Statements in these irrational times

An age of Irrationality: Assessing the status of statements

All the content below refers to those statements that have some need for debate rather than the straight forward referencing of the obvious. For example if I were to say that the bird in my garden is eating my fruit and I can see it doing that then it would be reasonable to accept what I say without any great discussion. On the other hand if I claim all birds will eat fruit it is reasonable that I provide some evidence of this. In other words ‘facts’ exist, it is just that we should be prepared to justify our statements about them if they are not obvious. Damn it, some people will not allow even that last sentence but I will continue anyway.

There are major ways that have existed for at least two and a half thousand years of dealing with statements of fact. Roughly speaking one tradition is combining evidence with reason to analyse the status of statements. There is also the use of analogy to see the world and identify ways of putting a context to what appears around us. Another is a sociological or ‘normative’ approach which will see belief as gaining credibility from it’s propagation by communities of adherents.

The first of these allows us not to ‘prove’ facts but gives us ways of analysing how much worth we put on argument concerning the views we are presented with. Some will claim that the strongly held opinions of different individuals are of equal or at least comparable value. The misunderstanding this comes from is that somehow theories are not proved and therefore can be treated as if they are as close to a ‘truth’ as any of their rivals. This is to not understand that statements about the world take precedence when they have a strong evidence base and that evidence is rigorously examined with the best analytical tools available. Much of this tradition of examining statements based on evidence and reason had beginnings in ancient Greek thought and has passed to us over the years with much refinement and development.

The use of analogy has tradition both in the West via Greek thought such as through pre-Socratic Sophist traditions. It was also an underpinning of eastern thought such as Chinese methods of seeing the world. It has great influence in interpreting artistic endeavour and allows us to view aspects of the world by for instance reading works of fiction, looking at the visual arts and drama etc. We develop how to interpret the world as it was, is and how it might be. Analogical thought will always have an important role to play in how we see what is going on around us. Analogical interpretation gives an opening to much critical analysis of commonly held trends. Consider some works of fiction that describe utopian (dystopian) worlds. When ideologues spell out their grand visions for the future it is the fiction writer who describes possible end results of these dreams (nightmares). At this time Orwell is possibly wider read than at any time for a generation. He paints a fictional existence where the logic of centralised power with the control of language and history, is described in a form that through analogical thought is laid in front of us as a warning. Many demagogues attempt try to foist their visions on us. Some will hark back to non-existent golden ages others will claim simple solutions to complicated problems. Analogical interpretation is and will remain an important factor in criticising this.

The third is a ‘normative’ way of seeing the world. The society we live in shapes our views and will often mean that we accept positions others from different backgrounds find hard to accept. A short discussion of the normative view of statements should include that it has had many critics because it points to the fact that we live in an irrational world. This approach comes from the Pragmatist philosophical tradition and may well be a pretty accurate description of what actually happens. It has the major strength of pointing out that when evidence grows that contradicts the dominant belief system (the paradigm) that the community that holds it’s position begins to lose unity and may shatter altogether. In science Thomas Kuhn calls this a revolution. It seems to apply in other places as well. So there is a mechanism for change although intellectual inertia (not always a bad thing) or laziness can prevent change. Communities have a way of policing their members either by a system of controls or by expulsion. Should the basis for the community of belief shatter all sorts of effects can happen. Some not particularly pleasant. For those who take an authoritarian mind set adherence to purity of belief becomes paramount and splits will be regular events. Think of religious or political schisms. Often the smaller the community or sect or group the more the propensity to split. Some communities of belief disappear altogether. Others shrink into insignificance and some adapt to new circumstances. In all these cases it is adherence to a core of belief that defines the community. Faith outweighs evidence for some or allows the community to develop itself in the light of new circumstances. However this happens the interaction with evidence is not the key factor (unless of course it re-enforces what is already accepted). It is worth saying that people cannot change strongly held opinions on a whim, that would be a sign of mental instability, but never the less interaction with the real world should have some effect!
Historically is unlikely there was ever a time when majority opinion was arrived at through strict and rigorous examination of evidence. Faith, prejudice, normative pressure and laziness have always been major players in peoples views of the world but many also use rigour, scepticism based on evidence to develop opinion.

