Political Diversity and Human Development: a one plot check.

This is a very simple post about the association of political diversity with good or bad outcomes.

Elections took place recently in Portugal and Spain. In these elections the public voted for a more diverse parliament than usual. A frequent scare tactic that political parties at the center use is to claim that disperse voting will lead to lots of small parties in parliament and as a result the country will be ungovernable. I decided to have a very simple and quick look to see if the claim holds up.

For measures of political diversity I looked up the most recent electoral results (vote percentage) of the majority of EU countries (by looking at wikipedia reports of the elections). Then I calculated the diversity as the “Inverse Simpson Index” – the more diverse the political voter turnout is the higher the index will be.  For measures of good political outcomes I looked at the Human Development Index (HDI) data from the United Nations. The test is simple: if higher diversity is bad for governance, then the diversity measure and the HDI will have a negative correlation. Do they?

So here is the first order result:


Electoral Diversity (horizontal axis) and Human Development (vertical axis). Correlation is 0.36 with p-value 0.06.



The plot shows only a weak association – but the opposite of the one predicted by the claim. In this data, the more electoral diversity, the higher the human development index score. It’s obvious this proves nothing rigorously, but if anything more electoral diversity is associated with more human development in a set of reasonable comparable countries (i.e. the EU). This may be because political concentration leads to corruption, it may be because a culture for diversity is also associated with a  culture that leads to development, or the data may be confounded for many other variables that matter. However at the very least then, the claim that “votes should be concentrated to avoid problematic governance and bad outcomes” can be discarded if no better evidence is produced.





Do not be fooled: smuggling refugees is not “Human Trafficking”

In the recent months of arrivals of tens thousands of desperate refugees fleeing war and conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other countries, many politicians have found a clever way of diverting people’s moral attention. Blaming the victims works only with a part of the population, so an alternative strategy was adopted: to blame supposed traffickers and smugglers.

David Cameron for example has said that:

we have got to crack down on the terrible traffickers and people smugglers who are at the heart of this problem

The prime minister of Italy goes so far as to say that:

We are fighting a war against human traffickers […] There is no parallel in history for this except for slavery

In this version of things, the problem is not so much the victims or the lack of willingness to take in refugees, and not even the war they flee from: it’s the people who organize their escape. The truth is that sending people across the Mediterranean is not human trafficking, and those using the words know it. The United Nations defines Human Trafficking as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Unless European elites are in coordination with the smugglers to bring to Europe, people who would have prefered to stay in the Middle East and North Africa, to prostitute them or remove their organs, the matter is quite a different one. It is true that smugglers have in many cases taken advantage of people, and take in extortionary fees for transporting people from war zones into Europe. It is also true that refugees are in enormous risks of being taken advantage in the most inhumane ways (including real human traffic). But the cynic use of the loaded term “Traffickers” is meant to solve the moral ambiguity: the state can try to keep refugees away while at the same time doing the noble work of combating (supposed) traffic.  In fact the EU has launched military operations in Libya calling them a «systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers».

This rhetoric is also a threat to the fight against real human trafficking based on coercion and forceful exploitation of human beings – often for forced prostitution and slavery -, which is a very serious crime and problem, and does not deserve to be compared to refugees putting themselves at the mercy of reckless smugglers. There are millions of people who are victims of human traffic, and European leaders would do well to combat this horrible crime and, given the numbers of vulnerable people, to be vigilant. Purposefully confounding the smuggling of refugees fleeing from a wars that have killed more than a quarter of a million people, with the coercive exploitation of humans, is a cheap trick we should not fall for.

Wuthering Heights – five quotes.

Wuthering Heights was a surprisingly interesting read. I mistakenly expected something in the lines of Jane Austen’s adventures, but  no. Emily Bronte’s novel is a story about revenge, very strong emotions, and how a single solitary objective in a cruel man’s mind can be achieved, and still mean nothing.

A little context before some of my favourite quotes: Heathcliff was an adopted child who saw his love (Catherine) marry someone else (Edgar) and ever since dreams of revenge. He eventually becomes the guardian of his stepbrother’s son, as well as his own son – who he does not love –  born of a wife he never loved. All of Heathcliff’s actions and thoughts are either about Catherine, or about making others pay for his suffering.

