#QEDcon – Brendan O’Neill – Is Science the New Religion

Mr O’Neill now has a blog posting up, that starts with …

Today, I gave this speech at the sceptical QED conference in Manchester.

(Scratches head)… speech! … he was a member on a panel, and at best took 4 minutes to state his position, I was there and took this picture at the time.

In essence, his argument was one in which he appeared to be suggesting that evidence-based thinking within a political context is a really bad idea … here is an extract from his refined version of his published “speech” …

This outlook survives today, in the widespread belief that we need more expertise and less ideology in politics; more science, less passion; more cool-headed, educated people like David Nutt, and fewer nutters from the mass of the population who think they know everything but don’t actually know very much at all.
… today it is young rationalists and humanists who say politics needs more expert input and less playing to the public gallery, less populism, less ill-informed passion or wrongheaded ideology.

If anything, today’s call for more expertise in politics is worse than what went before because it is so much more sweeping; it is really serious about elevating experts into almost every sphere of policymaking and giving them a very special position.

In response to this Robin Ince (and almost everybody else in the room) thought “WTF are you babbling about?”. (Oh, and yes, that is Helen Czerski sitting next to Robin).

OK, so did Mr O’Neill have any evidence that supported this argument? Er no, not really, but then it would indeed be more than a tad ironic to find that a chap arguing against making informed choices to permit us to actually make an informed evidence-based choice on this topic.

When politics and science mix in this way, both of them suffer, I think. We end up with evidence-driven policy and policy-driven science, neither of which is a very good thing.

Ah yes indeed, all those sciency things need to be kept well out of politics, we simply cannot have people making informed choices or a meaningful dialogue. And so when faced with the suggestion that politics needs to operate from a position of complete ignorance, what can one say except “Seriously!”, or to use the words that Robin Ince deployed at the time against Mr O’Neill, “You are a fucking idiot”.

Robin not only nailed it then, but also when he blogged about it all later

to blithely suggest that that the world is not complex, that expertise is not only not required but a form of oppression, seems to be a position that can only be taken if you are blinkered when progressing through 21st century society. Go back one hundred years and I believe that pretty much any tool or device in your house could be repaired by you with a little ingenuity and swearing. Look at what you have around you now. Look at the device you are reading this on or your television or mobile phone or digital radio, when they cease to function correctly I wonder how many of you would confidently turn to your toolbox, uncover the technology within and effectively repair it. When I picked up the journalist’s ipad, something which seemed to alarm him as if I was a Hyde-ish brute (and I almost was) and declared “mend this”, no answer came forth.

This is no dry academic debate, it really matters because sadly our human history is littered with individuals who have inflicted things upon others that are not only now recognised to be bad ideas, but were ideas based upon assumptions that were not actually true. Even today the media is awash with such myths, the obvious examples include Mr Dellingpole beating the “Climate Change is a myth” drum or the constant flow of woo being propagated by the Daily Fail, should we seriously gag the voices of those who can stand up and explain why such thinking is complete bollocks?

As you might imagine, the debate became heated, and resulted in others chipping in, that included Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins (both were sitting in the audience).

Sigh! … if only we did actually have a government that made decisions on the basis of the evidence. I’m not of course claiming that science has all the answers, nobody is, but rather that it can test assertions, claims and ideas … it is simply a tool, a methodology, that enables us to filter ideas and work out which are wrong and which are not wrong.

I do also wonder how much of this is real and how much is simply manufactured.  I’m toying with the idea that Mr O’Neill does not actually believe a lot of what he asserts, and has instead crafted it to provoke a reaction so that he may then bask in the spotlight.

5 thoughts on “#QEDcon – Brendan O’Neill – Is Science the New Religion”

  1. Science can’t test anything – people can, and they can do so using science, philosophy, political thought, intuition or everyday knowledge. Moreover, all people have a modicum of autonomy with which they can decide to question, accept, or ignore received opinions. A widespread received opinion today is the idea that all aspects of our life are so complicated that we can barely fart without being told how to do so ‘safely’ ‘effectively’ or ‘less offensively’ by some cited group of researchers who ‘have the evidence’. Politicians and other cultural elites draw upon, and commission certain willing groups of academics, including scientists, to support ideas that supposedly ‘prove’ ever increasing deterministic assertions about humans (e.g. not reading to babies will affect later life chances), Brendan O’ Neill is absolutely correct to expose the inherent irrationality of, and danger posed by, the so called rationalists who mistake politics for a lecture theatre.

  2. In the picture above Robin Ince appears like a bit of a belligerent table banger and Helen Czerski betrays a chauvinistic ivory tower attitude with that smug looking visage. Typical of the know all paternalism of todays politics.

  3. Mr O’Neill had an agenda, and he stuck to it very competently. It was thus:

    1. Get himself on a panel
    2. Speak a bunch of nonsense
    3. Remain clam
    4. Get someone to shout at him
    5. Write about how nasty we all are

    I consider it a complement that he though QED was large enough to target!

    Overall I found the session to be a highly enjoyable farce, but if I knew nothing about it beforehand I would have been very angry indeed!

    • I read his speech as well Robin’s comments and a lot of the tweets but I am still looking for rational arguments against Brendan O’Neill’s ideas…unless of course you all consider personal insults are rational (and SCIENTIFIC!) arguments now. The critical and scientific thinking that you are all proclaiming supporting is conspicuous by its absence to say the least. This is truly appalling!

  4. Can science, or evidence, guide us on matters of value? Can experiments and trials answer questions about happiness?

    Physically self destructive behaviour brings many people pleasure, presumably science will one day have a cost benefit analysis showing why this historically resilient phenomenon persists?

    And one day it will also be able to say that attaching plug-ins to your brain to induce permanent nirvana *doesn’t* attend to happiness because that bliss is unearned.

    I’m not sure it will. Science can’t comment on this, only philosophy. The notion that science has all the answers is scientism, which is an insult to science.


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