The Book Burners Take Power

by George Hatjoullis

The most disturbing aspect of this referendum campaign was not the overt racism and xenophobia. This is universal. It was the overt anti-intellectualism. People were told to ignore every authoritative voice and believe whatever they found most convenient. There was of course no physical book burning but the intent and the effect was the same. Experts were dismissed with a wave of the hand. Whole government departments were declared incompetent and/or corrupt. There was no attempt to debate the logic of arguments, the models used, or the data. The result was that people were successfully released to internalize whatever they found reassuring and convenient as ‘truth’. Many inconsistent ‘truths’ were so internalized and this is why the exit campaign managed to edge the vote. The problem is that book burning, like racism and xenophobia, is now respectable. This is profoundly dangerous.

Scientists, physical and social, are not infallible. The process of science is to constantly challenge and test so-called knowledge. It is through this process that knowledge expands. Scientists do, however, apply internally consistent logical processes to the challenge. When they disagree, they disagree in a clear and recognisable manner. If it is not clear it is not science. Scientists do not make unsubstantiated assertions. If they do they will be challenged, sooner or later, and have to defend their position. In this campaign no such intellectual process was observed. Every claim by Remain scientists was dismissed as a lie, or corrupt. The self-serving, populist, Pollyannas of the Leave camp persuade enough people that leaving the EU would be best for them. They did not challenge and defeat the Remain arguments. They just ignored them. They presented no evidence but simply expounded wave after wave of unsubstantiated assertion.

So, we heard they wanted to restore the supremacy of the British parliament even though they told everyone not trust the very same parliament. They simply lied about the UK net contribution to the EU: £350m remained on the battle bus throughout. They claimed they would spend it on the NHS and this has already been reneged on, even before they are in power. They ignored the trade benefits to the UK of membership. They claimed even greater benefits are available outside of the Union. Not one piece of evidence was presented. And so the list goes on.

The legacy of anti intellectualism is very dangerous. It allows populists to assert anything that suits their political needs and for people to believe inconsistent assertions as fact. Anti intellectualism has preceded and accompanied every evil period in human history. It is not the exit vote that is the problem. It is how it was achieved. The anti intellectualism was promoted by a former education minister and now justice minister. It was supported and expounded by a former journalist once fired for making up stories and now tipped for PM. Britain, and Europe (and USA), we have a problem.