The bestselling book How to win friends and influence people advises those who seek popularity to enter into the world of others, to praise them, to go along with their pet theories and not to antagonise them. Applied to politics, this is populism.
I have chosen the opposite direction, but be warned, it is not an easy road. Nowhere do you find more mythology and false beliefs passionately adhered to than in medicine. The rise of modern scientific or evidence-based medicine from out of the darkness of witch-doctoring has been a hard struggle. It is not just that quack cures are profitable; a greater problem is that fake treatments can attract a devoted following. Trying to disprove them can provoke hostility.
As well as provoking hostility, disproving false claims takes time and patience, whereas inventing new ones is typically much faster. This was the basis of the “Gish gallop”, defined as ‘the attempt to overwhelm an opponent by excessive number of arguments, without regard for the accuracy or strength of those arguments.’ It was a debating technique originally used by creationists arguing against evolution, and was later adopted by Brexiteers.
In my own field of psychiatry, conventional advice has always been that to argue against an irrational belief or delusion will prove futile. In the old days of the asylums staff would sometimes dress up in costumes to indulge the beliefs of someone who believed he was, say, master of the universe. These days I suppose the title might be Emperor of Global Britain. Thus it was that Keir Starmer advised his close associates “do not mention Brexit, or if you have to, say you agree with it”.
Long before Brexit was conceived, and before Brexit fraud was born, my research into olfaction gave me a direct experience of the problem of challenging falsehoods. Talking about the evocative power of smell had stimulated much positive interest from the media. However, when I ventured to tentatively question the more far-fetched claims of aromatherapists to cure specific diseases, I found myself boycotted by the aromatherapy community.
Based fundamentally on deception, Brexit ideology is another cult which follows in the footsteps of Lysenkoism in Russia and the Moonies and Scientology in America. Towering figures who have devoted their careers to nailing deception and trickery include James Randi in the USA and Richard Dawkins in this country.
Randi, who challenged the spoon-bending abilities of Uri Geller and the supernatural powers of self-professed psychics, noted that proving these people were frauds could actually increase the faith of true believers. Something similar has been observed with Trump and Johnson. It is not an easy road.
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Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University was well aware of the power of faith when he wrote The God Delusion. But Chris Grey, another incisive thinker and author of an acclaimed blog on Brexit, argues that with Brexiteers it is not simply a matter of faith in their ideology. He believes that “they have developed a form of reasoning which is impervious to reason. So when adverse effects cannot be denied, they are re-cast so as to prove Brexit was right…” For Grey, “there’s every sign now that our country is going to disappear down this rabbit hole of illogic, compounded by delusional ideas.”
Randi and Dawkins have faced much abuse in return for their efforts, but earned a certain respect. I too have lost longstanding friends who voted Leave, but have retained my self-respect. Today we have a choice: we can live happily in cloud cuckoo land, or we can expose the sham of the Brexit pushers.