Choice Writings of Dominic Cummings

by Connor_Flexman7 min read13th Oct 202158 comments


PoliticsWorld Optimization
Personal Blog

“My own heuristics for working in politics are: focus, ‘know yourself’ (don’t fool yourself), think operationally, work extremely hard, ... and ask yourself ‘to be or to do?’” - DC

Dominic Cummings is fascinating for four reasons. One, he is extremely committed to truth-seeking but from a different perspective than most of LW. Two, he has a shocking amount of real-world “success”, especially for a truth-seeker. Three, he fills the missing niche of trying to describe what government is actually like, to great effect. Four, he has uniquely powerful ideas about how to do project management well and how to fix government. 

At the very least, he is extremely thought-provoking, and provides tons of value to >30% of people around me who try reading or listening to him.

However, most people get rebuffed by the sheer number of words and posts he’s written (or included as block quotes...). This post is to help people get a foothold in reading him, triage his work, and understand the basics of his perspective.

(Pitch: If you end up liking what he has written or even just my summary, consider subscribing to his Substack, even if only for a month and $10. It’s long been hard to capture much of the value from public goods like good opinions/models/writing, leaving them under-incentivized. Now that Substack allows us a convenient way to reward and incentivize good online writers, I want us to do an about-face on our expectations, and not confuse the previous fully-free status quo “is” with the “ought” of a real remuneration scheme. If you really like his writing but are short on cash, reach out to me and I may gift you a subscription.)

If you read nothing else… 

The Brexit Story (20k words = ~1.5 hrs, anecdotally 2.5): 

This piece is most him. It touches on many of the themes that come up throughout his writing but in a concrete story. (Warning: you might have to do a bit of research into UK politics to understand what’s going on, or just skip the hard parts. You don’t need to understand everything.)


  • He worked ~18 hours a day for 10 months, and really missed his comfortable life
  • “Discussing politics with people almost never accomplishes anything proximally, but in public debate it can be like “throwing seeds to the wind” and you can be happily surprised down the road”
  • A long meditation on how difficult it is to tease apart “why did X win/lose”, it’s almost always misleading and people tend to make up all sorts of stories that help tie the narrative together and make them look “right all along” when it doesn’t work like that; that’s why this post is named “branching histories” and has a heavy emphasis on how things could very nearly have gone much differently in a zillion ways
  • A diatribe on how politics is like fashion and why almost no one in Remain was voting on the basis of actual understanding of the EU
  • An explanation of how they got the media to still cover their message even though they couldn’t get it to cover serious policy arguments
  • A short fantasy about what better political media (esp TV shows) could look like, involving prediction markets
  • A diatribe on the “delusion of the centre” and how both Tories and Libs think the centre has central views on most things and encourage them a little further toward their side, but actually swing voters tend to side with Libs strongly on some things like health care, white collar crime, and higher taxes on the rich and Tories strongly on some things like violent crime, anti-terrorism, and immigration
  • Politics as a field doesn’t meet the two criteria for true expertise (enough informational structure that real predictions can be made despite complexity, and feedback loops for actual learning), so take everything here with a grain of salt
  • They had such infighting issues that they had to make Potemkin committees to keep all the loitering “political” types tied up in meetings while the core team did the actual work

My next 10 favorite blog posts, not particularly in order:

Hollow Men II

The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction

Four great stories about working in government: at one point they couldn’t fix their own elevator. At all points it was an extraordinary mess. Extremely long, you can ctrl+f “Part II” for the stories and don’t need to finish.


Effective action intro

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business

“Plenty of room at the top”—there’s no cap on effectiveness and good management and startup skills, so we might be able to do vastly more impressive things with the right skills and teams. Most concrete points about how to do this are later in the series, but this starts the series that feels to me like it could kick-start a paradigm change.


Systems management and lessons from Mueller

Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2(b): the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today

A bunch of advice on what he actually means by there being room to be better at systems management, for example matrix management, focusing on people first, Black Saturdays and focus on error-correction, having clear goals set by the top of the org but extreme decentralization of decisions made for how to achieve that, etc. This was better than I had gotten from reading the top management books.



Effective action #4a: ‘Expertise’ from fighting and physics to economics, politics and government 

“Fundamental to real expertise is 1) whether the informational structure of the environment is sufficiently regular that it’s possible to make good predictions and 2) does it allow high quality feedback and therefore error-correction. Physics and fighting: Yes. Predicting recessions, forex trading and politics: not so much.”

Somewhat old-hat but I still found it surprisingly clarifying.


Expertise and Government

Effective action #4b: ‘Expertise’, prediction and noise, from the NHS killing people to Brexit

When do fields exhibit true expertise? Why doesn’t government? And some thoughts on the failure to learn from the simplest and biggest successes (e.g. ARPA/PARC).


Odyssean education: 

Some thoughts on education and political priorities

The big essay. The first 5 pages of this are a great summary of his worldview: focused on how scitech is making things move faster and bigger; no one has the knowledge for how to stop or control this; we do have some examples of teams who were effective enough they could plausibly keep up; to get those teams we need a better system of governance and that will require better education for people to meet the requirements; specifically understanding the big pieces from many fields. Skip after page 5 unless you want a deep-dive into tech predictions from 2013 or a re-hash of the scientific worldview.


Seeing Rooms

A cool off-brand essay about the importance of being able to see the important information while you’re working. Gave me some ideas about how to better set-up my own office.


(Paywalled from here down)


Afghanistan SNAFU (situation normal all fucked up): 'normal' politics,'normal' results

Finally gets further on-message! Explains how “The government does not control the government”, some laws of bureaucracies, and why most things should just be dismantled and rebuilt rather than reformed.


