Brexit conclusion according to article.

Cognitive ability impacted Brexit: Leave decision-making to the experts?

A recent research article proposed that cognitive ability influenced the outcome of the UK’s Brexit referendum. The paper presents a narrative that relies on correlations and fallacies, leading to suggestions that challenge democratic values. Let’s dissect the article, its results, conclusions, and recommendations to avoid future alleged mistakes like Brexit.

Scientists are humans, and as all humans, we inevitably carry emotions, ideologies, and biases that affect how we convey information and knowledge to others. Sometimes, these biases are subtle and insignificant. Other times, the ideologies radiate through so much that even the news reporting of such studies reveals BS.

Cognitive ability affected Brexit?

While scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I stumbled upon one such article the other day. Someone had published an article from The Independent titled, “People who voted for Brexit’ more likely to be less intelligent’, study claims.

My first thought was, “Are they still trying to find scapegoats for the UK’s 2016 referendum, where the British voters chose to leave the European Union (EU)?”

But as I went through the article, I realized the authors’ conclusions lacked direct connections with the results. Even worse, their concluding suggestions to leave complex decisions to experts could impact the essence of our democratic values.

Brexit conclusion: People who voted for Brexit more likely less intelligent.

But before I get into the details, here’s a well-deserved recap for those who didn’t follow the events, especially our non-European readers:

The UK held a referendum in 2016, commonly known as Brexit, to decide whether the country should remain in the EU. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised the referendum to address concerns about the UK’s EU membership. Over 30 million people voted, with a turnout of 72.2%. The majority voted to leave (51.9% to 48.1%), leading to the decision for the UK to exit (or Brexit) the EU.

The results were controversial and heavily criticized in the UK and many EU countries. Notably, extreme right parties managed to hijack the leading discourse of the Leave campaign. As a result, the decision became associated with a wish to reduce immigration – and other populist-right ideologies.  

(Please note that I don’t take sides in this debate, and the article intends to portray the study trying to explain the UK’s departure from the EU.)

Dangerous Brexit conclusions based on loose connections

In their study, Dawson and Baker from the University of Bath identified a correlation between individuals’ voting decisions and their cognitive ability, including memory, verbal fluency, fluid reasoning, and numerical reasoning. The study included data from 6,366 individuals in 3,183 couples who participated in an extensive national survey called Understanding Society.

The researchers found that higher cognitive abilities correlated with voting Remain and lower cognitive abilities associated with voting Leave. So far, so good.

However, what caught my attention in the news article was the following quote from the research paper’s first author: “This study adds to existing academic evidence showing that low cognitive ability makes people more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation.”

Did they research the links between cognitive ability, information consumption, and voting preferences? No, they didn’t. Although the quote above may give the impression that they analyzed at least some aspects of information consumption, they provide no data on this. Instead, they based these conclusions on a handful of research literature suggesting correlations between misinformation and Leave (the EU) voters, “while the well-informed prefer to Remain.”

Brexit. The UK Leaves the EU.

This study would have received half of my attention if not for their firm conclusion at the end of the research article, “Perhaps though, a less severe restriction, especially when it comes to complex decisions like EU membership, is leaving it to the experts.” This suggestion is based on loose connections and correlations.

Yes, let’s open Pandora’s box, shall we? Why don’t we normalize the idea of handing future decision-making to more qualified members of society, so-called technocrats?

The fallacies that led to these Brexit-related conclusions (and one bias)

To reach a point where they could suggest a technocratic approach to complex decision-making, the researchers had to take detours and connect loose ends. It’s almost as if the authors were trying to shoehorn an explanation to align with their preferred take on the referendum outcome. The argument they followed sounds too much like, “Dumb people caused this because they are susceptible to erroneous information. Leave democracy to the grownups.”

The researchers could not rely on their own data, which lacked information specifics or clear connections between information intake and voting preference. So, to draw their conclusions and suggest policy changes, they had to take different measures, for example, fallacies. (You can find a more detailed explanation of fallacies here.)

Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy or “with this, therefore because of this”

Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy occurs when a causal relationship is assumed between two events simply because they correlate. Correlation doesn’t imply causation. For example, although correlated, an increase in ice cream sales doesn’t cause an increase in boat accidents. They both happen to occur during summer.

In this study, the researchers identified a correlation between cognitive ability and voting preferences but overstepped in implying causation. They assume that because cognitive ability and voting preferences are correlated, one directly causes the other.

In fact, other factors may have affected cognitive ability and voting preferences. For example, in a separate study, researchers demonstrated evidence that education, employment type, and employment status were “key drivers of the Vote Leave share.” Socio-economic factors could still influence cognitive ability and voting preferences separately.

False cause fallacy

The false cause fallacy implies a cause-and-effect relationship between two events without proper evidence.

The researchers assert that lower cognitive ability causes increased susceptibility to misinformation without directly evaluating this relationship. Remember, their correlation relies on a literature review of research articles with different hypotheses.

Their leap to suggesting causality between their study and information-type susceptibility raises red flags about the validity of their conclusions. These red flags are especially alarming since the authors suggest extreme measures, such as delegating specific decisions to experts.

If they didn’t evaluate the effect of exposure to different information types, they should not conclude its impact on the referendum outcome. Of course, the authors can discuss the possible correlation between their findings and misinformation and disinformation. However, they shouldn’t overemphasize these possible connections.

Note also that, as topical non-experts, we cannot know if the authors have cherry-picked their references unless we dig into the existing literature. We have already seen that other articles point to different conclusions: the effect of education, unemployment, and employment type. So, when they argue for expert decision-making instead of improved education and employment, they cherry-pick the conclusion.

Confirmation bias

Lastly, the research article suffers from a type of bias called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

In this case, the authors spent long paragraphs introducing their findings by setting the stage for what seems to have been their preferred conclusion: misinformation and disinformation caused the UK’s departure from the EU.

Lacking the necessary evidence to claim this and suggest more technocratic decision-making, the authors turned to published literature. We readers get the impression that they try to shoehorn and puzzle their way to the conclusion. Also, I rarely experience introductions with the same volume.

The authors heavily emphasize literature that aligns with their views about misinformation, cognitive ability, and expert decision-making. They don’t give equal attention to contrasting viewpoints or alternative interpretations, introducing confirmation bias into their narrative.

A robust and unbiased scientific inquiry balances existing literature, including supportive and contradictory evidence. Focusing disproportionately on information that aligns with one’s perspective may lead to a skewed interpretation of the evidence.

The result and conclusion of the Brexit study

Unfortunately, these attempts to fit a narrative to findings attract headlines, such as this news headline that caught my attention. The conclusions affect public opinion, where the public starts accepting loosely formulated reasons for delegated decision-making. Perhaps we start admitting that some parts of society might not qualify for decision-making. It’s a slippery slope from there on.

The authors’ opinions shine through the content: the referendum’s outcome was a mistake. Even if you agree with the authors’ statement, why should anyone accept the claim without clear evidence? Instead of objectively evaluating data, they have qualified the outcome. As a result, the authors double down on suggestions for avoiding future mistakes like these.

I want to point out that the referendum outcome, cognitive abilities, and susceptibility to information types may be well-connected. However, to conclude this, the researchers need more robust data. The data should point to a causal effect and specify the implied instances of information exposure causing the voting outcome. Until then, we should not even consider an a-la-carte technocratic society, where some issues belong to experts.

I also want to remind you that many blamed the UK seniors right after the referendum since most voted Leave. According to headlines, the young got “screwed by older generations.” Some even questioned whether older adults should have a say in these matters.

In fact, should we ever consider these solutions? Especially when we can rely on other more democratic and transparent solutions. For example, how about introspection for a change? How come we have societies in Europe with cognitive ability levels in their populations that affect referendum outcomes to this extent? With all the Remain campaign’s investments, why couldn’t they educate the voters about the advantages (and disadvantages) of continued membership?

In other words, instead of pointing fingers and striving for increased authoritarianism, try democracy and transparency.   

The featured image is an adapted version of an image by Foto-RaBe

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