Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday 25 June 2016

Are There Hats ?

So Brexit is here, and it is easily the most depressing British political event in modern times. Will it bring about the next apocalypse, a plague of locusts and the end of civilisation ? No. But it is a seriously, historically, objectively bad thing. We are all of us going to suffer for this.

Nobody knows how badly the UK economy will suffer, but suffer it most certainly will. The sudden plunge of the pound (predicted by economists) was mostly market shock at us actually doing something so stupid, but the long-term effects are harder to foresee. How we will make up the £3.4 billion science shortfall (and yes, I place that of prime importance*, science is an important driver of social progress) is unknown. The 1707 Act of Union - one of the most successful political unions in world history, which ten years ago looked rock solid - looks unlikely to last much longer. The United Kingdom will dissolve and no longer be Great Britain, there will just be Britain - a wet, gloomy island home to some unimportant, disparate countries clinging to faded visions of past glories. We shunned openness with our neighbours and turned our back on the tolerant, inclusive society we have built over many decades. Worst of all, Nigel Farage - a demonstrably racist, xenophobic, bigoted idiot - is hero of the hour. That alone terrifies me.

* But if you insist that you want more, consider the effects to the financial sector, peace in Northern Ireland, the loss of job opportunities due to restrictions on freedom of movement, and basically all those benefits from joining the E.U. that are now under threat.

None of this is hyperbole or spin, it is simply reality. You might not like it - God knows I find it appalling - but it's true anyway.

Not that Britain hasn't suffered some pretty calamitous events before, only to eventually rise again. During the Viking invasions, England was reduced to merely Wessex before it saved itself from obliteration - only for the entire thing to then be conquered by Canute, and then his empire broke up on his death, temporarily restoring the Anglo-Saxon legacy. By the time of the Norman invasion England was the wealthiest country in Europe, and despite the carnage of Norman conquest, a century later British dominions stretched from the Pyrenees to Scotland. Most of that was lost during the disastrous reign of King John, but two hundred years later and Britain looked to be on the verge of winning the whole of France - only for Henry V to die at a young age. Thus began the chaos of the Wars of the Roses... and that's all centuries before the British Empire even began.

We have a long, rich, and complicated history. We endure. We have, indeed, suffered far worse than leaving the E.U., only to eventually emerge stronger than ever before, and we will likely do so again. A germ of hope can be seen in that the vote was split by age, with the youth strongly preferring to remain (it is no exaggeration to state that this decision has been inflicted on us by racist older people who won't have to live with the consequences of their decision nearly as long as those who didn't want to leave). The problem, of course, is in the "eventually". Things do not look likely to get better anytime soon.

The medieval chronicler Gerald of Wales put it thus :
For a sensible man ought to consider that Fortune’s favour is variable and her wheel is ever turning ... the Prince must take care, and always have imprinted on his mind the fact that although the merciful Creator ... is long-suffering and patient... He is likewise severe in executing punishment and vengeance upon the stubborn and wilful, and usually begins to exact that punishment here on earth.
Or in more secular terms things might not be apocalyptic and they may indeed one day improve, but you can't escape the consequences of your actions. Brexiteers have demanded they suffer no negative consequences for an action which everybody told them would have negative consequences. This is stupidity of the highest order. And it is stupidity, because despite a goddman overwhelmingly strong consensus from the experts that Brexit would be worse than staying in the E.U., we decided to do it anyway.

It wasn't even difficult - not in the slightest degree - to see that Brexit would be disastrous. It was crystal clear and obvious. The whole point of the E.U. is economic integration with its member states, but no-one put forward a remotely sensible plan for dealing with the aftermath of exit. "Oh, but we were a great power before the E.U." doesn't matter, because we are now dependent on the E.U. and they on us. Many things are complicated, but this isn't one of them. We didn't even have a plan to deal with the poll itself : it was non-binding (a much-overlooked fact) and no constraint was placed on how strong the result needed to be for change (a really, really stupid policy given the magnitude of the issue).

