The last post here noted that there was more than coincidence to environmentalism’s ascendency and the decline of the press. The broader point made here is that mediocrity seems to infect many public institutions, who in turn seem to resort to environmentalism. It’s not just the press; it is hard not to see environmental ‘ethics’ where the ground that has supported organisations seems to have slipped. From agencies which once promised to elevate less developed parts of the world, through to political parties which once represented (or claimed to represent) an entire economic class, promises to construct a better world have given way to a more basic commitment: saving you from Themageddon.
This observation is vulnerable to the criticism that some individuals have been pointed out as mediocre — certain journalists in particular — which may be synonymous with ‘stupid’. The first defence I would make here is that of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the point being that the environmentalist, be he a journalist or academic, presumes that the individual who calls him out on his nakedness does so out of stupidity, the clothes only being visible to those wise enough to wear them. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is aimed precisely at the tendency of people in power to find ways to justify their status and to further elevate themselves. Second, much of that self-justification involves contempt for ordinary people. Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” being perhaps the epitome of such a big green finger pointing at people. To disagree is not to have understood or engaged with the ideas, but to be too stupid to understand.
This classic intellectual self-defence move can be seen in motion in the comments under Bob Ward’s latest rant against Matt Ridley at the New Statesman.
There is no possibility of ‘debating’ with deniers. You cannot use reason, logic and science to persuade someone who was not convinced by reason, logic and science to begin with.
You have no idea what you are talking about and you flatly refuse to be educated.
I just can’t be bothered with ignorant gullible dupes who don’t even understand basic schoolboy physics.
The “alarmists” have sighed in resignation and refused to take part in the farce that is global warming denial.
If we had a debate on the moon, with an astrophysicist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and an astronaut, we might learn something about the moon even if none of them agreed on a thing. If David Icke showed up and said the moon was a hollowed out deathstar constructed by aliens, which was then used to wipe out the dinosaurs, and the others simply refused to engage him, that wouldn’t “expose” them as being wrong and it wouldn’t show their position is empty.
As was pointed out in the previous post, the quality of self-justification does not improve as one moves from the world of online comments, through to the Royal Society and the Committee on Climate Change. Paul Nurse and John Gummer’s arguments are no more sophisticated than Fuzzyspider’s and Leslie Graham’s, whoever they are. Thus the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society do not have to account for themselves in the face of criticism. But what is the point of science academies and expert panels if it is not to shed light on debates, and to respond to criticism? Rather than following in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the tendency seems to be to belittle critics, and to attack their character.
To understand the climate debate, then, it is often necessary to look outside it, rather than take it at face value. The claim I’m making here is that we can see reasons for public figures’ and institutions’ total embrace of environmentalism and their resistance to criticism. The debate is far wider than the question “is climate change happening?”, which seems to often resort to claiming that the public and deniers are ‘stupid’, which now prompt the question “aren’t these emperors, in fact, quite stupid?”.
Take, for example, the recent experience of Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, Dr. Susan Blackmore. “A hundred walked out of my lecture”, she complains after her lecture to a group of young students visiting Oxford University failed to convince them that their ideas were not the result of an active engagement with the world, but merely the colonisation of their minds by autonomous agents, known as ‘memes’.
Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.
I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.
Blackmore believes that religious sensibilities were being offended, causing the exit. But there are good reasons why an atheist might be moved to do the same. Being host to an atheist ‘memeplex’ is no better than being host to a religious ‘memeplex’. Thus she has no right to be offended by her students’ exit. She wasn’t just calling religious people stupid, she was calling every last member of the audience stupid…
I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.
The problem for Blackmore, as for Dennet, is that whereas the mechanisms of evolution — DNA — has been isolated, the mechanisms by which ideas and culture are transmitted are harder to identify. The mutation of ideas is usually intentional, which is to say that adaptation is about something, or for some end, at least as often as it is accidental. Matt Ridley calls this process ‘ideas having sex’, but I think he strays too close to the Dawkins-Dennet-Blackmore line here, albeit ending with something much more positive. It is people who generate ideas, in the circumstances they find themselves in, for particular ends. Blackmore, argues, on the other hand, that self-awareness is an illusion, that there is no ‘consciousness’ as such; these are just the products of memeplexes.
This requires a small amount of consideration. Is this a satisfactory way of accounting for our experience of the world, or is it a hasty attempt to circumvent difficult philosophical questions, to bring ‘science’ to bear over questions that science cannot answer yet? I believe it is the latter.
Is the self-perception of the seemingly autonomous self any less weird — i.e. easy to explain — than free will itself? I deny that it is. We find ourselves faced with at least the illusion of autonomy, yet even putting this down to the expression of ‘memes’ having infected our mind moves us no closer to understanding the mechanism by which mere substance produces experience, including will. Blackmore takes a massive shortcut through thousands of years of philosophical reflection on subjective experience — humanity — to say ‘it’s a process‘, yet cannot explain the process. The result is, at best, prosaic. And that is why theoreticians hoping to advance the field of ‘memetics’ have made no progress, and have only antagonised their relationships with their religious counterparts, and alienated themselves. The only notable thing they have achieved is to promote the word ‘meme’ as it applies to the transmission of novelty web content, which is however, more easily explained by the desire to overcome the boredom experienced by people working in office environments, than by the idea of mindless ‘meme-machines’ reproducing content.
