Monday, April 20, 2020

Method in madness

As the Labour Party sets out in a struggle to regain the closest approximation to sanity that exists in politics, the Conservative Party doesn't seem to want to join in. Partly, this is to do with the strength of an influential strand of right-wing contrarian thought that runs through it. It's easy to reel off some of the names. Toby Young, James Delingpole, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, those from Furedi's Spiked cult, all supported by a range of think tanks. The same is happening across the Atlantic with people such as Jordan Peterson and, as shown in this interview, Richard Epstein.

These people are the respectable stratum under which lies wilder depths of increasingly deranged conspiracy thought on both the right and the left. In this country, you will find it in climate change denial/minimisation, Brexit, and, in its latest manifestation, opposition to the lockdown in response to the pandemic. The Epstein interview interested me, not just because of his influence on some around our government, but because it shows graphically the way that these people operate. It's a method that works something like this.

1. False expertise.

Epstein is not an epidemiologist or a virologist, he is a lawyer. Expertise in one field does not confer expertise in others. I have no doubt that he is a very good lawyer, but then he throws in this, "I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law." This is supposed to turn him into an expert on the evolution of the coronavirus. Real experts react in horror.

I have no doubt that these people read and study a mountain of material, even becoming obsessive about it. The big problem is that their study is unsystematic and self-selected, so their conclusions are dodgy. I heard a classic example on Radio 4's The Moral Maze quite a few years ago. Melanie Phillips was arguing against climate science. Phillips, who had previously spread the MMR/autism manufactured panic, said, and I paraphrase, "If 97% of climate scientists agree, why does most of what I read say the opposite." She hadn't realised that she had just shown the narrowness and inadequacy of her reading, rather give a clinching argument in favour of her denialism. It goes on and on. Brexiters have a huge command of detail about the EU, most of which is verifiably wrong. Jordan Peterson based his justification of hierarchy and inequality on the biology of lobsters, which was fine until a real expert in lobsters came along with this hilarious putdown.

This type of reading and reasoning is a classic example of selecting according to a pre-existing ideological preference and then bending the evidence to support it. We can see something similar with Dominic Cummings' flaunting of his self-education in science and his deprecation of the humanities (although he actually has an history degree). Each shares their particular misinformation within their circles in a continuous cycle of reinforcement and self-verification. It's a way to claim the status of erudition without submitting to the scholarship necessary to achieve it.

The importance of systematic and programmed learning is that it gives you comparators. Making a judgement is impossible without them. This is what education is. And because of the complexity of knowledge, we only have a limited scope. We have to rely on the judgement of experts. They are easily found. They are the ones sitting in the corner with their heads in their hands.

This isn't a unique fault, we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. I'm very prone to big speeches on the basis of half knowledge. But these people do it it with such certainty, with amazing self-confidence, with vanity even. They are free of doubt. It's what makes them convincing.

2. The disparagement of experts.

The enemy of false expertise is genuine expertise. The result is that much of the energy of these contrarians is spent in disparaging people who have it. This is rarely done with evidence. After all, there usually isn't any. So they use two main techniques.

The first is contempt. Experts are the elite or the establishment. They are trying to protect themselves or further their careers. They are too scared to stand up to the powerful (unlike our courageous contrarians). They suffer from 'groupthink.' They are conventional and unimaginative. They have vested interests. Forget evidence, ad hominems are sufficient in the contrarian mind. That leaves the easy emotional appeal of a supposedly special and superior knowledge, one used by every conspiracy thinker and snake oil seller to ignore the substance of the issue that exposes them as fake.

The second is doubt. This is a well-trodden path. Rather than put forward an alternative theory, they raise doubts about the certainty of well established facts. By creating a sense of controversy or debate where there is none, they undermine a genuine scientific consensus. The tobacco companies did this with smoking and health for decades, the fossil fuel industry has used the same methods to spread doubt about climate change and, more recently, to spread opposition to renewable energy. Contrarians celebrate outliers, and promote them as if they were mainstream. They feed off a media obsession for balance where someone who knows what they are talking about has to be countered by someone who doesn't.

3. False Martyrdom

Oh how they suffer, these contrarians. How they are persecuted. How they are denigrated for, horror of horrors, being wrong. How, despite newspaper columns, book contracts, and endless appearances on TV and radio, their right of free speech is being denied and they are being silenced. It's hardly surprising that they need to fight back and, like Toby Young, form a Free Speech Union. After all, the right to be discourteous, abusive, and to speak lies to truth has to be defended.

The problem that I have with all this is that they are not demanding free speech. They want the right to speak without opposition. Free speech is not agreement. Toleration does not mean approval, but acceptance, grudging and reluctant at times. J S Mill's seminal defence of free speech in On Liberty, sees contest and challenge as a fundamental element of it. He has a dialectical theory of truth. There isn't just a right, but a duty to contest. Liberalism does not mean sitting back and letting people spout nonsense, it means calling it out and saying that bollocks is precisely that, however uncomfortable it makes these 'free speech warriors' feel. They do not want to defend a robust principle, but to promote themselves and their ideologies, while receiving back nothing but admiration for their originality and daring.

All of this would be a nice intellectual game if it were not for one thing, the contrarians proximity to power. They have pushed a particular agenda within the governing party and its media cheerleaders. They are not seekers after truth, but seekers after influence. This is an ideological power grab. It has consequences. Action against climate change has been delayed. The damaging stupidity of Brexit has been imposed on the country. And, if the majority of virologists and epidemiologists are right, their campaign to end lockdown early could kill thousands. They are dangerous and Brexit has taken them to the heart of government, because the Conservative Party has abandoned conservatism in favour of ideological insanity.

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