Brendan O’Neill on the zeitgeist of the anti-modern West

I was taken with this interview on with Mr. O’Neill, a writer for Spiked, because he touched on so many topics that are pressing in the West. His critique of what’s motivating current anti-modern attitudes, and what they should remind us of, is so prescient that I thought it deserved a mention. He is a Brit, so his terminology will be rather confusing to American ears.

He called what’s termed “political correctness” “conservative.” I’ve heard this critique before, and it’s interesting, because it looks at group behavior from a principled standpoint, not just what’s used in common parlance. A lot of people won’t understand this, because what we call “conservative” now is in opposition to political correctness, and would be principally called something approaching “liberal” (as in “classical liberal”). I’ve talked about this with people from the UK before, and it goes back to that old saying that the United States and England are two countries separated by a common language. What we call “liberal” now, in common parlance, would be called “conservative” in their country. It’s the idea of maintaining the status quo, or even the status quo ante; of shutting out, even shutting down, any new ideas, especially anything controversial. It’s a behavior that goes along with “consolidating gains,” which is adverse to anything that would upset the applecart.

O’Neill’s most powerful argument is in regards to environmentalism. He doesn’t like it, calling it an “apology for poverty,” a justification for preventing the rest of the world from developing as the West did. He notes that it conveniently avoids the charge of racism, because it’s able to point to an amorphous threat, justified by “science,” that inoculates the campaign from such charges.

The plot thickens when O’Neill talks about himself, because he calls himself a “Marxist/libertarian.” He “unpacks” that, and explains what he means is “the early Marx and Engels,” when he says they talked about freeing people from poverty, and from state diktat. He summed it up quoting Trotsky: “We have to increase the power of man over Nature, and decrease the power of man over man.” He also used the term “progressive,” but Nick Gillespie explained that what O’Neill called “progressive” is often what we would call “libertarian” in America. I don’t know what to make of him, but I found myself agreeing a lot with what he said in this interview, at least. He and I see much the same things going on, and I think he accurately voices why I oppose what I see as anti-modern sentiment in the West.

Edit 1/11/2016: Here’s a talk O’Neill gave with Nick Cater of the Centre for Independent Studies, called, “Age of Endarkenment,” where they contrast Enlightenment thought with what is the concern of “the elect” today. What he points out is the conflict between those who want ideas of progress to flourish and those who want to suppress societal progress has happened before. It happened pre-Enlightenment, and during the Enlightenment, and it will sound a bit familiar.

I’m going to quote a part of what he said, because I think it cuts to the chase of what this is really about. He echoes what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older:

Now what we have is the ever-increasing encroachment of the state onto every aspect of our lives: How well we are, what our physical bodies are like, what we eat, what we drink, whether we smoke, where we can smoke, and even what we think, and what we can say. The Enlightenment was really, as Kant and others said, about encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives, and to grow up. Kant says all these “guardians” have made it seem extremely dangerous to be mature, and to be in control of your life. They’ve constantly told you that it’s extremely dangerous to run your own life. And he says you’ve got to ignore them, and you’ve got to dare to know. You’ve got to break free. That’s exactly what we’ve got to say now, because we have the return of these “guardians,” although they’re no longer kind of religious pointy-hatted people, but instead a kind of chattering class, and Greens, and nanny-staters, but they are the return of these “guardians” who are convincing us that it is extremely dangerous to live your life without expert guidance, without super-nannies telling you how to raise your children, without food experts telling you what to eat, without anti-smoking campaigners telling you what’s happening to your lungs. I think we need to follow Kant’s advice, and tell these guardians to go away, and to break free of that kind of state interference.

