Last night, as on most Thursday nights, my Twitter timeline was full of tweets about something called Question Time. Which raised the question: do people pay too much attention to politics?
What I mean is that if folk were seriously interested in how the public realm should be governed you'd expect them to be also interested in social science and philosophy. But interest in these is weak relative to that in "politics". For example:
- Books on such subjects sell relatively poorly; Why Nations Fail, despite an endorsement from the Prime Minister, is selling less than Health, Safety & Environment Test for Operatives & Specialists. And even good introductions to political philosphy don't reach the general reader.
- There are no good regular social science programmes on TV - though there are on radio.
- Social science blogs attract only a couple of thousand views per day from UK readers. And I've found that my domestic traffic tends to spike when I write more partisan pieces.
- If someone were to use the basic language of social science and philosophy ("Bayesian", "Rawlsian", etc), on a programme like Question Time they'd be greeted with incomprehension. Ed Balls acquired a reputation as a pointy head for using the phrase "endogenous growth theory".
Interest in politics, then, seems much more widespread than interest in the social sciences. There is, I fear, a simple reason for this. People watch programmes like Question Time or the Big Benefits Row for much the same reason they'll watch the Liverpool-Arsenal game tomorrow - because they are tribal conflicts. Except that there'll be some skill on show tomorrow.
This in turn explains why such programmes feature the likes of Galloway, Starkey and other diseased effluvia rather than sociology professors. People watch them not to be informed or educated, but to have their egotistical prejudices massaged or to get a cheap sense of angry moral superiority. This is why the answers that are so often correct in politics - "I don't know" and "it doesn't much matter" - are so rarely heard. Insofar as they do "learn" anything from such shows, they do so through a process of asymmetric Bayesianism, overweighting comments supportive of their prejudices (pdf) and disregarding ones which challenge them.
This wouldn't be so bad if there were a distinction between post-serious "wrestling politics" and proper politics, based upon rational inquiry about evidence and values. But when policies are devised with a view to headlines and focus groups, this distinction risks being blurred. The problem with British democracy isn't so much the politicians as the voters.