Rod McLaughlin

Telegraph articles (29 apr 21...07 may 21)

Ella Whelan in - which is behind a paywall:

I am British: I was born in Homerton hospital in Hackney, and have lived most of my life no further than spitting distance from it. And yet I’ve always ticked the box for “Irish” when asked on forms for doctors or employers. Identity is complicated: first-generation immigrants are more likely to embrace “Britishness” in an attempt to blend in, but their kids are often nostalgic for the authenticity of the “home country”. I may hold a British passport, but I liked the fact that, behind closed doors, the flat in which I was brought up was a little Co Wicklow.

Something about Britishness, in particular, has become impossibly contentious. The novelist Jonathan Coe caused a stir on Twitter this week when he bemoaned the TV guide: “Great British Railway Journeys followed by Great British Menu, with The Great British Sewing Bee over on BBC1. Plus a Panorama report called Am I British?” Coe may be right that weeknight television is often dire, especially on the BBC. But he wasn’t just showing disdain for the never-ending series of cooking and crafting shows: his issue was that these exceedingly middle-class programmes were all tainted by the association with “Britishness”.

Ever since Bake Off hit our screens in 2010, hosted by that impossibly British duo, Mel and Sue, TV producers have been trying to cash in on a very distinctive, awkward, bumbling charm. Personally I can’t stomach anything twee, but not everyone is as sectarian as me. The formula of the ‘Great British Insert Here’ show is popular because people keep tuning in to watch it.

Even Gogglebox, for instance, might not have “Great” or “British” in its title, but there’s something identifiably British about it – all the families, whatever their cultural background, share the same desire to tear down the celebrities on the telly. It’s why the American version doesn’t work. Like all stereotypes, from the Irish loving a song to the Italians being great cooks, national identities can harbour both good and bad, true and false traits.

But the pathologisation of “Britishness” has come back to bite cringing Remainer types. Looking at this week’s election results from Hartlepool to Harrow, it’s clear that working-class people are turning away from the Labour Party and its cheerleaders precisely because of the thinly-veiled disdain expressed by those who deride the Brexit vote as a display of “Little Englanderism”.


Paul Dolan in

Academics must urgently counter the very real danger of groupthink across a range of issues, starting with lockdown

There is little room for ambivalence or nuance in modern debate. Any comment or piece of analysis will be taken as support for either of the polarised views on a particular issue. If you do not come down clearly on one side, then too many people are quick to conclude that you must support the other extreme. This makes it very difficult for us to steer an effective path through complex issues. In fact, it’s worse than that because one side of the debate will usually represent the prevailing narrative in society, and so any concerns about that perspective are greeted with much greater hostility than the other way around.  

Consider the case of the pandemic. The prevailing narrative, especially among academics like me, is that lockdowns are both required and effective. So, if I am not fervently supporting lockdowns, then I am assumed to be opposed to any form of restrictions. This has been the reaction from across the academy when I have variously suggested: that the stay at home messaging was so effective that it might have resulted in more life years being lost from missed cancer treatments; that middle-aged decision-makers might have been unduly influenced by their own fear of dying; that the life experiences of younger people have been seen as a luxury good whilst we focus on the life expectancies of older people; and that it unethical to scare people into believing that their own risks from the virus are higher than they really are. 

At no point have I ever endorsed a no-restrictions policy. At no point have other “lockdown sceptics” more prominent than me ever suggested that we simply let the virus rip. When Sunetra Gupta and colleagues argued for the focussed protection of older people (which is a long way from doing nothing), they were rounded on by many in the academy, and subjected to considerable personal abuse. Given all the uncertainties surrounding COVID, none of us can know with any degree of confidence what the right approach to the virus is, and I remain deeply sceptical of anyone who is so confident that strict lockdowns are best for social welfare in the UK.

One of the main reasons I became an academic was to help to shed light on difficult questions, and to be respectful of evidence that might lead to different answers. In the final analysis, I am pretty sure that many more people will conclude that younger people have been required to pay too high a price, but I am open to weighing up any evidence that speaks to this issue. What I am not open to are attempts to shut down academic debate and empirical investigation into these issues on the grounds that the right response has already been established, and that any dissent represents denial of the seriousness of the virus.

The academy must therefore urgently counter the very real danger of groupthink across a range of issues. Inter-group contact, where members of different groups are brought together to reduce prejudice, has been suggested as a method for tackling polarisation. While some research has shown that exposure to the ideas of the opposing group can increase polarisation, other research shows that inter-group contact works better in reducing prejudice if certain conditions are satisfied, such as prolonged exposure to more than one member of the other group.

I therefore urge academics to embrace adversarial collaboration, which explicitly brings together people with different prior beliefs to work on a research question. I have started doing this more in my own academic work, such as when we sought to value the intangible benefits of the 2012 Olympic Games. I absolutely loved the Games and thought they were worth every penny, but most of my dull economist collaborators thought they were a waste of money. For those that are interested, it was the basically the opening ceremony wot won it. 

None of us - not even academics - can avoid bringing our own biases and beliefs to an issue and the evidence surrounding it. At least politicians are explicit about their disagreements. There is an honesty in that which is currently lacking in the academy. The world is a crazy place when an academic is extolling the honesty of politicians. But it does feel like the world has got a little crazier – and more polarised – over the past year. So, let us all use COVID and other potentially divisive contemporary issues as an opportunity to accept different perspectives, and to reduce polarisation rather than to increase it.

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at the LSE and the creator and presenter of a new podcast, Duck-Rabbit: taking sides. 

Portland London