Things are still desperate. There is a hopeful moment in Ben Solomon’s interactive film report from the front line in East Mosul. ISIS forced their own hideous curriculum on schools, but in one school where he filmed, only 20% of the pupils had been turning up. Now with ISIS gone they are flocking back. West Mosul, where the old town lies not far from the river, isn’t free yet. Here’s a picture of – believe it or not – a Jewish boys’ school in old Mosul, Lawrence Kedoorie School, from before 1951.
It comes from Ezra Laniado’s 1981 book on the Jews of Mosul (only available in Hebrew).
One of the endpapers even has a map of the small Jewish quarter and in my copy of the book my father circled his address on it in red pen. It was one street back from the Souk al-Kasibin (market of the butchers) which must have been the busiest place in the community. There’s what looks like a child’s drawing of it in the book, by Gabriel Laniado. You can see children playing, people selling bread and fish, and a barber’s shop. The clothing including turbans or keffiyehs doesn’t indicate religion or ethnicity and I’d guess the people shown would all have been Jews.
Nicholas Russell writing in the Times Higher Education refers to a paper by Friederike Hendriks , Dorothe Kienhues, Rainer Bromme on measuring laypeople’s trust in experts. Expertise is not enough. ‘We must also believe the specific expert in question to be honest and to have our welfare at heart.’ Unfortunately Nicholas Russell only mentioned Hendriks, and left out the other two authors Dorothe Kienhues and Rainwer Bromme, so here’s a photo of Dr Dorothe Kienhues to compensate.
The Hendriks, Kienhues and Bromme paper looks at trust in scientific experts. The big concerns at the moment are about trust in experts in politics, social science, economics, health and education, not to mention climate change. The obvious villains when it comes to undermining trust in human knowledge and understanding are Trump, Gove and the other Brexit crooks but there are plenty of others. In a small way this blog intends to fight back by recommending reliable experts and saying why they are reliable, why we should pay them attention and what I think we can learn from them.
I’m going to look out for Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise, due out in April. There’s a trailer here. Meanwhile, I’m going to look at what the experts have to say about American politics and the use of Twitter.
The LSE is having its annual literary festival this week on ‘Revolutions’, basically shaped around various authors with new books out although there is much more to it. I went to ‘Was Brexit a Populist Revolution?’ (two people on the panel of four said yes but gave different interpretations). The attempt at gender balance failed even though the chair said he was trying to take questions from men and women in turn, because the panel consisted of two male professors, Simon Hix and James Tilley, who knew stuff and made definitive informative statements, and two women, Mary Dejevsky and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who told anecdotes and gave their opinions. The anecdotes cancelled out and the opinions were often contradicted by the evidence the other panellists cited. The professors tended not to state any opinions but said when they didn’t know, didn’t have evidence or it was outside their area of expertise. Next time, LSE, try to do better and find some actual female experts if gender balance is an issue (as it often should be). They do exist.
Key takeaway points: most voters haven’t changed their minds since June 2016 and if anything there is very slightly more of a Leave majority. There has been an anti-EU majority amongst working-class voters for decades but elections haven’t reflected that as they are about so many other issues. The north-south voting divide reflected class and income divisions as much as anything.
Anne Applebaum is right at the top of my list of the experts I would recommend. She writes regularly for the Washington Post but is primarily a historian. Read or follow her for analysis of Putin’s Russia, Eastern Europe, and Putin’s strategy towards European and American institutions and policies. This week she’s in London speaking at the LSE Literary Festival. Her sessions are fully booked and I didn’t manage to get tickets (returns may still be available). Yesterday’s session on Ukraine and the Maidan revolution was, predictably perhaps, interrupted by a pro-Russian propagandist who is apparently well known for his disreputable past behaviour.
