The Assault on Reason

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Francisco Goya: detail from The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, circa 1810

Albert Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize not for his work on relativity, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Both results, and others of note, were published in 1905, his annus mirabilis. The prize was denied him for well over a decade, with the Nobel Committee maintaining that relativity was yet unproven. Philosophers of science, most notably Karl Popper, have argued that for a theory to be regarded as properly scientific it must be capable of being contradicted by observation. In other words, it must yield falsifiable predictions—predictions that could, in principle, be shown to be wrong. On the basis of his theory, Einstein predicted that starlight was being deflected by the sun by specified degrees. This was a prediction that was, in principle, capable of being wrong and therefore capable of falsifying relativity. The physicist offered signs others could look for that would lend credibility to his theory—or refute it. Evidence eventually came from the work of Arthur Eddington and the arrival of instruments that could make sufficiently fine measurements, though Einstein’s Nobel medal would elude him for two more years because of gathering anti-Semitism in Europe.

Mathematics, so often lumped together with the sciences, actually adheres to an entirely different standard. A mathematical theorem never submits itself to hypothesis testing, never needs an experiment to support its validity. Once described to me as an education in thinking without the encumbrance of facts, mathematics is unlike the sciences in that no empirical finding can ever shift a mathematical theorem by one iota; it is true forever. Mathematical reasoning is a given, something commonly understood and shared by all mathematicians, because mathematical reasoning is, fundamentally, no more than logical reasoning, a thing universally shared. My own study of mathematics has left me with a deep respect for the distinction between relevance and irrelevance in making a reasoned argument.

These are the gold standards of human intellectual progress. Society, however, has to deal with wildly contested facts. We live in a post-truth world, by some accounts, in which facts are willfully bent to serve political ends. If the forty-fifth president is to be believed, Christmas has apparently been restored to the White House. Never mind the contradictory videos of the forty-fourth president and his family celebrating the holiday.

But there is nothing particularly new about this distorting. In his landmark work, Public Opinion, published in 1922, the formidable American journalist, Walter Lippmann reflected on the functions of the press:

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.… as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.… Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts, as United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying. None of us is in a position, however, to verify all the facts presented to us. Somewhere, we each draw a line and say on this I will defer to so-and-so or such-and-such. We have only so many hours in the day. Besides, we acknowledge that some matters lie outside our expertise or even our capacity to comprehend. Doctors and lawyers make their livings on such basis.

But it is not merely facts that are under assault in the polarized politics of the US, the UK, and other nations twisting in the winds of what some call populism. There is also a troubling assault on reason.

Most of us grasp rudimentary principles of reasoning. We apply such principles in our daily lives, usually without reflection. Yes, the cognitive scientists tell us that human beings are irrational, and, if we’re not slaves to our passions, then at a minimum we’re led by an unruly twinning of reason and emotion. Nevertheless, whenever we stop ourselves and look at something shrewdly, we are capable of seeing basic errors of reasoning.


Consider the “whataboutism” of Donald Trump. Reporters might question him about the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but the American president seems unable to restrain himself from fulminating against Hillary Clinton. What about her and her lies, he asks? Why don’t you go after her? says the most powerful person on the planet.

One hopes most people would understand that his rejoinder is irrelevant. My beloved godson might misbehave and incur my gentle reprimand, but if he were to complain in defense that his friend Jeremy had done what he’d done, I would explain that Jeremy’s conduct does not provide the standards he should apply to himself. Jeremy’s conduct is irrelevant. Besides, Jeremy is a teddy bear and, as everyone knows, teddy bears can be quite naughty.

Whataboutism is only a deflection. But it succeeds as a political strategy because not everyone grasps the irrelevance; not everyone understands the importance of good reasoning.

A class-action lawsuit last year claimed that Donald Trump’s so-called University was essentially a fraud on students. Trump was evidently enraged by the judge’s decision to order the university to release certain documents that might damage the university’s defense. Trump told a rally that the judge was appointed by Barack Obama. “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine.” The judge was born in Indiana, the American heartland. In an interview on CNN, Trump said, “I’ve had horrible rulings, I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall.” Bizarrely, Trump maintained that the judge’s background presented a conflict of interest.

In Britain, too, attacks on judges have come from all quarters over the years, often led by the press. The language has ranged from critiquing the reasoning of the judiciary in a given case, to describing judges of the High Court as enemies of the people, language normally reserved, one would have thought, for terrorists and traitors. Had these men set off a bomb in the Royal Courts of Justice? Had they transmitted state secrets to Vladimir Putin? It turned out that the High Court had ruled that the Constitution of the United Kingdom did not permit the government to use the royal prerogative to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and that an Act of Parliament would be required. The newspaper—the hugely popular Daily Mail—did not feel the need to wait for the outcome of any appeal to the Supreme Court, which, by the way, resoundingly upheld the lower court’s ruling.

On close examination, instances of attacks on the judiciary, in the US, in the UK, and around the world, disclose an assault on reason itself. Legal reasoning is not a science, still less a branch of mathematics. But over a long history, the manner of reasoning in the law has evolved into a form with clear principles and tried and tested modes of argumentation. Judges might be said to be defying the will of millions of citizens, but the will of the people is irrelevant to the work of a judge. This irrelevance is something in which we Britons can rightly take pride. Judges are not adjudicating a talent contest in which they might be swayed by the pleading of the audience. They are trying to apply legal reasoning. That’s their job, a job clarified over centuries of struggling for independence. We should no more desire a judiciary that bends to public opinion than allow our police forces to become instruments of a governing political party. When judges keep to legal reasoning, day in, day out, we are all beneficiaries.

Authoritarian tendencies know that warping the facts is only a start. Warping reason and logic and clarity of thought is the holy grail. George Orwell knew this, too. In his masterpiece, 1984, he wrote:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.

This essay first appeared as a broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “A Point of View.”


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