Personal Reflections of John Radford’s ‘A liberal science’ lecture

24 Oct

This week I watched John Radford, the ninety year old founder of our Department deliver a lecture on his view of psychology as ‘a liberal science’. It made me reflect on my own views ….

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

I’m beginning to think that this summary of Voltiare’s views, which have long been the definition of the liberal approach to freedom of speech might actually now be beginning to undermine liberal democracies. Today the phrase ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ has become a mantra across the political spectrum, and often seems to actually mean ‘you are not allowed to question my opinion’. I have spent twenty years attempting to teach the primacy of evidence over opinion, and yet we seem to be moving rapidly towards a position where evidence and opinion are either equally valued, or worse opinion trumps evidence. For someone is has spent so long teaching rational thought, it’s disturbing to see the very language of rational thinking being appropriated by those who advocate the primacy of opinion. When I started teaching this stuff to be ‘sceptical’ was to be ‘rational’, and yet today to be a climate change ‘sceptic’ means to deny the weight of scientific evidence. 

It’s ironic that this position has arisen at a time when the previous battle between faith and science seems to be dying down. Beyond the real fringes, the world’s religions seem to have shifted away from denying things like evolution via natural selection and yet, at the same time in both the US and the UK political divisions have arisen over what would have previously been scientific questions. For example, the UK government is now in the paradoxical position of advocating the wearing of face masks in confided populated spaces, whilst not doing so themselves and refusing to legislate for such. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a victory for those who’s opinion is that they should not be required to wears masks over the evidence that it may ease the spread of Covid-19. 

My guess is that those who advocate the primacy of evidence over opinion may need to balance their support for the Voltairian position on freedom of speech, from my opening quotation, with a thorough understanding of  Karl Popper’s Tolerance paradox. It’s ironic that Popper may have been thinking of religious, racial and political intolerance, but it maybe that we need a degree of intolerance of ‘anti-science’ in order to defend our ‘tolerant’ society.

I do think that psychology has a small but significant part to play in defending against ‘anti-science’ by ensuring that we do question practice that isn’t evidence-based. For example, colleagues at my own institution have done sterling work questioning things like withdrawal from anti-depressant medication, or the use of ECT. However, as a discipline we could do much more. It may sound a trivial example but has every Psychology Department who’s institution promotes ‘learning styles’ to their students been public in demonstrating the astonishing lack of evidence for learning styles ? Sadly I suspect not. 

None of this will be easy, and I would confess to a good deal of cognitive dissonance over the idea that I should be more active in questioning those with strongly help opinions that seem to contradict the available weight of evidence. It’s so much easier just to smile sweetly and move the conversation on to a different topic, but in doing so am I letting down the discipline ?

4 Responses to “Personal Reflections of John Radford’s ‘A liberal science’ lecture”

  1. Paul Braterman October 24, 2021 at 3:16 pm #

    We also have those who think that their opinions give them the moral right, or indeed duty, to stop me from expressing mine. Religions that suppress or punish blasphemy, colleges that like TRACS in the US that *demand* adherence to creationism on pain of being sacked, self-styled trans-rights activists who won’t work for JK Rowling’s publishers …

  2. Paul Braterman October 24, 2021 at 3:41 pm #

    And it gets worse.There are those who deliberately degrade discourse by promoting antiscience – the well-documented Russian intervention in the Italian 2018 election is an example – and they now have at their command a well-developed psychology of persuasion, the cheap publicity of social media, and as a bonus the means of experimenting to see what does or does not draw followers. This is the context for current controversies about what FaceBook and its ilk should or should not carry

    • Teaching Rational Thinking October 25, 2021 at 11:53 am #

      In a UK context I find it interesting that there is a absence of traditional political alliegence (as there does seem to be in the US). We seem to have the odd situation of people vigourous opposing the UK government’s approach to the pandemic but (at least according to polling), but still voting Conservative.

      • Paul Braterman October 25, 2021 at 12:05 pm #

        I’m afraid that it’s not strange at all. As in the US, opposition to masks comes from the exceptionalist irrationalist Right, coalesced here around Brexit, to which the Westmnster Government is in thrall. As a result, it officially advocates mask wearing in public, while packing maskless into the Commons chamber, and ministers make remarks that undermine their own stated policy.

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