What Brexit, Plato and Boaty McBoatface can teach you about democracy
As Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council knows, strange and wonderful things can happen when the general public is asked to make decisions. But some votes result in consequences rather more serious than naming your new ship Boaty McBoatface.
— NERC (@NERCscience) March 18, 2016
The result of the referendum on the UK’s European Union membership is one such decision. While you may have asked yourself how much you really care about the free movement of people, and whether being a part of the single market is a good idea or not, the chances are you didn’t go so far as to question your ability to make those judgements.
But as the repercussions of Britain’s exit from the EU reverberate around the globe, perhaps it’s time for the public to arrest itself on this matter: can we really be trusted to determine an issue of national importance? According to Plato, Richard Dawkins and many others, we can’t.
An ‘outrageous’ referendum
From fishermen and farmers to cleaners, teachers and Premier League footballers, the EU affects every stratum of society. You could write a treatise on the social and economic impacts that being in or outside the EU has on any one of those groups, and still be nowhere near capturing the question’s full significance.
So how realistic was it for politicians to expect each individual UK voter to understand and weigh up the pros and cons all of these effects? How can we rely on the average person to make the right decision? As Twitter provocateur and Macat author Richard Dawkins notes:
Dawkins makes the point in his typically bullish manner. But he’s right – the general public is generally wrong. On the facts of the EU debate’s key issues, research shows that Brits are more likely to be mistaken than they are correct. Whether it’s immigration, Britain’s contribution to the EU budget, the amount of Child Benefit that goes abroad or investment into the UK, the true facts are rarely known.
And when 95% of UK voters don’t even know the name of their local MEP (Member of the European Parliament), it should come as no surprise that public figures like Dawkins called for the car keys to be taken away from the child.
But are the parents any better?
Even after years of debate, verified, unbiased facts on the EU question are hard to find. And with few of these certainties to rally voters around, the ‘parents’ – politicians, business leaders, experts from all fields – resorted to inventive rhetoric to make their case. The public was and remains misinformed, but it’s hard to blame them for being so when they are constantly lied to.
Take this simple question: What percentage of UK laws are made by the European Union? Leave campaigners answered with figures as high as 75%, while members of Remain claimed it’s actually as low as 7%. Even the rigorously impartial House of Commons Library couldn’t provide a satisfying answer, conceding it possible to justify any figure between 15 and 55%.
A seemingly simple question becomes impossible to answer – creating a vacuum in which Brexit and Remain campaigners were able to distort, exaggerate and invent facts of their own.
Plato predicted the perils of such a scenario 2,500 years ago. Stung by the Athenian state’s execution of his mentor, Socrates, the Greek philosopher became deeply suspicious of the democratic process.
Ironically enough, Plato uses the example of a boat to express his discontent. A state, he suggests, is like a ship at sea: it needs a knowledgeable navigator for a captain. Someone who is well-informed and interested only in the good of the ship – someone, for instance, who will not name the ship Boaty McBoatface. In The Republic, Plato presents a scenario where one of the crew – a terrible navigator – is able to put forward a more compelling argument for election than the true captain. Inspired by the bewitching oratory of the seafaring pretender, the crew elects the wrong person. Out at sea, they hit a storm; the inexperienced captain is ill-equipped to navigate the rough waters, and the ship sinks.
The analogy exposes a fundamental weakness in democracy. Whatever their qualities as a captain, the best leaders cannot always be relied upon to be good at persuading others of their ability. On Plato’s ship, this is a big problem: it leads to the crew collectively making a decision that is to the detriment of their overall wellbeing. For Plato, this was proof that democracy is not a truly just system of governance. His is an elitist argument (and an imperfect one at that) but the philosopher still shows us how democratic events like referendums can be antithetical to social justice.
When the facts that support each side of a debate are so versatile many votes ultimately hinge on which campaign is able to produce the most eloquent case, rather than which campaign presents the moral choice.
Wisdom of the crowd
On our own, perhaps, many of us are not capable of judging between empty eloquence and moral probity. But before you begin calling for the referendum result to be reversed, remember it is not impossible that Plato and Dawkins’ arguments miss the point. They focus on the wisdom of the individual: ‘Am I capable?’ But in a democracy – and as it was in the EU referendum – it is the wisdom of the crowd that matters: ‘Are we capable?’
The idea of collective crowd wisdom was popularized by American journalist James Surowiecki in 2004. Surowiecki hypothesizes that a diverse collection of independent individuals would be able to make better decisions than experts. On your own, the theory goes, you might not be very smart. But when your knowledge is pooled with the learning of a large enough group of other people, you combine to form a super intelligence that makes better decisions than any single individual can. Nobody can know everything about a topic, but everyone knows a little about something.
Of course, Surowiecki – and his critics – recognise that not all crowds are wise. Consider, for example, crazed investors in a stock market bubble, or football hooligans, or the Californians who simultaneously voted for high spending and low taxes, not realising the two are mutually exclusive.
But under the right circumstances, the wisdom of the crowd wins out. As the US government-funded Good Judgement Project shows, it can even predict the future. The ambitious global programme has cultivated a global group of “superforecasters” who, with no specific expertise or access to classified information, display an astonishing ability to predict many of the 21st century’s major geopolitical events – like Serbia being granted European Union candidacy and the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
As Surowiecki himself predicted, the aggregated answers of these superforecasters achieve accuracy scores that far surpass random chance, and there are rumours they beat those of CIA analysts too. Though it must be said, on the issue of Brexit, the forecast of the so-called “Supers” has been conclusively discredited.
— GJI Super Analytics (@GJ_Analytics) June 22, 2016
Critical thinking for critical decisions
It is important to remember that Boaty McBoatface won by a landslide. But, in the end, the UK government decided the name was not an appropriate choice. It disregarded the vote and came up with an answer of its own instead.
Whatever the outcome of Brexit, the least we can do as members of an electorate is to remain informed about the issues we are given the opportunity to vote on. One of the shared characteristics of the superforecasters in the Good Judgement Project is an ability to think critically, take a step back and deconstruct the questions and issues they face. By using critical thinking, they are less reliant on the word of politicians and experts.
If you can adopt critical thinking, your vote will matter. It will be listened to. An informed and critically engaged electorate is capable of creating a much stronger mandate than one that is easily duped into making irrational judgements.
- Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
- Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism
- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist Papers
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
- Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice