Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Why does the political right have such a problem with reality, and how should experts respond?


The UK Supreme Court has ruled that the government’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda is illegal because the Court does not believe Rwanda to be safe for refugees. The evidence does indeed back this judgement. Part of the government’s immediate response appears to be passing a law saying that Rwanda is a safe place for refugees. The logic, presumably, is that if the law says something then the Supreme Court cannot say the opposite. As one former Supreme Court judge said, such a law would be “constitutionally really quite extraordinary”. But for politicians on the right, in the UK and US at least, denying reality and preventing people pointing out that they are denying reality seems increasingly par for the course.

The political right started ignoring experts well before Michael Gove said publicly that he had had enough of them. Mrs Thatcher had a well known problem with most economists after 364 attacked her economic policy, and Keith Joseph tried to close down the social science research council. Austerity was thought to be a big mistake according to a majority of academic economists at the time. By now the list of things that the political right in the UK have defied the expert consensus on is pretty long, with Brexit, climate change and lockdowns during a pandemic being major examples. [1] The US is much worse, of course: there we can add vote counts and whether vaccines work to the list.

Why does the political right increasingly seem to be on the wrong side of facts and science, and what should scientists do about it? One answer to the first question comes from asking another. Do some on the left, by which I mean those whose views are to the left of the positions adopted by the current Labour leadership, occasionally have problems with facts and science? My own answer would be that some can, at least in the area I know best which is economics. The example that is freshest in my mind is UK inflation.

As I have explained in earlier posts, the inflationary episode we have recently been through in the UK was in part generated by higher energy and food prices, but it was also a result of strong labour markets, where unemployment was low by recent historical standards and vacancies were very high. Nominal wage increases far exceeded what could be consistent with the inflation target. From my experience, some on the left were much happier talking about imported inflation than labour markets being too strong. Many claimed inflation was profit led. Yet the evidence so far for the UK is pretty clear that profit shares, outside of the energy sector, have remained pretty stable. (See most recently this Bank study, with a FT write up here.) Of course the monopoly power of many firms is part of the inflationary process, but in the UK there is little evidence that it has been a major driver of inflation.

My point is not that left and right are much the same. They are obviously not, and the right has power while the left do not. Instead it is to suggest one source of reality denial is ideology. The ideological source of the left’s focus on profits rather than a strong labour market is obvious. On the right, neoliberalism typically argues against state ‘interference’ with firms and markets. Both climate change and lockdowns are about the state taking measures to avoid extreme externalities. Equally a libertarian ideology would see both policies as restricting personal liberty.

Arguments I sometimes hear when I talk about how ideology may lead people to ignore evidence is that it is impossible to separate facts from values, or even that science itself is an ideology. I’m never sure how to take such points. If the argument is that ideology is bound to influence the priors that evidence confronts, then of course, but if the argument is that it’s OK to continue to always deny evidence because of these priors then I would strongly disagree.

However I don’t think ideology is the only reason why the political right has a problem with reality. Another, that is widespread in the US and is increasing in the UK (helped by GB news), involve conspiracy theories involving vaccines, 15 minute cities and so on. I think these are a continuing manifestation of what Richard Hofstadter called the “Paranoid Style” in American politics, which has a more limited purchase in the UK. This sits mainly [2] on the right because these involve an extreme distrust of the state, with conspiracies often involving malevolent (and secret) activity by the state. “A vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life” is how Hofstadter described this paranoid style.

While many right wing politicians in the US are prepared to embrace this paranoid style, few in the UK do. Instead the current Conservative party leadership flirts with the paranoid style. When Conservative MP Nick Fletcher talked about the international socialist concept of 15 minute cities in the Commons, the then Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt replied that it was “right that people raise concerns about this particular kind of policy.” The same is true of the right wing press. The Daily Telegraph managed to get ‘climate lockdown’ into its headline about a proposed traffic scheme in Oxford. In both cases we have the established right in the UK trying to get the best of both worlds, in not openly leading with the conspiracy, but not knocking it down either.

To see how this paranoid style sits far too easily with today’s politics on the right we can look at right wing media, and in the UK with the strong crossover in recent years between those writing in that media and Conservative political leaders and their advisers. As James O’Brien says, a lot of what can be found in the right wing tabloid press is not about informing readers with facts, but about creating an emotional reaction. If the aim is to do this, then the more you can distort or invent facts to intensify this reaction the better. One of our former Prime Ministers made his journalistic reputation doing just this by making things up about the EU.

This kind of journalism is normally designed to appeal to readers’ social conservatism, rather than any right wing ideology. Here is a direct link with the paranoid style of politics. The best way of creating a feeling of fear and outrage among a socially conservative readership is to suggest that the way of life they have known is being threatened in some way. Unlike the paranoid style, this threat does not involve some conspiracy at the heart of government, but instead it comes from outsiders in some form, such as immigrants or the socially liberal ‘woke’ elite.

How should experts respond to this right wing disregard of both expertise and reality itself? I have lost count of the number of pieces I have read by scientists lamenting the decline in public trust in experts, and how experts should get that trust back. Many suggest that academics should engage more with the public to win back that trust. While I could hardly disagree that it’s good that some academics engage with the wider public, I’m not at all sure that most academics should. It is not, after all, their comparative advantage.

Despite their best efforts, academics will always be at a disadvantage compared to politicians or their side-kicks pushing snake-oil. The moment an academic loses their doubts and scepticism they stop being good academics, yet in argument doubt and uncertainty play less well than conviction among most of an undecided audience. In addition, public engagement takes a lot of time that might be better spent on research and scholarship.

I would also question, in the UK at least, whether there is a crisis of trust in experts. The UK government constantly pretended it was 'following the science' because they knew that is what people wanted to hear. The response to the first lockdown showed that most people were willing to follow government advice because they thought it was expert advice, and that trust only began to fall apart when it became clear the government was neither following the science nor even its own advice. It seems to me, following the first part of this post, that the problem for experts is political rather than about trust.

However there are still plenty of things that expertise can do more of to expose the snake-oil salesman. Unfortunately there will always be experts who are prepared to leave the science behind in exchange for money and notoriety. The best way to counter their influence is to ensure that the non-partisan media has easy access to what the scientific consensus actually is, and that is something that scientific institutions should constantly be doing. Initiatives like the Science Media Centre are worth extending.

In addition, the UK’s response to Covid has also shown us the danger of a right wing government misusing its own scientists or its links with scientists to give a false impression of what expert opinion is. Again scientific institutions informing the media can help counteract that (as well as ad-hoc groups like Independent Sage), but it also seems important for scientists advising the government to make sure they retain an independent voice, and that they are not used to give a policy the appearance of scientific merit when it has none.

As the Covid pandemic showed, a political right that has become increasingly hostile to expertise, science and even universities is very dangerous, because it can cost thousands of lives. Our current Prime Minister spent his time, in the middle of the pandemic, 'handling the scientists' rather than handling the virus. He was not favouring economics over medicine, because he didn't bother to consult economists who had studied pandemics, and so got the economics horribly wrong. The most effective way of tilting the scales back towards reality and science is to endeavour to ensure these politicians and this political viewpoint are kept well away from power in the future.

[1] Strictly most Conservative politicians don’t publicly deny the need to phase out burning carbon, but they just support giving subsidies to new oil fields and opening coal mines instead.

[2] The scare stories around Charter Cities would be an example of a left wing version of right wing fantasies about 15 minute cities. However this study for the US provides evidence that misinformation is much more prevalent on the right/social conservative divide than on the left/liberal side.

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