• Dr Hugh Willbourn

CC2 Covid, Brexit and Flying Saucers…

Updated: May 14

In 1954 Leon Festinger, one of the most respected social psychologists of the 20th Century, joined a cult whose members believed that earthquakes and flooding were about to hit the United States but the cult members would be saved by “the Guardians” who would whisk them to safety in flying saucers. Their leader, given the pseudonym Marion Keech by Festinger, revealed the date of salvation and they all sat and waited.

The appointed time came and passed and they were not saved. Nor did the United States suffer catastrophic earthquakes and floods. This is where it gets interesting. Before he and his colleagues had inveigled their way into the cult, Festinger had posited that after their beliefs had been incontravertibly disproven, the cult members would become not less but more convinced of their beliefs.

Festinger hypothesised that if five specific conditions were met, believers would double down on their beliefs in order to avoid what he called ‘cognitive dissonance’: a contradiction between their beliefs and the evidence of their own lives.

Festinger’s five conditions are:

1. There must be conviction

2. There must be commitment to this conviction

3. The conviction must be amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation

4. Such unequivocal disconfirmation must occur

5. Social support must be available subsequent to the disconfirmation.

Believers could also avoid cognitive dissonance by simply abandoning their beliefs and some members of the cult did that. They left and did not return.

Those who stayed had invested heavily in their beliefs. They had disposed of possessions and totally reshaped their lives. They had each other for mutual support but that wasn’t quite enough. They became compelled to convince others. Festinger published an account of his research in a book entitled, When Prophecy Fails, and even now, sixty years later, it is a good read.

Festinger’s five conditions and the behaviour of the cult believers correspond closely to the situation with Brexit, Climate Change and Covid-19: a prophecy is made, believers invest themselves, their time, money and prestige in it, the prophecy fails and the believers become more fervent. The biggest difference is that whereas the flying saucer cult had a maximum of a few dozen believers, Brexit and Climate Change are mainstream preoccupations and our response to COVID-19 has devastated the economy of the world.

The history of the Climate Change movement is one of repeatedly delayed catastrophe in lock-step with increasingly strident advocacy. In the early 1980s it was a fringe movement. In 1988 it was predicted that sea levels would rise to completely cover the Maldives by 2018.

In the same year James Hansen predicted that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2018 at the latest.

In 2004 a report commissioned by the Pentagon predicted that by 2007 large parts of the Netherlands would be uninhabitable and Britain would have a “Siberian” climate by 2020.

After decades of dire predictions and disconfirmation Climate Change is now firmly ensconced in orthodoxy, and every meteorological event is viewed as further evidence of our inevitable, albeit postponed, doom. In Climate Science it is not done to talk about confirmation bias.

The Brexit story follows the same pattern. There were dire warnings of instant catastrophe if Britain even voted to leave the EU. It would be a disaster for scientific research ,

for the economy and so on and on.

As the various Brexit landmarks passed and the economy failed to collapse anti-Brexiteers did not abandon their belief, but, like Marion Keech’s followers, believed all the more fervently that the real disaster was yet to come. Now Brexit catastrophe has been overtaken by Covid-lockdown catastrophe, but anti-Brexiteers still advance their cause .

In 2020 we have had a real disaster. The Covid-19 virus has killed thousands of people, and will certainly kill thousands more. It has not, however, killed anything like the numbers initially predicted, and so the Festinger effect starts up.

The model that lead to a change of strategy by the British Government was produced by a professor who is now famous for the inaccuracy of his previous predictions.

At the time of writing (5th May) the total death toll worldwide is just over 250,000, which is half the number that was predicted for the UK alone. To put this figure into perspective, the number of people who have died of, or with, Covid-19 in about four and half months is the same as the number who die in five days from cardiovascular disease.

The number of deaths associated with Covid-19 has risen, but thank goodness it is nowhere near the initial predictions. However the predictors, like Marion Keech, have not lost faith. We are warned that a partial release from lockdown may cause 100,000 deaths, and a premature end to lockdown will cause a second peak of infections even higher than initial predictions.

It may be claimed that the worldwide lockdown has spared us from the hideous numbers predicted, although the little research we have seems to show they have had minimal effect.

In spite of the evidence that Covid-19, whilst tragically fatal for too many, is not the decimating plague that was predicted, Governments and populations around the world continue to behave as though it is a plague on a par with the Black Death.

Sadly this reaction means that along with the many sick and older people with co-morbidities who have been taken from us, the death rate has risen amongst amongst younger health service personnel over-exposed to the virus and amongst those other people with non-Covid illnesses and conditions who have been frightened away from going to hospital.

Now Sweden is about to show us what a disastrous mistake we made to believe the dire prophecies of the doomster modellers.

Don’t expect an apology from our Government, or any other Government, any time soon. The Festinger effect is far, far more prevalent than a clear-sighted view of reality and the tragedy is all the greater.

Brexit meltdown, climate change disaster and the Covid population cull look very like the earthquakes and flying saucers that never actually arrive. We can’t bear to face the fact that, whether greatly feared or greatly desired, our prophecies can fail. Maybe, just maybe, we are wrong and we need to summon the clarity and courage to admit it.

A future post will look at the factors that render people so reluctant to relinquish beliefs in which they have invested even when facing unambiguous evidence of their error.

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