Sorry, Sir David, but you just spat in my face

In an interview with Greenpeace, reported in the New Statesman, Sir David Attenborough likens Brexit with spitting in one another’s faces. He is quoted as saying that Brexiteers don’t understand facts, and then goes on to criticise Michael Gove’s (mis-)reported comments about experts without actually taking the trouble to find out what Gove actually said, thus not understanding a fact himself.

Leaving aside that Brexit was not actually driven by facts, but by values, philosophy, identity and human nature, Sir David demonstrates himself ignorant of the fact that, as demonstrated conclusively by Douglas Carswell in his book Rebel, no human society has flourished in the long term when power is centralised (as is increasingly the case with the EU), but only in societies that demonstrate independence, dispersal of power, and interdependence.

But what I’d really like to tackle is something which is rather less obvious from the science of psychology, for which perhaps Sir David has a better excuse for ignorance.

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Professor Jonathan Haidt explains why humans are not so much rational beings as rationalising ones: we are driven by emotion and intuition, with our reasoning faculties being used to justify our feelings, and only rarely being involved in decision making itself. In general, we are motivated not so much to seek the truth as to confirm that what we have already decided is right — even when it isn’t.

Once we have made up our minds about something, we are unlikely to be swayed by facts nor by reasoned argument; the exceptions are those who are naturally open minded, those who have yet to make their minds up either way, or those who are particularly motivated to seek the truth.

Additionally, we strongly desire the affirmation of our peers. We value reputation much more highly than truth. We can therefore be persuaded to change our minds to keep in with people that matter to us. Shame can be a powerful motivating force, but only from members of our in-group — trying to shame someone from outside of our own tribe is much less effective, and indeed can be counter-productive.

Because we make decisions with our gut-feelings and are heavily influenced by our peers, intelligent sophisticated and well-educated people are no more likely to be right about complex political issues than dim and ignorant people. Indeed, those who are intelligent are much better at finding reasons for justifying what they already believe and so better at deluding themselves into thinking that they are right when they actually have it completely wrong. Even the best-informed of us can reach the wrong conclusions when erroneous underlying assumptions go unquestioned.

All of which means that, not only is the point that Michael Gove actually made about experts (“the people of this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms, saying that they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong”) perfectly reasonable, but also the point he was mistakenly thought to be making, and for which he has been unfairly derided, that we can’t trust those who are widely reckoned to be experts, is not even in itself particularly unreasonable.

That doesn’t mean that those claiming expertise are necessarily wrong, but it’s more a question of who really is an expert and who isn’t, and of expertise in some fields, such as economics, not being equivalent to expertise in others, where the issues are more clear-cut, such as the hard sciences. Even then, according to the late quantum physicist, Richard Feynman: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.

On the whole, the individuals to trust are those who adopt a scientific approach, being humble, sceptical and self-critical; we should be especially wary of those who are emotionally invested in an outcome or display no self-doubt. And I am afraid, on this showing, the latter category appears to include Sir David himself.

I apologise for making this a bit personal, but sorry, Sir David, I feel like you just spat in my face.

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