On Brexit, Ask a Stupid Question, Get a Stupid Answer

A young Brexit supporter carries a British flag in central London, England, December 9, 2018. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
A ridiculously slanted poll produces a ridiculously reported result.

The English language used to produce a great catalogue of words for nonsense. Some of them communicating earthy disgust: rubbish, baloney, and bull***t. Some of them communicate something like snotty disdain: inanity, fatuity, and tripe. Funny thing about tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach. Eating it was until recently considered a sign of low station; now it is the higher taste. Today it is simpletons who order filet mignon, while rich people pay exorbitantly for finely prepared tripe.

A poll came out last week that made British citizens who favor Brexit look very bad. It was conducted by YouGov, an outfit whose pay-to-play model is known to political insiders in that country as “Whatever You Want, Gov.” It pretends to investigate and report on public opinion, but the job is to present finely prepared tripe.

YouGov’s poll was about the Tory party, which is currently choosing a new leader to be prime minister. YouGov was “investigating” attitudes in the party about Brexit, the goal of separating the United Kingdom from the European Union. It asked questions like “Would you rather Brexit took place, even if it caused the following scenario?” Or would you rather Brexit did not take place, to avoid the same? It found that Tories favor Brexit 63–29, even if it means Scotland leaving the U.K. By 61–29, they favor it even if it does significant damage to the United Kingdom. And 54 percent say they would like Brexit even if caused their political party to be destroyed.

The poll results feed into a larger existing narrative in the United Kingdom, about Brexiteers. Looked at superficially, it seems to show that Brexiteers are simple fanatics. They don’t even care if it leads to the breakup and dissolution of the United Kingdom. But it only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that the poll doesn’t offer respondents a chance to respond the way normal humans might to such a question: This is a false choice.

So much polling of opinions on political questions ends up as a kind of game of chicken between the people designing the questions and those answering them. The anonymous respondents have an overwhelming incentive to answer in a way that boosts the cause they want to see triumph in the world, even if their response isn’t strictly a true description of their thoughts.

If you are responding to a poll like this, you would believe correctly that the results could be widely publicized and interpreted by the political class as they consider what outcomes to effect in national life. And the poll offers you a binary choice of two signals to send. You can either send the signal that you aren’t committed to Brexit, if it means a calamity, or send the signal that you are committed to Brexit come hell or high water.

That’s it: Uncommitted or heedless. You cannot respond the way most people naturally would, which is to say: “Oh, piss off, this is a false choice; these potential calamities seem extremely unlikely to me.“ So, if you choose to look uncommitted, you are inviting politicians to prove that Brexit would in fact present a significant risk of downturn, or political crackup. If you choose to look heedless, your response is then used by Britain’s great and the good to discredit your cause. The poll is designed to hurt Brexit. At least for a news cycle or two. It exists to create a kind of pseudo-fact, a lie presented as truth on television or radio by pseuds.

It is actually a sad thing that supposedly intelligent people consent to repeat these pseudo-facts and destroy their own dignity by referring to their own words as “talking points.” It’s an admission that we have no “truths” anymore, just the baloney with a side of tripe.

And it’s not just public-opinion polling. The replication crisis in science is also part of an expensive horse-hockey-production economy, in which results that get headlines attract the new funding for more expensive inanities. Entire academic disciplines sprout up like mushrooms on the crap pile; they begin with the conclusions before they start the academic inquiry. Nice work if you can get it.

How long can a functioning democratic society and economy work when every sediment of intellectual life is packed with so much open fraud? We’re going to find out.

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