(n-1)-thoughts, n=5: Freedom of speech, university statement on free speech, the late Steven Weinberg, and delayed autism research

Freedom of speech

Outside of science, one of my favourite things to study as a hobby is history. I also deeply enjoy and appreciate philosophy. One thing I’ve learned in my time studying history and philosophy is that, when judged alongside the human character (insofar that we may establish such a generalisation), democracy is a system that perhaps shouldn’t work but somehow functions in miraculous ways. The miraculous part of democracy is that, as a system, it is generally stable despite or, perhaps, because of multiple competing forces. How it stablises despite so many pressure points, is a very interesting question of political theory and systems theory. Admittedly, it is naive to think in the following way, but there are times when I am pulled to consider a newtonian, mechanical view of social systems and their configuration. In the context of social discourse, think of how a view or movement based on certain ideas and arguements often seems to evoke an equal, opposite view. Look at the social world as a distant observer might, and notice the pattern that oftentimes there is a movement and then a reaction. In conditions of increasing polarisation, concepts and ideas – viewpoints – can become extremised and so too do their opposite. If a person is not left, then they must be right. There are a number of books on political polarisation, including some that take a science view of bias, and they all hint toward combinations of structural, cognitive, and psychological factors.

I often look at the social world as the absence of reason. This might be a bit too classical and critical enlightenment, but in many ways I think we’ve lost touch with the concept of subtlety in the rational process: that there is nuance and subtlty to concepts and to formulating rigorously researched ideas about complicated topics. For example, am I a ‘climate denier’? No. But am I skeptical of a lot of the hysteria around climate change? Yes. (I think, for example, of anti-modern movements or those that organise themselves under the notion of Deep Ecology). Does this mean I completely reject climate science, or that I completely reject the notion of climate change, although in places I may be sceptical? No. It seems that in the world of concepts and of human ideas, more often than not views become extremised and concepts are taken to their ideological boundaries where irrationality transforms into unreason. We see it all the time, not just in politics where formally it is accepted that designations of left and right, along with their associated bias, may clash in debate without much objectivity. To me, it is an absurdity. But one thing that history has taught me, and, certainly, the history of science, is that it is important to constantly resist getting tied down to bias, prejudice, and the type of knowledge formation that comes with ideology in all its guises. Much of what the history of science teaches is about our utter stupidity as a species in thinking that, in whatever historical period, we may belive to possess all of the answers or have a complete grasp on the truth. It is thus only a matter of pure comedy that we may engage in politics in such a way as thinking ours is the righteous view.

If I may speak honestly, I find a lot about modern politics – by which I mean the nature of its structure and engagement – irrational. I’ve never understood why in modern British democracy we assign the role of secretary of education, for example, to a professional politician with no experience in the field of education. Why is evidence-based, expert driven governance made to seem like a concept associated with some alien-rational, futuristic, scientific utopia? I suppose when contrasted to the system of competing echo chambers known as party politics, the idea of evidenced-based policy appears futuristic. Given that we do not live in anything like a scientific society, I’m not sure an actual scientific society would be structured in such a way that non-experts are allocated important roles in the practice of democratic governance. I mean, what does it say about the prospect of a society predicated on, or at least hoped to be informed by evidence based policy, when professional politicians with pre-established agendas preside both over the evidence and the policy? To me, the hard truth seems to be that all of politics is based on subjectivism and, in some sense, with the loss of the rational process that strives to seek the objective. Discourse instead seems to manifest in ways that formalise false equivalence or the categorical fallacy of inconsistency. For any issue, at least two sides are portrayed as equally valid when there may in fact be asymmetry. In some or many cases, perhaps no two political reductions are even capable of capturing the total complexity of the matter at hand. But with the loss of the objective as a concept that ought to be strived toward, debate is reduced to subjective bias and political prejudice that is symbologic of the postmodern vacuum in which we find ourselves.

