I listened to the eminent evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins promoting his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, on the radio. He discussed the role of scientific method and evidence, particularly in relation to the Brexit vote. He began by saying that nothing so important as staying in, or leaving the EU should hinge on a binary yes/no vote. But he then went on to extol the virtues of scientific method, which in his radio interview, and in the introduction to the book, he argues should be the preeminent method for making decisions about the world, including Brexit. We should seek out the evidence, public and private, and make our decision according to that. For Dawkins, scientific method is predicated on removing prejudice and gut feeling, indeed all feelings, from rational decision-making and is as relevant to making political decision making as it is to discovering more about the natural world. The best example of a method which does this is the double blind randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical research. He declared that he didn’t want his politicians to be emotional, but rather he wanted them to make the best possible decision, rationally, and on the basis of the best possible evidence.
Further, in the introductory chapter to his book he praises scientific method and compares philosophy unfavourably with chemistry. It might be the case, he says, that a philosophy department will advertise for a professor of continental philosophy, but can you imagine a chemistry department advertising for a professor of continental chemistry? Science is everywhere the same, in Delhi or in London. In setting out his argument like this, Dawkins reveals himself to believe in a unified theory of science. Scientific method is equally applicable in social and natural settings: all biology is reducible to chemistry, and all chemistry to physics. He believes that comparing chemistry and philosophy, one way of theorising against many ways of theorising, casts philosophy in an unfavourable light, and in so doing he makes an ideological claim on his readers.
There is a different post to be written about whether scientists do indeed use just one method, whether there is only one way of finding out about what we take reality to be, and whether scientific experimentation isn’t also guided by chance, gut feeling and practical judgement. There is also an inquiry concerning how our affective, somatic experience is the basis of rational decision-making, as neurosurgeon Antonio Damasio has explored elsewhere.
But in this post I want to examine Dawkins’ claim in the light of the topic in which he introduced it – the Brexit vote. In what way would it make sense to say that our approach to the decision to leave or to stay in the EU could be made scientifically, rationally, without emotion and according to the best evidence? This is particularly the case when the very reason we had the vote in the first place was driven by value and emotion-laden questions of identity, and what we take to be moral ways of organising our society, as well as for reasons of political strategy and competitive advantage? What kinds of evidence are available in such a political and contested context, where everything is in flux? And if the answer to these questions is no, it is not possible to decide using the method Dawkins recommends, or only a partial yes, what other ways are available to us to make up our minds, given that not voting would also have had consequences? If it is not possible to be totally rational, is it then possible to be reasonable, in the sense of finding reasons for acting one way or another? Not to act rationally does not imply acting irrationally, and nor is the only response to emotion-laden questions to try to expunge emotion altogether. Rather than assuming that emotion is always unhelpful, it might be more productive to think systematically about what all the emotion might be about.
I think this is an important area of inquiry given that, on a smaller scale, this is the kind of dilemma which faces managers in organisations on a daily basis, particularly in human services, where sometimes none of the options are good ones, the evidence is partial or non-existent, every aspect of the problem is contested, but a decision is needed anyway.
Firstly, no country has ever left the EU before: there are no prior examples to assess. And if there had been examples, would the specific circumstances of the UK and its history make them irrelevant? We are in new and uncertain territory. Secondly, there are an infinite number of variables, political, social, economic which make it impossible to isolate any single process and argue that if X then Y. A number of economic institutions model possible outcomes, but all are limited and based on assumptions which need further exploration; they are likely to be based on extrapolations of what we currently know. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are too many variables to build into a predictive model of what is likely to happen in such a complex situation. And with such a wealth of possibilities, and so much data to choose from, it is difficult to develop a neutral model which is free of ideological assumptions.
In situations where we are trying to make up our minds about something both complex and unknown, where the evidence, such as it is, is partial, and to present it involves making choices which inevitably reveal value positions, how might we proceed?
Taking a pragmatic perspective on a situation like the Brexit vote assumes that there is no value-neutral position, no God’s-eye view, but rather that every position in a politically contested situation is a value position. What is important, then, is not to claim objectivity but to try and make as many of one’s value positions and assumptions clear. In terms of method, sometimes it is only possible to do this in relation to other people’s value positions and through inquiry. In other words, by asking questions of one’s ‘opponents’, not as a way of defeating their argument, but rather making it clearer both to you and to them, it might be possible to develop a deeper understanding of claims and clarify one’s own position in relation to the arguments made. The movement is dialectical: making your position clearer to you helps me make my position clearer to me. This would also involve investigating each other’s evidential claims as to whether, say, immigration does or does not undercut wages, as far as the data can support this investigation.
What of the situation where different sides in the discussion claim that the others are telling lies, that everyone else’s arguments and reasons are not to be trusted, as is the case in the Brexit vote? In this context, then, it might be helpful to think both historically and sociologically. Who belongs to this particular thought collective, how did they come to be, what are their principal arguments? Who are their friends and what other groups are they associated with? On what assumptions do their arguments rest? And as we would in a court of law, to what degree do we consider them reliable witnesses? In other words, to trust someone’s argument also involves making judgements about character, asking questions about how a particular respondent’s history of relating with me, or with others, calls out trust or otherwise. If someone has one position on an important matter one day, and the opposite position tomorrow, and gives no reason for the change, to what degree can I trust today’s position?
Lastly and pragmatically, rather than denying emotions as being helpful in this situation it might be interesting instead to consider my own emotional response to the claims being made about what it means to be British, to take back control, to be independent, and to evaluate whether I experience resonance or not. To what degree do I identify with the ‘we’ identity which is being evoked? In other words, my emotional response is further ‘data’ to consider in knowing how to vote for what I consider to be best for ‘us’. This is not necessarily an isolated activity but could be a further theme to explore with my own particular thought collective or community of inquiry.
Dawkins argues that there is only one scientific method based on rationality, objectivity and squeezing out emotions, and that this method helps us in all situations, even the Brexit vote. In contrast I have made a case for dialectical engagement, historical and sociological investigation, judgements of character and taking emotions seriously, both mine and other people’s. A pragmatic approach to complex decision-making invovles systematic thinking using whatever thinking tools might be useful in the circumstances. There is no one best way. In other words, events like the Brexit vote, or everyday complex situations faced by managers in organisations require a variety of methods to know how to go on. There is no position which offers a privileged perspective on the messy situation I find myself in with others, ‘objective’ or others. Instead the best that can be achieved is a reflexive engagement with what we think we are doing and who we think we are becoming, and a greater wisdom about and insight into what we feel about who we are becoming.