But Dad, you might be wrong

Tue 30 September 2014

"But Dad, you might be wrong."

I couldn't disagree with my nine year-old son, though I said I'd given the matter much thought. We were walking down the hill from the polling station where I had just cast my vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Two weeks before that, sat on the ferry from the Isle of Arran, I had asked him about his thoughts on the referendum, and he said either choice would be fine. That pleased me. He knew both his parents would vote No yet he felt comfortable to think for himself and speak his mind.

Now he was asking me to explain why we were voting, and why Scotland didn't just do the "right thing". My response was that some things, such as the result of adding 2 and 2, do have a right answer (and infinitely many wrong ones), but no amount of voting for 5 will make it the correct answer. Insisting it is 5 will lead to a contradiction which, by the principle of explosion, will destroy all of arithmetic (formally known as number theory). Other things, such as how a country should be governed, do not have a right or wrong answer in that sense, so we resort to democracy and voting.

The act of explaining a long-held belief to someone with an honest and open mind often makes you realise that it's actually not at as obvious as you first thought. To my son's challenge, I could not be sure that No was the right option on the ballot paper, yet some part of my mind did regard it as being correct. Certainly, if an ardent Yes campaigner had challenged me, I would not have given any hint of the answer I'd just given my son, specifically, that I might be wrong. Instead I would've gone into hyper-rational certainty mode and argued a number of points to make the case. And I'd be caught in contradiction: I cannot be rational and certain at the same time, because I can easily rationalise my uncertainty.

When I heard the referendum result I breathed a sigh of relief. Not only because the vote went the way I wanted, but because people - including me - could now calm down and return to being more rational. I can admit my uncertainty again and think more critically. Yet I feel uneasy. Not with the result, but that for a good while I worried that emotion and irrational optimism seemed to be trampling over rational argument, even in my own head.

I would like to reach out to those who voted Yes and now feel deeply disappointed that the bright future they saw has been denied to them. We may disagree on whether that vision of the future was real, but I do not doubt the reality of your feelings, and so I do feel for you.

And to all who voted, whether Yes or No, perhaps we should let the fog of emotion clear and see what new ideas emerge, particularly ones which we might share.