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The Goebbels of the English language

We cannot state conclusively that anything is true.

I’m not entirely sure what my fellow contributors will have to say upon the subject but I expect they’ll generally see evidence as quite a good thing and will make compelling arguments to that effect, backed up by documented facts, deductions, and, well, evidence. Except that evidence would say that, wouldn’t it? It isn’t going to testify against itself.

I submit that if in the preceding paragraph the reader replace the term “evidence” with, say, the term “News International”, then the sleazy duplicity of this butter-wouldn’t-melt-in- its-mouth logical, scientific and forensic concept will become immediately apparent. Although it might be incautious to suggest that “evidence” and “evil” are synonymous based solely on their first three letters, I say that we go for it. Let’s subject this oily and persuasive abstract noun to the same brutal scrutiny that it is all too ready to inflict on others and see how it likes it.

When we try to build a solid case against our purely notional defendant, though, we start to get an idea of exactly what we’re up against. For one thing we discover that, suspiciously, we’re suddenly without a single shred of data to support our claims. Forthcoming witnesses are nowhere to be found and even the police appear reluctant to become involved. We learn that evidence, being pretty much made of evidence, has got an alibi for absolutely everything, with all the confirmatory theatre ticket-stubs and time-logged credit card exchanges carefully in place. In this, at least, evidence bears a strong resemblance to the imperviously powerful and homicidal drug cartels of Mexico.

Despite evidence appearing to be protected by the prince of darkness from on high, we can still pursue our investigation and construct a profile of our subject. Evidence, it turns out, is a relatively young latecomer to the scene that muscled its way into our vocabulary 700 years ago, ruthlessly ousting older and more venerated competition such as rumour, superstition and some bloke down ye tavern and malicious gossip, in the lexicological equivalent of an axe-wielding turf war.

Now, quite clearly, the mere fact that evidence shares the same medieval pedigree as the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition doesn’t mean that it is equally abhorrent, but it’s worth observing that airborne carbon particulates are often indicative of a fire, hence smoke alarms.

A glance at evidence’s backstory reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet, with glowing testimonials to the subject’s many acts of great social benevolence: tremendous contributions to the methodology of science and medicine that have allowed humanity to crawl up from a swamp of ignorance and early death; providing the foundations for a legal process that goes further than establishing if witches float or not; and blah blah blah. It hardly need be said that representing oneself as a public benefactor is a timeworn strategy for camouflaging acts of dire monstrosity, as employed by Alphonse Capone, the Kray twins and disc jockeys in the 1970s. As yet, no information has emerged connecting evidence with any of the previously mentioned malefactors but there are of course fresh revelations every day. Is it a mere coincidence that the most commonly used adjectives or adjectival nouns describing evidence are “cold”, “hard”, or, more worryingly, “DNA”?

If we are hoping to make something stick with this notoriously slippery and Teflon-coated piece of terminology, we obviously need to dig a little deeper. A good place to start might be with a description of the suspect, something that a sketch artist could work from. Evidence, according to a reputable source, is “that which tends to prove or disprove something; grounds for belief; proof”. The sharp-eyed juror may note a considerable leap between the first two cautious, unassuming clauses of that definition and the confident, declamatory third example. How does “that which tends to prove or disprove” or which gives “grounds for belief” equate so suddenly with “proof”? While a creationist might justifiably regard the book of Genesis as documentary evidence supporting their profoundly stupid version of the universe’s origin, as something which in their opinion tends to prove or to at least give grounds for their belief, that surely doesn’t mean that a several-millennia- old Just So Story is a proof of anything.

Alternatively, back in 1881, the physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley ably demonstrated that the hitherto convincing evidence for the existence of the ether was not actually a proof of that existence. All of this implies that evidence has quite a history of passing itself off as proof. The two are frequently mistaken for each other and I would suggest that it is under this deliberate smokescreen of ambiguity that evidence is free to carry on with its insidious racket.

Most accounts of a debate where evidence is in attendance generally depict the aforementioned entity as an intimidating presence, useful when it comes to shutting people up and not afraid to use its hefty physicality as a deterrent. On examination, though, it would appear that evidence is not so much the physical material of which it is comprised, as it is the entirely abstract and subjective processes involved in the selection and classification of material phenomena as evidence. A lead pipe, in and of itself, is after all just a lead pipe and needs considerable human interpretation to connect it with Professor Plum and the conservatory. It is in this dependence on the unreliable perceptions and concealed agendas of an individual that we finally identify the weak spot of this domineering thug.

