London Calling with Career Opportunities

At some point within the past couple years I noticed that one blog that had Not Even Wrong on its blogroll was the blog of Dominic Cummings, who was often getting credited with masterminding the political campaign that got the British to vote (narrowly) for Brexit in 2016. Cummings has had further success recently as Chief Special Adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with a blow-out election victory three weeks ago putting him securely in control of the British state.

Today on his blog Cummings has, invoking Grothendieck, posted a job advertisement: ‘Two hands are a lot’ — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…. He’s looking for mathematicians, physicists and others to join him to change British society, working

in the intersection of:

  • the selection, education and training of people for high performance
  • the frontiers of the science of prediction
  • data science, AI and cognitive technologies (e.g Seeing Rooms, ‘authoring tools designed for arguing from evidence’, Tetlock/IARPA prediction tournaments that could easily be extended to consider ‘clusters’ of issues around themes like Brexit to improve policy and project management)
  • communication (e.g Cialdini)
  • decision-making institutions at the apex of government.

For some other descriptions of who Cummings would like to hire, on the economics side there’s:

The ideal candidate might, for example, have a degree in maths and economics, worked at the LHC in one summer, worked with a quant fund another summer, and written software for a YC startup in a third summer!

We’ve found one of these but want at least one more.

He also wants “Super-talented weirdos”, with examples given from William Gibson novels, such as “that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB.”

The remarkable things to me about this long document are what it doesn’t contain. In particular I see nothing at all about any specific policy goals. Usually a new government would recruit people by appealing to their desire to make the world a better place in some specific way, but there’s nothing about that here. The goal is to control the government and what the British population believes, but to what end?

In addition, a more conventional hiring process would be asking for candidates of high ethical values, with some devotion to telling the truth. Cummings seems to be asking for exactly the opposite: best if your background is “from a crime family hired by the KGB.”

Best of wishes to my British readers, now joining the US and other nations in a new dystopic post-truth era. It’s massively depressing to me to see how this has worked out here, I hope you do better. Maybe you should be sending in your applications to Cummings and hoping to sign up for a role in the new power structure. If so, tell him “Not Even Wrong” sent you…

Update: For more on Cummings, there’s a good Financial Times article.

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29 Responses to London Calling with Career Opportunities

  1. Seems like he wants to form a team like the one tasked with the detonation of the bridge over the river Kwai. Strange enough that the wikipedia page [1] does not say a word about this team, although the main part of the book is about the culture war between those who want to destroy the bridge and those who want to build it as an example for the primitives.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_over_the_River_Kwai

  2. Peter Woit says:

    chorasimilarity,
    Demolition is definitely on the agenda for Cummings. The main target to be demolished is likely those aspects of the “establishment” that stand in the way of total control. Here in the US we’ve seen how this works, as the Republican party and mass media (Fox) have been forced into submission to the Trump personality cult. In the case of Trump what has become clear is that he has no interests beyond narcissistic ones. Cummings/Johnson seem to want to destroy the establishment and take total power, with no more of an idea than Trump of what to do with this power, other than to gloat at the defeat of their enemies.

    Comments encouraged from those in Britain who know much more about this than I do, discouraged from those who want to discuss something other than exactly what Cummings is up to.

  3. Bill Anderson says:

    You make some very good points!

    Cummings carries a lot of power and authority without any direct connection to the electorate. There is an irony as this is one of the EU’s major flaws from the Brexiteers’ perspective. But, of course, this logical consistency doesn’t apply to Dom.

    Unelected, unaccountable and with no apparent remit or brief he is perceived by many to be dangerous. Given Boris J’s history of inattention to detail and erratic judgements there is potential for calamity.

    However, our Civil Service can be less than cooperative and Cummings has not shown long term commitment in his career moves thus far. The next 2-3 years will be difficult because of the complexity and enormity of the Brexit process so I’m hoping he’ll bail!

