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

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Strangling Inherent Dignity – How we retain (regain) Self-Respect

Orhan Pamuk, today on the BBC, talked about how the military in Turkey have been moved away from the centre of political decision-making. Their threat has been diminished, resulting in a feeling of relief or release. He also remarked on the Arab Spring and how in Tunisia and elsewhere people had regained some dignity – maybe threatened by Islamic re-awakening (but “that would be the people’s decision”).

In China, the escape of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest and his televised pleas to Wen Jiabao to halt the rampant corruption in China points to a state that is gnawing away at its soul.

In the USA, the economy is dangerously tilted towards the highest 1% who now own around 50% of its assets.

In Spain, 24.4% of people who are seeking work are without a job.

Charles Taylor is found guilty of by the International Criminal Court of aiding war crimes – yet, he remains popular in much of Liberia for his ability to dole out cheap bread at the right times to local populations.

Organisations and People – The fight for Dignity

 

Whether as individuals or members of an organization or a region or a nation, the human instinct is to reach for a minimum level of dignity. The need to attain a degree of self-respect is fundamental to the human condition. Whatever our economic attainment (whether we are wealthy or poor) each of us retains the need for self-dignity and the self-respect of those closest to us.

Attainment of dignity is a basic need and we continuously fight for it.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts its preamble with the following:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

Yet, across the world, as we grow economically across a wider population, there is little evidence that we understand much more about a central issue that continuously confronts us – the attainment of “inherent dignity”.

If dignity means the attainment of freedom, justice and peace as the most important elements of our civilization (and we should be careful to ensure that our freedom does not blind us to the needs of a wider responsibility – to the planet as a whole), then what do we do daily that reminds us of our need to provide dignity and who is it who has this responsibility?

Responsibility

Leaders – whether of nations, businesses, local authorities , families or whatever – have a responsibility to those that they lead. This responsibility includes the establishment or reinforcement of cultural norms that strengthen the central idea of dignity to all its members.

This central tenet has been forgotten – we hear it infrequently amongst the babble of noise that comes from politicians and economists, business leaders and social leaders.

There is no question that where poverty is extensive, a crucial role for leaders is to ensure that economic growth is secured and poverty is minimized.

There is no question that where health and safety is jeopardized that better ways have to be found to minimize danger and secure life.

There is no question that where housing is poor that people must be housed and clothed.

But, the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and safety are at one with the need for self-respect or dignity. The drive for better gross domestic product (GDP) has, in our enthusiasm to generate more wealth, left behind the basic understanding of what it is that propels the human spirit.

Setting dignity at the centre

While this is not a simple issue (dignity may be seen have different connotations to different people) the need for self-respect is the driver that propels individuals to fight back in so many cases.

The lack of dignity of those who are deprived of respect range widely. We see it constantly as we mentally note how individuals compare to certain societal norms – those who are poor are given less respect than those who are wealthy; those who have special needs are likely to be given less respect than those who are “OK”; those who are amongst the led are given less respect than those in power; those without the vote are seen as demanding less respect than those commanding political heights; the unwell lose dignity when maltreated; the unemployed lose dignity by the nature of unemployment and an assumption of laziness – the list goes on.

The problem is that self-respect is not normally a subject that is discussed or considered when key decisions are made. We are trampled by the rush to mend economic fences so easily that we ignore the affects. An example is Iraq. Here, not only was the rationale for entering Iraq wrong – there were no weapons of mass destruction – but the dignity of the Iraqis as a nation (or several nations within borders created by Europeans who cared nothing for the self-respect of those within them) was not an issue despite what should have been the lessons of history. Economics (through oil) and maybe the stated threat of terrorism (maybe) dampened the pressure to think through the impact of a complete eradication of self-respect amongst the Iraqi people – a self-respect oddly (to us in the west) retained with a strong man at the helm (Saddam Hussein) and then not replaced. In Afghanistan, self-respect has, through the ages, turned out many who would think to rule the country. It is the demand to self-rule that has been constant.

Corruption tears away at dignity

The danger in China is that corruption (an economic and power game) is tearing away at the nation’s credibility and self-respect. Recently, university students in Beijing were asked by the BBC what careers they wanted and one answered they wanted to be a senior local politician because that is where the money (through corruption) goes. The lack of self-respect that enables this response is intense and is leading to a potential fracture of the system in China as recent events in Chongqing highlight.

In India, one of its best-known websites is www.Ipaidabribe.com . This is a self-understanding of the rampant corruption in the country and mirrors a loss of dignity that brutalizes that society.

As a result of its alleged dealings in Mexico, Wal-Mart is under investigation by the US authorities through the Foreign corrupt practices act (FCPA) over millions of $’s of facilitation payments (not in themselves individually illegal under the FCPA but maybe through the gross flouting of corporate norms will be found to be). Mexico, riven by many drug cartels and corruption, lacks a dignity and self-respect because money is at the centre and seen as the only response. Wal-Mart helps to encourage that loss of self-respect.

National dignity or the dignity and self-respect of any business or individual is destroyed by corruption. When dignity is destroyed, then the basic ability to enjoy a life of “freedom, justice and peace” is also destroyed.

Economics cannot be isolated from self-respect

A cornerstone of self-respect is the ability of individuals to reach a level of basic self-attainment – the ability to feed oneself and one’s family; to house and clothe at least. In the rush towards austerity the macro-economic arguments are destroying the micro-economic disasters that are being generated. Poverty in wealthy nations is on the increase and the unevenness of wealth is growing. This is leading to a loss of self-respect amongst large sections of society. The impact of this change is uncertain – but, we can judge that the effects will not be positive.

John Rawls, one of the best-known and best-respected philosophers of the 20th Century considered self-respect as “perhaps the most important primary good” and how lack of self-respect leads to a growing disenchantment with the society and an estrangement with its ideals.

In the UK, maybe more prosaically, Ian Duncan Smith has highlighted the need for self-esteem amongst those on welfare and why jobs are the answer to bringing them out of the cycle of poverty.  This cycle of poverty is being exacerbated by the sovereign debt crisis which has transferred bank debt to national debt and enabled bankers to reap the rewards.

This crisis is now endemic in Europe and threatens stability and progress. The lack of dignity of nations (Greece, Spain, Portugal) as the Eurozone centre demands they commit to more austerity is misunderstood or ignored at the Eurozone’s peril. It is a fall-off in self-respect that eventually reaches a tipping point. It was a fall-off in national self-respect that catalyzed the German nation towards fascism in the 1930’s – a lack of national dignity that was caused by the war reparations following the 1st World War and heightened by the torments of the depression of the 1930’s. At some point, shattered self-respect will require repair – sometimes in brutal ways.

Democracy, Corruption, transparency and Economics

There are many ways in which dignity is destroyed – through lack of involvement in decisions, through corruption and lack of a chance for basic economic fairness.

There is no single answer but the key problems facing us today should all consider the issue of dignity before the answer comes rattling out. Clearly, real democracy, eradication of corruption, better knowledge of and openness about what is being done (transparency) and a new economics based on an understanding of the economics of self-respect are overall responses to ensure that we enjoy the basic dignities enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”