A false-alarm terrorist attack in London shows how emotion is conquering reality

Crowd rules.
Crowd rules.
Image: Reuters/Mary Turner
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Few things are more emblematic of the entropy, chaos, and discomfort of our times than the incident that took place at Oxford Circus, a busy London junction at the intersection of two of Europe’s busiest shopping streets, last November.

It began with a scuffle between two men on a rush-hour train platform. But at its core, it was all a false alarm—a false alarm during which pop star Olly Murs tweeted to his eight million followers about non-existent gunshots, and one where the Daily Mail inexplicably declared that a truck had ploughed into pedestrians. Hordes of people stampeded into shops for cover, nine people were injured, and—thanks to social media—a localized panic metamorphosed into a national one.

In his new book Nervous States, political economist William Davies tries to explain the forces that have turned our planet upside down—or, as the book’s UK subtitle puts it, “how feeling took over the world.” The book opens with the rumpus at Oxford Circus, and how real-time events like this—where people place more trust in emotion than in evidence—typify the times in which we live. “It’s worth reminding people,” Davies told me in an interview, “that crowd behavior, and what seems to be emotional, or irrational, or post-truth behavior, is something that can afflict all of us.”

The story is also an indictment of the 24/7 news cycle, and how it converges with our endlessly updating social media feeds. “One of the problems that the media suffers from right now,” Davies said, “is that it has become a tool for synchronized emotion, rather than one that does periodic reporting of facts.”

But in the already expansive canon of post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth literature, descriptions of the disease and its variegated symptoms are in abundance. People have lost faith in experts and politicians. Disinformation reigns. Emotions have engulfed society.

What Davies has hit on more than anyone else is a diagnosis. Sure, US president Donald Trump is willing to lie about matters trivial and consequential. Yet this kind of duplicity works not because we all have a fondness for falsehood, but because the facts and statistics used to govern the world—however accurate—don’t represent the lived reality for vast swathes of people. This isn’t a figurative or metaphorical statement. Rather, as Davies writes, “aggregates and averages are simply no longer credible representations of how things are.”

For instance, while the income of the American population rose by 58% in the nearly 40 years between 1978 and 2015, the income of the bottom half of people actually fell by 1%. The UK economy is the fifth-largest in the world, but the majority of the country’s regions experience a GDP per capita below the European average (thanks to the outsize contributions of London).

“Could anyone possibly be surprised if that lower 50% lost interest in statistical economic pronouncements of politicians and experts?” Davies wonders in the book.

Inequality is one of the main culprits. But so too is the “revolving door” between the media, think tanks, and government, which makes “numbers start to seem like they’re just another form of political rhetoric,” Davies told me.

Just like at Oxford Circus—but at a much grander scale—whole countries now lack the framework of “commonly agreed facts” that is supposed to underpin society. People are forced to rely on instinct and feeling—two things that are not very helpful when you’re trying to settle disputes between warring factions.

It is little wonder, then, how politicians and movements seemingly devoid of economic or statistical validity succeed at the ballot box.

Others have noted (paywall) that, while Nervous States laments the “bravado rationalism” of people like Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins—who, Davies said, “consider reason as a sort of religion of its own”—it mostly fails to offer a way forward.

“I’m not going to tell people how to think or how to act,” Davies tells me. “What I think I can do is try and help people understand the situation that we’re in.”

Nervous States succeeds in that.