Book review: The Perils of Perception, by Bobby Duffy

After almost 25 years at , Bobby Duffy is an expert in social research. One of his particular interests is how we get things wrong, something that the agency has investigated through interviews with 100,000 people in 40 different countries. That work has now been brought together in the book The Perils of Perception: Why we’re wrong about nearly everything.

You might have come across the sorts of misperceptions we’re talking about. To take a few examples:

  • Teenage pregnancy: when asked what percentage of British teenage girls give birth every year, people guessed 19%. The correct answer is 1.4%.
  • Religion: people in France were asked what percentage of the population they thought was Muslim. They guessed 31%, when the reality is 8%.
  • Immigration: asked what the proportion of immigrants is in the America population, the average answer was 33%, over double the actual figure of 14%.

The book is packed with these sorts of delusions, showing how we don’t believe that crimes rates are falling, that we think everyone else is having more sex than they really are, and that we dramatically overestimate how many 30-somethings still live with their parents.

Books or media stories that focus on this sort of public ignorance can often be a little smug, delighting in wrong-footing their readers and highlighting how little we know. Duffy doesn’t do that, partly because he remembers how annoying it was when university lecturers did it, and mostly because he sees value in the misperceptions themselves: “they tell us about how we think, what we’re worrying about, how we see ourselves relative to others, where we think the norm is, and therefore how we’re likely to act ourselves. We can learn a lot by understanding why we’re so often so wrong.”

Importantly, having misperceptions doesn’t make you dumb. As the book repeatedly explains, it’s not just about knowing facts, but “how we think that causes us to misperceive the world”. There are a whole host of psychological reasons why we overestimate some things and underestimate others. These instinctive and subconscious mental shortcuts are called heuristics, and we all use them. If we’re guessing a number is going to be high, we hedge our estimate downwards. If we’re worried about something – immigration levels, for example – we’ll overestimate it. We are biased towards ourselves and people like us. These tendencies are there for a reason. We employ those thinking tools to avoid being overwhelmed by a world of information, to help us make faster decisions or even to keep us safe. Nobody is free from misperceptions, even scholars who have spent their whole lives studying them.

On the other hand, a lot of our prejudices are rooted in misperceptions, and prevailing myths can lead to discrimination and scapegoating. We can go badly wrong when policies are enacted based on perceived problems rather than real ones. Our misperceptions can lead us to ignore or deny progress, and then we risk throwing it away. Pervasive falsehoods can do a lot of damage, such as anti-vaccination campaigns and climate change denial. We need to be more aware of our misperceptions and open to correction, and Duffy concludes with a list of ten learning points. They include cultivating scepticism but not cynicism, being aware of extreme examples, teaching critical thinking in schools, and reading outside our ‘bubble’.

There is some overlap with Factfulness, which I read earlier this year. The main difference  is that Factfulness covers international issues and The Perils of Perception looks at national questions, and they’re different in style. Duffy’s book is lower on anecdotes and isn’t as entertaining, but it’s stronger on the psychology and sociology. It makes direct connections to contemporary issues including Brexit, the changing debate around social media, and the rise of ‘fake news’. It’s clear, balanced, and cautious in its conclusions – and manages to be optimistic about the state of the world without being complacent about what still needs improvement.

  • You can pick up The Perils of Perception , or .
  • Bobby Duffy is now director of the Policy Institute, and is .

Why don’t we prepare for economic downturns?

The economy is cyclical. As currently constructed, it expands and then inevitably enters a period of contraction. There were recessions in Britain in the 60s, 70s, 80s and the early 90s. Then there was a longer gap than normal, leading some people – including chancellor Gordon Brown – to boast that they had broken the cycle. We now know better.

We also know that, ten years on from the last crisis, the wheel is turning again. The economy will tank at some point. It’s just a matter of when.

This is still news to many people. I occasionally mention the business cycle in talks, and it reliably prompts a raising of the eyebrows in large parts of the audience. I get the impression that it’s not common knowledge. Recessions are still considered an aberration, a glitch, rather than the systemic phenomenon that they are.

