1 September 2020

On accidental politics – and the importance of overcoming groupthink

By Sarah Jones Nelson

In the Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle trivialised chance events. Telling students an unpredictable cosmos swerves around at random could get a philosopher of politics into massive trouble at the Academy. So he fashioned a theory of accidents to explain the causes of indeterminate or non-essential properties in things like a universe moving in perfect concentric circles for all eternity.

Plato would advance his brilliant pupil and future tutor to Alexander the Great, but the Assembly cancelled him anyway on charges of impiety. He escaped with his life, an exile on Euboea, barely eluding Socrates’ fate. Now, as then, the question of accidental causes stirs passionate debate.

In ancient Greece, an emerging cancel culture coincides with the invention of theoretical science. Whatever the politics du jour, however, humans have evolved in groups that select for a normative culture of belief, scientific or not.

Roughly two millennia after the Athenians ostracised Aristotle, Galileo formalised mathematical physics, a shocking new experimental science with testable consequences. His inquisitors cancelled him on charges of heresy brought by the same groupthink that sent Giordano Bruno to the stake in Rome in 1600 – in part for teaching the idea of a multiverse accepted in string theory today. None of these original thinkers fit into any culture of scientific norms.

Neither did Isaac Newton. For 20 years at Trinity College, Cambridge he self-censored his proof of gravity, formulated during plague lockdown at Woolsthorpe in 1665 and 1667. He knew the critics would savage his refutation of Cartesian metaphysics. When he did publish, he faced accusations of occultism that cancelled him to the point of breakdown.

His colleagues quickly put him back to work in Parliament collaborating with John Locke on the constitutional crisis of 1687. Together they invented a chance concept of axiomatic rights to life, liberty and property. Thomas Jefferson, as a British subject, soon paraphrased their ideas in the Declaration of Independence.

Now, a pandemic has shaken the foundations of the modern democracy those thinkers helped shape. The civil liberty to associate freely endangers rights to life. New rules dictate Covid-era attire and behaviour. The virtual workplace can be observed and fully monitored.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock advises the Government to expand its legal toolkit for twin crises in the science and economics of prediction and analysis. He echoes voices from mathematical physics calling for better computational tools to resolve the crisis of verification in quantum and classical theory.

Freeman Dyson and phenomonology

The physicist Freeman Dyson was my mentor and friend of 30 years. His contribution to quantum field theory attests to a tradition of world-changing science from Trinity College alumnae. No one dared cancel him, but he took his share of public abuse for his role in the Allied decision to bomb Dresden during the Second World War.

Professor Dyson once spoke in my faculty seminar on the fragility of natural and cultural selection. Together we raised open questions in political phenomenology. Is natural selection a function of individuals or groups that reward cooperation at each scale? Does evolution as a rule favour behaviour advantageous to groups?

A democracy survives crisis because of durably shared interests normalising robust values such as honesty and loyalty. In politics the criterion of robustness is longevity; fragility is vulnerability to crisis. Two principles of longevity are flexibility and the founding of clear, set norms sustained by sanctions. A third element comes to original thinkers who bring the body politic back to founding principles.

In principle, democracy selects for toleration free of public abuse or censorship. Selection by cancellation corrodes democratic principles. It censors unfashionable ideas and people deemed beyond the pale. It can shatter the country’s best minds. Think of Alan Turing. His invention of the first computer, at Bletchley Park, nevertheless inspires progress in computational mathematics integral to the Health Secretary’s predictive toolkit.

Cultural selection can be politically sound, unselfishly nuanced, or as hostile as a slammed seminar door on the fact of chance at the Planck scale. Selection dynamics all depend upon the tastes and intentions of the groups doing the selecting.

Overcoming groupthink

All behaviour is motivated. You get groupthink when unexamined beliefs motivate selfish or incoherent behaviour meant to save the appearance of correctness. Overcoming it entails bravery, independence and determination.

Take the example of slavery in Britain. Parliament passed the unfashionable Slave Trade Act of 1807 thanks largely to William Wilberforce, an independent MP and relentless abolitionist. What did he care what society thought?

Likewise, adaptive policy in a crisis requires a healthy indifference to public opinion. It is no accident that Britons invented empiricism and empirical tools of testable science and rigorous social justice.

It is to that legacy that Britain must now turn. Yes, the national debt has reached £2 trillion. Yes, errors were made in Covid science. Too many grieve too much death. Colour and class transmission disparities are profoundly unjust. But public opinion cannot change the past or forge solutions here.

Without empiricism, none of these problems would suggest a playbook for the future.

At the forefront of the effort out of this crisis is an intrepid vaccine group led by Sarah Gilbert at Oxford University. Her group collaborates with government as a team racing for a cure. Cooperative science and politics in this case involves a vast measure of chance and uncertainty on uncharted ground.

All the more reason for tough-minded British resolve. And what better way to prepare for independence from Europe?

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Sarah Jones Nelson taught on the faculty of the Princeton University Department of Philosophy before her election as an honorary member of Christ Church, Oxford University.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.