The March of Unreason – Dick Taverne

I’m reading “The March of Unreason – Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism” because it’s the book selected by Central London Humanists book group for July. The name sounded familiar – it is the Dick Taverne of UK Labour / Independent / Lib-Dem politics fame, currently in The Lords. I’m reading the 2006/7 paperback edition where he reinforces in the preface that the book is primarily political and expressing his disappointment that response to its original 2005 publication focussed almost exclusively on the science aspects.

[Post note : Update on the book club event.]

Yes, a major part of his thesis is a demand for evidence-based decision-making, and reminding us that it was no coincidence that the rise of both science and democratic freedoms went hand in hand with the enlightenment. They co-evolved from the same rational thinking. Skeptical critical considerations as a better alternative to authoritarian religious dogma. Better because the human progress achieved since then is self-evident. But, there’s a but.

There is a strong counter-balancing message that early readers missed.

Taverne is very explicitly not arguing for evidence as exclusively necessary for all decisions, nor that evidential considerations are necessarily scientific – objectively repeatable and amenable to simple logical argument. Science itself is far more than that anyway – more subtly creative – but ethical and political decisions even more so. Available evidence must not be ignored and in a free democratic society reasoning must be open to challenge and criticism, but ethical political decisions – what should “we” do – depend on far more human values and judgments than are necessarily backed entirely by the evidence and objective methods.

Of course he is making the first part of the argument. A defence of science under attack from cynical, rather than truly sceptical, suspicion – the eco-warrrior, the anti-you-name-it mentality. A loss of faith in scientific claims made by technology-based business interests for example, superstitious cynical conspiracy theory dogma rather than healthy scepticism and a tendency to ignore, discount or dismiss actual evidence to the contrary. The dead-hand of the precautionary principle – a pessimism too far. And post-9/11 a significant part of that is the more dangerous rise of more fundamental religious dogma, terrorist or otherwise counter to individual freedoms. So far, so much in common with many other post-9/11 writers. I share his frustration that the “pro-science and freedoms” audience is missing the other half of the story – we’re trying to keeping the sceptics honest by also pointing out the dangers of their own unwittingly cynical dogmas.

Something wonderfully ironic about Lewis Wolpert’s wishful contribution to the cover blurb:

“An excellent defence of science”

Wake up and smell the coffee Lewis. “Defence” of science as an objective is dogma, not sceptical critical thinking. Wolpert has been a target of mine before. Guessing Wolpert was part of the disappointment Taverne refers to in his updated preface.

Although Taverne refers to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the great “bad” books of its time, “unconvincing philosophically” (in his end notes) he uses a quote exactly as used by Pirsig, to illustrate that there is nothing exclusive to science about the rational process:

“When the cause of a vehicle breakdown is uncertain,
a good mechanic will gather the facts,
formulate a theory and
carry out tests to see if it stands up,
quite unconsciously acting as any good scientist would.”

In summarising his conclusions, Taverne says:

“The argument of this book is not only that arguments which are evidence-based are valid but that we should never ignore evidence where it is relevant. Even where it is relevant I do not argue that evidence is all that matters.

For example, a wise philosopher …. [might argue] …. there is also a value judgement to be made about the deeper quality of life, which cannot be based on a verifiable or falsifiable proposition.

My main purpose therefore has not been to make exaggerated claims about the scope for applying scientific method, but to wage war [specifically] on those who ignore evidence.”

This focus does leave unasked some questions about what counts as valid evidence beyond the scope of objective science, but the deadlock breaker is free democracy. “Criticism and adaptability are the characteristics of societies that are free and prosperous.” Taverne states before quoting E. M. Forster, as several other recent reads have done:

“Two cheers for democracy.
One because it admits variety.
Two because it permits criticism.”

I think it’s key that Forster suggests two rather than the customary three cheers. The downside being the imperfection of democracy – echoed in the famous Churchillian quote. Ethical and political decisions in a free democracy can never be perfectly captured in verifiable evidence and logical propositions. I’m tempted to offer my own favourite quotation on that from Marianne Jones:

Too Blue for Logic.

My axioms were so clean-hewn,
The joins of ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’ neat
But, I admit
Life would not fit
Between straight lines
And all the cornflowers said was ‘blue,’
All summer long, so blue.
So when the sea came in and with one wave
Threatened to wash my edifice away ”
I let it.

Though we all need to let go the delusion that science is the answer to everything – everything important in real life – we nevertheless ignore evidence at our peril. Taverne concludes, lest there be any doubt:

Modern liberal democracy gives more people the chance of a good life than ever before.
This would not be possible without the contribution of science.

A good read, and a great wealth of examples I’ve barely hinted at in terms of the perversions of scientific scepticism reinforced by ignorance of evidence by campaigning pressure groups and the dismissal of value judgments not reducible to science alone.


[Post Note : here a recent and topical example of where irrational anti-nuclear prejudice massively undermined the value of a very expensive research project – the Rosetta / Philae comet lander mission.]

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