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Tuesday 31 January 2017

Be Careful What You Wish For

The current political crisis teeters on the brink of catastrophe. Never mind why Donald Drumpf won the election or why Brexit came to the fore from a fringe idea espoused only by a silly man who looks an awful lot like a toad, sometimes the how is more important.

Post-truth, a.k.a. bullshit, played a huge role in both of these political disasters, and may well yet play an equally huge role in translating them into physical disasters. Politicians have always been skilled liars and post-truth is nothing new, but the scale of it, the sheer brazen outrageousness of it - these were what caught everyone by surprise. The idea that a talking racist toupee could even win a single vote for the position nominally deemed to be leader of the free world is one so appallingly stupid that the very notion still seems impossible to countenance, let alone accept as grim and bitter reality.

As with any system under crisis, there are two challenges facing the political world at the moment. The first is to bring itself back from the brink of the abyss and prevent a slide into true chaos. The second is to reform and remake itself such that situations like this cannot happen again.

One proposed solution, probably the most obvious one of all, is that we need better politicians. And of course, we do. We need politicians who will not kowtow to populism and the braying of the mob without first trying to understand what is the mob actually needs as well as wants. We need politicians who are not afraid of the truth even when those truths go against our ideologies and dreams, who might nonetheless spin appealing, inspiring narratives but will admit when those narratives fail because there are whopping great facts in the way.

But feel free to opt for the alternative fact that the boulder isn't there and just drive on regardless. I'm sure that'll work.
In particular, there's a call for scientists to stand as politicians. Surely, as seekers of objective truth free from ideologies, the supposedly most rational group of all would be ideally placed to reform the political system and rescue it from the bleak, post-fact reality in which it now finds itself ?

Well, yes - in the short term. Such a move might well avert the current crisis, but by itself, without any other underlying changes to the political system, it will most assuredly lurch the entire creaking edifice into the next and far greater calamity - a political singularity beyond which no-one can reasonably say precisely what disasters may befall us, but which we may be confident will be very real, physical catastrophes and not merely problems for the 1%. Because the problem isn't just with the politicians. It's a threefold problem, and without addressing each aspect of it, we are forever doomed to more of the same.

First, there are the politicians themselves. If you have bad rulers the rest is irrelevant. Second is the political system in which those rulers operate.  No matter how noble their intentions, if the system of government is itself fundamentally flawed, the politician's aspirations will be rendered impotent or perverted. And third, assuming that we wish to maintain some form of democracy, are the voters themselves. No matter the greatness of the politicians or the suitability of the system of governance, if the voters are a bunch of bigoted idiots, a fair and just society will not result.

So what will happen if we elect a bunch of scientists into the current political systems without changing that system or regard for the will of the voters ? The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions...

In the short term, we might - might - see some improvements and cause for hope. We may see policies based on evidence and facts, not feelings and ideologies. We may get, for example, compulsory vaccinations, investment in renewable energy, a decline in fossil fuels, the development of a space industry, and increased freedom of movement. But we may not, and in the long-term any gains will surely be undone. Because the current ruling system is at best influenced by facts, but it is certainly not dependent on them and can often freely ignore them altogether. Failure to account for the irrational nature of the system and the voters will bring disaster, because successful politics depends far less on how the world really is and far more on how the voters wish or believe it to be.

There are at least three reasons why this modern variant of philosopher kings will ultimately fail and fail hard.

1) The political system is partisan and not very nice about it

The first is that both the political system and (to varying degrees) the politicians themselves are inherently partisan and it is strongly in the interests of everyone involved to maintain that partisanship. The system of opposing (albeit occasionally collaborating) political parties is one that demands enemies, those who are seen as attacking the others not because the facts support their own claims but because it's their political duty to do so. Let's not forget the strength of this system as well as highlighting its weaknesses : the government is continually held to account by the opposition. But post-truth happens in part because (to a sufficient extent) it genuinely does not matter for a politician what the truth is, because that does not necessarily correlate with them winning elections. And so it behooves the partisan politician to create enemies where none exist.

