This is what’s wrong with Britain today

August 16, 2012

UPDATE: It appears that the post I originally referred to here has been taken down. The Wayback Machine does not have anything on it, regrettably, so you’ll have to rely on my quotes as representative. The author has put up another post about the coverage the original post received from the local media here.

Handily summarised for you in blog post form by an Ipswich councillor. This is not a parody. This is really someone who writes a blog post entitled ‘Why I don’t listen to experts (or facts and figures)’ and means it.

I know what you’re thinking. No-one could possibly be that arrogant as to assume they know absolutely everything. You’d be wrong.

“I have long been a believer that we need only use our gut instinct to make any decision and to form a pretty intelligent opinion. I didn’t need anyone to show me how to look after a baby (surely one of the most difficult jobs in the world and full of danger) and in fact was quite indignant with anyone who tried to show me. […]I have not needed anyone to tell me that global warming is a sham. I knew that years ago. The same as my gut instinct told me that the so called Ice Age, in the 70’s was a load of old rubbish.The same as I knew that this country was in great financial danger, probably just before Vince Cable and I was warning lots of people to cut down their credit card bills. I just sensed it. I also knew Clegg was a salesman (Radio 2 quoted me the day after the so called TV interviews) and I knew that David Davis would be better accepted than Cameron.   I also dreamt that my roof would blow off in a hurricane the night before it actually did in October 1987, In fact my dream was so accurate, my then boyfriend called me a witch.”

Apparently, your ‘gut instinct’ can tell you how to look after a child, assess the state of the global climate, comprehensively assess the state of the economy, fail to predict the next Conservative leader, and predict when your roof will fly off. But it can’t tell you that the so-called ‘TV interviews’ were actually called ‘debates’.

The sheer amount of arrogance lying in the presumption that anyone can know all of things absolutely is astonishing. This is a classic case of confirmation bias, one made all the more amusing by this statement:

“For if you think the world and it’s people is an awful place filled with terrible ‘types’ of communities, then you will find it so, wherever you go. But if like me you believe that everyone is basically good and doing their best in a life that still has a lot of answers to give up, then you will find it so, wherever you go.”

Apparently, confirmation bias is a good thing. Not analysing your own assumptions because they make you happy is a good thing. Anything that makes you unhappy you don’t have to believe, because your gut instinct tells you it’s wrong.

It’s fine to trust your gut instinct, because experts you agree with tell you you can:

“There is a book called Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about ‘The power of thinking without thinking’ and how we all have this instinct of just ‘knowing’. A recommended read to fully understand where I am going with this. […] Our subconscious literally has millions of pieces of information going into it and so apparently 95% goes into our subconscious leaving the 5% for our conscious to reasonably manage. The information in our subconscious can be tapped into easily if we listen without our ears and look without our eyes. Its all there, everything we need for survival, success and knowledge, and I trust mine 99.99%,”

Let’s be charitable and assume that you can acquire knowledge through photosynthesis. These are the things that would need to be true for the claims above to hold true:

  1. You intuitively know how to be a parent, which is why everyone is great at looking after children and no-one is ever messed up by bad parenting.
  2. It is possible to adequately assess the global climate using observations taken only from Ipswich.
  3. The credit risk associated with several people you know who have credit cards is directly correlated with the state of the global banking system.
  4. You know that opposition politicians sometimes try to put their case across in an underhand way.
  5. You don’t understand why citing someone who lost an election as ‘more approachable’ does not bolster your argument.
  6. It is possible to assess the exact direction and strength of a gust of wind twenty four hours before it happens. Actually, I wish this were true, as it’d be very handy for operating the electricity grid.

But confirmation bias and random selecting of preferred experts in line with your prejudices is one thing. Quite another is rejecting expert advice entirely:

“For every expert that tells you Yin, there will be someone that tells you Yang. For every fact and figure that tells you this is happening, there will be charts that says it isn’t.”

Because there is debate in elite discourse, we should reject it. Because often a matter is not settled, we should reject disputation and scholarship as routes to the truth.

“I have had enough over the years of being told ‘the truth’ by experts only for it to be retracted by differnt experts years later so now I listen to all sides and just use by gut feel to come to a decision without going into the nitty gritty detail, reexamining, looking at all the stats (which are usually lies anyway) I take a big picture view and then act upon it, in all areas of my life.”

Because expert opinion differs, it cannot be relied on. Statistics lie, and the only way of accessing the truth is through one’s own intuition.

No. We should listen to experts precisely because they disagree, because they are engaged in an iterative process of trying to get at the truth. We should listen more to experts who change their view when new evidence comes to light, because fundamentally knowledge is about what is real, rather than what we’d prefer to be real.

It is this: the valuing of a preferred reality, enabled by a media that aims to serve palatable news product and tame ‘experts’ who never deviate from a single ideological position, which is what is wrong with Britain today. We did not become a great country by wallowing in a reality we constructed to please us, and we will not remain a great country if the kind of hopelessly arrogant thinking outlined above is not challenged.

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