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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Owen Jones talks to Calais migrants: “They forget we are human”

The camps in Calais are a small part of one of the great stories of our time - mass migration. What do people in the Jungle think awaits them in Britain?

It is like entering a parallel universe, and a deeply discomforting one at that. In central Calais, the banal comforts of the average western town: cafés brimming with gossiping customers, families on days out, well-groomed French youngsters flirting with each other in the afternoon sun. A taxi picks me up from outside the Calais-Ville train station and takes me to the “Jungle”, the refugee camp a few kilometres out from the centre. Through my deteriorating French, I learn that the talkative driver blames both the refugees and the British authorities for the crisis.

As we approach the site, he points at the advancing row of towering white fencing with barbed wire that lines the road, intended to prevent refugees from throwing themselves on to passing lorries. Orange-clad construction workers and a couple of trucks are there to finish the job.

As soon as I leave the taxi, I am hit by the smell: a combination, bluntly, of human beings who haven’t washed for days or weeks, excrement and rubbish. Roughly 3,000 people are crammed into a camp of ramshackle tents. There are 30 or so portable loos – not for the faint-hearted – to cater for all of them. There are a few primitive showers; facilities for washing clothes are limited. Andy Young, a British doctor volunteering with Médecins du Monde, tells me that, in these circumstances, a cholera outbreak is easily possible, and refugee populations are susceptible to measles. About a fifth of those the doctors examine have scabies, an extremely itchy condition in which mites burrow into the skin. Fungal infections from not having washed are common. Relatively young men are falling sick with illnesses they would not normally contract if they had nutritious food. Diabetes, asthma, heart disease, epilepsy, HIV: these are all conditions the doctors must tend to and which, in many cases, have gone untreated for too long. The doctors and nurses who volunteer here have few resources, and one of their main jobs is to take the refugees to French hospitals to argue their case.

But one of the most prevalent health problems is instantly recognisable. Many of the refugees have bandages on their hands; others have arms in casts. Some of these injuries have mundane causes all too familiar to many young Brits: playing football or falling off a bike. Indeed, as soon as I arrive, young Sudanese and Afghan men trundle past along dirt paths on cheap bikes. With little lighting at night, cycling injuries are an obvious hazard. Yet that is not the explanation for most of the injuries. The most common cause is refugees – every single day – trying to clamber on to trucks, or trains, or ferries, to end a journey that has taken them across many borders and more than one war zone and get to British shores.

For most of its inhabitants, the Jungle is a transit camp, not a permanent settlement, but there are the rudimentary trappings of a community. A few shops have been set up in tents, mostly selling warm cans of fizzy drinks. A caravan near the entrance serves as a community noticeboard: it advertises the make-do hospital 250 metres away and its opening hours; bikes for €20-€30 (£14-£21); a bike workshop; advice for dealing with police and the asylum system.

There are political posters, too. “The grass is greener where there are no sides,” says one, featuring a dark-hooded silhouette climbing over a fence. Another says: “NO BORDER – RESIST! REBEL! REVOLT!” A large blue-and-white-striped tent functions as a community centre; it is filled with people in sleeping bags. “I’m human like you” is graffitied on the side, along with words such as “Help!” and various messages in Arabic. Young men sit outside, charging mobile phones with a few precious plug extensions as music blares from a loudspeaker. Every evening, hot meals are distributed, but not quite enough for the number of residents.

The various nationalities group together: the Afghan flag flies over one tent. As a white westerner, I swiftly attract attention. Not everyone is happy to see a British journalist. At one improvised shop, I explain where I’m from and why I’m there. The mood sours instantly. “You in England, you don’t like us,” spits out an Afghan in his early thirties with considerable venom. “You English, I don’t like you either.” With a dismissive swipe of his hand, he tells me to go away.

But nearby, there is a warmer reception: some laughing young Afghan men beckon me over, perching beneath a makeshift shelter and playing with cheap pay-as-you-go mobiles. Habib* tells me that he’s 24 years old, although his friends snigger as though that’s preposterous. “I first left Afghanistan in 2006 and went to the UK, but they refused my asylum and deported me back,” he says. He is not the only Afghan who tells me this: having settled in Britain and being sent to Afghanistan, he feels as though going to Britain is returning home. “Our life is dangerous; we are not safe in Afghanistan, that’s why we leave Afghanistan. We come here to make the good life.”

