Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Post-Truth Statistics

Last year, “£350 million per week to the EU” hit the headlines – not to mention the side of a bus – as the cost of the UK’s contribution. The Remain camp was quick to rubbish this figure as it failed to take any account of what the UK gets in return for this. But the figure still sticks in people’s minds.

More recently, the Remain lobby (or more accurately, the pro-migrant lobby) hit back with a figure of £328 million per day as the contribution that migrants make to the UK economy. Unfortunately, this figure is equally spurious. It’s based simply on dividing UK GDP by the proportion of working people who are non-UK born. Apart from earnings being just one aspect of GDP, this assumes that none of these jobs could be done by someone else, for example a UK-born worker who is currently unemployed. Far from proving a point, the statistic risks pandering to the “foreigners taking our jobs” brigade.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe the UK economy (and society as a whole) gains a huge amount, in diversity and skills as well as labour, from non-UK born workers. But fatuous statistics are certainly not the way to prove it.

So where does this rubbish come from? I look on it as an aspect of our current “post truth” world, where the most bizarre claims can achieve credibility simply by being repeated often enough. I blame a combination of social media and the acquiescence of mainstream media, both of which seem to prioritise impact over integrity. That plus the fact that anything with a number attached sounds authentic, even if in reality it’s completely made up.

Therein, in my view, lies a problem for serious analysis, such as Social Return on Investment (SROI). This is a rigourous methodology for establishing social value, hence can be time-consuming and costly to get right. Why would you want to bother with this when you can virtually make it up and grab bigger headlines? It goes without saying that a lot of serious academic research is also at risk from the same problem.

I wish I had an answer to this, but it isn’t easy. We need somehow to educate the public out of the mindset that believes that figures = facts, and into a healthy scepticism of anything the media tells them. In the meantime, I think I’ll claim that the value of my consultancy is 500 times the price my clients pay, and hope it goes viral!

*PS: That quote in the text box is widely attributed to Churchill, but I can find no evidence that he actually said it!

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