A train wreck of lies, bias, politics and stupidity

what the brexit referendum can tell us about how to make politics less dumb

The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
— Isaac Asimov

It happened. We all saw it. The British people threw off the shackles of the experts, the economists, the bankers, the politicians, the media, the liberals, the liberal media, foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers and annoying Germans to finally rid themselves of the plague of sound economic management. The pound rose to new highs, all sectors of the economy reported between 200% and 500% increases in productivity, we ceased needing to buy cars from Germany and electronics from Shenzhen overnight.

Except it didn’t happen. The pound tanked and has (even more worryingly) not recovered, the FTSE fell off a cliff, and the economy slowed; the day after the referendum we were in a worse place to become self-dependent than the day before.

The problem with the referendum, and with much of modern politics is that it all makes a fatal assumption; eventually, the truth will win out. The people who understand a subject will spot when someone is lying about that subject, those people will tell the media, the media will tell everyone else, and the person who is lying will lose. It only has one flaw, what if a campaign is built on distrust of media and academia. Then it makes perfect sense that they (whoever they are) are are the lying, cheating ones, that they have a vendetta against you. That even though a cheating scientist would be discredited long, long before they could be used to provide any evidence, let alone shift scientific consensus, there is a conspiracy of the entire thing that no one has bothered to rat on. This ‘I’m right because I’m special’ thinking allowed a fringe theory to snowball until it engulfed the UK, drastically changing the our relationship with the entire world and as a result everyone, the UK included, is worse off for it.

Less insane (and less common) versions of this argument go along the lines of; how can science be trusted if scientists are biased? Although this is partially a valid concern, it ignores that everyone else is also biased, and that scientists have to reconcile their theories with raw data, while everyone else has to reconcile theirs with what they learn from their biased news sources with multiple levels of spin specifically designed to confirm what they already believe. Bias may be built into every judgement we make, but that does not make all judgements equally biased. Yes, science is wrong more than most scientists care to admit, but it’s still the best thing we have. The reason why it exists is because it works better than anything else.

I would argue that in any political system that puts as much emphasis on the battle of incompatible ideologies as ours, the formation of anti-science groups is inevitable. A pro-intellectual majority precipitates backlash and an anti-intellectual majority, and vice versa. In many ways, what we are doing now is the equivalent of fundamentally changing the traffic laws every few years from extremely anti-car to extremely pro-car and back again; the roads work because we found a way to stop ideologies forming and going against each other, but with many other aspects of government, we haven’t. Almost every political system trends towards an ideological war between two main groups which each (on some level) define themselves as the opposite of the other, and where no one can suggest one side is right in some limited way without being completely and totally ‘on their side’. Ideology in this form is actively hostile to critical thinking, and by extension, rational, unbiased government.

In order to give science ideology-free manoeuvring room, we need a much greater focus on the achievement of priorities and not the ideologically motivated implementation of policies. We need to be able to judge government not on the rules it imposes but the actual results that those rule changes bring, because politics has become so bogged down in detail that the big picture has become whatever you want it to be. One of the most important questions facing our world is weather politics will be able to move past legislating using ideological gut reactions, or if we will continue acting like babies who think we know better than everyone else because of our magical, perfect intuition.