Habib comes from Jalalabad, where his mother still lives; but his brother and uncle were killed by the Taliban, he says. He travelled all the way from his war-torn home to Calais by lorry, on foot and by taxi. “In England, they give you a home, they give you a doctor, they give you the food money,” he says. When I tell him that a single asylum-seeker such as himself gets only £36.95 a week, he is taken aback but not deterred. “They’re not supporting the refugees here. We need a home, we need school, we need the good life. We are not animals.”

With so many stressed people from different cultures crammed together, he says, fights break out at night. “Of course it’s dangerous here. The Jungle is not safe.”

Every day Habib tries to escape to England: by lorry, by train. Will he ever make it? “Yes.” He has friends back in his adopted country, one of the main reasons he wishes to return. His friends evidently have journalist fatigue; most of Britain’s media have sent reporters to interrogate the refugees. Couldn’t I do something more useful to help them, like bring supplies?

Although I don’t say it, journalists have not descended on Calais because the British media have a new-found interest in the plight of refugees. The crisis near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel has disrupted the holidays of Britons seeking warmer climes, ensuring that the story dominates the summer news cycle. There has been sympathy, too, for hauliers who face on-the-spot fines of up to £2,000 for every person found in their vehicles. “The broader issue of migrants is a complete nightmare for our members,” the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, Richard Burnett, has declared. “We again call on the French government to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that migrants are separated from lorries in the Calais area; and we call on the UK government to support that more strongly in its dealings with the French government.”

Migrants squeeze through a fence near the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty

 

In an effort to prevent refugees from entering Britain, the French have installed a mile-long fence with barbed wire around the tunnel entrance in Calais. The government says it is necessary to prevent deaths, as at least nine people have been killed trying to board lorries or high-speed trains since the beginning of June. On a single day at the end of July, more than 2,000 attempts were made to enter the restricted areas.

The refugees have been dehumanised by media outlets and politicians alike: the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, infamously described them as “marauding”; David Cameron referred to a “swarm of people”; the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, suggested sending in the army.

But they are not “marauding”, like barbarians or bandits. Neither are they saints. They are just people caught up in very difficult situations who, more than anything, crave a security they have largely been denied. Forty-year-old Malik is one of those in the camp who has previously been deported from England. For 14 years, he lived in west London, between Shepherd’s Bush and White City, near the BBC’s old headquarters, working at a grocery store. When he was deported he was “devastated”. As far as he is concerned, he is simply travelling back to his old home. Some of those who have made the journey on their own all the way from Afghanistan are very young. Parwaiz is a slightly chubby 15-year-old with piercing blue eyes; he says his father was killed in a bomb attack four years ago.

Every one of the men I speak to tells me he has fled either war or dictatorship. Two men walk through the camp, squinting in the afternoon sun. One is Abdul, from Sudan, who is 26; he tells me his whole village was destroyed by the Janjaweed, an Arab-supremacist militia. “They were all burned with fire,” he says of his fellow villagers, without flinching. His father is dead; his brothers and mother remained in Darfur and he constantly fears for their safety. His reason for wanting to come to England is straightforward: English is one of the official languages in Sudan, which he believes will allow him to establish a life in Britain in a way that would be more difficult in France or Germany. A portly, bespectacled 16-year-old, Abdel, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and black shorts, tells me that many of his relatives were shot dead by the Janjaweed. “It’s dangerous, very dangerous, it’s not safe,” he says. He has family in England and that is the main reason he wants to come.

The Darfuri refugees I met were some of the keenest to reach England. When some of them learn that I’m English, they break into cheers, chanting, “We love England! We love England” and treating me like some sort of rock star. Some of them have bloodstained bandages on their hands. A short, 21-year-old Darfuri with dreadlocks speaks to me in fluent English, explaining that he is a member of an African tribe and faces problems from both the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government. He was arrested along with his friends, given no water and subjected to electric shocks.

“I just want a future, to educate myself, that’s my ambition,” he tells me. But why England? “The UK used to colonise Sudan,” he says, “and we speak English. Look at this camp. Would you live here? They forget we’re humans. Where is the humanity? Where are the human rights?”