Having said the above I am about to make a claim that at present we need a boost in the use of evidence based analysis of statements concerning the world. In an age that allows many to relegate evidence and analysis in favour of opinion it is increasingly important to press for rigour in debate. At a personal level we engage in disputes of opinion that lead to a break down in genuine communication. We effectively take prepared positions and stick to them despite any opposing arguments. There is a strong tendency for those who strongly and publicly promote a cause to stick with those causes even when evidence denies these views. This is a way of fending off what an individual sees as almost an attack on their self worth. It takes a strong adherence to standards of argument to admit possible errors and change a position. At the level of public dispute the acceptance of poorly evidenced positions becomes literally a matter of faith. Here are a few examples of such strongly held positions.

If climate change exists it is at best a natural cyclical phenomenon and has nothing to do with human intervention

Evolution by natural selection is just one of many competing theories and does not explain the huge variation in forms of life

My political party is hugely successful and on the right track. A few electoral setbacks are nothing to worry about

Medical advice is that I am overweight and I do not have a healthy diet. I seem to function well enough so everything is basically alright

I have publicly and strongly supported a cause which I now have doubts about. It is difficult for me to admit I may be wrong

In every example given it would be reasonable to examine evidence, read thoughtful, well qualified analysis and come to tentative positions based on these. ‘If facts change I change my opinion’ to part quote Keynes. Not every person will come to the same conclusion after examining evidence, how could they? Despite this in promoting a specific view it is important we all have the duty to at least be aware of arguments that contradict that view. Kant believed that at some point faith should supersede reason when it came to matters of religion. This has had huge influence on theological debate but it also allows many to retreat from uncomfortable considerations. Faith can take many forms including views on politics, pseudo science and all sorts of belief systems. There is also the unpleasant use of faith as a cover for deliberate falsification where it may benefit some pre-accepted opinion. The recent hilarious statement in an interview with a Trump appointee that she had ‘alternative facts’ became something of a joke to many but the speaker took the phrase seriously. If this had been a fringe person with little influence it might be ignored. In reality she represented hugely powerful interests and probably has ‘faith’ that whatever she and her compatriots say becomes in some sense true. In this irrational world curiously strongly held belief systems can lead individuals to carry out acts of great value. Witness certain religious peoples actions in opposing tyranny. There are no straight forward prescriptions when dealing with belief.

To have a pluralist world view is a good way to avoid falling into accepting received dogmas without proper scrutiny and this is why a battle against demagoguery and in favour of rigour in dealing with statements needs to be fought.

Mike Berkoff March 2017

Facts in An Irrational World

Not a rational world – When facts contradict opinions

We make decisions such as supporting certain policies, campaigns or individuals. If later these are demonstrated as dishonest, naive or just plain wrong you would expect us to change our minds and perhaps take a contrary position. In fact a rather strange phenomenon often appears.

Being confronted with evidence that contradicts our earlier belief often we may become entrenched in the original mind set. This is particularly the case if we had been very public in our pronouncements. I include myself in this. Basically it can be very hurtful to our self image and to the view others take of us when we admit that we were perhaps wrong or misjudged a situation. We can be quite irrational in admitting that facts contradict opinions.

The events above are well described for instance in science by Thomas Kuhn in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. He talks of communities holding on to paradigms in the face of ever increasing counter arguments. So strong can this be that individuals and groups can be effectively ‘expelled’ from the community by not supporting certain dogmas. We see this of course in religion and in politics as well. This is not to say that individuals, groups or communities do not change their stance given strong enough evidence. It does happen from time to time but this is not an automatic process. The Kuhn argument is part of what is called the Pragmatist philosophical tradition and has been increasingly influential over the years. What is being said is that much assessment of evidence or debate can be irrational. Again I stress that the stronger and more public the original beliefs are, the less most of us are willing to accept contrary evidence.

J. M. Keynes put it well when he said:

‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’

He also said:

‘There is no harm in being sometimes wrong – especially if one is promptly found out.’

