was an illusion. Instead, behind the scenes are “lies, injustice and the American trap.”

Frédéric Pierucci with Matthieu Aron, The American Trap: My battle to expose America’s secret economic war against the rest of the world, translated by Deniz Gulan (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019)

Some choice quotes

Re the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), “They have transformed a law that could have weakened their own industry into a formidable instrument of underground economic warfare and intervention.” (p. 115)

Re corrupt operations by the US company KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton: “So in a case [mainly concerning a US company] unearthed by a French judge, a French company was ordered to pay $338 million to the US government rather than to the French government itself. This is known as shooting yourself in the foot.” (p. 118)

Re a US judge saying Pierucci should apologise for Third World corruption, despite the US government’s support for Suharto’s corrupt regime in Indonesia: “This judge fully embodies American hypocrisy in all its grandeur.” (p. 265)

Re the DOJ’s onslaught against European companies, netting billions of dollars in fines: “This racketeering, because that is what it all boils down to, is unparalleled in its scope.” (p. 305)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Anneleis Humphries, Cynthia Kardell and Jody Watts for useful comments on drafts.

Vaccination debates: the corona connection

The coronavirus pandemic has intriguing connections with longstanding debates about vaccination.

Background

Vaccination proponents say it’s one of the most important public health measures of the past century, with its benefits in reducing infectious disease vastly outweighing any small risks. Critics say the benefits are overrated and that adverse effects are greater than normally acknowledged.

This was the state of play before the emergence of the new coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2. How does the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, affect the longstanding claims and counterclaims in the vaccination debate?

 

Quandaries for vaccination proponents

Covid-19 undermines one of the usual arguments for vaccination, namely that unless most people receive routine vaccinations, there is a possibility of a pandemic like the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 linked to the deaths of tens of millions of people. A moment’s reflection, though, should be enough to realise that vaccinating against polio and measles provides little or no protection against a new virus.

Vaccination proponents have tacitly admitted that, when a vaccine is not available, other measures may be necessary, notably contact tracing, quarantine and physical distancing along with hand-washing and other hygienic measures to reduce the risk of transmission. These are relevant for many vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough but are seldom emphasised, perhaps because they might detract from the importance, efficacy and efficiency of vaccination as the first line of defence.

Covid-19 has brought another possibility onto the agenda: the immunity to an infectious disease acquired by having it. This sort of acquired immunity was common before the advent of vaccines.

The entire population, referred to as the herd, is protected if enough people are immune. When, before the measles vaccine, most children had measles, this provided protection for those whose immune systems were impaired. If most people in a community have had Covid-19 then, assuming having had the disease confers immunity, the pandemic will end. However, this is likely to involve much illness and many deaths before herd immunity is attained.

            Critics of vaccines have argued that there are advantages to acquiring immunity by having a disease. Before Covid-19, this argument received very little public attention.

In the vaccination debate, proponents emphasise the importance of herd immunity. This is taken to be vaccine-induced herd immunity. That is, when most people are vaccinated and most gain immunity as a result, the disease agent dies out for lack of individuals to infect.

Some commentators (including scientists) have suggested that widespread immunity acquired from having Covid-19 is an endpoint worth considering. A possible option is to allow or even encourage young and healthy people to be infected while protecting older vulnerable individuals. Few governments have adopted this option, perhaps because it clashes with the vaccination paradigm.

In summary, Covid-19 has undercut the common assumption that vaccines are the only way of dealing with infectious diseases. Claims about unvaccinated children being a health threat, and their parents being irresponsible, have been superseded by worries about contagion from coronavirus-infected individuals.

Quandaries for vaccine critics

For critics of vaccination, Covid-19 raises a possibility that might not be welcome: that an effective vaccine, if developed, might be just what is needed to bring the pandemic under control or to limit its damage. Although all vaccines pose risks, if Covid-19 is as deadly as commonly believed, even a vaccine with significant adverse effects could have more benefits than harms. This is the same sort of assessment used with other vaccine-preventable diseases.

There has been much commentary about how long it will take to test a vaccine and roll it out for the world’s population. There is no guarantee that an effective vaccine can be developed. Just as importantly, vaccines pose risks, especially when introduced for emergency purposes. Mention has been made of the vaccine for the 1976 swine flu, a vaccine that caused more harm than the flu.

Vaccine critics are already warning about the potential dangers of a coronavirus vaccine, especially one that has not received sufficient testing. Some critics see a coronavirus vaccine as a stalking horse for the introduction of mandatory vaccination, including for other vaccines. The social control measures introduced for dealing with Covid-19 might be a precursor for a different control measure: enforced vaccination despite the risks.

Absent viewpoints

The public debate over vaccination is polarised: there are two sides with sharply divergent positions on benefits, risks, ethics and decision-making. This polarisation of the public debate occurs despite both sides having the same ultimate goal: protecting the health of the population, especially children. One of the effects of polarisation is to sideline other perspectives.

Proponents and critics of vaccination agree that immunity to disease is important but differ about the sorts of immunity they emphasise. Proponents focus on the benefits of vaccine-induced immunity whereas critics point to the benefits of natural  immunity.

The immune system can also be boosted through various means, including exercise, diet, vitamin D, sleep and mindfulness. (For references, see my book Vaccination Panic in Australia, pages 352-355.) One of the contradictory features of the response to Covid-19 is that control measures, especially quarantine, distancing and closure of businesses, may have negative effects on an individual’s immune system.

When gyms and pools are closed and exercise classes banned, people get less exercise. In principle, people can exercise by themselves at home, and indeed are encouraged to, but for many individuals the control measures will reduce their level of physical activity. Exercise has many health benefits aside from immune system improvement.

            How control measures are affecting diet is hard to determine. Closure of fast-food outlets might improve some people’s diets. On the other hand, staying at home and worrying can lead to less healthy eating.

            The body manufactures vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Staying inside reduces vitamin D production.

Ample sleep benefits people’s immune systems and general health. Staying home more of the time may be enabling people to get more sleep, though worries and physical inactivity can impair sleep quantity and quality.

Mindfulness refers to a state of mind that is calm and focused; meditation is one way to be mindful. Worrying about Covid-19, and obsessively seeking information about risks, is contrary to mindfulness. So are losing one’s job and worrying about finances.

Research shows that personal relationships are crucially important to happiness. Distancing measures have disrupted many relationships, especially physical contact, and thus have adversely impacted wellbeing. There are also other adverse impacts, including increases in domestic violence.

            It is difficult to quantify the impacts of control measures on exercise, diet, vitamin D, sleep, mindfulness and relationships and hence difficult to take them into account in policy-making. Probably the impacts are more negative than positive.

One thing is certain: the vaccination debate will continue. Covid-19 may be causing some shifts in public discussions about immunity and vaccination but is incapable of ending the overall controversy.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Kevin Dew, Meryl Dorey, John Potterat, Jennifer Reich, Samantha Vanderslott and Jody Watts for valuable feedback on drafts. None of them necessarily agrees with any of the views in this post.

Virus debates

The arrival in 2019 of a novel coronavirus and its potentially deadly disease Covid-19 has led to an outpouring of commentary. The impacts on daily life have been enormous, hence it is natural for people to try to understand the significance of these events from their own perspectives.

For several decades, I’ve been studying public scientific controversies, such as the ones about nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. There are some regular, often predictable, features of longstanding controversies. Usually there are two sides, with one side supported by most scientific experts and one side backed by groups with wealth and power. For example, in the pesticide debate, most scientists support the pesticide approach to dealing with pests, and this approach is backed by the companies that manufacture the pesticides. This is the most common configuration: scientific experts align with powerful groups. Two exceptions are the debates over smoking and climate change. In each one, most experts are on one side while the most powerful corporate groups with a stake in the issue are on the other side.


It’s debatable: do masks work?

            From the point of view of controversy studies, what is most interesting about Covid-19 is the proliferation of contentious issues in a wide range of domains. Here I can do no more than list a few of these, without commenting on how they might pan out. Because the issues are changing so rapidly, I’m not giving links to sources; it’s easy to find them with a few keywords.

