The Resistable Rise of Dominic Cummings
In Britain Conservatism isn’t working. Parliament isn’t sitting. The Constitution isn’t functioning. Even the electricity supply isn’t operating. Conservatism is definitely not working. The Scottish Conservatives meantime, past masters of the couthy interview, the vacuous soundbite, and the brazen political capitulation, have supported in turn, and with equal hapless ineffectiveness a sequence of contradictory political ‘red lines’; drawn first by Ruth Davidson, then surrendered to the arbitrary selection of Theresa May, then Jeremy Hunt and finally Boris Johnson; all without delivering Brexit, a majority, a defence of Scottish interests, a glimmer of success, a single ‘red line’ FOR Scotland, or anything at all, save finally the promise of crashing out of the EU with no-deal on 31st October: precisely what the Scottish Conservatives assured us would not happen. The final triumph of the Scottish Conservatives will be a no-deal Brexit without delivering a majority for anything, or probably even voting for it; or literally doing anything at all. Scottish Conservatism has now defined itself as a timid, passive spectator of the real operations of power and it has quickly been realised in London, they can afford to pass Scottish Conservatives by, without any consideration; for they are dull fodder for a political world in which they simply do not count, but can be counted on to submit, at any price to ruthless no-deal Brexiteers. ‘Scottish’ Conservatism is literally pointless.
Meanwhile there is a calculating Lazare Carnot in Downing Street on a quite different level of influence or significance to the obsolete helots of Scottish Conservatism and Unionism: Dominic Cummings, the genius of the populist Vote Leave campaign; the magician who turned out a Brexit majority in the 2016 Referendum and turned a British Government inside-out; which in turn drove David Cameron out of office and brought us to where we are today; the absurd upside-down world of Boris Johnson residing in Downing Street and a no-deal Brexit now the imminent political outcome. Cummings is now working the Civil Service hard and without the holidays that our politicians are currently enjoying; burning the midnight oil to facilitate the fatal Brexit and revolutionise Government and Civil Service: it is he who will put out the light, and then put out the light. Dominic Cummings, Chief of Staff or perhaps more accurately Chief Executive Officer, CEO of the Conservative Government; an Akhelous who will steer the ship of state expertly on to the rocks: with Boris Johnson usefully appended as nominal PM and Non-Executive Chairman, tied to the mast (‘Do or Die’), with responsibility solely for carrying-the-can; the Government’s amiably disposable puppet face and entertainer-in-chief, ensuring that we all laugh cheerily and with improbably unattainable hopes, all the way to our own execution. Cummings, it is claimed by Robert Peston will not be there on 1st November; to celebrate Brexit or stand accused. He is a magician to the end. He will be gone with Hallowe’en. We will be out. All that will be left for us to chew over is Boris Johnson, tied to the mast.
Unfortunately this is no joke. We will not wake up to discover it was only a bad dream. Cummings is the man Dominic Grieve, a clear-headed, polite, informed lawyer, past Attorney General, and over-loyal Conservative MP (who nevertheless was responsible for the Parliamentary tactics that forced a ‘meaningful vote’ out of a resentful Conservative government), described Cummings in an interview with ‘the Times’ on a critical matter of Government policy, and with some distaste; as displaying “characteristic arrogance and ignorance”, and accusing him specifically of basic ignorance of how the “constitution works or how the fixed term parliament act works”.
From a quite different perspective, ex-PM Gordon Brown believes Cummings “depicts the Commons as the enemy in a ‘people vs parliament’ election”. It is rare for such different, seasoned politicians to be quite so exercised by the presence and influence of a mere, scarcely known, unelected Governmental advisor; in both cases however Grieve and Brown appear implicitly to perceive Cummings as a threat to our system of Parliamentary government.
