Roger James Return to Reason, Open Books, Somerset, 1980
This book is about departures from reason in the conduct of public affairs and the power of certain wrong ideas and unquestioned assumptions. In exploring this power I shall draw extensively on the philosophy of Sir Karl Popper and I shall show how the disregard of it has led to so much
that has gone wrong in our time. Also, very tentatively, I suggest how ways out of some of our troubles might follow from attention to rational methods and Popper's neglected ideas.
Since the second world war, if not before, an unacceptable- number of mistakes has been made in the government of this country - and in public life generally - which can be ascribed to mistaken theories held by our leaders, not just politicians and civil servants, but also, perhaps even more, our intellectual and professional leaders.
Collectively the mistakes have contributed to, if they have not always been the cause of, our relative economic decline and the decline in national morale and self-confidence. Government policies fail to accomplish their objects and even achieve the opposite (e. g. aim to lessen the gap between rich and poor, yet end up by increasing it) and yet are not publicly acknowledged as failures; large-scale schemes of replanning and reorganization are carried out without any clear object in view and without any published assessment of their necessity or, in retrospect, of their success or failure; extensive powers are given to government agencies by nationalisation or otherwise and then not used in the
interest of the public (e.g. the Bank of England's failure to control the fringe banks, indeed its encouragement of them); the physical and economic balance of our cities is destroyed possibly for ever in the name of half-baked theories of planning; and much that is done costs enormously more than it should. (Hospital building is an example. Leslie Chapman quotes the Ministry's former chief architect to the effect that this has cost nearly twice what was necessary - a waste of about £1,500 million in the ten years from 1967 - approaching the lowest estimate of the whole Concorde project.) I give a list of some of the failures I am talking about on pages 40-41. None of these schemes was a response to popular demand, as was, I think it would be true to say, the original setting up of the
National Health Service, for example. Some were not even debated in Parliament, and one, the rebuilding of our cities with concrete flats, was done in defiance of the known wishes of the great majority who want a house with a bit of garden. So a central problem of our time comes down to this: how can government be controlled by the governed?
And there has been the blind following of short-sighted expert, especially short-sighted economic, advice. This was typified by the conversion to oil of nearly every coal-burning furnace in the country (when we had no oil of our own) just in time to make us vulnerable when OPEC began to tighten the screws. Peter Wilmott, writing in an issue of New Society devoted to a history of `brief ideas' - `The gods that failed' - said: `What was wrong was not that the assumptions were false or that political pressures distorted the original motion, but just that the policy turned out in application less successful than had been hoped. What often happened was that the particular innovation had secondary consequences which had not been envisaged. The implications had, in fact, not been thought through.'
'Actually I shall show that some of the assumptions were false; but, more important than that, the instigators of these policies should have known that there would be unexpected secondary consequences. It should have been part of their education to expect and guard against them. You cannot even be sure, for example, that a simple soak-the-rich tax will in fact make the rich poorer, still less that it will make the poor richer. The rich may discover new sources of wealth or new tax dodges. The 1964-70 Labour government can hardly be accused of trying to widen the gap between rich and poor. Nevertheless that was the overall result of their administration. And it seems to have been true also of the 1974-9 government.
Most of these brief ideas came into vogue after the publication in 1945 of The Open Society and its Enemies in which Popper showed that the main task of the social sciences, if not the only one, was to analyse and as far as possible foresee just these `secondary consequences' of social and political action. It should not have needed more than a decade of disaster to demonstrate this conclusion.
My thesis is that most of these failures can be attributed to a - small number of what can be called philosophical mistakes. They are:
1 Jumping to a solution before clearly formulating what the problem is (or indeed if there is one at all) or how success or failure are to be judged. Achievement of the solution then becomes the goal; and, when opposition develops, the problem becomes how to get the solution accepted, while the question of how best to solve the original problem, if there was one, never gets discussed at all. I call this mistake solutioneering.
Robert Heller has brilliantly encapsulated the spirit of this approach as: `Think of a project; estimate (or, rather, underestimate) its cost; estimate (or, rather, overestimate) the revenue it will generate; and, if an inconvenient gap still exists, close it by valuing the social benefit at the sum required.' Some people's attitude to medicine is the sage. The moment you feel unwell you must take some tablets -
any tablets, anybody's tablets - regardless of what is wrong with you, of whether it is likely to get better anyway, and of what the tablets are supposed to do.
2 Ignoring the fact that every scheme or reform will have its snags. Some can be foreseen and others cannot; but both the foreseen and the unforeseen must be looked for systematically and corrected.
This is the mistake pointed out by Wilmott above, and by Popper more than thirty years before. I call it by the medical term tunnel-vision: keeping your eye so fixed on the rich whom you are squeezing till the pips squeak that you do not notice that the people you are squeezing most are the poor. False economies are examples of this error.
