24 October 2010

The abolition of dangerous thought

The Decline and Fall of Science, published in 1976, has a powerful opening paragraph, which has proved remarkably prescient.

The recent peak of civilisation, centred on Western Europe, from which we are in the process of declining, was the highest that the world has known. At its height, it encompassed scientific and philosophical ideas which had not previously been formulated. However, in doing so, it brought about its own downfall. In both science and philosophy it came too close to areas of thought which the human race wishes to avoid. Consequently, it became necessary to plunge back into an intellectual dark age ...
It goes on:
... the European mind took refuge in a social and intellectual revolution. The social revolution was designed to make it impossible for individuals to think, or express inconvenient thoughts. It should be made impossible for anyone to have time to think unless he performed this function as a paid agent of society. Society, naturally, would know how to select in favour of those who thought in approved ways. While the social revolution has been fairly obvious, the intellectual revolution (or the abolition of dangerous thought) has attracted little attention. But the fact remains that in all operative fields of thought the human race has involved itself in positions from which, on their own terms, no advance is possible. [1]
This, you might say, sums up the roots of what I have called mediocracy. Much of it was well in place by the start of the 1970s, although perhaps not as dominantly as it is now. Some of the detailed methods for subordinating the individual to the collective, and preventing him or her from thinking, still remained to be worked out. These did not fully emerge until the 80s (ironically leading some to identify them with marketisation), though their real flowering took place in the 90s.

Thinking, it will be recalled, is the activity one performs before one has arrived at the answer. Mediocracy has a number of features which work to prevent thinking and which, a cynic could assume, are designed to prevent it. Here are two.

Thought-prevention device A
In contrast to the idea of ‘impersonal’ discussed in a recent post, a mediocracy encourages people to react personally. Instead of considering whether something is true, people ask themselves, “how does this affect me? should I have an emotional reaction to this?” An example. When I once suggested to my younger brother — who, like me, spent part of his education in the state sector — that state schools seem to be bad for many people, and to damage them psychologically, his response was “Thanks a lot, that makes me feel really great.” The only way my brother could apparently regard the hypothesis that state schools are awful was in terms of a possible insult to himself. I understand my brother's reaction, and I suspect many alumni of state schools have a similar attitude. The trouble is, if no one who attended a state school is able to have an impersonal/objective approach, and be willing to admit [2] it was damaging, those responsible for perpetuating the state school system can go on doing so unchecked, while claiming the moral high ground.

Another example. A couple of years after my book on medicine came out, I started dating a trainee GP. While the book had been mildly critical of the medical profession, I had no problem with her chosen career, and she clearly made an effort not to let my views affect things. Nonetheless, after a few months it emerged that she did have a problem with my views. These could best be summed up by saying that I do not buy into the theory that doctors are somehow more morally responsible than other people, and not just driven by money and power motives like everyone else; or that they should be able to make morally loaded decisions about their clients. While the resulting friction was not the only reason the relationship foundered, it did not help. Her reaction — of feeling personally insulted by the book — was not unique. I have found that it is the rule, rather than the exception, for members of the medical profession I have come across who are aware of the book or my views.

Now when I was working in the accountancy sector, I remember reading various things critical of that profession by people like Austin Mitchell, some reasonable, some fatuous. Never once do I recall feeling offended or outraged. Why the more heated reaction in the case of doctors? Two possible explanations come to mind. Either medicos are more sensitive than would seem compatible with the nature of their work. Or they are defensive because they themselves have a bad feeling about what they are doing and the way they are doing it.

Another way of reacting personally to ideas is to apply reductionism to the speaker, at the same time identifying with some abstract collective consensus. (“Well, we all know why you think that, don’t we.”) The reductionism is selective, in that it is only applied to certain viewpoints. You do not hear (e.g.) “We know why you support interventionism — you expect to be able to exercise power of some kind in the interventionist regime.”

