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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The populist paradox [feedly]

The populist paradox


Danny Finkelstein in the Times is good on the need to resist attempts to bully the Supreme Court. He says:

Our institutions – parliament, government, the courts – must serve a plural society, they must balance interests and protect rights.

The case for doing so lies in large part in cognitive diversity – the idea that a plurality of viewpoints is wiser than an individual one. Edmund Burke famously wrote:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages (Par 145).

Herein lies a virtue of the rule of law: laws represent the capital of wisdom of ages, and so should act as a check upon our present and perhaps fleeting judgments. Similarly, as Danny says, parliament "allows diverse representation."

Which brings me to a paradox. Academic research in recent years – inspired by Daniel Kahneman – has taught us that Burke was right. Our judgments can be flawed in many ways. Our private stock of wisdom (and knowledge too) is indeed small. We'd therefore expect to see more support for institutions that embody diversity and which check our judgements. And yet the rise of populism represents the exact opposite of this – the urge that one's opinion must over-ride all constraints.

What explains this paradox?

You might object that parliament and the courts aren't as diverse as Danny says. The former is dominated by PPEist clones and the Supreme Court judges are old, posh and white. This, though, is an argument for ensuring more genuine diversity, not for allowing mob opinion to be unchecked.

Another answer is that academic research hasn't affected public opinion. Yes, the BBC does broadcast some good programmes about social science. But it is scrupulous in ensuring these are confined to a ghetto on Radio 4 whilst slots which get bigger audiences are filled by speak your branes drivel.

But there's something else. Increasing academic awareness of the limits of our judgment has been outweighed by the rise of narcissism. Everyone (not just young people) is a special snowflake whose opinion must be respected. It's this, saysAnjana Ahuja, that underpins the populist backlash against science:

Facts and the search for objective truth make up the essence of science; a disregard for the same is not only a hallmark of the new politics but a badge of honour…Why is science under siege? One possible explanation is that it favours objective evidence over subjective experience*.

We see the same thing in Arron Banks' efforts to teach Mary Beard about the fall of the Roman Empire and Douglas Carswell telling scientists about the causes of tides. As Burke said, "they have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own." My readers don't need telling about the Dunning-Kruger effect or that Daniel Kahneman said that overconfidence is the most damaging and widespread of mistakes – but many people still do.

To be clear, my beef here is not so much with what you believe as how you believe it. There is a respectable case for Brexit, though it's weakening. What is unjustifiable is a fanaticism which wants to over-ride evidence, expertise and traditional institutions. This form of populism is not just a political problem but an intellectual and, dare I say it psychological, disorder.  

* She's writing about populist opposition to climate science. But we saw the same thing years ago when parents refused to give their children MMRvaccinations against the scientific evidence.

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