Main menu
Select a language

Irrationality in Public Life

The Twenty-seventh Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture was delivered by Mr. Richard Fort, M.P., on Tuesday 18th November, 1958, in the Lecture Theatre. Zoological Society ofLondon, Regent's Park,London, N.W.I. The President of "the Research Defence Society, the Right Honourable the Earl of Halsbury, was in the Chair.

The President, introducing the Lecturer, Mr. Richard Fort, M.P., said he was an old personal friend; they were at school together and had been firm friends since 1922—rather a long time ago! They met first studying chemistry atEtonunder Dr. Porter. After school they managed to maintain friendship and contact with each other until they met in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. Mr. Fort was another man with a scientific training who had gone into politics. He was a "younger statesman." In addition to his political work in the House of Commons and his work on the Parliamentary and Scientific Com­mittee, he had been a member of the Medical Research Council for five years, where he was engaged on administrative work.

Mr. Richard Fort, M.P. then delivered the Twenty-seventh Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture on "Irrationality in Public Life."


Irrationality in Public Life



Anyone looking at the list of previous Stephen Paget lecturers must be struck by their eminence in the field of the biological sciences and the Fellows of the Royal Society included among them. Consequently I was not only flattered but embarrassed at being asked to be the lecturer in this fiftieth anniversary year of the Society's foundation. However, I was delighted too, because my family were close friends of some of the Paget family; more particularly Bishop Luke Paget, Dr. Stephen's brother, was one of my father's closest friends whom I well remember in my youth. Indeed, who could forget a family so distinguished not only by their brains and charm but also by their extraordinary looks!


Many of you here this evening are doctors or physiologists or are working in some field of the biological sciences and a layman must ask himself what he can say to you. You all know the facts about the use and importance of animals in biological research and they have been well discussed and summarized in past Stephen Paget Lectures. Yet anti-vivisection agitation in the past has been violent enough to endanger medical research, though at present it has quietened down, as our Annual Report for this year tells us. The contrast between the scientific facts and the emotions which have stirred the anti-vivisectionists shows that the cause of these emotions must be irrational, which I understand to mean arguments based on assumptions so erroneous that conclu­sions drawn from them cannot conform with observed facts. Would it sound too much like the conceit of one educated in the physical sciences if I said that many assumptions in intellectual fields outside the physical sciences seem to tend to be irrational?


The irrational basis of the appeal of anti-vivisection suggested to me the subject of my lecture because this is also the basis of much that happens in public life, as any politician like myself is constantly aware. Most of the knowledge we have of the extent and causes of irrationality has been derived from practical experience rather than theoretical study which demands difficult techniques of interviewing and mathematical analysis in order to get scientifically satisfying results. One of the arguments I shall develop is the need for much more fundamental research to describe and analyse irrationality.


In order to understand the parallels between these different examples of the irrational I think it necessary to discuss in a little more detail the irrationality of anti-vivisection. Fun­damentally the use of animals in biological research is part of man's age-long use of animals which removes them from their wild state and adapts them by breeding, feeding and train­ing for motive power, food and enjoyment of men within the economical and social limits acceptable to each community in each age. Grossly under-nourished cows are uneconomical milkers and most communities have some con­ventions about the degree of cruelty to animals which they will tolerate. The 1876 Act and other legislation reflects the conventions in this country and are welcomed by those working in the biological sciences because they recognize not only the scientific fact that pain to the animals makes the experimental results unsatisfactory but often, and more importantly, because those who handle so many animals are the kind of people who are attracted to animals and could not bring themselves to cause them pain.


The weakness of the anti-vivisectionists' case is proved not only by the conclusions of the Royal Commissions or decisions of the Courts, but by the very dishonesty of the argu­ments used to support it, for example, the well-known one about two out of the three million experiments with animals in this country being done without anaesthetics, without adding that no anaesthetics are needed because procedures such as inoculations are trivial and giving an animal an anaesthetic for them would be the greater discomfort.


