Can Europe Make It?

'No one really knows': practical knowledge and uses of ignorance

Scientists in some ways similar to the public intellectuals of decades past, pursue the translation of epistemological progress into progressive policy, through work in advisory committees and campaigns from Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion

Iain Galbraith
18 August 2021, 11.50am
Hic sunt dracones. Carta Marina map.
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Wikicommons/ Jeff Dahl. Some rights reserved.

In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87) Immanuel Kant points to a melancholy paradox in the relation between the growth of practical knowledge and the insight thus acquired into how little we know:

The observations and calculations of astronomers have taught us much that is wonderful; but the most important lesson that they have taught us has been by revealing the abyss of our ignorance, which otherwise we could never have conceived to be so great. (trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 1929).

This paradox is as ancient as our need for guidance in the unbounded darkness of our disorientation. Myth and religion have provided stories to live and die in. God will show us the way, preach theocracies. In a secular world politics propounds reasoned routes. Democracies as we know them leave millions to find their own orientation, with more or less help from the state. Practical knowledge, however, has not gone away.

The mythical figure of the helmsman has always offered an enticing conceptualisation of political leadership. I am thinking not only of China’s “Great Helmsman”, or Plato’s “philosopher king” in command of the “ship of state”. For the promise of reliable guidance might also appeal to citizens of modern democracies. No need for captains here: rotating shifts of bosuns could combine their experience, forethought and insight and pilot us through stormy seas.

Indeed, the more a democracy lives up to its name, in which “the people” themselves attain sovereignty in the matters of state, the more “common” (shared and universal) the sources of orientation must become. In effect it really will be the cook, as Lenin famously proposed, who must learn to govern, not just another Old Etonian. But whether knowledge comes from the lodestar or the herb, anybody seeking to safeguard the common weal must earn public trust.

Mythical figures, charismatic or humble, may remind us of early twentieth-century irrationalism. In consequence we might be forgiven for thinking of the present – overshadowed by public health and ecological crises of stupendous magnitude – as a period whose leaders have shown surprisingly willing to listen to (and be seen in the company of) an array of immunologists, virologists, clinicians, epidemiologists and other experts. The appearance of attention to rational discourse has come to characterize government attitudes and personas.

At one level, the evidence of a scientific turn in presenting the discourse of global threats and their possible avoidance may be readily perceived. Scientists in unprecedented numbers have found common cause in modelling the impact of global climate change on different aspects of our lives on this planet, as well as lending their collective efforts to averting the ravages of the Corona pandemic. More significantly, however, it is clear that the scientific community no longer views itself as a technical stratum merely, but instead, in almost every country, has responded vigorously to the need for scientific spokespersons capable of communicating knowledge in a range of media. These representatives of their disciplines and fields of research, in some ways similar to the public intellectuals of decades past, seek to explain new research to a receptive public; through work in advisory committees and campaigns from Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion, they pursue the translation of epistemological progress into progressive policy.

However, the problems of translation can undermine trust between leadership, science and public. Experts’ statements are taken out of context or used to obfuscate. If her claim had not been so inept, much nuisance under the cloak of nescience could have been caused exploiting Dido Harding’s contention at the beginning of February that “none of us were able to predict” the mutation of the virus. Mutation is simply what viruses do; they create mutations without intelligence or intention. Some survive, some don’t, depending on circumstance: selection. Dr Mike Tildesley, a pandemic modelling expert on a government advisory panel, obviously knows this, but when his sensible warning against the risk of lifting coronavirus restrictions on July 19 claimed that the combination of high case numbers and high levels of vaccine protection “does kind of challenge the virus … and gives more potential for it to mutate into a form where the vaccines are less effective”, he inadvertently created an intelligent virus. The Guardian (10 July) and dozens of other media translated: ‘A UK government advisor has warned that high Covid-19 vaccination rates could “challenge the virus to mutate” and make the jab less effective.’ Here be monsters.

Similarly, Graham Medley, chair of the Sage sub-group on pandemic modelling, in an excellent exposition (Guardian, 26. July) of the complexity of case numbers, let go the phrase: “we are in uncharted territory”. This is a dramatic metaphor, conjuring the chilling but thrilling terra incognita into which British colonists have intruded since the sixteenth century. Two days later the Health Secretary Sajit Javid claimed that “no one really knows” where the numbers would go next, confirming his previous claim (Financial Times, 6 July), that the country was about to “enter uncharted territory”. Myths of this kind bid for tribal cohesion. We shall come out victorious and richer for the exploit. Because we have before.

This piece was originally published in the August, 2021 edition of Splinters.

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