Tuesday, 13 March 2018


“There was a scientific study that showed vaccines cause autism.”

“Actually, the researcher in that study lost his medical license, and overwhelming research since then has shown no link between vaccines and autism.”

“Well, regardless, it's still my personal right as a parent to make decisions for my child.”

A familiar argument. A debate that starts with testable statements, but then, when the truth becomes inconvenient, the person takes a flight from facts.

In our time of unrivalled access to information, it has become easy to test and establish facts—whether in physics, psychology or policy—but many have wondered why bias and polarization have not been defeated. When people are confronted with facts, such as the well-established safety of immunization, why do these facts seem to have so little effect and fake news takes over?

Let’s look at another familiar trope that's relevant today: “The EU caused the decline of the UK’s fishing fleet.” A modicum of research will establish that

  1. Over-fishing by UK trawlers caused the decimation of the fish stocks many, many decades ago – it was the cause of the Iceland Cod Wars before we even joined the EU. Short term interests trumped sustainability at every turn. Any mention of 'conservation' was met with angry denouncements by fishermen. Yes, they were sawing off the branch they were sitting on, but they were persuaded that conservationists were the enemy. They didn't care. 
  2. The UK never stopped the Dutch and Spanish quota hoppers by stipulating the %age catch they had to land in the UK, which could easily have been done within EU rules. 
  3. 23% of UK quota is caught by one Dutch vessel the Cornelius Vrolijk. 44% of the UK quota is owned by Dutch and Spanish companies. 61% of UK quota is owned by just three companies - Dutch, Spanish and British. Why is this the case? It was down to each fishing nation in the EU as to how to manage its quota, not for the EU to make the rules. Unlike most EU fishing nations we took a Thatcherite approach to fishing quotas, that they were a commodity that can be bought and sold, tied to a fishing vessel. If a UK fisherman sold his vessel, the quota was sold with it. Other nations tied quotas to ports or made other sensible arrangements. No other nation has anything but a small part of its quota owned by others, and no other nation has so much of its quota concentrated in the hands of a few companies and not in the hands of small fishermen, for whom it is not a matter for the balance sheet but for their livelihood. 
All of the above are testable facts, but they are ignored by many and they remain convinced that the EU destroyed our fishing fleets. No amount of presenting facts will change their minds - they're immune to factual information that goes against their belief. It's like religion.

Ideology has come into play, where fake news is accepted as incontrovertible fact in order to support a preconceived ideology, and ideology is not a good basis for decision making, as it’s invariably untested in any meaningful way.

The graphic above is American, but it can apply anywhere.

At its core, an ideology is something you believe because you believe it, not because it's based on testable fact or evidence. It is a moral and intellectual anchor, as well as a lens through which the world is viewed. We come to our ideologies through different paths, some more valid than others - our family, our society, and our culture. We seem to be predisposed to certain political ideologies based upon which values speak to us most loudly. We then take those values as if they were the truth and proceed from there. They become bound with our personality and define us, which is why they're hard to combat.

Ideology also leads to motivated reasoning, to the marshalling of our cognitive abilities not to find the truth but to defend the answer that the most primitive and emotional parts of our brain have latched onto - we seek out evidence that tends to fit our ideology and, once found, we are not motivated to question it. That's called confirmation bias - when evidence challenges our ideology, we are very good at finding fault with it.

The far right and the far left are motivated by ideology, mostly of the wrong kind - the kind that limits freedom of the individual, which, perversely, is the ultimate aim of democracy. Democracy is a tool, not an aim in and of itself. If democracy leads to one extreme or the other, its purpose has been defeated.

Incidentally, talking of far right ideology, I don't think this Russian poisoning issue and the fact Putin is facing an election are entirely unrelated. Uniting Russians to support him under the guise of adversity is a good tactic - 'The West is scapegoating us'. The Russian propaganda machine is already in full flood. Power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely. The principle of cui bono applies. Novichok sounds more like military grade chocolate.

Sometimes freedoms have to be traded; the American Constitution allows Americans the right to bear arms. However. the citizen has the right not to be shot at and killed. How do you reconcile these basic freedoms when they have the ability, in certain circumstances, to clash? Surely proscribing the right to bear arms is an inconvenience at best, whereas not being shot to death is a fundamental right - the right to life. The NRA would see the right to bear arms as supporting the right to life - this is where it becomes difficult and ideology kicks in. Most Europeans and some Americans can see the manifest sense in the elimination of weapons as being a good thing, yet many Americans don't. It's cultural, not logical, and any straw is grasped by the ideologue who doesn't want to give up his or her weapons.

It's a pity that the American right doesn't pay as much attention to the 2nd paragraph of the Constitution as they do to the 2nd Amendment. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I'm referring not only to the bit about the right to life, but that all men are created equal (not women, of course).

Very few people stop to analyse their core beliefs and question them - it's too traumatic to think that many things you've believed through your entire life could be wrong when analysed in the cold, hard light of reason.

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