Worlds within worlds: Outpost (2007) by the artist Anne Hardy. Photograph: Anne Hardy, courtesy of Maureen Paley, London
Show Hide image

Terry Pratchett, science and story telling

The best of all possible worlds.

Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel was published in 1983. As a wartime child in the 1940s I was already puzzling over an image of a domed world poised on the backs of three elephants that stood on a monstrous turtle. This discworld had a small temple on top of it, and the clawed feet of the turtle rested on the coils of a huge serpent, which also stretched to encircle the world, with the point of its tail in its mouth. It was reproduced in my favourite book, Asgard and the Gods, a scholarly German work on Norse myths, which my mother had used at Cambridge.

This image, and this book, provoked my earliest thinking about the nature of belief and its relation to storytelling. Where on earth did the idea of the turtle and the elephants come from? Did people really believe in them? These questions were related to the kind of embarrassed pain with which I contemplated the stories of origins I was expected to believe in, the Bible with its heaven and hell, the tale of judgement to come.

Pratchett’s new book, The Science of Discworld IV, co-written with the mathematician Ian Stewart and the biologist Jack Cohen, discusses ideas about origins and endings, cosmology and astrobiology, entropy and genetics. The idea of storytelling is not just an embroidered way of including a tale of the discussion of the “Roundworld” taking place on the Discworld. Human beings are defined as pan narrans, the storytelling ape, who exists in a dimension known as the “narrativium”. We look for causes because we think in linear sequences of words. We look for origins because we arrange our world into narrative strings with beginning, middle and end. Stewart, Cohen and Pratchett set out to puzzle us and make us think differently.

Central to their approach is the distinction made by the physicist and sciencefiction author Gregory Benford between human-centred thinking and universecentred thinking. Human-centred thinking comes naturally to human beings. “In this world-view, rain exists in order to make crops grow and to provide fresh water for us to drink. The sun is there because it warms our bodies.” From human-centred thinking comes the idea of a ruler of the universe, as well as the idea that the earth and the creatures, the sea and the oil and the forests are somehow there for our benefit. Universe-centred thinking, on the other hand, sees human beings as “just one tiny feature of a vast cosmos, most of which does not function on a human scale or take any notice of what we want”. The universecentred thinker must have what Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. This is hard and invigorating.

The writers discuss creation myths – including a number of myths about cosmic turtles and scientific ideas about origins, including the Big Bang. They discuss the evolution of ideas about evolution, recent thoughts about the relation of RNA to DNA and the idea of the curvature of space. They also consider neural networks and decision theory, and the strong and weak anthropic principles – ideas about how the physical universe is uniquely suited to the existence of human beings.

Pratchett and co also explore the psychology of belief and disbelief. They describe one way of coming to conclusions – the brain taking in new evidence, and fitting it to the knowledge and beliefs it already holds. This is what they call “System 1”, and it includes scientific thinkers as well as people with inherited religious beliefs. There are, they say, scientists who “know” that DNA is the most important part of the system, physicists who “know” that the world is moving towards entropy. “System 2”, on the other hand, is steadily analytical and sceptical – “trying, not always successfully, to ignore inbuilt prejudices”. Karl Popper’s system of “critical rationalism” held that a theory could be considered scientific if, and only if, it was capable of falsification. Stewart and Cohen claim that “scientists actively try to disprove the things they would like to be true”. They use the example of a believer in UFOs who sees disbelief in UFOs as another form of belief. “Zero belief in UFOs”, they point out, is not the same as 100 per cent belief in the non-existence of UFOs. “Zero belief is an absence of belief, not an opposed form of belief.” What they aspire towards and desire is “a disbelief system”. This is exhilarating.

I remember being on a platform where various poets and writers discussed the ways in which the arts could figure the world of the scientist. That blunt sceptic Lewis Wolpert, sitting in the audience, rose to inform the assembled artists that we would not understand any of his work were we to find ourselves in his laboratory. Some of us were indignant but I believe he was right. People like me can read what is written by those scientists who try to tell us about neurons, genes, the shape of the brain, the shape of space and time. We can respond to those descriptions but we are responding to stories, at second hand.

One of the most pleasing things about Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen’s book is the way the authors demonstrate that we don’t understand even what we think we understand. I realised, reading their account of the complex relations between RNA and DNA, that I had been guilty of holding a belief. I was very excited in the late 1970s by ideas about the “selfish gene”, and particularly by the points made by John Maynard Smith about the immutable nature of the inherited and eternal germ cell. Now the New Scientist is full of articles about newly discovered “orphan DNA”. Stewart and Cohen write:

Darwin’s tree of life, a beautiful idea that derives from a sketch in The Origin of Species and has become iconic, gets very scrambled around in its roots because of a process called horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria, archaea and viruses swap genes with gay abandon, and they can also insert them into the genomes of higher animals, or cut them out. So a gene in one type of bacterium might have come from another type of bacterium altogether, or from an archaean, or even from an animal or a plant.