In order for an item to be classed as evidence, the thing it evidences must be previously extrapolated or determined, presupposing the conditions under which it qualifies as evidence. As an example, you conceivably might be employed by a giant petrochemical concern and have for some time loathed Professor Plum for his outspoken views on global warming, or, I don’t know, because you think he looks Jewish. When you heard about the murder, you immediately let your prejudices as a climate change denying anti-Semite influence your judgement as to whom might be the culprit. The well-known phenomenon of confirmation bias led you to ignore such data as did not support your predetermined theory and instead carefully to select only those facts that did. You gathered evidence and then presented it as proof. For God’s sake, there must be a thousand ways that lead pipe could have ended up in that conservatory, you scientifically illiterate Nazi.

Evidence, that always plausible and superficially convincing psychopath, can only ever be a charting of our own perceptions and our intellectual processes, as in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation – or at least in my interpretation of it. Evidence is thus the map, while proof by the same token is the territory and the two might not exactly or even remotely correspond, as in the recent mortifying case of Google Earth and that South Pacific island, which, it turned out, wasn’t really there.

The yawning and yet easily ignored gap between map and territory, evidence and proof, along with the confusion that apparently persists between the two, is indicated in the subtle disagreement that is polarising current scientific thought upon what constitutes reality. One side in the debate contends that if our theories on the nature of the universe – for instance, the existence of inferred quantum effects or particles that may be unobservable – are in accordance with the way that space-time seems to function, then we may as well afford these theoretical constructions their full status as reality. Those with opposing views, perhaps more wisely and more cautiously, point to the many “Michelson and Morley” instances where our most informed understanding of existence proves to be fallacious and instead suggest that even our most powerful theories can be only be part of an evolving and continually adapting apprehension of a hypothesised “ultimate reality”.

As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, we cannot state conclusively that anything is true, only that it has not thus far been falsified. Since even proof itself is seemingly fatally undermined by Popper’s hard-to-discount observation, might we not therefore conclude that evidence is a completely hopeless bastard?

Evidence is not proof and occasionally it isn’t even evidence. While it undoubtedly illuminates the human landscape, it obscures it in an equal measure. It has led to the incarceration of some thoroughly vile people and similarly has collaborated in the execution or internment of the blameless and the mentally impaired. In its contribution to the sciences, it has repeatedly allowed us to escape from the miasma of disinformation that somebody else’s view of evidence had visited upon us in the first place. Even in those instances where evidence is plentiful, are we entirely capable of judging what the evidence is of?

Approximately 18 months ago, it was announced that measuring the cosmic constant yielded different measurements depending upon which way the observer happened to be facing. This apparently nonsensical discovery would make sense in the context of “etheric flow”, a kind of current having a direction that’s conducted through the rarefied essential medium of our universe, except that back in 1881 we were assured by Michelson and Morley that the ether was entirely fictional, according to their evidence. Now, I’m not saying that these two respected physicists should be exhumed and pilloried, their gravestones rendered to unfathomable rubble by an angry, crowbar-swinging mob. That is, naturally, a matter for the individual reader to decide. My only aim is to present the facts, as they appear to me. If I can do that in around 2,000 words, so much the better.

Those who still prefer to picture evidence as some variety of loveable old villain in the manner of Mad Frankie Fraser, despite all the documented torture and brutality, should give some thought as to what a society entirely based on evidence might look like. An informative example is available in South America’s extraordinary Pirãha people, for whom every statement or remark must be accompanied by some sort of supporting evidence or proof. For instance, simply saying “John has gone up river” would not be sufficient by itself and would need qualifying with an explanation of how this conclusion was arrived at. Proof from observation, as in “John has gone upriver and I know because I personally saw him go” would be acceptable, as would proof from deduction, as in “John has gone upriver and I know this because his canoe’s no longer here”. This rigorous approach to conversation would appear to have significant advantages in that it does not permit the Pirãha any concept of a god or notions of an afterlife, surely good news for scientific atheists who may have recently become distressed by the idea that human beings might be “hardwired for religion” and possess a “god-shaped hole” in their psychology. With the world view of the Pirãha, practically unique in having no creation myth, this notion is reliably refuted.

Other things that the Pirãha do not have include a written language, possibly because the provenance of written statements is impossible to validate compared with first-hand verbal information from a trusted relative or colleague. This means that, along with being unencumbered by a deity or a religion, the Pirãha also have no scientific theory, no literature or art, nor any history extending further back than a few generations. On the other hand, if you’re still worrying about where John’s gone, the Pirãha are nothing if not dependable.

To summarise, evidence schmevidence. This Goebbels of the English language has for too long passed itself off as a thing of formidable weight and substance, bolstering its image with the use of terms like “solid”, “irrefutable” and “cast-iron”, when in fact it often only demonstrates the pattern-recognition pro - cesses of those presenting it. A jar of saddlebag-faced Saddam Hussein’s anti-wrinkle cream confirms the presence of weapons of mass destruction and so justifies the comprehensive devastation of Iraq. Evidence is sometimes murderously deceptive.

For all we know, it hasn’t even stopped beating its wife.

Alan Moore is the author of “Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, “From Hell” and many other titles

Alan Moore is the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and many other titles.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit