Science as a Candle for Democracy

Candle

July 14th celebrates the storming of the Bastille in Paris on that day in 1789. After the War of Independence in America, it was a second revolution to bring democracy to a kingdom, this time in Europe. For Thomas Paine, writing The Rights of Man shortly thereafter (a quote used by the great Christopher Hitchens in his biography of Paine:

“Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is prodiced by the two Revolutions of America and France.”

Whether, over two hundred years’ later, the success of the revolutions is properly signalled by the visit to France of the popularist Donald Trump is highly questionable for his visit signifies a distinct darkening of how democracy is faring in the USA, Europe (post-Brexit referendum), Turkey, the Phillipines, India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel where serious strains are being felt and ‘strong man’ politics is under way.

It may be straining credibility to equate these dark concerns on democracy with the election of Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, to the position of Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, a Committee whose purpose is to scrutinise the UK Government on its strategy and programmes in this area. Yet, this linking of science and democracy is central to the changes we are currently seeing in the world of politics.

Science in the Soul‘ is a collection of the writings of Richard Dawkins, where he shows his distinct ability to reason and explain to the full.  In the book, Dawkins commends the science populariser, Carl Sagan, as a man that should have won the Nobel Prize: not for science but for literature and it made me re-read his excellent book ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘, published around twenty years ago.

Sagan’s book is about how “scientific thinking is necessary to safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilisation” and is so apt in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit (with its Govian taunts about how not to believe experts) that it should be read and re-read by anyone with a desire to understand our current problems and what is needed to extricate ourselves from the hole that we are digging for ourselves. It was also frighteningly prescient. I reprint here, word for word, a sizeable paragraph from the book that accurately forecasts a significant chunk of our world in 2017:

“….science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. the plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

If an afterlife existed, Carl Sagan would be looking down at the events of 2016, and tut-tutting knowingly, shaking his head and pulling at his long, white beard (all sages have long, white beards in heaven, don’t they?): “I did tell you guys!” he would be shouting, hoping that some mystical ripple would resonate from his screams of despair into our heads, deaf and dumb to all sense.

In the so-called developed world, technology moves forward at a great pace so that major phase transition events bypass us with alacrity. The whole ‘fake news’ environment washed over us only in the last few years as the networked world provided everyone with the ability to be journalists and have an opinion that all can see. As always with new technology, those most capable of utilising it to advantage included the criminally-minded who not just sent emails from Nigeria asking for your money, or emails and texts that would lock up your computer or cellphone if you replied but, more subtly, perverted voting systems and swayed voters by their ability to infiltrate the social networks with lies, distortions and manipulations to a precision that a few thousand votes in the right States resulted in a Trump presidency.

Sagan wrote further on this:

“We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

“The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Carl Sagan was a sceptic and the book shows how scepticism, used pro-actively, not as a tool to doubt everything for doubt’s sake, is central to understanding. He provided a toolkit for guarding against a fallacious or fraudulent argument. In summary:

  • Where possible, independently verify the facts
  • Encourage debate on this by opponents and proponents of views expressed
  • Discount ‘authorities’ who generally carry no weight; in science there may be experts, not authorities. In politics, beware such experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis
  • Don’t get over-attached to an hypothesis just because it’s yours
  • Quantify where you can
  • If there’s a chain of argument, show that every link works
  • Occam’s Razor – if two solutions exist, choose the simplest
  • Always ask if the hypothesis can be disproved (e.g. Brexit will save British taxpayers £350m a week!)

Now, not everyone has the time to go out and do all this. So, we rely on journalists and others to do so. This brings me back to Norman Lamb, a man who has gained tremendous respect across all parties for his honesty and campaigning zeal (in the area of mental life as an example). He is a democratically-elected member of a Parliament often thought of as the home of democracy (Thomas Paine might have doubted that and the first-past-the-post system of elections means that most in the UK are, effectively disenfranchised) and now Chairs a Committee on Science and Technology. We should be using such institutions to galvanise the linkages between science, technology and democracy to challenge ourselves in how we think so that crass assertions made during the Brexit referendum and by Donald Trump and others (that might lead to the USA’s desertion of the Paris Agreement on environment as just one example) are challenged by not just politicians but by all those that should hold us to scientific thinking.

This means that we should understand why those that wish to believe in such perversions of reality actually do so and why scientific thought processes are so easily overturned, that ‘rigorous scrutiny’ is accepted as the norm. A recent article in the Financial Times, by John Gapper on how CP Snow identified the gap in thinking on science by intellectuals in the 1950’s shows that this is not new, but it is not just intellectuals that have the vote in the 21st Century, it is all the people.

