Blind faith

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Diving back into Dominic Cumming’s epic blog post, while taking a sidelong look also at Alastair Heath‘s piece in the Telegraph yesterday, I noticed an aligning of ideas that answered something that has been bothering me for a while now.

In Dominic’s post, he quotes Bret Victor on the quality of political debate that often goes on these days. The bigger picture, as Dominic points out, is that the quality of information being presented to MPs is woeful at best, which is worrying when these people are often making life and death decisions, that can have ramifications for generations to come.

Victor, talking of many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in climate change, says: ‘And why trust them? Their rhetoric is catchy, but so is the horrific “denialist” rhetoric from the Cato Institute and similar. When the discussion is at the level of “trust me, I’m a scientist” and “look at the poor polar bears”, it becomes a matter of emotional appeal and faith, a form of religion.’

This quote really struck a chord with me, and has been bouncing around the old cerebellum for a couple of days now.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Alastair Heath writes about how left and right often misunderstand each other because they emphasise different core moral values. He writes:

‘The seminal works here are the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, as well as his more recent The Coddling of the American Mind. As Haidt points out, there are six main moral intuitions: fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The Left judge almost everything by the first two – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own, fuelling their anger – the Right by the last four, though they are usually more aware of the first two, which makes them more puzzled than angry. Such self-awareness is a key differentiator between Lefties, conservatives and libertarians.’

This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. The reason being that having immersed myself so thoroughly in Hayek for the past year or so, certain things didn’t feel quite right, and one of them was his argument that intelligent people tend to be socialists because they are intelligent and rational, and if you are intelligent and rational, you can’t accept that you don’t know everything.

Yet, the level of debate I’ve had with a lot of people around Brexit has been of a similar poor quality. Now, I know that I said here before that the part of the brain that deals with decision making doesn’t deal with language, so it’s often hard to articulate why choose to like what we like. That said, it is usually possible for us to at least come up with something, even if we feel it doesn’t really do it justice. There is usually something rational we can salvage from it.

And yet, with Brexit, the two camps have definitely taken each of their core values and run with them at a visceral level, not really thinking things through logically at all. And so we find those in the remain camp in a situation of almost loathing people in the leave camp. I suspect this is because their core values of fairness and justice have been mortally affronted by the result. Those who adhere to the latter for end up perplexed as to the amount of vitriol they sometimes receive, as they adhere to the other four codes, that allow them to be somewhat more tolerant of people who disagree with them (though, not always!).

The problem is that in both cases, rationality has gone out of the window. As Dominic says, both parties need to up their game in terms of proper objective arguments based on sound contextualised data to make the best decisions.

As Hayek argues, the extended order operates somewhere between instinct and reason. In recent years, many, particularly on the left, have shied away from rationality and taken refuge in instinct. This is the thing that has confused me for a while. I expected these rational, intelligent people to have the answers as to why they voted to remain, and yet they didn’t. More often than not they had nothing but, ‘You’re wrong, you’re an idiot.’ End of argument.

It reminded me of a very young and naive me, in my days of being a bit of a God-botherer.

In that context, it almost feels like socialism has moved away from being the rationalist’s home to being the believer’s home. It’s become a religion. And many of the key issues of our day, including Brexit, climate change and veganism have also taken on the blind faith qualities of religion, with an anger to rival some of the fiercest fundamental Christians or Muslims.

Strangely enough, I’m writing this on the train, and have just looked up to see a headline in the Evening Standard, ‘Now to we have a nasty left to match the nasty right?’

We need to find the middle ground again, and the start of that is proper, well informed, rational debate based on the latest techniques in data modelling and forecasting. Not only that, we need to start telling some proper stories to reflect the truth in these facts and figures. Time to bring on the actuaries?

On Rationalism

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Before I worked in London, I always used to hear about ‘the elite’, those who worked in London, leaned somewhat to the left, and seemed to hell bent on doing something to upset the rest of the country, whether that be remoaning or trying to put the kibosh on some grand scheme or other.

“It’s the bloody elite,” the cry would go up. “Always trying to ruin things.”

I wondered who these people were and why they would be so different to people outside of the M25. Since I’ve been working in London these past two years, I’ve discovered them and realised a few things.

Firstly, they are for the most part normal humans with normal daily problems like families and shopping and housing to deal with. So far, so dull. But I would hear them talking, and find them reading the Guardian website, and it made me wonder why these people from diverse backgrounds all thought the same. And then, after much pondering, it hit me. Rationalism.

Rationalism is the great enemy of freedom, and it’s ever so easy to fall into the rationalistic way of thinking. Just surround yourself with intelligent, intellectual types and a sort of hive mind grows. And it seems to have infected London.

Intelligent and intellectual people like to think that they know things. Aristotle’s wise words of wisdom are rarely found in London. There is an opinion and an answer for everything. And they are, more often than not, very good, intelligent answers. But not always well informed or even correct.

These people consider themselves liberals, but the problem is that they’ve gone down the wrong path. If a true liberal is one who puts liberty as the highest value in society, then you have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in life, and understand that we do not have all the answers as individuals, and never will. This runs counter to the intellectual agenda of knowing best.

Rationalism has snuck in and embedded itself into our culture, thanks to the likes of the great thinkers of the past few centuries – Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein etc. and so where we find a high percentage of the intelligent population all gathered together in one place, so rationalism has festered. It’s there in our universities too for the same reasons.

People have taken the facts as they see them and formed their opinions, not understanding (or be willing to admit) that the information they have is a tiny fraction of all the information out there needed to really form a valid opinion (if one could ever be properly formed).

I’m not saying everyone who works in London thinks this way, but I do see a lot of it. And most of these people do seem, underneath it all, a little muddled (not that they’d admit that) as I don’t think true liberalism can truly square with rationalism.

And there is more to this, which I’ll explain in the next post or two…