We’ll get onto these megalomaniacal folk in a moment, but first…
In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger and his collaborators, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, embedded themselves within a small but intense doomsday cult lead by Dorothy Martin. The cult claimed that the world would end in December 1954 through a great apocalyptic flood, and that the believers of the cult would be whisked away by a quasi-magical group known as ‘The Guardians’. The date came, and the date went. No apocalypse, no knocks at the door from the Guardians. Psychologists expected the group to disband – with their belief shattered, surely these rational humans would quit and get on with their lives. What actually happened shocked Festinger and his colleagues – the group expanded. They proselytised, preached and practised, and their numbers grew. The cult became ever more embedded in its beliefs, despite being proven wrong.
In 1994, a relative unknown named Harold Camping predicted the end of the world would happen on September 6th of that year – being a committed Christian, he called it Judgement Day, and the Second Coming. September 6th came and went, but Camping remained unfazed by this lack of realisation. With his 1994 date largely ignored and forgotten, Camping would go on to make a number of other Judgement Day predictions – cumulating in a massive, national campaign that stretched across the United States in 2010. He predicted the end of the world for May 21st, 2011 and became a household name due to it. His followers and believers sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to him to continue the awareness campaign. Some may have even killed themselves or their relatives in anticipation. The date came and went, and Camping’s Judgement Day was nowhere to be seen. Still, Camping stubbornly adhered to his belief – he dismissed the May 21st date as a “spiritual” judgement, and rescheduled the real Judgement Day for October. His campaign ramped up further still – billboards were erected, believers became more fired up for the real judgement. That date came and went, with the world spinning on as physics dictates. Camping died in December 2013, before he could make any other predictions or cause any more damage through them.
Since the 1950s, there has been an unprecedented boom in biological research. Beginning with Crick, Watson and Wilkins, genetics has shown us the heritability of traits from generation to generation. It has made sense of evolution, our ancestry, and how all species on the planet are related in a complex tree of life. New major discoveries that all fit within this network of evolutionary biology are added every day to the great pile of scientific knowledge. Yet, in 2007 – and with a price tag of $27 million – Ken Ham of the organisation Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum. The museum would stand as a monument to everything that 150 years of scientific exploration and evidence knows to be wrong. In 2010, Ham decided to press on with yet a new, large project; the Ark Encounter. Built as a giant, replica boat, it would be a living museum dedicated to the myth of Noah’s Ark, with an accompanying price tag an order of magnitude higher than that of the Creation Museum. Yet scientific discoveries such as the Tiktaalik in the ’00s and the mapping of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 haven’t pushed back our knowledge towards Biblically-literal 6-day creation. Ham’s responses have intensified in the opposite direction to the evidence.
The three stories above illustrate a concept well known to skeptics; cognitive dissonance. When faced with contradictory information, information that makes our internal view of the world less consistent, we react with discomfort. The discomfort forces us to either re-evaluate everything we believe to be true, or to adjust the evidence to fit. A total re-evaluation of our lives requires rewiring large sections of our beliefs, as if re-writing the software that our brains run on from scratch and building up our worldview all over again from nothing. Cognitive dissonance is more than just a face-saving exercise where we deny that we were wrong about something – the cognitive load to admit we’re incorrect, and fix ourselves appropriately, is simply beyond what we’re capable of.
So in September 2015, David Cameron exchanged letters with the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire council. In the letters, Cameron expressed his disappointment that the council was cutting essential services – libraries, museums, care homes, youth clubs – and that the council should instead look for savings in efficiency and in offices. The Oxfordshire councillor replied almost bluntly; we have done that, and the Conservative government’s cuts are too drastic, too deep, and we must cut front-line services. In other words: the policies of David Cameron’s government have left us with no choice but to hurt real people.
David Cameron expresses disappointment that such a thing had to be done. As if he had no idea it was needed. George Monbiot’s article on the subject suggests that Cameron is merely ignorant of the effect his own policies have. And he may well be right; as a millionaire with a fund in an offshore bank, and effectively in stable employment on a massive salary provided by the state, it’s very likely that Cameron has no idea of what austerity means to people who rely on council and state-funded services.
David Cameron has had evidence almost-literally thrown into his face about how severe, damaging, unproductive, and outright dangerous his austerity policies are, in particular to his own home constituency – the tiny little packet of the country he’s been voted to directly represent. This isn’t a new thing, of course; the UK’s slow recovery from a depression that happened 7 years ago is due to these policies, and when the policies fail to provide growth it completes a feedback cycle that proves such policies are needed.
So the ideology of austerity has been challenged, and its real effects made clear. The evidence is in: it doesn’t work. In an ideal world Cameron, Osborne, Hunt and the rest of the government would change their track.
But, instead, everything we know of cognitive dissonance tells us that we should be very, very scared of what will come next.