So, a plea to Norman Lamb and his Committee, whatever the Terms of Reference have historically been, it is time to challenge our lack of scientific thinking, the lack of awareness of science and technology throughout the population and how this “combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” – if it hasn’t already.

Democracy took many lives and many years to establish in the western world and elsewhere. It is not yet extinguished but, like a candle that has been burning for many hours, the light is in danger of failing. Sagan’s book was sub-titled: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. On the day the French commemorate its own democracy, we should not let that candle flutter to extinction.

Candle

The Battle of Life

150706_Chartists    150706_AfricanMigrants

In 1846, Charles Dickens published one of his Christmas stories – “The Battle of Life”. Very few remember it now, although at the time it was as popular as A Christmas Carol. While it was a romantic story, it was also a metaphor for living – a reality that the mid-Victorians daily confronted – the battle of life.

As Peter Ackroyd noted in his biography of Charles Dickens:

“…the real importance of the story is to be found in its title. The Battle of Life was a phrase which meant a great deal to mid-Victorian Englishmen: it was even something of a truism in a world for which struggle and domination were the twin commandments, where the worship of energy and the pursuit of power were the two single most significant activities, where there was a constant belief in will, in collision, in progress. Darwin and Malthus both described “the great battle of life” and “the great battle for life”, the important confusion between the two phrases materially assisting the evolutionist’s case”

 

Samuel Smiles, maybe the exponent of what are known as “Victorian values” summed it up:

“The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be

achieved.”

Battles of life are still fought daily – for survival, for religious conviction, for self-esteem, for self-betterment, for the rights of others unable to fight for themselves, for equality.

In the 21st Century developed world, we often think that the battle of life has been won – we are economically well-off, pretty well educated and maybe complacent about our success. Yet, on a world scale, the battle of life daily persists and it is when we are confronted by the scale of that battle (as many British people were recently in Tunisia and as many were just ten years ago in London) that we are reminded that the Battle of Life goes on unabated.

In Dickens’s time, Britain was well underway with its industrial revolution and bestrode the world as an economic power house even if its working people were poor, with little chance of benefitting from the wealth creation. This gave rise to Chartism – working people’s attempts to gain access to power but this was dealt with by the oligarchy in power at the time in Britain. Our wealth generation was based on a world as supplier and this required a growing Empire from which to extract the raw materials it needed to feed the industrial base and to sell its goods – and a labour force here and overseas that provided it with unceasing supplies to make the machinery of the factories function.

We may have come a long way since then in this country but we remain pre-occupied with ourselves. Not much has changed in terms of Government and institutions since that time. We still have a House of Lords, we retain “first past the post” voting, London remains far wealthier than the rest of the country, we retain a certain disrespect for foreigners, we still want to play a major world role (although much of that is through our soft power status). We remain one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – still with a veto power. London retains its place as a major financial centre – which many believe assists our economy but many others rue its dependency on money laundering and the part it played in the 2007/08 financial meltdown.

Of course, the world is changing around us. China is now the largest economy in the world and while its per capita wealth is far lower than the west, the fact that it is so large means that, at the centre, it can aggregate massive amounts of money that can be used by Government. This is the real power of growth and economic vitality – the ability to amass funds centrally to spend on military might and security even as millions are still impoverished. On a smaller scale, North Korea still spends money on nuclear weaponry while so many starve.

In Africa and Asia, thousands try to escape the torment of their home countries to live aboard – leading to high-risk escapes on the high seas and many deaths and the recent scenes just across the Channel in Calais.

Industry is now global. The 19th Century British labour market that kept wages low and poverty high (and on which Marx and Engels – living in London and Manchester for most of their lives – based das Capital upon) is now also global – with an international labour market that has exactly the same problems as we had here two hundred years ago: low wages and desperate health and safety conditions (that have led to hundreds of lives lost in building the stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar).

Meanwhile, it would be hard to extract much of this change from the recent General Election here. An election fought by the winning Conservatives on short-term tax breaks and a fear of the unknown – when that “unknown” was held to be Labour Party leftism and Scottish independence fears; when Liberal Democrats lost public trust over university funding; when UKIP gathered around 3 ½ million votes on the back of fear of the foreigners.

It was hard to feel motivated by the short-termism and fear-mongering that underscored that election. It was an election where Liberal Democrats were sent back to the 1970’s in terms of seats won and where they lost more votes in one election than could have been believed and when many argue liberalism should be the 21st Century political answer to all the changes and aspirations of a 21st Century world.

21st Century Aspirations – Economic Freedoms and Responsibilities

It has been educational to listen to the two Liberal Democrat contenders for that party’s leadership recently. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, two out of the eight remaining Lib Dem M.P.’s in the House of Commons, both appeared before at the Institute of Public Policy Research at separate events.

