Are we really a rational, educated society?

A reader sent me a link to a link, through which I heard an interesting radio interview between a playwright in London and a BBC interviewer. You can access it right here. Neither the playwright (Richard Bean) nor the interviewer (Melanie Phillips) is known to me, but the stuff of their conversation certainly was familiar. Its essence was the puzzle over how it can be, to quote her, that in her country, arguably the best-educated, most rational population in the world — in any period of history — there are things that simply cannot be said, and positions that simply cannot be put. One of the candidate issues was  immigration, and another was ‘anthropogenic global warming’. Richard Bean had written plays about both issues; I haven’t seen them.

I’ll let pass to the keeper the claim that the UK is the best-educated and most rational society in the world, but the remainder of her query applies to Australia as well. For ‘immigration’ we would supply ‘indigenous’, although there is certainly a great to-do here about ‘asylum-seekers’, and they’re certainly intentional immigrants, even if they haven’t gone through the ordinary channels.

In the recent comments on this website there is one referring to a post in 2012 about indigenous issues, and it is the first in more than 1000 comments to be both crude and ignorant. I left it there unedited, partly because another of the themes of the interview was the use of invective and character assassination as a form of debate. This seems to me to be widespread here, as it apparently is in the UK — though not, I rejoice to say, on this website. But its force is what Melanie Phillips referred to: if you don’t like what someone has said, instead of pointing out what you think is an error, you tell them to shut up: don’t say those things!

Why is it like this? The Phillips/Bean argument, as I heard it, is that a set of people you might refer to as ‘the Left’, or ‘the intelligentsia’, or ‘the cultural elites’, most of them in professional, scientific, intellectual or managerial positions, have taken over the role of cultural judges. They decide what is the politically correct, culturally approved, position on a number of difficult issues, and their counterparts in the media follow their decisions. To speak against these  decisions is to commit a serious offence, and to do so from within the left parties – here in Oz, Labor and the Greens — is to risk severe censure.

Let me give an illustration. Peter Taylor, an environmentalist with impressive Green credentials, finally decided that the global warming scare had been overdone, and wrote a book called Chill saying so. It came out in 2009, at the time of the Copenhagen climate meeting, and was very well publicised. But it was not reviewed, at all, in the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer or the New Scientist, all journals that had previously published his work. This book of his was simply ignored by those who ought to have taken it seriously. Taking no notice of an inconvenient fact, article or book, is  a common ploy in today’s intellectual world.

I’ve made a similar point about the treatment of climate issues on the ABC, where only the scary stuff is ever mentioned. The fact of a long period without any significant warming has been passed by. Yet the ABC’s news people are competent on other issues where the ‘correct’ position is not in question. What happens, say Bean and Phillips, is that people ‘conform’. Australia is quite good at collecting statistics on all sorts of matters, which are publicly available. But if they do not aid the correct position they too are ignored. Conforming involves ignoring things.

Phillips asked Bean how could we get out of this bind, and he did not have an answer. I’m not sure I have one, either, but I am uncomfortably reminded that when I was young there was a very different orthodoxy ruling in Australia. It was about Queen and Country, it issued a ‘Call to the Nation’, it was very much into Empire Day and Anzac Day, it thought the Church and church leaders were  important, as was the closing of shops at 12.30 pm on Saturday — and it was not at all interested in real debate. Countervailing views were ignored or their perpetrators censured. On the whole, the mass media followed the orthodoxy. Those who tried to put forward other views were sometimes branded as ‘communist’, a worse term even than ‘denier’ today.

How did we get out of that one? Well, the upholders of the orthodoxy were old, grew older, moved into retirement and died. The world changed with increasing education and the increasing movement of women into the workforce. The birth control pill, and the war in Vietnam greatly disturbed the old order. The universities, which had been small and rather conservative, grew in size and diversity.

In short, maybe there is always a ruling orthodoxy in any society, and if you don’t like it, you have to wait until its stranglehold weakens, which will happen in time. And of course you can always do your best to counter its oppressive views, bit by bit,  by putting forward good arguments and good evidence, and ignore the consequent flak. But I agree that there is a difference. Today many more of us have access to argument and evidence, but what is not happening is any kind of serious debate about the meaning of the arguments and the evidence. And that was where the Bean/Phillips interview began.

What do you think?

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Phillip says:

    I went to Melbourne to see the Bean play “The Heretic” at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2012. He had some excellent lines mocking the warmists. It was a packed theatre – surprising as I would have expected the luvvies to avoid it.

    • John Morland says:

      I saw the play “Yes, Prime Minister” and they too had a dig at the warmists.

      Speaking of ignoring inconvenient facts, the continual suffering symptoms people are experiencing who live near wind farms.

  • PeterE says:

    You have raised a very important topic and by and large I agree with you. At a recent New Year’s Eve party one man started rounding on John Howard for his attitude to refugees. I responded that ‘they are not refugees’ but rather than debate it he simply closed off the conversation and seemed to be genuinely outraged at such a blunt (but true) statement. The technique of ignoring information that runs counter to the orthodoxy, and indeed placing a boycott on it, is not new. Many years ago I read a book ‘The Naked God: the writer and the communist party’ (1957) by Howard Fast, who described this technique. Fast himself had been a member of the communist party but became disillusioned and left. (prior to doing so, he had written ‘Spartacus’, the film of which reveals a vision of the perfect communist world). A communist is a member of the communist party. A fellow traveller is not a member of the party but is sympathetic to the party’s goals and assists in progressing them. In a democracy it is perfectly legitimate to be a communist. the problem arises because many communists work subversively to overthrow the system. (Check the SBS series on Tuesday nights on communism in Australia. It is, of course, written from a point of view sympathetic to communism and SBS is the perfect host for it. Check also Gerard Henderson’s perceptive review of the series in this weekend’s Australian/Inquirer p 14.) As you say there is a desperate need among many people to fit in with the orthodoxy and not rock the boat. It is all the more imperative, then, to speak out where there are errors. By the way, the demise of the ‘Queen and country’ mindset was considerably helped by communists and fellow travellers in their quest for the type of society that experience shows to have been as bad as any in history as a protector and nurturer of its citizens. I had better call it a day there – but please continue to raise these issues.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Peter, as I wrote above to Margaret, we need both forces, those of the left and the right — indeed, they are unavoidable