And one important point that [John Stuart] Mill makes in relation to all this is that even if people are a bit stupid, and make the wrong decisions when they’re running their life, he said even that is preferable to them being told what to do by the state or by experts. And the reason he says that’s preferable is because through doing that they use their moral muscles. They make a decision, they make a choice, and they learn from it. And in fact Mill says very explicitly that the only way you can become a properly responsible citizen, a morally responsible citizen, is by having freedom of choice, because it’s through that process, through the process of making a choice about your life that you can take responsibility for your life. He says if someone else is telling you how to live and how to think, and what to do, then you’re no better than an ape who’s following instructions. Spinoza makes the same point. He says you’re no better than a beast if you’re told what to think, and told what to say. And the only way you can become a man, or a woman these days as well–they have to be included, is if you are allowed to think for yourself to determine what your thought process should be, how you should live, and so on. So I think the irony of today, really Nick, is that we have these states who think they are making us more responsible by telling us not to do this, and not to do that, but in fact they’re robbing us of the ability to become responsible citizens. Because the only way you can become a responsible citizen is by being free, and by making a choice, and by using your moral muscles to decide what your life’s path should be.

4 thoughts on “Brendan O’Neill on the zeitgeist of the anti-modern West

  1. I liked when he framed it as Freedom vs. Control. That quite similar to how I view the world. Everyone has a different model of reality, and it’s best if we preserve this diversity. Trying to clamp it down — for any perspective — is a step backwards.


  2. The point’s you’ve highlighted here are all good ones. However, when Brendan O’Neill talks about climate change I think he misses some very important points.

    He disparages ‘The Science’ as some kind of religious hocus pocus. O’Neill points out that people should be allowed to decided the issue for themselves and laments the recent death of the scientific method. And maybe the scientific method is dead and and science is just hocus pocus for some. But in general when people (scientists) say ‘the science’ what they are referring to is a body of work that is supported by evidence. Evidence generated with that same method he claims is ‘dead’. He is missing that everyone is free to review the literature and decide it’s merits and faults on their own terms.

    They /can/ decide, and those that actually review the literature tend to agree that climate change is a man made phenomenon. The trouble is, most of us get the CNN reader’s digest version of the literature.

    When O’Neal calls environmentalism an ‘apology for poverty’, he is missing that during the industrial revolution and after we (the west) externalized many of the costs associated with progress. It is doubtful that we did this intentionally, the science wasn’t there to tell us what, exactly, coal was. But none the less, it happened – we pushed a significant portion of the costs of progress on others.

    I assert that environmentalism is /not/ the problem. The problem is that we continue to refuse to pay the external costs of development. When we put restrictions on developing nations we are pushing the lessons of the continued enlightenment on those nations and we are doing it without paying for our part of the deal. It is our refusal to subsidize ‘green technologies’ in developing countries – to pay on our externalized environmental debt – that is the problem.

    But then, policy makers in the US are too busy to read the science and form an informed opinion. They decide on the CNN digest version. But that is a whole different problem.

  3. @eeach:

    You are confusing things re. science. O’Neill is not saying that science is hocus pocus. He is saying that there are people with non-scientific interests who have appropriated the term “science.” Another name for it is pseudoscience. Eugenics was once thought to be incontrovertible science, based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. It achieved respectability in society to the point that in America we had laws that mandated sterilization of the “unfit,” to prevent them from polluting the gene pool. In Nazi Germany, it took on much more ominous and terrible implications. Mind you, these were people who thought that they were following what the science said, and thereby creating a better world. Just because something is called science doesn’t mean that it in fact is. To determine that, you have to first understand what science is, and then evaluate the claims of people who call themselves scientists for yourself. I often see that people such as yourself confuse the fact that since something is published in scientific journals, that represents the facts. Publishing scientific findings is just part of the process of science. It is not a higher quality newspaper. It is not the endpoint where people can read it to get their facts about what Nature is doing. It in fact allows colleagues to review what some thoughts on a phenomenon are, and then to criticize those findings, if they find reason within scientific practice and/or scientific thought to do so (again, this goes back to understanding what science is first–understanding what you’re looking at). The idea that review and criticism of published results represents an “attack” on science is a gross misunderstanding of the scientific process. Review and criticism are crucial parts of what real science is about! Nothing should be held sacred in science, except for the dignity of humanity, and the pursuit of trying to model what is currently unknown to extreme accuracy. The reputation of scientists, and their years and years of work are not relevant to the pursuit of modeling reality, if their models are wrong.

