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The Problem With Dominic Cummings

When my mother watched Dominic Cummings’ press conference on May 25th, it was the first time she had heard him speak. She watched the entire thing and the impression she got from Cummings was that ‘he’s an arrogant arsehole’. The public attitude was fairly similar. For all the bravado that Cummings showed, the majority of the public believed he should have resigned even after his press conference. However, the main reason Cummings should not be in government is not for his marked character defects, rather his ideas are extremely flawed and misguided. Too much of politics, today, centres around the credibility of the people in public view, rather than how we create a better and just society; this phenomenon has allowed his misguided ideas to creep into the arenas of power.  

Cummings’ entire reason for being in politics rests on his belief that the government operates in an extremely inefficient fashion because it doesn’t sufficiently utilise data science. The topic is his infamous blog primarily concerns how large organisations can more effectively organise themselves. He is particularly impressed by how corporations in silicon valley operate and seeks to introduce their organisational structures into whitehall. He believes that the advances in computer science has meant that we can now interpret data in a much more efficient and logical way.

Too much of the civil service is trained in humanities, meaning that they do not have the skills to foresee crisis approaching. This is why things go wrong in politics. His solution is to employ the new ‘cognitive technologies’ that can forecast events which will enable us to prepare and mitigate risks. He highlights as an example Aron Clauset’s study called On the frequency and severity of interstate wars which argues that we can use statistical laws to calculate the probability of major conflict occurring. However, his optimism that we can use data science to see the future is erroneous. It is for this self-deceiving notion – the notion that he has some third eye that can predict the future – that Cummings felt he needed to claim that he predicted Coronavirus before anyone else.

The feelings of the civil service towards Cummings were made clear in this swiftly deleted tweet.

It is a human tendency to fear the uncertainty of the future. Adorno argues, in The stars down on earth, that the popularity of astrology in modern society stems from our inability to comprehend the complexity of the world. Faith in star signs provides people with solace, knowing that all they do not have to dwell on the uncertainties of life because that formation of the stars has already predetermined it. In order to see the future, all one has to do is interpret their horoscope. It is not surprising, then, that astrology is practised by so many; it offers so much whilst demanding so little.

Similarly in media, we idolize characters such as the ‘the professor’ in Money Heist and ‘Michael Schoefield’ in Prison Break because we yearn for the ability to anticipate all unexpected events. Our contemporary idolization for the data scientist stems from the same desires that make astrology and certain television characters so popular. Like astrology, it offers so much while demanding so little. It is a comforting idea to think that all we have to do is input all the information we know about the world; then the computer goes ‘beep boop beep boop’ and it gives us a knowable future.

The things that define history and politics are not long-term trends but events. An Event is a sudden and profound change that nobody foresaw and alters the way we behave, either as an individual, as a society or as a species. It could be failing an exam, an unexpected election result or a war. More importantly, Events transform the way we perceive the world preceding the event. They can destroy the preconceived myths that we have used to act and understand the world.

For example, the ‘event’ of the EU referendum result was said to alter that people viewed Britain, resulting in previously ignored occurrences to gain significance. Such as, opposition to the Maastricht treaty and our decision not to join the Euro symbolised a foreboding of what was to come. With hindsight, it almost seemed inevitable that such an event would occur, however, the result was still a shock to everybody. It is only after the ‘event’ has occurred that we realise the fantasy and the self-delusion that we were living in. A perfect example is how the ‘event’ of going to university has exposed the fantasy of who was really your friend. It is not that the ‘event’ has changed your relationship, rather you realise that there never was a true friendship to begin with even though at the time you believed it was. This highlights how events not only change the way you interpret the present but also the way you interpret the past. 

The 2016 Brexit referendum result.

Even if we use data science, we would still be unable to predict events because in order to forecast the future we need to input all possible variables and give each of them a weighting. However, we can only know after the event has occurred what signals we should be listening to within the sea of background noise. We will always require some subjective interpretation of what factors are significant. For example, now it appears obvious that prior to the 2008 recession, the housing bubble was unsustainable, but before it happened it occurred to nobody to do something about it. Consequently, we cannot depend solely on data science because we cannot completely comprehend the world we inhabit now until after a paradigm shifting Event has occurred. 

Secondly, the attempt to predict the future is futile because every person is distinct and has a unique way of behaving. Data science assumes that there are underlying social laws that determine everybody’s behaviour homogeneously. But this is impossible because the way people interpret the world is completely subjective. How can it be possible, from inputting variables into code, can you predict that Osama Bin Laden would feel so enraged by the gulf war that he would plan a mission to hijack a plane and fly it through the twin towers. How and why people react to stimuli is completely subjective and can be irrational. As such, cannot be predicted using objective models. Consequently, the future is unknown because it is irrational actors that are shaping it. 

Furthermore, even if it was possible to collect information as to how everybody’s individual psychology operates, this still would not be enough because new people, with completely distinct psychologies, are born every day. How a society behaves will never remain constant because new people with unique behaviours will exist and be acting and affecting the world that they exist in. So consequently, we cannot apply statistical laws to it.

Even if data scientists were able to gather accurate information about the future you still need the ‘humanities graduates’ to know what to do with it. What we wish to do with knowledge cannot be decided by scientific means, it is always a question of values. Knowledge about dynamite can be used to create fireworks or to make a bomb. A danger arises when individuals focus too excessively on acquiring knowledge that they lose sight of what they want to use it for; they become uncritical of their biases and begin to assume that their goals are also scientific. If Cummings and Johnson are making policy simply by looking at data and not listening to a plurality of opinion, they will go about constructing policy with arrogance and hubris, believing that what is guiding them is ‘the science’.

Ultimately depending solely on data science to govern public policy is futile and as fantastical as using astrology as a guide to life. My argument is not that it cannot be useful in some instances, rather we should be wary of the new modern allusion that supercomputers can fix everything.   And despite our longing for a more certain and predictable future, surprising events will persist. 

By biel Schreuder Obiols

Politics and International relations student at the University of Nottingham.
Follow be on twitter @bielschruder

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