  • Lysander Spooner says:

    Reason is relative! (to my disgust!)
    As a PhD student and casual/sessional lecturer (Humanities) trying to “break into” the academic scene I have endured so much grief trying to even get a tacit approval for a topic – you see, it doesn’t fit with most Humanities’ faculties’ outlook (“reason”) on life.

    But I’m stubborn. 🙂
    I have marked essays on the politics of climate change and have had nary an essay proposing the non-catastrophic position. The hundreds of essays I have marked all “cite” ABC news sources, fairfax etc…kids today…haven’t heard of a primary source? Haven’t heard of presenting an essay in a dialectic fashion; showing both sides of the argument?
    What does one do when presented with such a flawed rationale? Fail them? It is good work generally but always one sided. Indoctrination: Start early, start often.
    Reason is relative! (much to my disgust!!)

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I would like to use your somewhat acidic comment as the basis for a post!

    • David says:

      So if your students were asked to write an essay entitled, “Slavery, discuss”, what proportion of papers would you expect to present, a dialectic approach showing both sides of the argument?

      • Don Aitkin says:

        It’s really a question for Lysander, but my response would be that I would expect good essays to come to a working definition of ‘slavery’, come to terms with why slavery occurs, and the varieties of it through human history, how it came to be legally outlawed, and how it continues today, nonetheless. And I would expect good arguments and good evidence.

        • DaveW says:

          Perhaps somewhat off topic, but relevant to the question about our society being rationale, there are ants that raid other colonies and take ‘slaves’. Since the behaviours were recognized they have been called variants of ‘slave-making ants’ but now there is a brouhaha about this being an ‘offensive’ term. Alternatives deemed less offensive include ‘pirate ants’ and some tedious Greek-root jargon that has the advantage of excluding 99% of the public from any understanding. I see this as more evidence that parts of our society are either morons (probably an offensive term – would intellectually challenged be better?) or so intellectually corrupt as to be incapable of rationale discussion.

  • David says:

    Don inserting the name “Peter Taylor” and “Climate” into Google Scholar returns just 7 articles published over the last 20 years; hardly prolific. I don’t see why you would think that the Guardian is obligated to review his book.

    If you Google renown sceptic “Bjorn Lomborg” and “ABC” you more than 25 hits. So there is no way you could argue that the ABC has ignored Lomborg.
    I can also recall the ABC’s Lateline reviewing Professor Plimer’s book Heaven
    and Earth, who is also a skeptic.

    So I think your argument is weak.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      David, you might read what I wrote again. The Guardian had in fact reported a good deal of Taylor’s work when he was a well-known Green activist, but did not do so when he wrote something that was regarded as ‘wrong’. That was the point of my article.

      • David says:


        Could you give some examples of his previous work reviewed by the Guardian?
        I Goggled “Peter Taylor” with “The Guardian”, “The Independent”, “The Observer” and “New Scientist”, respectively.
        The Independent once reviewed a book he wrote called “Beyond Conservation”, were he argued for reintroduction of large animals
        into Brittan. But that is about it. I don’t see that his publication record is such that any new book he wrote should automatically be reviewed by the Guardian or other mainstream newspaper.

        He has however been published in “The Mail” a number of times writing articles critical of AGW. I would characterize Peter Taylor as a garden variety denialist, with a flair for self promotion. But don’t they all?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Perhaps you should see the entry on him in Wikipedia, which will give you an idea of his journey. Of course, he may have written it himself …

          • David says:

            So Don is this your way of saying,
            “I’m sorry David I cut and paste something from Wikipedia without checking its assertions”
            Because I would say,
            “That’s quite all right Don. I enjoy your work and look forward to reading more of what you have to say in the future. Happy new year to you. 🙂

          • Don Aitkin says:

            No, I took that to be true because it was so easily disprovable. I try not to rely to much on Wikipedia because of its bias, but in this case the proposition seemed reasonable. Also I gave the link at once. It was there for you.

            You put a lot of weight on peer-reviewed papers. In Taylor’s case this is less relevant than it might be for others, because he was an activist and organiser, as you would have seen from the Wikipedia entry.

            And a happy new year to you, too.

  • dlb says:

    That discussion between Bean and Phillips was most interesting. The clash of values between the old and new establishment is something I often think about. It is intriguing how one culture values religion and tradition while the other disowns religion but at the same time takes on other causes with religious zeal. Also fascinating how both cultures have their taboos, you would think in a progressive world the concept of something being taboo would be out dated. But no in the new order there are certainly things one should not talk about. Ahh human nature!

    I really can’t see the new order changing any time soon, such as caused by the upholders dying off. In our predominantly Godless western world there are many “progressive” causes for the young and idealistic to get all religious about. Whether it is saving the planet instead of souls or the many social justice issues that “need” fixing, there is plenty to be done. This ideal world is the new Heaven one aspires to. If it just wasn’t for the Murdoch media and those deniers!

    As for the ABC the upholder of this new order, I had to smile about their recent reporting. Back in December our national broadcaster was eagerly reporting on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Come the New Year they were now mentioning a Russian research ship stuck in ice. One could be forgiven in thinking they were two totally different expeditions. Classic!

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