Monday 15 April 2013

Eight Signs of a Bogus Historical Narrative

On Saturday afternoon, as an attendee of the QED convention in Manchester, I sat through a panel discussion entitled "Is Science the New Religion?". At least, it was intended to be a four-way discussion. Despite the moderator's best efforts, it quite quickly deteriorated into an exasperated and highly entertaining bun-fight between the journalist who made the opening statement (which he has posted as a "speech" here) and the comedian and critical-thinking promoter Robin Ince (who has blogged about the exchange here).

I spent the time playing "Bullshit Narrative Bingo" as the journalist obligingly ran through nearly every one of the tell-tale signs of a bogus fall-from-grace story. These red flags are the narrative tricks I look for whenever I suspect that someone is seeking to rail against the current state of affairs, but knows absolutely nothing about how, when or why it came about, or what can be done to change it. I thought I'd share my observations, because these are useful indications of Bad History, in the same way that incomplete or misinterpreted statistics are indications of Bad Science.

My notes are rather sketchy, and I don't wish to misrepresent the journalist's arguments (much of the fun happened when he was asked to elaborate on the points made in his opening statement) but here are the items I ticked off, and the examples I wrote down at the time. Hopefully, there will be an official recording or transcript available, at which point I will amend anything which I have reported incorrectly.

1. A "look how far we've come" introduction, establishing the speaker's credentials as a lover of the right kind of progress. In this case, it is the gradual extension of voting rights to people who were not considered to have specialised knowledge; In the past, working men and all women were excluded from the political process because it was assumed they did not have the intellectual capacity for it. Nothing to disagree with here, but for an opener, it was suspiciously unrelated to the question.

2. Assumption of novelty, without recourse to actual facts. The argument seemed to be that politicians nowadays lack the moral confidence to argue for their preferred course of action, and so are looking to scientific authority instead (I think this was when the smoking ban was mentioned as an example of when scientific arguments trumped moral ones). In fact, medical research and scientific developments were used by politicians back in the Victorian era and almost certainly earlier.

3. Description of a previously unbroken tradition. I can't remember if the number given was 2000 or 3000 years of politics being driven by morality and a sense of responsibility, but either way, this would be something of an oversimplification. Quite often in a bogus narrative, it is the 1950s which is described as the pinnacle of any such trend, and therefore as a golden age destroyed by the excesses of the 1960s. Which brings us to...

4. Call for a return to a more 'natural', 'traditional' or 'healthy' state. When asked, repeatedly for some indication of what scientists should do instead, one of the answers given was, "We need a healthy public space". I have no idea what this means, exactly, but who could possibly argue against health of any kind?

5. Magic keywords. Pro-tip: If you feel that your argument is looking a little thin in places, or that your audience may have forgotten that you're on the Right Side, sprinkle in some references to undeniably positive qualities such as "individual freedom" and "moral autonomy", even though these have little to do with the matter being discussed.

6. Unsubstantiated turning point. My recollection of this part is hazy, as there was a lot of grumbling, shouting and laughter from the audience and the argument seemed too ridiculous for anyone to make... but I think it was argued that since the 1970s, we've stopped pushing for economic growth because we've prioritised science-led environmental concerns instead. There may also have been something about a recent hatred of industrialisation around the same time because 'science' makes us worry about public health? In any case, the golden age of responsible, morality-based politics at some point changed to the current technocratic tyranny. Evidence for when and how this is supposed to have come about was not provided.

7. Ignoring other, obvious factors. In this case, I was surprised that nobody mentioned the development of the environmental movement, which is not known for having completely overlapping aims with all scientists.

8. Accusations.Veiled (or not) suggestion that the other side's argument is very like racism. From what I can remember, arguing that politicians should understand the probable impact of their policies (and gain this understanding via solid, scientifically-tested research) was compared to the introduction of tests designed to exclude minority voters in the American South. Understandably, this did not go down well.

All of this means that the only thing preventing me from shouting "house" was a lack of mention of the Nazis, and a reference to "authoritarian governments since Labour", combined with the racism comparison, came pretty damn close.


For some further reflection on the panel:


  1. This is the best commentary on the panel I have read. Point 7 is especially insigthful. Love it.

  2. I certainly wish it were posted on YouTube....

  3. I really wish I hadn't read anything else on the guy's site. Dunning & Kruger come to mind...