You cannot enter the current system and avoid being seen as partisan. The tribal nature of the system simply does not permit it. Like a fly caught in a web, one may struggle valiantly for a while, but ultimately the only choices are to escape entirely or fall victim to the spider in the centre. Now, this actually works quite well most of the time, because politics is largely about interpretation, prediction, and opinion. And it's fundamentally good to debate those and to present opposing views. Debating "alternative facts", however, is to make an enemy of the truth. And that is self-evidently stupid.

Such things already happen when there's even a mere whiff of foul politics associated with scientific findings. Global warming is now seen by its detractors, bizarrely, as a left-wing conspiracy. Those claiming that nuclear power and genetically modified organisms are safe are seen as corporate tools. Scientists themselves are all too often derided as "liberal elites", as though that were insulting. Now, it is true that this is not always the case, and that experts are still (whatever Michael Gove may wish) widely regarded as far more trustworthy than politicians. Nevertheless, expert advice is often ignored, and while the mistrust of science is as yet very far from complete, all this has been achieved while science is truly apolitical.

So consider for a moment what those with subjective bias might accomplish if scientists actually participated in the political system directly and in large numbers. To discredit them as biased, partisan members of the tribal opposition would become a thousandfold easier. This will happen not (only) because politicians are innately scheming self-interested power-hungry maniacs, but because the system they work in demands it of their profession.

This rampant cynicism needs tempering, however, because it's not quite so awful. Remember, there are good reasons the political system is the way it is - the need to present voters with a choice, to hold the government to account for its actions - just as there are very good reasons the scientific system has evolved into something infinitely less partisan. But no reform of the political process can possibly succeed without acknowledging the underlying nature of the system.

But, as I said, it's not quite so awful. I said that the truth genuinely does not matter to a politician, but of course this is only true to some degree. There are those who maintain their basic decency despite the pressures of the system. But more fundamentally, scientists currently possess the awesome power of being able to hold politicians to account. Their knowledge is and is seen to be politically independent. It is objective and derived for knowledge's sake. Thus, while it is hardly fair to paint all politicians as the vacuous, self-serving tools of the system I have described, even those that are cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Scientific knowledge acts as part of a series of critical checks and balances of the system : even the worst politicians are bound to respect the truth at least a little. Political reality is not wholly detached from objective reality so long as we have a fair idea of what the hell objective reality actually is.

Now consider what would happen if there were no perceived boundaries between knowledge and politics. Post-truth and alternative facts would be only the beginning, and this is a chilling prospect which should terrify anyone.

2)  Scientists are people too

The second reason is that scientists are not saints. Once you start depicting people as your enemy, they very often become your enemy. While the rough-and-tumble world of academia has its feuds and rivalries, it seldom degenerates into the acrimonious, public and bitterly personal attacks that are a mainstay of political life. Nor is it particularly duplicitous - scientists tend to do science because they want to do science, not pursue fortune and glory. Get caught lying as a politician and it's not even a scandal. Get caught lying as a scientist and your career can be ruined.

Scientists are ill-equipped to deal with political reality not because they're particularly thin-skinned precious little snowflakes, but because no-one deals well when transitioning to a radically different social environment. The cool detachment and playful exploration requisite of science has hardly a place in the political arena. To expect scientists to maintain their objectivity in the face of such an onslaught is not reasonable : they will lose their objectivity. They will become partisan, not because they are bad people but because, like the politicians before them, they are people. And because the system demands it, so long as they want to stay in office.

And worse, science risks the danger of itself becoming a political movement. If that happens, then all is lost, and that's not hyperbole. There will be no objective facts to hold politicians to account, because all will be determined by political motivations. Science as a political movement is a glass ceiling : science's power and influence in the political sphere comes from its trusted nature; it is above politics. Blur the lines of politics and science and glass ceiling will break. The very thing that makes science valuable in politics, its power to hold politicians to account, will be gone. There will be no checks on the facts because no-one will believe the facts. The tribalism that's currently such a leading source of mistrust of science will run rampant. Instead of reaching out and persuading the most important people of all - those who think science is all some kind of fairy story - they will be driven further away and their voices will become very much louder. It is those who deny the findings of science that we should be trying to reach, not engage in endless chest-thumping exercises.

