Reviews

A prophetic warning of the risks of social media

Dr Mary Beard.

One of the strangest sights in social media in recent times has seen Cambridge classicist Prof. Mary Beard being mocked by the US-based essayist and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb over her  supposed inability to handle evidence relating to the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain.

The minutiae of the argument go a bit beyond this column’s remit, though for useful lessons in how to interrogate and weigh evidence for the world in which the Church arose it’s worth reading ‘Roman Britain in black and white’ in Prof. Beard’s the-tls.co.uk blog, and ‘Diversitas et Multiculturalismus’ at thesphinxblog.com, the website of Exeter’s Prof. Neville Morley.

In fairness, Prof. Taleb’s own take should be read to get the full picture. Published as ‘Something is broken in the UK intellectual sphere’ on medium.com/incerto, it takes an aggressive tone and assumes that others’ conclusions are driven by ‘political correctness’ and the like.

Observing the affair on iainews.iai.tv, New York-based philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci described Prof. Taleb’s approach as a study in scientism – “the belief that the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the natural sciences are the only ways to gather valuable knowledge or to answer meaningful questions” – and its shortcomings.

Scientistic approaches and attitudes were hallmarks of the ‘new atheist’ movement that became so very fashionable a decade or so ago and that seemed to prove the truth of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that there’s a clear distinction between “those who worship the intellect and those who use it”.

Too many cases

Linked with new atheism’s macho scientism, in too many cases, were strands of racism and misogyny, such that Phil Torres has recently written on salon.com a fascinating piece entitled ‘From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How “new atheism” slid into the alt-right’. It makes for fine background reading for the argument and the onslaught of abusive tweets with which Prof. Beard was bombarded in connection with her observation that “there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain”.

As Nick Cohen observes in his spectator.co.uk article ‘How alt-right was Roman Britain’, “The torrent of fury Taleb unleashed on Beard has one cause and one cause only: her statement that Roman Britain was diverse. If she had intervened on a controversy about slavery and the agrarian Roman economy, no one would have cared.”

Sadly, this sort of conduct has become all too common online, from the supposedly liberal left as much as from the racist right, such that one might wonder whether social media has made us more aggressive and more inclined to see those who disagree with us as mere personifications of ideas and arguments with which we disagree.

In decoding where this tendency comes from, we could do a lot worse than look to Heretics, a 1905 essay collection by the aforementioned G.K. Chesterton, notably the essay ‘On certain modern writers and the institution of the family’. The book can be found – along with so much else by and about Chesterton – at Martin Ward’s marvellous if now rather antiquated-looking site gkc.org.uk.

Arguing unfashionably for the advantages of small communities over large ones, Chesterton maintained that “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”

Individuals

Big societies, he says, allow people to seek like-minded individuals and shun those with whom we disagree, while small ones create situations where all sorts of people must get along. The prophetic relevance of this for today should be clear.

The world of social media, for all its wonders, allows us to choose our companions in a vast and virtual community, excluding from our minds and hearts those with whom we disagree; at a time when our lives in the world of flesh and blood are increasingly atomised, this is a constant danger