Facts can still defeat populist ignorance – liberals should not give up on them

Ben Chu
Geert Wilders didn't win the Dutch election, giving hope to liberals in Europe of a backlash against populism: EPA

This is, as has been widely noted, a bleak time for enlightenment values. In the face of a populist tide, a feeling of pessimism has gripped many liberals about the ability of logic, reason and evidence to influence the wider public.

Discussion often turns to psychological research showing that when ordinary people are presented with facts in the context of a political debate it has little impact. There’s growing chatter about a “backfire effect”, where rebutting misconceptions actually serves to entrench falsehoods, perhaps by making the myths more salient. Thus, fact-checking exercises by the media become, at best, a waste of time (“left-liberal comfort food” in the words of Rob Ford of Manchester university) and at worst counterproductive.

Technology doesn’t seem to be helping. Social media helps people to herd themselves into informational silos, where they only hear what they want to hear, and inflates ideological bubbles. Traditional sources of authority are no longer respected. We’re warned that “elites” telling people they are wrong is patronising. Some argue that describing overtly racist opinions and policies as racist only serves to drive the alienated masses further into the populist corral.

So what’s to be done? How can progressive politicians and experts get across the facts behind politicised subjects, whether it is the economic impact of immigration, the circumstances of welfare recipients, the science behind climate change, the safety of vaccines or the overall benefits of free trade? How can we ensure that political decisions are taken and votes cast not on the basis of prejudice and myth, but with at least some regard to evidence and serious analysis?

Perhaps liberals should forget facts and instead to go with the populist flow. In this view of the world the best hope for progressives lies in pandering to popular “feelings” but trying to steer the ship of policy in a vaguely progressive direction.

But this prescription is dangerous. When gross fallacies in public debate go unchallenged the fallacies don’t die out, they spread. The cancer metastasises. A culture of anti-intellectualism is liable to be a breeding ground for bigotry and intolerance. And in any case the populist wolves are likely to prove rather better at this game than the progressive sheep in wolves’ clothing. Moreover, there’s a better way. There are other academic studies that point to ways that liberals can try to turn the tide.

Christina Boswell and James Hampshire have highlighted how the public discourse on immigration in Germany was transformed between 2000 and 2008. Social Democratic politicians used familiar arguments about the economic benefits of immigration. But they did this alongside a campaign to promote positive narratives about immigration and its place in the country’s history to counter entrenched perceptions of Germany being kein Einwanderunglsand (“not a country of immigration”). This twin approach largely succeeded in changing attitudes, flowering in the generous position taken by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat government towards Syrian refugees in the summer of 2015.

By contrast in the UK, at the same time, Labour began to talk up “British jobs for British workers” and never seriously rebutted the dominant and dismal narrative of the tabloid press about immigration being an economic burden and culturally corrosive, arguably helping to set the scene for the current bout of self-harming Brexit-related xenophobia.

Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College London points out that the strength of far-right parties in Europe is roughly correlated with the size of a nation's Muslim community. But polling shows that Europeans are often wildly misinformed about the rate of Muslim immigration and fertility.

Public information campaigns might well help. Research by Alexis Grigorieff, Christopher Roth and Diego Ubfal showed that when a large sample of people in the US and Europe were told the actual share of immigrants in the country – rather than relying on their own often grossly exaggerated estimates – they became less likely to argue that there were too many incomers. The facts do, it seems, get traction.

There are other sources of hope. In a recent essay Tim Harford of the Financial Times has highlighted research which suggests that a way to open peoples’ minds to evidence and bypass politically-motivated reasoning is to appeal to their sense of non-political scientific curiosity. It’s not simple, but it can be done.

All of this suggests that a counsel of despair about the persuasive potential of facts and evidence is unwarranted; people can still be amenable to reason. Progressive politicians, researchers and liberal activists should not be laying down their enlightenment weapons in the face of angry and destructive populism, but rather wielding them more effectively.

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