Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Never let the facts……..

Whenever you are trying to make a case for a particular policy, it helps to have some facts to support your case.

Of course, there are facts…….. and then…. there are facts. Or, as Mark Twain popularised it ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’.  Today, no-one is quite sure who said it first, nor who originally described witnesses in three classes ‘liars, damned liars and experts’. It is natural that people will try to promote the facts that best fit their story. In politics, as in business and PR, this is called ‘spin’.

I was recently reminded of ‘spin’ , when Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a big speech in support of his welfare reform agenda. On first reading, his list of statistics about employment, income and child poverty were quite impressive. That was until you looked at how time periods had been carefully chosen (and were different for each issue), changes in data methodology had been conveniently ignored, and relevant contextual data just forgotten.

Less surprising was that the bedroom tax, and its disastrous outcomes, was not mentioned. Neither was mention made that his Universal Credit policy is way behind schedule, way over budget and that HM Treasury has been simply unable to approve the business case for the policy ie IDS’s sums simply don’t add up.

Competition about facts, their interpretation and analysis, is at the heart of debate. One child’s kicking a football against a wall can be described either as ‘getting healthy exercise’ and/or ‘making an interminable noise’.

However, this is quite different from simply ‘making facts up’. Far too often, I hear or see assertions of fact about particular issues where it is clear that the said facts have just been invented. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t see an assertion which has no basis in reality. They are commonly found in letters to newspapers or postings on websites, and almost inevitably from someone remaining anonymous.

More worrying is when you see the same (un-true and un-factual) assertions being endlessly repeated. The House of Commons’ Library has received so many enquiries from MPs about the contents of some viral e-mails that it has now published some notes which contrast the e-mail claims and the facts.

Leaving aside economic statistics, it is not really surprising that, right now, the statistical divide between fact and fiction is dominated by international aid, immigration, and welfare and benefit entitlement.

So, if you’ve seen those e-mails that claim that the UK has given international aid of £351m to Hamas (actual = £0), £1.4bn to Haiti (actual = £3.3m in 2012) and many, many more….. or that every immigrant to the UK receives £29,000 in benefits in the first year…… can find out the truth for yourself at