When he asks me if people from England want people like him, I shuffle uncomfortably, trying to describe the hostility to new arrivals that exists back home. “Is that from the government or the people?” he asks. I try to explain sensitively that it comes from both, which leaves him visibly dejected.

Three Eritrean men in their early twenties wave me over to their tent. One sits on a chair in front of a mirror as his attentive friend trims his beard for him. Hayat is a handsome young man with some sort of bulge on his chin, though I’m too embarrassed to ask the cause. Eritrea – a tiny country in the Horn of Africa that won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 – is ruled by one of the most repressive dictatorships on earth. When Hayat’s friends were arrested, he fled immediately. They were crammed 20 to a car, he tells me, cheerful and smiley throughout, and they travelled from Ethiopia, to Sudan, to Libya – “It’s dangerous there, there’s Isis there” – before crossing the Mediterranean.

Why England? “I can speak the language,” he says. “If I went somewhere else, I’d have to spend years learning the language.” Like many of the refugees I meet, he is educated: he was studying life sciences in Eritrea. He has been in the camp for a week and has already tried five times to jump over the fence; he shows me his bandaged hand as proof. He tells me in detail about how he tries to get over fences, “crawling like a tiger” to avoid the attention of guards. He will not give up until he makes it to England.

***

Not all refugees stay in the Jungle. Approximately 100 Syrian refugees are camping near the centre of Calais, outside a transport depot. Their tents – mostly blue, some red – line a ramp. Four men, three in their thirties and one aged 42, sit on chairs, smoking cigarettes. They look older than their years. They hail from Daraa, a city in south-west Syria with a pre-war population of fewer than 100,000. It was there that the civil war began after troops loyal to the Assad dictatorship fired on pro-reform demonstrations.

“There is no food, no medicine, no anything in Syria,” says 33-year-old Ziad, who has been appointed spokesman by the others because of his superior English. He sits, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes with his bandaged hand until his friend loses patience and confiscates it. “We all have friends, brothers and relationships killed by the regime,” he says. Ziad and his friends fled Syria about four months ago, arriving in Calais in June after crossing from Turkey to Greece and onward.

“We live in miserable conditions here, no toilets, no douche, no anything.” Méde­cins du Monde helps with medical needs, but otherwise the residents rely on private donations. When I arrive, they are about to start begging for money so they can change the bottle of gas for cooking. Ziad was a lawyer in Syria; so are the other two, while the 42-year-old is a nurse. “Is everyone a lawyer in Syria?” I ask, and they laugh.

Their relationship with the French authorities is strained. “They treat us very difficult, the police, the military force here,” Ziad says. “Sometimes they hit us and spray the gas – you understand me?” He tries every day to escape to England, by ferry or train. It’s “very dangerous”, he concedes, as he talks of climbing iron walls and jumping, of security and dogs. “I jumped and hurt my hand here,” he says, raising his bandaged, bloodied hand. Why England? “We have relationships in England – whether family or community,” he explains. “But the language is a broader reason, so we have many chances of jobs there.”

Another Syrian, a 26-year-old called Firas, leans out of his tent; he is speaking with his 20-year-old cousin, who seems much more well groomed than the others. He has big, dark eyes and would not look amiss in a boy band. They offer me hot milk sweetened with a sugar cube; at first, I turn down their offer, but they insist. They are from Daraa, too, but Firas was studying English literature at al-Baath University in Homs, another heartland of Syria’s initial uprising. The war ended his studies.

“The army came to Daraa and they took a lot of people to prison because they asked for freedom,” he explains. “Not to change president, just freedom. So they use force against us, they kill us, they send tanks, air force – everything they use to kill us.” Three members of his family have perished, by bomb or by gun. When the regime tried to conscript him into the army, he fled. “I left Syria. I want to go to England and continue my studies there.” He dreams of Oxford’s spires.

In England, he explains, he has relatives in London, Leeds, Oxford, Sheffield and Edinburgh. “Some people have jobs, some study.” He tries every day to make it to England. Like so many others, he had an injured hand. “I’m scared about the future,” he says readily, “but I ask for future in UK. But, as you know, we can’t go there, because the government of UK doesn’t want us to go there.” He alludes to possible tensions among the refugees in Calais, suggesting that people from Sudan and Iran are falsely masquerading as Syrians to gain entry. He tries every day to make it to England. “Inshallah, inshallah, I will go to England some time,” he says dreamily. “Inshallah.”

