Apparently there has been a referendum in the UK in the last few days. As a company we don’t have a position on that - for a very good reason which I will come to later. If you want to find out what that reason is, feel free to skip to the end and ignore everything in-between.
Still here? Good. I thought I would look at some of the issues raised from an analytical thinking perspective. Not all of them, as there are far too many for a single blog post, but a few. Firstly, the campaign was rubbish. Both sides told lies and half-truths and in doing so made it harder to make an informed decision. However, given that political lying is hardly a new phenomenon, I think we all should be able to discount and see through those lies. This leads me onto the first point: Parity of Reasoning. What I mean by that is simply adopting the view that although you may have your beliefs about which was the right way to vote and which was not, the mere fact that you hold those beliefs does not make you right. Unfortunately, you are capable of being wrong and you probably are wrong more often than you like to think. And not just you. We all are. So treat the genuinely held views of the other side with some respect. They hold their views just as strongly as you do. Since the vote was very evenly split, some of those people will be your family, friends and colleagues. It is a sign of emotional maturity to disagree with someone, even to profoundly disagree with them, yet still respect them and their right to hold opposing views.
Unfortunately, it does seem to be the case that some disappointed Remainers are seeking to undermine the result by saying that those who voted to leave did so for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Some, for example David Lammy MP, are even seeking to have the result ignored because technically the referendum was not legally binding. It might be worth considering what consequences there might be if Parliament, which is already held in low esteem, ignored the, admittedly marginal, will of the people in such a way.
Another point made by disappointed Remainers is that the young, who voted to leave by a margin of 3 to 1 have been let down by the old who overwhelmingly voted to stay. This is a strange argument. It only makes sense if those making it think that those who voted to leave did so not because they believed it was the right thing to do but because they wanted to sabotage the interests of the young. This violates the principle of Parity of Reasoning, treating the views of the young as inherently more worthy of respect than those of the old. To see how unacceptable this way of reasoning is, imagine arguing that the views of a particular race, sex or sexuality should be treated as more worthy of respect than those of another. Unless a case can be made that there is a distinction between the young and old that wouldn’t apply to different races or different sexes or different sexualities, then this argument fails. This would be an argument in favour of discrimination against one group of people due to an inherent quality of theirs (their age) and not as a result of a choice they have made (they don’t choose to be old). As such, this argument has a high, and I would say insurmountable, burden to overcome.
I think we can also infer that there is a phenomenon that I am going to call Parity of Deceit. Both campaigns offered us lies, half-truths and obfuscation. Those familiar with confirmation bias will know that we are more likely to see the lies of those we disagree with and ignore, forget and fail to notice those told by our own side. But those lies were still there. Given the way the result went only the lies told about what would happen in the event of Brexit will be exposed. So, while the Brexiters are dialling back on the likelihood of reducing immigration and the possibility of there being extra money for the NHS, the Remainers too are dialling back on the likelihood of a punishment budget and reduction of pensions. Also, consider the counterfactual case. Fewer claims were made about what would happen if we had voted to remain given that that was the status quo option, but different sets of lies, again told by both sides would have been exposed. These lies, then, should not undermine the validity of the result.
I feel I should say something about some of the claims made by the campaigns. One thing that I found frustrating was when Michael Gove (Brexit) said that we should dismiss the opinions of experts. My view is that there are some areas where expertise is appropriate and should be listened to and some where it should not. If, in despair at the result, you hopped onto the first plane you could find out of the UK, you should probably listen to the pilot and cabin crew, letting them get on with the flying. That is their area of expertise. However, they have absolutely no expertise on whether you are afraid of flying, where you want to fly to or whether you want to go anywhere at all.
Two things follow from this. One is that experts can comment on certain matters. In the referendum, experts commented on the economic prognosis and the majority expert view - in fact the view of the vast majority - was that a leave vote would have negative economic consequences. I am not sufficiently qualified as an economist to assess whether their views were well founded or not. In fact, without devoting a large amount of time and study to that dismal science I am not sure anybody could. However, I do feel qualified to make a meta-induction about those predictions and it is this. Economic projections are based on computer models. These models look at past events as well as the consequences of those events and extrapolate to make future predictions. The more data that the model has the more accurate it is likely to be. It is for this reason that an opinion poll that takes the views of a large number of people is more likely to be accurate than one that takes the views of half a dozen. Or why drugs companies test their drugs on a large number of people before marketing the drug. Or why weather forecasts take data points from all over the world rather than just looking out of the window. However, in the case of the Referendum, there is no analogous sample from which to extrapolate. No country has left the EU or any similar organisation before. Two, much smaller countries left the predecessor organisation, the EEC, one being Algeria (as a result of becoming independent from France), the other being Greenland. Both of these countries are so different from the UK in terms of size, demography, industrial development and so on that nothing useful can be learned from their experience. So these economic experts are relying on a sample size of zero from which to extrapolate their predictions. Therefore, in my view, unless a counter-case can be made to this point, we can provisionally treat those expert predictions as useless. In order to see that, we have had to think at, if you like, a higher logical level than that used by the experts themselves which may be why they were all happy to make such predictions: they stuck to the paradigm that they knew. But as Einstein said, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’.
This does not mean that there will not be negative economic consequences, nor does it mean that we might not be able to identify other reasons why there might be such consequences. For instance, we might conclude on the basis of increased tariffs that trading with the rump-EU might be more difficult. As I understand it though, increased tariffs are not a certainty, merely a possibility.
