Public perceptions (by )

Let us consider two arguments.

  1. Immigration drives the UK economy, creating more and better-paid jobs, and cheaper products and services. This is supported by actual data obtained from tax records and other reputable sources; immigrants have tended to come here in pursuit of work, to fill demand that is not being met locally, so have provided a valuable workforce for industry to grow upon, and consumed less benefits than native people. Growing industry creates more jobs and provides cheaper products and services, and a growing population creates more demand for products and services, which also stimulates industry.
  2. People are poor, due to unemployment or having to work for low-paid jobs as it's all they can get, and benefit cuts because there's not enough money to go round. So why are we letting foreigners in to compete for our jobs and benefits?

Clearly, the former is a more correct argument, as it's backed by facts; the latter does note cite its sources at all (Are people really poor? Compared to what? If so, is that really why people are poor? Are the "foreigners" actually competing for a fixed pool of jobs and benefits? Are there enough of them that it would actually make any difference if they weren't "competing", or are there much bigger issues we should worry about?)

Yet recent events suggest that the latter argument has swayed the public opinion better than the former.

Why is that? Why is my opinion of the two arguments so different to what the majority of my fellow Brits make of them?

I come from a culture (nerdy, educated) that values arguments backed up by data and mathematics. This seems self-evident to us: "But it's measurement of the actual world, processed through well-tested statistical techniques! What higher standard of generalisation about the world can we have than the Scientific Method?"

But what if you're not from our nerdy, educated culture, who've sat in classrooms and been shown the wonderful things the scientific method has given us?

Imagine yourself being presented with two arguments. One is given by a person who's not like you (they're all nerdy and they talk posh). It appeals to mathematics and science, which you found boring and irrelevant at school; you much preferred English, French and Art. That doesn't mean your stupid; you have applied your skills as a signwriter, and your work is highly respected, leading you to now run a thriving small business. But the nerdy woman saying that her maths show immigration is great reminds you of the kids who liked science and maths at school, and you didn't get on with them well.

The nerd is upset you don't seem to respect her viewpoint, and starts to explain that the evidence is all valid, but it's just a sea of numbers. She says the maths show a correlation with a great confidence level, and when you ask what that means, it quickly becomes apparent that you'll need to sit through maths lessons to actually have it all explained, and you had quite enough of that at school.

Meanwhile, somebody else gives you a short quip. "People are poor" (yeah, you can see that) "due to unemployment or having to work for low-paid jobs as it's all they can get, and benefit cuts because there's not enough money to go round" (yep, that the sort of thing you've heard from friends and family, and seen in the papers) "So why are we letting foreigners in to compete for our jobs and benefits?" Hell yeah!

The nerd might start complaining about the problems with that statement, but it makes perfect sense. The sort of person who comes up with sensible observations like that is clever, but not brainy. They're somebody who's cut through the bullshit and spotted the simple truth at the heart of a problem; not somebody who's built up a complicated argument with maths and abstract theories. You can respect that sort of cleverness, and want to hear what they think about other problems people face. They offer simple common-sense solutions.

And that, I think, is the problem us nerdy types have with public perception. Our methods produce correct answers, but the way we justify those answers to the majority of people who don't have backgrounds in the scientific method and statistical analysis is way off the mark. And while understanding this stuff suggests intelligence, not understanding it does not suggest absence of intelligence - yet the implication that it does is embedded into our culture, making us sigh and shake our heads at people who don't understand. "Oh, just trust us," we say. "We've worked it all out."

We need to keep using science and maths to find the truths of the world; and those scientific arguments are the best way of justifying our conclusions to each other. But having done so, we need to find better ways to explain and justify those truths to the world.

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