  4. Peter Woit says:

    By the way, I see that Cummings even commented on the blog once, see here
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=755&cpage=1#comment-42623
    Unfortunately I had no answer to his question, so didn’t respond.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    gjz,
    Thanks! I hope he’s still reading the blog and can take advantage of that!

  6. René Pannekoek says:

    Just because he does not ask for people who “want to make the world a better place” does not mean he’s planning any dystopian nightmares. His advertisement seems to me to be targeted towards people who want to help make the British state function more efficiently and rationally.

    It is very easy to declare that you are the kind of person who wants to make the world a better place, and it can be done at zero cost. But among the people who say such corny things are a lot of hypocrites, naive folks, and folks who really do not know themselves all that well. (An example of that last category would be many participants in online mobs who think they are “making the world a better place” by hating on some poor sod who made an inappropriate joke, or who failed to use someone’s preferred pronoun.)

    Saying you want to make the world a better place does not make it so. Just like not saying it does not mean you are a bad person. Personally, I’ve really had my fill of all the virtue-signalling out there, and I’ll be looking for how a person acts, rather than how a person advertises him- or herself.

  7. tulpoeid says:

    Gibson mentioned in context in a proper physics blog.
    I already feel more complete this year.

  8. ArshadM says:

    The problem with the British civil service is that it’s perceived as being slow, lethargic and ineffective. I can’t recall a single project in the last 2 decades that wasn’t grossly over budget or delivered on the original aims.

    Don’t get me wrong, the entry process into the service is extremely thorough and the people are highly talented. But the career progression in the service means that it’s quite easy for people to move around from job to job and not be held to account.

    There has been some discussion of an op-ed that Rachel Wolf wrote in the Telegraph (behind a paywall unfortunately), but a summary can be found here – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/dominic-cummings-civil-service-boris-johnson-reform-whitehall-a9267101.html.

    Every government seems to try these grandiose types of changes, usually with limited success.

  9. Winston Smith says:

    René,

    I read Peter’s “desire to make the world a better place” as a synonym for “policy preferences”. Most people have policy preferences that align with what they believe will make the world a better place, though there certainly seem to be some striking counterexamples.

    You write “and I’ll be looking for how a person acts”; I agree, but Peter’s point is that the ad gives no indication about what kinds of “acts” will be undertaken. One example (of many possible) might be: do we plan to cut or increase funding to NHS? It is reasonable for an applicant to such a position to have a general idea of the ends to which he or she will be working. As Peter writes, it seems this question is rather explicitly beside the point; the point is simply to have the power, with unclear ends.

    You mention “efficiency” which most people favor in the abstract, but only to the extent that it is a euphemism for “more money for people like me and less for everyone else”.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Rene Pannekoek,
    I’m no more of a fan of virtue signaling than you are. You’re ignoring my main point, which is that Cummings is asking for people to come to work for him and use their talents to gain control of the British state apparatus and manipulate the public, without any indication of what positive outcome he hopes to achieve.

    In other times I might react to seeing this by giving him the benefit of the doubt and wishing him well, but we’ve now been watching this same TV show for several years in the US. We know how it turns out: looting by the already wealthy and powerful, and a new normal of non-stop lying and deception, smashing of democratic institutions and norms, ripping of societies apart, all in the service of keeping in power a narcissistic sociopath. I do hope it goes differently in Britain, but anyone who decides to go work for Cummings should expect that this is likely what they are signing up for.

  11. Allan Greenleaf says:

    Christopher Wylie’s recently released book, Mindf*ck, on the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica (in which Mr. Cummings makes several cameos)
    is a good cautionary tale on doing value-free data science.

  12. Mark says:

    “Just because he does not ask for people who “want to make the world a better place” does not mean he’s planning any dystopian nightmares.”