* Seriousness. Commentators differ about how serious Covid-19 is and will be. If most people eventually are infected and the mortality rate is one percent, the ultimate worldwide death toll will be huge. On the other hand, some suggest that the number of infections has been underestimated, so the mortality rate is much lower than one percent, perhaps not much different than for seasonal flu. Judgements about the seriousness of Covid-19 influence views about a number of the other disputed issues, including control measures and civil liberties.

* Control measures. Some experts and citizens have called for stronger isolation measures, or for them to be rolled out sooner. Others raise concerns about the adverse effects of the measures, especially in hurting the economy.

* Civil liberties. Some governments have introduced new measures to track individuals, for example to see whether infected individuals are maintaining their isolation. Concern has been raised about the curtailing of civil liberties, and that the surveillance powers might be used for other purposes or to continue after Covid-19 dangers have waned.

            * Economic equality. Measures against Covid-19 have caused immense economic disruption, including severe hardship in some sectors, for example the tourism industry and spectator sports. Many people have lost their jobs, and businesses have gone bankrupt. This has led to calls for introduction of a universal basic income (UBI), namely a subsistence payment to every member of the population. With a UBI, most other welfare measures could be eliminated. Some governments have introduced measures to protect some hard-hit individuals or sectors of the economy, but so far have not moved to introduce a UBI.

            * Equity. The benefits of control measures are primarily to those who would be seriously ill or die from Covid-19. Those most vulnerable are mainly older people with pre-existing health conditions, whereas the costs of control measures fall on a broad swathe of the population. Simplistically, this is a case of the young making sacrifices for the benefit of the old and infirm. Some might contrast this with intergenerational equity in the climate debate, in which climate sceptics, who tend to be older and richer, do not want to make sacrifices for future generations.

* Treatment. The standard medical methods for treating Covid-19 include drugs, oxygen and, if necessary, ventilators and other life-support technology. Various alternatives have been touted. There have been reports that Chinese doctors have been using intravenous vitamin C in large doses. This is considered “alternative” and shunned or condemned by mainstream figures. Similarly controversial is the use of homeopathic remedies in India.

            * Environmental factors. The standard medical approach is to treat each patient as needed, to promote vaccination (when vaccines are available) and, especially in the case of the coronavirus, to institute physical-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus. In alternative health circles, there has been attention to the role of environmental factors in making individuals more susceptible to infection. Two factors have received the most attention: 5G and air pollution.

* Vaccination. Having a vaccine is widely assumed to be a way to end the pandemic. There are disagreements about how soon a vaccine can be ready and about whether it is even possible. Critics raise concerns about the hazards of vaccines, especially ones prepared in urgency and insufficiently tested.

* Trust. Governments and health authorities say it’s important that their rules and recommendations be followed. In other words, they say “Trust us.” Some commentators deplore those who question the authorities and warn people against misinformation. Trust in authorities has been declining for decades, and in the US there is a very low level of trust in governments and pharmaceutical companies. Many individuals examine a range of information and make their own judgements. The issue of trust might be considered a meta-level disagreement or divergence, as it underlies many of the other areas of dispute.

The value of public discussion

Some commentators say that government and health authorities need to speak in one voice, because disagreement undermines the effectiveness of measures implemented. On the other hand, there are benefits from disagreement and debate. In a situation of uncertainty, it can be valuable to hear a range of viewpoints, even ones that might seem ridiculous on the surface. Many members of the public have time on their hands, are stuck at home, and have an intense interest in an issue that has disrupted their lives and sometimes their livelihoods, not to mention risks to health. They are bound to explore information on the web, and to use their own judgement about what to believe. In this context, it is valuable for contentious issues to be openly discussed and for views to be presented and challenged with evidence and logic.

            In many controversies, partisans tout evidence supporting their own position and attack weak points in the opponent’s position. This can rally supporters but is not convincing to opponents. A more rigorous approach is to spell out the strong points in the opponent’s position, ideally to the opponent’s satisfaction, and address them systematically. For example, it is easy to dismiss concerns that 5G is part of a plot to harm people but more rigorous to address arguments that 5G might have some impact, maybe small, on people’s immune systems. (I use this example because I haven’t examined any of the claims about 5G!)

Some people will be receptive to sensible comments. There should be no fear of dissent and debate, as long as participants engage with each other openly and respectfully.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The value of asking

It’s worthwhile learning effective ways of asking for help, and to do more asking.

Asking has a bad reputation. There’s an old saying, “It is better to give than receive.” Research shows that helping others is a reliable way to increase your happiness, but the research says little about receiving help.

In some areas, asking has become associated with marketing. Advertisers in essence ask people to become customers. Politicians ask citizens to vote for them. Large charities use professional marketers to refine their pitches. In these arenas, people need to develop resistance to those seeking their money or support, and this resistance can rub off to become negative attitudes about asking.

In an illuminating book titled Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three types of people — givers, matchers and takers — in the context of US business. Givers help others without any expectation of receiving anything in return; matchers operate on a reciprocity basis; and takers accept help but don’t give anything in return. Most people are matchers.

The normal assumption is that givers won’t get ahead. Grant argues that they can, and offers many examples of highly successful givers in business. But not all givers get ahead, because they can be taken advantage of. Grant says givers can do very well when they also look out after their own needs. He calls these “otherish givers.”

“Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.” (p. 158)

Grant presents ideas via detailed stories of individuals who have a giver style. He uses the stories to make points, supplemented by descriptions of relevant research, of which there is quite a lot. Give and Take is a highly readable book, independently of the important messages conveyed.

Adam Grant

Asking

If you care about others, then you don’t want to be a taker. But there’s still a place for asking for help, according to Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do Is Ask, just published. Baker has worked closely with Grant, and like Grant focuses on US businesses.

Asking others for help can make a tremendous difference to your career and your life. You might save lots of time and money by getting a tip on how to improve, a contact to a lucrative venture, or information that can save a life.

One of the techniques used by both Grant and Baker is called a reciprocity ring. Bring together a group of maybe 20 people and invite each of them in turn to make a request about something, work-related or personal, on which they need help. The more diverse the group the better, because unexpected ideas and personal connections are more likely.


Posterboard for a reciprocity ring

When takers join reciprocity rings, the public nature of the process moderates their taker tendencies. Because they want to look good to the group, they can offer valuable assistance to others. This suggests that giving, matching and taking depend not just on personal characteristics but also on the circumstances.

Baker says some ways of asking are better than others. He recommends an approach with the acronym SMART: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound. He also gives advice on when and where to ask. He recommends accepting rejections gracefully, giving thanks for acceptances, and letting the other person know what happened in the aftermath.


Wayne Baker

I decided to examine this approach in light of a type of scholarly asking.

Checking citations

In writing an academic paper, authors usually cite various other publications. Some of these citations are important. Asking can be used to make them more accurate.

Scott Armstrong, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was co-author of a 1977 paper about correcting for nonresponse bias in survey research, and hundreds of other authors cited this paper. Years later, Armstrong collaborated with Malcolm Wright to examine some of these citations. They found that of 50 papers that cited Armstrong’s 1977 paper, only one reported its findings correctly.


J Scott Armstrong

Wright and Armstrong recommend that researchers contact authors whose work they cite, asking them whether the citation is correct. This is most important when your results and methods rely heavily on another’s work or where you discuss it extensively.

After reading Wright and Armstrong’s paper (and writing a commentary on it), I adopted their approach myself. When I’ve discussed an author’s work, usually I send a draft of what I’ve written to the author, asking whether I’ve cited it correctly. Sometimes this isn’t possible: the author is dead or otherwise uncontactable. But in many cases it’s possible. Here’s a typical but fictional email (adapted from an actual one) written to the author of The Definitive Investigator.

Thank you for your valuable study The Definitive Investigator. I’ve been working on a book titled Official Channels. In chapter 15, I’ve discussed and quoted from your book in a short section on investigating. Could you have a look (bottom of page 230 of the pdf or page 12 of chapter 15, or search for your name) and let me know if anything needs fixing? Comments most welcome on any other part of the chapter and book.

This was written before I read Baker’s book on asking. So let’s see how well I’ve followed his SMART approach.

  • Specific. My request is quite specific: it refers to a “short section,” with details of how to find it and what I’m asking.
  • Meaningful. I’m asking the author to check what I’ve written about their work. For most authors, this is very meaningful. In fact, it’s hard to resist looking at what someone else says about your work. I’ve known academics who, when looking at a new book in their field, turn first to the bibliography to see whether their own publications are cited.
  • Action-oriented. I’ve asked the author to check what I’ve written.
  • Realistic. My request is fairly small. It doesn’t take much time to check my text and write a short email in response. In my experience, most authors respond promptly and helpfully.
  • Time-bound. I didn’t satisfy this criterion: I should have given a time frame for replying. In practice, nearly all authors who respond do so within a day or two.

I find it rewarding to make small specific requests about citations. In most cases, authors say that what I’ve said about their work is fine, which is reassuring. In a few cases, they offer corrections, which are valuable in improving the accuracy of what I’ve written. As well, a few engage with the material and send me extensive comments, often including additional references. This is highly stimulating.


Malcolm Wright

I’ve told quite a few colleagues and correspondents about the benefits of seeking feedback about citations, but nearly all seem reluctant to use this method. This brings me back to Baker’s book. In it, he offers eight reasons why people don’t like making requests, and counters each one.  He writes,

“Asking for what we need doesn’t come easily for most of us. Asking is a behavior that must be learned. It requires three steps: determining your goals and needs, translating needs into well-formulated requests, and figuring out whom (and how) to ask.” (p. 85)

In relation to checking citations, Baker’s comments are spot on: scholars are reluctant to ask and need to learn how to do it. The three steps aren’t so hard in this case: improving the accuracy of writing is the goal, requests follow the SMART formula, and cited authors are the people contacted.

In other areas, determining your goals and needs may not be so easy. If you are feeling vaguely unhappy about the way things are going, what exactly is your goal? What do you ask? Who do you ask: a family member, a friend, a counsellor, a stranger? Here’s where Baker’s advice is again valuable. Asking requires skill, and as you obtain more experience you should get better at it. And you can learn from Baker’s book. Remember the title: All you have to do is ask.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Ageing: how to do it better

“If I had known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

There is an important truth in this saying. People in many countries are living longer than ever before. Surviving into your 80s, 90s and beyond is no longer unusual. However, quality of life in later years is not always the best due to dementia, disability, pain or loneliness. What can you do to ensure that your life is healthy for as long as possible?

            For the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatment available, turn to Daniel Levitin’s book Successful Aging, just published. Levitin is a neuroscientist who has written a number of books for general audiences. For Successful Aging, he said he examined more than 4000 scientific papers, many of which are listed in the back of the book. The main text, though, is free of academic apparatus. Levitin interviewed many individuals, including prominent ones like the Dalai Lama. His book is filled with anecdotes, quotes and stories as well as descriptions of research findings.

            Did you ever want to know how the brain operates? Consider your memory, something many older people worry about. Why does it seem to be getting worse? Levitin delves into the details of acquiring, storing and retrieving memories, telling about how there are different memory systems distributed across the brain. Did you know you can learn things better after exercising or that a chronic shortage of sleep can undermine acquisition of memories?

            Levitin tells about how many of the body’s systems degrade with age. Muscles become weaker, nerves respond less quickly and the mind is less receptive to new experiences. It sounds all downhill, but Levitin repeatedly emphasises the positives of being older.

As our senses acquire more experience, our minds become better at interpreting fuzzy sensations. The mind becomes more efficient at filling in incomplete perceptions, which means less effort and energy are required. So in some ways, perceptual capacities improve.

Older people, with their life experience in doing different things, have learned which ones give them satisfaction, and spend more time doing them. Older people, Levitin says, are less likely to dwell on negatives, instead focusing on positives. The result is that, according to surveys, people are happiest in the 80s, despite physical frailty and health problems. However, this is an average result: some oldies are unhappy while others flourish. Even so, for anyone younger, this is hope for the future.

Exercise and diet

Levitin emphasises several things that are especially important for ageing well. One of them is physical activity. Through various processes, it improves both physical and mental health. The biggest impacts come from modest amounts of activity when compared to none; successive increments of additional activity are beneficial but with declining marginal utility.

            Older people, at least those with aches and pains or with serious health conditions, may feel like they need to take it easy, but the evidence is that activity is beneficial to all. Levitin, giving special attention to mental functioning, recommends activity that requires mental alertness. He cites trekking on new paths, noting that the process of identifying the best spot to next put your foot stimulates the mind. Other options that do this include orienteering and competitive sports. On the other hand, using an exercise bike has more limited demands on the brain.

Another important contribution to healthy old age is an appropriate diet. Levitin canvasses a range of evidence about various options, for example the Mediterranean diet and the paleo diet. He concludes that the most important thing is to avoid processed foods and deep-fried foods. Aside from this, he says, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what you eat.

Then there’s the question of how much to eat. Experiments with rats show that reducing the number of calories (or kilojoules) consumed leads to increases in longevity, but the evidence about this for humans is less than solid. Levitin notes that some researchers in this field have adopted occasional interruptions to normal eating patterns, skipping meals or fasting one day per week.

            Levitin is sceptical of the value of vitamin and mineral supplements, saying there is little evidence they significantly improve health. However, he is all in favour of vitamins and minerals ingested via a varied diet. More generally, he is sceptical of alternative medicine. He doesn’t mention that many in the alternative health area recommend fasting as a health practice.

Sleep and work

As a neuroscientist, Levitin gives plenty of attention to sleep because of its importance to functioning of the brain. Sleep enables consolidation of memories. It is also probably helpful in reducing the risk of dementia. Yet many people spend much of their lives in a sleep-deprived state. Levitin explains why. Prior to widespread artificial lighting, most people slept according to the cycle of day and night. Now, with electric lights, natural cycles are interrupted, and light from mobile devices extends the interruption.

            Most people use drugs to maintain alertness while awake — think coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks — and sometimes to fall asleep. Levitin provides information on the down sides of this cycle, recommending a lifestyle that is closer to pre-industrial, for example avoiding blue lights (from screens) in the time before bed. There is also a cultural challenge: getting plenty of sleep is seen as an indulgence inappropriate for those trying to impress their colleagues about their commitment to work.

Re work, Levitin makes a strong recommendation: “Never retire.” He doesn’t mean to keep working at a job you hate. He means keep doing whatever provides challenge and a purpose in life. There’s no particular challenge in watching television or sitting beside the pool sipping a martini.

It is common to distinguish between work and leisure, and to see leisure as better. However, for quality of life, working at things you care about is important. Work provides a mental challenge. Also, interacting with people is good for the brain. Levitin recommends spending time with younger people, children and adults, as a way of maintaining mental openness to experience. Oldies have a harder time learning new things, so the pressure of interacting with youngsters is valuable in preventing getting stuck in mental routines.


Daniel Levitin

            What about doing puzzles such as sudoku and keeping mentally active through electronic brain training exercises? Levitin says these are fine but there’s no evidence that they prevent dementia. Doing sudoku helps you get better at sudoku but doesn’t seem to have any general benefit for mental functioning. That’s true of most activities: they help you do better at specific tasks. So for overall brain health, activities that stimulate the mind in varied and varying ways, including unpredictable ones, are the most beneficial.

People

Being lonely is bad for you: bad for you both physically and mentally. An important part of ageing well is maintaining social connections. This requires effort. As you get into your 70s and 80s and beyond, many of your long-time friends and contemporary family members are likely to die, so effort is required to build new personal connections, and this sort of effort tends to be greater for older people. For those with children and grandchildren, contact with a younger generation may be readily available, assuming they are nearby. Otherwise, though, it is important to try new activities, ones that are stimulating socially, mentally and physically.