The word "vivisection" seems to be a "witch word," one of those words to which Sir Alan Herbert drew our attention because they arouse emotions without making anyone think what they mean. "Vivisection" sounds horrible. Roget's Thesaurus includes it among the synonyms for physical pain in the paragraph which starts "torment, torture, rack," continues through "toad under the harrow" and ends with "vivisection." Whoever first thought of applying the word "vivisection" to animal experiments and the agitation against them certainly struck on one of the most effective of all "witch words" from the point of view of arousing emotions which would lead to action. Indeed, the actual names used for animals are evocative. Why should "puppy" and "kitten" apparently arouse more emotion than "dog" and "cat"? Why should the word "horse" arouse so much emotion while names of other large animals which can be used in experiments "sheep," "goats," and "pigs" do not ? “Rabbits” and "guinea pigs" are perhaps marginal in their emotion arousing effect. British butchers, I am told, have often to assure their customers that skinned rabbits hung in their shops were wild, not domesticated, when alive. "Mice" and "rats" seem to arouse no one's emotions. Why this hierarchy of emotional names from "vivisection" through "horse" to "rat"? We smile at Hindus for venerating cows, but our animal hierarchy is as irrational. I guess that the easily-aroused agitation against stray cats and dogs being supplied to medical research laboratories springs from the same emotional causes.


In public life many words from "democracy" to "victimization" through "temperance" have become "witch words" and it was their parallel with the "witch words" of anti-vivisection which was one of the reasons leading me to take irrationality as the subject of my lecture-tonight.


Man's, or at least Englishmen and women's, attitude to animals gives many examples of wondrously confused irrationality. Most people's attitude about killing animals either by hunting them or "putting them down" (usually said with a lowering of the voice) seems to me rational in view of man's mastery of the other animals, but the very people who show this sense are often violent anti-vivisectionists. I had an aunt famous for her vigour in the hunting field whose husband was a well-known M.F.H. but nothing I could say would dissuade her from leaving all too large a sum to one of the anti-vivisection societies.


Another but perhaps less surprising irration­ality is that anti-vivisectionists often seem to support unorthodox health cults which oppose medical science in one way or another, and yet the same anti-vivisectionists may be supporters of the severest penal codes. Examples could be multiplied but I have given enough to prove that the irrational is the basis of anti-vivisection.


I have been fascinated with the irrational in politics since first I read Graham Wallas' "Human Nature in Politics." Just fifty years ago he first emphasized how irrational most people's approach to politics was despite the facade of self-interest or other rationalist arguments often used in political debate.


Despite absurdities and obsolete ideas Graham Wallas' descriptions and analysis of political behaviour are broadly still true, but we continue to conduct much of politics as though our fellow-countrymen were idealized Athenians standing round the Agora to discuss in rational, weighed arguments the political problems of their small state. General Elections are con­ducted as though they were some kind of law suit with the candidates arguing the cases for the different sides before an uncommitted jury.

The reality of a General Election is quite different. Gallup Polls confirm what candidates and agents and others who canvass have long known, that about 80 per cent of our fellow-countrymen, if they vote at all vote for the same political party. Abstention from voting seems the commonest way to disapprove of the actions or attitudes of the party to which most voters are normally attached. The closed mind is almost as common in politics as in anti-vivisection. However, in fairness I must add this wise comment by Mr. David Butler of Nuffield College, Oxford, the well-known student of the British system of elections :—

"Can the conduct of the British elector be described as rational? If to be rational one must be receptive to argument and even to conversion, then in the majority of cases the answer must be in the negative. The elector does not pay much attention to detailed issues:  he tends to vote very conservatively—that is to say in the same way as he voted last time.  But this is not to be deplored.   Habit is the wisdom of the uneducated and the unreflecting.   Moreover if the mass of the public were open to persuasion, with the electoral system in its present form, the[1]side with the most convincingly presented case would win a majority far too overwhelming for the health of British democracy."[2]The irrational attitude of most party sup­porters to their party is similar to the attitude of most citizens to their Government which often takes a markedly negative as well as irrational form.   "The Government is always wrong," "the Government should do some­thing." That usually means that the complainant wants financial help of some kind though reason should tell him that a Government can only give him money by first taking it.  A sur­prisingly large number of people seem to fail to connect a National Insurance retirement pension of the size they would like or that their neighbours think they should have with the contributions needed to provide it.   Corres­pondingly pensions have a popular appeal which family allowances lack, though objective surveys show that they are as important as pensions for alleviating poverty.  If these matter-of-fact concerns of daily life are considered so irration­ally it is not surprising that those more remote from common experience such as vaccination to prevent smallpox or vivisection to promote research are likely to be considered even more irrationally.


