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Who do you trust to advise you on changes to the Constitution?

No idea? Don’t worry. There’s a toolkit for that

You know it’s referendum season because a familiar cry goes up from certain two-legged animals.

Like the mating call of the cuckoo, which signals the onset of warmer weather, this particular shriek can be heard as temperatures rise within opposing camps:

“If x tells you to vote Yes then vote No.”

“If y tells you to vote No then vote Yes.”


For x and y, depending on your view, insert the Catholic Church, Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, “centrist dads”, the National Women’s Council or Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman, who seems to be particularly triggering for a noisy cohort of online agitators.

This kind of tribalism has been much studied by psychologists and political scientists over the years. Indeed, it has been a growing area of research since the dawn of the smartphone and the not-coincidental rise in polarisation among voters in western democracies.

In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt set out the challenge for humanity, given we are ultimately a species for whom “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”.

Because our instinct to preserve group identity runs so deep, “curing” tribalism is a non-runner, according to Haidt. However, its negative effects can be ameliorated and he recommends focusing on two areas: political reform and social media reform.

He remains vocal on both topics today, calling for measures to counteract binary thinking. “The worst number of political parties to have in a country is one. But the second worst number is two,” he says.

You can’t get much more binary than a referendum and, while we’re stuck with this method of changing the Constitution, one wonders whether the Government should have kept closer to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly when drafting amendment wordings to put before the people on March 8th. The assembly was set up precisely to develop an informed and pragmatic consensus on this and other difficult issues. A vote on its recommendations would have told us whether the public still has faith in that process of deliberative democracy.

There have been plenty of measured and respectful contributions on both sides of the March 8th referendums (strictly speaking, there are four sides but it has typically been narrowed into two). However, there is no escaping the fact that trust and tribalism are closely related in the debate.

Each side has its own “trusted” legal advice and, as you know with lawyers, you’ll never get uniformity.

So the Irish Women Lawyers Association is advocating Yes-Yes, despite the “extremely unfortunate” absence of a definition of “durable” relationships in the proposed amendment to article 41 of the Constitution.

More than some of the other referendums we’ve had in recent years, the upcoming polls are relatively technical in nature; more in the realm of linguistics than ethics

There is no Irish Men Lawyers Association – although some might say that pretty much wasthe Bar not too long ago. However, there is an organisation, Lawyers for Justice Ireland, which is advocating No-No. The referendums “will erase the entire concept of families as a bedrock of our society”, according to the group, which has 19,000 followers on X.

There is, of course, a range of other views, as these pages of The Irish Times attest. More than some of the other referendums we’ve had in recent years, however, the upcoming polls – on redefining the family in the Constitution and amending the language around care within families – are relatively technical in nature; more in the realm of linguistics than ethics. This arguably leaves us more dependent on experts to interpret the practical implications. So who do you trust?

A handy toolkit has been developed by a team of researchers led by Prof Maria Baghramian of UCD’s school of philosophy to answer this very question.

Under a three-year, EU-funded programme, the Peritia project produced a series of academic reports on the subject of “trust in experts”, and one outcome is the online toolkit – which can be tried out at Aimed at everyone from school students upwards, it tests how trusting – or gullible – you are by asking some provocative questions, for example, whether you should listen to psychologist Jordan Peterson on climate science.

To determine whether someone is a “genuine expert” a good starting point is to check their CV, it recommends. “Do they have a good track record of experience in their field? Do other scientists refer to their work?”

To evaluate whether the information they provide is reliable, measure it against the scientific consensus (for the sake of the referendum, one can replace “scientific” with “legal” or “expert”).

“Does the source clearly distinguish between factual reporting and editorial opinion? Reliable sources correct themselves. Does your source do that? ... Does the source operate under reliable oversight?”

Northern Irish philosopher Onora O’Neill, who was one of a slew of academics from nine countries involved with Peritia, had previously developed a more condensed test for trustworthiness. Look out for three things, she said: “Honesty, reliability and competence.”

There is no magic formula, however. And the lesson from psychology is that none of us is above blindly trusting those whom we regard to be part of our group identity. This isn’t to excuse people from wallowing in tribal swamps. But, as Haidt suggests, when it comes to critiquing public debate, we should cut each other some slack as political animals and focus our indignation instead on environmental factors that breed narrow-mindedness.