Beyond individualism

Levitin’s advice is based on the latest scientific studies of ageing, nutrition, exercise, sleep and social interaction. His approach is most suited for affluent people. One thing is missing: social change. Levitin describes what you can do as an individual, assuming society is fixed. His recommendations could be turned around to become prescriptions for how society might be organised to support successful ageing.

Sleep, for example, has become more difficult because of the 24-hour economy and the proliferation of digital devices. Those who feel obliged to work the night shift pay a penalty in terms of their sleep and hence their health. Digital addictions, fostered by companies who profit from them, are also hindering sleep.

Similarly, societies organised around the car and labour-saving devices make it more difficult to get adequate exercise, and societies organised around the nuclear family make it more difficult to have everyday interactions with younger people.

It is fascinating to imagine a society organised to maximise brain rejuvenation. It would facilitate working at advanced ages, build physical activity into doing everyday things like shopping and commuting, and foster intergenerational interactions. The title of Levitin’s book, Successful Aging, might become Social Change for Ageing. Don’t expect this to happen quickly, or even in your lifetime. But promoting this sort of social change could provide a purpose in life, a purpose valuable for you and many others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Postscript: a few quotes from Old age ain’t no place for sissies

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. – Satchel Paige

“Old age is like climbing a mountain. You climb from ledge to ledge. The higher you get, the more tired and breathless you become, but your views become more extensive.” – Ingrid Bergman

“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” – Maurice Chevalier

“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” – Lucille Ball

“Surely the consolation of old age is finding out how few things are worth worrying over” – Dorothy Dix

How old is old? Kids answer.

“I can’t imagine living past 45 or so. I think I’ll be so bored by then.” – Jenna, age 12

“No one is ever old until they’re dead.” – Leroy, age 11

Using bad’s power for good

Negatives have more emotional impact than positives. I’ve observed this when reading through student comments on my teaching. I don’t give much attention to the many nice comments whereas a few nasty ones stick in my mind.

My colleagues report the same thing. They fixate on a bit of negative feedback even though it’s the exception.

This is an example of the psychological power of negatives or, in other words, the power of bad. It’s a phenomenon that plays a role in many facets of life.

In 2001, a long paper appeared in the Review of General Psychology titled “Bad is stronger than good.” The authors provided lots of experimental evidence that negatives have a greater psychological impact than positives. In the same year, another long paper, by different authors, appeared making the same argument.

Now, for those who don’t care to read scholarly papers in social psychology, there’s an accessible treatment: The Power of Bad, by science writer John Tierney and prominent psychologist Roy Baumeister. They explain this feature of human mental processing and spell out its implications in all sorts of arenas. There is much to learn.

Applications

In economics, one manifestation of the power of bad is called loss aversion. Suppose you’ve bought some shares and need to sell them in the next year. If you’re like most people, you’ll be much more eager to sell if the shares have increased in value. But if they’ve declined in value, you may feel like holding on until they go up again. The prospect of losing money has more of a psychological impact than the prospect of gaining an equal amount.

Some of the experimental results are eye-opening. In one study, “The students would blame a ticket broker for selling them worse seats than promised, but they wouldn’t show extra appreciation if the seats were better than promised” (p. 57). The lesson: don’t overpromise.

In US football, teams nearly always kick the ball when in a situation called fourth down. This is a conservative approach: it prevents a bad outcome but sacrifices the possibility of a good one. A coach named Kevin Kelley showed that it was nearly always better not to kick on fourth down. At first his team’s fans were hostile to his innovations, but then his team started winning. However, other coaches weren’t willing to follow his example. The risk of loss of field position due to not kicking outweighed the much greater benefits. Fans are risk averse and hence so are coaches.

Personal relationships

You’re in a long-term relationship and want to maintain it. What should you do? One option is to seek opportunities to create positive feelings: an unexpected gift, a holiday together, a meal at a special restaurant. It seems obvious that this is the way to keep the relationship strong.

Tierney and Baumeister say that’s not correct. Positive experiences are helpful, but far more important is avoiding negatives. Their rule of thumb is that four positives are needed to counteract one negative.

Your partner or friend makes a hostile comment — or at least a comment that you interpret as hostile. You might be tempted to be defensive or to reply with a hostile comment of your own. Bad move! Interactions that escalate in a negative way are hard to overcome. They require lots of positives just to get back to an even keel. The insight from The Power of Bad is that not engaging in negative spirals can do far more to preserve a relationship than a host of compensating positives. If you can learn to hold back whenever you feel like making a nasty comment, you won’t need to compensate with moonlight dinners and exotic holidays.

Self-esteem

In the US and elsewhere, there has been a powerful movement to attempt to raise people’s self-esteem, on the assumption that higher self-esteem leads to better performance. Baumeister was a leading figure in challenging this movement, arguing that self-esteem is better understood as a consequence of good performance than as a cause.

            At some schools, everyone gets a prize, no matter how poorly they do. In comparison, Tierney and Baumeister tell about some US schools that harness the power of bad, giving critical feedback on assignments and intervening to improve teaching techniques. These schools, even in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, produce outstanding results. Students and teachers respond to the right sort of criticism far more than to praise.

Some managers attempt to soften their criticisms of employees by providing praise immediately beforehand and afterwards, in a “praise sandwich.” However, the initial praise has little impact because the criticism absorbs so much mental energy that employees don’t recall it. When it comes to giving criticism, Tierney and Baumeister have specific advice. One suggestion is to ask employees whether they want good news or bad news first. Another is to ease into criticism by first asking “How do you think things are going?” and looking for signs that the employee recognises the possibility of improvement. (Some don’t.) Another suggestion: when giving praise, be lavish and creative. Most people don’t find this overblown, even when they’ve been told in advance that it might not be accurate. Flattery works!

Relationships at work

At workplaces, some workers are pleasant while others are abrasive. Co-workers who are encouraging and positive can boost a team’s performance, but those who are unsupportive and negative can cause damage. You might imagine that the different personality types would cancel each other out so that the performance of a team would reflect the average personality score. However, studies show bad is more powerful than good.

“… the strongest predictor of team functioning turned out to be the score of the worst person in the group. One lazy, disagreeable, emotionally unstable person was enough to sabotage the whole team, and it didn’t matter if there was one particularly wonderful member of the group. The star couldn’t compensate for the dud’s damage.” (p. 141)

How to make a good impression

Imagine you’re the manager of a hotel. Your guests go on social media and post ratings and judgements. That’s awkward, because the negative comments from one disgruntled guest can outweigh numerous positive comments from satisfied ones. Another challenge is that rival hotels might try to sabotage your ratings by putting up fake negative comments.

How can you overcome the negative posts? The only reliable way is to overwhelm them with positive ones. But how? One US hotel chain, the Library Hotel Collection, has showed the way. Adele Gutman, the manager of one hotel in the chain, the Casablanca in New York City, pores over negative comments and notes the key points in a guest’s stay that give rise to grievances. She seeks to smother each guest with positives, especially at these key points. For example, each arriving guest is greeted warmly as if they are a visiting dignitary. Every complaint, no matter how ill-informed, is addressed promptly. When guests leave is a special time for positivity, because final impressions, along with first impressions, are crucial. Some guests might find this sort of treatment cloying but most love it. Each hotel in the chain is regularly rated among its city’s best despite the physical facilities not being the most luxurious.

The Pollyanna Principle

Pollyanna was a fictional heroine who, no matter how bad things were, always looked for the good in a situation. After she was paralysed in an accident, she nevertheless gave thanks for the time in her life when she was able to walk. To call someone a Pollyanna is not a compliment. Instead, it suggests they are out of touch with reality.

Tierney and Baumeister turn this everyday attitude on its head. In their view, being a Pollyanna is functional. Because bad is stronger than good, it’s helpful to spend plenty of time counting your blessings. This will make you happier.

A crisis of crises?