And it may be even far worse and darker than that. Currently, scientists possess knowledge and a somewhat mediocre level of influence. Now suppose they are given the abilities to make laws and run the country. Who, then, will hold the philosopher kings to account ? No-one. And that is far, far too much power to give to any group - again, not because they are bad people, but because they are people.

One may object at this point for a number of reasons. Science is above politics, one may say, but scientists aren't. They cannot be. They have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else to promote their cause and call out injustice where they see it, and nor should they be denied the right to participate as fully in the political process as anyone else : voting, joining activist groups, protesting, writing blogs, etc.; being a scientists is not an excuse to avoid making difficult moral choices. And a few scientists becoming politicians, even leading political figures (especially in certain ministerial positions), will certainly not bring about the End of Days. Rather, it's an issue of responsibility. Scientists joining the system en masse, or as a slow but steady trickle, risks science itself becoming or being perceived as a partisan political movement. If that happens, its whole usefulness to society would be at an end.

3) Have you ever seen what happens to scientists when they become managers ? Cos I have

Another objection that one may raise is that by changing the politicians to people who are fundamentally more interested in the truth than winning votes, the very system of politics itself may change. But again, scientists are not saints. There's no indication that people who've dedicated their lives to physics or biology or chemistry would be especially suited to understand, let alone reform, the political system in a coherent and sensible way. Or that they would have any special insight into how to create a new one from the bottom-up. The philosopher kings of Plato's Republic were not selected on the basis of their skill at critical analysis, but on their skill of ruling.

There's nothing about studying the natural world that either attracts those with a special ability to understand human psychology, nor does it bestow that ability. There's a very good reason most scientists choose a scientific career instead of one in politics, and from my experience I have very little faith that a hitherto untapped reservoir of psychological and political brilliance is lurking amongst my colleagues. They are fundamentally different skill sets from scientific analysis. And so the third reason philosopher kings will fail is that scientists are neither trained nor especially well-suited to leadership or rhetoric; they are very ill-equipped either to reform the political system or inspire the voters. This is a key point I've had to explain to my colleagues many times : in politics you have to be able to inspire and persuade people, to carry them with you - you cannot just act against their will.

So we should just give up ?

Everybody PANIC !!!!
Hell no. What this does not mean is that we're doomed to suffer from corrupt, post-truth politicians forever, or even that there is no system in which scientists can't be politicians as well. It only means that scientists becoming politicians right now is not a magic bullet. The solutions are much more complex than that - if you want to reform politics, you must reform the entire body politic, not just replace the politicians. You have to look not only at the rulers but also the ruling system and the ruled themselves.

Let's consider an absurdly extreme example. Absurd extremes need to be handled with care as they are often misleading compared to the complexities of the real world (e.g. the notorious trolley problem) - but they sometimes help elucidate our thought processes and highlight important aspects of certain situations, even if they have numerous flaws of detail.

So bearing that in mind, let's suppose that voters were given the choice between, say, Boris Johnson and Smaug the dragon. Now, I know many of you hate Boris rather a lot. That's absolutely fine. But he's not going to actually burn everyone alive and eat them, so if you vote for Smaug you are simply insane. It wasn't a great choice, no, but one option was clearly and massively better than the others. Sometimes there aren't any good choices, but you still have to choose.

This particular absurd example is better than most, as it's not so very far from recent real-world examples and it illustrates nicely the trifold problem : the lousy system that led the stupid voters to choosing a terrible ruler. If you want the voters to make better choices, you not only have to give them better options but you also have to ensure that they're capable of at least rudimentary decision-making and at least trying to be objective. Responsibility for the outcome of vote is shared three ways. You don't have to make everyone a genius, nor do you have to give them figures of the calibre of Gandhi and Lincoln. You just need a system where a motherfrakin' dragon isn't allowed on the ballot and the voters wouldn't vote in significant numbers for him if he was.