My predictions for the vote were wholly wrong. Generally, the only people who ever vote in E.U. elections in Britain are the ones who hate it, hence most of our MEPs are UKIP. Polls at the start of the campaign were well in favour of remain, so I was quite confident that the majority of Brits were not stupid enough to actively choose self-harm when it came to the push. My only worry was that the sheer disinterest in Europe would again act as a filter and only those passionately opposed to it would bother voting. I was wrong. I was quite sure that the large number of undecided voters would act conservatively, as they did at the Scottish referendum, and vote for a known quantity rather than taking a massive, incalculable leap into the dark. I was wrong about that too.

But the hardline element is one thing, and the less vocal majority quite another. No doubt the internet will be awash with many more excellent analyses than mine, but still I would like to offer a few thoughts on how so many people can have effectively decided that the Earth is flat.

Media Bias

First, there is a huge media bias in the UK newspapers. On the right, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Daily Express, The Times and The Telegraph have a combined circulation of around 4.9 million. On the left, the Daily Mirror and The Guardian have a combined circulation of just 1 million. That only rises to about 1.3 million if you add the neutral The Independent and its shorter version, the i. And while the right-wing papers tend to be overtly political (the Daily Mail especially so, which runs essentially nothing but xenophobic headlines), on the left only The Guardian is really much of a political paper these days, with the Mirror tending to be mainly focused on celebrity boobs in bikinis (oddly, its website is rather better). Accounting for this, it would be entirely fair to say that the right wing political papers are about ten times more numerous than left wing or neutral ones.

Things are, however, considerably better for the left on television, with the ostensibly neutral but actually rather left-wing BBC News being by far and away the nation's most-watched news channel. Additionally, while Sky News are somewhat to the right, they are vastly more moderate than the terrifyingly racist liars at the Daily Mail. So media bias - if you give people constantly the wrong information they can't do anything but form the wrong conclusions, even if they're very intelligent - plays a role, but it can't be the only factor.

On the other hand, even the BBC has to report what politicians say - and large numbers of Tory politicians have been singing the same dreary song about immigration for years. For some reason that I am utterly unable to comprehend, they also gave significant air time to Nigel Farage even when he was a political no-hoper. Initially, Nigel made a lot less noise about foreigners and a lot more about Brussels bureaucracy, which is a lot nicer than talking about people being scared of Romanians. But it was insidious. As support grew, the BBC were then more obliged to report on UKIP, even as what they were saying increasing tended toward far-right propaganda. And that's something that should given anyone pause for thought - OK, people can say things without being locked up, but does that really oblige major networks to report what they said ?*

*And what they said is often also a lie, or a u-turn. Farage has been caught lying about the amount of money Brexit could save for the NHS and, with truly hideous distaste, that Brexit won without a shot being fired, barely a week after pro-E.U. M.P. Jo Cox was shot dead by a man shouting, "put Britain first !".

The upshot is that even the media most biased against xenophobia and the anti-E.U. lobby still had to report this, so people were still exposed to it more often than not. And you reap what you sow. A particularly pernicious fallacy has crept in that's even more damaging - the notion that anyone who disagrees with the right must be one of those on the "loony left", which exposes the great lie of the right that they are more tolerant than the left. They are not. Time and again those on the right call for for discriminatory policies against gays, transexuals, Muslims, and basically anyone who isn't a white Christian male age 25-45. No, not everyone on the right is like this (David Cameron deserves praise for his championship of gay marriage), but enough of them are. The idea that the left is more intolerant (even though it is, of course, very far from perfect) is just so much nonsense.

Unless we actively do something about this, it's only going to get worse. The moderating influence of Scotland will soon be lifted from England, which can only lead to more Tory governments. That can only make it easier to get away with right-wing bias.

