How certainty can breed intolerance

How certainty can breed intolerance

by Martin Livermore
article from Monday 12, February, 2018

CERTAINTY IS USUALLY thought of as a virtue, and we often regard those who lack firm views on an issue as indecisive or weak. In fact, it can be a mixed blessing, with a refusal to change position sometimes leading to far more harm than good. At the extreme, the certainty that a particular ideology is right can have appalling consequences; Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot’s ostensible attempts to build perfect socialist societies resulted in terrible suffering and millions of deaths.

On a more mundane level, a failure to recognise a change of public mood can mark the end of the road for democratically elected politicians as well. Margaret Thatcher’s fight against trade union power and introduction of the right to buy council houses brought popularity (with many), but her insistence on the hated ‘poll tax’ was a step too far for the Conservative Party.

Remaining in the political arena, Aneurin Bevan’s remark that Tories were ‘lower than vermin’ in 1948 (“…no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”) reveals a hardness of opinion still unfortunately shared by some on the resurgent Labour Left.

Not that it is only the Left that is guilty; Winston Churchill’s speech in the 1945 election in which he said that electing a Labour government and the introduction of Socialism into Britain would require “... some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance” was a serious miscalculation that contributed to the Atlee government’s large majority.

In the event, Churchill’s comment seems to have been a rhetorical overstepping of the mark rather than reflecting a visceral loathing such as Bevan’s. Churchill and Atlee worked together very effectively in the wartime National government and had a deep respect for each other. But the perception of certainty and intolerance no doubt led to greater polarisation and put the Conservatives firmly on the wrong side of history at that particular juncture.

In all walks of life, not just politics, Keynes’ dictum “If the facts change, I change my mind” should always be borne in mind. Even if the facts as known don’t really change, differences of perception or context may lead to a different interpretation. Nevertheless, far too many people are driven by belief or ideology rather than a rational assessment of evidence.

This leads them not just to reject opposing arguments but to ignore people they consider to hold the wrong opinions. A case in point is highlighted in this headline about the appointment of Neno Dimov, the Bulgarian environment minister, as president of the EU environment council: 'Shocking': Anger after climate change sceptic becomes EU environment chief. Mr Dimov was not elected to this position; it becomes his turn for the next six months during Bulgaria’s stint in the rotating council presidency.

Because he had previously made some controversial comments on climate change, he came in for some critical questioning when he appeared at the European Parliament: “Mr Dimov refused to discuss his opinion on climate change, saying there was a ‘political consensus’ within the EU when it came to climate change and that he would ‘keep this consensus alive’. However, he also said there was always room for ‘challenges and doubts’. Shortly after becoming environment minister last year, Mr Dimov told a television interviewer ‘climate change is a scientific debate; there is no consensus, and every part has arguments.’ ” 

Admittedly, this is not the only issue over which Mr Dimov has clashed with environmentalists, but in this case he should surely be judged by his actions rather than his views. Far from it being the black and white issue which many activists would have us believe, the scientific knowledge behind climate change and the technology behind rational approaches to mitigate potential negative effects continue to evolve.

Just as it is clear that the more extravagant claims about both the likely future rise in average temperatures, and the impact of such changes, have been generally accepted to be unrealistic, so a debate about how to take sensible action as part of a ‘least regrets’ approach is now overdue. In the current febrile environment, this is almost impossible. But if, for example, greater use of nuclear energy could both reduce CO2 emissions and provide a far more secure and stable electricity supply than is possible with the current generation of renewables and energy storage technologies, surely the rational approach would be to at least consider the possibility seriously?

Perhaps this intolerance of dissent on environmental issues is just a symptom of a wider malaise in society? It certainly seems like it, when even the academic world seems intent on looking at historical figures and events through the lens of modern morality and cultural norms that have changed substantially in our own lifetimes. What started with ‘Rhodes must go’ has evolved to the point where a well-argued article by Nigel Biggar, and Oxford theology professor, that colonialism was not necessarily wholly bad has been roundly condemned by his peers.

The article in question – Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history – carried the tagline Apologising for empire is now compulsory but shame can stop us tackling the world’s problems. 58 academics wrote an open letter condemning Prof Biggar, also reported in The Times (Oxford academics attack Professor Nigel Biggar over defence of colonialism). How representative they are of academic opinion is a moot point, but the fact that there was not a rush to defend him suggests that even non-signatories of the critical letter feel unwilling to put their heads above the parapet in the current climate.

This piece has strayed a bit further from science than usual, but it is unlikely we can encourage tolerance and rational argument among scientists unless as a society we become more willing to acknowledge and listen to dissenters. 

Martin Livermore writes for the Scientific Alliance, which advocates the use of rational scientific knowledge in the development of public policy. To subscribe to his regular newsletter please use this link.

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