Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump and Brexit

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."

Hence, Brexit.

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.


Lee said...

'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.'

No, it's a question to be answered by everyone., not just those who believe in progress.

It indeed requires a decision, and you are ignoring or overlooking the many people who are in fact discussing rationally whether to permit or prohibit migration, at least here in Germany. Many of us recognise that a belief system (or systems) underlies our views and our choices, but that doesn't eliminate the need to make a choice.

Perhaps the only effective way to moderate the influence of tribal allegiance(s) and belief systems is to educate towards critical thinking. I like to think that we can learn to recognise why one makes a certain decision.

Gordon McCabe said...

I agree, Lee, that the question is a question for everyone.

The problem, however, is that education cannot eliminate the fundamental arbitrariness of the bundles of political and ethical beliefs associated with different tribes in society.

Certainly, a higher level of education increases the capability of a person to assess evidence, identify inconsistencies, and to make connections and inferences. The bundle of beliefs held by an educated tribe is liable to be more extensive and cohesive, and to contain a more accurate and reliable subset of empirical beliefs.

However, the political and ethical beliefs held by an educated tribe will be underpinned by a set of arbitrary assumptions about the link between the empirical world and the world of politics and ethics, just as much as those of a poorly educated tribe.

Take perhaps the most significant grounds for division between the modern political left and right. The left believes that a socially just world is one in which those with a greater capability to earn money should have a portion of their wealth taken away, and used to supplement the wealth of those with a lesser capability to earn money. In contrast, the right believes that a socially just world is one in which those with a greater capability to earn money are permitted to retain the money they earn, (or at least, to retain a greater proportion of it). Another way of framing this division is to say that the left believe in equality of outcome, while the right believe in equality of opportunity.

Neither principle is derived from empirical fact. At best, they are expressions of the self-interest of different tribes or classes in society, and at worst, they are arbitrary.

Even with the aid of critical thinking and self-awareness, how do you decide which principle to implement when both are lacking in justification?

Lee said...

Thanks for such a measured response, which is a delight in the climate of vitriol which seems to envelop us more and more.

In theory, it ought to be possible to measure or at least evaluate which of the two principles leads to the greater good of all. Granted, then we need to define what we mean by greater good, which would probably lead us into another quagmire of assumptions.

So what is your answer, partial though it may be? Not to choose nor to act is untenable, I fear.

Helgi said...

Well, you can apply mathematics in case most of "x", "y", "z" are known and you do not want to put the desired answer by manipulating with numbers. In case of US polls there were too much unproven information and tons of false. Not saying it's just a single piece of a global process. So, even if you solve your own equation over US polls (which is possible) you are not going to get the answer. You just get another set of "a", "b", "c" for a global equation.