We are going through a time of great worry and economic uncertainty which opens the door to populist movements and existing or new religious certainties. These have differences but one common feature is that the adherents to such movements often form an extreme loyalty. Usually a central figure is promoted to cult status. The leader can do little wrong. Great faith is put in certain individuals and personal critical faculties are sublimated to the wider cause. Other historical epochs have had such events sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Getting back to my main point, the downgrading of evidence when it weakens the faith in orthodoxy is harmful to individuals and those affected by them. Group splits, schisms and the rest of it will appear especially when failure happens. Some individuals originally attracted but perhaps more questioning will peel off but others will either reattach themselves even more firmly to their loyalties or seek new certainties.. For those outside these movements great challenges are presented.

Of course group psychology has been a hot field of study over the years and here are two example definitions that may contribute to the current discussion.

*Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the losing of self-awareness in groups. Theories of de-individuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation and decreased evaluation apprehension that causes abnormal collective behaviour.

*Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.

It is a huge temptation for those outside the community to belittle those inside. If anything this can be counter productive and lead to an almost ‘cultural’ divide between opponents. Certainly linguistic differences may be so great that communication between proponents and opponents may see a breakdown of any proper dialogue. There are ways out of this though. Firstly presenting alternative viewpoints and actions in a friendly and inclusive way possibly in a neutral context will work with some. Being open about ones doubts on our own views is both beneficial to ourselves and for some seen as a way of reopening reasoned argument. Secondly providing arguments and actions that open up common ground again will be effective for some (not all). Self examination of beliefs should be a common feature of any active mind. It puts our beliefs under sensible scrutiny and may strengthen our critical faculties.

Let us consider where we can go with all this. Adopting some soppy ‘let us all get on with it’ or ‘live and let live’ attitude misses an important point. Actions and opinions can do real harm. If A says B is worthy of attack (not necessarily physical) then C who agrees with A might carry out that action on B. This is documented when extreme views are allowed to be normalised such as now in many a place across the world. Good old David Hume had a great deal to say about strength of belief and is worth study (See An Enquirey Concerning Human Understanding ). In a different context George Orwell pointed to the way mass movements manipulate world views. Finally a good example of those to challenge would be anyone who claims to have all the answers or refuses to accept that they just might be wrong.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas S. Kuhn


University of Chicago Press

Publication date

1962 (50th Anniversary Edition: 2012)

Media type

Print (Hardcover and Paperback)





An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (Oxford Philosophical Texts)

David Hume

Published by Oxford University Press, USA, 1999

ISBN 10: 0198752482 / ISBN 13: 9780198752486

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell : Volume 4 : In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950 Paperback 26 Nov 1970

by George Orwell  (Author), Sonia Orwell (Editor), Ian Angus (Editor)

An example of his writing.

* Boundless. “Group Behaviour.” Boundless Psychology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 25 Nov. 2016 from

An election story

On election day I carried out some ‘telling’ for the Labour party. Tellers are those people outside the polling stations who ask for voters polling numbers. There is only one valid reason for doing telling. This is carried out if a party has done some comprehensive canvassing. If they know a voter who is a promise has voted they do not pester them for the rest of the day. Otherwise they ‘knock up’.

In our constituency only Labour and the Lib Dems had canvassed and hence these were the only parties with tellers.

My first session of the day was 11 until 1pm. The LD was from another area and was pleasant enough. Just before 1 pm a new LD teller took over (also from another area) and I was also replaced a short time later. My next session was at 5 pm and when I arrived the 1 o’clock Lib Dem teller was still there. I thought four hours is a bit extreme without a break but she seemed to take it with good grace. I left at 7 and she was still there. Although I was not due to be there again we were told that our teller was not feeling very well so I went back at 7:30 to take over. The 1 o’clock Lib Dem teller was still there. They had forgotten her. Eventually she was told by her party to finish at 8:30. She had been on duty with no break for seven and a half hours. I left about 9.

Two points occur to me. The first was that the Lib Dems seemed to import people from all over the region but more important the second  point was that they just used their people with no sense of responsibility. Their candidate was the sitting MP and they just brought in people from all over without any consideration for their basic needs.

