Nothing but the truth?

On the BBC radio the first in a new series called The New World and entitled Nothing But The Truth? was broadcast this morning and makes a nice companion piece for my post yesterday Democracy and its Discontents. I recommend listening to it (about 40 minutes) as, to me at least, it was interesting and informative and implies the progressive left and liberal political project has to go beyond seeing their problems being due to deficits in education or information. I made a few notes while listening.

The question the programme addresses is “are we living in a post truth age”? The answer arrived at is no, but with qualifications. The programmes is divided into five chapters: 1. Organs of mass deception; 2. Truthiness; 3. Narcissus and Echo; 4. Inside Job and 5.  Tall Tales.

Facts rarely change people’s minds even when they contradict their beliefs. Ideological investment trumps facts. Indeed counter facts will often reinforce the believed ideological narrative rather than challenge it. As becomes clear later in the programme, this seems to be about who you trust (predominately on tribal grounds) and the perceived ‘truthiness’ of the narrative. What we think of as an account based on rationality is more often in practice a process of rationalisation, a retrospective justification of the preferred narrative that accommodates or nullifies any apparently contradictory facts. In this process feelings come first and the facts are made to fit. As one of the interviewees said, we waterboard the facts until they tell us what we want to hear. Rationalisation involves selective filtering of data and the reinterpretation or denial of facts.  (Incidentally, according to Thomas Kuhn’s account of science and how it develops, this is exactly what scientist do as well until reality catches up with their conceptual gymnastics and they have to give up on their old theories).

A piece of research that demonstrates this is involves some fairly complex numerical data that (depending on what you were told it was about) measured the efficacy of a cream to reduce skin rashes or the efficacy of gun control laws to reduce crime. The data needed a reasonable knowledge of arithmetic to understand and draw a conclusion from, for instance the difference between raw numbers, proportions and ratios. Two groups were selected to be equivalent in terms of the mix of numeracy and political leanings in each group. One was given the data and told it is the result of research to see how effective or otherwise a skin cream is. The identical data was given to the other group who were told it was the result of research to see if gun controls were effective or otherwise in reducing gun crime. It is important to note that both research projects were fictitious and therefor so was the data. In each group the less numerate were not able to judge what the conclusion of the research was. In the skin care group those who did have the skills all concluded that the application of the cream significantly improved skin condition. In the gun control group, likewise the less numerate couldn’t make a judgement, or at least one that they could illustrate and back up with the data. Of the numerate the more liberal and left leaning subjects came to the conclusion that gun control did reduce crime (the correct answer given the data) and the more right leaning and conservative found that the data didn’t show any reduction. Their ideologically invested narrative about the ineffectiveness of gun control to reduce crime trumped the figures, the facts as they were presented.

Fact and truth are not the same thing. Facts do not necessarily undermine the ‘truthiness’, a term coined by another interviewee, of the preferred narrative. This explains why ‘fact checking’ has had little if any effect in undermining the obvious lies and obfuscations of politicians. It’s reasonable to say now that the £350 million paid to the EU weekly (both Boris Johnson and Gove explicitly and unambiguously asserted in the face of a multitude of fact checkers’ contradictions) was a lie but it had no apparent effect on changing significant numbers of votes. People are usually unfazed by contradictory facts. The perceived truthfulness of the narrative nullifies the odd contradictory or false fact.

At this point in the programme I was amazed to hear that two thirds of all US citizens get their news mainly from social media. And within the world of social media most of us (as indeed in many other aspects of our lives) reside in an echo chamber. We look deeply into the pool of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere and see reflected back to us the immaculate purity of our own thoughts, ideas and attitudes. Life in the echo chamber is spent mostly by just nodding along in approval and recognition. It occurred to me listening to this that the owners and managers of social media platforms reinforce this as part of their business model. Algorithms are working invisibly in the background offering you more of the same – people like you bought….., other groups you might join that you would find interesting are …., recommended individuals to follow or befriend, and so on. All in the name of advertising and monetised clicks. Corral your prospective consumers into a like minded silo and get them to unwittingly collaborate in guiding and reinforcing their purchasing behaviours whether into goods, life styles or political world views. Social media is a significant phase shift in the creation and exploitation of echo chambers. We even tend to sort ourselves into silos geographically. (This section of the programme has some dodgy psychology in it but the general point was well made). We move (those of us that can afford to) to nice areas with good schools. We are unlikely to chat to anyone especially challenging politically at the school gate. Others tend to be trapped into communities of similar life chances and experiences which they deal with practically and psychologically with a largely shared outlook on life, the same pubs, the same newspapers, the same TV programmes. We generally don’t seek out, we try to avoid discussion with, people we don’t agree with. This is obviously a challenge to the notion that an informed citizenship and electorate depends upon open public debate. Public debate only works when people are open minded and in principle are prepared to change their minds. We are either not prepared to do this or, more often perhaps, rarely find ourselves in a position in our daily lives where there is an opportunity to do so. I must say this is where an academic life has some advantages, especially as a student.

