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The Great Gambling Review: Fight for Your Right to be Wrong

There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The long-awaited gambling review is upon us at last; and while its context will no doubt have excited anxiety in boardrooms across the industry, spare a thought for the poor souls who must review the ‘evidence’. 

A deluge of information and opinion is about to descend on the gambling team at DCMS. Making sense of conflicting submissions and divining sound policy will not be an easy task – not least because the one thing that will unite most vested parties is the conviction that they are ‘right’.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a conference that gathered together some of the finest minds in gambling. I swiftly realised that my fellow delegates were not simply bright; almost everyone there seemed to be ‘right’ too. Of course, they often disagreed with one another which had the effect of making almost everyone ‘wrong’ as well.

More recently, a friend asked for my opinion on one of the great gambling controversies of our times. Before responding, I paused to examine my thoughts on the subject. This was, I see now, a schoolboy error. My momentary hesitation allowed a fellow participant in the discussion to attest, “It doesn’t matter what he tells you, because I am right.” Finding myself in the presence of omniscience let me off the perilous hook of venturing a personal opinion on gambling regulation; but the experience was also somehow disquieting.

We are truly blessed in gambling to have so many people of infallible judgement; not least because this involves so much self-sacrifice. To exist in a state of perpetual correctness denies us one of the greatest pleasures of life – the opportunity to learn.

It also presents a puzzling conundrum – how has an industry with so many ‘right’ people got itself into such an unholy mess? The mismanagement of political-regulatory risk in Britain’s gambling industry owes much (in my opinion) to an obsession with being ‘in the right’ – and its corollary of proving that others are ‘in the wrong’. So long as we believe that we have a monopoly on wisdom, we have no need to consider the opinions of others; and this in turn stymies meaningful engagement with those whose opinions differ from our own.

Twitter provides some keen insights into how this manifests itself in the current disputes about gambling regulation. The various interest groups (from industry to abolitionist) scream loudly that they are right, selectively invoking external perspectives and information to support adamantine convictions. Trawling social media for gambling commentary, one is left with the impression of sound and fury, signifying nothing; and the question of whether all that hot air (to say nothing of more material resources) might not be expended in more productive pursuits.

Gambling regulation is an area largely devoid of universal ‘truths’; how we view the same piece of information often changes considerably depending on the perspective we adopt.

Of course, when we assert that we are right, what we often mean is that our view is important to us – whether for intrinsic reasons (we have a strong emotional attachment to the issue) or extrinsic ones (we are paid to support certain causes).

Young children instinctively express strong emotions when they want something; but as we grow older we are taught to mask our innate desires with logic. We are told that being ‘right’ is the key to success; yet this rarely turns out to be the case. In order to get what we want in life, we often need others to want the same thing – and logic tends to be a personal rather than an absolute matter.

A focus on winning arguments retards progress. Battles may be won – but the conflict is perpetuated because resources are diverted from the search for practical solutions towards sophistry. To move forward we must be prepared to make mistakes and to be open to the idea that we may be wrong. As the historian, Noah Yuval Harari writes in his excellent Homo Deus, mankind’s “greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.”

This is important stuff. The land-based gambling industry in Britain is sleep-walking into obsolescence; but rather than address existential threats, some seem happier to squabble over who gets to hang onto life support a little longer – to raise stake limits here and lower them there; to gain machines in one sector and have them removed elsewhere. Meanwhile, the remote sector is locked into a cycle of margin erosion as the growing pains of regulation and taxation bite.

When it comes to a subject as psychologically, sociologically and politically complex as gambling, the more we learn, the more aware we ought to be of how little we really know. Embracing ignorance can be unsettling but it also carries great benefits – notably a relief from the need for certainty and the opportunity to open our minds to alternative ‘truths’.

My hope from the current crop of reviews is that parties on all sides will demonstrate the maturity to consider views that run counter to their own – not with the aim of rejecting them; but in order to understand and seek resolution.

Admitting that perhaps we don’t have all the answers may be the first step to a less volatile regulatory future.

Then again, perhaps I’m wrong.