Does a personal way of reacting have to do with a principle that it is wrong to float ideas that some might find upsetting? That seems unlikely, because in certain contexts it is clearly regarded as acceptable to criticise individuals or groups who, on an analogous basis, might choose to feel offended. It is easier to interpret the phenomena observed if one assumes they have nothing to do with protecting people from psychological pain or prejudice, but are simply ways of prohibiting thought. Every time another class of person becomes 'radicalised', and encouraged to react personally, another area of cognitive activity has been successfully shut down. [3]

Thought-prevention device B
There are certain issues that have become so ideologically loaded that not only are they taboo for discussion, but it is impossible even to come within a hundred yards of them, by alluding to them. Thought immediately stops, to be replaced by an emotional reaction. As the issues in question become more and more loaded, the radius of the area which is unanalysable increases. There also seems to be a desire to have as many such issues as possible, clogging up as large an area of thought as possible, since their number appears to be going up. In addition to the well-worn ones, we now seem to have added climate change. Not only is it getting to be a struggle to have a rational discussion about the weight of evidence for and against man-made global warming, but it is becoming impossible for anyone in a cultural or other public post to deviate from the official line without risking the loss of their job. Similarly, the thesis that the level of economic inequality is abnormally high is becoming difficult to analyse, let alone to question, and the issue of whether or not this is automatically a bad thing is practically out of bounds.

Taboos create a climate of fear, so that the effect is not only of preventing thought, but of making people terrified of thinking, in case they come up with the ‘wrong’ conclusions. The history of Christianity [4] shows that as soon as you create taboos, plenty of people emerge who get their jollies from seeing dissenters punished. (“Ooh, I heard him say the earth is not the centre of the universe, let’s go and report him to the magistrate.”) This provides us with another possible entry for my table of phoney motives. Cover story: protecting sensibilities from being offended. Possible real motive: wanting to persecute dissident intellectuals (or just one's neighbours), and to suppress thought. [5]

At the margin (i.e. at the crucial point), the principle of free speech is not about being able to say what is generally regarded as inoffensive, but about statements or positions with which most people would have a problem. The principle used to be expressed by referring to the quotation “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” [6]. This attitude is no longer understood, let alone practised. It is incompatible with the mediocratic tenets that there is a correct answer to everything (probably involving state intervention); that this answer should be determined by approved experts or by majority vote; and that once the answer has been determined, there is no need for a right to express other answers. The attitude, increasingly, is that those who wish to consider alternatives are probably warped and should be restricted in the interests of themselves and others. (“You know what I heard her say? People should be able to say the earth is not the centre of the universe even if it isn't true. Let's go and report her to the magistrate.”)

I have little interest myself in most of the topics and views on the margins of acceptability. I have no wish to deny the Holocaust, for example. I do however think it is important to be able to deny the Holocaust, or anything else for that matter, however potty such denial seems, without risking imprisonment [7]. If you cannot say things which a majority (or minority) of people do not like, you do not have free speech. It is as simple as that.

Someone has to be prepared to stand up for free speech if it is not to disappear altogether. This means you have to be willing to defend (against the threat of illegality [8]) the expression of viewpoints considered unacceptable or distasteful, regardless of whether you agree with them. Those would-be champions of truth and transparency, the Press, can certainly no longer be relied on to defend free speech, if they ever could. These days, their coming out in support of it is normally a sign they are being barred from chronicling the sexual escapades of some person in the public eye.

* * * * *

As for genuine thinking, who still does it? Members of the government? Hardly. Politicians are hired to produce noises and pseudo-analyses that will prove acceptable to the media and, to a lesser extent, the electorate. How about those professional trained thinkers, salaried academics? It depends how you define thinking. If you mean ‘think’ as in ‘think tank’, i.e. produce creative ways of convincing an audience that a particular viewpoint is correct, then perhaps this is being carried on in mainstream academia, although think tanks themselves are arguably better at it. Academia’s main strength by now is in doing mindnumbingly tedious (and expensive) empirical research of the kind that occasionally produces some significant advance by accident, but is mostly mundane and predictable. Mapping the human genome, developing a new way to purify water, that kind of thing. As for hardcore thinking à la Hume, Maxwell, Nietzsche or Planck, you can forget it. [9]

Most social science research coming out of academia supports intervention, usually by simply assuming — without stating the assumption — that it will happen, and that it should happen. A significant chunk of it purports to prove that intervention is desirable. (I have yet to come across an academic paper that argues it is not desirable.) A more recent spin on this theme is work that tries to show that critics of intervention, or those who fail to demonstrate allegiance to the prevailing ideology, are excessively anxious, or otherwise psychologically odd. It is rather like a tobacco company pumping out research which supposedly shows (a) that smoking is not bad for you, and (b) that critics of tobacco are psychotic.

