Depressingly informative: Part II (aka Climbing out of one’s inadvertently dug hole)

Firstly, apologies to anyone confused and/or irked by the false information posted previously. I’m fully aware that it is not the done thing, and I will here try and bring together a few thoughts that contributed to my faux pas. I do not deny my own (temporary) gullibility, because that would be confabulatory contradiction of the points I’m trying to make; and it might also suggest that I deliberately posted something I knew to be false as an experimental test of reader reaction. However, it is kind of relevant to stuff on which I masticate from time to time, but any developing thesis is in no way honed, so if you want to take a hammer and knock lumps off it, be my guest. (Please note, however, that in the following, I use ‘we’ in the very general sense.)

When I first read the nonsense E-mail, my reaction was neither jaw-dropped amazement, nor scoffing outrage. More an unsurprised credulity. Consequently, I didn’t question it – not so much because it came to me via a ‘trusted source’ (a friend); more to do, I think, with this. The E-mail is not new, and is apparently doing the rounds again because of recent events that have led many of us to question the moral qualities of our MPs. So, was I pre-primed – programmed – to accept any discredit of MPs as true?

Looking properly at the E-mail numbers, they don’t really say much anyway. It would be disturbing indeed if over a third of our MPs were so actively reckless, – what a House of Cards that would be. But, as Cath adroitly pointed out, most apply to accusations and non-crimes; there are only three actual (fictional) convictions on there (which would mean less than 0.5% of our MPs had been done, which – depending, of course, on the crime – actually wouldn’t be too bad a figure). So, of itself, that should bring non-judgement, shouldn’t it? By contrast, the Telegraph lists virtually all of them. Now, I don’t know how many have abused their expenses entitlement past the point of illegality; the majority, for all we know, may well have operated within the rules and not broken any laws. However, scanning the list (and recalling the most lurid of the news reports), it is clear a bunch of them were purloining the piss. Overall, then, the reality renders the nonsense E-mail virtually plausible.

“It’s kind of laughable, although it isn’t really funny.”

Have we (I) become so blasé that we (I) believingly accept that our upstanding, educated, professional, ‘honourable’ MPs are dodgy? My own, who according to the list has abused the system relatively little, will likely be getting my vote again this year. I like to think I wouldn’t give it to one of the serious shysters. Is this hypocrisy? Or should my voting be based solely on my MP’s voting record and pledges? Is, as Stephen Fry argued, the whole expenses thing a red herring? Is it the case that, realising the dearth of ‘spotless’ alternatives, we will still be voting regardless, albeit through gritted teeth, and so console ourselves by relishing the excuse to stick the boot in? Maybe it’s a trust thing. We are angrier when we feel let down.

I’ve been reading Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, in which (drawing on J. F. Schumaker, who I haven’t read) he discusses how ‘personal reality’ biases an individual’s perception of ‘primary reality’, or the world as it actually is, and from which I quote:

’… much of the information in an individual’s mind is false, and is strongly influenced by the local culture and beliefs.’

Certainly, many beliefs are acquired during childhood. Perhaps I retain a residue of the “they’re all out for themselves” mantra I was cynically fed by adults during my own. Everybody – including us scientists – likes to have their beliefs, their opinions, their prejudices confirmed, and is inclined to reject arguments against them. (Hopefully) scientists doing science don’t come to their research in this way. We (collectively) go about the business of testing the arguments about reality. Sure, our opinions are involved, but they have to be tested through. But, away from the lab, are we supposed ‘seekers of truth’ just like anybody else, and so allow our scientific ‘always be sceptical’ mantle to slip? Recently, I discovered a quite serious flaw in a line of research I’ve been following. How? By repeatedly going over the figures and realising something was amiss. Yet I didn’t apply such scrutiny to the nonsense E-mail. Are we any less vulnerable to being influenced, swayed, and so become just as likely to be taken in by a list of (seemingly plausible) made-up figures? (Ask yourself the question…)

We scientists often bemoan political ignorance of, and disregard for, science. This then engenders prejudice that perhaps renders us as prone, if not more so, to taking the opportunity to join in the kicking. Yet we might reflect on how we actually have more in common with MPs than we care to acknowledge: most of our careers end in failure; and, by much of a media-fed public, we too can be viewed as self-serving and malign in agenda. That section of the public primed (media-programmed) towards anti-science will readily latch onto bad press for science and scientists. We often react to criticism by trying to remind the public of science’s – so by extension, scientists’ – virtues. And I like to think we’re right to do so. Yet, consider ourselves and our colleagues. Are we certain that, were there a ready pot for us to dip our fingers into, we upstanding, educated, professional scientists would never resort to the cupidity of politicians? (By the way, this is not casting aspersions or inviting dirt on anybody; I just use scientists because it is scientists with whom we mainly spend our working day.) In an environment where everybody is lapping at the cream, would we yield to temptation, or resist it as a true measure of character? As Åsa, realising the actual point I clumsily tried to make, remarked – before casting the first stone….

Maybe there’s something else at work also. If we don’t believe what we read in the newspapers, why do we read the newspapers and their preoccupation with reporting and feeding moral controversies? Perhaps we like a bit of scandal and controversy. If you haven’t yet, it’s worth catching BBC4’s Newswipe for a refreshing take on how the news media vamps up dull news. (It features a regular take from Doug Stanhope, who somewhat reminds me of Bill Hicks, a particular hero of mine.) But I’ve not worked this one through yet – get back to you (probably).

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