Regime Change

Regime Change #2: A plea to Silicon Valley - start a project NOW to write the plan for the next GOP candidate 

Further explains how the goal is “a government that controls the government” and calls for a bold project of ~10 people to make substantial progress here. 


Startup government

Startup government: notes on Lee Kuan Yew #3

Really good look at a very different type of government. Goes pretty in-depth on the ramifications of different ideas like {the press should not actually be totally "free", because ideas/memes spread based not on truth but on how they strike emotional chords within us, and an unfettered press will use this to gradually accumulate power of an odd sort}, or {a serious government should strongly empower standing anti-corruption investigations into itself}, etc. The other LKY notes (1,2,4) are also similarly good.

You can find his index of blog posts here, broken into topic. In general the three areas he blogs about that I find most interesting are:

  • Unrecognized simplicities of effective action
  • How to run governments
  • Many boots-on-the-ground stories about how politics actually went during the Brexit referendum, his stint as Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson 2019-2020, his time in the Department for Education, and other selections.

I don’t get as much out of:

  • Complexity and politics
  • Cutting-edge science summaries

I haven't read the Education section but it looks interesting as more boots-on-the-ground experience-fodder.

Regarding my biases: the cutting-edge science is well-understood by those around me, so it’s just old-hat. The Complexity series also feels a bit old-hat and just doesn’t capture me that well. So know that those are my biases here, and I’m foisting them onto you because I expect you’re similar to me.


57 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:51 PM
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most people get rebuffed by the sheer number of words and posts he’s written

I think most people are far more put off by his close association with Vote Leave, and the damage it caused. He's clearly brilliant and insightful, but I'm very wary about promoting rationality "dark arts" like how to manipulate the public, especially when coming from someone whose primary claim to fame is that they hurt their own country, further destabilized the European Union, and worsened the world economy.

Is there a good cost-benefit analysis of Brexit in the post-COVID era? The last conversation I saw about this was in February 4 2021:

Rob Wiblin:

The UK vaccination program has been so good — from planning to strategy to implementation.

Mad respect for these folks.

Jai Dhyani:

The UK's vaccination campaign has been so good and the EU 's so bad that I'm seriously reconsidering my position on Brexit. I don't know how things went in the universe where Brexit didn't happen, but the contrast is so stark it's hard to imagine that getting the EU out of the way didn't help a lot.

Chris Watkins:

This is one of the few things they've done well, though.

Jai Dhyani:

It's a really big thing though! Ending a pandemic faster, and consequently saving hundreds of thousands of QALYs *and* spinning up the economy months earlier than they counterfactually could have probably outweighs even a pretty long list of Brexit downsides.

Robert Rand:

Also, probably slowed the spread of the UK variant.

But yeah, looking at the EU beaurocracy trying to deal with the desperate need for vaccines had left me flabbergasted and way more pro-brexit. (Though equally anti the brexiteers.)

Jeffrey Eldred:

My understanding is that EU nations still had to opt into the EU vaccination plan. So a non-Brexit UK still could have chosen to go ahead with their planned vaccination (especially with the strength of their NHS system).

However, I think it's still true that the failure of the EU vaccination program should reflect negatively on EU bureaucracy more broadly.

On this I would note that the Remain campaign within the UK has always had a tenor of "We know that the EU has many things wrong with it, but leaving doesn't really help". It's only the US perspective (and some in continental Europe) that argued the EU is actually a great organization.

Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Seems like a key crux on Brexit if so. Does anybody know of a case where an EU country didn't opt in? (Also, diff between "opt in" vs "not opt out".)

Chana Messinger:

Germany opted out, I think? 

Stefan Schubert:

My understanding is that EU broadly has worked together on this. For instance, there was a EU-wide process for approval of the vaccines - and they have been approved much later than in the UK.

Overall I do think this is a point on favour of Brexit.

Jacob Funnell:

I'd point out there are other consequences of Brexit that may point in the other direction in a massive way.
For example, the potential for the UK's farmed animal welfare standards to be gutted in a trade deal with the US could outweigh this by itself.

It depends on a lot of calls, but I think we're mostly very familiar with covid at this point; whereas comparatively fewer of us have looked at the minutiae of what happens for animals.

I understand that i) pointing out the efficiency of vaccination isn't an argument for Brexit ii) policy debates aren't one sided.

But it still seems worth contextualizing these kinds of claims in case it seems likely to someone that this is the only potential "really morally important consequence of Brexit" in the room. It's not.

Johanna Maria Kirss:

Smaller European countries, especially the ones near Russia, place great value on the unity of EU because of security concerns. It's conflicting to feel let down by an institution I've been taught is one of the few things keeping my country safe from foreign threat.

Jai Dhyani:

@Johanna Maria Kirss It can be both an important geopolitical alliance and extremely ineffective bureaucracy.

Oliver Habryka:

After seeing all the evidence of the pandemic over the last year, I overall think Brexit was quite good for the world, and updated also a bunch on Cummings having good taste.

I think it's somewhere between very early and unreasonable to ask about "post-COVID" impacts when we're probably a year away from returning to any semblance of normal globally. At the same time, while I don't think there is a clear answer, the consensus of economists seems to be that overall Brexit was clearly bad, as of January this year, i.e. mid-pandemic.

Next, the UK going alone on vaccination, which probably would have been possible even without Brexit, seems to contrast with them going alone on pushing for herd immunity, in what was both in retrospect bad, and predictably so according to economists and epidemiologists who were shouting about it at the time.

Second, my understanding is that the stated reasoning for why to do Brexit had little or nothing to do with this type of policy freedom. But even if it was mentioned, I think it's strange to defend the impacts of Brexit on the basis of a difficult to explore counterfactual understanding of how the UK would have behaved differently during this tail event, ignoring the consensus that the impact on the economic situation was very negative. 

