". . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right."
What brought this quote to mind again? Partly a continuing concern about the role of the media in the independence debate, and a recollection of the quote heading a feature in New Scientist, October 2011 edition. This 8-page special report by Shawn Lawrence Otto and Peter Aldhous examines the decline and fall of reason in American politics and public life. Its two introductory paragraphs set the scene -
“The US was founded on enlightenment values and is the most powerful scientific nation on earth. And yet the status of science in public life has never appeared to be so low.
…. US politics, especially on the right, appears to have entered a parallel universe where ignorance, denial and unreason trump facts, evidence and rationality.” New Scientist, Decline and Fall, Oct. 2011
Shawn Lawrence Otto’s article is full of little gems, among them quotes from the Republican candidates as they then were for the 2012 Presidential election. After a litany of their irrational, non-scientific and often religious dogma-based views on various matters, including evolution, creationism, vaccination, climate change, homosexuality – which would be risible if they were not so terrifying – he makes the chilling point that “Republicans diverge from anti-science politics at their peril” and cites Mitt Romney hastily recanting on his view that humans contributed to global warming when faced with an attack from right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh.
On Congress, he has this to say -
“Less than 2 per cent of its 535 members have professional backgrounds in science. In contrast, there are 222 lawyers, whom one suspects largely avoided science classes in college. Lawyers are trained to win arguments, and as any trial lawyer will tell you, that means using facts selectively for the purposes of winning, not to establish the truth. No wonder ideology and rhetoric have come to dominate policy discussion, often bearing little relationship to factual reality.” Shawn Otto Lawrence Oct. 2011
But to me, his most telling observation is this one -
Science is politics
“But to view science as apolitical is a fundamental error. Science is always political because the new knowledge it created requires refining our morals and ethics, and challenges vested interests. Withdrawing from the conversation cedes these discussions to opponents, which is exactly what happened.” Shawn Otto Lawrence Oct. 2011
He goes on to describe the retreat of American science from the political arena, leaving the field clear for fundamentalist religion to address the fears of the people over “the increasing moral complexities of science" in a voice that “grew evangelical, angry, anti-science and intensely political.”
We don’t have to look to America to recognise these profoundly anti-democratic tendencies at work – they are dangerously alive right here in Scotland and the UK, on climate change, on gay marriage, on renewable energy sources, on the role of churches and religions in a secular democracy, on nuclear energy, on defence, on the nuclear deterrent, on foreign interventionism, on the nature of nationalism, on religious education in schools, in the history curriculum, in faith schools, on House of Lords reform, the monarchy, the established church – the list goes on.
With a few notable exceptions, scientists and engineers are not drawn to either politics or religion as a career or, to be more high-minded, as a vocation.
Politics once was a choice for those of independent means – the landed aristocracy - but now those with a military background, business people, teachers, lawyers and, for around a century now, trades unionists predominate. These groups usually only entered the political process proper after establishing themselves for some years in their original professions.
With the growth of the significance of media in politics, media professionals can be added to this list, and we now have another group, the professional career politicians – direct entrants to politics with relevant degrees, usually a PPE degree (philosophy, politics and economics) who enter as special advisers, often on a basis a patronage or sponsorship, and move effortlessly into representative roles as MPs, MSPs, etc. (For some of the latter, it has become almost a hereditary calling, if not a family business venture.)
There are also doubtless a fair number of economists and accountants in Parliament among those I have lumped together as business people, not to mention stockbrokers and city people. Since most of these occupations require no more than the basic numeracy of a bookie’s clerk (in fact most bookie’s clerks could run rings round them!) the number of MPs and MSPs who have to capacity to evaluate the mathematical and statistical validity and significance of vital scientific evidence, social statistics, and dare I mention it, opinion polls results is probably miniscule.
(For the record, I count myself among those with strictly limited numeracy, although numbers have formed a central part of my business career. But I have at least a very basic grasp of probability, of statistics, of sampling, and of the vital logical processes required for any voter to distinguish shit from Shinola when it comes to the political arguments and the confident assertions of politicians and journalists.)
One only has to scan the front benches of the UK Parliament to see the results of this. Of course, the argument is that the democratic institutions of a nation have to represent the diversity of that nation, and as Churchill once observed drily, this must perforce include some idiots.
