A group of UK academics this month wrote an open letter to a British Sunday newspaper expressing their enthusiasm for leaving the EU.
Headlined “Brainy Brits come out for Brexit” it had perhaps the personal sub-text that Brexiters are fed up with Remainers characterising them as mince-thick peasants with the dimmest of ideas how the world wags.
“We’re not all mince-thick peasants,” their letter seemed to pipe plaintively. “We’ve got postgraduate degrees and mortar boards and everything — and we still want to leave the EU.”
Now, with a certain inevitability, dons on the other side of the argument have piled in with their own open letter to the same paper. This one, obviously, is “Brains for Remain”. And it does not even bother trying to mount an argument: 1,406 academics have put their names to a letter that simply says: “You report that ‘nearly 40’ academics have come together in support of Brexit. We would like you to know that there are very many more who are of the opposite view.”
Would the issue be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, I wonder, if next week Mensa, the club for people who have paid for a bit of paper certifying that they are clever, weighs in? My hunch is it would not.
So what, in terms of persuasion, is going on? Not much.
The first letter has a probable psychological explanation rather than a persuasive agenda — the authors are simply fed up with being portrayed as dim. And the second letter, I guess, has the explanation that its authors mostly wanted to annoy the authors of the first. But in terms of the argument neither of them gets us anywhere.
There are lots of people with academic jobs knocking about the place. Boasting looks a bit naff — and, as any fool knows, the most effective ethos appeal in politics is usually to address the public as an equal, rather than, with what ever justice, vaunting a superior qualification.
The idea that if lots of people think the same thing they are more likely to be right is, as many of these dons presumably know, an instance of the informal fallacy called argumentum ad populum, or argument to the people. And the idea that if important people believe something, it is more likely to be right is an instance of the informal fallacy called argumentum ad verecundiam — or argument from authority. Combining the two takes a special sort of inanity.
It is especially unpersuasive in this case because the UK’s current bitter political state is largely down to people on both sides of the argument saying that people on the other are stupid.
Confirmation bias and the so-called backfire effect — where opposition causes people to double down on a belief — have been widely and unhelpfully in evidence.
How many Remainers do we think will have changed their minds on reading “Brainy Brits for Brexit”? How many Leavers do we think will have changed their minds on meeting these “Brains for Remain”? Rather, each side will dig deeper into their foxholes, satisfied that these dons have confirmed their essential rightness simply by agreeing with them while being officially clever.
In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, draws attention to what he calls “expressive rationality”. We are tribes first and thinkers second: rather than choosing sides on the basis of the argument we support, we make arguments as a way of signalling which side we are on. Something of that is going on here.
Brexit, as many supporters have framed it, was in large part a vote against group-thinking elitists who think they know better than the ordinary voter. So it is hard to see how supporters will now be won for Remain by 1,406 dons publicly telling them, effectively: “We’re cleverer than normal people and we all think the same thing.”
File, perhaps, under what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls IYI: “Intellectual Yet Idiot.”
Sam Leith is author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’
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