20th December 2011 The future of politics should be nerdy too by Lisa Chalkley
Since my thyroid problems started I’ve listened to audio books through the night, it is one of the few things that help me to stay asleep. Awakening the other morning to Philip Zimbardo’s ‘The Lucifer Effect’ was distinctly unsettling. I’d decided to listen to his book about how good people can end up doing bad things, before I got a copy of Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes’. Zimbardo’s book is older and discusses his Stanford Prison Experiment, one of psychology’s fascinating experiments that nobody would be allowed to repeat due to ethics, unless they are a government running Guantanamo Bay. I thought I’d listen to what I thought would be the more horrible book before the newer, more positive book.
I’d woken to Zimbardo describing his fury with a visiting professor. They’d demolished the prison to see off a riot, which turned out to be merely a rumour. Sitting amongst the shambles, Zimbardo felt furious and defensive when asked questions about the situation by the professor. In retrospect, he said that he wished he’d just said ‘I was wrong, I made a mistake’. Instead, by deflecting criticism and being left with rage and embarrassment, he and the students acting as prison wardens succumbed to group think, with no-one playing devil’s advocate and they took it out on a group of ready made scapegoats – the students playing prison inmates. I had to stop listening at that point, it turned my stomach, especially as the day before I’d reread Amelia Gentleman’s Guardian piece England Riots: the personal cost.
I personally think that 10 months in prison for stealing two left footed trainers is ludicrous, considering the impact it will have on the young woman’s future. The demonization of the young, the vulnerable and anyone with little power over their lives seems foolish to me and likely to cause more social problems in the long term. The disparity in justice was again highlighted yesterday by the Telegraph’s report by Rosa Prince: ‘MPs who repaid expenses got money back in secret deal’ and Steve Bell’s cartoon on sweetheart tax deals. Justice being ‘seen to be done’ seems highly dependent on your place in the pecking order. I live in Cambridge (UK) and any walk around the lovely village of Grantchester involves stopping to look at Lord Archer’s stately pile and wondering how he manages to have it despite thieving, lying, perjury, cheating etc. (Private Eye ad infinitum). It seems to me that the Government are content to behave like Zimbardo and his band of student prison officers and merrily scapegoat people who are unable to fight back. Disabled people are feeling scapegoated and for a historical perspective that ties into current media nonsense, Katherine Quarmby’s book ‘Scapegoat’ does the job well. But what intrigued me was Zimbardo’s starting point for the process and that it may have been averted by saying ‘I made a mistake, I was wrong’. It is that phrase that seems to be an anathema in British politics and I think is the root of much of its foolishness.
I chucked a pamphlet from Labour in the bin the other day. It gleefully pointed out how our current Cambridge MP Julian Huppert had ‘flip flopped’. He had changed his mind over an aspect of policy. That this is seen as worthy of the cost of a leaflet campaign and constituted a valid attack on Huppert being a good MP epitomized to me the ridiculousness of the black and white thinking in politics. I had enjoyed his talk at Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub (here’s the podcast interview) and the trials and tribulations of a scientist entering the House of Commons was by turns entertaining and gobsmacking. He has been jeered for blathering on about that pesky stuff ‘evidence’. Our Government’s inability to cope with evidence, even in its most clear and hardy of forms is nicely dissected my Martin Robins article ‘Conservatives put Dumb and Dumber on the health select committee.’ More recently, Ben Goldacre has been wondering why the Government seem happy to mess up public health, despite us having so much evidence into what works in ‘The future of medicine is nerdy: does evidence synthesis save more lives than a shiny new drug?’ This is where I stole my title from. Dr Goldacre posits that it is the synthesis and dissemination of the information we already possess which will improve healthcare. I think his is right. I also think that this perspective would be helpful in politics and social problems too.
I’d rather that my MP wasn’t such an oddity in that he can eat dinner with lobbyists, listen to them and think that although their point of view is interesting, it has not changed the facts on which he has based his direction of voting. Or that if he has made a decision and a constituent contacts him and points out adverse effects, he will take that into consideration and adjust or not adjust his position accordingly. He is willing to admit when he is wrong and to lurk in shifting grey areas. The fact that the House of Commons seems averse to this in the light of some pretty cold hard scientific evidence is, well a bit dated really. But at least there are some MP’s of this ilk there. But what about areas of science that aren’t traditionally seen as robust as the physical sciences? What about psychology?
Zimbardo’s book isn’t just all horrible stuff; it moves on to show how the research helped them formulate ideas to prevent situations where good people do bad things. Steven Pinker’s jolly good TED talk: a brief history of violence quotes from Peter Singer’s work ‘The Expanding Circle, Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress’ exploring theories as to why there is less violence now. I know that at first glance, anyone having a crappy time of it right now may feel shocked and affronted at the optimistic titles but give them a go. They chime beautifully with the work of a spoonie hero of mine (a title, I add, he is happy to have) Martin Sibley and his 'Disability Diamond Theory’ . A nice introduction to him and his work is his guest blog post on Nicky Clark’s blog, an amazing campaigner who has truly been in the firing line this year. In other words, we have some pretty good ideas about how groups of people behave and this gives us some good ideas about wiser courses of action. As with any science, mistakes will be made and then this gives us information which we can use to adjust our theories, ideas and actions.
Psychology has always been more prone to political expediency, but I’m hopeful that we can require our politicians to look at evidence and not decry them for changing their minds as mere ‘flip flopping’ or denounce them when they start from a theory that turned out to need adjusting. We do possess enough information already to make wiser decisions in the realms of health and social care. The use of technology and social media is expanding the circles of empathy, recognition and inclusion for disabled people in an unprecedented way. I know it may not seem like that when the web is throwing up trolls at the alarming rate that Sue Marsh has faced on her blog ‘Diary of a Benefit Scrounger’ (let alone the tone or the online attacks on feminists and women in the skeptical movement). But as psychologist Dorothy Rowe points out in her blog ‘How to deal with a crisis’:
“By using the internet and protesting peacefully we have the chance of bringing changes that would have been impossible twenty years ago, changes that we might never have expected. When the people in the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest got together they could never have expected to unseat the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and turn a bright spotlight on those churchmen who are more concerned with maintaining a close relationship with those who have money and power rather than with following Jesus whose views about money were very clear.”
We will have to remember to treat ourselves and each other kindly as we stumble around in this brave new world, we will also make mistakes. But I think we can take heart, if we keep thinking and keep talking, we seem to be in a unique place for change.