By Prabhakar Mundkur
As the year draws to a close, one reflects on how we can encapsulate world events within a universal theme. If one were to assess the national events of 2016, it could be summarised as ‘The Great Divide’. In the recent past, people have presented polarised responses to political events. For example, the Brexit, the US Presidential Elections, the Syrian refugee crisis, and even the Great Indian Demonetisation.
Never has data been so unpredictable and the numbers never seemed so close. The population was split into two major groups – those for and those against. In the aftermath, there is much strife, discussion and unhappiness with the results of seemingly fair and democratic processes.
What has caused this wave of polarisation? Strong opinions, wrong data, bad forecasting? Or is there another deep social trend lurking behind all this? A simple majority is easy to handle – the minority ought to heed. But when a vote gets split 52:48 as in the case of Brexit, or the US Presidential Elections, etc., conflict is inevitable.
People and Experts – Both divided
For every economist who supports the hypothesis that demonetisation will not curb black money, there is an economist who believes it will. In addition to that, there is a group which professes that more than anything else, the upside of Demonetisation is the digitisation of the Indian economy.
The fact is – the experts, much like the common folk, were/are divided in their opinion too. While some advocated Brexit, some believed that they would be better off as part of the EU. In the US, the subject of immigrants always solicits varied opinions.
The Likert Scale
Likert scaling is a bipolar scaling method which measures positive and negative responses to statements. Sometimes an even-point scale is used, where the option to “neither agree nor disagree” is unavailable. This is called a forced choice method since the neutral option is removed.
With strongly polarised opinions everywhere, there is bound to be unrest. The problem with the current discourse is that most people don’t seem to be in the middle of the scale. There are strong differences of opinion. As a result, discussions on sensitive topics like Brexit, the US Presidential Elections, and the Indian Demonetisation are disrupting friendships, causing workplace dispute, and tiffs between lovers and partners. However old the events may be, the debate and the anger still prevail.
Post-Truth, Lies and Statistics
Data is misinterpreted quite often. Even with the best intentions, important variables may be omitted and problems may be oversimplified or overcomplicated. In fact, interpretations may differ even when two people view the same analytical result.
Jonathan Freedland recently wrote a piece in the Guardian called “Don’t call it post-truth. There’s a simpler word: lies”. Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture wherein debate is framed largely by emotional appeals, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.
Understandably, the public is discerning. They are now unwilling to implicitly trust politicians. There is too much information floating around; social media is becoming a myth-buster for people to innocently consume anything that is being pushed over to them. So what then is the underlying trend behind this polarisation?
Is it simply that people are tired of the old ways of doing things and that it is just a great desire for change? Is it because any change would be good compared to the current status quo?
The winning decisions that people often vote for seem to be based – not on any great rationale or logic – but on strong emotions. People seem to be caught between two bad choices. It has been less about expressing a clear preference and more about choosing between two sub-optimal solutions. As Ralph Keyes says in his book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, “At one time we had truth and lies. Now we have truth, lies, and statements that may not be true but we consider too benign to call false. Euphemisms abound.”
A Biased and Staged Reality
We are a data dependent society. An increasing trend is for people to selectively pull out data that supports their own stand. A non-supporter of the Indian demonetisation will pull up data of how the poor people are suffering. The believer, on the other hand, will talk about the digital upsides and give examples of how poor people are accepting cheques because most of them have bank accounts.
The truth lies somewhere in between and not at the extremes. As Confucius is once known to have mystically said, “If one person is right it doesn’t mean the other person is necessarily wrong.”