Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.


The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.


In order to apply you need a MyECPR account ( This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me ( or Keith Dowding ( if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.


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A new kind of self-interest

Social scientists typically see self-interest in terms of individuals satisfying their interests/desires. I’m going to discuss another kind of self-interest: individuals who in conversation are only interested in themselves!

arrogant-guyI’ve met many people like this. (I’d be lying if I pretended I too wasn’t sometimes guilty of this!)

Some such people will answer your questions but won’t follow up with questions of their own. I once waited in silence for a whole minute before giving up and talking to someone else at the table. This was someone with so little grasp of how conversations work that he couldn’t even see how to turn back the previous question at me. Similarly, someone who used to be a very close friend subconsciously thinks himself so superior to me that when we discuss things that we both do, he simply doesn’t try to ask me about my approach. This is not just impolite: it’s disrespectful.

Other people will close down a line of conversation that doesn’t interest them. For example, if you say “I was just watching Downton Abbey”, the response might just be “I don’t like historical dramas”. There’s no attempt to engage, to find out more, even to feign interest: what you say goes only into the part of the brain that asks “do I like or dislike X?”, and the answer to that goes straight into the mouth.

Whether conscious or not – usually not, I suspect – both approaches can end up making conversations purely about the other person.

I suspect there’s many possible reasons for this kind of self-interested conversation:

  • sometimes these people are a bit insecure, and feel more comfortable talking about things they know about;
  • sometimes they have a lot of worries/stresses/problems, and need to talk about themselves;
  • sometimes they’re used to people dominating them in conversation, and this is a deflecting tool they’ve picked up;
  • sometimes they haven’t picked up quite as many social skills as one might like;
  • sometimes they don’t really care what others think of them, unlike people who are more polite in conversation because they don’t want others to think badly of them;
  • sometimes they arrogantly assume that other people want to know about them;
  • sometimes they genuinely aren’t interested in what you say;
  • sometimes they don’t respect you as a person;
  • sometimes they’re just a tosser.


My most rewarding term of teaching ever

This term has been really hard: I’ve had a great deal of teaching to do, papers to write, and a book to edit – while trying to sell my house (and succeeding), and trying to juggle many other balls (and failing!).

But thankfully, the teaching has been incredibly rewarding, thanks mainly to the calibre and engagement of the students I’m privileged to teach at King’s College London. Most of these students are from my department, the Department of Political Economy, but this year I’ve also been privileged to teach students from Law, Liberal Arts, Management Studies, and even the Social Science, Health and Medicine department.

Here are the teaching highlights:

  • Adrian Blau lecturingsuperb engagement from my first-year ‘Studying Politics’ students. As ever, most students took a bit of time to get the hang of this module, but especially in recent weeks, some of the ideas discussed in the seminars have been incredibly penetrating. My wonderful students are seeing issues and problems in the readings that I and my TAs haven’t spotted before, and the seminar discussions have been fascinating. I’m particularly pleased when students who start off rather shy or reticent end up making some of the most incisive contributions in discussion;
  • some stunning interpretations from my second-year ‘History of Political Thought’ students. My own seminar group has been awesome: I’ve been pushed hard on my readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau (although I’m not yet convinced by the quantum physics reading of Hobbes!). The essays were superb as well: a quarter of students got Firsts. This is a hard course – one in ten students dropped out in the first few weeks – but the response has been wonderful. If you set the bar high, some students will slink off (to another kind of bar), but most respond very positively;
  • some impressive dissertation drafts, as ever, although I suspect I’ll see even better next term. But again, the engagement is better than I’ve seen before: in the past, about half of my dissertation students have been very much under the radar – this is the first term that I’ve seen every dissertation student regularly;
  • a wonderfully enjoyable MA research design/philosophy of social science module, taken by students on the MA in Public Policy, the MA in Political Economy, and the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management. Each week I’d test their grasp of the ideas with specific research-based exercises, and the quality of suggestions was the best I’ve yet seen;
  • introductory lectures on writing well, in my ‘Academic Writing Skills’ module – DPE is the first department in the university to run a term-long module on academic writing skills, and I know a lot of students in other departments are jealous of this course;
  • great progress from my super PhD students Donald Bello, Irena Schneider, and Elena Ziliotti – all brimming with clever ideas;
  • and bits and bobs of teaching in the Doctoral Training Centre (on research ethics), the Graduate School (on publication strategy and tactics), and some ‘taster’ lectures for school students thinking about studying at King’s.

It’s also been a huge pleasure to work with my outstanding TAs: Alex Chadwick, Simon Kaye, Liz Morrow, and Sarah Wilford.

