Monday 29 October 2018

Mere evidence isn't enough

Many years ago, I was working my way along Barry Road in Barry, canvassing door to door in a local council election.  I remember a conversation with one particular voter, who told me that he could never vote Plaid because ‘that Gwynfor Evans’ had a secret guerrilla army in the hills.  I tried to reason with him, pointing out that Gwynfor was, in fact a renowned pacifist and had always argued for a peaceful approach to politics.  The response was swift: ‘that’s just a front to hide the fact that he has an army in the hills’ was the gist of it.  It’s a classic example of the way in which, once an idea is firmly implanted in the brain, mere facts are not only never going to shift it, they are themselves interpreted in ways which actually reinforce the idea that they should be enough to dispel.  I brought the discussion to an end and moved rapidly on, marking him down as a definite ‘no’ for the election in question, and probably all future ones to boot.  It was a frustrating experience, of course – but sometimes further debate is pointless.
Confirmation bias’ is something that we all suffer from to a greater or lesser extent; evidence supporting our own priors is preferred over evidence which challenges them.  We’ve seen a great deal of the same thing in relation to Brexit, and recent work has revealed that, for instance, 42% of the UK electorate still believe that infamous message on the side of the big red bus to be true, despite all the rebuttals that have been widely publicised.  The same survey also revealed how far away from the factual truth people’s beliefs are on other issues, including the impact of migration.
For those who believe that the EU is an undemocratic front for German imperial ambitions, intent on punishing and bullying the UK for having the temerity to try and escape its clutches, imposing on us its straight bananas, expensive light bulbs, and underpowered vacuum cleaners, and demanding that we submit to its every whim, contradictory facts merely ‘prove’ how right they are.  All forecasts of problems are just bad losers refusing to accept the result, and all obstacles are just an attempt to frustrate democracy.  Whilst there is some evidence that opinions are shifting slowly, I am far from confident at this stage that a new referendum would produce a wildly different result, and I fear at times that those of us who wish to avoid the damage which Brexit will cause are only speaking to each other – and, even worse, only hearing our own voices.
It’s a common misconception that campaigners canvassing in an election are like missionaries, out to convert others to their own point of view.  It isn’t really true, though – the main aim is to identify supporters with a view to then ensuring that they vote, in the hope that achieving a favourable differential turnout will facilitate electoral victory.  In the context of that conversation in Barry all those years ago, marking the individual down as a ‘no’ was enough.  Political canvassers are not the same thing as the door-to-door callers from some religious groups – the latter truly want to save your soul, the former merely want to know how you’re going to vote.  I don’t know how many people the missionaries convert; I suspect that the answer is very, very few, but their absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing somehow keeps them going in the face of multiple and repeated rejection.  (That last part, at least, is something that they do have in common with political canvassers!)
For those of us who’d like to change the decision on Brexit, the way in which facts are dismissed as ‘fake news’ is one indication of the way in which faith in the true path of Brexit has become akin, in some ways, to a cult, and that is part of what makes it so hard to change opinions.  There’s nothing particularly new about the fact that confronting cult members with hard facts and evidence has never been a spectacularly effective way of changing their minds, but what is, perhaps, new in the past decade or two is the extent to which ‘alternative’ facts and evidence are so readily available to reinforce any beliefs when they are challenged. As the director of the policy institute at King’s College London put it in the newspaper article: “Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit solely with a more evidence-based description won’t land, because it misses a large part of the point: our allegiances affect our view of reality as much as the other way round”.  One of the problems with the anti-Brexit campaign from the outset has been the absence of any attempt to present a positive case for European unity; it has always been mostly based on presenting the negatives of Brexit.  Changing the underlying allegiance is much, much harder than merely presenting facts and evidence.
The scientific approach to analysis of evidence is by no means as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as many of us have optimistically chosen to believe, and we are seeing the consequences of that, not just in relation to political questions, but also on issues such as climate change.  None of this is an argument for ceasing to promote facts and hard evidence; after all, if some of the great minds of the past had simply given up, we would all still ‘know’, with absolute certainty, that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything else revolved around it.  We should, though, be a bit more circumspect about the impact that we are having, and accept that, to coin a phrase, the Enlightenment is a continuing process not just a historical event.

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