14 March 2023

Why the Lockdown Files prove every side of the Covid debate was right all along


In 1979, researchers at Stanford University gathered 48 students for an experiment in social psychology. The students were not randomly selected: the researchers knew, from previous questionnaires, that 24 of them supported the death penalty, while the other 24 opposed it.

The students were presented with two fictitious empirical studies on the deterrent effect, or lack thereof, of the death penalty. One of these made-up studies purported to have found evidence of a deterrent effect, the other one purported not to. The students were asked to evaluate the quality of the studies, and to rate the strength of their own conviction (on a scale from -8 to +8) before, during, and after reading them.

You may think that if both sides are exposed to the exact same evidence, this should lead to some convergence in their positions. They may still disagree, but maybe each side will be a little bit less confident in their own position, and more willing to acknowledge the validity of some of the other side’s arguments. This should especially be the case if the evidence is inconclusive, as it very much was in this case: not only did the two studies contradict each other, but each study also came with criticisms and discussions of its drawbacks attached.

But the opposite happened. The two sides ended up further apart than they had been in the beginning, and each side was more convinced than before that they were right. 

What explains this effect (which subsequently became known as ‘Attitude Polarisation’)? The clue is in the parts where students evaluate the studies, in which they showed

‘…a propensity […] to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically’.

In other words, each side interpreted the evidence in ways that made it conform with what they already believed.

Over the past two weeks, we have seen this exact process unfold with regard to the Lockdown Files, the WhatsApp messages of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock which were leaked to the Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott. The leaked messages give us some insight into what was going on behind the scenes during the pandemic. 

But let’s take a step further back first.

There was a time when a pandemic might have created a unifying we’re-all-in-this-together effect; if not quite a ‘Blitz Spirit’, then at least an occasion for toning down some of our everyday political squabbles. But in the politically hyper-polarised country that Britain has become over the past eight years or so, of course, pandemic policy immediately became a new battleground. People constructed political identities around their attitudes to lockdowns, facemasks, vaccines, even to working from home, and formed political tribes on that basis.

The issue was not so much ‘fake news’ or ‘medical misinformation’, but our innate tendency to read new information selectively, and integrate it into what we already believe. 

The Lockdown Files are just the latest example of this.

The Telegraph has now published dozens of articles interpreting the leaks as confirmation for the lockdown sceptic position. ‘And now, vindication. So much that we ‘conspiracy theorists’ suspected turns out to be true’, wrote Allison Pearson, in an article entitled ‘Lockdown sceptics like me were demonised – but we were right’. Several GB News presenters struck a similar tone.

However, if you have learned about the Lockdown Files via the Guardian or LBC Radio, you will have gained a very different impression of their content. You will believe that, far from telling us a story about an overzealous government that rushed to imposed restrictions, they tell us a story about a government of lazy chancers who failed to take the pandemic seriously, and who could not be bothered to do much about it.

For example, this Guardian article by Kit Yates highlights messages where Boris Johnson either downplays or underestimates Covid risks, where he flirts with natural herd immunity strategies, and more generally, where he just seems flippant and uninterested.

In a piece for The Observer, Sonia Sodha writes:

‘There are plenty of messages that fit in with what we already know, for instance that some cabinet ministers…strongly opposed restrictions.’ 

Meanwhile, James O’Brien said on LBC Radio:

‘The anti-lockdown narrative…was driven largely by the vested interests of commercial landlords…People who describe themselves as ‘Lockdown-Sceptics’ [are] either attention-seeking idiots, or they are shilling for Big Money.’

It is perhaps fitting that, in this way, the Lockdown Files have revived what has since become a bit of a tradition. From the moment virus started spreading, people from different parts of the ideological spectrum have tried to read a vindication of their own worldview – whatever that worldview happened to be – into the pandemic. We can find Brexiteers, Remainers, anti-austerity campaigners, socialists, anti-globalisation nationalists, environmentalists, nanny state enthusiasts, and plenty of other tribes, all claiming that Covid has somehow strengthened the case for their own respective pet cause (see this thread, for example). 

Some commentators still naively believe that the official Covid inquiry will eventually settle these matters, and tie up all the loose ends. It will do no such thing. The moment it starts publishing its findings, everyone will, once again, tell us how this proves that they were right all along.

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Dr Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.