More generally, the Political Economy community seems more positive than in previous years. My first-year tutees are happier than ever – something in the drinking water?! My colleagues, like me, are tired and overworked, and we know that there’s still ways to improve our teaching; but most students appreciate our efforts (even if most of them have no idea how hard we work, or that we are researchers not just teachers). Our great students respond so well to the way we push them. That means an incredible amount to me.

Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.




CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

The use and misuse of history of political thought for contemporary purposes

I’m giving a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes, at the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought on Monday Oct 26, and at the Exeter Politics Department seminar on Wednesday Nov 4.

My paper praises scholars like Julia Annas, Michael Frazer, John McCormick and Quentin Skinner, for successfully using the history of political thought to ask new questions or offer new answers. But I also criticise scholars like John Dunn, Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner for overstating what we can learn from the history of political thought, or for not engaging sufficiently with contemporary issues or authors. Such overstated claims, indeed, risk damaging our efforts to draw contemporary insights from history of political thought, if political theorists or philosophers look at failed efforts and conclude that it is not worth studying history of political thought.

I gave an earlier version of this paper at the Institute of Historical Research in February 2015. But I did not have a paper to circulate then – now I do.

If you want to read a copy of this paper, please email me at Adrian.Blau {at} Comments and criticisms welcome, however critical!

Abstract: We lack methodological principles for how to draw contemporary insights from historical texts. As a result, many efforts to do so have failed – more than most people realise. One key principle is to get historical authors right, by reading them accurately, and by improving their ideas if needs be. This can help us challenge false claims to historical authority, debunk parochial contemporary explanations, ask new questions, or suggest new answers. The second main principle is to get contemporary authors and issues right. This is where scholars err most. Some scholars fail to demonstrate a gap in the literature, over-generalise, misread contemporary authors, underestimate the complexity of contemporary issues, or use outmoded ideas: just as history of political thought can liberate us, so too it can constrain us. Overall, I suggest, some of the boldest claims for the contemporary value of history of political thought come from scholars whose own contemporary insights are not as convincing as they think. Far from highlighting the contemporary relevance of history of political thought, this risks making it look irrelevant. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.

Bashing UCL – but only when it’s funny

Bentham lantern UCL smallThere’s meant to be a big rivalry between my university, King’s College London, and UCL. I’ve always found this a bit ridiculous: I have the greatest respect for UCL, and its political science, philosophy and history departments in particular. But I’m very weak-willed, and I’ll do my unfair share of UCL-bashing when it’s funny.

So here, once more, is a short clip of me taking the piss out of UCL in one of my recent standup performances. At UCL.

Because that’s what women do: the dangers of stereotypes in kids’ toys

I’ve found some troubling gender stereotypes in the Playmobil range of toys. I love Playmobil: I had lots of their toys as a kid, and still enjoy them with my niece and nephews. The toys are fun, robust, varied, and interchangeable.

5491_product_detailBut like many toys, their boxes portray worrying stereotypes. As I show in more detail below, Playmobil boxes are much more likely to show women than men looking after kids, and often depict women cooking, cleaning, shopping, or in caring/nurturing roles. And among the child Playmobil figures on the toy-boxes, it’s often the boy who is portrayed as independent and the girl who is being looked after.

Does this matter? Such stereotypes, in combination with similar stereotypes in adverts, TV programmes, computer games, and other toys, can influence some kids. True, real life often conforms to these stereotypes, but that is itself part of why we should challenge these stereotypes: if from an early age kids see women doing most childcare, for example, many people will have that same expectation later on. It’s how we end up with female political candidates being told that they aren’t fit for public office because they haven’t done their job of having children.

This is precisely why the hashtag #EverydaySexism is so important: the images we see and the words we use affect what we think and, sometimes, what we do.

Women buying handbags. Because that's what women do.

Women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Here are the details of my test. After spotting the stereotypes a couple of days ago, yesterday I ran a search for ‘Playmobil City Life’ on, and looked at the first three pages only. I found 64 toys, of which 32 had gender stereotypes on the boxes and 32 did not. (There were a handful of Playmobil toys in other ranges, some with and some without gender stereotypes on the boxes; I haven’t listed these below.) These numbers are approximate: the judgement-calls were not always easy, so I’ve tried to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt where I can, although other people might code things a bit more or a bit less favourably to Playmobil. But the sheer number of boxes showing gender stereotypes is a concern.