The section of the programme entitled Inside Job was quite telling. A republican senator who scored just about 100% on all conservative measures (gun lobby, creationism, pro-life, free marketeer, and so on) had absolutely no truck with the climate change lobby. The messages were coming from atheist scientists, left wing democrats (Al Gore for God’s sake) and so it had to be wrong, even a conspiracy. So his attitude to climate change arguments was almost completely based upon the ideological origins, as he saw it, of the claims and proposed policies.  Then his son said to him one day all this republican stuff is fine dad but if you want me to vote for you you’ve got to revisit your attitude towards climate change. He did and his account of how and why is interesting. It took time but he was finally convinced by a visit to inspect ice core samples (evidence, facts!!) but the clincher is he when he began to see it as his christian duty. So after 12 years in the Senate at the next election he added a putative climate change policy to his manifesto and was promptly thrown out with a record breaking low vote. He came to the conclusion, after the opportunity to spend more time with his family in quiet contemplation and reflection (and possibly prayer), that the problem was not an information deficit. He would not have won the argument with more facts. He would have needed to speak to his voters in ‘republican’ language rather than in the liberal and scientific language of the climate change movement and lobby. He went as far as to say that it counted against him that “he sounded too informed”. (God help us).  He said if the problem of climate change and the forecast consequences of global warming had been raised by the military in terms of national security, immigration, challenges to US economic supremacy, etc. then debates today in the US would be about solutions and policies, not on whether it was happening or not (or, if you listen to Trump, that the whole thing is a Chinese conspiracy and digging coal will make America Great Again). So, as far as he is concerned people tend to decide upon what is true or not on the basis of who they trust, whose tribe it is, and not on any facts that seem to contradict that truth.

So it’s not the facts that count, true or false, asserted or retracted. What counts is the ideological ‘truthiness’ of the narrative in your view. It is how true it seems at the ideological ‘gut’ level that counts, that informs voters’ decisions. It’s how it feels as a way of understanding and dealing with your own life’s experience and disappointments. Does it make you feel good about yourself? Facts are never enough. But our republican convert offers a ray of hope. Ideologically informed narrative trumps facts, but not in the longer run (something Kuhn says about the development of science too). When the narratives that explain the world to us and make us feel comfortable about ourselves and guide our decisions eventually come up against reality, this can lead to disappointment, disillusionment, anger, despair. It is an assault on our beliefs but also on our self-identity. We’ve been betrayed, made fools of, vulnerable to new narratives of blame and targets for hatred.  It’s not a good place to be individually or collectively. As our republican man says, there could be dark days of reckoning. Some one should put Johnson, Gove, Davis, etc. in touch with him perhaps.

So what can we do? One recommendation I am going to try is that we should trust ourselves less and recognise the echo chamber we live in – all of us, not just liberal metropolitans. We need to listen to voices beyond the wall of our echo chambers and silos. Jo Fidgen, our presenter and guide, finishes by encouraging us to ask the opinion of someone we disagree and listen without interrupting them. And without assuming they’re stupid. Don’t assume that just because you like a story it’s true (it may be of course but you shouldn’t simply assume it is). Your story is just as much a rationalisation as is theirs. But they are not necessarily equivalent, of equal merit. As another interviewee said, politics should be disciplined, moderated, conditioned, by expert knowledge and facts, not replaced by them.