Specialised expertise can supposedly be drawn when required from the permanent civil service and from special advisers and experts. Yet embarrassing examples of the polarisation of expert opinion when it comes to supposedly immutable facts relating to the independence of Scotland have abounded.
Let’s look at the polarisation in our world, now reflected in the great debate started by the questions surrounding Scotland’s independence, a debate that has ramifications far beyond Scotland – for the UK, for England, for Wales, for Northern Ireland, for the Republic of Ireland, for Catalonia, for Canada and Quebec, for Europe, for Scandinavia, for NATO and, through the defence alliance, for the US. These are not the fantasies of a Scottish nationalist , they are a stark political reality, as the recent furore over Michael Ignatieff and Canada and Quebec has so recently demonstrated.
Doubtless inadvertently omitting all sort of vital questions, here’s what I see as some of the big global issues -
Global warming/climate change
World poverty and gross inequalities across the range of vital resources – food, water, medical care, etc..
World’s water supply
Islam and Christianity – crisis of competing values
Religious fundamentalism in any creed
Tensions between religious and secular values
The Arab Spring and its consequences for both successful and unsuccessful liberation movements
Israel and the Palestinians
The US and its relationship with Israel
China’s exponential growth in the world economy
The Afghanistan war
Iran and nuclear power/weapons
North Korea – nuclear weapons and instability
Pakistan and India – political instability and tensions: nuclear issues
Russia – instability and nuclear issues
The US – political polarisation and instability
International finance and banking – scale of operation, instability, amorality
The operations, values, ethics of multi-national and transnational companies
All of the above affect Europe and the UK.
(I have avoided comment on events and problems in many other countries – e.g. Latin America, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, Indonesia - because I don’t know enough to determine their significance. )
Among the European issues are -
The Future of the EU and the euro
Economic instability of some European nations
The resurgence of neo-fascism and the far right.
NATO and defence issues
The UK - political instability, loss of trust in key institutions, gross inequalities between regions:
also - the Irish question – North and South: The UK’s concept of its role in the world: the Falklands: the economic problems: the monarchy: the loss of electoral dominance by the three major parties: the nature of devolution as a process: the House of Lords: the dominance of Oxbridge people and values in business and political life – the list is pretty well endless …
It is obvious that Scotland is affected, directly or indirectly by all of these issues.
What is becoming increasingly obvious by the month is that Scotland’s independence referendum, and the implications of that potential independence, impinge on many of them, out of all proportion to Scotland’s size as a country, however measured.
It is no exaggeration to say the Scotland's independence is the butterfly’s wing flap - Butterfly effect - that will trigger significant world reactions with unforeseeable consequences – a great wind that bloweth where it listeth.
As the referendum lead-time shortens, every one of the above issues will be brought into play by both the pro and anti-independence camps, and the arguments will be supported by conflicting numbers, expert evidence and conflicting perspectives of key events.
The voter, bemused, will either abandon the struggle, opting out or respond to superficial political slogans and old loyalties, or alternatively, will call in vain for non-partisan, unimpeachable professionals to help them through the fog, since there are few or none in a question of this scale and import.
But many will claim to be such sources - the think tanks, funded by big-moneyed individuals with dubious agendas and vested interest groups, religious groups substituting dogma for reason, the tabloid press, and the big-mouthed columnists who substitute rants for reason.
Since the crucial skills of comparing, validating and evaluating information sources, the relative merits of conflicting arguments and the validity of statistical claims are rarely taught in our schools in a political or religious context, many voters will fail to make the distinction between opinion and informed opinion, between information and propaganda and spin.
The skills of the advocate and the lawyer will shade insidiously into the skills of the PR people and the hidden persuaders, and will obscure the objective methodology of the scientist, the engineer, the mathematician.
Some scientists and engineers will be complicit in this process, serving the false God of their political and social prejudices at the expense of objectivity and truth, not to mention the nutty professors and bought-and-paid-for academics who will pop up, justifying their lucrative US lecture tours and research grants bankrolled by big oil interests opposed to renewables, and right-wing military/industrial complex money, enamoured of war and nuclear weaponry, fuelling paranoia.
What to do?
Well, that must be reserved for a subsequent blog, once I get the ideas rattling round in my head that the local elections started off sorted out into some sort of coherent proposals …