The news media thrive on disasters. News reports are filled with stories of doom and gloom: wars, disasters, murders, pandemics and lurking dangers. Editors and journalists who subscribe to the slogan “If it bleeds, it leads” are simply responding to what attracts audiences. The result is that the world seems to be a very dangerous place. People who watch lots of television are more likely to overestimate the level of crime in their neighbourhood.


John Tierney

            Tierney and Baumeister apply their understanding of the power of bad to a range of controversial public issues, including crime, drugs, GMOs and climate change. They argue that these problems have been exaggerated, and that despite the prophets of doom, the world is a far better place today than any time in the past.


Roy Baumeister

            While it’s valuable to take into account the power of bad in examining social issues, this is only one factor. In describing controversies, Tierney and Baumeister present the arguments on only one side — the side they think is correct — and assume that those with contrary views are being driven by the power of bad. This is too simple: there are other important factors. For many of the controversies, they don’t address the role of vested interests. In drug debates, for example, there are powerful interests trying to dampen concern about legal drugs and to raise the alarm about illegal ones. In some controversies, scientists trying to raise concerns are censored, undermined or even dismissed: the power of bad is used to downplay problems.

Tierney and Baumeister seem to assume that all innovation is beneficial. They misrepresent the precautionary principle as meaning “never do anything for the first time.”

Another problem is that in many controversies, each side tries to raise an alarm. In the vaccination debate, proponents highlight the dangers of infectious diseases while critics highlight adverse reactions to vaccination. In the fluoridation debate, proponents highlight the dangers of tooth decay while opponents focus on adverse health effects of fluoride. In these and other controversies, negativity bias does not provide much guidance for judging the rights and wrongs of the competing claims.

No doubt negativity bias is influencing governments’ and people’s responses to the coronavirus. Exactly how I leave to your judgement.

Conclusion

It is extremely valuable to understand negativity bias and take it into account in your daily life, in all sorts of ways. The Power of Bad is an engaging treatment that can alert you to a host of possibilities and help you avoid seeking excess safety. However, it’s also important not to dismiss all warnings.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Understanding global conflict

To get a handle on what’s happening in the world, read books like Paul Rogers’ Losing Control.

 

How can you make sense of world affairs? There are so many countries, politicians and power plays. If you follow the news, you hear about developments concerning tariffs, wars, elections and bombings. But how does it all fit together? The news tells mostly about events, with seldom anything much deeper to help put the events into context.

I’ve found that I learn far more by reading a book by a well-informed author, one that provides a framework for understanding. To aid my comprehension, whenever I read a book I take notes on it, including bibliographic details, a summary of the contents and specific points (with page and paragraph numbers) that are relevant to my interests. Sometimes the notes are just half a page; sometimes they are many pages long.

Going through my files recently, I came across my notes about a book by Paul Rogers titled Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century. Published in 2000, I read the book two years later, and wrote in my notes that Rogers was remarkably prescient: his analysis seemed to have anticipated world events. In particular, between publication in 2000 and when I read the book, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Looking at my notes in 2020, I was again impressed with Rogers’ assessments. Losing Control was a useful guide to understanding world affairs. I decided to read the book again, in the process discovering that there had been a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2010. Conveniently, these new editions were the original book with supplementary chapters.

Nuclear war-fighting

Losing Control starts off with a detailed analysis of nuclear politics during the Cold War. This may now seem irrelevant given that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as did concern about nuclear war. Actually, though, it is a useful reminder that, for several decades, that the world was worryingly close to devastation. Furthermore, Rogers goes on to point out that, contrary to the impression you might get from the news, the threat of nuclear war has not disappeared. Governments have been “modernising” their arsenals, namely making them more effective.

Rogers says that the major nuclear weapons states — US, Russia, UK, China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan — have no intention of ever relinquishing their arsenals. Instead, hypocritically, political leaders roar with indignation should some other state seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Just think of the attention given to the possibility of Iraqi, North Korean and Iranian weapons.

During the Cold War, the standard theory concerning nuclear weapons was that they served as a deterrent against attack: US and Soviet nuclear forces, by being poised to destroy each other’s population centres, discouraged initiating an attack. This was called mutually assured destruction. However, unbeknownst to most members of the public, both sides had strategic plans and targeting policies that were based on war-fighting: they hoped to be able to destroy their opponent’s communication and weapons systems in a first strike, thus winning a nuclear war.

            Back in the 1980s, I studied the effects of nuclear war and read about plans for nuclear war-fighting. The information was available but not widely known, with the result that most people did not appreciate how dangerous the so-called strategic balance was in those years. Rogers, in recounting these matters, provides a corrective to mistaken ideas about past and present nuclear threats.

Three drivers

Rogers argued that international conflict over the next two or three decades would be driven by three factors. The first is economic inequality, which is exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies. Inequality is a source of tension: some of the have-nots may want to challenge the dominant order violently; others may seek to migrate to more prosperous regions, triggering tensions over immigration.

            The second factor is environmental constraints. The massive expansion of human activity puts strain on land, water and the air. Resources, especially oil, become bones of contention. The wars in the Persian Gulf are partly resource-related. Rogers was initially writing in 2000, after the first Gulf war in 1991 but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today the most obvious environmental constraint is climate change. Already in 2000 Rogers identified this as a crucial factor in international conflict. Affluent industrialised countries have generated the most greenhouse gases, yet they want to keep consuming despite the looming dangers. It is at this point that environmental constraints interact with economic inequality.

            The third factor is the commitment by dominant powers to address these issues by attempting to maintain the status quo, if necessary by force. Instead of addressing inequality and environmental constraints, Western governments have tried to subdue challengers, especially those that use force themselves. The context is that groups with relatively little resources and technological expertise have the capacity to wreak havoc in rich developed societies. Putting this another way, industrial societies have developed in ways that make them vulnerable to attack.

Security paradigms

Rogers describes two security paradigms, namely assumptions and ways of thinking that guide action. The first paradigm, which he dubs “old,” is based on attempting to maintain control. This is called “liddism”: the dominant powers attempt to keep a lid on the discontent stimulated by continuing economic inequality and escalating environmental impacts. Rogers’ second paradigm is quite different. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo and keep a lid on discontent, this alternative “new” paradigm involves addressing the roots of conflict: inequality, environmental impacts and military deployments to maintain them.

Rogers gave considerable attention to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. A truck filled with explosives was driven into an underground parking station and detonated. However, the plotters had not positioned the location quite right to achieve their goal of bringing down the tower. If they had succeeded, 30,000 people might have been killed. Concerning this possibility, Rogers rhetorically asked “… would it have resulted in any rethinking of security? Probably not. A more likely result would have been a massive and violent military reaction against any groups anywhere in the Middle East that were thought to have had even the slightest connection with the attack.” (p. 118)


Damage from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing

            How’s that for a prediction made in the year 2000? We now know that this is the security trajectory followed after 9/11. There was a declaration of a “war on terror” with no possibility of peace envisioned, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of neoliberalism and economic inequality and a slow and tepid response to climate change. In contrast, the new-paradigm response to 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a criminal matter. It didn’t happen.

The 1993 attack highlighted the interaction of the three factors that Rogers identified. Resource factors, namely the location of cheap and abundant oil in the Gulf region, led to US military involvement in the Gulf, including troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. The quest for control over energy supplies aggravated the perception of inequality, with Western affluent countries seeking control. The attack did not lead to any change in ways of thinking about security.

Learning from Rogers

There is a lot to learn from Losing Control. It contains all sorts of information about international security, from nuclear arsenals to political grievances to neoliberalism. The information is presented in a coherent way, enabling an appreciation of trends and impacts.


Paul Rogers

            More important than the information is the framework that Rogers developed to understand the driving forces underlying the security environment: economic inequality, environmental constraints (especially Gulf oil politics and climate change) and the old security paradigm of trying to maintain control. Grasping these three factors and their interactions provides a remarkably powerful way of understanding geopolitical developments.

