“The People of this country.. have had enough of experts”
The stunning words of Conservative MP and poster boy of the Vote Leave campaign Michael Gove when pressed on why organizations and governments were bashing his promises of a prosperous Post-Brexit Britain. His comment, while dramatic was certainly not surprising. The entire mantra of the Leave Campaign was not about facts or data but about us, about you, the “decent” “hardworking” “ordinary” people taking back control from the big boy fat cats who have trodden and left you in the dirt.
The anger at the ruling class, once whipped into frenzy by Boris and Co was directed with pinpoint precision at the E.U “Turkey is joining the EU”, “£350M to Brussels every week”. These questionable soundbites gave vent for anger, flooded the discourse and resonated with people in a way explaining the benefits of Free Movement of Goods, EU subsidies and net benefit of migration never could. It was the first piece of concrete evidence that ‘just trust your gut’ politics has made it mainstream in the UK.
Historically, since the era of the enlightenment, we as humans have developed and relied upon safeguards to provide reference point by which we can somewhat objectively agree on what is true and accurate. These include schools, science, legal systems, the media etc.
And while not perfect or always correct, this truth-producing infrastructure provides solid ground from which public discourse and debate can flow from.
Yet, there is substantial evidence to suggest – exemplified by both the U.S general election & Brexit – that we are shifting to a kind of politics in which feelings and emotions trump facts and truth.
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist and author of a bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, says we have a natural tendency to steer clear of facts that would force our brains to work harder. People will not want to investigate questionable sweeping statements or assertions if it requires lengthy contemplation and concentration to comprehend a complex issue.
Tyranny of the Anecdote
This poses a potentially deadly threat to societal cohesion. How can we solve society’s problems if we have no common truth-providing infrastructure from which to agree on?
For example, dealing with the problems of delays and overcrowding in the NHS. There has been debate over whether immigration or a severe lack of government funding is the primary reason for its misgivings. How do we know what the root cause of the problem is? Do we look at a report by the National Care Commission or listen to a story from our grandmother that she couldn’t get a GP appointment living in an area of high immigration?
There is growing number of pundits and politicians telling us to choose the latter. This is what American comedian, Stephen Colbert describes as believing things that “feel right” or things that “should be true”.
Donald Trump is the epitome of this, notoriously describing Climate Change as a hoax created by the Chinese. And it’s impossible to rebut this ridiculous argument when his followers either don’t care about the facts or believe in a conspiracy that the science is manufactured to serve the elites.
The Economist notes:
‘“A lot of people are saying…” is one of Donald Trump’s favourite phrases and questioning the provenance, rather than accuracy, of anything that goes against him (“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”). And when the distance between what feels true and what the facts say grows too great, it can always be bridged with a handy conspiracy theory.’
And social media has become the bread to the conspiracy butter. While having many upsides and benefits, it has enabled people of like-mindedness to filter out news and media which does not align with their personal and political beliefs. One can follow news that never challenges but only reinforces their ideas about the world and tailors a narrative of events to suit its audience. Thus, once established the online community can be far more potent and important to people than their geographical one.
The priority of democratic nations therefore, must be in developing our institutions to cope and be trusted by all in the Internet age. Having a well informed public is unequivocally a common good and the issue must be treated with the sincerity it deserves.
Until now, politics, media and truth producing infrastructure have had to adapt to the structures of Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms. Often being tangled in a malaise of memes and cat videos. Perhaps having a separation between the “social” and the “news” media would be an appropriate place to start?