I’m beginning to see a pattern in British intellectual life. Every week, an American thinker arrives at Heathrow, with a suitcase bulging with ‘the latest research’ from psychology, and they embark on the merry-go-round of British cultural platforms: the Today programme; Start The Week; a talk at a think-tank, a book signing or two then an evening talk at somewhere like Intelligence Squared, before going for dinner with a few admiring journalists and a politician or two. And we humble Brits gawp in wonder at the ‘latest research’ and applaud the Great American Thinker all the way back to Heathrow.
Each week, it seems, a new Great American Thinker arrives, clutching their new book: David Eagleman (Incognito), Martin Seligman (Flourish), Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) – the latest is David Brooks, New York Times columnist and the author of The Social Animal, who has been greeted on these shores with whoops and hurrahs. Listen, for example, to John Humphreys’ astonishment at ‘the latest research’ on the Today programme.
Now this sort of helpless awe towards visiting Americans might suggest a lack of ideas in British culture. But actually, it’s not as if any of these Great American Thinkers are saying anything we don’t know. In fact, they’re all saying exactly the same thing: (1) Lots of important things go on in the mind beneath human consciousness, at the level of emotions and intuitions. (2) However, to some extent we can guide and educate our emotions consciously.
And yet, somehow, whenever an American turns up and tells us this, we applaud them to the skies as if they have just discovered the God Particle.
David Brooks is, of all these visitors, the least deserving of public adulation. Eagleman, Seligman, and even to some minimal extent Sam Harris have all done original research. Brooks is a hack – he takes research, sometimes decades old, and smoothly delivers it to the public as if it’s his own. He says ‘we know’, as if he is somehow part of the ‘we’ which discovered the research. But there’s no ‘we’ about it. The scientists who discovered the research would only ever say ‘we think, at the moment’.
What he then does, which the original scientists who did the research never did, is make very broad political judgements based on this research. We should beware his certainty. Certainty sells books, but his is a borrowed certainty, a rhetorical certainty, not grounded in first-hand experience.
While he was here this week, he was invited to Number 10 Downing Street for dinner. He mentioned this, in passing, in his talk at the RSA, which is a very canny move, because there’s nothing that gets our intellectuals more excited than political patronage. You mean David Cameron reads him? Wow. In return for this pat on the back from Cameron, Brooks wrote an effusive piece for the NYT saying: ‘No other government is trying so hard to tie public policy to the latest research into how we learn and grow.’
Let’s just break down that statement, to see what Brooks really means. He begins with some rather glib statements based on ‘the latest research': “The people who thrive in a globalized information economy…have the ability to navigate incredibly diverse social environments. Where do people learn these skills? They learn them when they grow up in and are nurtured by rich social networks. They learn them when they live within vibrant institutions that pass down practices and habits. They learn them when they live in areas of high social trust, where people are able to reach out and work together.”
So far, so mundane. I mean, of course, people with social skills do better in any society. The question for policy makers is how, practically, you create communities that foster social skills. Then, from these rather airy scientific claims, Brooks proceeds to the political judgement: “By decentralizing power, and inciting local energies, Cameron’s reforms are fostering the sorts of environments where human capital grows.”
Really? I mean, Brooks was only here for three days or so. I’m pretty sure he didn’t visit any local communities outside W1. So how does he know that Cameron’s reforms are really ‘fostering the sorts of environments where human capital grows’? What enables him to make that judgement? How is it in any way evidence-based? He seems pretty certain – after all, he is very au fait with ‘the latest research’. But how can he possibly know if Cameron’s policies are working? What gives him the right to comment? Is he just puffing up Cameron, because Cameron puffed him up? It looks like it.
I remember a column Brooks wrote in 2009, in which he pompously announced ‘The End of Philosophy‘. Why the end? Because Socrates and his followers thought we could steer ourselves using our reason and deliberation, when in fact, ‘the latest research’ shows that our conscious rationality is much less powerful than we realized, and in fact we are guided more by our emotions. But what if our emotions mislead us and cause us suffering? What hope then?
Now, two years later, he is back, telling us with just as much glib certainty that we can ‘educate our emotions’, we can learn self-control, we can get into good habits. Funnily enough, that’s what Socrates and other Greek philosophers said 2,500 years ago. In fact, Brooks draws on Aristotle in his new book’s discussion of character. So admit you got it wrong. But no, the columnist never has to admit they’re wrong, they just surf the wave of other people’s research, always at the crest, never doing any of the paddling.
Right now, there’s a desperate lack of new ideas in our society. We’ve never had more media platforms to disseminate new ideas, and so few new ideas to disseminate.
As a result, we get extremely over-excited by anything that has the appearance of new ideas. We foam at the mouth when an American turns up with ‘the latest research’. Thank God! New research! We were getting so bored. And if the visiting Americans hastily extrapolate that research to make broad-brush political judgements, all the better. A bit of controversy will liven us up.
So we have got very excited by the ‘latest research’ from neuroscience and social psychology and its implications for public policy. This is perhaps Malcolm Gladwell’s fault, because he started a craze for the simplification of other people’s research, condensed into popular science books with one word titles (Blink, Nudge, Incognito etc), which people could grasp even without reading them. Water-cooler books, in other words. The perfect sort of book to give busy people (like politicians) the impression of being in touch with ‘the latest research’ without ever taking the time to ponder it.
All these books have created a miasma of optimism that we’re close to working out exactly how the human brain operates, finally, and in a few years we’ll be able to build a far better society where all our kids are full of spunk and grit and character and emotional literacy. It’s given rise to an enormous spurt of optimism among policy makers, none of whom have ever worked in a school, that we are finally arriving at the evidence-based scientific methods to protect our children from the incompetence of their parents and the despair of their environments.
And that is in large part because of people outside of the scientific community – people like David Brooks, Daniel Goleman or Malcolm Gladwell – who build reputations and book sales by promoting other people’s neuroscience and psychology research, and hastily extrapolating it into vague public policy recommendations.
What we need, more than anything else, are some sensible voices to tell us not to get carried away. Whenever we have tried to go from ‘the latest research’ to concrete political policies, it has almost always turned out to be what David Brooks calls “a damp squid”.
Think of the Nudge Unit, set up by David Cameron after he read Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge and decided he just had to bring the ‘latest research’ to bear on policy. It turns out some of the research Cameron used to justify the Unit is wrong, and the Unit has failed to come up with more than a handful of ways to use behavioural economics in practical policy.
Think of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which the Labour government introduced in 2002, after British policy circles read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, and decided they just had to introduce emotional literacy classes into the British curriculum. Ten years later, SEAL classes were finally given an independent evaluation, which found hardly any impact on young people’s emotions, behaviour or academic achievement.
And yet somehow we don’t ever learn to be cautious. Another American turns up at Heathrow, with a suitcase bulging full of the ‘latest research’, and we gape and wonder, and immediately introduce their policy recommendations into our society. It reminds me of Socrates’ warning, when his fellow Athenians collapsed in awe at the feet of the visiting sophist Protagoras: “No sooner does this foreigner appear, than you instantly commit your soul to his keeping. In the evening, as you say, you hear of him, and in the morning you go to him, never deliberating, or taking the opinion of any one as to whether you ought to entrust yourself to him or not.”