We don’t talk about it, so perhaps that’s not surprising. No politician will warn about recession, as the opposition will accuse them of ‘talking down the economy’. While downturns are inevitable, the timing of them is unpredictable and lots of things can trigger them. Nobody wants to accidentally start one with a self-fulfilling prophecy. So there’s never any public debate about recession. We bumble along as if it will never happen, and then we panic when it inevitably does.

Because of this silence, we never get to talk about the best ways to handle a recession. It’s somehow outside the bounds of democracy. There’s no section in party manifestos, no proposals or back-up plans we can consider and vote on. When the recession comes, the party in power just does whatever it likes. Last time around that involved handing billions of pounds to the banks, slashing government spending and ushering a new age of austerity.

There are lots of different responses to recession. Some countries chose tax rebates instead of quantitative easing – giving money to ordinary people instead of banks, and thus stimulating demand more directly. Germany and others supported part-time working, helping firms to keep people in work on reduced hours rather than making them redundant. Several countries ran scrappage schemes to prop up car sales, but others chose to support solar hot water, insulation or home improvements instead.

Recessions require difficult decisions. Governments find themselves choosing who to protect and who to leave to fend for themselves. Some industries will be considered critical to the national interest, and others won’t. The treasury and the government will no doubt have plans in place, but we’re not involved. Isn’t there any way of discussing these questions in advance? Couldn’t we draw up cross-party contingency plans? There must be a better way of dealing with recession than denial and then panicked decisions behind closed doors.

This is particularly important for Britain right now, as we walk the Brexit plank. Nobody knows what Britain’s economic standing in the world will be by this time next year, and the uncertainty is enough on its own to undermine confidence. I won’t list the various warning signs of recession, you can find them easily enough in the business pages. But it is worth considering what it could mean. Interest rates are already low – too low for the Bank of England to stimulate borrowing with a substantial cut. Debt levels are already high. Having an independent currency was an advantage during the last crisis, when the Euro almost collapsed. That won’t be true this time, where the value of sterling outside of the EU is uncertain. On the political front, a resurgent far right could very easily capitalise on a financial crisis.

I don’t see much chance of the government talking openly about it, and the popular press is likely to throw such questions in the denial basket of ‘project fear’. But we can talk about it in families and households. We can raise it in workplaces, schools, charities. Churches should talk about it, and how they can support the community when hard times comes. Local activists can start talking now about how to build resilience and support local business. Most of all, we shouldn’t be surprised by it.

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Book review: Rojava, by Thomas Schmidinger

is the autonomous Kurdish region in the North of Syria. It won the right to self-governance during the civil war, and for several years now it has existed as a precarious prototype Kurdish democracy. The region has got a fair amount of attention, not just because of the war and the international power games over Syria, but because of Rojava’s experiments in direct democracy.

I’ve read articles celebrating the region’s , with devolved regional authorities always having a male and female co-leadership. All female battalions have formed to fight ISIS. There are stories of and worker-owned businesses, or community governance inspired by Murray Bookchin. For some, Rojava is an emerging radical democracy, pioneering new approaches in ‘anarchist socialism’ – or ‘libertarian municipalism’ if you prefer.

Equally, it’s a war-torn area threatened by Turkey on one side and extremist Islam on the other, and that exists at the mercy of President Assad. For all the talk of democracy, it still appears to be a one-party system. It’s remote, dangerous and hard to visit. Facts are hard to come by. Allegations of human rights abuses continue. Lots of people want to believe in a progressive Kurdish democracy emerging from the wreckage of the Syrian tragedy, but how much of it is wishful thinking?

That’s why I picked up , a detailed primer by German journalist Thomas Schmidinger. The author has spent a lot of time in the region and is well connected. His book draws on extensive interviews, and the whole back of the book is given over to local people expressing what they think is happening on the ground.

The main impression that the book gives is that it’s complicated. We begin with an overview of the ethnic diversity of Syria, with its mix of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians. Then we look at religious pluralism, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and several persecuted Islamic sects. There are multiple languages and dialects too.

Then we turn to the nature of Kurdistan, a region that used to be a country in its own right. It has been suppressed at times, with attempts to ban the language and customs. Some minorities have been persona non grata, and stripped of citizenship. At other times there have been movements for national sovereignty, settling into what we have today – regional autonomy within Syria, but with a vision for federalism rather than independence.

