It’s perhaps a brave (in the Yes, Minister sense) person who suggests that reason is a less good guide to belief and action than we might like it to be. But Professor Nutt’s fresh intervention today in the world of drug policy has got me thinking once more about reason, evidence, and interpretation. Reason is a bit like motherhood and apple pie in that it seems self-evident (I can feel a degree of circularity already) that it’s a good thing, and that everyone believes that indeed it is. Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence (here we go again) that most of us live our lives in a reasoned way at all. Prejudices are much more prevalent in determining our attitudes, our beliefs, and our politics than any evidence-based reasoning. In fact it seems to me that just as Gandhi famously said, in answer to the question about what he thought of western civilisation, that it would be a very good idea, so our commitment to reason is much more apparent in the breach than in the observance.
The media has already reignited its attacks on Professor Nutt for having the temerity to suggest that alcohol may do more harm to individuals and society combined than heroin or crack (which my cleverly punning title subtly refers to), and those attacks are immune to any discussions about evidence or reason. I am not here making any points about truth or falsity, but simply about the application of reason. Professor Nutt might be right, or he might be wrong, but objective evidence is not going to be the ground on which government or media will come to a judgement about whether he is the one or the other. Because very many people drink alcohol, but far fewer take crack cocaine, the majority have no personal experience to guide them in making an assessment of relative harm. They depend on the dominant “common sense” of society, and sense is no more common now that it was in the days of Copernicus. Most people do not make individual judgements, weighing up evidence from a variety of sources, and coming to a carefully considered conclusion. Rather, they believe what they believe, and the roots of those beliefs are shrouded in mystery even for the individual doing the believing.
You might think that all I’m saying is that most people are too stupid, or too lazy, to think for themselves. To some extent I admit I am saying that, but that’s by no means all I’m saying. And in fact, although I freely accept that there is in my view on this matter an element of disdain for some of my fellow citizens – stoked up by the numbers who appear to believe in mystical crystals, infinitesimally dilute solutions, creationism and the like – I genuinely do think that we put on our theoretical commitment to reason a load that it cannot in practice bear.
Let me explain. In order to be properly reasoned beings, we would have to have access to, and the ability to process, far more data than in practice we possibly can have access to, or the capacity to process if we did. Let me offer an analogy. We know a lot about how the brain processes visual data, and we know that it takes all kinds of short-cuts which frequently lead it astray. Hence the power of optical illusions. But this short-cutting is not some kind of failure of our brains, but rather one of its crowning glories. Without it we couldn’t function, and by the time we’d processed the visual data our eyes provide, it would be far too late to do anything about it. In the same way, we have to take short cuts with our reason. It is impossible not to, and those who claim that they are reasoned people, and who set themselves up as superior to others in this respect, simply delude themselves. Just as with the brain’s visual processing, intellectual reason is about relative attention, not about absolute analysis. When we see the “real” world with our eyes, what we actually see is the result of our assumptions about how the world is, and what we’ve learned about it. Most of the time those assumptions and learned knowledge serve us well.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about our assumptions, and our learned understandings, of the social and intellectual world. We suffer from social and intellectual illusions very much more often, and with very much more dangerous consequences, than we do optical ones. From fascism to drug policy, from racism to economics, our beliefs have little to do with what might be objectively true, and everything to do with our preconceptions. The truth is that reason, in the sense of drawing robust conclusions from objective evidence, is not a viable antidote to these dilemmas. We simply don’t have the data, the processing capacity, or the time to establish a reasoned position on the almost infinite variety of decisions about what to believe that daily confront us. What I think we can do is something rather more modest. We can try and understand our prejudices. We can try and become aware of our inconsistencies. And we can try to be more sensitive to the consequences, for us and for others, of the things we hold to be true. In a nutshell, we can try and discipline our beliefs within a moral framework of our own making. It’s by our fruits that we’ll be known, not by our reason.