18 March 2016

From black holes to Brexit: why it’s okay to be agnostic about the EU referendum


If I ever had the good fortune to meet Professor Stephen Hawking, I doubt if I’d swing the conversation around to one of my pet subjects such as British political cartooning. Or perhaps I would but knowing it unlikely that the Professor would have anything interesting to say about Morland, Brown, Bell and the rest. After all, Hawking is a theoretical physicist and it’s all big bangs, string theory, and black holes in his universe. He might not know the interstellar mass of a Peter Brookes from the dark matter of Martin Rowson’s insalubrious best.

It’s worth noting that there are more subjects about which Professor Hawking isn’t an expert than there are subjects for which he’s considered the go-to guy. I should imagine he probably knows very little about growing organic carrots. Nor, I should I imagine, is he an expert in the history of the circus, the poetry of Andrew Marvell, or the early TV career of Adrian Chiles. Ask him to describe the geography of Bishop Wilton south of the A166 and, unless we’re in the territory of blind luck, he would not know a hillock from a heath. And that’s really my point. There are lots of topics about which even the world’s most brilliant person might well be struck dumb.

Last week, Professor Hawking lent his name to a petition of scientists who all think it’s a good idea if the UK stays in Europe. The petition appeared in the form of a letter written to The Times and it was organised by Professor Sir Alan Fersht, who made his name (as well as doubling its length) for his work in protein folding. The letter, though brief, makes a compelling argument against Brexit, which the signatories insist would be a ‘disaster for science’. They might well be right to conclude that we should stay in the EU but, equally, they might also be wrong. That’s the problem with theoretical physics, organic chemistry, and high level mathematics: they really have no bearing on the business of deciding what’s best for Britain when it comes to our relationship with Europe. Such decisions cannot be reduced to an experiment, a chemical reaction, or an equation. About Europe, I probably know no more than your average Nobel Prize winning particle physicist, which means: hardly enough to call myself an expert. Just enough, in fact, to raise myself above abject ignorance. But that, I suppose, is true of pretty much all of us who will soon be putting our microscopic knowledge to the test. It’s not a matter of my proving ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ but accepting that all claims to enlightenment are false. On the EU, I’m a certified agnostic.

I wish it were different. It’s my duty, I feel, to know which way I should vote. I wish had hard evidence to decide the matter. If only I were one of those serious pinstripe men with economic degrees who can chip in with GDP figures or mention quantitative easing with an air of my knowing what the hell it means. But I’m not. I’m like the majority of people who will ultimately decide this referendum. We simply don’t know and, because we don’t know, we feel it’s only natural that we listen to what the experts have to say.

Except, in this matter, there are no experts for us to ask. The next best thing is asking the opinion of the cleverest person we know and, failing that, the person who looks the cleverest. In that case we ask Michael Gove and we get into all sorts of trouble whenever we use ‘however’ to start a sentence. However, all of this is largely academic. We’re less convinced by ‘right answers’ than we are by people who can forcefully claim to know the ‘right answer’. It’s why we listen to men like Boris Johnson.

Boris seems to know his stuff. He invents phrases such as ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’ which catch the ear because they make us smile. That’s a not inconsiderable trick. It accounts for Boris’s appeal. He make us ignore the complicated business and remember the silly and trivial instead. For example, do you remember the context in which he mentioned his famous ‘inverted pyramid of piffle’? You probably don’t yet you no doubt remembered the phrase. That might well be convenient for Boris, given that the pyramid was an allegation of an affair, the denial of which led to his ousting from Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet. It is all old history and now largely forgotten. Yet the piffle remains.

And that, I think, is the nature of history, our collective memory, and, simply, political life. The things that seemed important at the time are the things that we forget the soonest. Who now remembers Enoch Powell’s brilliant mind, his decorous wartime service, or nearly forty years as a parliamentarian? No, we remember one speech that blights his memory in the historical record. We are all like Shelley’s Ozymandias who laments:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley too is remembered for his heart, which refused to burn, like Lord Byron is now largely consigned to a memorable line by Hancock, ‘a good looking bloke, dab hand with the ladies, had a bit of a limp’. History as it is commonly remembered is peculiar in that we often preserve the irrelevant, the salacious, the esoteric and discard what we might have once thought was essential.

The upshot of all this is that perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about the European question. You are allowed to remain agnostic because there really is no ‘right answer’ since we couldn’t possibly quantify each outcome. The only way would be to measure the consequences of ‘in’ and ‘out’ but that would move us back into the realm of theoretical physics where Perhaps Professor Hawking would have to explain the multiverse theory in which each of an infinite number of universes play out a slightly different version of history. In one, we choose Brexit and in another we remain in Europe. It’s like the old thought experiment in which a person goes back in time and kills the baby Hitler. ‘Hell yeah, I would’ said Jeb Bush during the Republican race when given this hypothesis. Yet the assumption is wrong. Who is say if that Hitler’s early death would have made the twentieth century better or worse? The Second World War was a result of something more than the will of one man. Without Hitler’s insanity to misguide them, perhaps German would have won. We like to think that history would be more simple but, in truth, we really don’t know.

That will be the reality of the coming referendum. Whatever we choose, we will immediately think it wrong. We will regret leaving the moment we leave but, equally, we’ll regret staying should we choose to stay. In one scenario, people will launch a campaign to get us back in. In the other, the old faces will continue the fight to get us out. We will, in other words, become like Scotland.

Does that mean we should abandon ourselves to fate? Well, that would deny our free will and even we agnostics are undoubtedly governed by our actions. The best we can individually hope to is ignore the bullies, try not to be swayed by the catchphrases, the shocking headlines that are momentary and meant to convince you by the brute force of your emotions. We should vote for the choice that in our best conscience we think is best for Britain. Then sit back and enjoy the fireworks because, in truth, only a small percentage of voters will have thought long and hard about their decision. Referenda are the ultimate expression of collective ignorance and a last best guess. Our only solace will be knowing that through the long lens of history, so much about our decision will be lost, except, perhaps, for something memorable that Boris Johnson says. Probably about jelly.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.