Amidst the current press furore over ‘CummingsGate’ (you can almost hear the orgiastic paroxysms of sheer ecstasy emanating from Guardian HQ 250 miles away at Barnard Castle as the journalists there finally think they have got their man) I think everyone really is missing the point. The real reason Johnson is not sacking Cummings (or at least hasn’t at the time of writing) is because Cummings is his ‘dataist-in-chief’ (let’s call him Johnson’s DiC for short) and having applied his dark arts twice now (the Brexit referendum and the 2019 General Election) Cummings has proven his battle worthiness. It would be like Churchill (Johnson’s hero and role model) blowing up all his Spitfires on the eve of the Battle of Britain. The next battle Johnson is going to need his DiC for being the final push to get us out of the EU on 31st December 2020.
Dominic Cummings is a technocrat. He believes that science, or more precisely data science, can be deployed to understand and help solve almost any problem in government or elsewhere. Earlier this year he upset the governments HR department by posting a job advert, on his personal blog for data scientists, economists and physicists (oh, and weirdos). In this post he says “some people in government are prepared to take risks to change things a lot” and the UK now has “a new government with a significant majority and little need to worry about short-term unpopularity”. He saw these as being “a confluence” implying now was the time to get sh*t done.
So what is dataism, why is Cummings practicing it and what is its likely impact for us going to be moving forward?
The first reference to dataism was by David Brooks, the conservative political commentator, in his 2013 New York Times article The Philosophy of Data. In this article Brooks says:
“We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions — that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things — like foretell the future”.David Brooks, The Philosophy of Data
Dataism was then picked up by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his 2016 book Homo Deus. Harari went as far to call dataism a new form of religion which joins together biochemistry and computer science whose algorithms obey the same mathematical laws.
The central tenet of dataism is the idea that the universe gives more value to systems, individuals, and societies that generate the most data to be consumed and processed by algorithms. Harari states that “according to dataism Beethovens Fifth Symphony, a stock-exchange bubble and the flu virus are just three patterns of data flown that can be analysed using the same basic concepts and tools“. That last example is obviously the most relevant to our current situation with SAR-COV-2 or coronavirus still raging around the world and which Cummings, as far as we know, is focused on.
As computer scientist Steven Parton says here:
“Dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these [big data and machine learning] algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before“.Steven Parton
This, I believe, is Cummings belief also. He has no time for civil servants who are humanities graduates that “chat about Lacan at dinner parties” when they ought to be learning about numbers, probabilities and predictions based on hard data.
Whilst I have some sympathy with the idea of bringing science and data more to the fore in government you have to ask, if Cummings is forging ahead in creating a dataist civil service somewhere in the bowels of Downing Street, why are our COVID-19 deaths the worst, per capita, in the world? This graph shows the data for deaths per 100,000 of population (2018 population data) for the major economies of the world (using this data source.). You’ll see that as of 1st June 2020 the UK is faring the worst of all countries, having just overtaken Spain.
Unfortunately Cummings has now blotted his copybook twice in the eyes of the public and most MPs. Not only did he ignore the governments advice (which he presumably was instrumental in creating) and broke the rules on lockdown he was also found guilty of editing one of his own blog posts sometime between 8 April 2020 and 15 April 2020 to include a paragraph on SARS (which, along with Covid-19, is also caused by a coronavirus) to make out he had been warning about the disease since March of 2019.
Not only is Cummings ignoring the facts derived from the data he is so fond of using he is also doctoring data (i.e. his blog post) to change those facts. In many ways this is just another form of the data manipulation that was being carried out by Cambridge Analytica, the firm that Cummings allegedly used during the Brexit referendum, to bombard peoples Facebook feeds with ‘misleading’ information about the EU.
Cummings is like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Gollum became corrupted by the power of the “one ring that ruled them all” and turned into a bitter and twisted creature that would do anything to get back “his precious” (the ring). It seems that data corrupts just as much as power. Hardly surprising really because in the dataist’s view of the world data is power.
All in all not a good look for the man that is meant to be changing the face of government and bringing a more data-centric (AKA dataist) approach to lead the country forward post-Brexit. If you cannot trust the man who is leading this initiative how can you trust the data and, more seriously, how can you trust the person who Cummings works for?
Update: 8th June 2020
Since writing this post I’ve read that Belgium is actually the country with the highest per-capita death rate from Covid-19. Here then is an update of my graph which now includes the G7 countries plus China, Spain and Belgium showing that Belgium does indeed have 20 more deaths per capita than the next highest, the UK.
It appears however that Belgium is somewhat unique in how it reports its deaths, being one of the few countries counting deaths in hospitals and care homes and also including deaths in care homes that are suspected, not confirmed, as Covid-19 cases. I suspect that for many countries, the UK included, deaths in care homes is going to end up being one of the great scandals of this crisis. In the UK ministers ordered 15,000 hospital beds to be vacated by 27 March and for patients to be moved into care homes without either adequate testing or adequate amounts of PPE being available.