They spoke and answered questions on a range of issues but the focus was on what liberalism meant to them.

Tim Farron told the meeting at the IPPR that he bases his liberalism on five key values: Freedom, Equality, Quality of Life, Internationalism and Reform. In his manifesto, a sixth value was added – a new economy.

Norman Lamb spoke about similar values and his experience of working as a Health Minister.

Both noted how their vision was formed by Jo Grimond and the debt they (and we) owe to William Beveridge – the man behind social services and the NHS, who identified the “five evils” of society as of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease as the drivers behind the need of government to be involved in society to a greater degree than before.

It is interesting to remember that Liberal have had to move a long way from the idealists of the 19th Century. While the Tories represented the landowners then, the new middle classes of that Century (who were behind the Free Trade movement as were the Liberals of that time) were not looking towards improving the lot of the common man (and certainly not women). The Factories Acts were gradually introduced throughout that Century as a result of pressure from outside Parliament and often against the deep-seated reservations of the capital class.

Liberals of the 21st Century now understand what J K Galbraith called the “social balance” between the public sector and the private to ensure that needs are met but that individuals are still able to model their own lives within a society that does not deprive them of aspiration and opportunity but actually seeks to improve those life chances. Liberalism also aims to ensure that the individual that lives most of their lives in “civil society” are able to do so with real freedom to enjoy and be fulfilled in that life. Life should not be just a centralized, top-down socialism nor a numbers-driven economics-only rat-race. Life is a complex mix where wealth creation is important (wealth being not just quantity of life but also quality) and so is ensuring that opportunity (such as good education, health and housing) is available to all so that individuals can become the most that they are able. When we also use our abilities on a global stage and enshrine this within the crucial notion of freedom (to believe in and voice your own views without fear), this is 21st Century Liberalism.

Because both Tim and Norman understand the critical elements of liberalism (something central to Nick Clegg – as he understood in a speech in 2012 to …but never reinforced outside that so that people would know what they were voting “for”), it is difficult to separate them on the basis of views held.

For me, the issues come down then, to this:

If Liberals want to become a force for real good in the UK (and world) and want to play a political role and not just be seen as a pressure group, they do not have to be just great campaigners, clammering for redistribution and fairness, but they have to ensure that there is a Liberal Economic Philosophy that enough people believe in.

Liberal Economics for the 21st Century

Having completely bought into all the other values of liberalism, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats (and Liberal Party before them) have sometimes not grasped the central perceived need of most people – economics and economic freedom. The industrial revolution embedded the zeal for wealth creation amongst the capitalist class that has since become the underlying basis for how people see their lives.

Increased wealth creation has led to better health for those who are fortunate enough to live in the economically developed world and to longer and better lives. Illness does not mean death as it did in the 19th Century for us in the UK. Food is plentiful (although food bank use is on the rise) and we do not suffer from stunted growth as happens too frequently in the developing world – we suffer more from obesity. Education is open to all (albeit in different and not yet good enough for all). Our streets are relatively clean and we have a police force that is designed to serve and a set of laws that are mainly enforced without social stress. We have freedom of expression and democracy.

Much of this is down to wealth creation so that we can be said to be well up Maslow’s Hierarchy of need.

However, inequality is now increasing and the challenges of this country in a world where countries like China are now beginning to dominate economic growth are substantial. The impact is serious in areas like London where housing costs are so high because of the demand from those from overseas – many thought to be laundering questionable money through the London property market.

We also see scenes in Calais on a daily basis how those countries that are not providing economic freedom to their citizens – through corruption and war and mismanagement that leads to hunger and illness – drive their own people from those countries. This is an international problem – African migrants

So, how could Liberal Democrat economic philosophy be developed to tackle the issues that impact everyone – which everyone believes to be crucial to their lives and those of their families and within which the other values of liberalism can be seen to flourish?

We have to focus on responsible wealth creation in this country and overseas that marries the need to galvanise wealth creators (small businesses, risk-takers, new science, co-operation between public and private sector) along with a focus on great education that motivates and provides opportunity, understands how we develop sustainable growth (that assists the environment and connects us with it – not just seeing it as “natural capital” in the way that the 19th Century mill-owner saw workers as capital) and international. In the latter, we have to understand how the UK is a seller to the world and a buyer to the world but also part of that world. That world needs to ensure that the poorest are given opportunities and that sink-holes like corruption are eradicated. That equal playing field that liberalism feels so deeply is now an international playing field.

Economic freedom (the ability to grow our wealth) in a responsible way should be part of any liberal philosophy. But, it is not the 19th freedom to trade freely – it has to be a freedom with responsibilities attached. Together, economic freedom with responsibilities would help us win the battle of life that we all face.