In the modern world of surveillance capitalism; faced with the facile, user-friendly, seductive, open-internet connectivity which functions through hidden electronic processes, programs and algorithms, which in Shoshana Zuboff’s words are “blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation” (S Zuboff, ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, London: Profile Books, (2019); p.53), we need to have our wits about us, to interrogate not just the front-of-house politicians, but those unknown quantities who bring us inexplicable electoral triumphs, or Delphic insights into Public Opinion; the magicians of our age who may have an unknown axe to grind. Cummings’ expertise remains a public mystery (save for a dramatisation on C4 of the Vote.Leave campaign; ‘Brexit: the Uncivil War’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings), but his reputation for delivery is sufficient for the Conservative Brexiteer doctrinaires in power to open the door of Downing Street, give him the run of Whitehall, and – given their own long revealed executive inadequacy – place the levers of executive Government into the hands of an unelected unknown, familiar to the public only through vicarious report.
There is, however a valuable insight into Cummings’ thought that has been posted online; and I earnestly recommend that everyone read it, because Dominic Cummings can, and probably will affect your life if this Boris Johnson regime survives to finish Brexit. The text, whether complete or an excerpt (perhaps?), nevertheless reveals his extensive and strongly held views on education and political priorities. Written in 2013 (?) – this is a more expansive single expression of his thought in the public domain than the periphrastic, rambling pieces he writes for his Dominic Cummings Blog. You will find it HERE.
You must make up your own mind of its significance of course; but it troubles me, and I am writing this piece to express my reasons why.
“Some thoughts on education and political priorities” has a title sufficiently spontaneous to suggest the modest sketch of casually indeterminate, rough ideas: but modesty is not a characteristic with which Dominic Cummings appears familiar. The reader quickly discovers that this is no less than 237 pages of relentless critical justification of an idea that promises method, reason and decisive outcomes. This object too, however proves indeterminate. Both a summary and introduction are provided, suggesting that there is a system of “integrative thinking” behind the paper; but we quickly find he actually aspires only to a very modest target, in Cummings own words, ‘a crude look at the whole’. We can begin to see the pattern of his approach; disarming candour that transforms into grand oversight, with the promise of structure, clarity and resolution; which soon deliquesces into discursive, opaque obscurity: the grand, sweeping promise remains unfulfilled and worse, the militant ambition offers no practical method of delivery. Here is the outline structure of “Some thoughts”:
Introduction: Integrative thinking – ‘a crude look at the whole’
Maths, complexity, and prediction.
Energy and space.
Physics and computation.
Mind and Machine.
The scientific method, education, and training.
Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes.
(in total 133 pages)
Endnotes (containing 16 sub-sections, 104 pages).
This is the work of a clever populist populariser, assembling a personal list of his choice experts from across science, technology and intellectual life: a very personal, over-excited selection of lots of potentially authoritative and persuasive sources in various areas of human endeavour, that in Cummings hands provides a “whole” that is much less than the sum of the parts. It is a confection not a Treatise; not even a crude one. It is a useful, if untidy and idiosyncratic bibliography; and little more.
Cummings, ironically came to power on the wave of the grandstanding political dogma of hostility to Experts. The Brexiteer appeal to the electorate that hit the spot; that swept expertise away and left in power that well-known expertise vacuum, the Conservative Party (curiously the same Party of Government as the one in power before the Revolution overthrowing Experts). Cummings, we discover in “Some thoughts” is far from being an authentic representative of the values that thrust him into the seat of power. He is derelict on the matter of expertise. Indeed we discover that he is in effect, if not literally the self- ordained High Priest of the Sanctity of Expertise and the primacy of The Expert in public life: the only real revolutionary change here is that in Cummings’ priesthood he will now choose the right Experts for the rest of us; a kind of Neo-Coleridgean Cummings Clerisy is born.
Cummings idea of science is focused on theory, a priori reductionism, mathematics and statistics rather more than on test, experiment and the practical application of statistics. In all the twenty-two references Cummings makes to Richard Feynman’s brilliant, esoteric ideas; and all the visionary quotable concepts to which Cummings could have referred, he missed the most important of all, particularly for someone as determinedly revolutionary in science and education as Cummings. This is from Feynman’s 1964 Lectures on Physics: “The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific ‘truth’”. Cummings omits this critical test from his extensive Feynman quotes. He appears much more interested in radical theory than rigorous experiment; and the theorists over the experimenters. He is, perhaps in too much of a hurry for big effects and big solutions, in subjects where the risks of error and the consequences of ill-founded conclusions is high; and both patience and rigour in test and experiment is critical. It is one thing to develop a theory that proposes gravitational waves, or a theory that entails their existence. It is quite another, in scale, operational complexity and length of endeavour actually to discover them, and then to begin the even more esoteric quest to understand adequately the real nature of what has just been revealed.
