There are two, and only two, great political tendencies today. One maintains that knowledge is too difficult for ordinary people, and must be left to a small but brilliant band of experts. This tendency is top-down, holds power to be leverage for the common good, and worships logic and utopian formulas. Let’s call it (as I have done before) rationalism.
The other great tendency insists that knowledge is in truth so difficult, not even the experts can be trusted to wield it successfully. This is classic liberal democracy: bottom-up, distrustful of government and self-anointed authority, and valuing experience far more than rationalist formulas.
I’m an advocate of liberal democracy: an irrationalist. I place my faith in experience, which is often untidy and contradictory.
The rationalist is certain he knows. He has plumbed the depths, decoded human behavior, discovered the philosopher’s stone of engineered happiness and benevolence. He wraps himself in science because it enhances his self-love, and he speaks on behalf of science because it increases his authority.
But experience, reality, data – the raw stuff of science – frustrates him, because it so often disappoints his expectations. He prefer his models, his formulas: the wizard’s crystal ball. This is the rationalist’s fallacy. He claims mastery over an environment the behavior of which baffles and enrages him.
At the moment, we seem to be passing through a rationalist epoch: our politicians are certain they know, and they wish to regulate the citizenry into right behavior. Their vanity – and their formulas – won’t survive the first encounter with experience.
Let me give a trivial example of this nontrivial impulse.
Some days ago I posted about canceling a trip because of volcano. A great ash cloud was billowing over half of Europe, according to news reports – one could find dozens of graphic depictions of its inexorable advance. Commercial flights were grounded, stranding tens of thousands in the wrong countries and costing the airlines billions.
Governments, industry, and media turned to the experts for help. That’s the rationalist reflex. They didn’t ask, “What’s going on?” They asked, “What do the authorities say?” I had fun with the contradictory and befuddled responses given by meteorologists, volcanologists, and such. They had no idea what was going on.
Now, it may well be that the entire crisis resulted from an expert-induced panic. This from the Daily Mail (April 26):
Britain’s airspace was closed under false pretences, with satellite images revealing there was no doomsday volcanic ash cloud over the entire country.
Skies fell quiet for six days, leaving as many as 500,000 Britons stranded overseas and costing airlines hundreds of millions of pounds.
Estimates put the number of Britons still stuck abroad at 35,000.
However, new evidence shows there was no all-encompassing cloud and, where dust was present, it was often so thin that it posed no risk.
The satellite images demonstrate that the skies were largely clear, which will not surprise the millions who enjoyed the fine, hot weather during the flight ban.
Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy, admitted: ‘It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis there was a lack of definitive data.
‘It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.’
Faced with a potential problem, European political leaders turned to pedigreed authorities, who uttered dire warnings based on models they alone understood. In other words, politicians passed the buck, experts gazed into their crystal ball, and it took days for reality – and the inevitable frustration – to seep into the process.
So it goes with the rationalist fallacy, always. It’s contemptuous of experience and thus the opposite of science.
Remember this relatively minor episode, when politicians and experts seek to control our lives to change the climate, or universalize health care, or stimulate the economy. The control is certain: it falls into their hands. The only certainty about results is that they will be unintended.