We might just need another Enlightenment

5 Oct

There is a danger that 2016 goes down as the year that stupidity wins. We have seen stunning examples of the rebuttal of facts and evidence by political leaders (and publics). The UK Brexit debate and the US Presidential election campaigns have seen unashamed assertions, promises, and downright lies. It has been called a post-truth or post-factual era, with many media reports pointing to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson as the embodiment of politics without evidence. One leading UK politician demurred to take on board evidence on the economic harm that Brexit would entail by saying that people ‘have had enough of experts’. The British Health Secretary warned doctors – with whom he is engaged in a labour dispute – not to argue over statistics. This was after he had used a series of (to put it politely) dodgy statistics to back up an argument.

None of this is to say that ‘experts’ – who are often self-appointed and self-described as such – should not be open to scrutiny and challenge. It is instead to make the case that there is a social purpose behind research (by universities, journalists, think-tanks and others). Facts and evidence gathered as part of research do matter. It seems incredible that anyone should have to say this some two hundred years after the Scottish Enlightenment. Certainly facts and evidence are subjective constructions and attended by all sorts of frailties, but without research on the ground or in context it is difficult to see how we can make informed decisions.

A good example of political elites choosing to ignore evidence came from a UK Parliamentary Committee on radicalization. What is interesting about this example is that the Committee when through the motions of collecting evidence. Expert witnesses were called to give evidence, they were grilled by Members of Parliament, and a report was produced. The reportreport – which attracted significant media attention – declared that social media was a ‘vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and the recruiting platforms for terrorism’. The Committee chairman, Keith Vaz, used dramatic language to state the problem and what he saw as the slow approach of the tech firms in dealing with this menace:

“The modern front line is the internet. Its forums, message boards and social media platforms are the lifeblood of Daesh [the Arabic for Isis] and other terrorist groups.
“Huge corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter, with their billion-dollar incomes, are consciously failing to tackle this threat and passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status, despite knowing that their sites are being used by the instigators of terror.”

There’s just one problem with the findings of Vaz’s committee: they are complete rubbish. They manage to avoid evidence – it is worth surmising if this was because the evidence did not suit the political script. There is hard evidence on the role of social media and radicalisation. It comes from real research involving a patient gathering of data, a painstaking analysis of that data, and the delivery of the research results – regardless of whether they fit the script or not.

One of my excellent former PhD students (Teddy Reynolds, now at the University of Central Florida) conducted research on how Facebook was used by the English Defence League as a tool for organisation and persuasion. The findings – based on reviewing tens of thousands of posts using software he designed himself – are fascinating. What became clear was that active radicalisers – that is, EDL members and supporters who purposively used Facebook to promote their message and discipline the ‘troops’ – amounted to a tiny proportion of people. As Ted discovered, only five percent of those who liked the EDL page took the time to write a comment. And of that five percent, thirty-five percent posted something once and never came back. (Ted’s thesis is online). Rather than a tool of mass radicalization, the internet is a more complex space. Certainly, it is a gateway to radicalization for some, but it also a tool for conformity, monitoring and counter-radicalisation. A Parliamentary Committee worth its salt would have been able to reflect this of it had been bothered to consult actual research.

Given the retreat from evidence by some political leaders, news sources and others, it is worth reasserting the social purpose of Universities and others engaged in research. Perhaps we need to have another Enlightenment in which the importance of research and evidence can be re-asserted. One of the notable aspects of the Enlightenment was the sense of excitement and of the possible. If we look around at the funding competitions on offer from the British Government (and indeed the EU), it is notable that they are reactionary and often emphasise security and stability. The British Academy, for example, has just launched a scheme entitled ‘Tackling the UK’s international challenges’ (those bloody foreigners creating difficulties once again!) while the Research Councils UK have come together to launch a ‘global challenges’ scheme that is very much about implementing the sustainable development goals. The room for dissenting and truly innovative research seems to have shrunk.

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