The story I believed in has to be modified and rethought. When I read this, I think in a human way with a series of images, in the grammar of a story. I should not be able to recognise any gene, let alone think intelligently about it. Stewart and Cohen are very good at illustrating our incapacity to understand. They do so with images and stories. My favourite is the one they tell to make us think about the difference between complicated chemistry and the “organised complexity” of the ribosome. It is a story about caramel.

Every cook knows that heating sugar with fats, two fairly simple chemical substances, produces caramel . . .  Caramel is enormously complicated on a chemical level. It includes innumerable different molecules, each of which has thousands of atoms. The molecular structure of caramel is far more complicated than most of the molecules you’re using to read this page.

But the complexity of caramel, or other complicated polymers, doesn’t produce organised complexity, as ribosomes do. Wolpert would rightly tell me that I still don’t know anything about the ribosomes. But I am at least able now to think about the problem. And the juxtaposition of caramel and brain is unforgettable. There are delights like this on most pages of this book.

In a chapter entitled “Where did that come from?” we are invited to reflect on how we can’t think about things like the origin of an oak tree, or a child, or even a thunderstorm. They make the reader imagine thinking about clouds, the constituents of the atmosphere, static electricity, physics and physical chemistry. Most of us, they say, “will not have come across one or more phrases such as ‘saturated solution’ or ‘particle carries a tiny electrical charge’. These phrases are themselves simplifications of concepts with many more associations, and more intellectual depth, than anyone can be expected to generate for themselves.” Human beings tend to retreat from uncertainty or difficulty into belief stories, like the American Republican candidate who opposed any regulation of the markets on the grounds that this was “interfering with God’s plan for the American economy”.

Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen use their method of complicating descriptions and explanations to examine several problems with things I have trouble with believing myself, because they feel to me like human stories that tidy up our relation to the universe – the Big Bang, the existence of dark matter, entropy and the “anthropic principle”. They discuss conflicting views of the expanding universe and the steady state and cast doubt on the existence of dark matter. They are not propounding or supporting any particular theory of the shape and origins of the universe, but are rather considering evidence that complicates the explanations we have become used to. They are good at picking out the operations of what they call our “very parochial” minds, which use ideas of space and time that evolved with us. “Our view of the universe may be just as parochial as the world-bearing animals of ancient cultures were. Future scientists may view both the Big Bang and four elephants riding on a turtle as conceptual errors of a very similar kind.”

In Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law, they find a tendency evident in “too many physicists” to consider physical reality to be all of reality. Feynman, they write, states that “the same kind of atoms appear to be in living creatures as in non-living creatures [sic]; frogs are made of the same ‘goup’ as rocks only in different arrangements”. Things in the biological world are the results of the behaviour of physical and chemical phenomena with no “extra something.” Stewart and Cohen agree about the “no extra something” but think that a bleak view of the world of particles and elements misses out the complexity of living things, and the things they make and use and learn from.

Entropy may not be our destiny – they see Feynman rather as Pratchett sees his undifferentiated auditors, who want to tidy everything up into packets of particles. Life, say Stewart and Cohen, has “lifted itself up into a story”. That is a metaphor – and an attractive one. It feels right, and should therefore be regarded with the necessary doubt and suspicion. They also take a mocking run at the idea of “fine-tuning”, the idea that the world has evolved as the only possible world in which humans could exist – just the right amount of carbon and water, and so on.

This “anthropic principle”, in both its strong and its weak forms, has always horrified me because it is so clearly a function of the human mind thinking in a humancentred way. Isn’t it amazing, say the Discworld scientists, that our legs are just long enough to reach the ground? Isn’t it amazing that there was a hole exactly the right size to contain that puddle? And what about a sulphur-centred form of thought?

There was one chapter I found hard to understand – on the curvature of space, round worlds and disc worlds. This was where I wished the book had illustrations – I read pages about the doughnut-shaped torus, and then had the sense to consult Wikipedia, where I could see what was being discussed. And I also needed to see the geometry of the wonderful Escher image of angels and demons.

I have become rather sad about surviving into the anthropocene age of human history, where everything is controlled and constructed by and for what the King of Brobdingnag called “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. But, paradoxically, both Pratchett’s storytelling and the resolutely universecentred perspective of the scientists make me happier to be human. I look forward to the next volume.

“The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day” by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen is published by Ebury Press (£18.99). A S Byatt’s most recent book is “Ragnarok: the End of the Gods” (Canongate, £7.99

Both A S Byatt and Terry Pratchett will be appearing at How the Light Gets In, the festival of philosophy and music in Hay on Wye. For more details, visit:  www.howthelightgetsin.org

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style

The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.

 

There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?” 

At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.

This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.  

Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.

In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.

Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.

To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site.  We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challengethey weren’t.

The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.

The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.  

The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.  

Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.

This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.

The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.

The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.

This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.

I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment

Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.

We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims. 

Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.   

Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.

If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.  

These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.

Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.

A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be - tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable.  Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.

Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.

Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post

“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”

So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.

By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.

It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.  

Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.

Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic. 

 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.