Failures of the Left

Secondly, there has been a chronic failure of the left to properly address immigration. This started with Ed Milliband, who instead of championing the virtues of immigration decided to try and play the other side at their own game. This was a disaster, because no-one really believed that Labour either could or would enact a policy that restricted immigration. And I don't want that policy, I think it would be useless and divisive. I want Labour to welcome and stand up for minorities, not restrict their access.

Then again, we could have had the proper, grown-up debate about immigration that Nigel Farage "wanted" if he hadn't behaved like such an absolute tosser. If you want a sensible debate, you keep it entirely about population. That's all. You do not talk about foreign criminals or wealth or culture, because those things inevitably head south very quickly. As with all discrimination, you set one law for everyone and if people can't abide by it then tough on them. If that means their cultural values lead them to being criminalised, then they'd better learn to assimilate.

Corbyn's failure was different. While pro-immigration, he was (for no reason I could ever tell) remarkably lacklustre about the whole campaign. With just days to go he was talking about the removal of roaming charges and rating the E.U. as "7.5/10". OK, I'd probably give the E.U. about the same, but that's a pathetic way to run a campaign ! The value of freedom of movement - everything that Corbyn holds dear - cannot be overstated. As the leader of the opposition he should have been dancing from the rooftops about it, instead he just sort of quietly waved from behind a quite tall fence.


Thirdly, and most importantly, expert concerns were brushed aside in a torrent of hate and fear. "I think the people of this country have had enough of experts" declared Michael Gove. Well, sorry people, but even in politics there are some facts, it's not all opinions. You can have whatever opinion you like on whatever subject you like, but that doesn't make it true. Voting on it doesn't make it true either. And just as in science, thinking you know better than the experts on fiscal or political policy is, well, arrogant and silly. You don't know how to do open heart surgery, why do you think you understand complex economic arrangements and political treaties ?

Inspired by Last Week Tonight in case you have no idea what I'm talking about.
Which is not to say that experts always get it right, because they don't. No-one can, that's impossible. But so many experts in so many different fields were saying that this was a bad idea, the whole notion that it would actually be a good idea ought to have been obviously wrong to everyone.

Democracy is a noble ideal. But it cannot function correctly when its citizens are misinformed and a culture of anti-knowledge exists (after the vote, searches for "What does it mean to leave the E.U. ?" soared, because apparently people hadn't thought to fact-check this beforehand). How can you really be making a free and rational choice if you're going to dismiss people who have spent far more time studying these complex issues than you, and if you weight opinions more heavily than facts ? What's the point of a democracy if people are allowed to pretend the Earth is flat ?

This is why people holding anti-science views makes me very angry, even when those views aren't actually harmful in and of themselves. Believing the Earth was created in six days doesn't make you evil. The problem is that when you allow utter bullshit (ranging from outright lies to ridiculously exaggerated levels of doubt) to replace hard, testable facts, you open the door to letting bullshit win everywhere. Encouraging the use of scientific method is not only about laboratory experiments, it is every bit about the political world as well. As Paul Kriwaczek put it  :
Social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people's understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.
Listening to the experts does not mean that everyone will think the same way or even agree with the experts 100% of the time about everything (the "flaw of averages" means that practically no two people agree on 100% of the issues). It simply means that when there is a consensus as strong that of Brexit, there wouldn't have been a chance in hell that we would have voted for it, any more than if a major cartography company were to decide the Earth was flat all along.

Where do we go next ?

The central issue here has to come down to freedom of speech. The UK has laws against libel - saying falsehoods which are damaging to an individual's reputation - but it's far less clear when it comes to statements which don't affect individuals but are nonetheless objectively wrong. Is it time, perhaps, to consider some sort of regulation about this ? I am not proposing any specific solution, just that the media bias is clear and demonstrable and we have to find away to make things more objective than they are now.

