WARNING – EXPECT AWFUL GRAMMAR (HASTE TO POST OVERTOOK REQUIREMENT TO FOLLOW THE RULES OF LANGUAGE, SORRY)
Last weekend I spent some of my time drinking beer and talking to Sir Peter Blake about Kendo Nagasaki. This weekend I spent an hour biting into a pen like a shire horse as my brain failed to comprehend a journalist I was sitting next to. I was at QEDcon, on a panel entrusted with the subject “Is Science the New Religion?”
It is the sort of title popular with media folk, like “is comedy the new rock and roll?” or “is knitting the new psoriasis?”
The answer to “is science the new religion?” is obviously yes, so long as you redefine religion as “a self-correcting, evidence based system of exploring the universe which attempts to unearth the least wrong laws and theories that can explain what exists or might exist whilst accepting that room must always be left for doubt and further enquiry”.
We went off topic pretty soon when the journalist explained that politicians, crippled by uncertainty, were now led by behind the scenes scientists. Whether true or not, the actual evidence offered seemed scant. Something about secondhand smoking and something else about education policy. From my view it seemed that the most that was actually being offered was the idea that MPs might cherry pick data to justify the policies they wished to put into place. This seemed very different to the notion that a muscular cabal of scientists are leading the nation into a dictatorship of evidence under the heavy hand of advanced critical thinking. I won’t dwell on my disagreements with the journalist’s position, hopefully a recording will be available soon and you can make your own judgements and throw a virtual egg or tomato at me via the means of futuristic communication.
Though I spent much of time either startle-eyed or furiously furrowed, as if an invisible Duchenne was experimenting on my face, there was one opinion expressed that continues to haunt me. There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.
I attempted to explain to the journalist that the world we live in has never been more complex or filled with things that require work and patience to understand. Though democracy lovers may shiver at the idea, the penalty for living in the civilisation we currently walk through is that we must sometimes accept our ignorance and defer to others. We can hope that they might be trusted, that the heart surgeon is sober and the climate scientists isn’t swayed by the desire for fame on the front cover of Vanity Fair kissing a Polar Bear.
The journalist suggested this was the kind of fascistic thinking that held up women’s suffrage and the education of the poor. My belief that we are not always equipped to make the best decisions is apparently the alibi that has always been used by people like me who wish to oppress “the common man”. I believe that people should be given as many tools as possible to understand as many complexities of the world as possible, to be armed with knowledge. As William H Calvin wrote, “knowledge is a vaccine”.
But to blithely suggest that that the world is not complex, that expertise is not only not required but a form of oppression, seems to be a position that can only be taken if you are blinkered when progressing through 21st century society. Go back one hundred years and I believe that pretty much any tool or device in your house could be repaired by you with a little ingenuity and swearing. Look at what you have around you now. Look at the device you are reading this on or your television or mobile phone or digital radio, when they cease to function correctly I wonder how many of you would confidently turn to your toolbox, uncover the technology within and effectively repair it. When I picked up the journalist’s ipad, something which seemed to alarm him as if I was a Hyde-ish brute (and I almost was) and declared “mend this”, no answer came forth. Go back a couple of hundred years and there was something closer to a democracy of experts, the downside of this was that medical people couldn’t cure you, the streets had considerably more human excrement in them and life was often cold and short. The price of technology, comfort and hopefully greater understanding of the universe and our place in it is an acceptance that we may not know best in all events and common sense, a hammer and a bag of leeches may not get you through it all.
We should not trust people just because they are experts, but if we are not prepared to put the time and effort in to understand something, to take a step beyond that column we read in The Guardian or “what my friend Phil told me”, then we are placed in a position where must defer and try and make the best decision we can as to who we should defer to. If you are really interested in an issue, then you must take time to read and investigate it, to learn how to ask the best questions, to interrogate with interest, open-mindedness and rigour. A good society, a healthy democracy, is not based on complacency and whining.
FOOTNOTE (added 15/4)
This hour continues to haunt me. I have not felt this exasperated since I appeared on a TV debate show with Stephen Green of Christian Voice. I regret (indeed I had forgotten) saying “you’re a fucking idiot” to the journalist near the conclusion of the event. Insomnia, coffee, exasperation, and an audience certainly didn’t turn me into Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.
here is someone else who watched the peculiar show – http://violettacrisis.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/eight-signs-of-bogus-historical.html
I am currently on tour – Hertford, Finchley, Salford and Reading plus many more soon http://www.robinince.com
also new stand up DVD, complete with Brian Cox commentary, is available from http://www.gofasterstripe.com
Most comments will be approved, even the spiteful ones if I am in the mood, though this will probably not be done very quickly due to tour commitments and wifi scarcity.