Maybe I am just pessimistic. Then again, think of Brexit. Rub away all of the dross and antics, all of the extremisms and prejudiced ideologies that sought to exploit the situation, one will see that there were logical arguments from both sides of the debate. There were arguments from both the left and right-wing to leave the EU, with the former emphasising democratic control and participation in a similar way as the sovereignty argument on the right. Likewise, arguments to Remain were not just a left versus right issue, although, as it is so often today, simplistic narratives tend to rule public discourse and political slogan design. What was most striking about the entire process is that, rarely if ever, one observed a politician or public intellectual change their mind. It’s as though people didn’t engage in debate, but instead focused on shutting the other down. Maybe it is a matter of polarisation in which two sides often emerge as set against each other, and then from there discourse seems to shut down. Or maybe there is something to that old Newtonian idea. What is clear is that there was no collective encircling of an issue (or it was an exception to the rule), no process of gathering information from all sides – taking in new evidence and data – and constantly working through rational arguments (often through a process of changing one’s mind or outlook). This is how a civilised democratic society, armed with science and modern technologies, was meant to function. Or, at least, that’s how I like to imagine it.

This brings me to another thing that history has taught me: a democratic society based on core liberal and enlightenment values is one that requires citizens in deeply fundamental ways to be able to disagree. But the concept of the enlightenment requires something still much deeper – and this relates directly to democracy – that individuals enter into a debate, or disagree, within the frame of reason. Think of it this way: If I disagree with someone about a mathematical matter, it doesn’t make sense that I debate with them outside of mathematics. I pick up a dry wipe marker and explain mathematically why I don’t agree. Debates about freedom of speech in modern western society seem to lose sight of key content within the concept: what gives it so much fundamental import as a social concept is that it is intrinscially rational. If, at my university, an individual was invited to give a talk on why they are sceptical about the interpretation of climate science data, I may or may not agree; but given that their argument is rigorously constructed, well-researched, and rationally presented I support the freedom to present the view. If I don’t agree, and if I think that their argument is logically inconsistent or wrong, then it is up to me to disprove their case. This, to me, is what freedom of speech means. Yes, on some simplistic and practical level one may deduce their right to say anything, as so often this is what the popular debate on free speech seems to imply: for example, I may in this moment conjour some fanciful theory about why alien hamsters control all of human society, and I may provide a provocative argument for why this is true. But freedom of speech isn’t freedom to be unreasonable or freedom to not engage rationally in the arena of rational ideas, should one wish to engage at all; and although one might conflate their right to free speech with an imagined right to be taken seriously, such a view is in fact tantamount to utter stupidity.

Freedom of speech requires responsibility – it requires that one be normatively critical of one’s own view and be capable of exploring openly the thoughtful argument of the other – and it seems we have somehow lost sight of this fact just as we have lost sight of the meaning of constructive debate.

Stephen Fry, one of my favourites, had a fantastic line recently which is paraphrased below: ‘on one side is the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism; on the other, the “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation. These tiny factions war above, while the rest of us watch, aghast, from the chasm below. […] It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity.’

University of Nottingham statement on free speech

As mentioned in a past post, since the start of term I have struggled to keep up with my blog. One thing I meant to write about was the recent statement by my university on freedom of speech. It may have been updated since I read it in the summer, as the university was seeking collaboration and feedback at the time. I should go back and read it again, but my assessment at the time was that it seemed well-balanced. It struck me that, as written, it conveyed the intention to genuinely realise the meaning of inclusivity, diversity, openess, and respect. This is what should come from an institution that seeks to foster learning, intellectual exploration, rational debate, and the wonderful process of formal inquiry in the collective pursuit of truth.