The other point about experts is they cannot determine what we should care about. It may be that for Leavers being outside the EU provides non-economic benefits that outweigh any economic costs. These benefits might either be objective - such as a measurable reduction in immigration - or they might be purely mental - and therefore very difficult to measure. How do you measure a diminution in GDP which means that your income is reduced by say £100 per year against a feeling like, ‘we have got our country back from the unelected Brussels bureaucrats ’?
Economic arguments certainly do not outweigh all others. George Osbourne’s predictions of a mild recession, increased taxes and the end of protected pensions were mildly apocalyptic. Suppose that he had been chancellor in 1939. Would he have argued that since defeating Hitler would mean immense economic hardship, which it undoubtedly did, that we should not have fought him? I would hope not. Sometimes there are factors that will trump the economic arguments.
The use of the word trump brings me onto another point: the Bad Company Fallacy. Donald Trump appears to have been in favour of Brexit. The Remain campaign, in this case in the person of David Cameron, argued that Isis and Vladimir Putin would be in favour of Brexit, the implication being that we should therefore vote Remain. This is simply an example of the bad company fallacy. There is an argument here but it is a little more nuanced. The argument in favour of leaving is a good argument irrespective of who makes it or who accepts it, as is the case with an argument to remain. The more nuanced argument is that it may well be the case that the consequences of Leave are in the interests of countries like Russia and ISIS. A divided Europe may be good for them. This is undoubtedly one factor to consider, but it should not be treated so simplistically.
Black and White Thinking: this is seeing a binary choice as a choice between extremes. Leaving will not merely be a little worse, but it will be an absolute disaster - economic collapse, chaos, impoverishment and the loss of millions of jobs. Staying will lead to economic stagnation, the end of Britain, the end of parliamentary democracy and 70 million Turkish immigrants. While these outcomes are conceivably possible the chances of them coming to pass are minute. It is much more likely that not a huge amount will change. Here an analogy may be appropriate. Germany and France are remaining in the EU. They are both broadly similar to the UK in terms of the size of their economies, their population and their area. Neither are likely to lose their democratic or economic status even though one is doing very much better economically than the other. Similarly, there are many countries outside the EU, such as Norway, Japan, Canada and New Zealand that do very well for themselves.
One interesting factor is the phenomenon of Bregrexit - the discovery by some who had voted to Leave that when the result was announced that they didn’t really want to Leave at all: ‘it was a protest vote’, ‘I didn’t think my vote would count’. This brings me to another cognitive bias - the extent to which we think our current self is the fully developed version of ourselves, that our views are now settled, complete and correct, and that they won’t change in the future. This, despite the fact that we know that our views have changed in the past - in fact we often look back on the cringeworthy choices our younger selves made with embarrassment and regret. We are not very good at knowing our future selves. David Cameron said a number of times during the campaign that if the vote went for Leave he would stay on and see the UK through the withdrawal process. Yet on the morning of the result he announced he would resign and allow someone else to do ‘that shit’. Was he lying throughout, or was he simply not very well acquainted with his future self? This is a problem because this is one situation where how we feel about a decision is relevant to the decision itself. If we add 219 to 562 and find that the answer is 781 we are unlikely to be bothered one way or the other. On the other hand, we require our government to do certain things that are supposed to make us safer, richer and ultimately happier. So if we find that our decision to leave makes us feel unhappy when we had not anticipated that it would do so, that is, in my view, a relevant consideration. Perhaps, on that basis another vote should be taken - should our current selves be bound by a decision taken by our past selves? Could we really face another referendum? What about Bregremain - those who regret voting for Remain?
I said that I would deal with why we as a company don’t take a position on Leave or Remain. One reason is that I think it is vital for people to make up their own minds, that it is the duty of those of us who live in democratic countries and who are sufficiently interested in such matters to decide for ourselves. There are already enough people out there trying to influence you one way or the other. I believe I have made a contribution by helping people to develop their skills of analysis (see my book, How to Think on our publications page). The main reason though is as follows.
One of the reasons that I became involved in the broad area of what might be called personal development, not the only reason by any means, but one of them, is that over time I became increasingly convinced of the inability of politicians to solve many of the problems that we encounter. It is an undoubted fact that no politician, at least in their role as a politician, has produced a life saving drug, a great work of art, an innovative piece of technology or made a scientific discovery. These are all produced by individuals or groups of individuals pursuing their own goals and interests. At best politicians can set the stage to allow such developments to take place, as Kennedy did for the moonshots in the 1960s or at the very least they can get out of the way so that they do not preclude such innovations from happening.
My view is that many of the problems that we entrust to our politicians can be better solved by taking control of our own development as human beings. If we can all ensure that we look after our bodies and brains so that we are as fit and healthy as we can be, if we can learn to think so that we make good decisions that are in our best interests, if we can commit to being as well-educated and well-informed as we can possibly be, then we can take power over our own lives and the amount we have to rely on politicians of any political hue can be vastly reduced.
If you are lucky enough to be living in a Western democracy, these options are generally available to you. You should be able to live a fulfilled life whether you live under a government of the right or the left and whether you live in the EU or not. Be thankful that that is so. If you lived in a country where information, travel, interaction with others or the exchange of ideas is restricted either as a result of deliberate policy or through the lack of economic development that would not be the case.
It has been found that those who believe that they are in control of their own destiny generally have better life outcomes than those who believe that their fate is determined by factors outside of their control. By taking steps to control your destiny you are taking steps to lead a better life, hopefully both for yourself and for those around you. So, if the vote to leave has left you holding your head in despair, do something positive: accept it, move on and make the best of it, or alternatively do your bit to have it overturned and reconsidered. Either way, you are taking control.
Gary Lorrison, 26 June 2016