The habit of attachment to one political party seems likely to be another example of habit formation, the extent and causes of which psychologists have studied closely. I have often wondered whether attachment to a political party is paralleled by other emotional attach­ments, for example, to churches and social organ­izations, or to one football or cricket club rather than another, in which no one tries to use rational arguments of the type used in politics.


Another feature of the pattern of attach­ments is their apparent persistence during long periods of time. What is probably still the most Radical town in my constituency was one of the few villages—as it once was—to support Crom­well in the Civil War three hundred years ago, The neighbouring town of Blackburn and other Lancashire towns, most of them not more than ten or fifteen miles away, has long been known for the large number of medical prescriptions prescribed for each patient.[3] Why should these habits have been acquired and persist in these towns while they have not been in similar towns inYorkshire?


One of the factors common to politics and other activities in which the irrational is an obviously powerful force is that people are stimulated to act, to do something, if in politics only to vote, a simple enough, action, or more complicatedly to write to the papers, or more intensively still, to work regularly for an organization. Those who are stirred in this way often show by the arguments they put forward for voting, writing to the newspapers or taking some other action, that the emotions leading to the action have been aroused by their having some well recognized type in their minds which simplifies thinking, in so far as their action is based on conscious thought at all. We know that with the anti-vivisectionists it is the appealing dog looking up at the scientist with his blood-stained white coat. In politics Conservatives seem to have in their mind the picture of the ranting radical, caricatured with long hair, abusing harmless folks for their views and for Radicals the picture is of the top-hatted, pot-bellied capitalist squeezing the last penny from the poor. Many Conservatives still resent Mr. Bevan's "vermin" speech of ten years ago. The reality behind these stereotypes, if any, is surely drawn from some long-past abuse or situation by now overcome; the capitalists and radicals of the last century or the Russian Revolution, or Francois Majendie carrying out his vivisection in the early decades of the nineteenth century before the merciful discovery of anaesthetics.

The stereotypes change from country to country. For example, in some countries Jews are the stereotypes of cringing cowards and in others of tough bruisers. The stereotype often changes gradually with time in the same country: an Englishman is now rarely portrayed as an early 19th century farmer, “John Bull,” al­though commonly so during the last century and the first two or three decades of this. "Colonel Blimp" seems to be beginning to fade at home, though perhaps abroad he is still looked on as a representative type of Englishman.


Another feature of the irrational in public life is the importance of small groups of deter­mined people who specialize in arousing to action those whose emotions are in no great state of excitement but only mildly sympathetic. An example of the effect such groups can have is to be seen in the analysis of the letters to United States Senators and Congressmen when the Conscription Act was being passed in 1940. Over 30 per cent of the letters opposing conscription were group-inspired and cleverly enough worded to give the impression that the writers represented a common thought in their communities. One of the constant diffi­culties which those in public life have is that of disentangling arguments based on personal experience or even thought from those of vociferous minorities promoting irrational theories.


Working in groups of people with like interests, whether these have rational or ir­rational bases, is a characteristic of mankind. Our own Society here and other learned societies are examples of groups with rational bases. The groups with irrational bases seem often to be distinguished by two features, the first being that they are mercifully at cross purposes, as we know from the anti-vivisectionist organiza­tions, the second that their continued existence greatly depends on professional organizers who have vested interests in keeping the irrational causes alive. The dependence on professional organizers suggests that irrational causes may lose their appeal or be replaced by other irrationalities sooner than rational causes, but the truth or falsehood in this suggestion is one of the many uncertainties in this field which needs studying.


