I was planning to move onto another topic in this blog, but wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t draw attention to the leading feature in last week’s ‘New Scientist’. A brain-science piece by a Brighton-based writer called Dan Jones, it sought to explain why it is that so many of our fellow citizens just can’t understand the facts, and wondered what we’re to do about it. It was clear from the start that he was reaching out to an audience of liberal-left academics and wondering with them what on earth we’re to do about the idiots who voted for such abominations as Brexit and Trump. Even in his introduction, Jones endorsed the lib-left shibboleth of a “populist movement” (known in other quarters as an electoral majority) and, for an encore, made this the product of our “post-truth society” – even though Leavers remember the campaign best for the pro-Remain government’s warnings that Brexit would cause an economic crash, a surge in unemployment, a rise in retail prices, a fall in house prices, a spike in inflation, and war.
It’s fair to say that ‘New Scientist’ has a track record of going off piste into politics. Before the Brexit vote, its front page exhorted readers to resist the irrational lure of rejecting the EU. Though you might be surprised by such partisanship from a scientific journal, I wasn’t in the slightest. Some years ago, at a large meeting of scientists, I witnessed a speaker asking for a show of hands on one burning political issue and receiving practically unanimous backing for the lib-left position – rather stunningly from a statistical point of view, given that two-thirds of the general population held the contrary view.
If you know academia, you’ll probably think this merely a cultural thing. As one Oxbridge undergraduate recently wrote in a national magazine, you can’t get a girlfriend on the campus if you don’t parrot the lib-left orthodoxy. Similarly, any Tory academic who came out of the closet would be unlikely to have many influential allies in the faculty. But that’s only part of the story. So dependent is the academic world not only on EU funding but also on free movement across borders that voting against the status quo would be like a turkey voting for Christmas. Though many academics do place science above personal interest, at the end of the day they are human beings with careers to think about, in addition to their job responsibilities. As one professor I used to know quite reasonably put it, “I see no reason why having brains should stop me having a fast car”. No doubt he would add today that it is no business of the public to prevent him from getting as many fee-paying foreign students as he can squeeze in and sourcing lab assistants from wherever he can get them.
So Jones’s journalistic stance is quite understandable: he knows his audience. Yet, though the piece’s one-eyed approach struck me as lacking in that fundamental of scientific rigour, impartiality, that’s not to say that it was lacking in science content. Jones attributed the recent demotic blunders to what he called “motivated decision-making”. In other words, the people were deciding against the EU and the Democrats because they’d a vested interest in doing so, and were selectively interpreting facts accordingly. Now, if you’ve read my earlier blogs, you’ll know that this is absolutely my point of view. What you’ll also know however is that I believe that all humans, on both sides of the fence, suffer from the same systematic bias. The only ‘truth’ for nearly all humans is the one that they feel corresponds best to their self-interest. The fact that any particular belief-system has the fortunes of the ruling caste depending on it makes it no more objectively true than an absolute sureness that all heavenly bodies are mounted on celestial spheres rotating about the Earth.
There’s no shame in this: we can help doing it no more than cats can help arching their backs when under threat. ‘New Scientist’ made this precise point only last month, in another feature describing consciousness as a sort of controlled hallucination: a crude and often inaccurate head-up display conjured by the brain from the bare dots and dashes presented to it by the senses. Reading Jones’s account, however, I couldn’t help the feeling that he was repeating what all my lib-leftist friends say to each other: “It’s a mistake every human makes – present company excepted, obviously”. Any ruling ideology will propagate this same fallacy in order to engineer unity of support. But Might doesn’t make Right, and a house built on shifting sands never lasts. What young Mr Jones perhaps hasn’t yet realised is that absolutely nothing becomes a fact just because legions of learned worthies agree on it; ask Galileo. The only recourse ever devised against mass self-delusion is the scientific method, a more dependable means of getting to the truth than any amount of self-interested expert assertion. As my favourite scientist Richard Feynman famously said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.