Solving the puzzle of gullibility

A great little post from nobel laureate Paul Krugman on his New York Times blog today asks why the pundit class are so gullible:

Looking at the House budget proposal, in all its ludicrousness, makes me wonder about an enduring puzzle: the gullibility of so much of our pundit class.

In the time I’ve been writing for the Times, I’ve watched my colleagues in the commentariat, en masse, agree that:

George Bush is a nice, moderate guy, who will work in a bipartisan way.

George Bush is a heroic leader, who has risen to the occasion.

The case for invading Iraq is overwhelming; only a fool or a Frenchman could fail to be persuaded by Colin Powell.

John McCain is an independent-thinking maverick.

Paul Ryan is an honest, deeply serious thinker who really cares about the deficit.

The tax cut deal paved the way for a new phase of bipartisanship.

The Ryan plan sets a new standard of seriousness.

In each case, any educated citizen with internet access could quickly see overwhelming evidence that these things weren’t true. And you would think that people would learn something from the repeated failure of these kinds of consensus.

And yet LinusCharlie Brown keeps trying to kick that football, over and over again.

It wouldn’t take long to pull together a similar list for the UK:

  • We are facing an unprecedented level of public debt, necessitating severe cuts in public expenditure;
  • Public expenditure was allowed to run out of control in the by NuLabour and we now have to pay for Gordon Brown’s profligacy;
  • Cutting people’s benefits will encourage them into work;
  • Public servants are highly-paid feather-bedded wasters who can expect to move from cosy jobs-for-life into early retirement on gold-plated pensions;
  • Bureaucracy is a public-sector phenomenon;
  • Health and safety legislation has proliferated to the point where it is undermining the competitiveness of the British economy, and is preventing British people from enjoying their traditional pastimes;
  • Mass immigration has destroyed jobs and lowered pay;
  • Privatisation and competition lead to greater efficiency and productivity;
  • Political correctness has gone mad;
  • The Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party exercising a profound influence on government, protecting the vulnerable;

In all of these cases, ten minutes with Google will be enough to dispel the myths.  Yet they persist – despite the fact that in many cases they directly conflict with the day-to-day realities of life.  Of course, much of it has to do with a mass media that has a distinct social and ideological agenda, and in the BBC a public service broadcaster that has lost sight of its responsibilities.  And it’s easy to cry “false consciousness” and to disappear up the fundament of cod Marxism, and the reality is much more subtle than that; it’s a mix of ideology and the way in which political discourse has become disengaged from daily reality.

And that detachment lies at the heart of what looks to me like a real crisis of democratic legitimacy, when political discourse loses its grounding in day-to-day reality and those with wealth and power both promote and exploit that.

4 thoughts on “Solving the puzzle of gullibility

  1. In 1. Swap “level of public debt” for “government deficit”. In 3. Swap “cutting people’s benefits” for “ensuring people are better off in work than on benefits, largely by changing withdrawal rates”. In 4. Delete from “are” and replace with “have good salaries and decent pensions, the latter being something increasingly rare in Britain”. Replace 5. With “As in any organisation, there is scope for productivity gains based on improving the way in which processes are managed”. And so on…

    Do this, and instead of fighting straw men you’ll have something serious to argue with. Health and Safety is a great example. There is a belief, almost totally perpetuated by the Daily Mail etc, that H&S legislation is a problem. It isn’t. There is a problem, but it’s one of insurers setting overly prescriptive rules. Need to do a risk assessment for your street party? Chances are it’s not the state telling you to, but some (private sector) insurance company. Yes, I too think the Daily Mail is simplistic and panders to the more stupid prejudices of its audience. But it does the public discourse no good for the enemies of the Daily Mail to use their favourite “straw man” tactics.

  2. You are absolutely right about health and safety – insurance requirements and the fear of being sued are driving things here.

    My point is absolutely about straw man tactics. It seems to me that the media report a narrow range of opinions as facts, and those opinions reflect the prejudices of a minority.

  3. I don’t know; “political correctness has gone mad” isn’t a myth. If anything, it’s probably the truest thing that entire post.

    Personally, I don’t see why the Coalition – if they’re being so ambitious and radical – doesn’t just put a stop to that Fascist nonsense and have done with it.

    Because, really, it’s nothing more than an unnecessary hindrance. It causes moe problems than it solves, and impedes on more freedoms than it enables.

  4. I disagree. I wish, for a start, that someone could offer me a concise working definition of what political correctness is; it’s one of those phrases that seems to me to be whatever the speaker wants it to be, a way of closing down discussion about something he doesn’t want to do – something normally involving showing respect and courtesy to someone less fortunate than, or with a different perspective to, the speaker.

    In other words, it’s a straw man. It doesn’t really exist, and the idea that people are “not allowed to say things” is nonsense. What people who use this mantra appear to me to mean is that casual racism, or sexism, or dim-witted remarks about people with ginger hair, or claim that victims of bullying need to get a sensue of humour, are much less likely to go unchallenged. People who make ill-thought and prejudicial remarks are more likely to have to think and justify them. And that seems to me to be entirely a good thing.

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