On physics and politics, and how to tell the difference

The tremendous thing about Scottish Independence referendum has been the engagement. The 84% turnout was the finale to weeks of often heated, yet almost without exception peaceful, political debate at every level of society. I walked through the departing crowds of the Orange March and counter-demonstrators in Edinburgh the weekend before the vote, through partisan, working-class yes- and no-voters with badges and flags. They were stickering and de-stickering the Scottish Enlightenment statues so fast they twinkled, yelling “fucker” like it was the only word in the language, as perfectly non-violently as the middle-class partisans’ more passive aggressive outbursts of “doomed” “must” and “frankly insulting”. I hope it has been apparent to people furth of Scotland what huge quantities of excellent generosity and humour there have been alongside the insults.

There was a low moment about a fortnight ago, a dreadful mud-slinging television debate, and the chat the day after from both sides was all about what a shameful embarrassment it was to live in a country where politics had reached such an abysmal standard. But then, the miracle, the divided Scotland united in a determination to raise that standard. Everyone realised that ‘Scottish pride’ couldn’t reside in waving saltires and bashing English Tories. It had to come from listening to your opponents, taking criticism on board, learning to discuss politics intelligently.

And so, crashily and noisily, we did. My complaints about the poor standard of the debate led to me discovering the excellent commentary of Professor Paul Cairney, thanks to whom I now understand the Barnett Formula. Many strong partisans realised that blind partisans were unpersuasive: anyone not already on their side simply stopped listening to them (I had to “silence” one on Facebook).

I weighed in: when some no-voting friends seemed genuinely to believe vandalism was a characteristic unique to yes-voters I made sure to find a counter-example. Although yes-voters (reasonably) huffed at my comparing them to fundamentalist Christians, they also made an effort, when talking to me at least, to demonstrate that they were thinking for themselves, not merely swept along by the rhetoric. Meanwhile, in a geeky corner of twitter, I had met and got into an enlightening discussion with a political theorist Robert Lowry about the mechanics of “groupthink”. Certainly, my own understanding of and engagement in current national politics and political debate — which like most people in their 30s has been cripplingly irrelevant and dull for our entire lifetime — has shot up. This article is a result, and an attempt to keep the momentum which everyone agrees we need to maintain.

The purpose of this article is to draw your attention to the importance of one piece of fuzzy-mindedness which has clouded the political debate and judgement of many highly intelligent people (that is to say, many of my friends!). It is the vital difference between politics and physics. It has been clarified in my mind by coincidence of the Scottish independence referendum, the global People’s Climate March movement, and my reading about the historical theory of post-structuralism, a modern philosophic reassertion of the age-old doctrine of free-will.

If you do the science carefully enough, you can make predictions about physics. Water will always evaporate at a certain rate at a given temperature and humidity. The probability of Ebola mutating to become less deadly and more infectious can be calculated. On certain ongoing phenomena, notably climate change, the science has been done very carefully indeed. This means that 99.99% of scientists can agree that it is linked to human induced carbon dioxide emissions and will result in serious consequences within the next thirty years. It also means that predictions turn out to be right, again and again.

Politics is not like this. It may be true to say that that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to vote a certain way. The most striking recent example I saw of this was a terrifyingly close correlation between membership of Anglican/ Dissenting churches in the 1851 religious census, and Tory/ Labour voting in late twentieth-century elections. If we are really so in thrall to our historic thought-patterns, do we really have any free will? However, while historic events may be explicable in terms like this, they consistently defy prediction. This is the source of the currently trendy, and very irritating, historians’ phrase, ‘the future is not my period’, which guarantees they are rarely invited to comment on political events. While demographics and votes may be linked, elections are always interesting and uncertain because, unlike the evaporating water-droplet, free-willed people can and do vote against expectations. One individual’s stirring speech, one committee’s new policy announcement, one expert’s new piece of intelligence, may unexpectedly sway enough voters to change the result. More importantly, the long-term consequences of any given result — such as Scottish independence or union — is anybody’s guess. All the predictions about independent Scottish utopias, or nightmare broken Britain scenarios, were based on nothing at all, or rather, they were not predictions at all: they were aspirations and fears. The truth is, political arrangements are created by human beings. If human beings get together to make a system work, they can. If they want to break it, they can. This is not the case when dealing with the forces of physics.

This does not mean, however, that politics is simply random. It means that you, the actor, have a power to influence political movements in a way totally impossible in the case of something like the climate. Your rhetoric, your quiet networking, your expert input at the right moment, could have a power out of all proportion to your quantity. Being one person out of ten million, one free-willed person, means a great deal more than being one water droplet out of ten million, if you want to make it so. That’s what I’m trying to do with this article, with my twitter feed. This was Foucault’s lesson about power.

Understanding this difference between politics and physics is vital to empowerment: I would almost say it is the key to your freedom. Unsurprisingly, historians are prone to imagine physics works like politics, while scientists tend to treat politics as if it will be obedient to the laws of physics, leaving both floundering.

My experience of history conferences is of a greater level of uninterest and lack of knowledge in the environmental crisis than amongst my general acquaintance. Environmental crisis is largely about events in the future: the future is unpredictable and therefore not worth worrying about because there is nothing we can do about it. They fail to realise that the predictions of mass extinction, storms, drought and so forth are not guesses to do with free will and human behaviour: they are the predictable consequences of physical actions, which can be predictably changed by changing the actions.

My experience of scientists is that they are prone to overestimate the logical behaviour of human beings. They imagine that people will act consistently and predictably, either acting logically, or (if they are more sociologically-minded scientists) acting according to demographic. They expect to be able to predict the consequences of an action such as a yes vote, and will confidently repeat the predictions of the most reliable-sounding commentator as if they were scientific results.

To me, both appear disempowered by blindness. Why should I claim any greater insight? I do not believe these friends are any less intelligent than me (on the contrary!). But I do have an unusually strong interdisciplinary tendency. I’m trained as a historian, and frankly too inaccurate and impatient to be a scientist, yet I’m strongly drawn to science because in many ways I find nature far more interesting and appealing than people. My observations on these twin blindnesses come from hanging out, a lot, with both scientists and historians, and, applying my general historian curiosity about the workings of human nature to both groups, thinking about how they are free, or unfree, as part of my own quest for empowerment and freedom (for I went to look at, and was inspired by, the Declaration of Arbroath in primary school, as much as the next Scot).

The consequences of this blindness and disempowerment are potentially disastrous. It results in the best historians, the ones who often train political leaders at university, nonchalantly observing as we blunder towards environmental crisis and scientists scream “do something”. It results in scientists weighing in to, or keeping out of political debates without really understanding how human societies work, while historians mutter, “you idiots!” For the environmental crisis, which is about a physical event caused by the political workings of global society, it is imperative that the two groups learn one anothers’ wisdom, and collaborate in action.

So, my intelligent Scottish and beyond-Scotland readers, as we continue to develop our empowered political debate over the coming years, I want you to take a deliberately interdisciplinary approach. I want you to cultivate the simultaneous virtues of confidence in your own power, and humility in your own limitations; to critique others, and to learn from them; to stay involved. And I look forward to being part of this new Scottish enlightenment in which good philosophy leads to world-changing action (because there’s nothing to stop us being inspired by historical examples, of deciding we’d like to make history repeat itself). I look forward to reading this article a year from now and thinking “gosh that sounds stupid: what a lot I have learned since then, and what a lot we have done”.