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Matthew d’Ancona: Beware the emotional-industrial complex

Monday 22 March 2021

From vaccine hesitancy to the erasure of biological sex, facts are taking a bashing in the age of social media and of lobby groups weaponising feeling. The stakes are dauntingly high


On Friday, I was one of 711,156 people to be vaccinated against Covid: a daily record at the time, though instantly smashed on Saturday, when 844,285 received the jab. I was full of gratitude to the nurses and NHS volunteers who made the experience so smooth and efficient. And there was, I’ll admit, a new and unexpected sensation: for the first time that I can recall, I felt lucky to be over 50.

On the way back home, my Uber driver told me he was originally from Somalia, loved living in the UK but was very uncertain about the jab and doubted that he would have it himself. Pleasant and articulate, he expressed anxiety on my behalf, and feared all manner of side-effects (which, happily, I was spared). When I asked what underpinned his fears, he replied: “Social media. Facebook. My WhatsApp.” I pushed back politely, especially when he told me that many of his passengers refused to wear masks in his car.

And there you have it: a microstudy in the dilemma facing all public policy rooted in science and fact. More than ever in modern times, otherwise reasonable people will be swayed by emotionally charged rumour and pseudoscience, especially under bombardment by algorithmically driven social media feeds.

Thus far, the UK vaccine roll-out has been mostly resistant to this emotional assault. On the continent, it is a very different story. The European Union and many national governments have been blinded by rage at the success of our immunisation programme, and, on Thursday, will discuss banning the export of vaccines to the UK.

This scarcely deserves to be called a “trade war”: it is pure post-Brexit vindictiveness masquerading as a demand for international fair play. Worse, the smears that have been levelled at the AstraZeneca jab – “quasi-ineffective” for over-65s, in Emmanuel Macron’s extraordinary phrase – will only compound vaccine hesitancy on the continent, which is stronger in France and Germany than it is in the UK.

As my Uber driver’s opinions demonstrate, there is no room for complacency about such anxieties in this country. The demographic categories initially prioritised by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation – the over-50s and the vulnerable – have tended, for obvious reasons, to be more enthusiastic about the jab. “It will get harder now,” according to one Cabinet minister. “We will have to deal with youngsters who don’t really think they need it, as well as the doubts of many ethnic minority citizens.”

All the same: the British public’s embrace of the vaccine has been remarkable. As recently as August 2020, a study by Ipsos MORI and King’s College London found that only half of Britons said that they would definitely have the jab once it became available. To date, however, with variations depending upon age and location, take-up rates have ranged from 80 to more than 95 per cent.

What has driven this? In Whitehall, the answer you hear most frequently is: data. Having inexplicably contracted out the shambolic test, trace and isolate programme to Deloitte and Serco, the government decided to stick with the NHS in its vaccine roll-out strategy – with striking success.

Specifically, the delegation of the task to Primary Care Networks, each of which serves 30-50,000 patients, meant that robust data on who, exactly, should be offered the jab and when was aggregated at local level with impressive efficiency. Wherever possible, patients were alerted (and reminded) via text message of their appointments with accompanying links to the precise location of their vaccination site.

There have been errors, of course (notably, key workers under 50 presenting themselves prematurely for vaccination, misled by their employers that they were entitled to the jab). But, in general, the vaccine strategy so far has been a triumph of data management.

This is one of many reasons why the 2021 Census – in which all householders were legally obliged to participate by yesterday “or as soon as possible thereafter” – is so important. This once-a-decade £1 billion exercise, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, is a priceless snapshot of the nation’s social landscape, a fine-grain image of who and what we are; and, as such, an invaluable resource for those planning public policy, health provision, transport, education, and strategies to maximise social cohesion.

Census Day is a national celebration of the spirit of Thomas Gradgrind from Dickens’s Hard Times: “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” There are many occasions in civic life when facts are not sufficient. But the Census is about accurate data: no more, no less.

Or so, at least, you might think. But this year’s survey has been aggravated by an argument that went right up to the wire, and a court decision delivered as recently as last Wednesday on the census questions concerning sex and gender.

Sensibly, this year’s census asked both “What is your sex?” and “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?”. This enabled trans and non-binary people – including, crucially, those who have not yet chosen to seek an official Gender Recognition Certificate, legally formalising their transition – to identify themselves as such, and to give policymakers a better idea of how big the so-called trans “umbrella” is in 2021.