A thought of existential variety

The late Steven Weinberg had a wonderful comment about life and the human condition in his book, The First Three Minutes: ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible,’ he wrote, ‘the more it also seems pointless.’ I’m sympathetic with his view about the god-of-the-gaps. Truth be told, I consider myself agnostic; I don’t know for certain that there isn’t a God and if there is I would be inclined revolt in typical Camus fashion. That needless suffering should exist under the watch of some supreme being is detestable, in my view. So, although not an atheist in the extreme, I’ve always found Weinberg’s reflections reasonable when talking about the absence of God and how science may contribute positively to human meaning. Speaking in an interview, he once reflected: ‘To embrace science is to face the hardships of life—and death—without such comfort’. Pertinently, he continued: ‘We’re going to die, and our loved ones are going to die, and it would be very nice to believe that that was not the end and that we would live beyond the grave and meet those we love again. Living without God is not that easy. And I feel the appeal of religion in that sense.’

I often think that I could be diagnosed with cancer next week and be dead within a month. There is an innate indifference about the human condition, and with that I think a deep human fear of death, as Ernest Becker noted, governs a lot of human social systems. We can of course speak on the grandest scales and describe the precise nature of our cosmic insignificance – that we are not even a speck of dust on the scale of the universe. But even on a microbial and biochemical level, there is much that dictates the course of our lives over which we have no control. We can of course do our best to limit the probability of contracting some horrible disease or illness, and therefore play the percentages. And yet, really good people by the best moral standards, who eat right and live healthy, can contract the most awful of illness. These thoughts may appear morbid, but they describe reality. We’ve each known this indifference and fundamental arbitrariness from birth – catapulted into existence with no choice as to our geography or time in human history, we set forth with the conditions of our lives quite plainly and starkly defined. We can of course choose to fill the gaps – what some philosophers call the god of the gaps – but I’ve never found that a helpful or reasonable idea.

What I have found really important in philosophy, is that one can think in this way and acknowledge the gap without succumbing to nihilism. In an odd way, there is also hope to be found. Human beings are meaning makers, if nothing else. One can discover a cool new mathematical object and dedicate the rest of his/her life to studying it. Why? Because it is interesting, exciting, and contributes to knowledge. Of course an asteroid could crash into the earth and wipe out that knowledge completely, but that doesn’t mean that such knowledge shouldn’t have existed in the first place. There is a fine line between recognising and embracing the arbitrary and meaningless nature of life on the grandest scales, and also creating meaning and enjoyment and pursuing interests – to take care of one another and provide better conditions for those of the future – in revolt of that very reality. I often come back to this thought, because within it is a deeply lovely lesson. As Weinberg put it, the deeper idea is ‘to make peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do, and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.’

Autism genetic project paused

One last thought. Actually, on this issue there is much to say, but I will limit this entry to a simple expression of disappointment.

It was recently announced that an autism genetics study was paused due to backlash. From what I understand, criticism includes a failure to consult the autism community about the goals of the research and there are concerns that the research could be misused, which I assume to be a concern about eugenics. This is obviously a very complicated issue, and always there are ethical points that need to be considered; but I think the latter is a bit misunderstood and this is probably a failure of scientific communication. The genetics of autism is complex. For example, cystic fibrosis involves a single gene, so it easier to screen for it. And, when screen is done, it is has nothing to do with eugenics. In the case of autism, it is likely that there are multiple genes, if not thousands, such that prenatal screening seems incredably unlikely – not that this was an intended outcome of the research anyway. Furthermore, while I understand some have concerns about eradicating autism as though it were an illness, when, in fact, it also contributes many positive traits, from what I have read the proposed research has no such intentions.

As a person diagnosed with ASD, I am very much supportive of the research. I think that, as with anything, it is best to study and understand a phenomenon as deeply as possible. Indeed, we should strive to have more of a scientific understanding of autism. At the same time, I understand that some may have ethical concerns. In science, we always have to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully. It is important to hold all scientific research to the highest ethical standards, which should be a normative process, and to also think about all possible outcomes and potential future (mis)use; but, in this case, it seems mistrust was largely down to a failure in scientific communication.

*Edited for grammar and clarity.