Reading and digesting Losing Control offers a way of making sense of the crush of current affairs. You could spend years watching or reading current affairs in the news and still have less idea of what it all means than by spending a few hours reading this book. Alternatively, if you prefer shorter treatments, Rogers writes a regular column for openDemocracy.

This speaks to a more general issue. By acquiring an understanding of patterns and driving forces, it’s possible to make sense of the world far more efficiently and accurately than by taking in one event after another. If you can find the right book or article, one that cuts to the core, you can know far more with far less time and effort.

To find works like Losing Control isn’t easy. If you want to acquire powerful conceptual tools for making sense of the world, the initial challenge is to find lucid, insightful expositions. This can take a bit of effort. Then it’s a matter of spending some time reading history, politics, psychology or whatever fascinates you and of keeping doing this despite the temptations to read the latest headlines and social media commentary.

Postscript

How’s this for a prediction made in 2010, in the third edition of Losing Control, before the emergence of Islamic State?

 “Even if US troops are largely in barracks, they can still be readily represented by al-Qaida propagandists and others as ‘ghost’ occupiers of a major Islamic state. Given the decades-long timescale of the al-Qaida movement’s aims, and the potentially decades-long significance of Persian Gulf oil, the value of Iraq to the al-Qaida movement may be far from over.” (p. 168)

There may be a fourth edition in 2021. Stay tuned.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Western civilisation: what about it?


Sappho, Ancient Greek poet

“Western civilisation” can be a contentious topic, in part because people interpret it in different ways. Many achievements have been attributed to “the West,” but it has many negatives too. It is not obvious how to assign responsibility for the positives and negatives. Often left out of debates about Western civilisation are alternatives and strategies to achieve them.

In some circles, if you refer to Western civilisation, people might think you are being pretentious, or wonder what you’re talking about. For some, though, the two-word phrase “Western civilisation” can pack an emotional punch.

Western civilisation can bring to mind famous figures such as Socrates, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci — maybe even some women too — and high-minded concepts such as democracy and human rights. Increasing affluence fits in somewhere. Western civilisation is also associated with a sordid history of slavery, exploitation, imperialism, colonialism and warfare.

My aim here is to outline some of the issues involved.[1] I write this not as an expert in any particular relevant area, but rather as a generalist seeking to understand the issues. Whatever “Western civilisation” refers to, it is a vast topic, and no one can be an expert in every aspect. One of the areas I’ve studied in some depth is controversies, especially scientific controversies like those over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. Some insights from controversy studies are relevant to debates over Western civilisation.

After outlining problems in the expression “Western civilisation,” I give an overview of positives and negatives associated with it. This provides a background for difficult questions concerning responsibility and implications.

Western? Civilisation?

In political and cultural discussions, “the Western world” has various meanings. It is often used to refer to Europe and to other parts of the world colonised by Europeans. This is just a convention and has little connection with the directions east and west, which in any case are relative. Europe is in the western part of the large land mass called Eurasia, so “Western” might make sense in this context. But after colonisation, some parts of the world elsewhere are counted as part of the “West,” including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These are called settler colonies, where the immigrants from Europe eventually outnumbered the native inhabitants. However, South and Central American countries are also settler colonies but are less often listed as part of the West. So there is a bit of arbitrariness in defining the West.

The word “civilisation” has different meanings, and sometimes multiple meanings, in different contexts. For historians, civilisation refers to a complex society with established institutions such as governments, laws, commerce and rules of behaviour. A civilisation of this sort has a certain size, cohesion and organisation. The Roman empire is called a civilisation; hunter-gatherer societies are not.[2]

“Civilisation” also refers to being civilised, as opposed to being savage.[3] Being civilised suggests being rational and controlled rather than emotional and chaotic. It also suggests civility: politeness rather than crudity. A civilised person dresses properly, speaks appropriately and knows what rules to obey.

Because the word civilisation has multiple meanings and connotations, which vary from person to person, from context to context and from one time to another, some discussions about it mix emotional and logical matters. Contrary to its positive connotations, a civilisation, in the scholarly meaning, is not necessarily a good thing: it might be a dictatorial exploitative empire. In the everyday meaning of being civilised, it sounds better than being uncivilised. Empires that have caused unspeakable suffering sound better when they are called civilisations. Some mass murderers are, in everyday interactions, polite, rational and well-dressed: being civilised in this sense is no guarantee of moral worth.


Civilised?

Positives

Many of the features of human society that today are widely lauded were first developed in the West or were developed most fully in the West. These might be called the achievements or contributions of Western civilisation.

The ancient Greeks developed a form of collective decision-making in which citizens deliberated in open forums, reaching agreements that then became policy or practice.[4] This is commonly called democracy. In ancient Greece, women, slaves and aliens were excluded from this process, but the basic idea was elaborated there.

Many centuries later, several revolutions (including those in France and the US) overthrew autocracies and introduced a form of government in which citizens voted for representatives who would make decisions for the entire community. This was quite unlike democracy’s roots in ancient Greece, but today it is also commonly called democracy, sometimes with an adjective: liberal democracy or representative democracy. Voting initially was restricted to white male landowners and gradually extended to other sectors of the population.

Commonly associated with representative government are civil liberties: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary search, arrest and detention, freedom from cruel treatment. These freedoms, or rights, resulted from popular struggles against tyranny, and are commonly seen as a special virtue of the West, a model for the rest of the world. Struggles over these sorts of freedoms continue today, for example in campaigns against discrimination, surveillance, slavery and torture.

Another contribution from the West is art and, more generally, cultural creations, including architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance and writing. While artistic traditions are found in societies across the world, some of these, for example ballet and classical music, have been developed in the West to elaborate forms that require enormous expertise at the highest levels, accompanied by long established training techniques for acquiring this expertise.[5]

In the West, manners have evolved in particular ways. On formal occasions, and in much of everyday behaviour, people are mostly polite in speech, conventional in dress, proper in their manner of eating, and modest in their excretions.[6]

The industrial revolution had its home in the West. The development and use of machinery, motorised transport, electricity and many other technological systems have made possible incredible productivity and greatly increased living standards. This has involved inventions and their practical implementation, namely innovation. The West has contributed many inventions and excelled in the process of innovation.

Modern systems of ownership, commercial exchange and employment, commonly called capitalism, developed most rapidly and intensively in the West and were then exported to the rest of the world.

Questioning the positives

The positives of Western civilisation can be questioned in two ways: are they really Western contributions, and are they really all that good?

Representative government is commonly described as “democracy,” but some commentators argue that it is a thin form of democracy, more akin to elected tyranny. It has little resemblance to democracy’s Athenian roots. The ancient Greeks used random selection for many official positions, with a fairly quick turnover, to ensure that those selected did not acquire undue power. This was in addition to the assembly in which every citizen could attend and vote. Arguably, the ancient Greeks had a more developed form of “direct democracy,” direct in the sense of not relying on elections and representatives.[7]


The kleroterion, used for randomly selecting officials in ancient Athens

However, if direct democracy is seen as the epitome of citizen participation, then note should be made of numerous examples from societies around the world, many of them long predating agriculture. Many nomadic and hunter-gatherer groups have been egalitarian, with no formal leaders.[8] They used forms of consensus decision-making that are now prized in many of today’s social movements. There are examples of societies with non-authoritarian forms of decision-making in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The Iroquois Confederacy in North America had a well-developed decision-making process that predated white American settlers by hundreds of years and, via Benjamin Franklin, helped inspire US democratic principles and methods.[9] A full accounting of the contributions of non-Western societies to models of governance remains to be carried out.[10]

Modern-day civil liberties are needed to counter the repressive powers of the state. However, in egalitarian societies without states, civil liberties are implicit: members can speak and assemble without hindrance. From this perspective, “civilisation” involves citizens of a potentially repressive state congratulating themselves for managing to have a little bit of freedom.

