Only intellectual cowards demand ‘gross intolerance’

The modern men of science who want to silence quacks are ironically on the same side as pre-Enlightenment religious dogmatists.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Free Speech

What do John Beddington, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, and Ryszard Legutko, leader of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party, have in common? Both believe that intolerance is a virtue, and that it should be celebrated.

Legutko, a vociferous critic of the gay rights movement, has written a book called Why I Am Not Tolerant. And Beddington boasts about his intolerance, too. Earlier this month, at the annual conference of Britain’s scientific civil servants, he called upon his audience to be ‘grossly intolerant’ of the misuse of science by religious and political groups.

Beddington said: ‘We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudoscience.’

No doubt Beddington also feels intolerant towards Legutko’s views on homosexuality. Yet what is truly fascinating about these two crusaders against tolerance is that although they have diametrically opposed viewpoints on gay rights, they are at one in their affirmation of the ethos of intolerance. The targets of their intolerance might be different, but they share the worldview of the bigot. Legutko is offended by the sight of gay and lesbian people dressed up as nuns and priests, while Beddington objects to people he disagrees with masquerading as scientists. The casual manner with which European public figures celebrate intolerance is testimony to the censorious and illiberal spirit that now dominates political life across the continent.

In the current era, public figures only praise tolerance when they are giving Sunday school-style speeches. Political mission statements and EU declarations still contain exhortations to be tolerant. But increasingly, such tolerance-rhetoric is little more than a perfunctory gesture, which often serves as a prelude to narrow-minded bigotry. It is bad enough to hear a leading scientist brag about his contempt for tolerance. It is even worse when one scientist after another agrees with him and piles in to demand the silencing of views they disagree with. So following Beddington’s comments, we had Edzard Ernst, professor of the study of complementary medicine at Exeter University, exclaim that ‘for too long we have been tolerant of these postmodern ideas that more than one truth is valid’.

The idea that we should not be tolerant of problematic ideas, or indeed of any beliefs other than our own, dominated the political culture of pre-Enlightenment Europe. It is important to note that until the seventeenth century, it was intolerance rather than tolerance that was upheld as a virtue. So when Beddington declares that ‘we should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems’, he is adopting the dominant narrative of late medieval Europe. In that medieval outlook, heretical beliefs represented such a danger to society that the only virtuous response was to silence them. Intolerance was seen as a marker of moral virtue. As late as 1691, the French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet boasted that Catholicism was the least tolerant of all religions, stating: ‘I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.’

Today, it is not only the casual manner in which tolerance is once again condemned as a sign of moral weakness that speaks to the re-emergence of the attitude of the Inquisition – it is also the way in which some views are implicitly labelled evil or destructive. Bossuet and his fellow moral crusaders did not simply call for muscular intolerance. They also invented an ideology of evil. They presented their opponents as morally corrupt. In pre-Enlightenment times, such moral condemnation of heretics usually involved linking their behaviour to some kind of Satanic plot. In today’s secular era, a new ideology of evil justifies demands for intolerance by attacking people for their ‘outrageous behaviour’.

So it is not surprising that Beddington did not merely say that pseudoscience is wrong or unscientific or even a source of misfortune. He also characterised it as ‘pernicious’, as the moral equivalent of racism and homophobia. His equation of dissent from his scientific opinions with the stigmatised categories of racism and homophobia was an arbitrary one. He could have achieved the same effect by depicting pseudoscience as something akin to Holocaust denial or support for slavery. The ideology of evil takes many forms. Edzard Ernst justified silencing dissent by arguing that journalists would not finish an article by ‘quoting the Ku Klux Klan’, and so they shouldn’t quote pseudoscientists either. Science columnist Ben Goldacre opted for an old-fashioned conspiracy theory in his expression of support for Beddington’s campaign for gross intolerance. ‘Society has been far too tolerant of politicians, lobbyists and journalists wilfully misusing science, distorting evidence by cherry-picking data that suits their view, giving bogus authority to people who misrepresent the absolute basics of science, and worse’, he stated.

The attempt to legitimise intolerance by constructing an ideology of evil has become a regular feature of the twenty-first-century debate on science. Time and again, dissent from conventional wisdom is dismissed as yet another example of ‘AIDS denialism’ or racism or some other modern evil. One consequence of this pathologisation of dissent is that it trivialises fundamental problems such as racism. The significance of the KKK’s lynching of black people or acts of anti-gay violence are judged to be comparable to the ‘pernicious arguments’ of those who distort science. Instead of racism being treated as a serious problem, it is denuded of its content and used simply as a rhetorical device for embarrassing an opponent. Such cavalier deployment of historically significant symbols is testimony to the morally impoverished state of public debate today.