Almost 100 adults were featured in total. 24 women were shown looking after children, cooking or cleaning, compared to only 11 men looking after children or cooking (and the one man cooking is cooking on a barbecue, of course). Women are shown shopping or going to the beauty salon 9 times, while 0 men do the same (but 1 man brings flowers to a woman – groan). Only 3 woman have an ‘action’ role, compared to 9 men, and in each case the woman’s role is less action-based than the men on the same toy-box: the female co-pilot is outside the airplane (the male pilot is in the pilot’s seat), the female Coast Guard worker is a lookout (the male Coast Guard workers are either in charge or doing the rescuing), and the female rescue-boat worker has a nurturing role (doctor) whereas the male rescue-boat workers do the rescuing. Many kids won’t pick up these subtleties, but some surely will.


A woman looks after two boys and a girl. The boys do active things by themselves, the girl needs help.

Even the portrayals of children on the toy-boxes are sometimes biased: I counted 5 toy-boxes where boys were portrayed as independent while girls were shown being helped by an adult.

Thankfully, there are equal numbers of women and men being portrayed caring for animals or working as vets: 5 women, 5 men. I counted 8 cases of women and 9 cases of men in fairly neutral jobs (e.g. waiter). And I counted 7 women and 5 men in leisure situations (e.g. sunbathing, dog-walking). So, I’m only claiming that the stereotypes are common, not universal.

(There might be a bias in the above numbers, by the way, if Amazon has put the most popular toys to the top of the list and toys with stereotyped boxes are bought more often. So, at some point I may have to test the complete sets on the Playmobil website.)

In summary, then, a lot of the toy-boxes are fine, but a lot are not – more than half, on my count. The simplest solution would be for Playmobil to vary their depictions of women and men for new toys. They could perhaps repackage some of the existing toys. They needn’t change everything: it’d be crazy not to depict some women looking after kids. But we need more boxes depicting more varied gender roles, among adults and to some extent the kids too. And I haven’t even touched on ethnicity (nearly everyone in the City Life series is white) or age (there were almost no old people portrayed). I discuss the problems with those and other stereotypes here.

Here are the specific toys I found in the test described above, listed in the Read the full post »

A bit of Bentham comedy

I did my second standup comedy routine in July, on Jeremy Bentham – here is a short clip.

I particularly enjoyed this performance because Bentham’s body is kept at UCL, where the set was filmed; there’s a cheery rivalry between UCL and my university, KCL.

Adrian Blau Bentham standupHere is a link to my first set, about Benjamin Franklin, from May 2015.

The next of these ‘History Showoff’ standup comedy nights is on 7 October 2015 at the Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross; I shall be enjoying this as a member of the audience only! See here for more details and to book tickets, which cost £6.60; profits go to charity.

New DPE students: welcome to King’s College London!

Critical ThinkingIf you’re joining the Department of Political Economy (DPE) as a new undergraduate student in September 2015: welcome!

I’m one of your lecturers, and here are two (optional) preparatory readings you might find helpful, for two different modules which I convene.

4SSPP101 Studying Politics

Studying Politics is a core module taken by all students on the Politics programme and the Political Economy programme. It’s designed to empower you to think rigorously and critically about the politics research you’ll read at university. Reading 1 is the first 20 pages of Jon Elster’s book Explaining Social Behavior (2007), which gives a great sense of how to think like a social scientist. One of the most important things you’ll learn at university is the importance of thinking like a researcher, not just like a student. We want to encourage you to criticise what you read, not just make notes on it. To be critical, you will need to understand the choices that researchers make and what they could have done differently – and we will give you the tools to do this.

Students on the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme don’t take this module – but you’ll still find Elster’s article interesting and useful if you want to read it, because the ideas in it apply to other modules you’ll take.

Academic Writing Skills

This is an optional module offered to all students taking the Politics programme, the Political Economy Programme, the PPE programme, and the Politics, Philosophy and Law (PPL) programme. My department is the first in the university to run a term-long course like this. It gives you guidance on how to write better university essays. Reading 2 gives a lot of practical advice about studying at university, including the important of not being too trusting about what your lecturers and seminar tutors say! (We expect you to be critical of us, not just of what you read, of each other, and of yourselves.) Especially if you’re a bit worried or unsure about what to expect at uni, this chapter will give you a flavour of studying politics at university.

Looking forward to meeting you in September!

Start the sentence at the start

A common writing mistake is to keep a key part of the sentence to the end. This makes it hard to see what is going on; often one must read the sentence twice to understand it. Here’s an example from today’s Guardian, discussing Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

Internationally he has made the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, on Vietnam with America, for example) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations a distant memory.