The argument surrounded the former and apparently straightforward question: “What is your sex?” LGBTQ+ lobbyists, notably the Stonewall campaign group, argued, in effect, that there is no distinction between sex and gender, and that trans people should be able “to respond with sex that they would choose to respond to” (sic).

Instead of defending the distinction between biological sex and gender, the ONS panicked. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that Stonewall insisted that roundtable discussion exclude anyone who might create a “hostile environment for trans attendees” – in response to which the group was granted a private meeting.

Subject to this pressure (and the implicit threat of social media lambasting), the ONS declared that sex could be defined by whatever an individual recorded in a document “such as a passport”. In fact, anyone can change the sex recorded on their passport with a letter signed by a GP.

Only in the High Court last week, thanks to a crowd-funded action brought by the feminist group Fair Play for Women, was a measure of sense restored. Unimpressed by the argument of Sir James Eadie QC, representing the ONS, that sex was an “umbrella term” that included a range of concepts such as “lived” and “self-identified” sex, Mr Justice Swift ordered that the survey guidance be amended. It now reads that those filling in the census must “use the sex recorded on your birth certificate or Gender Recognition Certificate”.

Even this does not fully address the question at the heart of this row. A Gender Recognition Certificate can only be obtained once a medical and legal panel is satisfied that “you’ve lived in your acquired gender for at least 2 years” and that “you intend to live in your acquired gender for the rest of your life”. Once secured, the GRC enables the individual retrospectively to amend their birth certificate.

There is a legitimate argument that this process is over-medicalised and bureaucratised. Equally, however, it is legitimate to point out that the process artificially conflates gender and sex. By enabling a trans person to change their birth certificate, the procedure effectively rewrites history. It gives emotion (I feel this way) the power to erase fact (I was born this way).

To point this out is spectacularly unfashionable and instantly courts the charge of “transphobia”. I was recently sent a message by a well-known male columnist who told me that my views on this matter were of no account, because of “demographics” (presumably meaning that my generation would soon be extinct). All of which is fine by me: if you can’t stand the heat, and so on. See you on Twitter.

What is not fine – and should worry you much more than a single question on a particular census – is the extent to which reality is now being subordinated to emotion. It is often said that facts don’t care about your feelings. But it is also the case that, these days, feelings have better lobbyists.

It is a grotesque irony that we have become so cavalier about the importance of biological sex at precisely the moment when we need more and better information about it. Amongst so many other lessons, the Sarah Everard case has shown how vital it is to have accurate data on the biologically male population.

Yes, socially constructed gender plays a significant role in male aggression. But so too, indisputably, does evolutionary biology. The male inclination towards aggressive behaviour emerges clearly among baby boys. And – another fact it is considered recklessly impolite to mention – trans women are more likely (according to one survey, 18 times more likely) than natal women to engage in violent crime. The census was a once-in-a-decade opportunity to record, in anonymised form, how many male-bodied people there are in this country and it has been at least partially squandered.

No less important is the question of healthcare. As the BMJ argued in an editorial published on Friday: “Medical care requires an understanding of the difference between sex and gender categories; untangling them is crucial for safe, dignified, and effective healthcare of all groups. Avoidable harm may result when they are conflated – for example, if sex specific laboratory reference ranges are used for people whose gender is recorded but not their biological sex.”

Such views are often scorned by trans activists as “biological essentialism”. But the right of trans people to change their NHS number according to the gender with which they identify rather than the biological sex with which they were born, has made it more difficult to target tests for cervical, breast and prostate cancers, and to identify susceptibility to, for instance, aortic aneurysms.

Why spell all this out? Precisely because we inhabit an age when facts are smothered by emotion, and emotion has more friends than facts: an “emotional-industrial complex” if you will.

Social media is entirely powered by feeling: as Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, observed in 2017, the platform functions by giving users “a little dopamine hit” and by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

Harnessing this awesome power is a network of lobby groups, campaigns and influencers who know exactly how to crush data into submission and restore the dictatorship of emotion.

Facts, science and evidence don’t operate like that. The truth is often hard to bear. But it has also been the driving force behind every form of human progress, not least the fastest-developed vaccine in history. We surrender it at our mortal peril.