We have been here before, with the same kind of exuberant air of certainty and understanding, and there are established patterns of response and opportunism that have unfolded in human history when such aspirations as Cummings embraces are combined with revolutionary ideas about education and politics. We might therefore look for some sober and even cautious wisdom in this difficult and complex field. There is little sign of it in Cumming’s paper, or a later Blog, in which he triumphantly asserts that the mere predictions of 2013 on DNA and intelligence he proposed, were now fact. Cummings indulges too great a sense of certainty in the untested predictions he initially supports in 2013 with the enthusiasm of a committed supporter rather than a judicious observer; is too exultant if the predictions are verified (as he claimed in his Blog on Bio-Labs, 4th March, 2019 on DNA testing); too quick to criticise sceptics of his arguments, too close to schadenfreude in his responses, and it appears, too eager to assume that the implications of what he claims has been discovered are precisely as predicted, already comprehensively understood, under control and ready for general application in public policy; at least that is the impression he leaves with this reader. For Cummings the critical elements in the genes for ‘general cognitive ability’ (a usefully capacious, all-inclusive term for a very wide range of different aptitudes) conveniently fit his linear and reductive treatment of the science. He facilely sets aside non-linearity and marginalises everything outside the now determined model. Complexity vanishes, along with much of the ill-understood mechanisms of adaptation.
Cummings refers to the neuroscientist Eric Kandel, whose great work is in the forms of memory. He does not refer to Kandel’s wonder at the enormous adaptive power of synaptic plasticity in the human brain. You will not find Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) and his synaptic plasticity hypothesis in Cummings paper either. Synaptic plasticity is not mentioned by Cummings. I will return to this curious tendency to methodological absentmindedness later. Science is not a competition; and when it is used as a competition, the risks are consequently high. We have been here before. There is therefore little new in Cummings. His approach to science mimics a faith in the operation of markets; but without recognising either the gap between abstract theory and the coarse imperfections of real-life ‘markets’, or the distortions competition can induce, or the threats of boom and bust they bring. Beneath the fashionable modernity of names, theories and terms, what we are offered by Cummings is less an interpretation of science than pure ideology. Cummings is rather, an old-fashioned ideologist and the misleadingly open, inclusive pattern of his diffuse and chaotic method of thought (refined to an affectation), the tone of delivery, and the conceit of his ambition has the fusty, dank smell of age; shorn of the contemporary terminology the underlying tenor of his thesis might have been written before both World Wars; an age of overconfident hubris, of splendid isolation and rampant imperialism; unconsciously asserted under a darkening cloud of impending doom. An age, then rather too belligerently close to our own.
In the Summary of “Some thoughts” Cummings sets out the problem of what he terms ‘systems’ candidly: “Exhaustive searches of all possibilities are impossible. Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.” It is hard to argue. Cummings’ solution is, however not humility or heuristics, but hubris. In just a few paragraphs we move from complexity and caution, to the top of the world; we are going to put the Great back in Britain. He has a plan. Our education is awful, our institutions inadequate, our leadership mediocre and our management dysfunctional. Who can disagree? Certainly not the 17.4m who Voted Leave. We have “too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much”. We need “big changes” to our educational and political institutions. Cummings has the solution, and it is more than mere reform; he is going to re-educate Britain through an ‘Odyssean’ education project, to produce “synthesisers”; effectively an elite of Expert-Leaders schooled in “Thucydides and statistical modelling” who will make Britain not just the leading country for education and science, but “the school of the world”. It seems we are now going to run the world, through soft power.
The gap between the cascading problems we actually face and the school of the world Cummings seductively offers, is never adequately addressed, still less bridged; the method to achieve the revolution (for that is what it is) is never explained. This lacuna recurs throughout “Some thoughts” in each section, which typically begins with big themes and peters out in unusable anecdotalism or intellectual insecurity. Section 6, for example ‘The scientific method, education, and training’ ends with this uneasy and alarming confession from the promoter of our new Leaders, the Expert-Synthesisers: “Formal education can only get future leaders and ‘strategists’ (in the proper sense of the word) so far. For some roles, intelligence and education alone are impotent – ‘a revolution is not a dinner party or writing an essay’ – while ambition without the training of the mind and character brings disaster”. What that actually means, and where that leaves his Odyssean project and the elite synthesisers now seemingly left in the lurch does not appear to be at the top of his ‘to do’ list. Some of us may however worry just a little, about who, precisely is going to break the eggs for that dinner party.