Another feature of the irrational in public life is that the ease or difficulty in arousing what are essentially irrational thoughts and actions appears to depend to a marked extent on circumstances which only indirectly bear on them. For example, I doubt whether the present appeal of Conservatism to University undergraduates—about one quarter of the Oxford undergraduates belong to the University Conservative Association, and the Conservative Clubs are by far the largest political organiza­tions at other universities—is based entirely on the rational arguments for Conservatism any more than the appeal of the Left Wing organiza­tions was twenty years ago.


Similarly with anti-vivisection: the heyday of the argument was fifty years or so ago when those saccharine novels about animals, "Oud Bob,'' "The Call of the Wild," "Black Beauty" and others with similar titles and contents, were being written. It was the time, too, when sensitive people were protesting against what seemed to be abuses in many aspects of society having nothing to do with animals, in art as well as in politics. Many streams flowed from the same emotional pool. The remarks in this year's Annual Report about the dying down of the anti-vivisection agitation and what is often described as present day political apathy may both reflect the same emotional climate.


The reasons for this apparent parallel be­tween the intensity with which irrational causes are pursued and what is usually described as the "climate of opinion" may be connected with the reasons for forming opinions which were originally studied by Dr. S. Asch and others and discussed by Professor H. J. Eysenck.*[4] Asch analysed the conditions in which one person in a group of seven to nine people could be persuaded to describe unequal lengths of line as equal by the rest of the group who had been instructed to mislead the one person. One third of those who were the subjects of the persuasion made errors identical with those deliberately pro­pounded by the majority while two-thirds remained independent and gave the correct answers. The personalities of the latter showed other characteristics such as a reluctance to take orders or integrate with groups which fitted in with the independent-mindedness under pressure studied in controlled conditions.


This work has been summarized because it is an example of research into some of the causes of irrational behaviour with a similarity to aspects of public life. Eysenck, perhaps unconsciously, has described the possibility and conditions for a scientific approach to these problems thus:—

"It hardly requires saying, of course, that what we have reported are tendencies which are true on the average. There will be very few persons embodying all the traits, tendencies and peculiarities mentioned to any striking degree. None of the correla­tions reported are anywhere near perfection; indeed if they were we should rightly be suspicious of the experimental set up. Nevertheless, in spite of only representing tendencies the agreement between so many different investigators working in different countries, and using a variety of different procedures, is too striking to be neglected, and the general hypothesis discussed here serves to integrate a large body of work on many different variables." Examples of irrationality drawn from experi­ence with anti-vivisection and public life could be multiplied endlessly and the problem is to choose the most telling.   I think one of these is the origin and propagation of rumours without which public life would scarcely be recognizable.

Unsubstantiated rumours about atrocious animal experiments have buoyed up the anti-vivisectionists' case since the "Shambles of Science" and earlier to the allegations of the window cleaner in 1957 about what he saw in theBirminghamMedicalSchool. Subsequent study shows that what was actually said or done was quite different from what was alleged in the rumour.


Over forty years ago Dr. Bernard Hart published an essay[5] laying down the bases for describing and analysing the origins and propagation of rumours which are still true to-day though amplified and refined by sub­sequent study. Hart pointed out that some rumours originate from the tensions and anxieties of society or groups of people who feel their existence is endangered, some of the rumours resulting from the wishes of the society or the group for the removal of the dangers while others arise from phantasies based on the complicated psychological essentials of each person.

The causes of the rumours result in phenomena ranging from the uncertainties of observation needed for reliable evidence of knowledge of all sorts to conditions of mental illness. In view of the importance of almost always irrational rumours which affect aspects of our daily lives I hope that future scientific research into this problem of irrationality will give fuller and more satisfactory explanations of the causes.

The irrational causes for action often seem to be real to all of us and therefore the causes for the most important facts of history in which many people act together as well as for the incidents in our daily lives. People like to feel altruistic, to be inspired by moral fervour which gives the person a feeling of superiority over his less inspired neighbours.   The social reformer often seems a more exciting person than the tax or rate payer, though even here the degree of superiority changes markedly with the climate of opinion which I have just discussed. How­ever, the fact remains that what are primarily irrational reasons have caused the Wars of Religion, the great revolutions, and the national­ism which first stirred Europe and is now stirring the rest of the world, and among other irrational movements, anti-vivisectionism, which certainly complicated and at one time nearly wrecked work in a wide field of medical research.