3 Trendism: confusing laws with trends.
You can reasonably expect that the deeper you go down into the sea the greater will be the pressure. This depends on the natural law of gravitation. You cannot, in the same way, assume that because deaths from tuberculosis declined rapidly from 1950 to 1960 that this unmistakable trend would continue indefinitely. If it had done there would by 1970 have been a negative number of deaths. There would that year have been about 250 cases of resurrection from the dead!
4 The failure to realize that -a theory cannot be confirmed merely by finding facts that support it.
Only when a determined search for facts that are incompatible with it has failed, can it be considered
corroborated, and even then it remains provisional, a theory and not a fact. I call. this very common failure by the term white-swanning . for reasons that will become apparent in Chapter 1. It is a form of tunnel-vision and, like it, is connected with the invalid process of reasoning known as induction (see Chapter 1); and it leads to mistake number 5.
5 Failure to distinguish between established scientific theories, which have stood up to challenge, and
To some extent policy has been based on the uncritical acceptance of theories which are partly dead but will not lie down. Such are the two forms of mutually contradictory deterministic psychology - behaviourism and dynamic or analytic psychology, 'psychologism' (the belief described in Chapter 5 that human behaviour can be explained entirely in terms of human psychology), `holism' and `historicism' (Chapter 3), the false antithesis of individualism versus altruism, and, perhaps worst of all, the sociology of knowledge - the idea that truth and knowledge are relative to historical period or social class (Chapter 3).
I am not saying that the planners who planned the new housing estates, ' or the architects who enthused over their slabs and tower blocks, held consciously the theory that individualism is opposed to concern for others. But this theory and the others I have mentioned formed part of the atmosphere in which they designed their communal landscaped areas on which ball games were prohibited, while the fact that these were discredited theories did not form part of that atmosphere. The effect on the ground, as it were, is not necessarily what was meant by the originator of a theory, but is a residual, confused, second-hand, popular version of it.
The point is made very effectively by Dr J. M. Roberts in his brilliant history of the world:
"The message men took from Freud suggested that the unconscious was the true source of most significant behaviour, that moral values and attitudes were projections of the influences which had moulded this unconscious, that, therefore, the idea of responsibility was at best a myth and probably a dangerous one, and that perhaps rationality itself was an illusion. It did not matter much that Freud's own assertions would have been nonsense had this been true, or that this left out the subtlety and science of his work. This was what many people believed he had proved - and still believe. Such a bundle of ideas called in question the very foundation of liberal civilization itself, the idea of the rational, responsible, consciously-motivated individual, and this was its general importance."
I remember vividly the pleasurable excitement with which, about fifteen years ago, I read the first chapter of Popper's The Open Society. I felt an exhilarating breath of fresh air and common sense blowing away the verbiage and the imprecision of works on politics that had previously come my way. I was impressed at once by the lucidity, the punch, and the lack of an unnecessary word, and yet the
marvellous readability of this great book written in the early 1940s in English, although English was not his native language. Far away from the conflict as he then was in New Zealand, he regarded The Open Society and its shorter companion volume, The Poverty of Historicism, as his war effort.
He expected that freedom would again become a central problem under the renewed influence of Marxism and large-scale planning. `These books were meant', he has recently said, `as a defence of freedom against totalitarian and authoritarian ideas, and as a warning against the dangers of historicist superstitions.' They grew out of the theory of knowledge that he had developed in his earlier book on the philosophy of science (L.Sc.D) and out of his conviction that `our often unconscious views on the theory of knowledge and its central problems ("What can we know?", "How certain is our knowledge?") are decisive for our attitude towards ourselves and towards politics' (U. Q.
The remaining twenty-four chapters of The Open Society did not let me down. Since then I have read all Popper's books in English. Early in my reading I became convinced that everybody who pontificates about politics and public affairs should digest Popper's arguments and ideas and test
his own against them. His philosophy is rational, and therefore extols the importance of clarity of language, of discussion and criticism, of individual human knowledge, and the attitude of reasonableness. At the same time he relentlessly exposes the unreason in so much of modern thought.
In spite of the massive achievement of The Open Society and the decisive contributions to the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science contained in his other published works, Popper is well known only among the initiated. His name is not a household word; and other philosophers have, on the whole, tended to ignore him.
One of the reasons for this is, I think, the fact that his writing is so packed with information, and above all with arguments, and so completely lacks padding and irrelevancies that it defies summary. Another reason is the fact that his philosophy has to a large extent developed out of his knowledge of mathematics and physics, which many philosophers (especially those of the Oxford school) do not
understand. His scientific understanding enabled him to develop an unprecedented unity of outlook in regard to both science and politics. It enabled him to show, as we shall see, that there is a fundamental similarity and connection between science and democracy. Above all his writing bears the impression of a massive common sense (as well as immense erudition). Although he often points
out that the popular view of a problem is mistaken, his conclusions never do violence to common sense. They are never incredible. `It is important', he wrote, `to remain in touch with reality, with practice. For those who overlook it have to pay by lapsing into scholasticism' (O.S., ii, 222).
