Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

The smartest man in the room

In my last post I made passing mention of Barry Jones, who is now 84 and has just written a book, Knowledge Courage Leadership. When I was a kid, growing up in the newly discovered and infinite possibilities of ‘television-land’, Barry Jones was a TV quiz champion on Pick-a-Box, sponsored by BP and hosted by Bob Dyer, an ex-pat American. In the days (decades) before the internet and Google, Barry had a truly encyclopaedic mind, and when he entered virtually every Australian’s living room, he was quite literally the smartest man in the room.

Many years later, when he published Dictionary of World Biography (in the late 80s) someone I worked with at the time, who was widely read and a self-imagined scholar, told me that Barry Jones was a 'savant', which he meant in the most derogatory sense. In other words, whilst Barry could summon facts at will, he had no analytical skills and no real intelligence worthy of the name. Looking back, I would put that down to intellectual jealousy, but, even at the time, I thought his observation very wide of the mark.

The point is, having read his latest offering, I think the sobriquet, ‘smartest person in the room’, still stands, especially compared to the current crop of politicians we have attempting to govern our country. At 84, he displays more vision than anyone currently involved in politics in Australia. For a start, he’s pretty scathing about the nature of what he calls ‘retail politics’, where the only criterion for a decision or a policy is if it can be ‘sold’ to the electorate. In the so-called ‘post-truth’ era, most vividly demonstrated by Donald Trump’s recent election campaign, ‘byte-sized’ slogans overrun and out-rate attempts at evidence-based explanations. In fact, he uses the word, ‘evidence’, quite a lot in his own preferred version of political discourse.

He gives a summing up of the political leaders in this country that he has known or met or worked with, giving a subjective yet honest appraisal. In his time in politics, he was told that he didn’t have a ‘killer instinct’, which means he could never engage in character-assassination, which has become increasingly an integral component of the ‘game’ as it is played in Australia. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of the game if you have any aspirations of party leadership.

He then goes on to do the same for a number of world leaders, whom he has personally had some engagement with; some more so than others. At the end of the book, he gives a rather scholarly and informed analysis of the French Revolution, explaining, as he does, why he considers it unique in the history of Western civilization and why it is still relevant to current global politics. It basically illustrates how precariously our civilised existence is when political power and economic subsistence are no longer in balance. I’m probably doing him an injustice in attempting to sum up his treatise with a one-liner; but that was the message I received. It’s happened in a number of revolutions, when paranoia and violence combine to completely destabilise a nation and drive it into civil war. There are examples in evidence right now, not to mention the ones from last century.

But the most important part of the book for me, was a chapter or section, titled: Evidence v. Opinion / Feeling / Interest; the attack on scientific method. It was an address he gave, apparently, at the Australian National University for the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on 2 July 2014. He starts off with a quote from Don Watson, heavily laden with sarcasm:

The people are sovereign… to hell with the sovereignty of scientific facts, popular opinion will determine if the Earth is warming and what to do about it, just as it determined the answer to polio and the movement of the planets.

As anyone knows, who is a regular reader of this blog, this is a subject close to my heart. But Jones gives it a perspective that I hadn’t considered before. He points out that as the number of university graduates has increased in Australia and the information revolution exploded via the internet, there has been a ‘dumbing down’ in areas concerning legitimate science, evidence-based knowledge and the consequential political decision-making that should be informed by such learning.

To quote: Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with IT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote.

Barry Jones was Science Minister from 1983 to 1990 (the longest serving in Australian politics) and he maintains, in his own words: ‘an intense interest in science/research and its implications for public policy and politics generally.’

He wrote a book in 1982, Sleepers Awake, which I must confess I haven’t read, even though I always took an interest in what he said in the media. According to his own appraisal: ‘Three decades on, my central thesis stands up pretty well.’ And his ‘central thesis’ was ‘trying to predict the social, economic and personal impact of technological change, [but] in 1982 I was on my own.’ Note that I alluded to Barry’s predictions in my last post (Political Irony).

What makes Barry Jones exceptional in the world of politics is his grasp of the enormous gap between political expediency and reality. Yes, reality. I will allow Barry’s own words to illustrate my point:

I can claim to have put six or seven issues on the national agenda, but I started talking about them 10 > 15 > 20 years before audiences, and my political colleagues were ready to listen. In politics, timing is (almost) everything and the best time to raise an issue is about ten minutes before its importance becomes blindingly obvious.

We live in an era when science totally governs our lives, yet it is so subliminal, so ubiquitous, so everyday common, that we fail to appreciate that fundamental fact. Most of the public are science illiterate in the sense that they see absolutely no value in acquiring scientific knowledge. The argument is that you don’t need to know the laws of thermodynamics to drive a car – in fact, you don’t need to know anything technical about the dynamics of a vehicle to operate it.

This is a fair assessment as far as it goes, but when it comes to making decisions about issues like climate change or vaccinations or education of scientifically validated theories like evolution, then a large percentage of populations in well-educated societies, are plain ignorant.

The problem is, as Barry points out, in far more articulate and erudite prose than I can muster, politicians, who are often as ignorant as their electorate, exploit this shortcoming by giving slogan-bearing opinions in lieu of evidence-based facts, knowing that emotion will always win over rationality if the relevant emotional buttons are pushed.

He laments the fact that complex explanations of complex phenomena are considered simply ‘too hard’, and then, to illustrate his point, provides an entire chapter on the explanation of climate change and its history, going back to the 19th Century and even earlier. He gives the example (amongst others) of Tony Abbot (before he became Prime Minister of Australia, when he was Leader of the Opposition) stating: ‘carbon dioxide was invisible, weightless and could not be measured’. In fact, carbon dioxide is not weightless and is easy to measure. We know from chemistry that ‘On burning, each tonne of coal produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2… (a confirmation of Lavoisier)’. This is a prime example of a science-illiterate politician (a future PM, nonetheless) exploiting a largely science-illiterate voting public.

Jones makes the salient point that ‘Not to choose is to choose’, citing ‘French statesman and diplomat Charles de Talleyrand (1754-1838)… failure to act in a crisis has the same effect as an intervention: in practice there is no neutrality.’

I know, and I imagine Barry Jones knows as well, that the people who are stubbornly opposed to climate change are not persuaded by facts or evidence and often provide their own facts and evidence to make their point. Anyone who has studied science, even to the rudimentary level that I have, knows that science is complex, not easy to understand or communicate and can rarely be broken down into byte-sized chunks for easy digestion. Nevertheless, as I alluded to earlier and in other posts, I’m often struck by the obvious contradiction between our total reliance on science and our ability to ignore or obfuscate its message when it conflicts with our ideological agendas. Science is our best tool for predicting the future and for planning for future generations on this planet, yet very few politicians, not to mention commentators in the media, give science more than lip service in providing this essential role. One of the problems is that its message is often negative and pessimistic, which is when we should take most heed, yet politicians can’t win elections with negative messages. As a consequence, we only hear the negative message when its effects have become so obvious it can no longer be ignored.