This is not easy. In fact it is extraordinarily difficult, because while there are only three components to the body politic that we need to consider here, the links between them are far more complex - each is like a multi-headed hydra. So in practise, achieving reform of these three aspects means a lot more than changing politicians, the electoral system and how voters are appeased. In order to get something approaching a reasonable system where Smaug couldn't ever win, no matter how brilliant his campaign strategy (fire-breathing and sinister threats notwithstanding), far more fundamental changes with far-reaching implications are needed. It would be nice if we could simply elect the right people and then everything will get better. But this is not the case, and wishing for a thing does not make it so.

Building Better Worlds

I will not rant on here at length about how I would choose to construct a Brave New World (enthusiasts should read this). However, I will briefly mention two parts of the system that, in my view, are particularly weak links that if we reformed properly would go a long way towards a better politics. What I'm particularly concerned about is how parliaments communicate to their voters and how those voters assess the information presented to them. Solve these issues, I think, and reforms needed to the parliamentary system (for all the problems of partisan politics I've described) will be relatively minor.

1) The Media

I've talked about this before; John Oliver has also done an excellent piece on clickbaiting. Scientist and journalist are in full agreement, good. The media are a particularly important nerve in the body politic because they convey information to and fro between rulers and ruled, not only directly but also regarding the ruling system as well as on the facts and findings of other apolitical systems. This gives them tremendous influence in society, offering them, for instance, the opportunity to bear-bait the mob when the legitimate, independent judiciary throws a spanner in governmental plans... or indeed to provoke dissent when the government exceeds its legal authority.

The media's power is vast, and it can be an important force for justice... but it desperately needs regulation and responsibility. Freedom of speech has been taken to the absurd absolute of freedom of fraud, in part because of twisted ideologies and in part because of the simple need to make a sale. I will not presume here to determine precisely how the media should be run, I only want to point out that this problem exists. Even if politicians were truly pinnacles of integrity, this problem would still exist. And it's a big one. Change the business model, change the legal regulations... whatever you do, prevent the normalisation of incredibly biased news sources full of hate speech. I do not say ban newspapers from supporting political parties, but I do say that the number of media outlets any individual can control should be limited, and papers openly siding with political parties should not be the norm. But I digress.

2) Education, Education, Education

This second weak link is even more fundamental. If the majority of the media-purchasing public are able to properly evaluate reports and understand how they're being manipulated, misinformation and fake news would become very much harder to get away with. Readers would not desire it, ergo newspapers wouldn't sell it. Is this a pipe dream ? Well it's certainly not easy.

I've previously given examples of how this can be done, which on the surface don't seem all that difficult. Teach people about basic statistics so they understand the way numbers can be abused, to think about the wider context in which every piece of information fits, and not to leap to conclusions. Teach them to understand or at least search for the deeper meaning in complex literature so they won't take everything at face value. Use real-world examples of adverts to show them directly how they're being manipulated; compare headlines from different sources on the same story to give them different perspectives. Get students to debate with each other and get them to empathise with opposing points of view. Teach them about how science arrived at its conclusions and not just what those conclusions are. Try to get them to honestly understand how they themselves came to their own opinions. Teach them about self-examination and bias extensively, because so many people seem to think that anyone holding an opposing viewpoint must be biased, as though that automatically made them wrong and excused the need for any sort of actual debate.

The idea of citizenship lessons is also floated around from time to time. I'd be in favour of some version of these : earlier calls (I think it was Gordon Brown) for teaching "British values" struck me as nothing more than propaganda, however, the latest incarnation may be a much better idea. Teach people how laws are enabled - the complexities of the process, what the government can and can't do without consulting parliament or the people, exactly what "free speech" really means legally (because an awful lot of people really don't seem to understand this at all). Teaching them what their civil rights are and how government works is hardly propaganda, and might just help them understand the real difference between legitimate protest and sour grapes.