I think it's somewhere between very early and unreasonable to ask about "post-COVID" impacts when we're probably a year away from returning to any semblance of normal globally.

I was actually thinking that this is mostly normality -- by "post-COVID" I meant "the world after COVID first shows up" rather than "the world after COVID goes away". :)

seems to contrast with them going alone on pushing for herd immunity, in what was both in retrospect bad, and predictably so according to economists and epidemiologists who were shouting about it at the time.

Would this have gone any differently if they'd been in the EU? I'm mostly asking whether Brexit itself was a good idea, not whether the UK's overall policies are good. (Though I guess a bunch of that other stuff is also relevant to evaluating Cummings' track record! I guess I'd just want to note the change in scope.)

Second, my understanding is that the stated reasoning for why to do Brexit had little or nothing to do with this type of policy freedom.

What was Cummings' stated reasoning? Googling around, the first source I could find explaining this was in this Economist interview:

BAGEHOT: Turning to the case for Brexit, what is it about the EU that you think makes it an inadequate form of governance and international co-operation in 2016, 2030, 2050?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: In no order of priority… there is an obvious problem with democratic legitimacy (which the pro-EU people accept) if you have democratic accountability working at a national level, but a large and very important set of rules being set at a supranational level. People may accept that if they think that this new system is obviously much more effective and beneficial. But it isn’t. There are huge problems with how the EU system works. It is extraordinarily opaque, extraordinarily slow, extraordinarily bureaucratic, extraordinarily wasteful. And the advantages are very hard to quantify. I’ll give a specific example. Everyone holds up the Single Market as a wonderful thing without usually realising what it is. A rule brought in under the Single Market a decade or so ago was the Clinical Trials Directive. This regulates how the testing of drugs, including cancer drugs, operates in this country. There is no rationale whatsoever why, from the point of view of international trade, how a country organises the testing of cancer drugs should be an issue for supranational regulation.

BAGEHOT: It makes it easier to sell those drugs to a wider market of consumers.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: No, it does not. In fact, what it has done is, as Nobel scientists and all sorts of people have said, massively slow down the process of testing and people have died unnecessarily as a result. The problem here is two-fold. It’s not just that the rule is stupid and in a rational world you wouldn’t have it. It’s that the process of changing it is almost impossible—and we still haven’t managed to do so. It’s been there now for over ten years. It is still causing trouble. The amended version comes into effect shortly. It still has all sorts of stupidities in it. Britain, left to its own devices, certainly would not do that. There’s a whole set of other examples. If two people sitting on a Shetland island want to sell olive oil to each other, the EU says they can’t sell it in containers of more than five litres. What on earth is the point of that? It’s totally pointless and saying “if we minus ourselves from rules like that, that’s somehow going to destroy jobs” is a non-sequitur. It does not follow on any sane view of economics.

This relates to a broader argument. If you look back on the long sweep of history, one of the big arguments about post-renaissance China and post-renaissance Europe concerns regulatory harmonisation. Post-renaissance China essentially harmonised the entire empire. Everyone had to do the same thing. In Europe we had a completely different system. We had regulatory competition so when, for example, the central Chinese government said “we’re not going to have any explorers, we’re going to get rid of our fleet”, that’s what happened. In Europe when explorers were told “we’re not going to fund you to go out and do that”, they went to another country and got funding from someone else.

This makes it sound to me like the vaccination case is a central example of the kind of thing Cummings wanted to change via Brexit.

I think it's somewhere between very early and unreasonable to ask about "post-COVID" impacts when we're probably a year away from returning to any semblance of normal globally. 

To the extend that this is unreasonable it's very unreasonable to say that you know the post-Brexit effects yourself. 

Second, my understanding is that the stated reasoning for why to do Brexit had little or nothing to do with this type of policy freedom.

What do you think "take back control" means when it's not about policy freedom and escaping bureaucracy from Brussels?

I didn't claim to know all of the post Brexit effects, I linked to a survey of economists. But I don't think I need to defend the claim that Brexit was damaging.

And when asked about what they were taking back control of, I recall that the leaders pushing for Brexit said they wanted control of their money, their borders, and their laws. Only the last of those is plausibly what you meant - the first is a weird misunderstanding about where money came from and went, and the second is about disliking immigration.

A good portion of EU money gets spend back in the countries but that money often gets spend poorly. 

To give one example from where I live in Berlin, Spandau is one of the districts of Berlin. Out of one EU fund Spandau got money to make a tourism plan and now calls itself Zitadellenstadt Spandau. The name refers to the Zitadelle which is a castle in Spandau that wasn't bombed during WWII likely because it stored chemical weapons that the allies fortunately didn't want to have released.

Without the EU we would have never spent that money for that tourism marketing exercise. It happens frequently that EU-funded projects are those that local don't really think they need. Taking control over EU money means being able to direct such money better to our priorities. Grain-subsidies are similar. Most UK or German citizens would want an agricultural policy that actually promotes healthy food and not the crap we are having. The EU is setup that it's nearly impossible to update the agricultural policy in a sensible way. Control about money means actually being able to spend that more wisely.

A good portion of politically informed people in the UK will know stories about how EU money that flows back to the UK is spent in pointless ways.

On a topic like animal rights, we Germans don't want male chickens to be shreddered. Without the EU we would simply outlaw it and be okay with our eggs costing 5% more. We didn't do that because in our supermarket German produced eggs would have to compete with Polnish eggs and we think that it would be unfair for our farmers to increase their production cost by 5%. If we could do that then the technology to identify the gender of the eggs would be developed much faster then it currently happens. Instead of just outlawing it, we said that some years into the future we will outlaw it when hopefully the cost came down. The EU rules also prevent US from simply paying our farmers the 5% as a subsidy.

