There are many things about which, I suspect, Baroness Warsi and I would disagree very strongly – she is ‘Chairman’ of the Conservative Party, a role to which I am unlikely ever to aspire. But there does seem to be one thing about which, if reports are to be believed, we would see eye to eye: I gather that she, like me, believes that keeping channels of communication open is critical.
There can’t be many conversations ‘smaller’ than those between babies and their parents and carers, but that doesn’t mean those exchanges are unimportant. In fact, as we would surely all agree, precisely the converse is the case. It’s no surprise then that a literature review and some direct research reported today (19 October) add credence to this commonly held belief.
The 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?
The New York Times / International Herald Tribune has today (30 July 2010) carried an article entitled entitled ‘Greece and the power of negative thinking‘. Taking as an example the often-stated view that Greece is at the epicentre of the current European economic crisis, the authors, Thierry Malleret and Olivier Oullier, argue that ‘Neuroscience has much to teach us about ‘judgement extremism’ and our economic outlook’.
Overstatement usually pays off
In the view of these authors, ‘judgment extremism’ pays dividends. They note that:
“The neural system used when anticipating rewards is active long before the one in charge of evaluating risks and losses. Most academics and opinion-makers know that the rate of return on postulating extreme outcomes is far greater than that of simply establishing facts: A columnist is much better off predicting a dire outcome than being caught up with the facts that lead to a complex and uncertain one.
“Therefore, an outlandish prediction (albeit, perhaps, inadequately grounded) of a euro zone implosion is likely to be rewarded by editorial success and intellectual kudos; and by the time it may be proven wrong, it might well go unnoticed.”
Joining the dots
Further, Malleret and Oullier suggest, the increasing specialization of expertise means that people often think only within their own ‘silos’, rather than across the spectrum of the situation as a whole – with the outcome that, for instance, they see only the economic and not the political situation:
“… before May 2, when the Greek authorities finally signed an agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the markets became convinced that a Greek default was both imminent and inevitable by refusing to consider that the political imperative would trump the economic reality. Put simply, they did not connect the dots between politics and economics.”
Nuance is out?
The suggestion here is that ‘it depends‘ is rarely a response which grabs the headlines or fires the imagination – the immediate rewards for commentators of a dramatic judgement (e.g. that Greece will fail, taking the Euro zone with it) usually outweigh alternative nuanced responses which incorporate more aspects of the situation and probably reflect overall realities more accurately.
But if the big picture lacks nuance, how can we really understand it?
How can careful analysis and insight be rewarded, to accommodate a subtlety which offers potential for resolution of complex scenarios and avoids the possible perils of dramatic silo thinking?