What the Dickens?

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Such was the view of scientific rationalism in Victorian times, given voice by Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. Of course it was not a view endorsed by Dickens himself. Dickens, who had a more Romantic (bordering on sentimentalist) view of society, saw the misery such a dismissal of emotion and feeling unleashed on the working poor. But it is a view totally endorsed by the eminent scientist Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now, a book the Guardian critic, William Davies, describes as “a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century.” I’m on the side of Dickens for this one.

Pinker’s basic argument is that for the vast majority of people in the world life has been getting progressively better. This progress is the result of Enlightenment thinking, the result of scientific rationalism. How do we know this? Because we count – we count the facts, nothing but the facts Mr Gradgrind. So, according to this view, all those people who feel let down by the current economic system, the system that allows the privileged few to get progressively richer whilst the majority at best manage to tread water, at worst start to drown, need to reassess their take on things. They need to stop feeling their hardships, and instead start counting the facts. Ultimately, Pinker informs us, economic inequality “is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing.”

The problem is, of course, that facts are not the clear and obvious entities that they are often made out to be, entities that demand to be received and understood in only one way by anyone using a completely rational thought process. Most facts are derived from raw data (often in the form of statistics) or some other form of evidence (an historic document or DNA sample depending on your area of investigation) which are then interpreted in order to make a meaningful statement. And whilst the various theories used to interpret this date and turn them into facts are usually well tested and reliable (and, in the case of science, to attempts to falsify them), they are never-the-less abstractions from a highly complex and inter-related world. In order to form a workable theory many of the ‘minor’ variables involved are ignored. They have to be. If they were not the theory would become too complex to be used.

But most of us don’t use rigorous, peer-tested theory to interpret data presented to us. We use heuristics, rules of thumb that we have been socialised into using or have formed over the years. One of the great failings of classic economic theory is its belief that economic actors make rational decisions based on perfect knowledge. This has been shown to be false. First, because the world is just too complex for all the facts to be taken into account, and second, because most of the heuristics we use have an emotional rather than a rational basis.

Of even greater importance for politics is the realisation that it tends not to be facts that motivate people to act, to change things. It’s emotions like anger, frustration, a sense or feeling of injustice or unfairness (not an analysis of justice or fairness). One of the targets of Dickens’ critique was the Utilitarian approach to ethics and social reform, an approach that that valued the greatest good for the greatest number decided through some form of calculus. This overly rational approach led to many absurdities and injustices. In Hard Times, Louisa Gradgrind, the eldest child of the Gradgrind family, has been taught to suppress her feelings. As a consequence, she finds it difficult to express herself clearly. But by the end of the novel she has found liberation from the factoid straight-jacket through an appreciation of the value of emotions and the imagination. She reproaches her father for his dry and fact-based approach to the world and convinces him of the error of his ways. Who will so convince Steven Pinker?


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