'Ideas wreckers' spoil dialogue and debate as well

QThe Spirit Level, first published in March 2009, is a book which has slowly emerged to take centre stage in the debate about human equality and well-being. In this publication Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett produce a wide range of sociological and epidemiological evidence that, to quote, ‘at almost any level of income, it’s better to live in a more equal place‘.

Initially this was widely regarded as a reasonable position, but The Guardian reports there is now a serious onslaught on the idea from some right-wing think tanks.

‘Professional wreckers’ challenged
Professor Wilkinson has responded vigorously to the criticisms, saying he is shocked by what he believes is a worrying trend in political discourse, also happening in the USA, where some right-wing institutes have set themselves up as ‘professional wreckers of ideas’. (A riposte to this claim is made here.)

Do they even believe what they are saying?‘, he asked. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter if their claims are right or wrong; it is about sowing doubt in people’s minds.

Nurturing public scepticism
No doubt Professors Pickett and Wilkinson can take care of themselves in this debate; their evidence base is massive and has been subject to continuous peer review (formal scrutiny by colleagues) via the academic papers they have published.

What may be more worrying is if Richard Wilkinson is correct also in his analysis of what is going on behind the scenes, as political interests nurture public scepticism about any ideas which don’t suit their preferences.

It is one thing to offer a critique based itself on carefully considered analysis and data. It is quite another to throw a dense foggy question mark over debate simply by repeatedly insisting that, in some general way, the whole idea is dodgy.

The acid question mark
Whether climate change, evolution, immunisation or equality, it’s easy if one is so inclined to insert an acid question mark into the debate; but it’s much harder to help people to understand the evidence and to make a balanced judgement.

Is it actually possible for most ‘ordinary’ people to distance themselves from the acid question mark, to be aware of, and understand for themselves, the complexities of data bases and their implications? Or do most of us most of the time just have to ‘trust the experts’?

Ruining rational dialogue
Ideas wreckers do more than damage specific ideas. They damage the whole notion and ethos of trying to determine what we can conclude from what we ‘know’.

Challenging this blanket refusal to engage in real dialogue is a fundamental problem; without the engagement of all involved the whole set-up becomes simply an argument, a row or popularity poll based on who shouts loudest, one in which the voice of reason is likely not to be heard or carry weight.

How in the face of ‘ideas wrecking’ can those who seek a discussion on the basis of the evidence (recognising too what still needs to be checked out) make their case? Is there any way other than having the best PR and shouting loudest?

And have those seeking genuine dialogue ‘lost’ as soon as they, like their opponents, start to shout?

Do ‘ideas wreckers’ in the end have to be taken on publicly by those whose ideas are cast into general doubt, in much the same mode of generic attack as the wreckers choose, when they cast doubt on the ideas originally?
How can constructive, meaningful dialogue or debate even exist, when one ‘side’ seems intent only on wrecking the credibility of the other?


Posted on August 14, 2010, in Real-Life Examples and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. You may like to take a look at this spoof film, Thank you for smoking, which perhaps illustrates how ideas wreckers can work [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thank_You_for_Smoking and/or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HC3xwlfcFM (NB some bad language)] . But at least this story has a relatively happy ending.

  2. Not louder but cleverer. People capable of synthesizing new ideas are not always the best people to sell those ideas, especially when the ideas threaten the status quo. So yes, you do need PR, just being right is not sufficient. But this is for when the ideas move from Theory to Implementation. People playing the Theory game (largely) understand the rules. People playing the Implementation game don’t play by the Theory rules, hence the dismay on the faces of the Theory players. Its no longer about being right but about winning.

  3. Hi Hilary.
    Rather in the way that history is written by the victors, books on equality are mainly written by the more than equal!

  4. Theodore Zeldin stated: “The kind of conversation I like is one in which you are prepared to emerge a slightly different person”; these ideas-wreckers have decided that they want no such personal transition.

    He also said that “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards”; it is this creativity that is lost through their actions.

    Ideas, conversations, sharing of knowledge and information – all this takes us into the (fairly) modern field of Knowledge Management. So, in case you are interested….

    David Gurteen’s excellent personal Knowledge Management website has plenty of info on this great historian (Zeldin), http://www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/theodore-zeldin . David Snowden is also worth a KM look via this site, http://www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/dave-snowden My third KM here (in no particular order) is Verna Allee – a list of her papers is to be found on her website at http://www.vernaallee.com/VA/KM-library.htm See in particular the pdf download “Knowledge Networks & Communities of Practice”

    A nice comment from Verna Allee relates to the sharing of knowledge being the new paradigm -share it and it grows; this is the opposite of the old paradigm of hoarding knowledge so no-one else can have it. Progress indeed – but the kind that could be slowed down if those ideas-wreckers start to have a real malign influence!

    Keep smiling.


  5. There have been a couple of interesting developments since I first wrote this post.

    The first is a review in booz & co’s magazine strategy + business (Issue 60, Autumn 2010) of Wilkinson and Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level by David K. Hurst, in which he writes that ‘The authors’ recommendations of what can be done to remedy inequality are provacative, but not nearly as persuasive as their data…. We may not agree with the solutions, but we can’t deny the problem.’

    And the second, also published in that booz & co magazine, is a quoted review, by David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, of Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy by Raghuram G. Rajan (Princeton University Press, 2010). Wessel says of Rajan that, ‘…just when you’re about to cast him as a University of Chicago free-market stereotype, he surprises by identifying the widening gap between rich and poor as a big cause of the calamity.’

    So it seems that at least in some minds there is indeed potentially room for dialogue of the sort Profs. Pickett and Wilkinson have called for.

  6. Both Nick and Daniel bring out what I think is a central point, ie. that this plays to simplistic desires about winning and losing, right and wrong, black and white. If people have very fixed views they will only see those things which either reaffirm their views (ie I’m right,I win) or seek to denigrate those which confront them (ie. you’re wrong,you lose).
    What does appear to be a disturbing trend is the dumbing down of debate to soundbites, quickly digestible arguments upon which others derive their understanding, or rather opinion. What seems to matter more these days, is whether you have an ‘opinion’. And what also seems to have changed is the level of cynicism. I’m all for healthy scepticism and satire, but the popularity of denigratng (or taking the ‘p’ out of) someone or someone’s ideas seems to be commonplace. We see this on TV gameshows, and in the press and in everyday conversations.
    This kind of attitude can be challenged, I believe, in not just getting people to talk, but to think about what they have heard.
    The interesting question in this, for me, is how do we have these difficult conversations then, in the face of the cynics, ‘idea-wreckers’, the p***-takers?
    Maybe a starting point is for all of us to enter into debate, to plant seeds of inspiration as much as doubt, to question the questioners, to start to have many small conversations with those of ‘different’ rather than ‘like’ minds.

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