A lot of analysis of who voted which way, in relation to both Brexit and Trump, has highlighted the fact that level of educational attainment is a good indicator of the way people voted. The existence of that correlation is inarguable, but correlation isn’t the same as causality, and there’s an obvious danger that trying to explore the issue can sound like a form of intellectual snobbery. I’m not sure, however, that educational attainment is the right factor here – it looks to me more a problem of people’s willingness to believe things which are untrue. That’s about much more than the level of paper qualifications which people gain, and whilst there may be a correlation with education levels, it’s a problem which can also afflict apparently well-educated individuals as well. We seem to live in a world where people are increasingly behaving as though they are not just entitled to their own opinions, they’re entitled to their own facts as well.
Michael Gove’s famous statement that people have had enough of experts seemed to be an attempt to tap into this tendency to believe in an alternative reality. What do ‘experts’ know about anything?
Take the question of creationism, or intelligent design, for example. I was surprised to read recently that over 40% of Americans believe that the earth was created, as it currently is, less than 10,000 years ago. Despite all the advances in science and understanding – many of them originating in the USA – there’s a huge undercurrent that simply rejects it all. And they have apparently serious politicians whose response is to argue that evolution is merely one theory, and that alternative theories have equal validity and should therefore be taught alongside evolution in science classes. The UK isn’t immune to this nonsense and has taken formal steps to ban it from schools, although the problem hasn’t reached US levels. I don’t know which way creationists voted in the US elections, but I suspect that there were rather more in the Trump camp than the Clinton camp.
Or take climate change. Trump is clearly an out-and-out rejecter of the idea that human activity is causing climate change, and of the idea that we should do anything about it. Climate change denial is a strong thread in UKIP as well, and there are more than a few sceptical Tories. Again, it’s an issue where the science is strong and clear, but people choose to reject it. Alternative views which can be extracted from a quick internet trawl are obviously as valid as those of scientists who’ve spent their entire working lives in the field, aren’t they? Obviously not, yet plenty choose to believe that they are.
And then there’s immigration. All the facts show clearly that immigration makes a net positive contribution to the economy, and that immigrants are more likely to be net contributors to public services than to make disproportionate use of them. But mere facts don’t fit the prejudices, so are ignored. Worse, because electors ignore them, some politicians seem to think that they must do so too. Supposing that a survey showed that large numbers of people believed the world to be flat – would a Labour politician say that ‘we must change our policies to accommodate people’s legitimate concerns about the shape of the world’? How different is that, in principle, from their position on immigration?
This fact-free approach to politics is fed and nurtured by some sections of the tabloid press, who freely distort facts or even publish outright lies and then call them ‘news’. It’s understandable that anyone who gets his or her ‘news’ from such sources will end up at the very least confused about reality. What’s a lot less easy to understand is why politicians fall in with this instead of challenging it. There is plenty of scope for policy disagreement based on real facts; we don’t need alternative ‘facts’ as well.