Lies, Damned Lies and Rhetoric
“The logic and evidence for full employment are strong, and someday, hopefully soon, logic and evidence will matter again”
Bernstein and Baker, Introduction to Getting Back to Full Employment, November 2013 (emphasis added)
What a depressing end to an introduction. A concession that the thesis that follows may not gain traction with politicians and the public despite the well-researched, detailed and cogent policy arguments, despite the charts or the nine and a half pages of references. I say ‘despite’, but perhaps ‘because of’. I imagine Bernstein and Baker’s concern is that it may not count for much in the face of a more compelling narrative, one based not on facts and detailed analysis but on something far less tangible.
Politicians of all persuasions have long been accused of twisting the facts to suit their arguments, of presenting statistics out of context and of cherry-picking data to both make their case and rubbish that of the opposition. Indeed, ‘fact-checking’ has become a mini-industry, analyzing and publishing the levels of ‘spin’ on the numbers churned out in speeches, debates and articles. However, increasingly the concern expressed is not that data is being spun, it is that it is being ignored completely.
“When the facts undergirding Carroll’s certainty that government must fail are contradicted, he withdraws them and falls back to his underlying ideological convictions.”
Jonathan Chait, NYMAG.com, 1/6/14 (emphasis added)
Frustration is growing at the elevation and manipulation of emotional responses of the electorate – pitching people against each other rather than institutional power.
“But you should not conduct policy, particularly when it hits some of the most vulnerable people in society, on the basis of prejudice and ignorance. And it is plainly immoral to spread such prejudice purely for party gain, as ministers and their advisers are doing, by deliberately misleading people about the value of benefits and who gets them.” Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, Jan 2014 (emphasis added)
This frustration has been felt recently in both the US and the UK in reaction to television shows on welfare. CBS’s 60 Minutes (US) show on disability benefits was described by Rebecca Vallas as based on
“unsubstantiated rumors and on speculation and [they] then used these rumors and speculation to draw broad sweeping conclusions about the entire social security disability programs without even pointing to any evidence of anything”.
Channel 4’s Benefit Street (UK) also had myth-busters out in force:
Powerful narratives are driving political and public discussion. Misinformation works well. The false narrative is adopted as fact. The evidence shows that 1 in 5 people believe a majority of benefit claims are false, while 14% believe a majority of claims are fraudulent. The UK Government’s own statistics indicate an actual fraud rate of around 1%. This impacts on public perception of welfare as a whole, with increasing numbers seeing claimants as less deserving. Baumberg, Bell and Gaffney’s research also showed evidence that negative media coverage was linked to stigma which in turn led to people not wanting to access support they are able to claim.
A lack of actual information works well too; without specific context people’s perceptions are driven by their own assumptions. Research shows that once confronted with data, real life stories and context, people are interested in debating, challenging and even changing their views. Of course, facts don’t necessarily lead to agreement – they are always open to interpretation, but they do provide a base from which discussion can be more constructive.
Emran Mian, Director of the UK Think Tank the Social Market Foundation has described the results of the 2004 US Presidential Election as representing the victory of the politics of affinity over the politics of argument. Bush’s approach victorious over John Kerry’s because “with enough belief and enough fear, argument will not get a look in”. In the politics of affinity success lies in presenting a narrative arc that is rooted in common sense and personal experience and then continuing to confirm voters’ suspicions, until beliefs are strong enough that facts are dismissed and mocked. In the UK the immigration debate is a good example of this. Part of the problem (and turnoff for viewers) is that it is like arguing with a toddler, the ground continually shifts and they take everything you say as proof they are right.
The response to the ‘affinity’ approach seems conflicted between data-blasting inaccuracies and crafting an alternative story that will find resonance with voters.
There is a real danger in setting up facts and feelings, affinity and argument as dichotomies. That is that a macro, data-driven approach becomes seen as representing truth (when there are plenty of examples of where this is not the case) and more micro, person driven narrative explanations are dismissed as insufficiently robust. Yet perhaps part of the answer of how to capture public interest in evidence is to move beyond data as charts to data as people and better utilize the depth of qualitative research and researchers available.
The issues most susceptible to the rhetoric over research approach from politicians and the media – welfare, immigration, spending – are likely to be central to elections in both the US and the UK over the next few years. For those who believe in the importance of ‘logic and evidence’ being understood and shared by the widest group possible, the vital questions become how to restore faith in data and how to make it engaging beyond a small nerdy community. The use of a variety of methods to collect information – including randomized control trials, and being open about failure and its importance in improving policy – would help. As would actually using and learning from the evidence, research and evaluation we already have. A focus on closing the gap between policy rhetoric and operational reality wouldn’t hurt either. Narratives aid engagement, but it is a disservice to all to think that these need to be fact free.
 See, for example http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/report/2014/01/07/81702/50-years-after-lbjs-war-on-poverty/ and http://www.ippr.org/research-project/44/7073/asylum-understanding-public-attitudes