    Here’s what Richard Feynman had to say on the subject:

    In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First, we guess it. Don’t laugh–that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see if this law we get is right, to see what it would imply. Then we compare those computation results to Nature, or we say compare to experiment, or experience; compare it directly with observations, to see if it works.

    If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, or who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

    It’s therefore not unscientific to take a guess, though people who are not in science think it is. For instance, I had a conversation with someone about flying saucers years ago, with layman. Since I’m a scientist, I know all about flying saucers. So, I said I think there are no such things as flying saucers. So, my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it is impossible?” I said, “No, I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely.” Then they say, “You are being very unscientific. If you can’t prove it’s impossible, how can you prove it’s unlikely?” That is scientific. It is scientific to only say what’s more likely and less likely. You’re not proving all the time possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I finally said to him, “Listen. I mean, from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of known, irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown, rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It’s just more likely. That’s all. And that’s a good guess. We always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in mind that if it doesn’t work, then we must discuss the other possibilities.

    Now, you see, of course, with this method we can disprove any definite theory. We have a definite theory. We have a real guess, from which we can really compute consequences, which could be compared to experiment, and in principle, we can get rid of any theory. We can always prove any definite theory wrong. Notice, however, that we never prove it right. Suppose that you invent a good guess, calculate the consequences, and discover that every kind of consequence that you can calculate agrees with experiment. The theory is then right? No, it is simply not proved wrong. Because in the future, there could be a wider range of experiment. You could compute a wider range of consequences, and you may discover that the thing is wrong. That’s why laws like Newton’s Laws for the motions of planets last such a long time. He guessed the law of gravitation, calculated all kinds of consequences for the Solar System, and so on, compared them to experiment, and it took several hundred years before the slight error of the motion of Mercury was developed. During all that time, the theory had been failed to be proved wrong, and could be taken to be temporarily right, but it can never be proved right, because tomorrow’s experiment may succeed in proving what you thought was right wrong. So, we never are right. We can only be sure we’re wrong.

    I should also point out that you can never prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed; rather vague, and the method you use for figuring out the consequences is a little vague; you’re not sure. You say you think it’s all due to “moguls,” and “moguls” do this and that, more or less, and I can explain how this works, then you see that that theory is good, because it can’t be proved wrong. If the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill, any experimental result can be made to look like an expected consequence. You’re probably familiar with that in other fields. For example, “A hates his mother.” The reason is, of course, that she didn’t caress him or love him enough when he was a child. Actually, if you investigate, you find out that in fact she did love him very much, and everything was alright. Well, then, it was because she was over-indulgent when he was a child. So, by having a vague theory, it’s possible to get either result. Now, the cure for this one is the following. It would be possible to say, if it were possible to state ahead of time, how much love is not enough, and how much love is over-indulgent–exactly, then there would be a perfectly legitimate theory against which you can make tests. It is usually said when this is pointed out about how much love there is, and so on, “Oh, you’re dealing with psychological matters. These things can’t be defined so precisely.” Yes, but then you can’t claim to know anything about it.

    Pay special attention to that last paragraph, because this is precisely the problem that people in this so-called field called “climate science” have been having. Their hypothesis is so vague, that any consequence can be made to appear to agree with it. If a hypothesis is not falsifiable by testing–in other words, there are no circumstances under which it could be contradicted in such a way that the people putting it forward would accept as refuting the hypothesis, then it is not science.

    O’Neill doesn’t deny that people have been reviewing the work for themselves. What he complains about (he said it in this interview) is that when skeptics point out problems with the hypothesis, they are called “deniers,” in effect, “heretics.” That’s not the scientific way, but it is very pervasive when the subject is discussed in academic circles. It should be nowhere in the scientific debate!

