Interview with Olle Häggström: Reason, COVID-19 and Academic Freedom in Sweden

by Erich_Grunewald2 min read21st Aug 2021No comments

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Olle Häggström, author of Here Be Dragons and much else, and Professor of Mathematical Statistics at my alma mater, was good enough to answer a few questions of mine. Here's an excerpt:

ERICH: Is there a Swedish Scott Alexander? A Julia Galef? Even an Eliezer Yudkowsky?

OLLE: I must say you're good at guessing who some of my favorite intellectuals might be. But I should also say that those you mention are unique individuals, and it doesn't make much sense to try to name Swedish counterparts. If I did try to do that, I'd necessarily omit a lot of extremely bright Swedish thinkers and friends, and thereby unnecessarily insult them. And perhaps I'd even insult those I do mention. I recall once, when I was maybe 30 or 35 and very much up and coming in academia, and I had given a talk somewhere in Sweden, and this professor X from the older generation came up to me afterwards and wanted to express how much he liked the talk and to say something really nice to me. So he said, with reference to another leading Swedish math professor Y of his own generation, "You really are a worthy heir to Y!" And while I understood he meant it as praise, I couldn't help feeling partly insulted. I hope I didn't show it too much, but I felt like saying "I am not Y, or an heir to Y, I am Olle Häggström, with my own unique competences and agendas". And so I won't give you any names.

[...]

ERICH: Do politicians listen to scientists at all? Can you, as a professor, make your voice heard?

OLLE: If you read the newspapers, you can get the impression that politicians are so involved in the struggle to win the next election that they do not care about addressing the full range of problems society is facing, and especially not about long-term issues. And while there's some truth to that, there's more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. For instance, I was very happy last year to be asked by the Swedish Green Party (Miljöpartiet) for a report to help them figure out their politics in the AI sphere. And as it happens, I have another meeting on AI politics just this afternoon with a high-ranking member of another party. I am not in a position yet to brag that I've had any crucial influence on politics, but I keep working on it and we'll see ...

I encourage you to read it – it was fun for me to ask questions about my native land, where I haven't lived for over half a decade now, and Olle's answers are both interesting and entertaining.

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