My purpose here is to show the relevance of certain commonly held theories and assumptions, whether explicit or implicit, to what has gone wrong. For detailed arguments and, where appropriate, proofs against those that arei ill-founded, the reader is referred to Popper's own works, which he will find lucid and readable. He will also find that the obvious objections that occur to him have also occurred to Popper, and account has been taken of them. These errors that I am concerned with have beep perpetrated repeatedly, deliberately, almost cussedly, by leaders of thought and action who have shown a want of the appropriate knowledge that can only be, as Oscar Wilde said in another context, the result of years of study.
In many cases it is in fact the result of three years of study of philosophy at either Oxford or Cambridge. (In support of this comment I point to an article by L. Jonathan Cohen (1978), an Oxford philosopher, which demonstrates his failure to grasp the matter of great practical importance which is the subject of my first chapter; and I quote the remark by Richard Dawkins, an Oxford biologist whose
important work I draw on 'later in this book, that `philosophy and the subjects known as "humanities" are still taught almost as though Darwin had never lived'.)
Although there are of course other rationalist philosophers and other philosophers whose work has
practical applications, I think it is fair to say that in these respects of rationality and relevance Popper stands head and shoulders above the rest. Those practical items of his philosophy that I have been particularly concerned with have been publicly available for up to thirty years and have withstood a good deal of criticism. He carefully explained in advance the very mistakes that were then duly made on our behalf. Against this our top people (with honourable exceptions) have bumbled on, not allowing it to be known just what stars they are following.
As Popper himself freely admitted, the decision (which I shall go into more fully in Chapter 3) to adopt a rational attitude cannot itself be justified by reason. It is more of a moral decision and is justified only by looking at the consequences of irrationalism, that is of allowing the head to be over-ruled by the heart, but not only by the heart. The particular antithesis that I shall stress is not so much
between intellect and emotion as between, on the one hand, intelligent foresight aided by criticism and discussion, and on the other, automatic, unthinking reaction and doing only what has always been done before.
Emotion, I suspect, can be a useful check on rational action. If doing what seems rational is accompanied by unpleasant emotion, I take it as being an indication that the rational assessment has left important factors out of account. Emotion I see as a kind of feed-back that monitors action
and takes in wider aspects of the case than can be held in conscious attention.
In this country, especially, we are apt to neglect philosophy. We mostly feel no need for any Weltanschaung or coherent world view. We tend to carry on with an assortment of maxims gleaned from diverse sources, from Shakespeare to Marx, from what father always used to say to what the television pundits tell us, and not to look too closely at the hidden assumptions we are making. The
scrutiny of these largely unconscious private `philosophies' that we all have is, Popper thinks, the main task and the main justification for the existence of formal philosophy.
Before the invention of glass, it was not possible for a house in winter to have both adequate warmth and adequate daylight. The possible variations between on the one hand, large window spaces letting in light and cold, and, on the other warmth with no windows and no light, can be thought of as lying in one line; while the solution, the fitting of glass into moderate window spaces, did not lie at any point on the line but, as it were, at right angles to it. The solution was neither extremist - no heat or no
light - nor a compromise, nor revolutionary in the sense of scrapping everything and starting afresh. What was necessary was an entirely new invention superimposed on otherwise adequate houses. Human reason is, in evolutionary terms, an entirely new invention which can be superimposed on our automatic responses.
The earlier chapters in what follows are devoted mostly to theory, to an exposition of those aspects of Popper's philosophy whose neglect has led to what has gone wrong. The later chapters deal with a selection of blunders in our recent history, interpreted in the light of theory, which might have been averted had our experts been better educated.
I want to thank Frank Guy, Allan Low, Geoffrey Broadbent, and Tyrrell Burgess for suggestions and criticisms, Sheila Alexander for typing the first draught, Barbara Broadbent for reading the proofs, Patrick Taylor for making it possible for the book to be published, and last but certainly not least my wife Margaret for constant encouragement.
The substance of chapter six appeared first as an article 'Is conditioning a myth?' in Higher Education Review in 1976 and in a revised form under the more confident title 'Conditioning is a myth' in World Medicine in 1977.
References to Popper's Works
References in the text to the major works of Sir Karl Popper are given by the initial letters, as below, followed by the page number:
L.Sc.D. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson) (first published in 1935 in German as Logik der Forschung)
O.S. i and ii (1962) The Open Society and Its Enemies, 4th edition revised (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)
P.H. (1963) The Poverty of Historicism, 2nd edition revised (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)
C.R. (1969) Conjectures and Refutations, 3rd edition revised (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)
O.K. (1972) Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford: The Clarendon Press)
U.Q. (1976) Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (London: Fontana/Collins)
S.B. (1977) The Self and Its Brain (with J. C. Eccles) (London, Berlin, New York: Springer International)