    Wasn’t he very involved in the data-science scandal with Cambridge Analytica, which was a significant factor in getting people to vote for Brexit which has led to the nightmare the UK is now in? Not sure giving him more smart people is in the countries interests.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    René/Mark,
    The problem with Cummings is not that he has a secret plan for a new dystopia, it’s that we’re now living in one that he has helped create. This is someone who actually wants to live in a William Gibson novel. He has realized his dreams, shows no signs of having any other dreams than enjoying holding the power he always wanted and making sure he keeps it by running a Ministry of Truth staffed by “misfit” data scientists.

  14. Neil says:

    Hi Peter
    .
    All very interesting.
    .
    After reading the DC blog and then your own, my first instinct was to be objective in relation to your point about what was left out, and then ‘clarified’ by you in the comments section:
    .
    “You’re ignoring my main point, which is that Cummings is asking for people to come to work for him and use their talents to gain control of the British state apparatus and manipulate the public, without any indication of what positive outcome he hopes to achieve.”
    .
    I then thought about which manifesto pledges the Conservative Party was just elected on. Aside from ‘Get Brexit Done’, here are the top line policy “guarantees”:
    .
    https://vote.conservatives.com/our-plan
    .
    For more detail, the full 64 Manifesto is here:
    .
    https://assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf
    .
    So, if those are the policy directions (positve or negative, depending on who you are), perhaps DC believes these goals cannot be met using the approaches of times gone by.
    .
    I hope this is useful.
    .
    Best from Belfast,
    Neil

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Neil,
    There is nothing in what Cummings writes pointing to any of that, for instance nothing about how the skills he’s looking for will be used to hire 50,000 more nurses.

    Again, maybe Cummings is just a misunderstood guy intensely devoted to improving the world by hiring more doctors and nurses and investing in education and infrastructure. We’ll see, but at this point I see no reason to believe that, and anyone thinking of taking a job with him should be asking him some tough questions. I do hope I’m wrong.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    CWJ,
    I don’t think the problem with what Cummings is doing is that he’s not following conventional hiring rules. Criticism of him for that just helps him, allowing him to pose as a rebel against the hidebound establishment and its rules obstructing progress. The press should instead be trying to find out what he plans to do with the people he’s hiring and reporting on that.

  17. Art says:

    Per Wikipedia, Robert Cialdini, “the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University”, “is best known for his 1984 book on persuasion and marketing, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

  18. Mike Greig says:

    Peter

    The UK government machinery is very different to the USA’s. There is a supposedly independent and impartial civil service which carries out the wishes of whichever Government is in power. In practice it is run by humanities graduates from Oxford or Cambridge universities who are very clever generalists. They have a track record of frustrating the implementation of policies that the electorate voted for.
    Below is another quote from Cummings’s blog addressing this aspect:
    “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.“
    Cummings has a lot of experience of the way the civil service operates. He was special adviser to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for education from 2010 to 2014. Amongst other policies Gove introduced was Free Schools (somewhat similar to US Charter schools) where I have some personal experience. Dominic Cummings quite famously attributed the quote below to a civil servant in the Department for Education talking to Michael Gove’s team in 2014.
    ‘You’re a mutant virus, I’m the immune system and its my job to expel you from the organism.’
    Whether or not the current civil service intends to operate in quite that way, they are certainly huge defenders of the status quo and opponents of change.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Mike Greig,
    According to Wikipedia, Cummings is a public school/Oxford graduate with a history degree, and “clever generalist” seems to fit him, so he’s not adding much diversity on that front.

    One thing we’ve learned here in the US from Trumpism is that the royal road to political success is to stoke resentments, convincing your supporters that the world is full of “enemies” that need to be destroyed. Here these days it’s the “Deep State”. If your enemies have elite university degrees, so much the better for the resentment thing (to get people to ignore the fact that your own background is the same is where you need a real pro like Cummings).

    Every politician everywhere in the world complains about “government bureaucrats”, that they’re the ones to blame for their inability to fulfill their campaign promises. It looks to me like Cummings is going to war with the British Civil Service not because that’s the way to get 50,000 nurses hired, but because when they’re not hired, he’ll have a good scapegoat to blame it on. Again, I very much hope to be wrong.