Writing Mistake2The sentence is hard to grasp first time because “made” and “a distant memory” are so far apart. Only by the end of the sentence is its meaning clear. A simple change improves clarity:

Internationally he has made a distant memory of the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, with America on Vietnam) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations.

As I have discussed before, the principle is: make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s guide has many tips and examples.

But even the revised sentence is a bit awkward. I’d probably rephrase it further:

He has made us forget the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and of the United Nations, and the Canada that stood up to Britain on Suez, and America on Vietnam.

Getting rid of comments in brackets usually improves sentences too!

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:


  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.

Help needed: Darwin on confirmation bias

Apparently, Charles Darwin said that when he heard something that did not fit his theory, he wrote it down, otherwise he tended to forget it.

Can anyone give me a reference for this?


UPDATE: Thanks to David Schweiger (via Steven Hamblin’s blog), we have the answer. It’s from Darwin’s Autobiography (p. 123):

I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

Darwin finger

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] – thanks!

Nat Blau (1928-2010)


Joseph Norman ‘Nat’ Blau

My dad died five years ago today. He was a brilliant doctor, empathising closely with his patients and making thousands of lives better. He was a neurologist specialising in headache and migraine, and co-founded the City of London Migraine Clinic, which gave free consultations to all migraine sufferers. In 1962 he beat Roger Bannister to the post of consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, at Queen Square in London. He used to joke that it was the only time anyone ran faster than Roger Bannister.

Queen's Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

Queen Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

He published over 100 papers in scientific journals, not only on migraine but also on such things as ponytail headache (from tying ponytails too tightly) and sleep-lack headache. He edited a respected textbook on migraine, and his Headache and Migraine Handbook (1986) was written in a straightforward style for ordinary people. He was a superbly clear and concise writer: many of the tips I pass on to my own students came from him.

Mum and Dad's wedding

Mum and Dad’s wedding

He was married to my mother, Jill, for 41 years. He was a caring father to me, my brother Justin and my sister Rosie. He put a lot of emphasis on our education, and inculcated a questioning attitude in us. One of his sayings I still quote is: “If a theory explains all the facts, the theory must be wrong, because some of the facts are wrong.” He disliked the phrase “we now know”, because in his view, some of what we “know” is actually incorrect. His papers would sometimes mention what we don’t know or what his hypothesis could not explain – partly out of honesty, partly as a spur to further research.

He used to refer to “Blau’s Law of 10%”, which was his rule of thumb that only 10% of people have “got it”. He would sometimes follow this up with another comment: “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you haven’t got it, you’ve had it!”

Meeting Princess Diana

With Princess Diana

His preferred version of IQ was the “Insight Quotient”; no one could get to 100% on this scale. He also invented an SQ – a “Sleep Quotient” – referring to the number of people in the audience who were asleep in talks and lectures. His own SQ was almost always zero, I suspect – he was an exceptionally engaging lecturer. He would never get stuck behind the lectern or talk at an audience.

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968. Dad is in the middle of the front row.

He was by all accounts a superb teacher. He taught until he was 80, when his cancer excessively affected his mobility. His students had great admiration and affection for him. He disliked the way that medical students were expected to soak up knowledge without also developing critical faculties.

He was very funny. If we complained of some pain or ache, his answer was always “Talking too much”. In my case, this was usually true.

Dad age 75

J.N. Blau, at 75

Around the age of 75, he started work on a book called Wrong Ideas and No Ideas in Medicine, which he never finished. He had always been fascinated by wrong ideas which held back progress. He published a seering critique of the neurologist Harold Wolff (Cephalalgia 24:3, 2004) which attacked him for “a high degree of obsession, a desire to be on top and to win, and from an intellectual point of view, his dogmatism and ultra-focus on the vascular theory of migraine …. Wolff retarded progress in the understanding of migraine by at least 30 years”. That sums up several things Dad regarded as key sins. He used to say “Listen to the patient: he is telling you the diagnosis.” Wolff’s descriptions of migraine clashed with what Dad heard from the vast majority of his own patients. The one thing worse than a theory which explained all of the evidence was a theory which didn’t even match much of the evidence in the first place!

A black-tie event at Queen's Square, Feb 1965

A black-tie event at Queen Square, Feb 1965

In his day, most medical students came from wealthy backgrounds. He had next to nothing, and if he hadn’t worked hard at school he couldn’t have won the scholarship that allowed him to study medicine. I’m incredibly proud of what he achieved.