This doesn't mean that I don't want people to publish opinions I disagree with. But, again, not everything is an opinion, and the proliferation of outright lies and bullshitting are leading us down an extremely dangerous road. Can you really have freedom without truth ? Journalists are supposed to be impartial, which is not the same as objective. Currently much of the British press doesn't seem to be even doing that; just about every single paper apart from The Independent feels more like a campaign leaflet, trying to push an agenda rather than reporting the facts and opinions in any sort of proper context.

How we regulate what happens when people clearly and wilfully publish lies, I don't know. Perhaps we should try to deal with this with direct laws, or maybe a subtler approach is needed. We could consider limiting how many media outlets any particular individual or corporation can be associated with. Then there are the even trickier issues of the media reporting the truth systematically without any larger statistical context, e.g. only reporting the crimes committed by immigrants rather than the benefits they bring. At the very least, we need to start thinking about regulating political advertising.

I do not know how we deal with all this, but I am convinced we need to discuss the current state of the media. It is absolutely abysmal, and without some sort of reform our democratic society is going to be in very serious trouble.

The long-term solution to all this is actually relatively straightforward : invest more in education, especially at the primary school level. Teach children statistical methods constantly from a very young age, they're not that hard and they equip them with many other skills essential for rational thinking. Teach them the humanities subjects properly : get them to analyse poetry and search for hidden meanings, help them discover how they're being manipulated. In science lessons, emphasise the experimental and observational approach and always explain how conclusions are reached - never reduce it to base facts. Read them The Apology starting at age seven, because among other things it teaches the worth of thinking, the importance of realising that you might be wrong and the unjustified but lawful killing by the state of a philosopher telling truths that no-one wanted to hear. Apply a universal basic income as soon as possible, so that people actually have time to consider the issues in detail rather than working themselves to death.

But in the short term, I have no idea where we go. We are in ghastly, uncharted waters. I signed the petition calling for a second referendum; at the time of writing it had over 2 million votes. I have no idea if we'll get another chance or even if this wouldn't just make things worse*, but we need to continue the message that this is a bad idea. The issues that people are concerned with won't go away even if we won the second vote - we've got to continue to persuade people to see reason. Some of their concerns are even legitimate, the E.U. is sometimes overbearing, making new members join the Euro is just plain bloody daft, and it desperately needs a clear, consensual goal of what its role in the world should be.

* While updating this article this had reach 2.9 million, which is sufficiently large that I start to wonder if this might do some good after all. While I stop short of committing myself to the need for a second referendum, two things should be noted : 1) Nigel Farage is on record of saying that there should be a second referendum in the event of a narrow win for Remain; 2) The E.U. itself made Ireland have a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty after it voted the "wrong" way. So this outcome, difficult as it would be, would be neither unprecedented nor against the E.U.'s style of democracy. And consider this : if an uninformed map-making institute did vote that the Earth was flat, would it not be perfectly sensible to ask them to vote again after they had correct information ?

Right now I'm angry, depressed, and scared for the future of my country. I don't know how bad things will get, but there is a very real possibility that we will diminish ourselves to a level we have not seen in generations. What scares me the most is the popularity of fascists and populists at a time of economic hardship. We've seen this before, and the prospect that they will continue to gain ground is something I find too awful to contemplate.

Whatever happens, eventually better times will return. But unless there's a political miracle I can't see the next ten or twenty years as being anything other than an unnecessarily bleak and dark chapter in our long history. We are breaking apart when we should be standing together. I hope that somehow, in defiance of all the evidence, I'm wrong about this, but right now I'm seeing precious little cause for optimism about the future.
So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel. - from the film, "Lawrence of Arabia".

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your views. It seems from the humanity's history that we always take two step forward, and one step backward.

    Here is some positive news: Germany passes historic law on refugee integration.

    "German lawmakers Thursday passed a law designed to aid the integration of refugees, having been at the forefront of European efforts to deal with the fallout of the migrant crisis."


Due to a small but consistent influx of spam, comments will now be checked before publishing. Only egregious spam/illegal/racist crap will be disapproved, everything else will be published.