  20. uhoh says:

    If you want to get an idea of Cummings’s priorities, you might try this talk from 2014:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNaWPV5l4j4

    After watching that and reading his blog a bit, it seems to me that his primary goal is to eliminate the (perceived) dysfunction in the British government and that a necessary first step is to replace all the mandarins with people from math/physics and the private world who know what it means to solve a problem, as he sees it. (Full disclosure, the idea of a technocratic government run by mathematicians has some appeal to my vanity.) Normal policy matters like Brexit and taxes going this way or that seem to be secondary concerns to him.

    If this is the case, then it makes perfect sense why he wrote the ad on his web page that way.

  21. Roger Prentice says:

    Why would Cummings use this (already long) blog post to list the government’s policy objectives when they had already been stated in the Queen’s Speech? Here they are:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/queens-speech-december-2019
    It’s not very dystopian.

    Peter claims that Cummings is “not adding much diversity” because he himself is an Oxbridge graduate with a history degree, but that’s the whole point. He’s wanting to hire people “smarted than me”. He has identified his own limitations and seeks to overcome them by hiring different sorts of people.

    I’m actually encouraged by the prospect of bringing some data science into the business of government and policy creation. As an analogy, I think there are currently too many humanities degrees sitting around thinking “it must be the multiverse”.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    uhoh/Roger Prentice,

    So far what Cummings and others like him have accomplished using AI and data science techniques has been to use them to lie and manipulate the public, wrecking democracy, bringing Trump and others like him to power, and inflicting the Brexit disaster on the British. I’m getting old and curmudgeonly so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, but I’ve seen a lot that’s very disturbing and little good coming out of the the use of AI and data science, especially in the political sphere.

    A lot of people on the other hand seem convinced that Cummings is just a modest, well-meaning guy, devoted to good government, which will consist of math and physics phds using data science and AI to hire those 50,000 nurses. I hope they’re right.

  23. Patrick says:

    Those were some great Clash songs.

  24. Roger Prentice says:

    Oh, just one more thing, as Columbo might say. Here’s a view on (the lack of) data science in government by statistician Graeme Archer:
    https://unherd.com/2020/01/why-we-need-weirdos-like-dominic-cummings/

    It’s worth clicking through just to see the photo of Dominic Cummings looking like, as I read elsewhere “the owner-operator of a dangerous fairground ride arriving at his own negligence trial”.

  25. Andrew says:

    Peter,

    I fear you’re getting the wrong end of the stick here and are too quick to make simplistic comparisons between UK and US politics. Cummings goals are clear and are in my view well intentioned – he wants a more data-driven/scientifically based civil service and to make the UK the global home for education and science. He wrote a 237 page essay on how to improve education here: https://dominiccummings.com/the-odyssean-project-2/ . Its worth reading this from Steve Hsu (a personal friend of Cummings it seems): https://infoproc.blogspot.com/2019/12/now-it-can-be-told-dominic-cummings-and.html

    “What does he want? Why is he doing this? Not for money, not for fame. For love of country and human progress and civilization. Dom’s dream is to make the UK a global center for science, technology, and education”

    P.S with regards brexit, as quick as many are too dismiss it (and for what its worth I voted remain) it may be worth your time hearing David Deutsch explaining his support for it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdtssXITXuE – it is again simple to just view it as “Trumpian”, “populist” etc.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Andrew,
    I’m very familiar with Steve Hsu and his (highly Trumpian) views, which I find appalling. That he’s close to Cummings seems to me yet another reason to believe that having Cummings anywhere near the levers of power is not going to lead to anything good.

    I think I’ve now given sufficient voice here to the “Dominic Cummings is just a well-meaning, selfless sort who wants to use science to make the world a better place” argument, as well as explaining why I don’t believe it, so I’m shutting off comments here. Again, I’ll be very happy if I’m wrong.

  27. Pingback: Dominic Cummings' job ad — "like the efforts of a rookie post-grad" | TheArticle

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