The industrial revolution is commonly attributed to the special conditions in Europe, especially Britain. This can be questioned. It can be argued that Western industrial achievements were built on assimilating superior ideas, technologies and institutions from the East.[11]

As for the West’s cultural achievements, they need to be understood in the context of those elsewhere. Think of the pyramids in Egypt, the work of the Aztecs, the Taj Mahal. Think of highly developed artistic traditions in India, China and elsewhere.

Negatives

Western societies have been responsible for a great deal of killing, exploitation and oppression. Colonialism involved the conquest over native peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia. Europeans took possession over lands and expelled the people who lived there. In the course of European settlement, large numbers of indigenous people were killed or died of introduced diseases. The death toll was huge.[12]

In imperialism, which might be called non-settler colonialism, the European conquerors imposed their rule in damaging ways. They set up systems of control, including militaries, government bureaucracies and courts, that displaced traditional methods of social coordination and conflict resolution. They set up administrative boundaries that took little account of previously existing relationships between peoples. In South America, the administrative divisions established by Spanish and Portuguese conquerors became the basis for subsequent independent states.[13] In Rwanda, the Belgian conquerors implemented a formal racial distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, installing Tutsis in dominant positions, laying the basis for future enmity.[14]

Imperialism had a devastating impact on economic and social development. British rule over India impoverished the country, leading to a drastic decline in India’s wealth, while benefiting British industry.[15] Much of what was later called “underdevelopment” can be attributed to European exploitation of colonies.[16]

Another side to imperialism was slavery. Tens of millions of Africans were captured and transported to the Americas. Many died in the process, including millions in Africa itself.[17]

Imperialism and settler colonialism were responsible for the destruction of cultures around the world. The combination of conquest, killing, disease, exploitation, dispossession, divide-and-rule tactics and imposition of Western models undermined traditional societies. Some damaging practices were imported, including alcohol, acquisitiveness and violence. When Chinese leaders made attempts to stop opium addiction, British imperialists fought wars to maintain the opium trade. Colonial powers justified their activities as being part of a “civilising mission.”

It should be noted that many traditional cultures had their bad sides too, for example ruthless oppressors and harmful practices, including slavery and female genital mutilation. In some respects, Western domination brought improvements for populations, though whether these same improvements could have been achieved without oppression is another matter.

Colonialism was made possible not by cultural superiority but by superior military power, including weapons, combined with a willingness to kill. Europeans were able to subjugate much of the world’s population by force, not by persuasion or example.

In the past couple of centuries, the West has been a prime contributor to the militarisation of the world. Nuclear weapons were first developed in the West, and hold the potential for unparalleled destruction, a threat that still looms over the world. The only government to voluntarily renounce a nuclear weapons capacity is South Africa.

The problems with capitalism have been expounded at length. They include economic inequality, unsatisfying work, unemployment, consumerism, corporate corruption, encouragement of selfishness, and the production and promotion of harmful products such as cigarettes. Capitalist systems require or encourage people to move for economic survival or advancement, thereby breaking down traditional communities and fostering mental problems.

Industrialism, developed largely in the West, has had many benefits, but it also has downsides. It has generated enormous environmental impacts, including chemical contamination, species extinction and ocean pollution. Global warming is the starkest manifestation of uncontrolled industrialism.

Responsibility

What is responsible for the special features of Western civilisation, both positive and negative? One explanation is genetics. Western civilisation is commonly identified with white populations. Do white people have genes that make them more likely to create great works of art, or to be inventors, entrepreneurs or genocidal killers?

The problem with genetic explanations is that gene distributions in populations are too diverse to provide much guidance concerning what people do, especially what they do collectively. There is no evidence that Mozart or Hitler were genetically much different from their peers. There is too much variation between the achievements of brothers and sisters to attribute very much to genetics. Likewise, the rise and fall of civilisations is far too rapid for genetics to explain very much.


Stalin: genetically different?

More promising is to point to the way societies are organised. Social evolution is far more rapid than genetic evolution. Are the social structures developed in the West responsible for its beneficial and disastrous impacts?

The modern state is commonly said to have developed in Europe in the past few hundred years, in conjunction with the rise of modern military systems. To provide income for its bureaucratic apparatus, the state taxed the public, and to enforce its taxation powers, it expanded its military and police powers.[18] A significant step in this process was the French Revolution, which led to the development of mass armies, which proved superior to mercenary forces. The state system was adopted in other parts of the world, in part via colonialism and in part by example.

The state system can claim to have overcome some of the exploitation and oppression in the previous feudal system. It has also enabled massive investments in infrastructure, including in military systems, creating the possibility of ever more destructive wars as well as extensive surveillance. The French revolution also led to the introduction of the world’s first secret police, now institutionalised in most large states.[19]

If the West was the primary contributor to the contemporary state system, this is not necessarily good or bad. It has some positives but quite a few negatives.

A role for chance?

Perhaps what Western civilisation has done, positive and negative, shows nothing special about Western civilisation itself, but is simply a reflection of the capacities and tendencies of humans. Had things been a bit different, the same patterns might have occurred elsewhere in the world. In other words, the triumphs and tragedies of Western civilisation should be treated as human triumphs and tragedies, rather than reflecting anything special about people or institutions in the West.

On the positive side, it is apparent that people from any part of the world can attain the highest levels of achievement, whether in sport, science, heroism or service to the common good. The implication is that, in different circumstances, everything accomplished by lauded figures in the West could have been done by non-Westerners. Of course, there are many examples where this is the case anyway. Major steps in human social evolution — speech, fire, tools, agriculture — are either not attributed to a particular group, or not to the West. These developments are usually said to reflect human capacities. So why not say the same about what is attributed to a “civilisation”?

The same assessment can be made of the negatives of Western civilisation, including colonialism, militarism and industrialism. They might be said to reflect human capacities. Genocides have occurred in many parts of the world, and nearly every major government has set up military forces. Throughout the world, most people have eagerly joined industrial society, at least at the level of being consumers.

When something is seen as good, responsibility for it can be assigned in various ways. Leonardo da Vinci is seen as a genius. Does this reflect on him being a man or a person with opportunities? Is being white important? How should responsibility be assigned to the emergence of Hitler or Stalin?

Research on what is called “expert performance” shows that great achievements are the result of an enormous amount of a particular type of practice, and suggests that innate talent plays little role.[20] The human brain has enormous capacities, so the key is developing them in desirable ways. On the other hand, humans have a capacity for enormous cruelty and violence, and for tolerating it.[21]

Alternatives

For those critical of state systems, militarism and capitalism — or indeed anything seen as less than ideal — it is useful to point to alternatives.

One alternative is collective provision, in which communities cooperate to provide goods and services for all. This is a cooperative model, in contrast with the competitive individualistic model typical of capitalist markets.[22] In collective provision, “the commons” plays a key role: it is a facility available to all, like public libraries and parks. Online examples of commons are free software and Wikipedia, which are created by volunteers and available to all without payment or advertisements. Applied to decision-making, deliberative democracy is an alternative close to the cooperative approach.

The rise of capitalism involved the enclosure of lands that were traditionally used as commons. “Enclosure” here means takeover by private or government owners, and exclusion of traditional users. Contemporary proponents of the commons hark back to earlier times, before the enclosure process began.


Free software is a type of commons.

What is significant here is that commons historically, as highly cooperative spaces, developed in many places around the world. They are not a feature of a particular civilisation.

Another alternative is strategic nonviolent action, also called civil resistance.[23] Nonviolent action involves rallies, marches, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and various other methods of social and political action. Nonviolent action is non-standard: it is defined as being different from conventional political action such as voting and electoral campaigning.

Social movements — anti-slavery, feminist, peace and environmental movements, among others — have relied heavily on nonviolent action. Studies show that nonviolent movements against repressive regimes are more likely to be effective than armed resistance.[24] Compared to the use of violence, nonviolent movements have many advantages: they enable greater participation, reduce casualties and, when successful, lead to greater freedom in the long term.

People have been using nonviolent action for centuries. However, the use of nonviolent action as a strategic approach to social change can be attributed to Mohandas Gandhi and the campaigns he led in South Africa and India.[25] Strategic nonviolent action has subsequently been taken up across the world.


