Gut Feelings: What Role Should They Play in Politics?

July 28, 2017, 11:55 AM UTC

Richard Dawkins, the distinguished biologist and populariser of science, argues that political decisions should never be taken on the basis of gut feelings but only as a result of the rational analysis of available evidence.

For him, the way the Brexit decision was made and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States amounted to ‘self-inflicted wounds’ that brought the ‘barbarians’ inside the gate. But is he right that gut feelings should play no part in political decision-making? 

Professor Dawkins has long been a champion of rationality against what he sees as dangerous irrationality in people’s views and behaviour. He believes that the scientific method, which rigorously tests theories against evidence, is applicable not only to science but to ‘anything where important decisions are taken’. ‘Evidence’, he says ‘is the only reason to believe anything about the real world’. He quotes the astronomer, Carl Sagan, as saying: ‘I try not to think with my guts’.

As an atheist he has used this argument to challenge believers in God as irrational. Now he is applying the same argument to politics and specifically to Brexit.

He is not saying that those who voted to remain were rational while Brexiteers were irrational. He acknowledges that people ‘voted with their guts both ways’. Rather, he deplores the fact that voters were given the choice in a referendum. He told my Today colleague, Sarah Montague, that it was ‘irresponsible’ of David Cameron to decide so complicated an issue as Britain’s membership of the European Union on the basis of ‘a single 50/50 vote’ in a referendum. Such decisions, he says, should not be taken ‘on a whim or an impulse’ when there are ‘hugely complicated ramifications’ in the issue. The referendum, he argues, gave ‘a great opportunity for emotion to cloud the issues when it should have been done by sober reasoning by people who have looked into the evidence both ways’.

Some people will immediately object that this is tantamount to an argument against democracy. Since most voters haven’t the time and nor probably the inclination to study all the available information on so complex an issue, his call for such decisions to be taken only by ‘people who have looked into the evidence both ways’ is an argument for leaving such matters in the hands of experts, they will say. It echoes the view of post-war planners that ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best’. The extension of the argument would involve doing away with elections too: after all, there are even more ‘hugely complicated ramifications’ in elections than in referendums.

Those who make this challenge do so on several grounds. The evidence, they point out, is that the ‘gentleman in Whitehall’ very often does not know ‘what’s best’: many decisions taken by so-called ‘experts’ end in disaster or at least in consequences that were unintended because they were unforeseen.

What this may reveal is that there are problems in applying the scientific method to areas of human activity beyond science. In science the method is applied to a reality that is, in a broad sense, fixed: there comes a point when scientists feel they have enough evidence to be pretty sure they know what’s going on. But in other fields the evidence may be less clear and, more importantly, there may never be enough evidence for a ‘rational’ choice (in the sense that Professor Dawkins aspires to) to be made. How, then, should the decision be taken?

Politics may be such a field. If it is, then ‘gut feeling’ may be all we have to rely on and in any case, such feelings should not be regarded as random or arbitrary, proponents of this case argue. Rather they are the accumulation of what has been picked up in experience. The feelings are the repository of intuitions gathered during life but which have never been converted into theories that can be subject to evidence. Some people call this wisdom.

An even more fundamental objection comes from Professor Dawkins’ own field of biology, specifically of neuroscience. Some neuroscientists argue that our brains are structured precisely so that we are not exclusively dependent on the capacity to subject experience to rational analysis as the basis for knowledge. Intuition, or what we might call ‘gut feeling’, has a role too.

In short, invaluable as rationality and the analysis of evidence most certainly are, they may not be enough, or even prime. Britain’s probably greatest philosopher, the Scottish enlightenment thinker, David Hume, wrote: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey’. By ‘passions’ he meant our moral motivations, or the ‘gut feelings’ that tell us what is right and what is wrong. Making a related point, Albert Einstein wrote: ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and rational mind is a faithful servant.’

No doubt Professor Dawkins would agree about the importance of intuition in both science and politics even while arguing that, in both, its fruits must be subject to rational analysis and evidence-testing. But he might also argue that applying the idea that reason should be the slave of the passions to the field of politics is immensely dangerous. That is what demagogues and populists have always exploited and we know where that has often led.

What do you think? Do you think gut feelings have a role or not in political decision-making? Do you agree with Professor Dawkins that it was ‘irresponsible’ of David Cameron to call a referendum to decide Britain’s future in or out of the EU? Do you think most people voted in the referendum on the basis of ‘a whim and an instinct’ rather than by trying to assess the evidence rationally? And how compatible do you think the principles of rationality and democracy are?

Let us know your views.