IT hasn’t gone unnoticed that the same Brexit-peddling politicians who told us not to trust experts are now telling us to put our faith in, er…experts.
It’s a pretty transparent wheeze. When the Johnson government is inevitably held to account over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, it can try to convince us it was the experts that got it wrong.
It depends, of course, on how you define an expert. In the present situation, most of us would think of doctors, virologists, even logisticians who know how to get the right kit to the right people.
These skills are indeed represented on the government’s semi-secret SAGE, the somewhat self-regarding acronym of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
A drip-drip of leaks reveals, however, that its membership includes a clutch of so-called behaviourists and that they were behind much of the guidance it initially delivered.
It will have been the behaviourists who advised that the public would not accept being shut up in their homes or would rebel after a fortnight if they did.
If you’re not familiar with behaviourism, it’s a pseudo-science that starts from the standpoint that we’re all idiots who act according to our emotions rather than logic – all of us except the behaviourists themselves, presumably. It’s replaced astrology as the science of the age.
Whereas previous regimes would have used the threat of the thumb-screw or the gallows to get the public to behave, modern governments rely on the behaviourists’ subtle, subliminal messaging to get us to fall into line.
In the same way that we’ve switched from beating the pet dog as a way of training it, the behaviourists offer the prospect of a rewarding sweet to get us to do what they think is good for us.
These are the people who put “drink responsibly” labels on perfectly good bottles of gin and print pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packets. If that doesn’t work, how about featuring an impotence sufferer contemplating a limp dick?
It is no surprise that behaviourism plays such a role in modern advertising – think of the Dan Draper character in the Mad Men series. His talent was to get people to buy stuff that they’d never known they wanted.
Needless to say, the UK government is a big fan. When the Conservatives took over in 2010 at the head of a coalition government, one of their first acts, apart from slashing all other public spending, was to splash out on a Behavioural Insights Team, the so-called Nudge Unit.
Part-privatised four years later, it is still part-owned by the Cabinet Office but has moved round the corner from 10 Downing Street where it was founded with just a seven-member team.
It now employs hundreds of staff on hundreds of projects around the world, from the US to Singapore, on the promise to “generate and apply behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society”. At least we export something.
It has come up with some real humdingers. They discovered for example that, if official questionnaires are written in plain English, people are more likely to fill them in. Similarly, if you offer a £5,000 lottery prize to encourage people to register to vote, more people are likely to do so. Who knew?
It makes you wonder how society functioned before they came along.
Sadly, they still have to cope with a recalcitrant public that insists, in the present crisis, on making up its own mind on the basis of listening to the concerns of doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers before it makes a judgment.
They question how coronavirus testing can be the right answer one day and wrong the next. They refuse to accept that the government always gets it right, as the death toll heads towards a European record.
When this is all over, let’s just hope for the government’s sake that the behaviourists can nudge the public into believing that, at the end of the day, everything that was done was all for the best.