The quotes:

Heathcliff speaks about Edgar’s week affection for Catherine (Heathcliff’s love)

if he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day. And Catherine has a heart as deep as I have; the sea could be as readily contained in that house-trough as her whole affection be monopolized by him

In an argument, Heathcliff’s wife (they both despise each other) wants to hurt him by reminding him that his former love, Catherine, is dead:

Heathcliff, if I were you, I’d go stretch myself over her grave and die like a faithful dog.

Heathcliff aggravated and dreaming of revenge:

‘I have no pity!  I have no pity!  The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails!  It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.’

Heathcliff, now the guardian of two boys – his own and Hindley’s son -, boasting that he has made them merely his tools:

Don’t you think Hindley would be proud of his son, if he could see him? Almost as proud as I am of mine. But there’s this difference, one is gold put to the use of paving stones; and the other is tin polished to ape a service of silver. Mine has nothing valuable about it; yet I shall have the merit of making it go as far as such poor stuff can go. His had first-rate qualities, and they are lost — rendered worse than unavailing.

After all of Heathcliff’s plans for revenge have worked, he owns the houses of his rivals, has control of their children, and has seen them all die. He has made all others succumb to his will, and says the following:

It is a poor conclusion, is it not? […] an absurd termination to my violent exertions?  I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!  My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me.  But where is the use?  I don’t care for striking: I can’t take the trouble to raise my hand!  […]  I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.  […] there is a strange change approaching; I’m in its shadow at present.

The public subsidy of scientific publishing monopolies

There is an increasing recognition that the world of academic science production is going off track.  Richard Horton, the editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, wrote earlier this year:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.

The issue is not a new one, and one often cited reference claims that statistical and methodological biases result in a daunting fact: “most published research findings are false”. For those that are true, it is still an open question to know how many are useful. 

The consequences of science going wrong, are serious. For example, in biomedical science, George Poste noted the discrepancy between

more than 1500000 papers documenting thousands of claimed biomarkers, but fewer than 100 have been validated for routine clinical practice.

Very often the response to these concerns are efforts to make science more reproducible, and reduce biases. These are worthy, useful, and correct efforts. They are also largely downstream of root causes and deeper factors. The larger problem is an institutional and structural one related to how we organize, produce and reward science. The issue is multifaceted, and here I want to point out a single one of these structural factors: the business of academic publishing.

Most scientific research in academic institutions is funded by public money, yet universities subscribe to academic publishers to be able to download or read the reports of research. The public is thus compelled not only to subsidise research, but also the business around it. I submitted Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests to some of the major UK universities to find how much they spend paying to academic publishers in 2014. Oxford, Imperial College London, and Cambridge’s four top expenses are presented below


Elsevier for example, gets about a million pound per year per University. And that’s three UK universities alone. Other FOI requests, revealed that KCL and UCL spend each, per year, more than 3.3 million pounds in academic publishers. Multiply that by all major European universities and you get a sense of how much money the European public is paying to publishers for them to supply universities with what the public already paid to produce.

The business is a profitable one – for a wealthy few. Researchers at the University of Montreal called it “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers“. As part of their larger work, they collected data on the profit trends of Elsevier and the author’s figure is reproduced here.


Operating profits, and profits margins for: (A) Reed-Elsevier as a whole; (B) its Scientific, Technical & Medical division.

The authors note that these profit margins put academic publishers

on a comparable level with Pfizer (42%), the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (29%) and far above Hyundai Motors (10%), which comprise the most profitable drug, bank and auto companies [..].

Part of the reason for these margins is that the producers (scientists) of the product (scientific knowledge) deliver their product to the publishers for free, only for it to be sold back to the wider community who cannot fight the oligopoly prices. In fact in our system of knowledge production and dissemination, the producers compete to have their publicly funded product accepted by the publishers, and we’ve made their careers depend on it.

There are many other structural factors that affect the way modern science production works. The public subsidy of private business based on mass production of “studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, […] pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance” is only one of such dynamics. Improving the way modern science is made needs to go beyond calls for reproducibility and transparency. It needs us to reorganize the way science is produced, evaluated, distributed, and funded. There is much to be changed.