In practice the single market rules mean that technology to prevent male chickens from being shreddered gets developed slower then it otherwise would. 

Now, the average voting citizens doesn't know in detail that "take back control" couldn't tell you in detail about the effects of this. They have a vague sense that they want back control and have weird misconceptions. Misconceptions exists on both sides. 

Economists as a class generally don't do a good job at explaining how to create new innovation and I doubt that most of the surveyed economists understand that the single market prevents faster development of new technology to prevent male chickens from being shreddered.

Now, we Germans think that the pro's of the EU outweigh the disadvantages that we can't advance animal rights in German as fast as we would otherwise. In the UK plenty of people see things differently. They want the policy freedom to allow new innovation. Now, the UK cares less about protecting male chickens from being shreddered but they care about vaccines being developed faster in a future pandemic and thus pushed for human challenge studies. Human challenge studies wouldn't be something we Germans would do and there's likely plenty of other EU opposition as well that prevents the EMA rules from changing. 

Things like that are the concrete thing that control about money and law means. It produces some value by allowing the government to allow certain kinds of innovation to happen. Of course for that to happen you actually need decent governmental policies. It's very hard to estimate the size of the benefits of allowing more innovation that's currently blocked by byzantine regulations.

Being first to roll out vaccines is not enough, other European countries have managed to keep more people alive, and created safe environments - mitigations such as masks and clean air being the norm. Covid cases yesterday 13th October, 2021.

France: 1,120 Spain: 1,277 Italy: 1,561 Germany: 4,872

UK: 40,224

Which country do you think has sane clean air policies? To me it feels like one of the most annoying features of German policy making regarding COVID that clean air isn't given much weight.

Moving to the actual point, there are policies where EU rules interfer and there are policies where EU rules don't have much of an effect. The way drugs get licensed is one where EU rules matter a lot and thus it relates to the Brexit.

On the other hand I'm not seeing how Brexit has an effect on masks or clean air. 

What's the empirical basis for this attitude, though? Why did you associate him with "dark arts"? What makes you think he made the world economy worse, and how would one even quantify long-term effects of something like that?

In any case, he would not agree with any of those propositions. Among other things, in his ridiculously long Brexit essay he claims:

  • that the pro-EU side was no more honest than the anti-EU side;
  • that both pro-EU and anti-EU sentiment among most voters (even the well-educated ones) are in any case more like fashion than stemming from serious analysis (‘the thing is Dominic, we like foreigners and cappuccinos and we hate racists’), and basically no-one on either side actually understands how the EU-UK relationship actually functions in terms of laws, treaties, etc.; and
  • he's pro free-trade and therefore favors "limiting free movement which is the biggest threat to continued free trade" (because it sours voters on free trade; for instance from my understanding the rise of the far-right and euroskeptic party AfD in Germany happened as a protest to Merkel's refugee policy); relevant quote:

I will go into the problems of the EU another time. I will just make one important point here.

I thought very strongly that 1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration or  human rights policies for terrorists and other serious criminals, therefore 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration and increase high skills immigration particularly those with very hard skills in maths, physics and computer science, 4) this requires getting out of the EU, 5) hopefully it will prod the rest of Europe to limit immigration and therefore limit the extremist forces that otherwise will try to rip down free trade.

One of our campaign’s biggest failures was to get even SW1 to think seriously about this, never mind millions of voters. Instead the false idea spread and is still dominant that if you are on the side of free trade, think controlled immigration generally a positive force, and want more international cooperation rather than a return to competing nation states then you must support the EU. I think this error is caused by the moral signalling and gang mentality described above.

Of course one can disagree with all that, but even then it can occasionally be valuable to read things one disagrees with. (If only he were remotely concise...)

that the pro-EU side was no more honest than the anti-EU side

This might not be a crux, since someone could object to misleading rhetoric even if both sides in a political dispute are doing it.

Mostly agreed, but one lesson I took from the pandemic was that far more of public communication seemed to be outright explicit manipulation than I could've previously imagined. Examples include the initial policy on masks, as well as the endless asymmetric claims that "there is no evidence for <thing we don't like>".

So insofar as politics appears to me to be inherently manipulative, it does not make much sense to me to single out a specific person for using misleading rhetoric in a political campaign. And conversely I can't quite envision a successful political campaign that no-one would accuse of misleading rhetoric.

For instance, we just had the German federal elections, and our election posters are full of slogans I'd describe as both empty and misleading. <10-word slogans are just too short for nuance. A similar problem applies to Twitter discourse, too.

So insofar as politics appears to me to be inherently manipulative, it does not make much sense to me to single out a specific person for using misleading rhetoric in a political campaign. And conversely I can't quite envision a successful political campaign that no-one would accuse of misleading rhetoric.

Let's suppose that you need to be at least (say) 5/10 manipulative in order to get anything ambitious done in national politics.

And let's further say that the Leave and Remain campaigns were equally manipulative* -- say, maybe both were 8/10 manipulative.

Given those assumptions, it could still be perfectly sensible to say '5/10 is OK, but 8/10 is beyond the pale, and it's no excuse that the other side was doing beyond-the-pale stuff too'.

(Or you could just say that any successful political strategist should be shunned on LW, because 5/10 manipulativeness is already too high and LW's rationality, research, and cooperation goals would be compromised if we absorbed too many memes from that kind of person.)


*I have no idea whether this is true -- I'd be pretty surprised if any two sides in a dispute are equally bad on a given dimension, since I expect there to be lots of idiosyncratic decisions in a political campaign that come down to the personalities of a few people running the campaigns.)

I intended to make something like the last claim here. I don't need to shun political strategists, but  I do think we should shun their methods. 

