Chapter Twelve

The Power of Wrong Ideas

Certain powerful wrong ideas dominate the mistakes and muddles I have touched upon in this book and at the bottom of them lie the fallacy of induction and ignorance of Popper's solution of the resulting problem. Induction is the cardinal wrong idea. The associated errors are of two kinds. The first assume the validity of induction notwithstanding Hume's conclusion to the contrary, and the second kind, while implicitly accepting the irrationality of induction, go on to assume that there is no rationality, that `human nature' is basically irrational.

The first category comprise the planning errors and the aberrations of certain scientists. They demonstrate a false authoritarianism that is derived from induction because it appears to be possible for authority and experts to know what is right, to arrive in private at the truth or the best solution. The second is at the root of the acceptance of such things as contradictions and the attraction of psychoanalytic or pseudo-psychoanalytic notions which do not need to be justified by reason.

In the early eighteenth century, David Hume had shown that generalisation from a limited number of observations or facts could not be justified by reason; it was not logical to assume that what had not been observed would be the same as what had been. In other words (to use Popper's example), no number of sightings of white swans could make it certain that all swans are white. Yet this process of generalisation seemed to be the basis of rational behaviour and especially of science. We observe that the sun rises every morning, so we assume that it will rise tomorrow and the next day. Hence Hume's conclusion seemed to mean that science and human behaviour in general were not and could not be rational.

The difficulty has arisen out of the mistaken quest for positive confirmations. Induction seemed to be a means of ascertaining the truth. When this turned out not to be valid, it became apparent that there was no direct logical path to certainty. The mistaken quest for certainty led to scepticism and a belief in irrationality.

Popper's solution to the problem is simple. It is based on accepting uncertainty. Rationality consists in making the best choice between approximations to the truth, in making judgements precisely analogous to those made by judge and jury, whose verdicts also are uncertain yet rational. We act rationally, not on generalisations from incomplete experience, but on the best-tested theory, the theory that has best stood up to attempts to refute it. It is true that we act on the theory that the sun will rise tomorrow, but this is not because we generalise from our countless past experiences, but because the theory that it will do so is the one for which we have the best reasons. This interpretation is borne out by the fact that if we were to fly in winter to somewhere north of the Arctic circle, we should expect the sun not to rise, because the best theory predicts that it will not, although we as individuals may have no previous experience of perpetual night.

The fact of the invalidity of induction and the nature of the solution of the problem together destroy the case for authoritarianism, elitism, and revelation, and make the case for democracy and science.

If induction were a valid means of arriving at the truth, then civil servants, governments, and authorities of all kinds, and experts in general, could be left to arrive at the truth, the best theory, the best policy, the best solution to a problem. But the fact that the best theory or plan is the one that stands up best to criticism, to genuine attempts to refute it, means that experts alone in private (just like judges in private) cannot be relied upon to arrive at the best answer. They may do so; but we shall not know that it is the best until it has withstood severe criticism in public. None of us can be expected to criticise with sufficient severity his own scheme. We see the merits of our own ideas better than others do, but we see their snags much less well. The necessary criticism must therefore come from an outside jury - from other scientists perhaps in the case of science, but from the general public in the case of public affairs, because new laws and plans will affect individuals in ways which they alone know, and which cannot be foreseen (for instance the well-planned law courts that caused more cases to be brought to court) (page 35).

This leads to the idea that a theory cannot be proved although it can, in principle, be disproved. Hence nobody can be sure of the success of a plan or the truth of a theory, while the existence of insurmountable snags or contradictions may often make certain its failure or fallaciousness. It emphasises also that criticism is important and not just `constructive' criticism. Destructive criticism - pointing out the snags, why something will not work - is far more constructive in the long run than suggesting minor amendments to a fundamentally unsound scheme. On the other hand it is only a short step from the acceptance of induction to a belief that theories can be validated by finding enough facts that support them - the process that I have nicknamed white-swanning. I have concentrated on two psychological theories which have been accepted on that sort of basis and which have had a profound effect in undermining the tradition of Western culture. An equally potent and equally invalid complex of theories, Marxism, has been exhaustively criticised by Popper himself in the second volume of The Open Society. His main accusation against Marx is that he `misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible', he says, `for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society' (O.S., ii, 82). This accusation is considered but not, in my view, fully understood or satisfactorily answered in Maurice Cornforth's attempted refutation of Popper. All three theories owe their damaging effect to their explaining of everything in terms of material or unconscious processes, thereby discounting consciousness and therefore reason, that `medium of universal understanding'. The process could be compared  with that of explaining the course of a boat in terms only of the tide and currents while neglecting the efforts of the rowers and helmsman. In Popperian terms it is looking only at World 1 and ignoring World 2. The undercutting of consciousness also leaves out of account the effect of what are usually called cultural influences and what Popper has more accurately defined in his concept of World 3. An appropriate analogy here would be the explaining of the behaviour of motor traffic without taking into account the fact that there is a rule of the road to keep to the left (in the U.K.).