One final thing: Labour won the seat by a landslide. Draw your own conclusions.


It is a strange thing when you read an author who you know is from  radically different traditions from yourself. Jorge Luis Borges is definitely one of these. I feel very materialist in outlook. I can see such validity in say Logical Positivism or certain forms of Pragmatism and then reading Borges I am aware of the strengths of other viewpoints. I always thought of myself as wedded to a sceptical pluralism and now the great man has shown me what that might imply.
The fact of the matter is he was so wide in his influences and comes to positions I tend to only guess at. He points out how for instance David Hume can be seen as an Idealist when I had thought of him for years as almost inventing sceptical materialism. Of course Hume can be seen as both Materialist and Idealist and I had had absolutely no thought of that until I came across Borges.
Borges cultural references are huge. Not just South American and Spanish but also British, Jewish, German, Chinese, Arabic and many others besides. I cannot claim to always take in all the ideas of his when I read them but he invariably stops me from the lethargy of thought I have for so much of the time.
I have just scratched the surface of his writings so far. I expect he will lead me to many unexpected authors and directions.

Feb 2015

A commentary on education in ‘Our London’ – a publication from The Fabian Society

In December 2013 The Fabian  Society published a series of short essays by prominent writers and activists entitled ‘Our London The Capital Beyond 2015’. (ISBN 978-0-7163-0634-4). There are major changes to London in the current period and this is a contribution to how in London might develop over the coming period.  What I have set out below is a commentary on the education aspects of this publication.

The book has an impressive list of contributors including Sadiq Khan, Bonnie Greer, Jenny Jones, Doreen Lawrence, Tony Travers and others.  It is worth a mention that the current government parties have little to say in the development of the capital other than following a sterile  ideology in the case of the Conservatives and general platitudes (that do not upset the senior governing party) from The Liberal Democrats. The major contributions are coming from academics, community activists, commerce, industry and sections of The Labour movement. In this publication there is a contribution from The Greens as well.

The topics covered include transport, governance, employment, housing, environment, policing, the arts, education and health.  Not all these areas are served well but in its defence any short essay will not be able to do justice to such important themes.  Despite this The Fabians should be congratulated in bringing together diverse interest groups and having got ‘Unionstogether’ and The Corporation of London to co-sponsor this publication. It would appear that even the City of London can see the benefit of ideas outside Conservative orthodoxy.

So let me give some consideration to a few of the education themes tackled.

Having spent a large part of my career in Adult Education I was pleased to see the contribution from Sir Robin Wales. He states:

‘At present the vast majority of money that goes through the Adult Education (AE) system is paid out according the number of courses completed, with no regard to whether they’re actually what employers want.’

I am not completely sure that the last part of this statement is correct.  It is my experience that employers often do not know what they want. Despite this the first clause of the above sentence really struck a chord with me. I have spent many an hour trawling through the funding website called The Learning Aims Database (obviously known as ‘The LAD’) trying to get a course programme up and running that was financially viable. As the years went by the LAD went increasingly towards qualifications as being the main arbiter of funding value.  Many areas of study such as modern languages are not studied to gain certificates, yet a well educated population with a significant number of people able to function in French, German, Mandarin, Spanish or whatever is clearly of economic benefit. With a low funding formula for non-qualification courses the only ways they can be run are either through high fees or the adult course providers using subsidies.  Many colleges do either of these but there are limits.  The Adult Education sector and the Further Education sector have a huge provision across London  but it is continually under pressure. This situation was true in the later days of the last Labour government and was worse after 2010. There should be a significantly different policy that an incoming Labour administration could offer the electorate.  Much of the success of Adult and Further education comes from its very local character. Labour and Conservative authorities are very sensitive to pressure from the very articulate sections of their communities who use and support their local educational facilities. Labour should get behind this activism.  After all much of our adult education grew from the same roots as the Labour movement itself.  Another point is that the last Labour government has a lot to be proud of in education.  The improvement in facilities was huge and comparable to what was built in the health service. We should not downplay this achievement.

