One of the strangest things about most scientists and academics, and, indeed, most educated middle-class people in developed countries, is their inability to adopt a scientific approach to their own political and ethical beliefs.
Such beliefs are not acquired as a consequence of growing rationality or progress. Rather, they are part of what defines the identity of a particular human tribe. A particular bundle of shared ideas is acquired as a result of chance, operating in tandem with the same positive feedback processes which drive all trends and fashions in human society. Alex Pentland, MIT academic and author of 'Social Physics', concisely summarises the situation as follows:
"A community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs...most of our public beliefs and habits are learned by observing the attitudes, actions and outcomes of peers, rather than by logic or argument," (p25, Being Human, NewScientistCollection, 2015).
So it continues to be somewhat surprising that so many scientists and academics, not to mention writers, journalists, and the judiciary, continue to regard their own particular bundle of political and ethical ideas, as in some sense, 'progressive', or objectively true.
Never has this been more apparent than in the response to Britain's decision to leave the European Union, and America's decision to elect Donald Trump. Those who voted in favour of these respective decisions have been variously denigrated as stupid people, working class people, angry white men, racists, and sexists.
To take one example of the genre, John Horgan has written an article on the Scientific American website which details the objective statistical indicators of human progress over hundreds of years. At the conclusion of this article he asserts that Trump's election "reveals that many Americans feel threatened by progress, especially rights for women and minorities."
There are three propositions implicit in Horgan's statement: (i) The political and ethical ideas represented by the US Democratic party are those which can be objectively equated with measurable progress; (ii) Those who voted against such ideas are sexist; (iii) Those who voted against such ideas are racist.
The accusation that those who voted for Trump feel threatened by equal rights for women is especially puzzling. As many political analysts have noted, 42% of those who voted for Trump were female, which, if Horgan is to be believed, was equivalent to turkeys voting for Christmas.
It doesn't say much for Horgan's view of women that he thinks so many millions of them could vote against equal rights for women. Unless, of course, people largely tend to form political beliefs, and vote, according to patterns determined by the social groups to which they belong, rather than on the basis of evidence and reason. A principle which would, unfortunately, fatally undermine Horgan's conviction that one of those bundles of ethical and political beliefs represents an objective form of progress.
In the course of his article, Horgan defines a democracy "as a society in which women can vote," and also, as an indicator of progress, points to the fact that homosexuality was a crime when he was a kid. These are two important points to consider when we turn from the issue of Trump to Brexit, and consider the problem of immigration. The past decades have seen the large-scale migration of people into Britain who are enemies of the open society: these are people who reject equal rights for women, and people who consider homosexuality to be a crime.
So the question is as follows: Do you permit the migration of people into your country who oppose the open society, or do you prohibit it?
If you believe that equal rights for women and the non-persecution of homosexuals are objective indicators of progress, then do you permit or prohibit the migration of people into your country who oppose such progress?
It's a well-defined, straightforward question for the academics, the writers, the journalists, the judiciary, and indeed for all those who believe in objective political and ethical progress. It's a question which requires a decision, not merely an admission of complexity or difficulty.
Now combine that question with the following European Union policy: "Access to the European single market requires the free migration of labour between participating countries."
What unites Brexit and Trump is that both events are a measure of the current relative size of different tribes, under external perturbations such as immigration. It's not about progress, rationality, reactionary forces, conspiracies or conservatism. Those are merely the delusional stories each tribe spins as part of its attempts to maintain internal cohesion and bolster its size. It's more about gaining and retaining membership of particular social groups, and that requires subscription to a bundle of political and ethical ideas.
However, the thing about democracy is that it doesn't require the academics, the writers, the journalists, the judiciary, and other middle-class elites to understand any of this. They just need to lose.