An increasing number of people in the UK are declining to express definite opinions when asked about complex issues of which they know little.
TV journalists first began to detect this phenomenon in early 2017 when undertaking random street interviews.
In order to add interest to a news item, it had become commonplace for a reporter to accost strangers on any high street and seek their opinions on the subject of the journalist’s report.
The journalist might, for example, ask a passer-by whether increasing the energy of the particle accelerator at CERN would be likely to provide evidence for supersymmetry. Such a reporter could then confidently expect a deeply held conviction to be expressed on that subject – based on no logical rationale whatsoever.
Indeed, there were few questions for which a random shopper could not provide an immediate, simple, definitive solution – even if the matter had vexed, for generations, the minds of the world’s greatest thinkers.
During 2017, however, things began to change:
‘I first noticed it,’ recalled a BBC news reporter, ‘when I stopped a lady on Oxford Street and asked her how the West should best respond to the threats posed by North Korea. I was astonished when she said that she didn’t know. She went on to explain that the situation was highly complex and that, whilst there were some underlying principles that might be applied to addressing the issue, the optimum solution was very hard to gauge and would require considerable thought by people who better understood all the nuances of the situation.
‘I politely stopped her at that point,’ the reporter confessed. ‘Not only had her words gone well beyond a simple soundbite, but that sort of attitude was never going to fuel a heated controversy between the viewers who tweet their sad opinions to the evening news programme for which I report.
‘I tried to recover something from the interview,’ he admitted, ‘by asking if she thought Donald Trump should bomb Pyongyang to rubble. She told me, however, that I was being grossly over-simplistic, and then she walked away.’
The above encounter might easily have been forgotten had many more journalists not reported similar public responses on a variety of issues. A marked reluctance had seemingly emerged for people to express decisive, unambiguous perspectives on issues of the day – frequently conceding that they lacked sufficient knowledge of the complex political, social and scientific issues involved to hold an intelligent view.
‘Well, it’s all rather complicated,’ said a typical interviewee in response to a question about national politics. ‘There are a huge number of complex factors that bear on that issue and, although I’ve knowledge of some of them, I really don’t think I’m in a position to draw a meaningful and worthwhile overall conclusion.’
At the request of the BBC, Professor Ariana Stotle, a leading Oxford historian and philosopher, undertook a study into this phenomenon.
She discovered that the same reasoning as had been expressed to the TV journalists had led many people to resolve to become highly selective about voting in future elections and referenda.
‘I used to express an opinion when anyone asked me about anything,’ said a typical, random member of the public who was interviewed by Professor Stotle. ‘I thought I ought to have a view, and so I just guessed an answer – an answer that might change depending on the mood I was in. I suppose that was all a bit of fun when it had no consequences, but I recently realised that I did exactly the same thing when I voted on polling day.
‘When the effects of recent elections and referenda, at home and abroad, became apparent,’ this interviewee confessed, ‘I realised that making emotionally driven, wild guesses in the polling booth was an entirely irresponsible way for me to behave. I’m not stupid, it’s just that, like most people, I’d absolutely no idea about the consequences of leaving or remaining in the EU. Also, I haven’t a clue which politician or political party would best run the country – mainly because I don’t have a full grasp of the complexities involved in managing all the interconnected facets of a sophisticated, twenty-first century nation.
‘I’m not even sure why you’re asking me,’ the same respondent added. ‘If you needed major surgery,’ he continued by way of analogy, ‘you wouldn’t ask me what to do. You’d go to an expert surgeon. It’d be madness for you to seek my opinion in the first place, and, if I suggested removing your head as a treatment for an ingrowing toenail, it would be even greater folly for you to act upon it.’
‘This emerging popular movement against the expression of ill-informed opinions,’ suggested Professor Stotle, ‘seems to have arisen partially from a new public awareness that it’s not shameful to admit a lack of knowledge about a subject. It also appears to be linked to an increasing realisation that it’s not just stupid but also morally wrong to contribute to important decisions – decisions that affect the lives of others – on the basis of blind guesswork.
‘This groundswell of public consensus is a surprise to me,’ Professor Stotle admitted, ‘but it may be a sign of increasing emotional maturity in the UK population as we move further into the twenty-first century.
‘Historically,’ she explained, ‘it became understood in the West that everybody must be able to express their political opinions and fairly elect their leaders. Otherwise, those who feel disenfranchised will inevitably revolt – and, sooner or later, everybody will start killing everybody else. The modern Middle East and parts of Africa sadly illustrate this only too well.
‘The downside of seeking opinions from the masses, however, is that, because the greater number of them are not adequately informed, and many are not very bright, resulting decisions are effectively random – you may as well toss a coin.
‘That’s what Winston Churchill meant,’ Professor Stotle clarified, ‘when he said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. Stability is bought at the price of daft decisions being made by the ill-informed.
‘History also shows, however, that if people recognise their limitations and don’t express opinions unless they are knowledgeable and can maintain a dispassionate view, then the chances of wise outcomes are greatly increased. For some reason, a new, adult, emotional maturity of this type appears to be developing in the UK right now. The reasons are not totally clear, but many who voted Brexit have been profoundly shocked as the consequences of a decision they supported have unfolded. This has clearly made them think very carefully about expressing future opinions.’
Professor Stotle’s report reveals that this emerging popular movement to reduce the existence and impact of ill-informed opinions is rapidly gaining momentum, but does not have unqualified, universal support.
Religious organisations that she consulted for her report have treated the new ideas with caution. ‘We are certainly in favour of people considering the facts,’ said a typical religious leader, ‘as long as they are the correct facts. After all, only our religion understands the real truth about everything, and thus any, so called, facts that run contrary to our doctrines are clearly unacceptable.’
Donald Trump has also tweeted his concerns. He believes that basing opinions on a reasonable appraisal of all the facts does not feel right to the wonderful, hardworking people who made America great, and will make it great once more. ‘If it feels true it is true, regardless of any goddamn facts. I really feel that. God Bless America.’ he recently tweeted.
Due to the rapidly changing UK public attitude to this issue, journalists attempted to gauge current views just prior to the publication of this article: The general consensus appears to be that more thought and study is needed before individuals can draw definitive conclusions. However, admitting ignorance is seen as an honest response, and not expressing opinions without having substantial and sufficient knowledge of the subject in question is increasingly being seen as self-apparent common sense.