The antiquated ideology that permeates the atmosphere of Cummings paper is never wholly explicit, but the alarm bells rang early for me; and then I found the name I expected but had rather hoped would be overlooked; on p. 212 in parenthesis, and buried in a footnote on p.49 (footnote 88): RA Fisher (1890-1962). Fisher wrote ‘The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection’ (1930), refashioning Darwinism as Neo-Darwinism and integrating it with Mendelism. But whatever Fisher’s unarguable aptitude for theory, he was also a committed Eugenicist. In that fag-end of the confused legacy left by Darwin, Spencer, Galton and Pearson (there are two references to Galton in Cummings paper) eugenics managed to establish an alarming ideology, which Fisher prosecuted with dedicated zeal.
The warning signs are soon reinforced by Cummings argument. “Although it is often claimed that current knowledge about the complexity of gene-gene interactions etc shows ‘we can’t really understand how genes affect IQ’, this is false; we can separate out the linear effects (‘additive heritability’) from the nonlinear effects and the former accounts for most of the heritability (i.e most of the heritability is linear, not caused by complex gene-gene interactions). Recently, some discoveries concerning epigenetics have been distorted in various media and popular science books to confuse the picture on ‘g‘ [‘general cognitive ability’] and heritability” (p.196-7). This is followed by a discussion emphasising the exceptional IQs of “eminent scientists” (a curiously loose identifier for a putatively rigorous analysis) and the casual identification of the “99+% of the population for whom significant success in science is very unlikely.” Cummings can use this sweeping and potentially ‘a priori’ classification and disposal mechanism for talent, because we can identify the 99%+ “imperfectly but much better than random”; so that’s all right then. How easily he disposes of human aspirations, based on the conjectured utility of imperfect knowledge.
There is much more of the above, with a similar thematic direction: “Analysis of differences in future education and earnings among siblings (ie. those in the same economic circumstances) shows that ability has much more predictive power than class. The data suggest that even ‘utopian’ plans to eliminate differences in wealth would not have big effects on future education and earnings.” Remembering that Cummings revolution is essentially educational it is a very exclusive group of ‘synthesisers’ he clearly proposes to develop; even among twins: “‘about half of the variance of corrected-school achievement is due to genetic differences between children’ – that is, even stripping out g or previous attainment does not strip out all genetic influence in general; ‘achievement independent of ability may be just as heritable as achievement including ability because achievement is as much a function of genetically-driven appetites [such as motivation] as of aptitudes’.” From all this it would seem the pool of potential ‘synthesisers’ appears conveniently narrow, and should make it relatively easy for Cummings to select and assemble. Job done.
At the same time, there must be a flaw in the execution of this genetic inevitability in the real world; because as Cummings constantly insists our education is awful, our institutions inadequate, our leadership mediocre and management dysfunctional. Where on earth are all these relentless inevitable high calibre intellects; and what precisely are they all doing now? Somehow the relentless triumph of the genetics of ability is not quite working, out there in the world; somewhere between theory and outcome something must be awry. His only apparent explanation is that in the selection of elite recruiting, say by lawyers and bankers for example, the institutions do not want to hire the very brightest from the elite universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford), because they do not fit in socially; with “the mediocrity of the average Ruler” (p.201). Genetics it appears is not enough. Cummings revolution seems to presuppose that natural selection is not working in human society. This is interesting because it is similar to the problem that led Fisher and the Eugenicists into confusion and paradox. Fisher had a very large family and proposed all the self-identifying, self-selecting elite to do the same, because natural selection was not protecting the status of the genetic and intellectual elite, the ‘fittest’ by definition, because long term they were being outbred by their inferiors. It may be worth parenthesising the thought here, that this required a very peculiar definition of ‘fitness’, if we compare it with a classic example of ‘fitness’ as population survival; represented by melanism and predation in ‘Biston betularia’, the peppered moth, in pre and post-industrial Britain; but perhaps that example is not theoretical enough, with insufficient room left for a priori genetic conjecture.