Things really get tangled once the book starts discussing Kurdish politics. The region is essentially governed by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD in its Kurdish initials, which is the political wing of the armed militant group PKK. There are multiple other parties which seem to continually fracture and split. There are youth agencies that are more revolutionary. Some parties want an independent Kurdish state and resent the PYD for working with Assad, prefering to seek alliances with Kurdish parties in Iraq or Turkey. Many criticise the PYD for not running elections, but also boycott elections when they are run. Lots of groups refuse to talk to each other, making it hard to see how problems can be resolved.

Schmidinger does his best to explain the situation, but the upshot is that it is highly convoluted. To someone like me, who doesn’t follow the situation closely, it remains largely opaque. What is useful is how much space the book gives to ‘voices from Rojava’. Dozens of people from different parties, campaigns or local NGOs are interviewed and give an account of themselves in their own words. This is where we hear about how people are trying to create a culture of democracy and self governance, replacing patriarchal or religious divisions. We hear from women leaders about how the liberation of women is a liberation for the whole of society – “men wage wars and do not take decisions for peace” says Asya Abdullah of the PYD. Bringing women into politics has brought a willingness to negotiate and compromise, to seek the greater good, in ways that were not there before.

What of the progressive new state some have described? There is certainly some inspiring work going on. As Rojava chooses its own path, it is seeking to build grassroots democracy and include a plurality of voices. But it is so incredibly fragile and it could very easily come to nothing. While Syria remains so unstable, it’s really too early to tell whether we have an emerging homegrown Middle-Eastern democracy or a just brief moment of light in the civil war. That’s more or less where Schmidinger leaves it: “Six years after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Rojava, we can still do no more than sketch an intermediate record of the short history of a precarious autonomy in Rojava.”

As for the book itself, it would almost serve best as a reference or as background reading to the situation. Events in the region move fast, and it may be some time before the definitive story of Rojava can be committed to print.

Hard, soft, or poached? Why we’re headed for a Brexit for the 1%

In the EU referendum, the British public were given a yes or no option on the question of leaving the EU. But there must be fifty ways to leave the EU, as Paul Simon didn’t sing. Brexit, it transpires, does not mean Brexit. The British public has not been consulted since the referendum, and in the absence of any opposition, it has been down to the Conservatives to single-handedly shape the future of Britain for generations to come.

The trouble is, there’s no consensus within the Conservative party either. With Article 50 triggered prematurely, a botched general election, and endless infighting, Brexit will not be done well. Like a boiled egg, we’ve been told that Brexit was supposed to be hard or soft. I think it’s going to be poached, but either way we’re headed for hot water.

Here’s what I mean by poached: the way things are going, Britain is headed for a dose of disaster capitalism. The deadline is likely to come and go with no deal done. In the chaos that follows, Boris Johnson or similar ends up in power, unelected and with a pressing mandate to do something – anything. What they do is slash taxes and regulation and run a fire sale on public assets. Britain adopts the ‘Singapore Model’ – the radical free market on the edge of Europe – that a tiny wealthy minority have wanted all along. Britain will have been taken and reshaped without permission, hence poached.

The ‘Singapore Model’ should always be referred to in inverted commas, because what advocates describe is only tangentially like Singapore. The island state does indeed operate as a radical free market, but its low tax base has historically depended on land value taxes,  profitable state-run industries, and the government providing over 80% of the housing. Those don’t get a mention in the ‘Singapore Model’, so we’re talking about a fantasy version here.

It’s not a mainstream idea. Many Conservatives have ruled it out, and most of the British press talk about it as unworkable. The Telegraph is an exception. “Singapore-in-the-Atlantic is a splendid model for Brexit”, writes MP Owen Paterson has used the Telegraph to suggest “the Singapore model is our Brexit opportunity.” Whether they use the Singapore name or not, the basic approach is championed by right-wing think tanks such as The Freedom Association or The “If we had a realistic chance of becoming a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ outside of the Single Market, I would be on board” . It’s the preferred Brexit strategy of the , launched last year by MEP and Brexit architect Daniel Hannan. The keynote speaker at the launch event? Boris Johnson.

