Why do people choose to do things against their own interests?  This question is a theme in Thomas Frank’s discussion of politics and why some ideas hold a mysterious appeal when they do little for their adherents.

The answer comes through Frank’s observations: lack of information, ignorance, misunderstanding, but most of all belief, belief in the invisible hand, in the status quo and in grace. Belief renders information and analysis irrelevant; it has no purpose and value when it conflicts with commitment.

Belief delivers a positive feedback loop, it ratifies that the idea is virtuous in itself.  That may be sufficient with some subjects, the ethical perhaps, but an inchoate understanding of complex information, and the logical and critical analysis by which to examine perspectives, only produces assertion. A convinced believer denounces opposing ideas, typically through reductionist characterization and ad hominem assassination.

Ideas are not bad, ideas are just seeds and may develop, mutate, in different potential directions. Fault lies with the arguments, the propositions and logic which articulate an idea.

This distinction becomes more apparent when an idea is expressed by an advocate but it is obvious that it is not much more than assertion. The cement of an argument is missing and consequently it is unconvincing in some part, or an obvious fallacy.

Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth discussed the influence of bad ideas and complex data in the Washington Post last year. The authors examined the Brexit vote and the political ramifications, taking it must be said a highly rational analysis to the referendum, which would not have been commensurate with the voters who exercised more emotion, even some animus, in the booth.

They argued that a bad idea has a duration. When voters realize that the idea has done them no good they can change it through the political system. Their metaphor of a put option, i.e. an option to sell a stock/asset when the collective no longer want to hold the stock, the political idea, is a neat rhetorical device though, in reality, it seems nebulous. Bad ideas, in their terms, hang on, despite political changes, sometimes because a change of advocates can make the idea presented differently more palatable, or appear so.

From these interpretations a dichotomy emerges between the qualified technocrats with their rigorous analytical method and others, reliant on axioms, on statements of belief, the antithesis of the method and language of the experts. The implications for politics and social development are numerous and volatile.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.


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