You agree with this column

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already decided to agree with it. Here’s the curious thing about curiosity: we tend to seek out information that tells us what we already believe. If your politics veer to the left, you’ll conveniently ignore facts that back the right and avoid places that’ll tell you about them. And vice versa.

Throw a quick glance under the nearest article on the Daily Mail website. Dissenting comments nearly always get “rated down”, even if fairly innocuous, or true. Daily Mail readers, it seems, are instantly repelled by information that doesn’t chime with their beliefs. But then, as a liberal, I’m more than happy to believe this – in fact, I only look at the Mail to confirm my prejudices. Here’s why.

Our brains are programmed to construct a robust model of how the world works and then fine-tune it. As we learn, some circuits get hardened and reinforced and some wither away. The hardened circuits are our short cuts. This means that when we’re standing in Starbucks and see a cylindrical, liquid-filled shape on the counter, we don’t have to spend too long working out what it is. One of these short cuts will tell us it’s a cup of coffee.

Deconstructing this edifice too many times takes a huge amount of resources. We’re not designed for endless self-questioning – which is probably why Alain de Botton has, at the time of writing, almost no hair left. Instead, we look for information that builds on the model we have.

While our fact-filtering brains are great for working out where the nearest Americano is, they don’t make for very good political debate. Once people have aligned themselves with a particular party, there’s very little you can do to change their opinion. They’ll simply “select out” your most compelling arguments and merrily continue believing what they believe. We love putting opposing political pundits together in TV debates but when was the last time you saw them reach a consensus?

The mighty Bush

A study published in the journal Political Behaviour shows just how reluctant people are to engage with facts that don’t support their world-view. In the experiment, conducted in 2005, participants were given fake news stories. These news stories were embedded with false facts: that tax cuts under the Bush administration increased government revenues, that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that Bush had banned stem-cell research (he only limited some government funding). After each statement, the researchers put in an unambiguous correction – and then tested the participants to see if they picked this up.

They didn’t. Participants who identified themselves as liberal ignored the correction on stem-cell regulations and continued to believe Bush had issued a total ban. Conservatives not only ignored the corrections on Iraq and the tax cuts but clung even more tenaciously to the false information.

If you’re interested in the truth, it turns out the worst thing to do is to assign yourself a “stance” on an issue. The more you care about your cause, the harder it is to properly engage with the arguments of your opponent. In fact, only one thing will improve political debate – we need to stop being passionate about politics.

Neurons. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.