***

If refugees are indeed masquerading as Syrians to gain asylum in Britain, then they face a rude awakening. Fewer than 200 Syrians have been granted asylum in the UK, and the country has pledged to take just 500 in total. Germany, on the other hand, has promised to take in 30,000.

For those currently unsympathetic about the Calais refugee crisis, the arguments are straightforward. If these people are so desperate, why not claim asylum in the nearest possible country to their home? Why travel so far? Why the stampede to leave France in favour of Britain? Does this not prove that Britain is a soft touch, a magnet attracting all and sundry from far-flung corners of the world?

Céline Schmitt is a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and she sits in the Jungle being briefed in French by her organisation’s workers. I sit next to her on a bench as she is kept up to speed by a young Frenchman about the medical situation. The subordinate is finally given the all-clear to enjoy his evening.

“We’ve been here for many years, before Sangatte [a previous refugee camp]; we’ve always been here,” she tells me, explaining how they work closely with the French authorities, NGOs and other “local actors”. She pauses after every question, choosing her language diplomatically. The role of UNHCR, she explains, is “to make sure people in need of protection have access to the asylum system and that they are protected, that they have access to their rights”. Many of them, she emphasises, are fleeing conflict and violence.

She believes the constant use of the word “migrant”, when in fact these are mostly refugees, is misleading. “The French authorities have already increased their ­capacity to reduce the delay in asylum procedures, but it’s still too long: it takes a few months.”

But why are they so intent on seeking ­asylum in Britain, I ask? “I think we need to put the figures back into perspective,” she says carefully, as though navigating a minefield. “More than 200,000 have arrived this year in Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, and the majority are refugees. But you have four million Syrian refugees alone – and I’m only talking about Syrian refugees, including one million in Lebanon alone. So, in comparison, the numbers coming to ­Europe are small, low.”

The figures speak for themselves: 31,745 applied for asylum in Britain last year; twice as many opted for France; more than six times as many applied in Germany; and in Sweden, with a population nearly seven times lower than Britain, the number was 81,180. The UK accepted 10,050 non-EU asylum applications, but France took over 4,000 more; in Germany, it was more than four times as many; Italy, ravaged by economic crisis, accepted more than twice as many. And yet, as Schmitt points out, the vast majority of refugees move from one poor country to another. UNHCR figures show that 86 per cent of refugees live in poor countries, compared with 70 per cent a ­decade earlier; 95 per cent of Syrian refugees are in neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon and Turkey.

So who are the 3,000 in Calais, who make up roughly 0.015 per cent of the global refugee population? Philippe Wannesson, an activist based in Calais, is a burly, tall man with long, straggly hair. “The conditions in the Jungle are like the third world,” he says over an espresso in the town centre. “But these are middle-class people; they are not living like that in their own country. They discovered it in Europe.” These are people, he points out, who had enough money to leave their own country.

A Sudanese man gets a haircut at a camp near Calais early in August. Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

Is someone a refugee or a migrant? Calais underlines how blurred is the distinction between the two. All the people to whom I spoke were fleeing countries deeply traumatised by war and dictatorship. Their lives were in considerable danger. They had lost relatives and other loved ones, often in nightmarish circumstances. They had witnessed scenes of violence and death that most westerners will never experience. But they may have lived already in Britain. They may well speak English and believe that it gives them a chance of a decent life over here which would be denied to them in the eternal banishment of, say, a Lebanese refugee camp. They may have family in Britain. Most of them are educated. Libyans usually opt for Italy, because it is the former colonial power; people from the Democratic Republic of Congo usually go for France, because French is the official language. Those who portray Britain as the destination of choice for refugees and migrants have demagoguery, but not facts on their side.

There are nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people across the world; in total, there are nearly 20 million refugees. Most of them will remain near their often ruined homes; a tiny number will continue to seek security in Britain, driven by a combination of despair and hope. Some will suffer wounded hands, broken arms; others will die. But however tall the fences, however sharp the barbed wire, however fierce the dogs, however hostile the public opinion, they will keep coming.

*Names have been changed throughout

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais