Nullius in Verba – take no one’s word for it

Nullius in Verba – take no one’s word for it

Sophie Watson is a final year undergraduate psych student at Cambridge University. She is also co-president of the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network. In November 2020, Sophie wrote a defense of Kevin Price, a porter at Cambridge who was the target of a student campaign after he took a stand against gender identity ideology. Although Cambridge’s student publications did not run any contrarian views to those of the students who wanted Price fired, Sophie’s words were published in UnHerd. She has recently started her own Substack, and her excellent first entry is reposted here with her permission.

The world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams

reposted from nulliusinverba.substack.com

This blog (if it can be called a blog, rather than a collection of quizzical ramblings) is about uncertainty. More specifically, it’s about my uncertainty. This is perhaps odd, as I belong to a class of person who can reasonably be expected to be uncertain most of the time. At the time of writing, I am a twenty-two year old student – a daughter, a sister, a friend, an ex, and a hundred or more other things. I am single, with none of the baked-in certainty that comes from having chosen a career and a home and a person with whom one intends to spend the rest of their life. Or at least which sometimes appears to come from having chosen those things, from the outside.

So, if you are wondering why the uncertainty of such an unformed, unqualified person should merit being the subject of a whole blog (or even be compiled into a collection of quizzical ramblings) then you are easily forgiven. I don’t know whether my uncertainty does deserve such attention, by any fair or objective measure beyond the dictates of my own natural self-interest. But, more and more, I think that I am not alone in being so uncertain. Uncertainty is not fashionable just now, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. In fact, I wonder if it doesn’t grow more and more titanic with every passing year that we shove it unceremoniously down into the pits of our guts. I wonder if it isn’t at least part of the reason for our growing, much-documented sense of anxiety and fear.

Confusingly, given that last sentence, I am now going to argue that uncertainty is no bad thing. You might call this a tension at the heart of my story – this blog is devoted to uncertainty, but not to resolving it. In fact, it’s devoted to awakening the spark of uncertainty in you, too, if it is not already raging unfashionably through you, body and soul. This could be because misery loves company, but I prefer a more charitable reading of my motives. I think uncertainty is important, and I think it’s good for us – as good for our minds and our hearts and the threads that bind us to each other as apples and kale and spirulina are good for our physical parts.

But don’t take my word for it – that’s the point of this blog. Nullius in verba; on no one’s word. This Latin phrase has echoed with resonant grandiosity down through the ages to land in our laps, arguably from the writings of the Roman author Horace. He had no intellectual allegiances he was forced to honour, he said. And so, “wherever the storm drags me, I am turned in as a guest” (Epistles). He had no prejudices, so he supposed. And, as a result, he could follow the evidence of his senses and the workings of his reason wherever it led. In other words, he had the luxury of being uncertain. He had no party line to stick to, no preconceptions to tie him into fruitless knots as he tried to make sense of the world. I don’t know if this is true; Horace must have been as much a product of his life and times as the rest of us. But in the 1660s, a group of British natural philosophers (natural philosophy being an important precursor to what we now call science) formed an institution called the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Society still exists today, though its name has since been shortened somewhat – and its motto is still nullius in verba. Take nobody’s word for it. The natural philosophers thought Horace was on to something.

I first heard those three words in that context, as the motto of the Royal Society. I was sitting in one of my first ever university lectures, this one for a module called Psychological Enquiry and Scientific Methods. Or something like that. This was in the very early days of my university studies, when I never would have dreamed of going to lectures with a hangover or scrolling half-furtively through social media below the narrow desks of the lecture theatre. In fact, I glared at the people around me who did – the fact that there were so many of them was a blow to my long-cherished belief that university would be fundamentally different from sixth form, where people cared only about passing exams (those of them who cared at all.) I had been dreaming of Cambridge for months – how I would have intellectual conversations about Russian literature (I’ve read barely any Russian literature but didn’t think this would be much of a concern) in quaint cafés, and talk about philosophy with colourful, enchanting people as we drifted along the river Cam in a punt, bathed in the autumnal sun. How I would have somehow magically become one of those people, instead of the awkward, prickly, frightened girl that I was (and perhaps still am.)

Those half-formed, unarticulated fantasies about Cambridge were all that had got me through the previous year, living in a hostel for young people at risk of homelessness and falling pathetically, hopelessly in love with a girl who didn’t want me back. Also copious amounts of emotional duct tape and many tearful nights spent getting absolutely rat-arsed with my housemates and talking about our Difficult Pasts. Every day that Cambridge failed to live up to those implicit fantasies, I grew angrier with it for being the real, imperfect, modern institution that it actually was. In practical terms, this meant that I threw myself furiously into my studies, and spent all the rest of my time lying in bed and staring at my gorgeous, Edwardian-era college’s whitewashed walls. I had been taught, growing up, that knowledge was a rope thrown from a lifeboat into the whirling sea. I clung on to it tightly and hoped to God that someday someone would pull me up.

The lecturer that day was filling in for the archetypical eccentric Cambridge professor in a claret-coloured suit and flapping robes (they are an endangered species but some do still exist at the time of writing – mostly in the Philosophy department.) She was young and pretty in a black skirt suit, with a slight nervousness and a Northern accent that made me root for her. The lecture was about the scientific method of psychology, not its content. It was a good lecture, and her sincerity shone through every (occasionally-fumbled) word. Though I was initially tense, unable to help worrying that her imperfect delivery would lose her the respect of the fickle crowd, I soon became wholly engrossed in taking notes. I remember that I drew the Royal Society’s crest, with its emblazoned motto, in smudged graphite in my A4 margins. Nullius… in…. Verba, I copied down dutifully. The lecturer urged us to remember that idea throughout our studies (and going into our careers), if we retained nothing else. Don’t take anyone’s conclusions for granted, she told us. Look at the data for yourselves.

Because I am nothing if not a hypocrite, I have never read the original Horace. I found the origin of this now-beloved phrase through Wikipedia, and read about its history in the secondary sources listed there. The Royal Society website claims that their motto is “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.” If so, then the early Fellows of the Royal Society were making the same point as my lecturer was when they invoked Horace. Look directly at the evidence, rather than accepting the conclusions of others. Look at the evidence, and make up your own mind.

This idea is at the heart of science (so it is unsurprising that Britain’s oldest scientific institution and my youngest science lecturer both proudly advocate it.) Nullius in verba is a sentiment which ties perfectly into the ideals of the Enlightenment, which are also the ideals of science. Science is based on empiricism, an ideology which tells us that the evidence of our senses is the best (even the only) source of knowledge. What we see, touch, taste, hear, and smell in the physical world – what we can quantify and measure – is what we can trust is true. The scientist who cries, “Nullius in verba!” is telling us to look at the empirical evidence above all else when deciding what is true. They are telling us to ask, what experiments have been done? What data has been collected? Is that data valid and reliable? And on the basis of the most valid and reliable bits of all the data, we are to form our opinions.

A blog called Nullius in Verba could quite easily be about how brilliant and important science is. I am, amongst all the other hundred or so things I mentioned earlier (daughter, sister, student, friend, ex, dog-lover, prickly, undecided, uncertain…), a scientist. I became a scientist that day in the lecture hall, in the first term of my first year of university, the first time I heard the words nullius in verba. Thank you Horace. I love science – it’s a sharp, keen love, which I often feel stirring inside me and trying to come out at inconvenient moments. So, for lack of a more sophisticated expression, I have a horse in that race. Whichever career the older, perhaps slightly more certain version of myself chooses – and, in all honesty, I don’t think it will be in a laboratory – one of the things that I am, for better or worse, will always be a scientist. But this isn’t, after all, a blog about the brilliance and importance of science. It’s a blog about uncertainty. My uncertainty. And when I say “Nullius in verba,” I don’t mean quite the same thing as the scientist does.

Once upon a time, a girl like me born in once-rural England (Wiltshire, to be exact) would have lived in a universe as personally significant as it was geographically contained. Let’s say two hundred years ago, in 1820. I would probably never have gone more than five miles from the village where I was born. Everything I ate and wore would have been grown and made within a circumference which was not much wider. My religion, and my view of the world, would have been that of my parents (and that of their parents, and theirs, and theirs, and so on ad infinitum.) At twenty-two, I would almost certainly have been married with children – if I wasn’t, then this would be because something had gone horribly wrong. Please forgive this vague, simplistic sketch of social history; this blog is not a history blog anymore than it is a blog about science. But compare the portrait I have painted of the girl from Back Then to the reality of who I am now, a girl born in a once-industrial town in 1998. I live in two countries, with family spread out across the world, and rarely return to the town where I was born. I have friends in Italy and Germany and the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. The clothes I wear, despite my best efforts, were mostly made in India and China and Bangladesh; while what I eat for breakfast everyday comes from Africa, the Carribean and the Amazon. I was raised an atheist by disciples of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but am not much more likely to be disowned if I dissent over my parents’ belief system than over what they choose to have for dinner. If I do have children, it will not be for several more years. If I chose to get pregnant now, I would be the object of judgment and hushed pity from much of my social circle. (I once sat in a café on campus and listened, with confused fury, as two students sitting behind me raked one of their mutual friends across the coals for getting married straight out of uni – they concluded that her education was a waste, since she wasn’t going to go into banking or consultancy or marketing as half the people at Cambridge seem to do.) What a shame, people would say if I settled down now; she was so full of promise, but she’s ruined her life. In fact, these are much the same things they would have said of the twenty-two year old woman in 1820 who refused to marry, or who got pregnant out of wedlock – without the overtones of fire and brimstone and with significantly less severe actual consequences. I am sexually promiscuous, when I can be bothered, and I have fallen in and out of love and lust with men and women. I have been free to explore those parts of myself which would perhaps have lain dormant all my life, or even never developed at all, in a different time.

It is that freedom which has bred the uncertainty which is the subject of this blog. It is freedom from certainty which has been the bedrock of my life (and the lives of many of my generation in my part of the world- which is not to say all, of course.) The certainty that there is a single right way to live, or seek truth, or make moral choices; and the certainty that the universe is a certain way, no question mark, full stop. Those particular old certainties have been being eroded for the last several hundred years – a painful, non-linear process which has given rise to some of the most startlingly beautiful art and literature I have ever come across. Medieval Europeans saw the world in terms of a Great Chain of Being (Scala Naturae), which placed a Catholic God at the top of the hierarchy of existence. Then came angels, then humans, then animals, plants, and minerals, with the Devil and his demons at the very bottom.

Sophie Watson
(Image credit: Wikipedia)

This was reflected in the profoundly hierarchical structure of human society, with the King placed at its peak as a representative of God on earth, followed by clerics and the nobility with the rest of humanity stratified below. Everyone knew their place, in society and relative to the rest of the universe. This was a society which valued certainty, not freedom – and (strange as it may seem to our modern sensibilities) those who lived through its decline don’t always seem to have thought freedom was a fair trade. In the last stanza of his poem Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold captured the grief and anxiety which came with “certitude’s” loss.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

It would be easy for a modern writer to patronise Arnold and his Victorian pessimism in the same way atheists like Richard Dawkins patronise the religious. It’s frightening to lose your faith, and certainty and faith are much the same thing. To give up certainty is to find yourself at the mercy of the unknown – adrift upon an endless sea. But we children of the future that Arnold so feared are braver than that, better than that – aren’t we? We are strong where he was weak, we live with uncertainty rather than depend on dogma – don’t we?

I think the answers to these two questions are as follows: no, we aren’t, and no, we don’t. While rather obnoxious, perhaps our habitual way of looking at the past would be justified if it were true that we are more comfortable with uncertainty now than they were then. The problem is I don’t believe that this is true. Despite technicolor, we live in a black and white age; people are as dogmatic today as we were two hundred years ago, only the range of available dogmas is much more varied. I think this holds true right across the political spectrum, and beyond it – hence cancel culture and culture wars and religious radicalisation and scientism and the alt right and identity politics and flat earthers and fake news and toxic comment sections and Twitter hate and doxxing and the epic online battle between those strange few who think Game of Thrones got a decent ending and the majority who know it didn’t. It is not controversial to claim, in this day and age, that our ideological divisions run as deep as they ever have. This fact deserves our attention all the same.

The world I live in today has much more space for uncertainty than the world my great-great-great (?) grandmother lived in two hundred years ago, despite the lack of blank spaces to be found on a world map these days. The blank spaces now belong to a different kind of cartographer; the kind that doesn’t want to know where things are, but how and why they are – and how they ought to be. Every one of us, whether we know it or not, is such a cartographer; and as the years pass we are all determinedly filling in the gaps. In the essays that follow, I will try to explore some of those blank spaces – the spaces that make up how an individual in a Western 21st century society chooses to live their life. I don’t have the answers, so please don’t expect them. The closest thing I have to the truth is nullius in verba, that frustrating and wonderful age-old cry – take no one’s word for it. Make up your own mind.

–Sophie Watson