Remain voters were no better qualified to decide about our EU membership than Leavers were.

I’m surprised how rarely people with a scientific background are prepared to challenge the way political discourse takes place.

Photo from here.

For example, in ‘On Television’, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about the debased standards of popular debate. He characterised much of it as “demogogic simplification”. For instance, let’s look at the way that it’s entirely acceptable, in political exchanges, to neutralise sensible observations by turning them into an insult.

To illustrate this, there is an important link to be made between the way we discuss consumer protection, and the way we talk about big constitutional issues.

Let’s start by asking ourselves how qualified consumers are to make decisions about either the suitability of the food that they buy, or the ethical standards under which it is produced.

I would never deny that it it is a fairly fundamental human right to be able to make decisions on both of these issues. However, it is also obvious that the vast majority of consumers are unable to exercise a real choice because they don’t have the time, or the access to information that they would need to do this properly.

Just as importantly, if they were able to do so, they wouldn’t have the ability to exercise the quality of judgement that they would need to do it well. I’ll give anyone who disagrees with me on this issue a short, hyphenated, slam-dunk argument; Anti-vaxxers. Or maybe I’ll refer you to a very straightforward cognitive bias: The Dunning Kruger Effect.

I’ve never seen this argument successfully refuted in any sustained debate, but is in the simplistic drive-by popular discourse, the accusation of “nannying” will usually do the trick when anyone proposes any consumer-protection regulations.

Rather than bother to challenge this, there seems to have been a widely-taken decision in liberal circles to just shrug and give the argument up. As the political wisdom puts it, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Nannying is seen as one of those peripheral issues in politics, one of the less toxic alleys in the culture wars where there are bigger fish to fry. As a sidebar argument, there’s an irony here; it’s generally an argument that is popular in reactionary circles, and it is often used to accuse their opponents of snobbery.

From a rationalist point of view, I’d argue that it is a huge mistake to concede this point. It allows a free pass on much bigger issues.

For example, if you say that people don’t have the time, knowledge or understanding they would need to participate directly in big constitutional decision (or more generally, most complex democratic decisions), you’ll be called an elitist. It’s broadly the same charge as “nannying” and it makes no more sense. [1]

The problem with holding a referendum on leaving the EU is not that leave voters were too stupid to participate in this decision (as many Remainers claim). It is that the entire electorate weren’t qualified to do so.

The way to decide questions of this kind is not to aggregate individual opinions. It is to deliberate in a way that has been proven to make good decisions – ones that can sustain the claim to being the will of the people over a period of time. Anyone who has studied democratic theory in any depth will know that there is a strong consensus behind the view that representative democracy does this in the least-worst way.

This brings me to another, related point. The vast majority of people haven’t studied democratic theory in any depth (including most of the scientifically-minded people that I am addressing this article to).

There is a uniquely elevated temptation to over-estimate the popular understanding of what democracy is, and how it works. The “area of popular understanding most blighted by hubris” race is a very crowded field, but I’d argue, democratic theory may win it hands down. I made this point recently in a short series of tweets;

(In that thread, I hit ‘send’ before also marking ‘data-marketing’ as neutral).

Our current political culture is dominated by a distrust of hubristic politicians – their overconfidence and their big failed schemes. It’s an accusation that everyone who votes in a referendum would be well advised to level at themselves.

Footnote 1: I’m not the first person to draw this comparison, by the way. Bismarck has been widely quoted as saying “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made”. Like most political truisms, there’s no evidence that this was ever said by the person to whom it is attributed.