One estimate is that only 26 MPs in the UK parliament have some kind of STEM qualification. I doubt if the national parliaments figure much better. It is a tragically small number and it means the people are deprived of representation by individuals able to critically and competently assess the scientific validity of their views. Most politicians seem entirely unaware of a concept well known in physics: indeterminism.
Many a drunk staggering home with eyes near shut will have noticed how the light of sodium street lamps spreads out in patterned lines. What they are seeing is the diffraction of light as it passes through a small gap. It was fully explained mathematically for more than 100 years on the basis that light was a wave and as the ripples passed through the nearly closed eyelids, they spread out just as ripples do when water waves enter a harbour. When Einstein and others came to the inconvenient conclusion that light was a particle, scientists were forced to revisit this well-known experiment and re-explain it in terms of a stream of photons.
The drunk's observation that the light spreads out more as the gap between his eyelids becomes smaller had profound implications. As the gap becomes smaller and the starting point of the particle of light becomes more precisely known, weirdly, the possible path the particle of light might then travel in becomes broader and broader.
For the first time physicists realised that in some situations, given all the information you can ever gather, it is not always possible to know what will happen and that there is a randomness at the root of all things. Einstein found it difficult to accept, joking that 'God does not play dice', but he accepted in the end that indeed God does and he helped formulate what was to become quantum mechanics. He was a scientist. He could change his mind in the face of new evidence.
The keystone idea of quantum physics – indeterminism – means that given even a God's-eye-view, it is still quite impossible to predict certain things. While physicists have long since accepted indeterminism as a real and inescapable quality of reality, most politicians seem oblivious to it. Politicians predict with a level of certainty that they cannot possibly possess and seem paralysed into fixed beliefs determined by the party to which they belong, the friends that they keep, and their childhood vision of who they think they are meant to be.
The question of whether light is a wave or a particle remains troublesome – 'it depends on how you look at it'. 'It depends on how you look at it' also happens to be the answer to the question whether it is 'more' or 'less' democratic to re-run the EU referendum before Brexit.
It is quite right to say that politicians in a democracy should do what the people tell them to do, but it is a fundamentalist's view that we must always, no matter what the circumstances, make it so, and we know what terrible things fundamentalism can result in. For some doubtless biological reason, an algorithm in the human brain does not allow us to accept that in some situations there is no definitive answer. When pushed it will settle itself on a Yes or a No, Leave or Remain, even when there is no evidence to decide. It seems involuntary. Whether it is 'more' or 'less' democratic to re-run the EU referendum before Brexit has no definitive answer and it is absurd to claim democracy on either side. The question must be discarded and as scientists we should ask the next question in line. 'What is the best thing to do for the people, whichever is true?'
One side of the root debate – there's no need for introductions here – is concerned about the independence of the state, though they rarely say this explicitly and only speak the word 'independence' in hushed tones, preferring to say 'freedom to choose'. These people think we have lost our independence to the EU and should get it back. The other side, we know who they are too, do not see it that way at all. They think that the UK is independent, or as independent as it can ever be, and are instead concerned about the freedom of the people to mix and live and work where they like without borders, and for people to buy and sell goods to each other as they like.
Neither of these distinct concerns are invalid and the same two concerns are often found sparring in political arenas all around the globe. These multiple and identical boxing matches never end because they are about two understandable desires which happen to be practically incompatible.
The most independent country I ever visited was Cuba. I was only there for two weeks in the early 90s, but in my memory it seems longer. We flew there in a Russian copy of a Boeing 707, built in the 60s I would guess. As the engines fired up, I remember watching the ground crew cover their ears and laugh. After a short stop in Gander Airport to refuel, we climbed back into our seats and noticed scattered here and there about the cabin multiple brown paper packages tied up with string. Later in the baggage hall we watched the many odd-shaped parcels being collected by the flight crew. On one parcel the paper was torn and you could see inside it was a stainless-steel kitchen sink. Yes indeed, they had everything and
the kitchen sink. Other recognisable items included four car tyres ludicrously wrapped in brown paper as if to disguise what they were.
This is not normal cabin baggage. Cuba was creaking under US sanctions at the time which were more or less the result of their insistence on absolute independence. 'Gaun yersel Cuba!' I went there fully believing. The disturbing thought I have revisiting these memories now is just how bad fundamentalist politicians will allow things to get for the sake of their principles.