In my opinion any research now coming out of the university establishment which has implications in the ideologically ‘correct’ direction has to be discarded, because it is almost certainly biased. This is true of ‘empirical’ research such as sociology and economics, as well as non-empirical research e.g. philosophy. [10]

The following story was reported to me by an undergraduate (let’s call him “Tom”) at an American university not especially noted for its political bias, and I have no reason to disbelieve it. Tom was attending a philosophy class which was discussing the topic of intelligence, when he mentioned Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve. The reaction, on the part of both professor and fellow students, was swift and vicious. The whole room joined in a chorus of contempt. “Yes, we know all about that. It’s rubbish and it’s irrelevant.” Tom says he found the vituperativeness of the response scary, and decided that he had better keep his thoughts to himself in future.

This story probably tells you, in a nutshell, all you need to know about the current state of the humanities, and not just in the US. Not all institutions are quite as blatant about suppressing the wrong kind of thought, of course. The better ones achieve the same effect by subtler means.

* * * * *

Avoidance of thinking is more easily spotted in subjects that lend themselves to politicisation, but it characterises others as well. For example, as books like The Trouble with Physics and Not Even Wrong have highlighted, theoretical physics has become very similar to theoretical economics: the activity being promoted, rather than genuine analysis or reflection, is what is politely called ‘groupthink’ (better described as groupbelief), i.e. playing a certain kind of intellectual game in which the sole point is to reinforce the prevailing paradigm while displaying technical pseudo-expertise. Even such innocuous-seeming subjects as computer science are not immune from this phenomenon.

The few who dare to criticise the intellectual establishment are careful to circumscribe their complaints. “Of course, not all string theorists are ... Of course, not all physicists ... Of course, not every academic subject ...” There is nothing as unseemly as a blanket rejection of the cultural system — it smacks of conservatism. I have done something different: grasped the nettle and hypothesised that there is a common theme which by now is fairly widespread, probably because much of the landscape is now driven by the same underlying ideology. Making the hypothesis bold and brash no doubt irritates a lot of people, including some who would like to be critical of academia but would prefer critiques to be mild, because they wish them to seem sensibly moderate. The risk with such ‘moderate’ critiques, apart from the fact that they meekly fail to grasp the real issue, is that they will receive a little polite attention, then be forgotten.

The mediocracy thesis may at times dice with hyperbole, but so far I have found it a useful heuristic which has helped to make sense of otherwise disparate and puzzling phenomena.

* * * * *

The Decline and Fall of Science was largely ignored when it came out, probably because its assertions, about the destructiveness of the then newly fashionable ideology, were unwelcome. However, it cannot have helped that ten years earlier, the reputations of Celia Green and her organisation were seriously damaged by slanders spread about by, among others, bigwigs at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick. The social strata of the people involved shows that the upper classes are not immune to the condition of behaving as if you are a ragbag of irrational reactions, incapable of analytical thought. Brief extracts from the sorry saga can be read here and here. More history here.

What makes the story particularly piquant is reading about a member of the cultural establishment (in this case, the late Sir Folliott Sandford) caught out doing the dirty on someone he presumably thought was in a weaker position than himself, and having to eat humble pie. Sandford's apology was not, however, sufficient in itself to undo the long-lasting damage of the slanders. If the University had any real ethics — as opposed to the phoney kind prescribed by pseudo-egalitarian ideology — they would make reparation for the harm done.

Recently I read about a journalist condemning a prominent blogger for “drip-feeding poison” into the blogosphere to blacken a certain minister’s reputation and potentially ruin his career. Condemning bloggers is easy, especially for journalists who by now have realised that the blogosphere is a threat to their position. Drip-feeding poison, however, by means of gossip and innuendo, and thereby damaging our potential careers in mainstream academia, is what the University has done to us over the last five decades. Journalists condemning the academic establishment (I expect there are other people with horror stories out there, one only has to dig a little) — now that would make for more interesting reading.

Oxford Forum is a research organisation that was formed to keep alive the venerable tradition of clear thinking which has fallen out of favour. Its aim is to allow intellectuals who are unable to derive advantage from mainstream academia to pursue empirical and theoretical research, free from political and ideological pressures.