Yes, perhaps current politics requires a level of dishonesty and manipulation (but I'd agree wuth your supposition that it is not usually at the level seen in Brexit,) and even if it's critical for some people to engage in these dark arts for laudable goals (which is unclear, and certainly contrary to the goal of raising the sanity waterline,) Lesswrong will be worse off for trying to communally learn the lessons of how to lie to the public. 

To use an analogy, learning how to be a pickpocket might be useful, and might even have benefits aside from theft, but I don't want to need to guard my wallet, so if some of the people I knew started saying we should all learn to be better pickpockets, I'd want to spend less time with them.

My unease with studying Cumming's ideas is not just because it's horrific PR - though I think it is - and definitely not just because I don't think it could teach anything, but because it is geared towards learning things which enhance distrust among people. Given that we're otherwise involved in honest and truth-seeking conversations, this seems particularly bad. Otherwise, every conversation that even potentially relates to the real world becomes subject to lots of really bad epistemological pressures, with LWers trying to operate on simulacra level 2, or even worse, playing levels 3 and 4. In my view, that would be a tragic loss - so maybe we should avoid trying to get better.

My unease with studying Cumming's ideas is not just because it's horrific PR - though I think it is - and definitely not just because I don't think it could teach anything, but because it is geared towards learning things which enhance distrust among people. 

You could say the same thing about learning about the discourse that lead to the replication crisis. It's a discourse about creating distrust among people.

Improving existing institutions is inherently about distrusting how they operate. 

Improving existing institutions is inherently about distrusting how they operate. 


That's true, and a fair criticism, but the replication crisis was about object-level criticisms of the science - it certainly did not start with strategizing about convincing people to take political action.

You've replied several times in this thread and I still don't know where your criticism and specifically the "dark arts" accusation (and now the analogy to theft) is coming from. Is it from reading Cummings, from reading Cummings' critics, from guilt-by-association with the Brexit campaign, from following media coverage of Cummings, or what? What makes him uniquely bad?

EDIT: I saw this comment of yours, but I didn't find it a satisfying answer - unless you're willing to accuse all political strategists, and politicians of all political persuasions, of dark arts.

First, yes, I've read a fair amount of his writing, albeit only up to a couple years ago. And no, he's not "uniquely bad" - quite the opposite. But I wouldn't advise people interested in rationality to read about political strategy generally. Even though Cummings is significantly better than most - which I think he is, to clarify - that doesn't mean it's worth reading his material.

For those familiar with LW, I thought the distaste for politics was obvious. And yes, I think it's rare for political strategists not to almost exclusively play level 3 and 4 simulacra games, and engage in what has been called dark arts of rationality on this blog for years. 

Thanks, that clarifies things. I agree that frontpaged politics stuff has a good chance of doing more harm than good on LW. (EDIT: I originally had a typo saying "more good than harm" despite meaning the opposite.)

That said, do you think his writing on policy, rather than political strategy, has the same problem? I've read <5-ish essays from him, and while the Brexit stuff mostly seemed to be about political strategy, e.g. the Hollow Men essay was mostly about stories of ludiscrously dysfunctional institutions, terrible incentives throughout government, a systematic inability to fire incompetent people, people getting promoted to organisations with budgets and responsibilities which are far out of proportion to their own expertise, and so on.

These stories were surprising to me (and yet they seem quite plausible after following Covid policy in the last year), so I was in turn surprised when you said elsewhere that there was nothing to learn from him. Was that stuff obvious to you beforehand, or do you think he's misrepresenting things, or what?

Or put differently, suppose I want my map to not have a blind spot around policy. Who or what could I read instead?

(Or you could just say that any successful political strategist should be shunned on LW, because 5/10 manipulativeness is already too high and LW's rationality, research, and cooperation goals would be compromised if we absorbed too many memes from that kind of person.)

Taking a step back, I thought Less Wrong had a no-frontpaged-politics rule and Zvi's Covid posts were specifically whitelisted. So now I'm a bit confused why this post on Cummings was frontpaged (though I appreciated OP making the significant effort of summarizing Cummings' ridiculously verbose writings).

On the other hand, Cummings' perspective on making policy and working in governmental institutions is so different from how I usually see this stuff described that not having this kind of perspective around seems like it would diminish our maps. A conundrum.

I made the decision to frontpage it, probably a mistake so I've changed it. My interpretation (which is maybe a bad one) about the frontpage ban on politics is it's to avoid hot-button topics that people get riled up. I was thinking of Cummings having a lot of general dry/abstract policy models more akin to economics than right/left issues. 

I haven't read the posts Connor linked -- if those posts are generally about hot-button topics, I'd treat this post as a hot-button political thing. If the posts themselves are fine, I wouldn't de-frontpage just because the author (Cummings) is controversial.

E.g., if Cummings himself posted on LW I assume we wouldn't de-frontpage his stuff just because of who he is; it would depend on the contents.

The links contain the Brexit campaign story.

One problem here is that Cummings writes ridiculously long essays instead of sequences split up into separate short essays, so it seems likely to me that most of his essays will include both controversial politics and his idiosyncratic perspective of policy. Which makes it much harder to share any of his specific insights without giving the impression that one endorses the whole package.

Thanks for the response. First, economists and experts seem pretty unified in thinking that Brexit will be bad for the UK, and somewhat less bad but still negative for the EU.  That's not proof, but it's fairly convincing data, and I haven't seen plausible claims to the contrary.

Regarding the rest, I think you've just admitted that there were places where lies were used in service of a supposed greater truth, and that the claims used to promote Brexit were willfully inconsistent - but that's exactly what we mean by dark arts, and no additional empirical data is needed to support the claim. Of course I agree that neither side was honest - but a policy of getting involved in (epistemic) mud fights isn't about relative muddiness, it's about actually staying clean. If we care about our epistemic health, there are lots of things we might want to avoid, and dishonesty in service of our prior (debatably effective / correct) ideas seems like a great candidate.