The general indifference to the importance of criticism and the almost universal condemnation of destructive criticism has tragic personal effects. Many of the best young people - the most energetic, enthusiastic, altruistic - are attracted and seduced by meretricious theory-systems such as psychoanalysis and Marxism and more recently by the new cults: Scientology, the Moonies etc. Too often their education has failed to impress on them that, as with the accused in court, the other side must be heard - audi alteram partem, the cardinal principle of natural justice, a principle that applies to any kind of decision-making. One must know what is to be said against an apparently attractive creed or case.

Inherent in Popper's solution to the induction problem is a lowering of sights from the unattainable ideals of certainty and perfection to a realistic striving for advance and improvement in knowledge and conditions of life. This can give just as much scope for energy, enthusiasm, and altruism. We must aim to reduce unhappiness rather than try to make people happy, to prevent and cure disease rather than strive for perfect health, reduce poverty and injustice rather than try to create heaven on earth. For we can identify and agree on the bad things; we cannot be sure of and certainly cannot agree on the ideal state of society.

I have concerned myself largely with practical plans about physical things like power stations and roads; but thoughtful people are much exercised by, for instance, the alleged decline of Britain; and by this is meant not just our undoubted failure to increase our Gross National Product in line with that of our neighbours, or our loss of empire, but a decline of the `whole of society'; and they proceed to find remedies. It is here also, I think, that Popper's attitude is applicable. One must first define the problem. Is it just the G.N.P. or is it also that the trains are dirty or that people are increasingly taking to drink? Next, having defined the problem or problems, we must ask if it is likely that the suggested solution will work or at least help. If this process is carried out, part at least of the problem is likely to disappear. When somebody is suffering from, say, tonsillitis, often he will feel that his whole body is deranged, everything is wrong. Yet the killing of the bacteria infecting those two small organs will quickly restore to health the whole being. So with some of the problems of society. Some may turn out to be genuine but the favoured broad solution irrelevant. A direct remedy is likely to be needed, for example, for keeping trains clean, such as paying the cleaners better and supervising them

I must add the reason why I suspect that those who attempt this mental exercise will find that the problem largely vanishes or fragments. It is because of the immense diversity of our society, which contains members of the Salvation Army as well as those whose lives revolve around some sort of gambling. It contains the unemployable who spend their `social security' on ginger wine and it contains the man who without any state aid broke two world athletic records in a week. It contains those who care obsessively about their personal appearance, those whose curlers are in place in readiness for some still more important (but unspecified) occasion, even when the queen comes to their street, and those who don't care at all. There are those who compete in the ballroom dancing championships, those who spend every weekend alone on a river bank under a green umbrella fishing, as well as those with ordinary nine-to-five office jobs who watch `telly' in the evening. The idea of such a society moving as a whole in any direction other than in terms of total material wealth or power over other peoples seems to be without much meaning.

Finally a couple of disclaimers: in case it may seem that the tendency of this book is anti-technological, anti-progressive, I must emphatically state that this is not the case. The attitude adopted here is substantially that of Winston Churchill's famous remark about scientists,  that they must always be on tap, never on top. We must use science and technology in order to better the lot of man, but we must never allow technological progress to be an ideal in itself, overruling what is desirable for man's welfare. We (society, that is, as opposed to individuals) must never do things simply because they are technically possible. In particular we must be wary of computer technology - of the kind of practice exemplified on page 101 - where because factors could not be computed they were taken as being irrelevant or of less importance than those that could be. I would add that I think it most desirable that those who are on top, the political and social leaders, should not be illiterate in regard to science and mathematics as so many are today.

It might also be charged that in the last chapter I am advocating a mad proliferation of committees to replace individual decision. This again I am utterly opposed to. There is nothing worse than the artistic choice of a committee. Creation springs from individuals. Committees are necessary as checks on individuals, charged with acting on behalf of the public, to ensure that what they do really is in the public interest. Many committees could be disbanded because they are attempting to do what the individual would do better. In summary: this book has been concerned with the consequences of the neglect in public affairs of practical philosophy, and with the way in which wrong ideas, especially unquestioned yet mistaken assumptions and attempted solutions to unformulated problems, can lead and have often led to practical mistakes of many kinds, resulting on the one hand in great economic loss and waste and individual misery and on the other in an atmosphere of distrust of all political and intellectual motives, disillusion with democracy, suspicion of the very idea of truth.

Chapter Two           Chapter Four

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