1. Celia Green, The Decline and Fall of Science, Hamish Hamilton 1976, pp.7-8 (reissued Oxford Forum, 2006).

2. One of the few people to have publicly criticised their comprehensive school — apart from me, that is — is Jonathan Miller's son William.
How socially unacceptable such complaints are may be judged from the fact that Miller's article for The Times received only a handful of unimpressed online comments. Apparently the story was not deemed worthy even of a few fake comments by Times subs to boost the numbers.
I suspect that part of the reason William Miller survived his ordeal sufficiently to become a successful member of the cultural elite, and to feel confident enough to complain about a part of his life that might have ruined him, was that he had his family connections to make up for the handicap. Other people, not so lucky, may not wish to add insult to injury by drawing attention to the problem.
Sadly, Miller fails to draw the full moral of his experience, and looks doomed to replicate the phoney ideology of his father — if not to the extent of damaging his own children. He writes that
“it is grossly unfair that anyone who cannot afford to go private has to tolerate an underfunded state system that seems to put more emphasis on sex education and media studies than science and history, a system that fails to provide adequate protection from the feral youths who now seemingly dictate the timetable.”
To condemn comprehensive schools for being “unfair”, implying that what they need is more money spent on them, is precisely the woolly thinking that led to state involvement in the first place, and made things worse than they would have been without it.

3. Reacting personally (or “reactively” — see previous post, footnote 8) is, I believe, a more widespread phenomenon than is generally realised. It may be related to the fact that, in a mediocracy, the old systems of politeness have been stripped away, leaving everyone continuously irritated and (beneath their affected nonchalance) on a hair-trigger to express barely-contained anger. This type of behaviour seems to have permeated every section of society. Spitting into restaurant food, or assigning bad plane seats, are traditional ways of responding to someone who ticks you off. More recently, we have heard of such phenomena as bank managers giving one bad credit ratings if one has upset them in some way, e.g. by sounding too shirty on the phone. Some months ago, I criticised the writings of a person connected with a professional firm with which I have some dealings. Within a fortnight, the firm wrote to tell me they were doing one of those “routine checks” which are rather tedious for the client targeted and which normally crop up about once every ten years. It may of course have been coincidence.

4. And the history of the French Revolution, of Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Stasi GDR, and probably some others that a trained historian would know about.

5. To those who wish to believe that ostensibly anti-discriminatory policies are designed to assist able members of social groups who would otherwise experience higher-than-usual levels of resistance in getting on, I would say this: such individuals are unlikely to be served well by crude rules or principles. Prejudice, where it exists, is a subtle beast, and hitting it with a sledgehammer is more likely to have the opposite effect from the one intended (or pretended). The same goes for anti-speech legislation marketed on an analogous basis.

6. According to WikiQuote, this way of expressing the free-speech sentiment was penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall and stems from her 1906 biography of Voltaire, The Friends of Voltaire. It is often misattributed to Voltaire himself.

7. Ideally, also without risk of being assassinated.
At this point, most journalists would feel obliged to make defensive noises like “of course, I do not think ... I have always supported ... some of my best friends are ...”. However, the expectation that one will do so, to avoid the presumption of a default viewpoint simply for mentioning a topic, is itself a form of censorship, and I am therefore going to flout this convention.

8. Defending free speech in principle, i.e. that people should not be prohibited from making whatever intellectual or cultural statements they wish, is not the same as approving of the content of specific statements, though many people get confused about this distinction. I strongly disapprove of torture porn, and I wish film directors would exercise more restraint in this area (I also wish audiences would regard it as morally unacceptable, and refuse to pay for it) but I am also strongly against making any such material illegal. The two aspects of my position are perfectly compatible.

9. The other thing academia is still quite good for is trivia. Those who wish to write papers, under fairly constricted conditions, on “5th century pottery shards of the Lesser Caucasus” or “cichlid populations in Lake Victoria” will usually find a berth, provided there is no risk of unwanted ideological implications arising from the work. Care should however be taken with publications which, while having no undesirable conclusions, make reference to concepts that could be construed as alluding to gender, religion, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, mental or physical impairment, nationality, or reproduction.

10. The bias takes the form either of leaving certain factors out of consideration (whether intentionally or unconsciously) or, more blatantly, of making explicit assumptions which, it is taken as read, no one ‘sensible’ could possibly disagree with.