What’s the empirical basis for this attitude, though? Why did you associate him with “dark arts”?

The issues in the leave (ie Brexit) campaign were

  1. the misleading claim about extra funding for the NHS,
  2. and the claim about the entire population of Turkey settling in the UK, which was both misleading and racist
  3. The use of personal data by a company he hired, which has now folded under legal issues.

So what were the specific lies of the remain campaign.

I haven't followed the Brexit campaign myself, but here are the quotes from the essay.

On lies and on the NHS:

Many of those who blame defeat on ‘lies’, including Cameron, Osborne, and Clegg themselves told flat-out lies. One example will do. Cameron and Osborne claimed repeatedly on TV, almost always unchallenged, that their new deal meant ‘after six months if you haven’t got a job you have to leave’. This is not an argument over the fairness of using a gross/net figure, like ‘£350 million’, or even a properly bogus figure like the Treasury’s £4,000 per household figure. It is a different category of claim – a flat out 100% lie. (For more details see HERE.) How much time did TodayNewsnight, and the Guardian spend explaining to people that the PM and Chancellor were lying through their teeth? Approximately none. Why? Because very few of those complaining about lies really are cross about ‘lies’ – they are cross they lost and they are not so interested in discussing a lie that undermines the pro-EU campaign’s attempt to neutralise fear of immigration.

Further, many of the same people spent the entire campaign saying ‘Vote Leave has admitted a Leave vote means leaving the Single Market, this is what will happen make no mistake…’ and now say ‘the Single Market was not an issue, Vote Leave never had a policy on it and there is no mandate for leaving it’. Cameron, Osborne, Mandelson, Campbell and Clegg spent much of the last 20 years lying through their teeth to further their own interests and prestige. Now they whine about ‘lies’. They deserved worse than they got – and reasonable Remain-ers deserved better leadership.

And elsewhere:

Some people now claim this [claim about the NHS] was cynical and we never intended to spend more on the NHS. Wrong. Boris and Gove were agreed and determined to do exactly this. On the morning of 24 June they both came into HQ. In the tiny ‘operations room’ amid beer cans, champagne bottles, and general bedlam I said to Boris – on day one of being PM you should immediately announce the extra £100 million per week for the NHS [the specific pledge we’d made] is starting today and more will be coming – you should start off by being unusual, a political who actually delivers what they promise. ‘Absolutely. ABSOLUTELY. We MUST do this, no question, we’ll park our tanks EVERYWHERE’ he said. Gove strongly agreed. If they had not blown up this would have happened. The opposite impression was created because many Tories who did not like us talking about the NHS reverted to type within seconds of victory and immediately distanced themselves from it and the winning campaign. Unlike Gove and Boris they did not learn from the campaign, they did not listen to the public. Until people trust that the NHS is a financial priority for Tories, they will have no moral authority to discuss management issues. This obvious fact is psychologically hard to absorb because of the strength of gang feelings in politics.

A tangential quote on data:

IN started with legal access to vast amounts of electoral data from at least three political parties, unofficial / illegal access to vast amounts of data from things like CCHQ data and the Crosby/Messina models built during the campaign, and vast amounts of commercial data. (CCHQ laughably claimed that there were ‘Chinese walls’ that prevented any abuse of Party data.) VL had none of these things. We could not even afford to buy standard commercial datasets (though the physicists found ingenious ways around this). We had no way even to acquire the electoral roll until the official process allowed us in early 2016, after which we had to wait a couple of months for LAs to fulfil their legal obligations to provide us with the data (which they did patchily and often late).

Finally, if you want to see his overall views of the IN campaign, it's the section "Rough balance of forces" of the essay. He mentions having to go up against numerous enormous structural disadvantages (which isn't surprising, since the government was pro-IN). For example:

IN set the legal rules. VL [Vote Leave] faced a huge imbalance in how these worked. For example, Cameron even during the official campaign could do huge events at places like the British Museum and the IN campaign did not have to account for such events as part of their £7 million. Meanwhile VL was told by the Electoral Commission that if people we did not even know put up huge signs that appeared on TV we might get billed for them.

There's no quote on Turkey.

Chiming as someone who has consistently heard great things about his writing, but was personally put off by his politics.

I think it's useful to understand:

  1. How he's achieved this level of real-world influence, f it's conditional on engaging in "dark arts", and if so if those "dark arts" have to be used for nefarious aims. For example, I would feel much more favorable towards his ability to manipulate the public if he was using it for causes I agree with on the object-level. So either Dominic's abilities only work for "evil", which would be interesting to understand, or they're actually general purpose with potential good uses as well.
  2. How rationality can be misused, and if so, if this implies the rationality community has a responsibility to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

...the upshot being: I still haven't read a lot of his stuff, but I feel somewhat guilty about this and plan to get around it eventually.

That all seems fair - I was just surprised and disappointed to see one obviously important explanation of why people were put off by Cummings be completely ignored in the post.

Sorry, I deliberated for a while on whether to include it, but for a number of reasons decided I wanted to just ignore the politics-as-mindkiller and focus on everything else. Ideally I would have mentioned something about this, I just felt like addressing it in any respect would immediately lead to discussion about politics-as-mindkiller and not help. Also I didn't think this post would get much publicity. Still don't really regret it.

I will say though, here, I think >90% of the value I got from his writings was orthogonal to ideology-level politics. I think operational-level politics is super interesting and with some effort we should be able to talk about it orthogonally to ideology-level politics, even if we are not yet at the level of being able to talk about ideology-level politics without being mind-killed.