The owner of this blog and writer of these words works at the frontier of academic science and translational medicine, for the British NHS and is has an honorary affiliation with Kings College London.

The (continuing) humiliation of europeans – by their leaders. (part 2)

Regardless of what one thinks of the path of fiscal measures in the greek state, what is happening in the higher levels of european bureaucracy and state politics is a new low.

After EU ministers issued statements of Eurozne institutions without the consent of one its member states, and had meetings deliberately excluding one of its ministers, now EU government ministers as well as unelected officials are campaigning against a member state government position, by misrepresenting it, and are threatening the greek people with expulsion from eurozone institutions.

After the last round of negotiations, the Greek government, a coalition with a major party who got 36% of the vote,  decided to ask the Greek people to have the final word on the issue. The Greek people will be asked to either accept or reject the EU/ECB/IMF proposals and conditions for new loans. Outcries against the idea of asking the people, were swift.

The most insulting of the reactions (so far) came from the unelected president of the European Commission who urged the Greeks to vote yes because “[voting] No would mean that Greece is saying no to Europe”. Mr Juncker, the former prime minister of the  tax haven of Luxembourg, should be ashamed of himself and stop insulting other Europeans by suggesting that disagreeing with his prefered fiscal policy is somehow anti-european. Others might object and say that for unelected officials to issue threats to member states of the Union, is out of place.

Mr Juncker is not alone in what Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz called “Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy”. German, French, and Italian top officials publicly said that rejecting a negotiating proposal for a loan is equivalent to rejecting the Euro. There are no mechanisms for a country to leave the Euro – the threat therefore is quite an aggressive one. As the greek minister pointed out:

European Treaties make provisions for an exit from the EU. They do not make any provisions for an exit from the Eurozone. […]. To ask us to phrase the referendum question as a choice involving exit from the Eurozone is to ask us to violate EU Treaties and EU Law

The move of the european elites to threaten and bully the Greeks, is one of the most depressing moments in post-war  European Democracy. As the former advisor to the European Commission, and current senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics,  Philippe Legrain, points out:

the hijack of eurozone institutions by narrow-minded creditors is proving far more tyrannical than earlier currency crises ever were. The beautiful European ideal of peace, prosperity, and democracy has given way to brutal power politics.

The humiliation of europeans – by their leaders.

As a European, and a supporter of the European project of democratic collaboration and solidarity among peoples, I find it more than a little humiliating that European heads of government have made such a mess of the financial and economic crisis, that it is now the Americans who are entering the game and exerting pressure against the obvious danger of collapse.

The American secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew,  has now pointed out what is obvious to everyone: that Greece will never be able to pay its debt, and needs some form of relief.

The American President has gotten involved, calling the German chancellor, to try and avoid further collapse, and note that Greece needs reforms and growth. This is not the first time Mr Obama points out the obvious. He had previously said:

you cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression. At some point there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts and eliminate their deficits. […] when you have an economy  that is in a free fall there has to be a growth strategy and not simply an effort to squeeze more and more out of  population that is hurting worse and worse.

Larry Summers (former US Secretary of the Treasury) points out in the Financial Times:

Financial historians may look back at the events of next week and wonder how Europe’s financial unravelling was permitted.

They will wonder indeed. In their account, I have no doubt, will feature the observation that European heads of government lacked the strategic depth and vision that the Americans, as a global superpower, still have. It’s no coincidence that the Americans are the ones pointing out that Greece is a member of the European Union, a member of NATO, and it’s severing from Europe is major security risk.

What credibility does the European Union have with such a spectacle unfolding? Not even European Institutions are cohesive.  The recent behavior of the Eurogroup may be a sign of things to come: this group of Finance Ministers of the Eurozone, has decided to issue a statement without unanimity, and to have a meeting excluding one of its members (the greek finance minister). Any nation with a sense of honor and credibility would not take this humiliation lightly.

European citizens are already paying the long term costs of the egregious mismanagement the heads of government have inflicted on the EU. We have to hope that Larry Summers’ warning over financial unravelling does not turn into a political unraveling. The consequences then would be unpredictable.