The EU referendum: How do you decide?

Andrew Glencross and Paul Cairney give some advice on how to wade through all the information on ‘Brexit’ to make an informed choice. Andrew offers a more thorough discussion in Remain or Leave? A MOOC on the UK Referendum on EU Membership.

We often hear that citizens don’t have enough information to help them make a decision about the EU referendum. Yet, there is too much information. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to  wade through all the campaign claims and evaluate them

We also hear that what we need is an ‘objective’ guide; someone to pull together all the evidence so that people can read it and make an informed decision. This will never happen. There is no objective guide. Indeed, the whole idea of objectivity is misleading. Anyone presenting ‘evidence’ on the debate is giving a partial story. This is clear when you hear people making the best, most optimistic, cases for or against evidence. If you want a well-rounded case, you don’t ask David Cameron or Boris Johnson.

It’s less clear when alleged experts join in, but the biases are still there. Everyone tells you some things and leaves out the rest; they describe to you one simple part of a complicated picture. Then, another expert will tell you the direct opposite. So, there will never come a point when you read enough to make a decision based on ‘the evidence’.

What can you do instead? We suggest two strategies.

Strategy 1: engage critically with any information you receive

Don’t take it at face value. Instead, consider:

Who is giving me the information and to what extent can I trust them?

This is relatively easy when you read a Remain or Leave pamphlet or listen to campaigners in debates. Set your trust levels to low (often, these messages simply reinforce what you believe, or annoy you). Or, at least, try to combine their accounts to see if there is any middle ground (which is not always possible).

It’s harder when people are brought in as ‘experts’. For every business guru, lawyer or university professor on one side, there seems to be an equivalent on the other (although, in some cases such as economic matters, there seems to be an imbalance towards Remain).

Still, it is not a good idea to assume that, just because Professor Something said something it is true. What you should think about professors is that they have excellent reputations based on research and scholarly excellence in a particular field – not that everything they say is gold. Beware, in particular, the Professor with expertise in one field (such as law or economics) trying to give you his/her views of another (such as economics or law).

What do people really mean?

What tends to happen in this debate is that no-one wants to give any ground; on both sides, the goal is to win at all costs. As a result, the debates tend to be very limited and partial, producing more heat than light before another topic has its moment in the limelight. Simple examples include the debate on how many EU migrants actually work in the UK (should we rely on national insurance numbers issued or exit surveys at airport?) or the question of whether the EU has secret plans for a common army (more cooperation in defence can go ahead without UK participation, but that does not mean the outcome will be an EU army).

How much of the information is based on what they claim to know versus what they predict?

Some problems are easy to spot: beware any prediction of Armageddon or of a better world. If a prediction for a new world seems too good to be true, you know to reject it. If someone says that everything will be unambiguously terrible, you can dismiss them quite easily. It’s harder to spot expert predictions based on one part knowledge and nine parts soothsaying. A good general rule is that a prediction becomes less useful for every year into the future it goes. If the future involves people, it is not easy to predict.

How does this information compare with other information?

One way to deal with information from one source is to compare it with as many other information sources as possible. So, for example, if you hear a point made in a debate, or read it in a leaflet, you can compare it with the thoughts of, say, critical media commentators and academics (e.g. UK in a Changing Europe, or the Centre on Constitutional Change). Or, you can simply ask yourself: is this an assertion, with no evidence, or can they back up what they are saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a good enough strategy on its own, largely because:

  1. Much of the relevant information is not available. We don’t know how people will behave after the vote – how, for example, the negotiations with the EU would progress after a Leave vote, how businesses and ‘the markets’ would react, or even if the vote prompts a further referendum in Scotland.
  2. There is too much information to process.
  3. We have to trust some people to give us useful information; to give us an account of the evidence on which we can rely.

Strategy 2: find ways to simplify your decision, to make it ‘good enough’.

So, we need an additional strategy to act intelligently but quickly. Forget the usual bunkum about some people thinking with their hearts and other people with their heads. Forget the idea of staying awake from now until the vote to make sure you’ve considered every Leave and Remain statement.

Instead, we all use short-cuts to make sure that we pay attention to some information and ignore the rest – and, for all of us, those short cuts include our established beliefs (we tend to reject some information if it contradicts our beliefs) and our emotions. Don’t feel bad if you feel passionately about something and can’t quite explain why. Don’t feel inadequate if someone else tells you that their decision is somehow more ‘rational’. Instead, seek simple ways to combine emotions with ‘rationality’:

  1. Work out your priorities. For some, it’s about the future of immigration. For some, it’s about the economy and certainty over trade. For others, it’s about ‘sovereignty’ and a desire to have policy decisions made in Westminster. For you, it may be about all of these things, but they may not be as important as each other. It is worth considering these priorities before you engage with the information.
  2. Work out what you are willing to give up. There is no realistic scenario in which everyone will be better off after a certain vote, or that everything will improve in each area. Rather, we are making important choices about what we are willing to give up to secure something else. For some, the uncertainty about the economy seems to trump all else. For others, it is about a principle that is more important than a guaranteed outcome.
  3. Identify your ‘gut feeling’ about which way to vote and ask yourself why you feel that way.
  4. Don’t be too annoyed. It is easy to decide to vote one way or another because someone in the Leave or Remain camp annoys you, or they appear to present misleading material, or give you a message in a patronising way. It’s not about them – otherwise, I think that most of us would spoil our ballot papers.

Then vote. It really is that simple.


Filed under UK politics and policy

2 responses to “The EU referendum: How do you decide?

  1. Pingback: Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Celebrate the referendum, and celebrate politics, even if it looks crap | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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