Generally, it's hard to judge whether someone does things for causes you agree with or don't agree with when you don't know what the causes are. 

It seesm to me that the only way to make that judgement is to actually read Cummings describe his cause.

It seesm to me that the only way to make that judgement is to actually read Cummings describe his cause.

What grounds do we have for taking that description at face value? I don't think that even his supporters believe his qualities include scrupulous honesty.

Generally, it's hard to judge whether someone does things for causes you agree with or don't agree with when you don't know what the causes are. 

One way to do this is to trust the people when they claim to tell you what their motives are. But Cummings spends his time talking about how politicians need to lie about that, and talking about how to do that type of manipulation well. And ceteris paribus, I will trust someone less if they say they study how to lie effectively. I'm not saying I don't trust Cummings - I think he's relatively honest, and extremely / unfortunately so for a political figure - I'm saying that I don't think encouraging people to learn the skills he wants to teach is a good thing for enhancing trust more generally.

Cummings and honesty...I have a real problem with this idea; Cummings presents as the archetypal, self-serving liar. The repetition of denial regarding one's words or behaviour, with frequent changes in the actual substance of that denial, does not make it true. Is Cumming's ability to obfuscate so exceptional?

I remain a Remainer (never thought Brexit a good idea, its popularity was largely dependent on misinformation and xenophobic rallying, combined with disadvantaged, ignored swathes of the least advantaged drawing attention to their plight by flexing a weakened muscle). 

Here in Northern Ireland one may still watch how the unfinished business of Brexit, in terms of the NI Protocol, sold by Cummings & his Conservative friends, is working out.  As in the rest of the UK, Brexit has been handled in such a way that there are serious shortages of workers (eg abattoir operators, careworkers, nurses, lorry drivers, fruit pickers etc the lists go on exacerbated by years of austerity and Tory rule) and goods; the decimation of freedom of movement means no more opportunities for ease of working/studying /research/expertise or collaboration with our EU neighbours, and there's also the matter of excessive import and export paperwork which has resulted in businesses going to the wall. All of these problems are a direct result of Brexit: all economic research predicted the deterioration of economic well-being and industrial growth, and yet such prospects were ridiculed as 'fear mongering' by Tories, specifically Cummings in his role as advisor to Johnson et al. 

When one considers Cumming's own behaviour, in both words and actions, as he sold the UK public the myth of 'Brexit benefits,' there appear to be multiple irregularities.* 


Nowhere more clearly can one see the truth of Cumming's character than through his own behaviour, and the subsequent manipulation, and obfuscation, he employs to ensure he remains unaccountable. 

In what has come to be known as 'The Scandal of Barnard Castle,' those things Cummings said he meant and did, have been reported in multiple different iterations by himself, and by his wife, 'Spectator' journalist and Commissioning Editor, Mary Wakefield. 

Instrumental in formulating Lockdown Rules, Cummings broke them along with his wife and then proceeded, over a protracted period, to tell various stories about their actions and how they were 'blameless.'

The UK media published an account of Cummings' first version of events regarding possibly contracting COVID and travelling from London to the North East of England thereby having broken Lockdown Rules. Cumming's wife then published a different account in 'The Spectator;' Cummings proceeded to hold a special press briefing providing yet another account at Downing Street's Rose Garden; his wife recorded a different version for BBC Radio 4. Most recently Cummings said via Twitter that the real reason for his behaviour was that he felt he and his family were not safe in London. Cummings wriggled as he lied, as he repeatedly failed to admit that he had broken Lockdown rules.

To attempt clarity: Cummings broke the very rules he helped put in place when UK citizens could not leave home for anything other than work, no visiting dying relatives, in Care Homes or hospitals. The formats in which he brazenly lied with the support of Johnson, and through manipulating the media, is deeply concerning as the facts of his misinformation have not been conveyed to the public via mainstream media. There appears to be no holding government officials or ministers to account, the more they say something the more 'true' it is.**


Cummings has no interest in truth-telling. If one wilfully conjures stories in order to present one's own actions and intentions, over time, in the best light, one is simply a charlatan. Cummings wants to be seen as rigorous, rational and insightful, cognisant of that which matters to humanity at this moment in history. He attaches himself to those capable of rigour while he is capable only of unseemly politicking.

I would like to humbly suggest that you break blocks of text that are this big into multiple paragraphs.

Thanks. Good point.

As a way to contextualize this, he describes the Vote Leave campaign as a pretty straightforward case of Working With Monsters.

Hey Connor, I'm really happy to see someone else trying to help extract the value from Dominic Cummings work. Here's a link to a summary of wrote of his ideas.

Four, he has uniquely powerful ideas about how to do project management well...

I am interested in this. Any suggestions for posts that focus on project management specifically?

The unrecognized simplicities of effective action series of posts; in particular #2(b) linked above. The dominant examples are the Manhattan Project, Atlas, and Apollo. He also spends quite a bit of time on ARPA and Xerox/PARC.

Included in the blog posts are the relevant books he was reading at the time, if I recall. 

but actually swing voters tend to side with Libs strongly on some things like health care, white collar crime, and higher taxes on the rich and Tories strongly on some things like violent crime, anti-terrorism, and immigration

Having just read the (ridiculously long) post, his position even seemed to be that these voters are (often?) to the left of the left parties (or their leadership) on some issues, and to the right of the right parties (or their leadership) on the others.

The findings are similar in the US; the story I have pulled from it so far is that this basically boils down to tallying responses wrongly in political science research. The popular example from the US is that you might have a survey with multiple responses, and one person responds:

Q1. How do you feel about gay marriage?
A1. Gay people should have civil unions rather than marriage

Q2. How involved should the government be in the economy?
A2. Government should keep taxes low

But another person responds with:

A1. Gay people should not be allowed to get married, or adopt, or teach children

A2. Government should heavily tax the rich and important industries should be nationalized

Since both answers for the first person were conservative, the surveys marked that person as "very conservative." The second person, with one extremely conservative answer and one extremely liberal answer, got marked as a moderate.

