We have somehow managed to start a culture war about the virus. That is a sure-fire way to drown out the truthby Tim Harford / October 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Confused by the contradictory claims about the dangers posed by coronavirus? Cut through the fog with this one weird trick: stop trying to win an argument.
I realise that such advice does not sit easily with the way culture has been going in Britain in general of late, and the way things have been at Westminster for as long as anyone can remember. The Prime Minister, like too many top British politicians through history, is the former president of the world’s most famous student debating society. The leader of the opposition, meanwhile, was a prominent barrister. Both men are well-used to beginning with a conclusion, and hunting for the facts to fit.
The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured, statistics to be twisted, examples to be cherry-picked. The audience is to be entertained or even enraged as much as persuaded. Politics rewards anger and in-group loyalty.
When one is used to examining every scrap of evidence as possible ammunition, it becomes hard to use them to navigate towards a truly solid conclusion, or sometimes towards any conclusions at all: just think of Boris Johnson’s notorious pair of opinion columns, one arguing for Brexit and the other, unpublished, arguing the opposite. Such rhetorical gymnastics are familiar to anyone who has spent time in a debate club. They create the illusion of giving the pros and cons a thorough testing. But now that Brexit is happening, the illusion has faded; we realise the referendum barely scratched the surface of the real issues.
In the early spring, coronavirus shouldered Brexit to one side. It presented us with a common enemy, impervious to spin and misinformation. Amid the anxiety and the sorrow, I found something refreshing about reporting on an issue where people actually wanted to understand, rather than use to defeat their political opponents.
But it did not take long for the polarisation to creep back in. Somehow we have now managed to start a culture war about a pandemic. There is a vociferous chorus of lockdown “sceptics” and Covid alarmists.
The alarmists have natural allies in the media’s love of tragic yet unrepresentative tales of young…