While never wanting to be complacent London schools have shown great progress in the last few years.  There are real reasons for this and many of them reflect on Labour’s policies from when in national government and continue with Labour local authorities. The infrastructure programme had its critics from a funding point of view but the new building and refurbishment that took place from the end of the 90’s through to 2010 give Labour reasons to be proud.  No such updating has taken place under the coalition. Over the coalition period Labour local authorities have done much fine work to improve the overall effectiveness of our education system. During the 18 years of Conservative rule from 1979 until 1997 there was stagnation and debilitation in the fabric of our public education system (similar statements can be made in relation to the NHS).  Labour was left with a huge catch up. Typically for Labour little is said about this when debating the state of the country.  We hide our achievements and allow our opponents to deride all the fine work carried out.

Since 2010 Labour local authorities have continued as best they can to maintain and improve the state of the public education system. Initiatives such as free school meals were pioneered by Labour councils with cynical opposition from both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Liberals may now be changing their policies  but this does not wipe out Labour’s achievements. Free school meals have great beneficial effects. Catherine West (formerly leader of Islington Council) wrote:

‘The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that giving free school meals “significantly increased attainment—compared to similar children in other areas.” ‘

As Catherine West also points out the poverty trap for parents with children can be considerably eased with policies such as free school meals. This is only one of a number of important changes introduced by Labour councils, yet the funding for such local authorities has been badly cut and the less deprived areas often under Conservative or Liberal Democratic control have escaped much of the funding onslaught.

The government seems obsessed with the tiny number of ‘free’ schools while the vast majority of the rest of the public education system which maintains close links with LEA’s are barely considered.  With Academies many of the better ones ensure that they keep very close ties with their local authorities.  This is to the benefit of the school students and shows real benefits in their attainment.  Before 1997 the Conservatives tried what were called Grant Maintained schools and they did not prove a success.  Now the government parties work to sever local democratic accountability in other ways. Experimenting to weaken local democratic accountability may have an appeal for a small section of the population but it is the students who suffer in the long term.  Real ‘localism’ can only come about with a local democratic mandate and that means LEA’s in local councils.

Further Education (FE) colleges had their ties with LEA’s weakened many years ago by what was called ‘incorporation’.  This gave budget control to the college governing bodies in effect to college principals.  The best of these kept close ties with their local authorities (can you see a pattern here?) but a few have run into some financial difficulties.  The FE system is really part of the public sector but by a slight of hand FE recently was re-designated as private sector and George Osborne added many thousands FE workers to his newly created private sector jobs growth figures. Such is the way important parts of the education system are used as play things.  Despite all this FE along with AE do a hugely important tasks in our country and they are to be nurtured and developed.

Higher Education is a whole subject in its own right.  I leave comments on it to others.

Much of what I have stated above leads me to the conclusion that both in London and elsewhere it is local accountability through democratically elected councils that will provide the most effective ways of providing high standard education at most levels.  There are now people talking seriously about linking areas such as health and social care so the relationship and integration of education to a whole range of other areas of social action needs also to be developed and taken forward. Labour has a long history of working in these ways and there is a huge amount of expertise among staff and users that Labour can tap into. It fits well with democratic accountability and the social democratic and democratic socialist aims that infuses the parties history.

Mike Berkoff December 2013

Thoughts on the Anti Apartheid movement

Over decades brave people opposed apartheid throughout the world.  Those taking the biggest
risks where those in South Africa itself but others contributed including here in Britain. 
It is worth reflecting on the apologists and supporters of that disgraceful system.  Some said that it was only through ‘engagement’ (through trade or sport for instance) that SA could be changed.  Others used the cold war as a reason to support the regime. 

All this was rubbish really but even more to the point it was an easy safe option for establishment figures, companies, banks and others.
Those who are to be admired were the activists such as the trade unionists I remember who smuggled computers to COSATU (the SA trades unions) so they could publish underground news.

To listen to David Cameron or Boris Johnson praise Nelson Mandela begs the question ‘What did you do/say in those bad times? ‘.