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Graeme Archer: Mind the Gap

We bought my father a joke gift once, I remember. A coffee mug, with a cartoon of a serious looking sheep wearing a pin-striped suit, and the caption “Died in the wool Conservative”. One day, when I was a student, we were driving down the Great Western Road in Glasgow. We pulled up at the lights on a level crossing and watched a young woman with pink hair and outlandish clothes make her way precariously across the road. I drew breath and waited for the imprecations about Young People to begin. Quite unfairly: Isn’t it great, mused my dad, the died-in-the-wool Tory, that there’s a space for everyone to live like they want to?


So: gaps, and their uses, and the danger of not having any. I’m writing this in a gap, coincidentally, in the air, over the Atlantic, somewhere between London and Philadelphia. I’m like Schroedinger’s cat in its horrible box, neither home nor away, just sort of “being”. And the enforced pause allows time for reflection. Even more coincidentally, I’ve just read this:

“It can never be perfect. He can never forgive me.”

“That’s not the point,” said Crystal. “What you must do is forgive him. That’s what will make it perfect. If you forgive him then there’ll be—a kind of open space—and he’ll be able—[to effect a recovery]”

(It’s from A Word Child by (surprise) Iris Murdoch. Of course Iris has already written everything we need to know about gaps, and their key role in forgiveness.) 

I am obsessed with gaps at work too, because they’re so pharmacologically significant. If you were ever unfortunate enough to have clinical depression or schizophrenia, then you would be highly interested not just in the neurons affected, but also in the spaces between them, in the synaptic cleft, that is, the gap between one neuronal terminal and the next neuronal dendrosomatic body: this is where the pharmacological action takes place. This is where your SSRI or your atypical antipsychotic will manifest itself by increasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine in your system. Without the gaps, there would be no space for this pharmacology to happen, and no way to modulate, beneficially and psychopharmacologically, the diseases’ symptoms. [Is there any chance of any politics? – Ed. Yes, hang on – GA]

And so to PoliticsHomeIndex. Every day, our top one hundred opinion formers are asked a question. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s out? Of course, I think it’s great, and I’m glued to the website. But a word of caution in terms of interpretation. Does anyone else feel that the cycle time between political event, and political comment which affects the next political event, is getting too rapid? Sometimes a gap can help to understand the real meaning of an event. I would summarise the last six months of comment, starting the week before conference, as: Conservatives are finished as a party and Cameron is so over. Two speeches later and we were resurgent as a party and Brown was finished as a Prime Minister. Then Brown recruits a new chief of staff and we’re finished as a party. Then the new chief of staff puts someone’s nose out of joint and Brown’s finished as a prime minister. The demands of the twenty-four hour news cycle, for a coherent narrative to explain any particular event, might actually be acting against a proper understanding of the state of play.

Archer_graph_1_5 Don’t believe me? Look at the graph on the right.   

What do we see? Looks like a huge dip in the popularity of the party in question between day 1 and day 2 (We’re finished as a party) followed by a massive increase to a stonking +100 points by the end of the week (Brown’s finished as a prime minister). Presumably on Day 2 something happened to cause this. Cause this?

What would happen if you gave yourself a gap for reflection, before constructing the Day 2 Theory? Suppose you waited a couple of months. Here’s the same index over 60 days:


Oh. And here it is over a year:Archer_graph_3

It’s obvious now, isn’t it? There’s no upwards or downwards trend at all (because I created the index by generating some random noise). This lack of trend becomes apparent, though, only when the series is inspected over a year. This is a much greater period of time than a twenty-four hour media will tolerate, and explains (I think) why sometimes hypotheses are constructed which turn out to be untrue (Labour will get rid of Brown before the election in 2010 because he’s been such a disaster handling the Olympics last week, for example). 

It’s the job of the statistician to be a killjoy. We should continue to devour all these instant polls, but for the construction of a narrative (a hypothesis) which is of use in predicting future outcomes, we need a bigger gap between event and reaction. Gaps are good. Just like that pharmacology in your brain, if we remove the space for reflection, we remove the ability to cogitate.  

Next week: why the Conservative Home Poll of Polls sucks [You’re fired – Ed].


The most important gap of all, of course, is that between You and the Other, the space where the love exists. Listen carefully one night, as you lie in the dark while your Other is asleep, and you will hear the fizzing of the love in the space between the two of you. If you weren’t separate, if you weren’t distinct, if there wasn’t a gap, then there wouldn’t be a space for love, would there?


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