Science is Sexy Again… But all Our Politicians Want to do is Gush About Their Feelings


Psychoanalysis is hogwash, obviously. So it was pleasing to read in the Spectator that American shrinks are becoming an endangered species. This reflects a growing appreciation in society for fact over feeling, sadly not reflected in today’s touchy-feely politicians – or in the media.

These days, the whole internet is your therapist. You can get a quick dopamine hit from the sisterhood any time you need it. But, the internet being the internet, your mood fixer is just as likely to come with a dose of tough love, too.

If you’re feeling depressed about your weight and you post about it online, you will get the sympathy you’re fishing for, but you’ll also get reminded that you’re fat because you eat too much and that’s really all there is to it so stop making up garbage about water retention and your “glands.”

New drugs are replacing the woolly, pointless waffle of the Freudian couch with chemical remedies for trauma and mental illness. Even in New York City, the gluttonous epicentre of profitless introspection and neurosis, therapists are out and Prozac, cognitive behavioural therapy and social media are in.

Everywhere you look, facts and science are making a comeback, partially in response to the dreariness of professional offence-taking, identity politics, the rise of victimhood-as-argument and social justice warriors who expect censorship and even government policy on the basis of hysterical emotional reactions. Rampant self-obsession is, like, sooo over.

Traditionally left-wing and feminine places like social media were, for a while, the preserve of authoritarians, concern trolls and whingers of various stripes. Politicians seemed to buy into this, and start speaking their language. We hear endlessly about how “passionate” politicians are about new train lines and changes to the tax code.

But things are changing: as more of the population gets online, social media is starting to better represent how ordinary people think. And it turns out that many of them quite like to see evidence for controversial claims, such as college campus “rape culture” or the “gender pay gap.” (Both are fictional.)

Hand-wringing, hashtagging activist folk don’t like being questioned much – not unlike politicians – and have retreated into talking about feelings instead of winning arguments with persuasiveness and data. For instance, those American college students who say the the “wrong sort of feminist” makes them feel “unsafe.” It’s just another way of dodging an opponent you fear you may lose an argument to.

As Jason Pontin, publisher of MIT Technology Review puts it: “‘Offense’ is a form of agitprop – an attempt to move the so-called Overton window by activists or those who follow them. It’s not real. No one is ever actually offended. We’re too jaded: we’ve seen it all before. And if offense is overplayed, or too palpably insincere, it inevitably elicits a counter-reaction. Me, I try not to become too offended by people taking offense.”

He’s right, of course – and fewer people all the time are persuaded by the hurt feelings brigade. The media now reports on fake outrage with palpable fatigue. The era of the perpetually offended is coming to a close.

Although the internet is a powerful distribution mechanism for misinformation and conspiracy theory, political debates are hugely enriched by the raw disinfecting power of sunlight: you can’t lie for long on the internet, and the truth is a super-weapon against which there is really no defence.

This is making life hard for some left-wing causes. A new spirit of scepticism is rising just as we’re now expected to believe, for instance, that a psychiatric disorder called gender dysphoria deserves a “civil rights” struggle to situate and even celebrate it as a alternative sexual identity.

I wonder what black Americans, to whom the phrase “civil rights struggle” actually means something, make of that.

Then there are the women mortally wounded by the biological reality that men are better at chess. They go on TV brazenly declaring that biological determinism is “1950s racism.” But fewer and fewer people are believing them, even when journalists and politicians back them up with touchy-feely affirmative chit-chat.

Thanks to the internet, ordinary people can now examine data for themselves. Where previously they may have accepted that “race is just a social construct,” to pick a left-wing maxim at random, now they want to see the studies for themselves, and they have no time for journalists, public intellectuals or campaigners with no grasp of the science.

Amateur web analyses of the sort now proliferating online can sometimes fall short, but their enthusiasm has put new pressure on scientists, politicians and the media to make their case to the public rather than simply asserting their conclusions and crying offence at dissenters. This is unquestionably a Good Thing – provided politicians heed their call and stop bleating on endlessly about their emotions and pretending to find things objectionable when what they really mean is that they disagree.

To give you an example of the new deference with which the empowered public is held: in England’s National Health Service, “compliance” was once used to describe the challenges doctors face getting patients to stick to their prescribed medication. (People on antibiotics often stop taking them when they begin to feel better, which can prolong infections and require more visits to their GP for another batch of drugs.)

It’s now called “concordance.” Doctors now agree treatment pathways together with patients, who sometimes know their own bodies best and have Googled their symptoms before arriving at the surgery, rather than issuing edicts. Medical authorities are discovering that these negotiated positions are far more effective at producing compliant behaviour from the unwell.

Professional offence-takers and the “muh feelings” mob on Twitter are being eclipsed by consumer revolts, such as the #GamerGate movement, which demand ethical standards and facts. If they occasionally sound Gradgrindian, perhaps that’s no bad thing given how entirely our national life has been given over to feelings in the last few years.

The bad guys hate it: they brand their enemies misogynists, bigots, sexists and transphobes for not toeing the party line. But every day another kick in the teeth is delivered to sanctimonious bores banging on about “body confidence” issues and “patriarchal microaggressions.”

The cosy lefty consensus between politicians, scientists and the media is being brutally skewered by ordinary people, empowered by the web. Idealistic proponents of the internet used to say it would have a transformative, democratising and educating effect on society. Perhaps they were right after all – just not in the way they intended.