Politics, Science, Social Science

Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities.

But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’.

The cultural detachment of the metropolitan elite from the people was recently highlighted in the run up to the Brexit referendum, as a panoply of “experts” queued up in TV and radio studios to pledge allegiance to the EU, make threatening pronouncements about the consequences of Brexit and condemn as bigots those of us who wished to regain control of our national destiny. Even the (usually) politically impartial governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, threw his weight behind “Project Fear”, warning on May 12th 2016 that a vote for Brexit could trigger a “technical recession”. The IMF also jumped on the bandwagon, with lurid warnings that Brexit would trigger a recession, house price crash and stock market collapse. European Council President Donald Tusk went still further, warning on 13th June 2016 that “As a historian I fear that Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilisation in its entirety”. Despite the threats of the intelligentsia, on June 23rd 2016 the people of the UK voted by a majority of more than 1.2 million to leave the EU.

One interesting side effect of the Brexit vote has been to smoke out members of the intelligentsia whose attachment to democracy is fragile. This is interesting because, as a highly educated, supposedly liberal elite, the intelligentsia would be expected to support democracy. But in the aftermath of Brexit leading intellectuals such as A.C. Grayling wrote articles revealing that they are selectively democratic — loving democracy when the vote aligns with their views, but refusing to accept it when the vote goes against their opinion. Incidentally Grayling was at it again recently on his Twitter account when he argued that the Brexit vote should be overturned because “90% of informed opinion is for Remain”, which elicited some hilarious responses about how he calculated this 90% figure:

The notion of an elite trying to subvert democracy is not new: for example, Owen Jones’s 2013 book The Establishment takes aim at what he sees as a shadowy cabal of capitalists who try to manage democracy to further their financial interests. This idea has some merit in my view but leaves unanswered the question of why the liberal elite also feel the urge to “manage” democracy when there is no financial incentive for them to do so. This is where their cultural leanings come into the picture — the smug, superior “we know better than you” world view that was displayed so prominently in the UK media by the intelligentsia’s talking heads in the run up to the Brexit vote.

This holier-than-thou attitude is not confined to the UK, as evidenced by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to flout laws on border control, opening up Europe to uncontrolled mass migration from Africa and the Middle East — despite not having a democratic mandate to so. Likewise the desire of the European intelligentsia to appear politically correct has seen laws concerning the minimum age of marriage being ignored in the case of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. For example, in Denmark, instead of being convicted of sex offences, migrants with child brides are being reunited with their victims, some of whom, according to a BBC report on 30th September 2016, are as young as 14 years old.


The hostile reaction of the intelligentsia to the Brexit vote or laws on immigration control demonstrates their out of touch, anti-democratic world view on the big stage, but it is also evident in smaller scale contexts. This was brought home to me about nine months ago when the liberal elite had me in their sights. My crime was to write a book about how discoveries from personality research could be used to refine the welfare state so that it no longer erodes work motivation. I earn my living as a personality researcher, but before becoming established as a scientist I spent almost a decade working in a variety of low paid roles and, between jobs, I claimed unemployment benefits. It therefore seemed to me that I could help to improve the welfare state by combining my two areas of experience in a book, which I entitled ‘The Welfare Trait: how state benefits affect personality’ and was duly published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2015.

This book is unremarkable scientifically because there are decades of studies linking personality and employability. It is also unremarkable in democratic terms because recent general elections have provided a mandate for welfare reform, as demonstrated by such phenomena as the benefit cap. But my book made the mistake of clashing with the PC narrative that unemployed people are the hapless victims of capitalism, in a predicament that is unconnected to their own personalities. This is of course true for some unemployed people, but not all — for example, data from a variety of countries show that antisocial personality characteristics measured in childhood predict employment difficulties in adulthood and that employment-resistant personality characteristics are approximately six times more common amongst the unemployed than in the population as a whole.

Regardless, despite its dry academic tone and empirical, peer-reviewed content the politically incorrect nature of my book made me a target of the intelligentsia on social media and in the national press. Some criticisms were reasonable — notably those of Professor Mike Brewer — but the outrage of the liberal elite strayed into farce when it transpired that some of the most shrill, sneering critics of my book such as Ben Goldacre and Jonathan Portes hadn’t even read it and that those that had, such as Kitty Stewart, delivered factually incorrect critiques, such as how The Welfare Trait is based on “no solid evidence” or that I advocate the existence of a “welfare-claimant gene”.

