Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Trusting Statisticians and so on...

There was an excellent Long Read in the Guardian last Saturday about the death of statistics. In a detailed piece William Davies discussed the current environment of appealing to emotions rather than facts. Now I am sitting in the middle of the current maelstrom in which members of the liberal chattering classes whirl. I really don't know how it has come to this. But I have watched the developed western world  (if I may call it such) get here and would like to have a go at discussing why.

I am a stats nerd. I never miss More or Less on BBC Radio 4 and take longer than most people digesting (and sometimes checking) graphs and tables in papers. Current bugbear - the axis that doesn't go to zero making variations seem worse than they are. I know this is not normal. I also tend to avoid thinking with my emotions having been encouraged by endless management training courses to 'take the emotion out of it' when facing conflict. Or to put it more bluntly, a football coach once said 'Never think with your bollocks son they're not meant for that.' So I tend to look for the reassuring solidity of facts.

But in politics especially over the last thirty years facts have been used messily. Summarising political debate a few years back a friend of mine paraphrased a BBC Radio 4 interview. Imagining they were discussing a snooker ball, he said one person asserted:

This ball is completely red.

Only to get the response:

No it's not, it's completely round.

A more subtle and duller version would be (and these facts are all made up):

The cost of travelling has increased 12% year on year since the year 2000.

Responded to with:

This government has put £10bn extra into public transport, making a 15% increase in investment in real terms over the corresponding period.

You will recognise the sort of discussion. At least in the second version the divisive 'No it's not...' is missing although it is pretty much assumed.

It is not a contrary position. We may not like it but this is exactly what an 'alternative fact' is. It is quite possible for both sides to be right with stats.

During the recent US Presidential campaign the statistical fact came up that a massive reduction in violent crime against the person, nationwide, was being reported during the Obama administration. Challenged on this a panellist on a news show said:

Not in Chicago it isn't. Followed by, People don't feel it is like this.

John Oliver accused the guy of bringing feelings to a facts fight. Yes. He did. And I think he won.

And what do we need to say of Michael Gove's Brexit campaign rallying call that people had had enough of experts. They were, and still are, tired of the sham expertise that rubbishes the other side's stats as a matter of course. For the message received by the public is that all stats are wrong, not just those ones. It was not because of the experts that experts became mistrusted, but because the information provided by the experts was used so badly. And it was ironic that it was Gove, one who had been doing that, who called it so.

This has been an opinion piece. But it is my opinion that facts matter. If they don't then we can plaster whatever we damn well like on the side of the campaign bus. It doesn't mean we have to do it.

And finally, as a coda, those of us who believe in facts need to quadruple check the 'facts' we share, especially on social media. Trump didn't photoshop his hands and it makes us look bad to suggest so. Neither did he hold hands with our Prime Minister in a giant love-in; he helped her down some dodgy stairs. We'll do photos another day, but those things freeze movement and can make it seem permanent. Some photo editor somewhere has 99 pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich properly.


Anonymous said...

I can see why, when in a conflict situation, to make an emotional response may be to 'react' rather than respond and that may not be helpful in the long run. However if you take all emotion out of thinking ( and I'm not sure this is possible) aren't you a glorified machine? Caroline

Steve Tilley said...

I firmly believed that better decisions were made when reduced to facts and evidence. These are more reliable than emotions. The world seems unconvinced.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the 'world' values passion. I also question what part faith plays if decisions are reduced to only facts and evidence. Caroline