Photo by Richard Baker

Too stupid for the truth

Lying to the public “for their own good” spells the end of democracy

Artillery Row

In 2015 Nick Clegg was asked why there should not be a Brexit vote. His answer was the EU was too complicated and too important for the public to possibly understand. The best thing we could all do was leave our fate to the experts.

This idea has become more pervasive ever since, whether it’s made up Covid stats to scare us into compliance, or the haughty disdain for “populism”. The public are just too stupid a dim-witted liability that must be managed for our own good.

Where did this narrative come from?

In 2020, Donald Trump gave an infamous speech in which he told people to inject bleach to cure Covid. Unfortunately thousands of idiots listened to him, and many people died as a result.

The “fact checking” industry receives millions from governments and big tech

Except that’s not what happened. Trump raised the idea of medical researchers looking into some way to use disinfectant internally to kill Covid — still stupid, but not exactly a call for mass bleach drinking. Nor did hundreds of people go out and down toilet cleaner in response. This narrative was based on surveys of the public. If you do a survey, no matter the question, about 20 per cent of people will always give a crazy answer. Some people are sarcastic, some misunderstand the question or tick the wrong box, and some just answer at random. Hence you will find that 20 per cent of people believe in unicorns, that the world is flat, or that Chuck Norris is Jesus. As subsequent research later showed: “Once inattentive, mischievous and careless respondents are taken out of the analytic sample we find no evidence that people ingested cleansers.”

Of course there will always be plenty of stories of stupidity or ignorance by real people. But the reason these stories make the national press is precisely because they are extraordinary. Most of us function everyday without doing stupid things.

Sadly the ruling class takes all this very seriously. The moral outrage among the global elite about “fake news” has spawned the highly partisan “fact checking” industry. Now it receives millions from governments and big tech.

Ostensibly this is all about preventing Facebook posts about Hilary Clinton being a paedophile lizard or Bill Gates trying to inject 5G trackers via Covid vaccines. But how stupid do they think people actually are? It turns out the public are, unsurprisingly, really good at spotting Fake News. But we are also increasingly sceptical of “official” government information.

It is with the latter that those sinister fact checkers have come into their own. Go on any site such as “Full Fact” or “BBC Fact Check”, and you will find there is very little “fact checking” going on. 90 per cent of their output is undermining factually correct reports that contradict the official line or their ideological stance.

The fact-checking industry is underpinned by a belief that the public are too stupid to understand the world as it is: full of contradictions, nuances and unknowns. If fact-checkers had their way, you would have never heard of Galileo, we would be building with asbestos, handing out thalidomide and inhaling tobacco fumes. Alder Hey would be merrily harvesting babies’ organs, and the Swedish police would still be covering for migrants who commit sex crimes.

He knew more about vaccines than we did. In the end, we backed off

Giving the government and its chums a monopoly on misinformation is pretty dangerous. The Royal Society has come out saying that censorship on Social Media is doing more harm than good. Not only does it suppress emerging science, it is also counterproductive: the vehemence of anti-vaxxers is largely a product of governments not being candid in the first place. Most of us were delighted to get vaccinated in spite of the risks. It is the persistent lying about those risks that has stoked the fear.

All said, it sounds like the public are the smart ones. We like to be told the whole truth and understand how dishonesty destroys society. We don’t believe fake news and don’t trust the government either. Yet whether it’s anti-vaxxers, Brexiteers, nimbys, or “racists” opposing mass immigration, governments love to brand entire demographics as stupid.

Last week we had a relative round; he was unvaccinated. My wife is a respected GP, and we are boosted to the hilt. She was eager to persuade him. He wasn’t offended. Instead he replied eloquently, justifying his decision with vast amounts of medical evidence. He had read widely, he understood all the issues, he acknowledged both sides. He knew more about vaccines than we did. In the end, we backed off.

Not everyone who reaches a different answer to the state is a conspiracy nut. Nor are they stupid. Branding vast numbers of diverse individuals like this is not just insulting, it is contemptuous.

Contempt is dangerous. When psychologists observe couples for fifteen minutes to predict if their marriage will last, the thing they look for is contempt. Contempt toxifies a relationship. It is contempt that is behind the mutual hostility between the political class and the public.

Partygate and its older brother, the Barnard Castle Eye Test, are the epitome of contempt. This was the political elite effectively deciding that they were smart enough to apply legal regulations proportionately, while the public were not. To top it all off, there is no cruder way to insult someone’s intelligence than “Hey, we think you are so stupid you might just believe this…”

If politicians want to be respected for their hard work, they need to stop treating large swathes of their electorate with contempt.