For the record, my book draws upon the results of approximately 100 empirical studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals to argue that welfare policies which increase the number of children born into disadvantaged households risk proliferating dysfunctional, employment-resistant personality characteristics, due to the damaging effect on personality development of exposure to childhood disadvantage. But perhaps the real reason I attracted the wrath of the intelligentsia was because in the final chapter of The Welfare Trait I conclude that one contributory factor to the creation of self-defeating welfare policies is the geographical and social detachment of the urban elite because it means they don’t witness the ill effects of the welfare policies that they advocate.

Whatever the reason, the liberal elite closed ranks against my book, as evidenced by the Times Higher Education’s one-sided write up of my recent LSE lecture. I spent almost an hour presenting the results of 23 studies yet my painstaking empirical analysis was airbrushed out of the description of the event in favour of Kitty Stewart’s factually flawed attack on my book.

The point is that hostility to discussion of personality and welfare seems to be a general phenomenon amongst the intelligentsia, not just a quirk of the Times Higher Education’s correspondent who attended my lecture. For example, in October 2015, before my book was published, I experienced a similar thing when I was a guest on BBC Radio Four’s flagship current affairs programme (The Today Programme). I was there to talk about research on fear and anxiety but after my broadcast finished I mentioned to the BBC staff who dealt with me that I had just written a book about problematic links between personality and the welfare state. I offered to return and talk about this issue once the book was published, since it seemed to me as a long standing fan of Radio Four’s Today Programme, that their listeners would regard it as important. I was given a brush off, with the excuse that my book was not topical and thus unlikely to be of interest to the general public. Yet just a few weeks later, my book was a subject of heated public debate on social media and in the broadsheet newspapers, suggesting once again the people have a better sense than the intelligentsia of what is important.

The anti-democratic attitude of the liberal elite is absurd from a theoretical viewpoint because a democratic judgment represents the will of the majority and so whatever the majority decide is the correct answer, no ifs, no buts. But even in the matter of cold, hard economic and social outcomes, it seems the intelligentsia have thus far got it wrong — following the Brexit vote we are not in recession, business is booming and the civilised world has not collapsed. Likewise, in the domain of welfare policy, it turns out that the electorate were correct to vote for tightened welfare conditions in recent years since there is now plenty of research showing that generous welfare regimes do indeed erode work-motivation. Similarly, the surge in sex crimes in Europe following uncontrolled mass migration from Africa and the Middle East suggests that the intelligentsia have got it wrong there too.


So why do the intelligentsia, for all their education and slick linguistic skills, keep getting it wrong and the targets of their sneering – the general public – keep getting it right? One explanation is a phenomenon known as the wisdom of the crowds. This was first demonstrated by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, who was interested in testing the validity of democratic decisions — the “vox populi” as he called it.

grand-champion-bullGalton did this by analysing estimates of the weight of a bull that were made by 787 people who attended the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition that was held in Plymouth in 1906. In his analysis Galton conceptualised the middlemost estimate as representing the democratic verdict of the people since every other estimate in comparison was judged too low or too high by the majority of voters.

Galton’s analysis found support for the validity of democratic decision-making because it turned out that vox populi was correct to within one percent of the real value: the middlemost estimate of the bull’s weight (1207lb) was just 9lbs from the correct weight (1198lb). Galton’s finding was published in Nature magazine and it has gone on to be recognised as a classic experiment. Subsequent research has confirmed that in matters of judgement where there can be a correct answer, the pooled verdict of a large population of non-experts is indeed usually superior to that of a small number of supposedly more intelligent and better informed intellectuals. Perhaps the most striking support for the wisdom of the crowds stems from Rudolph J. Rummel’s research which showed that while there were 371 wars between 1816 and 2005, none of them occurred between two democracies.

The wisdom of the crowds is usually viewed as occurring because in large and diverse groups, such as the electorate of the UK, statistical noise or error in individual judgments is cancelled out. Thus while a dictator may overlook the costs of causing a needless war, a national electorate, with its many different perspectives on an issue, will not. But the wisdom of the crowds is not universally applicable, as it will not work in situations that are just a matter of chance or when niche academic training is required to understand a problem (i.e., when deciding which numbers will win the national lottery next Saturday nor when working out a chemical equation). The coming decades will reveal more clearly if the vox populi vote for Brexit was the right decision for the UK but if I had to bet I would put my money on the wisdom of the crowds, not the opinion of the intelligentsia.


Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London. His book The Welfare Trait: how state benefits affect personality. Follow him on Twitter @AdamPerkinsPhD


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