Who to trust? Inaugural Lecture report

The College of Social Sciences was delighted to host the inaugural lecture of Professor Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Professor of Economics.

The event took place on Monday 25 February, and saw over 140 staff, students and members of the community join Professor Bandyopadhyay on campus to discuss ‘forming policy beliefs in a polarised society’.

Professor Bandyopadhyay’s lecture was introduced by Professor Richard Black, who spoke about Siddhartha’s background in political economy and his particular interest in the economics of crime and economic evaluation of policy.

Professor Bandyopadhyay opened his lecture by looking at the term polarisation in the context of policy positions such as Brexit or the election of Trump, which he argued emanate from differences in policy beliefs across states of the world.

Siddhartha then provided the backdrop for his lecture: the historical success of centrist politicians a la the median voter theorem, where politicians and their policies gravitate towards the middle, and is seen as a winning strategy. In the U.K, it’s seen in the rise of New Labour as well as a more populist brand of newer Conservative leaders. Yet, recently the successes of politicians who have espoused ‘extreme’ (away from median) policies, such as leaders in US, India and Brazil, display behaviours that are contradictory to the median voter theorem.

He then explored why this is the case and offered a possible explanation: society is polarised, with a vanishing influence of the median, we see instead voters who are active at the two ends of the extreme, and politicians latch onto one of the two ‘extreme’ voter groups. This then begs the question why is society so polarised? Siddhartha argued that the rise of media and choice of outlets, including social media allows the perpetuation of echo chambers. This can lead people to get caught in a bubble where they continuously listen to ‘news’ that confirms their beliefs, which is ironic as we live in an information-rich world, but paradoxically may be information poor as a result.

The lecture also looked at whether polarised voters are necessary for ‘extreme’ policies, Professor Bandyopadhyay’s research shows that the answer is ‘not necessarily’. His research shows extreme politicians can be electorally successful even in a completely homogenous society and the reason is because voters care not just for policy but also about the innate ability or character of a politician. Choosing an extreme policy may signal an ‘anti-pandering’ politician which may cause voters’ to believe in the politician’s innate ability or character. This can be seen in a time of political pessimism, when voters are disillusioned with the existing political class and may consider voting for a relatively unknown challenger, but would still want to understand the character/ability of the politician. This leads to a demand for information about the politician from the media, and this demand for information will increase when the challenger is more extreme up to a certain point (as the risk of making the incorrect choice is more if the politician is extreme) after which it will decrease as it will not be worth electing too extreme a candidate even if they are otherwise efficient. When such extreme politicians are elected as a result, society suffer policies that diverge from the majority which is the price of choosing leaders who show promise of competence.

Siddhartha then explored the notion of communication and whether it can bring consensus in a polarised society or whether it will lead to conflict? He investigated how citizens with initial opposed beliefs may nevertheless engage in a constructive dialogue by initiating talks on a dimension they agree on. He elaborated further on whether a set of common values would help reduce polarisation or instead whether exposure to different viewpoints is what helped reduce polarisation. In this context, Siddhartha looked at whether a ‘melting pot’ society is less polarised than a ‘salad bowl’ society and notes that a lack of respectful communication is both symptomatic of a polarised society and helps perpetuate polarisation.

Siddhartha finished the lecture by looking at polarisation and conflict, as there is a worry that polarisation leads to conflict across classes, which has societal costs.  Siddhartha argued that there is an optimal degree and type of conflict, which can advance society when there is a dialogue between groups with conflicting ideas.

The lecture was closed by Professor Catherine Cassell, Dean of Birmingham Business School, and Siddhartha took questions from the audience including the role of the state preventing echo chambers, before the audience and speaker mixed in a drink and canapé reception. The lecture was live streamed onto the University’s Facebook channel and saw over 40,000 views with viewers joining from Canada, USA, Liberia, India and Tanzania.