    One of the keys to understanding science is that it is fundamentally different in character from religion. Religion tends to state what to it are truths that are not up for debate, or refutation. This is what O’Neill is talking about when he says that science is being treated like a religion. Real science does not do this! Science is a process of negotiation between the best forms of expression that we have, and what we are capable of exposing in Nature, with a fine understanding of human fallibility in trying to carry out that process. It is about trying to establish relationships of relationships, and nailing down as many degrees of freedom that can be observed in the phenomenon as possible. If that’s not going on, the people doing whatever are not pursuing science, but something else. It doesn’t matter what journals they publish in, nor that they call it “science.”

    Anyone who tells you, “The debate is over” has left the realm of science, and has entered politics and/or religion. In science, the debate is never over, though it can shift to different subjects depending on what evidence indicates could be true. Anyone who asks rhetorically, “This has to be true, because what else could it be,” is promoting ignorance. The idea is that when evidence comes in that relates to the hypothesis, the way the hypothesis is validated is it just so happens to fit. It doesn’t have to be modified to fit. You don’t have to make excuses for why it doesn’t fit, or modify the model to make it fit. It just does. Then, you don’t have to take the word of scientists. You can review the model, look at future data that the scientists who came up with the model have never seen, and convince yourself that the model is good, or see that it doesn’t fit, and choose to disregard the hypothesis and the model. That’s really how science works. The point of publishing is to make this review process possible.

    Science is not a democracy. The fact that thousands of scientists may “agree” on something is irrelevant. “Consensus” is not a scientific term. It is a term of art in politics.

    I have gone through the process of interrogating the information that those who believe in the AGW hypothesis have released, and I am not convinced in the slightest that climate modelers understand Earth’s climate system with sufficient accuracy to be making the alarmist claims they’re making. Their defenses of their models are evasive, using such fallacious arguments as I’ve outlined above. They don’t address the problems that critics have pointed out with them. In fact, many times I’ve heard the excuse, “Your standard is too high. No one can meet it.” Well, that just means they don’t know what they’re talking about. Physicists in the past have met it when talking about other phenomena. If we’re going to regard the AGW hypothesis as solid, and reliable, it should meet the standard that other ideas have had to go through to be regarded that way. It should not be allowed to get in “on the cheap,” no matter how virtuous it sounds to layman’s ears.

    Lastly, addressing your point about “externalities,” there will always be externalities. If you understood thermodynamics and entropy (two more ideas from science), you would know this. One of the questions to be entertained is whether these externalities are so significant as to represent an undue burden on other people such that they would need to be compensated for it, and maybe the “externality” would need to be cleaned up. Another question is whether it represents such a forcing on the environment that it threatens our survival. I am not convinced that CO2 represents such a threat, based on the evidence and scientific analysis I’ve seen from scientists. It’s really a distraction from other environmental threats that can be determined to exist much more strongly using science.

    When O’Neill addressed the issue of “environmentalism as an apology for poverty,” he was talking about the politicization of environmentalism. Patrick Moore has talked about this, along with Glen Duncan. If you’re interested, check out Duncan’s book, “Goodbye Green: How Extremists Stole The Environmental Movement From Moderate America.” It was published almost 20 years ago. Moore and Duncan are people who were part of the environmental movement when it first began. What he and Moore talk about is how the environmental movement largely accomplished its goals of getting governments in the developed world to understand that, using science, we came to understand that we were poisoning ourselves, and there was a need to clean up our environment for our own health. Governments came to understand this in the 1980s. Once that was accomplished, really all that was needed was to keep tabs that governments were enforcing safety rules that were informed by real science re. keeping the environment one that was habitable. However, political groups saw an opportunity to advance their own agendas using environmental (and now scientific-sounding) rhetoric. They co-opted the environmental movement, and have been exploiting it for their own political interests for decades now. It’s no longer about protecting the environment, unfortunately. Real environmental problems are happening, but they’re being misattributed to “climate change,” when what they’re really affecting is something else. We can’t address problems as a society if we’re constantly distracted by the cause celebre of the day.

  4. Pingback: Trying to arrive at clarity on the state of higher education – Tekkie

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