When disagreement about some scientific claim is held up as the moral equivalent of racism, it seems pretty clear that the sole objective is to shut down dissent.

Tolerance is not for intellectual cowards

Science has always been the subject of bitter disputes. In modern times, scientists have rightly been concerned about the potentially confusing and destructive effects of pseudoscience. In the nineteenth century, numerous British liberal thinkers wrote essays expressing concern about the influence of pseudoscience on public opinion. In 1849, Sir George Cornwall Lewis noted that the popularity of science led to what he described as ‘mock science’, including ‘mesmerism, homeopathy and phrenology’. He feared that through mimicking the ‘phraseology of science’, charlatans might succeed in misleading the public.

John Stuart Mill shared these concerns. In 1836, he wrote about a ‘flowering of quackery and ephemeral literature’, all manipulated by the new ‘arts for attracting public attention’. Mill was no less hostile to the confusions sown by quacks and by ‘mock science’ than genuine scientists are today. But what distinguished Mill from someone like Beddington was his view on how to deal with erroneous ‘science’.

Mill adopted a consistent and courageous orientation towards tolerance, for many reasons. One reason was his sensitivity to the fact that uncertainty had become a condition of life in the modern world. Mill believed that, aside from the need to uphold freedom of speech and belief, uncertainty demanded tolerance. It is precisely because we cannot be certain of truth that we must allow for great openness and give people the right to express their beliefs and opinions. Uncertainty demands that people should be free to pursue their quest for truth. For Mill, the tolerance of all beliefs, even false ones, was not a matter of being soft or polite. Rather, openness towards the expression of any opinion was seen as essential to the flourishing of human creativity and a healthy public life. Mill believed that the ‘evil of silencing the expression of opinion’ is that it robs society, and future generations, of the potential insights that can emerge from a clash of views. He said: ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’

In his essay On Liberty, Mill argued that in an uncertain world refusal to tolerate what Beddington describes as ‘pernicious’ views means assuming that one possesses the authority of ‘infallibility’: ‘To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.’

Mill went even further and insisted that intolerance of a false belief is itself an evil. ‘We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion’, he said, before adding that even ‘if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still’. Mill took the view that society actually learns about itself through confronting ‘false opinion’. That is why On Liberty sometimes reads like a celebration of the heretic. Mill defends heretics because he recognises that, through their questioning of received wisdom, they ensure that society is forced to account for its views, and if necessary rectify them.

There is a chasm separating the outlook of someone like Mill from today’s celebrators of intolerance. If Mill were alive now, he would be horrified by the censorious attitude of men of science. When Beddington argues that since ‘there are enough difficult and important problems out there’ tolerance towards ‘what is politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense’ becomes a luxury, he communicates a nonsensical idea of tolerance. Mill would not understand why someone’s nonsense should not be tolerated. After all, tolerance only really gains meaning through our refusal to silence views that we strongly disagree with; that is the real test. Beddington’s belief that tolerance means only putting up with sensible views is bizarre.

The great, and tragic, irony in all this is that science was one of the principal beneficiaries of the emergence of the ethos of tolerance. Science by its very nature thrives on open debate, which is why scientists were often in the forefront of advocating tolerance of dissident and despised views. The nineteenth-century biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who was known as Darwin’s bulldog, said ‘scepticism is the highest of duties’. Many scientists believed that no ideas or views should be beyond discussion. The motto of the Royal Society was: ‘On the word of no one.’ Sadly, science has become politicised and has become prey to dogmatism. There is now a tendency to devalue debate and to replace argument with moral condemnation.

There are many reasons for this defensive moralistic turn in sections of the scientific community. The principal driver of the re-emergence of intolerance as a moral virtue is Western culture’s aversion to engaging with uncertainty. This is best captured by that unattractive term ‘zero tolerance’ – a concept which presents the world in the language of black-and-white and either/or. It spares the intolerant the trouble of having to fight for their views. It is far easier to resolve disagreement and confusion through shutting down discussion than to practise true tolerance. Tolerance demands courage – intolerance, the outlook of the intellectual coward, merely requires a censor’s pen.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Free Speech


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