I’ve read Gulag (2003), a history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps, and Iron Curtain (2012), on how Stalin’s Russia took control of Eastern Europe. They were hard going because of the grimness of the content but she is a brilliant writer and both these histories are based on a lot of interviews and oral history as well as written testimonies and a vast amount of archival research and official documents, in several languages. Many of these sources were inaccessible before 1989 and it must be doubtful how easy it will be in future for historians to gain access to official archives in Moscow. These books are extremely upsetting to read but filled in vast gaps in the history of the twentieth century that were never covered in my schooling. Stalin’s crimes have been systematically ignored, minimized or even defended by many (I had an example of that a couple of weeks ago when a questioner at a talk on the history of the British Left began ‘Far be it from me to defend Stalin, but…’ going on of course to mount a defence). No one who has seriously read Ann Applebaum’s or Timothy Snyder’s work could speak like that, so her opponents go for personal attacks. What makes her a trustworthy expert is her knowledge. She’s done the work. Her analyses are evidence-based and she sees through the lies of propagandists whose claims are based on ideological positions at best, and corruption at worst. It’s worth checking out her own columns and other sources she recommends such as this one, on how Europeans are trying to counter the Russian fake news onslaught.
(Added March 3: podcast of Anne Applebaum and panel discussion at LSE available here)
From the bus stop opposite over the last few years, by the taxi queue outside St Pancras, you could see the amazing new Francis Crick Institute being completed behind the British Library. It went up rapidly for such a huge building. The website says it can officially be known as the Crick as well as by its full name, so in years to come it will probably join those other buildings named after people, where the building replaces the person as the primary referent. I don’t like the cleverly balanced double-helixy lump of rusty metal in the forecourt but I do like the strips of jewel colours in the windows at the front. George Osborne posed on site in a hard hat when he was Chancellor and claimed credit but the project was of course launched much earlier under the Blair and Brown Labour governments.
Yesterday I went to visit. The first public exhibition (free) on biomedical imaging gives glimpses of how research teams are visualising and analysing what goes on in cells, healthy or not. Recommended.
There’s a new road alongside the Crick, named Dangoor Walk.
I guessed that it must have been named after the late Sir Naim Dangoor, and sure enough he appears on the list of donors on a wall inside, amongst those whose generosity is acknowledged by Cancer Research UK. Strictly speaking, the acknowledgement is of Sir Naim Dangoor CBE and the Exilarch’s Foundation. The Exilarch’s Foundation is a real charity, but Exilarch is now an insubstantial almost mythical position. The title is a link to the past of an old community and refers to the secular leader of the Babylonian Jewish community in exile. It hasn’t referred to anything real for about a thousand years.
If you want to see how Wikipedia editors struggle with getting right things that might be controversial or not fit in with legal or neutral enough definitions, take a look behind the scenes at previous edits (using history and talk tabs). The first version, written before his death, began by describing Dangoor as a refugee. The latest version of the page on Dangoor doesn’t use ‘fled’, ‘forced to flee’ or ‘refugee’ which were in early versions, but tells us he took the ‘difficult decision’ to leave Iraq, which meant he also lost all he had. It is a small example of a much larger issue: minority communities from Iraq and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, who left under extreme duress and in some cases had to escape when they weren’t allowed to leave, lost everything and had to find other countries to take them in. They weren’t and aren’t officially designated as refugees.
Living metaphors for me aren’t actually metaphors at all. They’re events, sights or occurrences which suddenly (in a flash) reveal the origin of an elaborate metaphor that has got so tired through overuse the original meaning is usually buried too deep to surface. (I got 5 dull metaphors in that last sentence.) I was walking down my street for instance when I spotted a man with a chainsaw up a plane tree pruning a branch and IN A FLASH I realised he was out on a limb.
It’s rare to spot a new living metaphor, in my experience (or at least one that’s interesting enough to collect). I disqualified all the examples people have given me on the grounds that they weren’t found in the wild, but were remembered turns of phrase without any sudden link to an event or experience. So if you catch one, please tell me about it.
Here’s one from an organ recital I went to, not knowing much about how organs work. It turns out they can involve several keyboards, stops and pedals. The organist has to switch from one set of pipes to another as the large organs in concert halls like the Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls are actually made up of several separate smaller individual organs. Depending on the piece of music being played the organist might be using only one of them, or more. You can see when the doors covering the pipes are opened so you can tell which pipes are being used. The concert ended with the loudest crescendo I’ve ever heard, a massive wall of sound. IN A FLASH I realised the organist had pulled out all the stops.