The Eugenicists posited a nationally funded Eugenics programme. Natural selection would require the assistance of artificial selection and the monetary inducement of public funds for the fittest to survive at the top. Cummings refers to Fisher, but if we want to understand the failure of Fisher outside the compass of ‘theory’; his inappropriateness for leading anybody or anything, anywhere; then Cummings would have been better reading Stephen Jay Gould’s well-informed deconstruction of Fisher in ‘The Smoking Gun of Eugenics’. Gould points to Fisher’s extraordinary one-man campaign against the link between smoking and cancer. Fisher was a life-long smoker. Gould presents a devastating criticism of Fisher’s poor marshalling of evidence, including a letter to the BMJ on 3rd August, 1957 using his prestige to argue that the claims of the medical professionals emboldened to speak out against smoking threatened to discredit the use of statistics in medical research through a “catastrophic and conspicuous howler”. This was a courageous stance by medical professionals in a new, controversial public arena, standing up against the then vast and very powerful international tobacco industry and lobby, which at the time was paying Fisher as a consultant. More interestingly Gould formed a link between Fisher’s attitude to the smoking-cancer issue and his eugenics. On this reading Fisher’s interest in the subject of smoking was not the result of a detailed empirical examination or understanding of the evidence, but was led by the fact that Fisher already believed ‘a priori’ in a genetic predisposition to smoke which the new research ignored, while at the same time dismissively characterising tobacco as a “mild and soothing weed”. Gould sees Fisher’s approach to eugenics as making the “same mistake – uncritical acceptance of genetic conjecture – that invalidated his later case for smoking”.
Fisher’s weakness with the application of science and applied statistics; experiment and testing over theory or conjecture as reviewed by Gould was partially corroborated by Yates and Mather, ’Ronald Aylmer Fisher, 1890-1962’, (1962), in ‘Biographical memoirs of the fellows of the Royal Society of London’. Vol 9. pp.91-120; who noticed a certain weakness in Fisher’s approach to large sample studies, that perhaps explains why so much of his work was in the field of small samples: “In his own work Fisher was at his best when confronted with small self-contained sets of data, and many of his solutions of such problems showed great elegance and originality. He was never much interested in the assembly and analysis of large amounts of data from varied sources bearing on a given issue. The analysis of a single experiment and the conclusions that could be drawn from it, for example, interested him greatly, the assembly and analysis of the results of a varied collection of experiments scarcely at all. This would not have mattered — it could well be left to others — had he not tended to brush aside these more laborious and pedestrian labours, while remembering and continuing to maintain his own first conclusions based on an examination of part of the data, conclusions which inevitably required reexamination in the light of subsequent work”. The criticisms of Fisher were only published after his death, and not least because of that glass wall, remain both sobering and telling about the untidy, fragile and treacherous nature of the interconnections between science, status, public relations, and ideology; to the present day.
In the ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’, as surveyed by that nuanced and acute observer of the particularities of that species; Hannah Arendt makes the following observation about the British eugenicist contribution to the formation of 20th century totalitarianism: “all the early evolutionists and Darwinists ‘had as strong a faith in man’s angelic future as his simian past’ [quoting Hayes]. Selected inheritance was believed to result in ‘hereditary genius’ [title of Francis Galton’s book], and again aristocracy was held to be the natural outcome, not of politics, but of natural selection, of pure breeding. To transform the whole nation into a natural aristocracy from which the choice exemplars would develop into geniuses and supermen, was one of the many ‘ideas’ produced by frustrated liberal intellectuals in their dreams of replacing the old governing classes by a new ‘elite’ through nonpolitical means” (Arendt, p.234). In a later footnote (56, p.235) Arendt refers to Pearson and quotes Galton, “I wish to emphasise the fact that the improvement of the natural gifts of future generations of the human race is largely under our control”.
Galton’s words are worth remembering, because we have been here before, and could be again:
“If we could learn to look instead of gawking,
We’d see the horror in the heart of farce ….”