Democracy and its discontents

A Facebook friend posted this quote from Asimov and it prompted me to return to some thoughts I have had on democracy since the democratic votes that won the referendum on EU membership for the leavers campaign and Trump won the USA presidential election. Asimov was writing about America but there has been a similar anti-intellectualism in the UK for generations, particularly in England. This has been manifest in a number of ways in the past – the preference for the amateur over the professional (for instance as portrayed in Chariots of Fire), the privileging of commonsense over abstract theory and most recently in Michael Gove’s claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He’s rowed back on this recently and now says he was referring to economists in particular. He said that he wanted people to trust their own judgement rather than listen to experts. But on what are people’s judgements made? Is it on the basis of their own research, their own examination of the evidence, or perhaps just on the evident facts? I think for most of us the first two are unlikely. So we are probably most swayed on the basis of facts as they are presented to us in the media and by politicians and self appointed opinion leaders, amongst them Gove himself of course. At the same time he is encouraging people to trust their own judgement he is of course trying to influence that judgement by encouraging them to ignore experts. One fact offered in the brexit referendum campaign was that we sent the EU £350 million a week and, post brexit, this was pledged to be spent on the NHS. The first is a rather selective fact as it is a gross figure and takes no account of the money that comes back from the EU. In fact the rebate is deducted before anything is sent so in practice only about £55 million goes out. And this takes no account of the significant financial income we get via business, trade, grants etc. by virtue of our membership. As is now becoming increasingly clear in the aftermath of the vote as these less visible returns to us become evident, we get a positive return on our ‘expenditure’ to the EU. As for spending an additional £350 million a week on the NHS, it’s a promise for the future. That the pledge was made is a fact. The promised expenditure, if it happens, lies somewhere in the future.

The Asimov quote claims that the anti-intellectualism rests on the false notion that one individual’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge. If this is so, and in theory it is since every vote is equal and has the same influence on the resulting decision, than policy driven by the numerical count of votes alone could be based upon the aggregate ignorance of the people or the aggregate wisdom. Who knows? Obviously I think that my decision to vote to remain was based upon knowledge and, being in possession of that knowledge, I can’t understand why anyone would vote for leaving other than supposing they must lack my knowledge. Why they lack the knowledge is an open question. Lack of reliable information or being exposed to false information? Lack of a general knowledge about what the EU is, how it works and, despite its flaws and problems, how it has and would continue to benefit our economy and security? I think we ‘the people’ have made the wrong choice. But I don’t know for sure. Time may prove that is me and others like me who voted to remain made the wrong choice. The point is that in reality neither the leavers or the remainers know if they have made the right choice. If that is all there is to it, that ‘the people have spoken’ (in fact 37% of the eligible vote which didn’t but arguably should have included 16 and 17 year olds since it is their future we were gambling with) then the executive and legislative wings of our parliamentary system should just implement the policy diktat of the 37%. However, I would have thought the problem with letting the unmediated decisions of multiple ‘men on the Clapham omnibus‘ drive final policy decisions is obvious given the complexity of the law and governance and its necessary dependence on intricate and detailed knowledge. This is what the role of parliament is, not the role of the people. We vote for the people we want to make decisions on our behalf, based on the best knowledge and evidence available, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a measured assessment of the nation’s best interest and how best to secure it through legislation and policy. Yes, I know it doesn’t work this way either, but at least we can reverse our electoral decisions periodically and can seek to influence how our masters specify pros and cons and the nation’s best interest. This is why I think parliament should be involved in the over sight and conduct of the brexit negotiations and, through the opportunity of debating and voting on it, be responsible for the final decision.

One very reasonable argument against policy dictated and designed purely by experts and technocrats is that it makes our democratic institutions and processes redundant. They know best so let them get on with it. Rather than elections we should have exams and peer selection. The reason this is a bad idea is that technical expertise on achieving given ends very often has nothing to say about what the ends should be. This discussion requires not just instrumental knowledge but a morally engaged wisdom. In any decision there will be unintended consequences, winners and losers, collateral damages of various sorts, medium and long term consequences that may make implementing today’s good idea into a massive shot in the foot. But if this is a flaw and danger in technocratic rule then equally is it a flaw and danger of populist rule. If all we need to do is implement unquestioningly the decisions of ‘the people’ as expressed in referendums, why would we need parliament in its current form and the democratic process as we currently understand it? Democratic procedure would be reduced to mere opinion polls and politics to the unquestioning and unmediated implementation of opinions thus expressed. On the one hand we have the dictatorship of the technocrats and on the other hand the dictatorship of the masses as orchestrated by undemocratic opinion leaders and demagogues.  It is negotiating a course through these two extremes that is the essential role of parliament and our democratic system however imperfect. Heaven knows, there are serious problems with our party political and parliamentary system and what passes for democracy but collectively these are still immeasurably better than either a dictatorship of the technocrats or of the the masses as ventiloquised by mass media and political demagogues.