In other words, the problem facing memeticians is in reproducing their ideas beyond the narrow environment in which such ideas seem to thrive. But notice that the consequences of memetics do not seem to apply to its proponents.
Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?
I grew up not a quarter of a mile from that very High Street, not one inch of which would look the same had there never been religion. For all the problems attributed to religion, it had created a unique centre of learning, in which the theory of genetic evolution has been advanced, and things such as penicillin discovered, and ideas such as freedom of religion and democracy thrived. Side-by-side, contesting perspectives of the universe were developed, no doubt occasionally resulting in some form of conflict, but as often as not between competing explanations of the physical realm as between accounts of creation and their consequences for the Good Life.
The view of religion offered by memeticians, however, is that it causes people who are ‘infected’ by religion to cut the heads from the shoulders of infidels. Again, I propose a simpler explanation for the horrific acts, which are now transmitted by social media than the one offered by Dawkins and his acolytes. To emphasise the role that religion plays in conflict is to eschew any attempt at understanding the political history of those conflicts, and how it has narrowed the possibilities of transcending religious identities, rendering them trivial. No doubt the doctrine of the Islamic State is poison. But it is advancing through a war-ravaged region, by force of terror, not by transmission of some infectious agent between minds. It is a reign of gangsters and warlords over people denied protection, not the proliferation of an idea. Again, to explain the transmission of the idea as the communication of ‘memes’ belies the fact that the choice given is ‘believe this or die’.
What I am suggesting here is firstly that people walked out of Sue Blackmore’s lecture because she takes a condescending view of people. Second, that this notion of people as stupid and blind automata seems to be prevalent amongst the political class. It seems to explain to them why the hoi polloi take risks with their health, don’t obey authority, and don’t take sufficient notice of climate expertise. In particular, seemingly ‘scientific’ ideas are used to belittle the public, to question their competence to act even in their own interests as individuals and en masse. Such patronising views of people are not unique to the climate debate.
Although the metaphysical proposition — or rather complete denial of metaphysics — of memetics and discussion about it seems like so much philosowaffle, ideas about the constitution of the human mind inform a great deal of policy-making and politics. The mediocrity spoken of above and in the previous post sits in contrast to an era in which politics was, for the most part, premised on the notion of individual autonomy: that people are capable of making decisions for themselves and capable of understanding the risks they are exposed to. This transformation of the political establishment’s view of the public is concomitant with a transformation of the relationship between public institutions and the public they once served but who they increasingly see as children needing to be managed.
The world of memes and the world of climate change came together in 2012, when Blackmore’s house was flooded. Writing in the Guardian, she said,
This will pass. Yet what remains is the potential for future floods. These “extreme weather events” are just what climate scientists predicted, and we must expect more as the planet warms further.
I’m trying to enjoy the new knowledge gained and think positively about a house that will be better protected and more resilient when the next extreme weather comes. But, above all, I’m left with this thought: we, as a country and as a world, seem to have ignored the advice of the 2006 Stern review, that acting fast on climate change would be cheaper than coping with the consequences. We didn’t act. So now we must cope with the consequences. Rebuilding homes as they were before is not the way to cope.
The world — or at least insurance providers — was not acting quickly enough for Blackmore. Whether or not climate scientists ‘predicted’ ‘extreme weather events’, the flooding that affected her house was neither extreme, nor unprecedented, nor attributable to climate change. Moreover, the issue for anyone living, as Blackmore does, on a flood plain, is not how to stop climate change, but how to manage the excess water that has always plagued people who live on them. Her emphasis on climate change rather than on essential civil infrastructure, however, demonstrates the extent to which the climate change ‘meme’ influences thinking on issues. She had connected, in her own head, for herself, her experience with the prevailing narrative of climate change and ‘extreme weather’. And she had connected them wrongly, as many studies into the frequency and intensity of ‘extreme weather’ have shown. Memes and memeplexes had nothing to do with her joining up her bad ideas with the claims of environmental alarmism.
Does this make her stupid? In my view, Blackmore is not the brightest thinker in the world, but not necessarily stupid, of course. The point being that mediocrity elevates those who are obedient to fashionable schools of thought. The fact of the elevation of redundant parapsychologists to public intellectuals speaks for itself. Blackmore gave up ghost hunting to tell us that we are illusions, and seems to have prospered for doing so. This move wasn’t as useful to society as it was useful to something. And it needs an explanation.
The proliferation of stupid is masked by its own attempts to tell us that we are stupid. But it speaks simultaneously about its own anxiety about its own tenuous grasp on reality, and no less, power. As daft as Blackmore’s ideas about memes are, her elevation of Stern is even dafter. If there was any value in memetics, the genetic analogy would have long ago shown Stern’s work for what it is — an exercise in justifying power for power’s sake.