Later On

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Threats to reason

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Dan Hind is editorial director of The Bodley Head publishing in London and author of The Threat to Reason (published by Verso). This essay is based on a talk he gave in November 2007 at the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) in London.

The Enlightenment is in mortal danger from irrational forces. We know this because its self-styled defenders continually tell us so. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins declares, in tones which make the flesh creep, that “primitive darkness is coming back”. Politician Dick Taverne warns that “the new Rome that science built is under siege by the barbarians”. In this magazine (New Scientist, 8 October 2005, p 39) we learn that “After two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under threat. Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason, intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular inquiry is the best way to understand the world.”

Other forms of unreason join religion to threaten the enlightened inheritance. Scientific medicine faces a fight to the death with homeopathy, reiki and other snake oil. Postmodernism and New Ageism have also supposedly debauched the public’s capacity to make reasonable judgements. As a result, experts tell us, a new mood of distrust has undermined public faith in science – an unintentionally revealing form of words.

No one would want to deny the challenges to the Enlightenment that are posed by fundamentalist religion and the other forces of unreason. But if we consider the facts dispassionately, it becomes clear they do not deserve top billing among the enemies of free inquiry. In fact, the institutions that noisily lay claim to the enlightened inheritance – the corporation and the state – pose a much more serious, pervasive threat to reason. In recent years many honest scientists have discovered that their own employers can be far more effectively hostile to science than any of its self-declared enemies.

First, let’s look at the corporations. They pose as the trustworthy guardians of science, yet when they deem it necessary they will manipulate research to ensure the results fit their marketing needs. They even suppress research results outright, with sometimes lethal consequences. These are not accidental and occasional failings: maximising profits is what corporations are for.

The pose of trustworthiness, for all its demonstrable falsity, reaps them vast rewards in the form of direct and indirect subsidies from the taxpayer. In the UK, for example, under a formula agreed by government and business at the end of 2004, 28 per cent of the money the National Health Service spends on branded drugs is earmarked to support R&D, a subsidy worth more than £2 billion every year.

The largest part of this money is spent looking for ways to transform diseases of affluence and lifestyle disorders into chronic, and therefore revenue-generating, conditions. In some cases this might be appropriate, but amid the sound and fury over New Age healing and homeopathy we rarely consider whether these highly profitable private institutions should be given control of so much taxpayer-funded research. And while scepticism about Big Pharma does not entail hostility to science, it is interesting that the two things are so often conflated.

More generally, corporations work hard to convince us they have qualities and powers that they do not and cannot have. This reaches its apogee in the gold-plated contradiction of “corporate social responsibility”. Through advertising they ascribe various, entirely fictitious, life-enhancing attributes to the things they sell. They also promote uncertainty about the risks associated with their products. Elements in both the tobacco and processed-food sectors have done all they can to denigrate science when the consensus appears to threaten their business model. Their methods have been eagerly adopted by the energy sector to promote doubt about man-made global warming.

The other great patron of science, the state, also enthusiastically promotes unreason. In recent years we have seen concerted and highly effective campaigns by western states to promote false beliefs in target populations. These campaigns have made sophisticated use of polling techniques, marketing expertise and other devices.

In the psychological warfare campaign that preceded the invasion of Iraq, for example, every effort was made to persuade Americans that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, 3 per cent of Americans mentioned Iraq or Saddam when asked who they thought might have been responsible. By March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, 52 per cent of Americans thought that the US government had found clear evidence of a link between Saddam and Al-Qaida. In 2006, 90 per cent of troops in Iraq thought the war was retaliation for Saddam’s role in 9/11. Self-consciously enlightened commentators often express dismay at the public’s appetite for baseless conspiracy theories. It would be easier to take this dismay seriously if they at least noticed that the most lethal conspiracy theory of recent years was concocted and promoted by the US state.

Official secrecy makes it difficult to appreciate the full extent of state efforts to exploit public irrationality and undermine our capacity for reasoned decision-making. But we know enough to be sure that they have been extensive. For example, in the 1960s, the CIA planted material in an astrology magazine to convince the Vietnamese that South Vietnam’s President Diem had very lucky stars. And western states have certainly collaborated with cults and fundamentalist sects when it suited them. The promotion of extreme forms of Islam by the US, the UK and their allies, especially in Pakistan and Egypt, is only the most conspicuous example of recent attempts to harness the “forces of unreason” to state interests.

None of this stops powerful institutions from claiming that their favoured policies are neutrally scientific and that their opponents are therefore irrational Luddites. Their hypocrisy is no less spectacular for being, for the most part, studiously ignored by responsible intellectuals and commentators.

In such circumstances it is simple-minded in the extreme to imagine that the most serious threats come from outside the Enlightenment tradition. The conflicts between faith and reason, and science and the New Age, have a pleasing conceptual clarity. But if defending science from astrology and New Ageism feels urgent and brave, it all too often leads us to ignore or misconstrue more subtle, ruinous powers. The religiously sanctioned autocracy that Voltaire railed against in the 18th century no longer dominates intellectual life in the west. To act as if it does is to engage in a kind of historical – or hysterical – re-enactment.

I agree with Dawkins and Taverne and their many allies. Science as a humane endeavour faces growing threats. But if we are serious about defending what is most magnificent in the Enlightenment tradition, we must recognise that apparently reasonable agents promote unreason and suppress the truth when it suits their interests to do so. We must further acknowledge that they pose a more serious threat to the ideal of a rational public than the motley collection of cranks and frauds that so preoccupy Dawkins and others. We need not worry so much about the sprites and the goblins in the darkness. Our house may be brightly lit, but it is full of monsters.

Written by Leisureguy

20 January 2008 at 9:42 am

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