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This is the fourth part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.

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The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?

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Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.

 

The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

Yesterday, English nationalists won a victory in the UK. They voted to leave the EU, to kick the immigrants out of their country, to sacrifice UK cohesion, economic health and a hard won peace to achieve what they call “independence”. They voted to keep the pound and to burn up long-standing agreements with their neighbours. They voted to throw social protections into the bin, to smoke indoors and to revive steak-and-kidney pie as the national meal. If they want to call people of a different appearance by their traditional nicknames, they expect they’ll be able to do that too.

One of the major worries now is that other countries will take heart and follow suit. Nationalist movements in the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and across Europe will be emboldened by this. The re-emergence of a fractured, hateful Europe raises its head, should politicians take their collective eyes off their ball.

People have asserted that this harks back to the 1930s and the rise of a new kind of fascism. But let’s pause. There is a big difference. The revolutionaries are not in the prime of their youth. It is a revolution of the elderly. A counter-revolution populated by people who are, themselves, on the way out. True, old people will be replaced by more old people, but the values sustaining them will not be as strongly felt as they are right now. To borrow a quote from Max Planck, societal change, as with science, advances one funeral at a time.

We see signs of this counter-revolution everywhere. Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, the United States and now England, as elderly authoritarians attempt to roll back the clock against the steady march of liberal values. 

Equal rights, equal access and opportunities for women, LGBT people, brown people, black people, foreign people, Muslim people, non-believers, people with physical and mental issues, people with intellectual disabilities, children, traveling people, poor people, the marginalised. Food standards, health standards and living standards for all, not just the privileged few. It’s not just about people: clean water, waste reduction, carbon neutral living; sanctions against polluters and those who would be cruel to animals. This has caused great upset to some people. As change becomes becomes more evident, their annoyance only deepens.

So they fight back. They organise. They campaign. They vote. Donald Trump’s rise as a serious political force in the US is a sign of this. So too is Brexit.

But we also must remember that backlashes often create backlashes of their own; particularly if they are sudden and powerful, like what happened yesterday. With hard work from those of us who believe in progress, they will find implementing their wishes monstrously difficult. They will encounter problems and roadblocks at every opportunity. They will me made to look foolish, craven and incompetent at every turn. Theirs will be a record of failure, allowing people of goodwill a chance to make genuine change when their opportunity comes along. We might yet look back on these times and reflect, not on the breakers, but on the efforts of those who repaired what was broken.

Brexit is a setback. An enormous one. But let’s not forget that it’s happened because the march of progress has been overwhelmingly in the direction of liberal values. Those who oppose this are organised, but they are not, in the main, young. They may have their day in the sun, laughing at foreigners and trumpeting their national values, but the road is much longer than them. If we fight back, our values will win in the end. 

Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the dramatic end to the Irish boom years. The papers and radio programs can talk about little else these days. It seemed to me that we Irish lost control of ourselves, embarking on a no-holds barred journey of utter hedonism and a devil-may-care financial splurge of epic proportions.

And yes, there were excesses. I remember once meeting the wife of a builder in Co. Clare, who told me that she changed houses every 2 years. At the time, they were both living in a 4,000 square-foot pad, and they would probably build a bigger one as soon as she got bored with it.

In a more general vein, there was the epic investment in foreign properties and towering office blocks; the multiple holidays per year to far flung locations such as Mauritius and the Seychelles; the arms races between neighbours and the ubiquity of stretch limos ferrying debutantes and first holy communicants to their dates with destiny.

But despite all this, the boom years were good years: a chance to forget the day to day struggles and to approach that stage of self actualisation heralded by Maslow. Many people were permitted to set up new businesses in a wide variety of fields, from coffee shops to tree surgery to exotic footwear. The quality of everything – food, clothes, furnishings – jumped dramatically. People were better able to provide for their families and to enjoy meals and outings with their friends. Services were set up to help people to improve the quality of their lives. People could indulge themselves in their hobbies and interests. Many people worked harder than they had ever worked in their lives, fanning the flames of an entrepreneurial ethic within Irish society. For a short few years, the wolf was no longer at the door, and it felt good.

So screw it. Let’s not regret the boom years. Let’s figure out how to get ourselves back to such times as quickly as possible so that we, our families and the less fortunate in society can benefit from a bit more cash in our pockets.

As Spike Milligan once said, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasent form of misery”.

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