Gandhi

So what?

Why should it make any difference whether Western civilisation is judged for its benefits or its harms? Why should people care about something so amorphous as “Western civilisation”?

Most people who live and work in Western countries make little significant contribution to something as massive as a civilisation. They might be likened to observers, analogous to spectators at a sporting match. Logically, there is no particular virtue in being a fan of a winning team. Similarly, there should be no particular glory in touting the achievements of the “civilisation” in which one lives. In practice, though, it seems as if some protagonists in the debate over Western civilisation do indeed identify with it.


Spectators watching gladiators

This is a psychological process called honour by association. It is apparent in all sorts of situations, for example when you tell others about the achievements of your family members or about meeting a famous person. There can be honour by association via the suburb in which you live, your occupation, your possessions, even the food you eat.

The point about honour by association is that, logically, it is not deserved. When, as a spectator, you bask in the glory of a winning team, you’ve done nothing particular noteworthy, aside perhaps from being part of a cheering crowd. The same can apply to being associated with the greatest accomplishments in the history of Western civilisation. If you are part of a long tradition of artistic, intellectual or entrepreneurial achievement, it sounds nice but says nothing about what you’ve done yourself. It is only honour by association.

The same applies to guilt by association, which might also be called dishonour by association. If your ancestors were racists or genocidal killers, why should that reflect on you?[26]

Another way to think about this is to note that no one chooses their own parents. Growing up as part of the culture in which one was born shows no special enterprise and should warrant no particular praise. Emigrants often show more initiative. For various reasons, they are not content with their place of birth and seek out more desirable locations to spend their lives and rear their children.

Why study Western civilisation?

Why study anything? Learning, in a systematic and rigorous fashion, has impacts independent of the subject studied. On the positive side, students learn how to think. In the humanities, they learn to think critically and to communicate in writing and speech. On the negative side, or ambiguously, they learn how to play the academic game, to be willing to subordinate their interests to an imposed syllabus, and to be obedient. Formal education has been criticised as preparation for being a reliable and obedient employee.[27]

More specifically, is there any advantage in studying Western civilisation rather than some other speciality? Proponents say students, and citizens, need to know more about the ideas and achievements that underpin the society in which they live. This is plausible. Critics say it is important to learn not only about the high points of Western civilisation but also about its dark sides. Many of the critics do precisely this, teaching about the history and cultural inheritance of colonialism and capitalism. Their concern about focusing on the greatest contributions from the West is that the negative sides receive inadequate attention.

There is another possible focus of learning: alternatives, in particular alternatives to current institutions and practices that would go further in achieving the highest ideals of Western and other cultures. For example, democracy, in the form of representative government, is studied extensively, but there is little attention to participatory alternatives such as workers’ control.[28] Formal learning in classrooms is studied extensively, but there is comparatively little attention to deprofessionalised learning.[29] Examples could be given in many fields: what exists is often taken as inevitable and desirable, while what does not exist is assumed to be utopian.

The next step after studying alternatives is studying strategies to move towards them. This is rare in higher education, though it is vitally important in social movements.[30]

Why study Western civilisation? One answer is to say, sure, let’s do it, but let’s also study desirable improvements or alternatives to Western civilisation, and how to bring them about.

Controversies over Western civilisation

Some controversies seem to persist indefinitely, regardless of arguments and evidence. The debate over fluoridation of public water supplies has continued, with most of the same claims, since the 1950s. There are several reasons why resolution of debates over Western civilisation is difficult.[31]

One factor is confirmation bias: people preferentially seek out information that supports their existing views, and they find reasons to dismiss or ignore contrary information.[32]

A second factor is the burden of proof. Typically, partisans on each side in a controversy assign responsibility to the other side for proving its case.

A third factor is paradigms, which are coherent sets of assumptions, beliefs and methods. The paradigms underpinning history and sociology are quite different from those used in everyday life.

A fourth factor is group dynamics. In polarised controversies, partisans mainly interact with those with whom they agree, except in hostile forums such as public debates.

A fifth factor is interests, which refer to the stakes that partisans and others have in the issues. Interests include jobs, profits, reputation and self-esteem. Interests, especially when they are substantial or “vested,” can influence individuals’ beliefs and actions.

The sixth and final factor is that controversies are not just about facts: they are also about values, for example about ethics and decision-making. This is true of scientific controversies and even more so of other sorts of controversies.

The upshot is that in a polarised controversy, partisans remain set in their positions, not budging on the basis of the arguments and evidence presented by opponents. It is rare for a leading figure to change their views. It is fairly uncommon for a partisan to try to spell out the strongest arguments for the contrary position. Instead, partisans typically highlight their own strongest points and attack the opponent’s weakest points.

My observation is that all these factors play a role in debates over Western civilisation. It is safe to predict that disagreements are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Acknowledgements

Over the years, many authors and colleagues have contributed to my understanding of issues relevant to this article.

Thanks to all those who provided comments on drafts: Paula Arvela, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Martin Davies, Don Eldridge, Susan Engel, Anders Ericsson, Theo Farrell, Zhuqin Feng, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, John Hobson, Dan Hutto, Bruce Johansen, Dirk Moses, Rosie Riddick, Nick Riemer, Denise Russell, Jody Watts, Robert Williams, Qinqing Xu and Hsiu-Ying Yang. None of these individuals necessarily agrees with anything in the article, especially considering that many commented only on particular passages.

Further comments are welcome, including suggestions for improving the text.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Footnotes

[1] My motivation for addressing this topic is the introduction of a degree in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong and the opposition to it. I commented on this in “What’s the story with Ramsay?”, 7 March 2019, https://comments.bmartin.cc/2019/03/07/whats-the-story-with-ramsay/

[2] Thomas C. Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), says the concept of civilisation, from the time it was first formulated in the 1760s and 1770s, has always referred to societies having a state and hierarchies based on class, sex and ethnicity. Often there is an accompanying assumption that these hierarchies are natural.

[3] On the idea of the savage as an enduring and damaging stereotype that serves as the antithesis of Western civilisation, see Robert A. Williams, Jr., Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[4] Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1991); Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[5] Western classical music is not inherently superior to, say, Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian music. However, musical notation and public performance led in Western Europe to distinctive methods for training elite performers.

[6] Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners, volume 1 (New York: Urizen Books, 1978; originally published in 1939).

[7] David Van Reybrouck, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[8] Harold Barclay, People without Government (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982).

[9] For an account of academic and popular resistance to the idea that the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the US system of democracy, see Bruce E. Johansen with chapters by Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Barbara A. Mann, Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1998).

[10] See Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) for treatments of pre-Classical democracy, and much else.

[11] John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[12] John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings, 1975).

[13] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991, revised edition).

[14] Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[15] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (London: Penguin, 2017).

[16] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974).

[17] For a detailed account of the horrors of colonialism in the Congo, and of the struggles to set the narrative about what was happening, see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

[18] Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: Free Press, 1994); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1992).

[19] Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi, Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror (London: Sphere, 1983).

[20] Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (London: Bodley Head, 2016).

[21] Steven James Bartlett, The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2005).

[22] Nathan Schneider, Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy (New York: Nation Books, 2018).

[23] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

[24] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia UP, New York, 2011).

[25] M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1940, second edition).

[26] This is different from institutional responsibility. When politicians give apologies for crimes committed by governments, they do so as representatives of their governments, not as personal perpetrators.

[27] Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System that Shapes their Lives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[28] Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, eds., Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2011).

[29] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).

[30] For example, Chris Crass, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2013)

[31] This section draws on ideas outlined in my article “Why do some scientific controversies persist despite the evidence?” The Conversation, 4 August 2014, http://theconversation.com/why-do-some-controversies-persist-despite-the-evidence-28954. For my other writings in the area, see “Publications on scientific and technological controversies,” https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html.

[32] Raymond S. Nickerson, “Confirmation bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises,” Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 1998, pp. 175–220.