Teaching these things is easy, just as teaching facts is easy. The difficulty is that remembering facts is easy - remembering how to apply modes of thinking is not. This is why I advocate more emphasis on these methods in the humanities classes rather than the sciences, because to most people examining the news is far more relatable than examining how a rocket works. It wouldn't hurt to teach children these things in a way that's practical to their own lives either, because there's not a lot you can do about politics when you're too young to vote.

More importantly than what is taught is not so much how it's being taught as who is teaching. A good teacher can make any lesson interesting, but such people are few and far between. To inspire a genuine love of learning, and not simply to give children tools to win arguments about cats with strangers on the internet, is going to necessitate making such people the norm rather than the exception. And these things have to continue throughout the full duration of compulsory education, regularly, not just in the occasional one-off lessons.


I understand why you'd want more scientists in politics, but that would, at best, just be treating the symptom. The deeper underlying cause is that we have irrational rulers because we have an irrational society. All in all, it's remarkable that the partisan political system works as well as it does... but that's because it's designed to work with our human failings - to compensate for those who are more interested in winning the argument than in being right. Like any system, it has its limits. If the politicians never tell the truth about anything, it can't correct for that. But if they always tell the truth then it can't process this either, because it demands voters be given a choice when sometimes the facts do not permit one. The system takes the flawed, irrational nature of its participants as a given; it does not seek to change the nature of the beast.

So you can't elect scientists into the current system and expect things to improve. Rather the system and its existing incumbents will ensure that the newcomers are perceived as partisan and actually become partisan themselves. This removes a vital source of independent fact-checking, resulting in the loss of an essential check on the system that keeps it in its precarious balance. It will greatly exacerbate criticism of science and the critics will be justified, because science will no longer be about knowledge for knowledge's sake. Scientists care about integrity in part because the system in which they work is unlike the political system : it fosters and rewards that integrity. Scientists are not especially noble or virtuous creatures; you ask too much of them to remain objective in a system designed to burn away all objectivity.

That is why the usefulness of science is greatest when it remains beyond politics. Mix the two and both will suffer.

No, if you want to improve society, you must look at the wider issues. Most certainly it would be a good idea if the rulers acted based on reliable information. To do that we undoubtedly need educated rulers (though not necessarily experts) but also educated voters. Without the latter you won't elect sensible rulers - not ever. And when you do have educated voters electing sensible rulers, you'll need to change the governmental system, otherwise it will keep on doing what it's designed to do : making enemies. Except now it will be making an enemy of the truth.

Getting the electorate to be more rational obviously isn't easy. The reforms I've suggested to the media and the education system certainly won't lead to a Utopia or even a secure, stable system. At best they would have given the other sides the edge in the Brexit/Trump vote. Because even when people are well-educated and well-off, they don't necessarily act rationally. Trump voters were not particularly impoverished or poorly educated. Tory voters include the very wealthy with (supposedly) literally the best education money can by - but for some people it's not enough to be on top, they must also squash those at the bottom. Others - seemingly intelligent people - even sincerely believe that their policies that hurt the less fortunate or discriminate against foreigners are genuinely morally good.

It is absolutely essential to recognise the strength of the inherent irrational nature of the human condition, even if it's impossible to fully apprehend it. This is why you cannot simply give people more information or more rational leaders and expect to get a more rational society as a result; ideologies are not so lightly thrown aside. Which is why the fight for rational thought must, ironically, be a battle for hearts as well as minds. And it must be fought in the classrooms from nursery school upwards, not just by teaching science and maths but in all aspects of education, as a core, guiding principle of the entire system.

The naive say that changing but a single aspect of the body politic - the rulers, the ruled, or the ruling system - is sufficient to remake the world or will itself bring about reform of the other factors. The cynic understands that this is not so, but believes that change is impossible - that you cannot change the nature of the beast. Those standing in the middle ground say that only without attempting change is change certainly impossible. For if we cannot achieve a true Nirvana, a paradise free of violence and suffering of all kinds, perhaps we can yet build a world free of the worst aspects of ourselves. A world in which the petty, the spiteful, the hateful Trumps and Hitlers and Farages cannot exploit the violence and fear of the voters, but are themselves terrified of it.

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