It was obvious in less than a week that communism was utterly impractical and the quashing of people's natural desire to trade, make money and so give birth to capitalism, required oppressive policing. No one stopped us going where we wanted though we did bump into the same people suspiciously often. One morning, I opened the door of a beach chalet we were staying in to throw out a cockroach, liberating it rather than killing it, to be surprised by two armed guards standing outside. One grunted an 'Oh' sound and stamped the cockroach flat. Besides the policing, the people themselves did not seem happy with it. When I asked an itinerant guitarist, who wandered around tables in the hotel restaurant if he could play any Victor Jara, he bent forward and whispered in my ear 'I am not a communist'.
The self-organising nature of capitalism that allows people as individuals to open funky cafes and alternative bookshops, and start freezer lorry haulage firms, did not exist in Cuba then and nor did any of these things. You could not get fresh fish in a hotel 20 miles inland. True, they had a decent though dated health service, free schools and high literacy rates, because these things work quite well when centrally organised, and yes, these are the necessities, but can a country not provide these necessities and more?
Besides my disillusionment with communism, I came to another conclusion. That the political independence of a country, or should I say a country's government, does nothing for the freedom of its people. At best there is no relation, but in many cases I can easily think of other than just Cuba, they are on opposite tracks. A mathematician might say they are sometimes inversely proportional.
No politician in any political party, on any side of the Brexit debate, or any other separatist debate for that matter, seems to be able to bring themselves to say that the loss of political independence is the price you must pay for the freedom of the people. It is such a horrible thing for people of their psychology to admit. People with an almost sexual desire to rule over others. But it is obviously true. If people are to wander where they will and buy goods and houses and have access to health and education and be protected by a legal system that guarantees all this, then 'all this' has to be organised somehow and agreed for the entire area of land in which they want to wander. If one country is not willing to organise and agree with its neighbour in what will be, even if you do not want to call it that, some kind of common overseeing government, then its people cannot be so free to roam.
If England were to become independent from Scotland and installed a stricter immigration policy, they would be required to erect a hard border to impose it as this would be the only way to stop immigrants entering Scotland, as they would be welcome to, and then moving to England. The independence of the country would come before the freedom of the people as it often does. This basic bit of science is ignored by that breed of politician who desire to independently, exclusively rule over those who they regard as 'their' people – to rule us as if we are some kind of private possession.
Do I think the UK is set to become a Cuba of the north? I doubt we will ever turn to communism, but EU sanctions do not seem so unrealistic to me if some future border dispute turns bad. I've seen it with my own eyes. There is a mind-blowing, but quite well-known, mathematical puzzle about choosing a second time called the Monty Hall problem. A version could be played with three identical Amazon boxes left over from Christmas. A bottle of whisky is placed in one box and a cracker in the other two. The contestant, who obviously does not know which, must choose the box the whisky is in to win it. When they choose one box the host opens one of the others containing a cracker. Given there are only two boxes remaining the question is: Would the contestant be more likely to win the whisky if they changed their mind and picked the other box?
Intuition says no. There are two boxes left so there is a 50:50 chance of being correct no matter which box you choose, but the important lesson here is that intuition is wrong. If the contestant changes their mind and picks the other remaining box, they are more likely to win the whisky. Twice as likely in fact. There are many wonderful explanations online but I think the easiest way to understand it is to realise that when the first choice is made, two of the three boxes contain crackers, so you are most likely to have chosen the wrong box to begin with.
It is a bit like the brain algorithm that makes us choose Yes or No, even when the evidence is impossible to assimilate, only this is something about being unable to understand events connected in time as well as space. When the number of bogus choices is reduced, given the chance, the contestant is more likely to make the correct choice. Does that remind you of anything?
Scientist Robert Millikan spent 10 years of his life trying to disprove indeterminism and the particle theory of light obtaining results that only served to strengthen it. Curiously his greatest achievement, measuring the electrical charge of an electron, had to be repeated time and time again to work. Not because it was broken, but because each new result helped 'home in' on the true value. No second referendum here, we are talking hundreds
of times over. Millikan was accused of cheating because he disregarded many results he thought spurious, just as politicians would be accused of the same if the referendum was repeated. This is an unfair view.
Whether it is more or less democratic to have a second EU referendum is, to return to that concept from physics that politicians cannot understand, indeterminable. Politicians who keep pointing to this question are only demonstrating that they are interested in imposing their
truth, not finding out the
truth. However, there is a valid scientific argument that repeating the EU referendum would increase the likelihood of making the correct choice and improve the accuracy of the attempt to measure the 'will of the people' – if such a thing can ever be measured. A wise, scientific person would want to repeat it and find out if it is as we think.