“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

30 March 2017

On Richard Dawkins and Brexit: confusing science with politics

“One fact of life I have learned over the years is that it is possible to be very clever and stupid at the same time.”

Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and diarist of the New Labour years, said that in his latest memoir Hinterland, referring to judges who presided over the notorious miscarriages of justice that unravelled in the 1980s and early 1990s, like the Birmingham Six IRA bombing case which he was involved in.

This line has come to mind several times lately reading the outbursts of some of those who are still livid at the EU referendum result.

Now I don’t have a problem with people who feel strongly about remaining in the EU, just as long as they respect those on the other side as legitimate political opponents who have worthwhile arguments and in this case won a democratic battle fair and square. The trouble with the arch-Remainers that I am thinking of – the Labour MP David Lammy, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the philosopher A.C. Grayling come to mind – is that they each treat their own opinion as absolute, as a form of law which has been broken by an ignorant population that does not know what is good for it. For them, the EU vote came down to one choice: the right thing or the wrong thing - and they knew absolutely which was which.

Into this fray the respected evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has thrown himself with an impressive enthusiasm, issuing some remarkably abrasive tweets and now writing what is perhaps best described as a frothing rant (otherwise known as an article) for the New Statesman, entitled, ‘We need a new party - the European Party’. In this piece we can see, perhaps as clearly as we will ever see, the troubles that scientists (or quasi-scientists like in the social sciences, including economics) can get into when they fail to respect the limits of their science and start using the authority they have in their fields to pronounce on politics.

Dawkins starts off his article by trying to cover himself from this though, saying,

“I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history.”

This is a nice bit of double-think, for it says that he isn’t qualified to decide, but also establishes that he is qualified to say who is, which means he can take for himself the authority of those who have the authority. You just pick up on the arguments of whatever authority you choose in those fields that you decide are relevant and you have the authority too: job done.

Now he has gathered up a nice slug of authority for himself, he can properly let rip in the meat of the article:

“I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.”

It is difficult to counter arguments characterised by a succession of assertions like this, not because they are good arguments, but because you don’t know where to start. But we can see at the core of his arguments this word ‘rational’ – that his arguments and those of people he trusts are rational, while those of others aren’t; some instances of fear are rational, others aren’t.

For him, the EU referendum question was a technical matter to be decided by the relevant experts (the qualification criteria for which he does not explain, but reserves for himself). As he puts it, “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.”

As I have found in reading and listening to other arch-Remainers, Dawkins does not address the actual arguments of his opponents. He does not quote them or take them on based on their core arguments. Rather he makes his appeal by assertion and insult – thereby departing from the scientific method of analysis which he invokes to justify his authority. He rants about the distrust of experts, but does not address how his supposedly infallible economic experts failed miserably with their predictions for the economic consequences of a Brexit vote.

But worse is the way that he brushes over the core arguments of the Leave side, which I supported. For him, the arguments made about democracy, sovereignty and accountability have no relevance. They do not fit into his schema so must be illegitimate for being irrational (as well as being apparently ‘visceral, emotional and xenophobic’ in character). Dawkins confuses science and politics, trying to reduce the latter to the former, relegating politics to a technical discipline in which we have a surface democracy but the real power is wielded by political and economic experts.

To the elitist accusation, he says,

“Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite.”

By this viewpoint, the ultimate ends of politics and of mankind should be put out of our reach as citizens.

Personally, I think it’s marvellous that a majority of us stuck two fingers up at this sort of view in the referendum. For democracy to be meaningful, as democratic society, what we vote about must also be meaningful. We must be able to make change happen, as a political community, with poorer and less educated people having the same basic power as me or you or Richard Dawkins or his elite clerisy.

Change must be possible, otherwise we are simply living in what the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev called ‘managed democracy’, not so far off from the kind that Vladimir Putin runs in Russia as we might like to think.

So, as I have said here before about my own choice, Je ne regrette rien.