I think of him most when I’m very sad or very happy. When I’m sad I wish he was here, and when I’m happy I want to share good things with him. When I won a teaching award in 2013, I had a brief moment of joy and then started crying, because he wasn’t around to hear about this. My brother won a teaching award in the same year and I think my dad would have been prouder about these two prizes than the promotions my brother and I also got that year. Teaching mattered more to my dad than academic standing. When I asked why he wasn’t a Professor, he said: “I don’t profess to know anything.”

I love and miss him very much.

Laughing at history

Here’s a video of my standup comedy routine, for the second ‘History Showoff’ comedy night, at the Star of King’s pub near King’s Cross on 27 May.

The following people or things were harmed in the course of this routine:

  • AmericansAdrian Blau at HistoryShowoff2
  • Canadians
  • Montesquieu (“completely mediocre in every way”)
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • the truth
  • my reputation

My next set is on July 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre near UCL (details here). Tickets cost £6.60 and profits go to charity.

Event: Social Science and the #DigitalWorld (May 21st)

King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC) Regulation Cluster
‘Social Science and the #DigitalWorld’
  • Thursday 21 May 2015, 13.00 – 15.30
  • Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Strand Campus, London WC2R 2LS
Social Science and the #Digital World
Has the #DigitalWorld killed the academic expert? If academics don’t engage with the #DigitalWorld as celebrities do, have they diminished their role in political and policy debates? Are these questions even important?



Ewan Ferlie, Professor of Public Services Management, Department of Management, King’s College London. Author of Making Wicked Problems Governable? Hater of social media.

Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture, Department of Geography, King’s College London. Author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Curious about social media.

Cassie Werber, Reporter for Quartz and formerly for The Wall Street Journal. Co-organiser: Hacks Hackers London. Digital journalist.

FORMAT: 20 minute talks by each speaker, then 30 minute drinks/nibbles, then 60 minute discussion.

Please RSVP at

My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

UPDATE: here is an overview of the first part of the two-part symposium of Melzer’s book, and a link to the journal.

My review of Sharon Lloyd, ed., ‘Hobbes Today’

The journal History of Political Thought has published my pretty critical review of Sharon Lloyd’s edited book Hobbes Today (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

HobbesTodayReviewing this book led me to write a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes (see here). While reading the book, I felt that some chapters used Hobbes well, some needed to make changes, and some did not convince at all. More generally, many authors seemed too keen to claim that Hobbes is still relevant. Instead of trying to show that Hobbes is relevant today, authors needed to test this claim – to ask how relevant he is. That would have allowed a more nuanced analysis of Hobbes’s contemporary relevance. The current book simply fails to convince – or so I argue in my review.

Why hung parliaments are now much likelier than before

This will be my only blog post on the forthcoming UK election.votelogo2

Although most people now know me as a political theorist, specialising on the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, I started my career as a quantitative political scientist, studying the decline of the British electoral system and how votes are turned into seats. Why did the Conservatives only have a 21-seat Commons majority in 1992 when they led Labour by 8 percentage points in votes, while Labour’s 9-point lead in 2001 gave them a 167-seat majority?

Unravelling the different factors here is incredibly complicated – far more so than you might think. I produced the only method which estimated these different components at the actual election result; everyone else computed them under hypothetical conditions, sometimes implausible ones. For more details, see my 2004 article in the journal Electoral Studies, or for a simpler version, pp. 234-7 of my 2008 chapter in Robert Hazell, ed., Constitutional Futures Revisited (Palgrave Macmillan).

One key contribution was to show, for the first time, that the key influence on hung parliaments was the number of minor-party seats. This might seem obvious, but at the time, the dominant explanation was the decline of the so-called ‘cube law’: first-past-the-post should magnify a small lead in votes into a larger lead in seats, but the amount of magnification had shrunk over time. I showed, however, that this effect was trivial compared to the impact of minor-party seats. My equation was:


which has an intuitive explanation: if minor parties win no seats, a fairly small lead in votes will be magnified into a secure majority, but the more seats minor parties win, the larger a party’s lead must be to get a secure majority, which thus becomes harder and harder. I needed to make a lot of simplifying assumptions to get this far, but the very rough estimate was that there is approximately a one-in-four chance of a hung parliament, and a one-in-three chance of a government with a majority of under 25 seats.

Again, I was the first person to make this calculation directly rather than (for example) making inferences about what past results might hold for the future. One journalist recently Tweeted about the unlikelihood of hung parliaments, based on election results since 1945. But in the early post-war period, minor parties won almost no seats. It’s a different world now.

OK, enough of modernity: back to Hobbes.





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