The public have a pretty good track record of outwitting their masters

Why do they think they’re so smart anyway? Few of us were fooled by the government greenwashing that has now plunged us into an energy crisis we will all have to pay for. Worst of all was mandatory heat pumps. It was the public who quickly realised that heat pumps cost over ten grand. They are noisy, and they don’t get as hot as boilers. They will not work in the country’s ageing housing stock, and they take months to fit. What is going to happen in a cold winter when millions of pensioners’ boilers break down and cannot be repaired or replaced? The poorest will be plunged into a Victorian lifestyle without heating and hot water. Excess deaths will far exceed Covid. What a stupid idea. Turns out those clever graduates in Downing Street aren’t quite as smart as readers of The Daily Star.

It’s not just the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign involved offering all sorts of “free” stuff to voters. On the day of the “free” broadband announcement, the BBC did their usual vox pops around working class areas. No-one was fooled. Broadband and all the other freebies would not actually be free. You would have to pay for them in other ways. As with most government efforts, the service would be worse. It was the public who made Corbyn look stupid.

Indeed, the public have a pretty good track record of outwitting their masters. Most of the world’s successful nations are democracies. The most successful European country is also its most democratic. Switzerland is landlocked and covered in mountains. We struggle to build a railway across some of the flattest land in Europe, while every line in Switzerland has to be blasted through rock. Houses hang off cliff edges and farmers toil on the side of ski slopes. Yet Switzerland has all the things we want: clean streets, low crime, good schools, a pristine environment, reliable trains, loads of money and great chocolate.

Yet Switzerland does not even have full time politicians. It’s governed by a bunch of part-timers who are so indolent that whenever an important or controversial issue comes up, they just ask the public. They do it constantly, holding roughly a dozen referendums every year. The result is the most stable, free and least corrupt country in the world. If the public really are stupid, how did a nation of hill farmers make it to the top of the world?

Why is democracy so effective? The answer lies with a Victorian Genius called Francis Galton. Galton noticed that average estimates sourced from a varied group of non-experts were invariably more accurate than the estimates of individual experts. Why? Because the group was more diverse, with each member bringing unique insights to the decisions but without amplifying each other’s biases. He called it The Wisdom of Crowds.

This is what made the Brexit result so incredible. If you looked beyond the political class and noisy celebrities, leading thinkers who really analysed Brexit concluded that it was a really close call. There were lots of good reasons to stay and lots of good reasons to leave. It was a tough decision. That’s why we all tuned in, we read, we debated and we thought really hard. And the vote was about 50:50. That was exactly the right result because it showed the public grasped what a difficult decision it was. If the vote had been, say, 80:20, then you could argue that the public didn’t really get it. But they did.

The reason IQ tests fell out of favour is they proved so useless at selecting people

The tragedy is that Switzerland’s unique model remains just that: unique. No matter how successful, the rest of the world’s leaders keep turning away. The real tragedy of Brexit wasn’t the result; it was that it turned the political class against referendums. The public proved they were willing to engage in governing their own country. But the “wrong” result and actions by “leaders” like David Cameron to make it personal blew the whole thing up.

After the Brexit vote, it became fashionable to show charts of the IQs of remainers versus leavers. What makes anyone think IQ is a useful test of decision-making ability? The reason IQ tests fell out of favour is that they proved so useless at selecting people. Anyone who went to university will remember professors who could barely dress themselves, let alone hold down a relationship or bring up a family. Should they be running the country?

High IQs are not just impractical, they can be dangerous. Intelligence often means overconfidence. Since the 1980s the finance industry has continuously upskilled. Roles that were once done by East London wide boys with a good head for figures now require a PhD. The result has been increasingly complex models devoid of all commonsense. The Big Short famously depicted how these daft algorithms handed out 120 per cent mortgages to lap-dancers with no savings, ultimately bringing down the entire US economy. There is a reason classic books on financial failures have titles like “The Smartest Guys In The Room” and “When Genius Failed”.

Contrast this with Warren Buffett’s seminal essay, The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville. It recounts how a bunch of folksy simpletons from Middle America — few of them with degrees let alone finance qualifications — made vast fortunes from the stock market. They didn’t use high intelligence, in fact they actually shunned it. Buffett even said, “If you have more than 120 or 130 IQ points, you can afford to give the rest away.” The most dangerous decision maker is the one who thinks he is smarter than everyone else.

All tyrannies start with that assumption. As the Prime Minister and his team are discovering, once you head down that path, you can never go back.

If the public are too stupid, you can lie to them for their own good. It begins with election promises and Christmas parties. Then it snowballs: pandemic forecasts… burying immigration data... it’s for their own good… pollution… inflation… it’s for their own good… medical scandals… corruption… it’s for their own good… vote rigging… it’s for their own good…

Before we go there, the political class should to ask themselves: are the public too stupid, or are we too arrogant?

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