This distinction flew under the radar for a long time because in the US there are only two political parties (which can realistically hold seats in the legislature), so it the question of which way a given voter would go was a matter of salience, which in political terms means which issues are top of mind at election time.

When looking for an older article I read on the subject, I came across a better one from 538, wherein they take some of these older survey questions and graph the outputs.

"Extremely committed to truth-seeking". Hmm. and would suggest that he has a penchant for telling fibs. 

Many people have brought this up to me and I think it's extremely misleading. Basically, he wrote this blog post about the dangers of possible pandemics that governments weren't taking seriously, and heavily rested on giant block quotes from a good source, as he often does. In the block quote he included sections on like 4/8 of the pathogens they warned about, separated by ellipses. After the pandemic he went back and added to his block quote the section on coronaviruses specifically, to show that bio-risk people were already warning about this BEFORE it happened and the government was completely failing to act on it.

This seems like an extremely reasonable action to me—he probably should have used ETA or something, which is the only "dishonesty" I fault him for, but even that phrase is a little weird in a block quote. I can see how some people would be like "you changed it!" but absent political anger, I don't really imagine getting mad at a friend or acquaintance for this. If I myself had a block quote that cut some things for length but was warning of essentially the exact thing that happened, I probably wouldn't just add the section without an ETA, but I expect I would just say in an interview "I specifically warned about coronaviruses amongst other things".

In a press conference, he claims. "Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning," I am failing to find mention of coronavirus in that original. I also note

I remain unconvinced that he is "extremely committed to truth-seeking".

And more:
Kuenssberg challenged him on Vote Leave’s central promise – a £350m Brexit dividend for the NHS. “You knew very well then, and you know very well now, that that figure didn’t include the so-called rebate, the money that the UK got to keep,” she said. “Yes,” Cummings replied.

He explained that he used the figure to focus the debate on the “balance sheet” of Britain’s EU membership, and to “drive the Remain campaign and the people running it crazy”.

“So it was a deliberate trap for the other side?” asked Kuenssberg. 

“Yeah,” Cummings replied.  

Looks to me like your average political animal, focussed mainly on winning rather than truth.

First, I already agreed this was true. But if you write about the urgent need for planning for biosecurity a year before a pandemic, quote a biosecurity report that mentions 8ish diseases, you cut a few from your block quote for concision, and then one of the 8 that you didn't specific use in your block quote (but which you were definitely writing about!) occurs in a global pandemic... I just think it's pretty reasonable to say "I wrote about this". I might not do it per se, but if a friend of mine did it, I wouldn't bat an eyelid. If a random acquaintance did it, I would stop for a second, think about it, decide it seemed fine. If you write a fair amount about a report warning of some things, and then one of those things happens, you get to say "you wrote about that". 

Second, I think there's a very important distinction between truth-seeking and truth-telling, as comes up regarding Cummings. I understand this is a pretty apologist stance but I think it's super important here. Normally people have neither, and sometimes people have both. But I think it's pretty consistent to have a model of him where he is truth-seeking but not always truth-telling.

For example, he talks about reading a lot of history in a truth-seeking way and how he's literally trying to piece together what actually happened around Bismarck because everything is so untrustworthy, and he waxes extensively on how one should interact in government in a way that continuously excises the oft-repeated political narratives and seeks truth instead. BUT he also runs campaigns that make public slogans that are slightly misleading in an unimportant way (350M), or publicly says he warned of X when instead he wrote a warning about everything in a report that included X.

These statements are a little fishy, I agree, and you should flag him as someone who you might not want to directly believe all public statements from. It also seems fine if you go more extreme, and say he's the type of person who you can't trust, though others might personally still trust him and different people should have different takes on this.

BUT I still think we should describe him as truth-seeking, especially if I flag it as "from a different perspective". I imagine you won't want to read much of his writing, but I think probably if you read a few posts of it you would see that he's making a weird distinction between {how you yourself think, and how you talk to your friends and colleagues while hugging the truth} and {communicating publicly, where everybody is constantly lying, in part because you can only get across a snippet of information to people}. I don't really know how to reconcile these personally, because I don't know much about public communication. And I personally am not happy that he does it—in fact, it's super annoying, because it makes it so much harder for his allies to claim moral high ground, and in fact causes a bunch of people to distrust him. But I still think pretty strongly that we should describe him as truth-seeking, because A) it's true, and B) hardly any people in politics are truth-seeking and I think we can learn a ton from him.

ETA: ryan_b makes the same point below more concisely, and provides a better example: that "the VoteLeave campaign applied basic epistemics, at his direction". I think this is a great example, and there are other similar anecdotes, like their success in the referendum on the Northwest Regional Assembly. 

I just think it's pretty reasonable to say "I wrote about this". I might not do it per se, but if a friend of mine did it, I wouldn't bat an eyelid. If a random acquaintance did it, I would stop for a second, think about it, decide it seemed fine

Besides that, there's the aspect that Cummings is a person who's heavily investigated by journalists. If that's one of the worst things someone can find, that shows good things.

It's important to distinguish seeking the truth from speaking the truth. The truth-seeking credential here is that the Vote Leave campaign applied basic epistemics, at his direction: review the literature to determine what methods actually work; gather as much data as possible; update methods according to feedback; aggressively ignore recommendations from high-status-but-wrong people who are nominally on the same side.

Oh awesome, you already made the important argument here. Thanks. I'll leave up my comment above saying similarly, though.