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Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down
This week: are we happier than we think, how to fight bullshit, and why we read.
THE HAPPINESS PARADOX
Maybe Britain is happier than it seems. The Office for National Statistics recently published its latest data on UK happiness levels. It turns out that June 2016-June 2017 wasn't as bad for our mental health as it seemed if you spend a lot of time of Twitter. Average life satisfaction and happiness rose. There was no change in anxiety ratings. This isn't just one year's effect: ONS has found happiness steadily increasing since it started measuring in 2012 (anxiety has ticked up since 2015, after a decline). The ONS data is consonant with another source, Eurobarometer, which looks at life satisfaction across Europe. It shows that people in the UK are happier than the EU average, and that Britons have been getting steadily more satisfied with life since around 2000 (on the Our World In Data website you can plug in different countries for comparison). I don't have a good theory of what this means. These are averages, and of course they shouldn't obscure the fact that there is a lot of anger and unhappiness in the country; if you looked at certain groups, or regions, you'd see the graph going the other way. But nor should this data be overlooked. And it is overlooked. Most political and cultural commentary takes as its premise that people are miserable, that neoliberalism or immigration or the internet is destroying our sense of community, that Brexit is driving us crazy, and so on. As I say, there may be some truth to all of this. But anyone who says or assumes that the country has been coming apart at the seams should also ask: why are we getting happier?
Here is the syllabus for a course available to undergraduates at Washington University: "Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age". It offers to instruct students on how to spot bullshit, and how to figure out precisely why it is bullshit. I think we need more courses like this, for everyone. Facebook or Google can't solve fake news - as with drug wars, this is a demand-side problem as much or more than a supply side one. Fake news thrives because people want it to. We need to train people, train ourselves, in the basics of critical thinking. We need to distrust our own instincts and intuitions. We need to hone our bullshit detectors. And if we do, who knows, maybe the fake news epidemic will end up making us smarter.
WATCH MY LIPS
In the Confessions, written around AD 400, St Augustine talks about a man called Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who had a really weird habit: he used to read books silently. The idea that you might read to yourself, rather than reading out loud to others, is a relatively modern idea.
Rebecca Traister interviewed by Ezra Klein on whether Weinstein marks a cultural shift for women in politics. Gripping conversation, enraging and hopeful at the same time, taking in Anita Hill, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. The discussion of Anita Hill is particularly worthwhile if you've forgotten, as I had, most of the details (side note: my beloved Joe Biden does not come out well).
I love hearing people who care a lot about music talking about what they like and why. Tuned into this BBC R3 show by accident on Saturday afternoon and it was perfect radio serendipity. Richter is one of Britain's best composers and here he presents some of his favourite recordings, a brilliantly eclectic mix of old and new, and a real feast of beauty. He is clearly drawn towards pieces that convey a deep peace and inner stillness. Try and find a cold and damp afternoon to listen to it. Shouldn't be hard.
Everybody Wants To Rule The World, bluegrass-style.
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