The fact that there are irrational causes for action does not mean that they are bad causes in a moral sense. Facts are neither bad nor good in themselves. Only men and women can decide whether facts are to be used for good or bad ends. Irrational causes can and do lead to good actions as they did in 1940 when nothing seemed to be more irrational than the British attitude towards the then victorious Nazi tyranny. Yet action was then decided on irrationally to oppose that tyranny whose weak­ness it finally defeated.


I believe that people will finally continue to act on the irrational as they always have done and there is no cure but to wait until some particular irrationalism has died down. But having had a scientific training I want to know why people will act on some irrationalisms. We shall only learn more about this by applying the scientific method of putting forward a hypothesis, testing it by experiment, marshalling the evidence, probably with the help of mathematical logic and then trying to apply the hypothesis to allied fields with a view to deciding whether it is a general law or not and, if it is, finding out what predictions can be made from it.


Psychologists are trying to apply the scientific method to explaining, people's conduct, par­ticularly that part of it which is determined by the irrational. The work confirms the commonsense view that the description and analysis of the causes of the irrational are very complicated and can be unravelled only by applying many scientific disciplines. Experience in other fields shows that a research council responsible to the Lord President of the Council can be an effec­tive organization to achieve this end under British conditions. Leading exponents of differ­ent scientific disciplines can be conveniently brought together to decide what lines of research ought to be promoted by grants to university departments or to a research institute for the administration of which they are responsible. Procedures have by now been worked out to satisfy Government departments about financing the grants and with the University Grants Committee and the Universities themselves about their relations with the research councils.


In view of this experience and the need for much research into irrationality which ought to be done in view of its importance in our lives I suggest that those concerned should examine whether or not a new research council would be the best organization to promote more research in this field where medical and social science meet.

I have another suggestion. The object of the Stephen Paget Memorial Lecture has been defined:—

"The lecturer and the subject for the lecture will be chosen for their direct or indirect connection with research work, having regard to the fact that the aims of our Society are the promotion of national health and efficiency by bringing about a better understanding of the value of medical and surgical studies and by combating the false statements made against research." Could we not interpret this wise and broad remit so that we shall invite among future Stephen Paget lecturers those who are working in the scientific borderland about which I have been speaking this evening? We should thus be using the reputation of the Stephen Paget Lectures to publicise and thus promote the application of the scientific method to research into problems of human behaviour.


I am afraid that this very sketchy outline of my subject to-night has not led me to any clear-cut conclusions; perhaps such a failure is inherent in the subject. But opinions without reason are a phenomenon met with so often in people's actions and sayings—often enough in one's own, of course—and can be such a powerful motive force that I have found it rewarding to take stock of some of the most obvious examples.


Moving a vote of thanks afterwards, which was carried with acclamation, Dr. F. H. K. Green said:


"My Lord Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have all demonstrated, enthusiastically though inarticulately, our gratitude to Mr. Fort for his fascinating, wide-ranging and provocative address, and I am happy to have this opportunity to try to put some of the reasons for our gratitude into words."

Dr. Green continued: "I remember the late Mr. Ramsay McDonald, when he opened the Second International Congress for Microbiology, atUniversityCollegein 1936, saying how much he, as a politician, envied the microbiologist his ability to deal with a pure culture. Mr. Fort has shown us how difficult it may be to keep the culture pure in the laboratory of politics (I use this word in its widest sense), especially where the contaminating breaths of emotion and propaganda are present.



[1]British Journal of Sociology, Vol. VI, No. 2, June 1955.

[2]British Journal of Sociology, Vol. VI, No. 2, June 1955.

[3]" Social Aspects of Prescribing." J. P. Martin, 1957.

•"The Psychology of Politics," pp. 186/189, H. J. Eysenck, 1954.

[4] “The Psychology of Politics” pp. 186/189, H. J. Eysenck, 1954

[5]  "The Psychology of rumour" in "Psychopathology. Its Development and Place in Medicine," by Dr. Bernard Han, 1929. The essay was originally pub­lished in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1916.


Last edited: 19 January 2018 13:56

Main menu
Select a language