This vision of an extreme free-market Brexit would see Britain as a trade and finance hub between Europe and America. Huge tax cuts would boost corporate profits and personal wealth. The public sector would be slashed, government spending dramatically reduced. Inequality would soar, the gulf between London and the regions widening even further.

With Brexit talks all over the place, Theresa May unable to build a shared vision, and Boris Johnson as a leadership frontrunner, this is where Britain is headed by default. By the time we are consulted again, it could be too late. The whole course of the country will have been shaped by a handful of powerful men, to the benefit of the 1%.

Alternatively, we could still have an adult conversation about what Brexit means. The Labour party needs to take a stronger line. Most importantly, moderates on both sides of the house need to work together, first to press for an extension on the Brexit timescale, and then to develop an actual plan. The disaster capitalism version of Brexit is not inevitable, but complacency and ineptitude have pointed us squarely in that direction.

Are record temperatures changing people’s minds about the climate?

I can’t remember the last time it rained in Luton. Was it in May? It must have rained overnight since then, but I couldn’t say for sure. What I do know is that it’s been almost uninterrupted sunshine for weeks, our rainwater storage has run down and everything is looking very dry indeed. This happens from time to time in Southern England, but it’s a wider phenomenon this time around.

Temperature records have been set this year right across the Northern hemisphere, from Eastern Europe to Canada. Algeria set a new record temperature for Africa at 51.3C, Pakistan hit a new high at 50.2. China saw a new record in Shanghai, and previous highs were topped in Iran, Ireland, and Spain. It’s dry too. Britain has had a number of brush fires, which is unusual. . Denmark has been discussing support for farmers. are struggling to find fresh grass to feed their cows. Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle because it is so well irrigated, but it is at the moment.

So it’s not just me.

When we get snow or a cold snap, it’s usually not long before the sarcastic comments about global warming start flowing. The same hasn’t been true the other way round – heatwaves, storms and floods haven’t necessarily convinced people that climate change is happening. Even epochal events such as Katrina or Sandy didn’t fundamentally tip the balance. But since this is specifically heat – the first thing you think of with global warming – will it make an impact?

I’ve noticed a shift in the British press. The Daily Mail was still running climate sceptic stories last year, but wasn’t shy to say that for the heatwaves. “While an isolated heatwave can be put down as an anomaly, the scale of this phenomenon points to global warming as the culprit, scientists said.”

The Daily Express is a bastion of climate scepticism in Britain, having declared it a fraud many times. But if there’s one thing they love, it’s extreme weather stories, and they appear to be coming round. They still publish a lot of nonsense, but multiple articles this year talk about .

Less anecdotally, the who don’t think climate change is happening has fallen to 4% in Britain, and those who think it’s a purely natural phenomenon stands at 12%. Unfortunately many of them remain in government, and they probably read unrepentant publications like the Spectator and the Telegraph. Still, 84% of Britons recognise climate science. Those are the 2017 figures, and they may change again this year.

In the US, , with 73% agreeing that it is happening and 60% recognising the role of human activity. There’s still a big divide along party lines, but as the statisticians say, climate change is becoming lived experience. “People are telling us they are experiencing a climate that isn’t what they remember in the past and the evidence itself, such as declining polar ice, is having an effect.”

I think that makes a difference. Obviously it’s easy to agree with a warming world during a heatwave, but when it goes on for a while, the conversation starts to shift. Perhaps we start to think about how we need to make some improvements to the house to reduce solar gain, or plan to fit another rainwater barrel. Maybe we notice how much we could have benefited from all that uninterrupted sunshine, and finally get around to phoning for some solar power quotes. In other words, we start doing some domestic climate adaptation.

Perhaps public perceptions will fall again once temperatures drop off. But since these sorts of heat events are , I think the climate change movement could capitalise on the lived experience factor. We can talk about how people are adapting. We can give people tips on staying cool. We can provide the context that helps people to make sense of the weather and its long term trends. It could prove to be powerfully persuasive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it is actually cloudy today and I’m going to go and place empty buckets all over the patio in case it finally rains.