Saturday, July 20, 2019

Sacred facts

I have just read the late Hans Rosling's final book, Factfulness. It's one of those wonderful books that make me wish that I was still teaching, because I would be incorporating it into everything. It's about data, statistics and their misuse, cognitive biases, and the most important thing of all - the fact that we are wrong most of the time about global development. And that is everybody. For instance, he gives one example of a group of Nobel laureates who performed far worse than random when they took his test of their knowledge.* Hence his play on the word 'mindfulness' in his title.

All the way through I was thinking about how these insights relate to the EU referendum. They are very relevant.

1. One of his main points is about big numbers. When they are presented on their own without anything to compare them with, they can seem much bigger than they really are. The real sin of the £350 million per week on the side of the bus was not that the amount was wrong, which is what all the arguments have been about, but that it was presented without anything to give people a way of judging its relative size. It sounds huge. In the context of government spending, it's small. If they had written, 'just under 1% of government spending goes to the EU,' then people would have understood the cost much better. But that was the point. They weren't supposed to.

It's the same with the tedious mantra, '17.4 million people voted to leave.' This is also misleading because it has no context. It's used in this way to make it sound bigger than it is. If they say 52% voted to leave, then they are showing that it was a small majority. My favourite rejoinder is to point out that 29 million people didn't vote to leave, and that fabled 17.4 million is, in fact, a minority.

The full figures were 17,410,742 voted leave, 16,141,242 voted to remain, and 12,949,258 didn't vote. That's a lot of non-voters. Nearly 28% of the total and more than ten times the size of the leave majority. Taken in context, the numbers show a very fragile majority on the day, an overall minority, and no national consensus behind leaving at all.

Now, if we take the British Social Attitudes Survey, though it records a growth in scepticism about the EU, it has never shown a majority for leaving it. The highest recorded opinion in favour of exit was 41% (see page 5, table 1) in the year of the referendum, and it has been dropping since. So how did we end up with a majority to leave in the referendum? It was a quirk of turnout. Nothing else. Those non-voters decided it. That doesn't give a strong mandate. Opinion surveys have been showing a remain majority of 8-10% for more than a year. Yet we are pursuing Brexit purely on the basis that a majority want it. As well as the obvious point that if a majority support a bad idea it is still a bad idea, it's clear that they don't, and never have.

We don't think of abstainers very often. We should do more. Are they disengaged, disaffected, idle, uninformed, baffled, feel unwilling to judge or unable to take sides, or are they simply ill or away on the day? It's difficult to know why people don't participate and we put little effort into researching non-voting. That's a mistake. For instance, the slump in turnout and the drop in Labour's vote in 2001 should have set alarm bells ringing in New Labour instead of them reassuring themselves with the complacency engendered by their large majority of seats.

2. Another of Rosling's points is that we love binary explanations. The human brain is very comfortable with the simplicity of either/or. We tend to fall for it the whole time - the many and the few, people from somewhere and people from anywhere, with us or against us, the metropolitan elite or real people, etc. The list goes on and on. It is almost always wrong as most people cluster around a whole range of median positions rather than the poles.

Look at those abstentions again. Then add in the evidence that many of the people who did vote were unsure and undecided until the last minute. Suddenly, the picture that we are constantly being given of a violently polarised society, even one on the brink of civil war, looks crazy. However, the idea has taken such a hold that even some Labour MPs are saying they will support no-deal so fearful are they of the anger of leavers. They also feel a duty towards the left behind, working class voters who are supposed to want to leave, even though the data shows that not to be true.

We do have strongly committed organisations backing both leave and remain. The larger ones, judging by membership and the size of demonstrations and rallies, are for remain. They are against change. They tend to be on the liberal/left because they want to defend the internationalist, social democratic, post-war settlement. The smaller groups are mainly on the right, with a few left hangers-on, and they want to smash the settlement, regardless of the consequences. They want a nationalist revolution, strangely being fomented in the Conservative Party. But the mass of people are not involved. Some identify with the two polarities to various degrees, though they are often semi-detached. But many others are bored, confused, uninterested, and bewildered. They just want it to stop. Britain has not changed that much. Politicians and journalists need to remember that Twitter is not the real world.

There is another consequence of this false polarisation. The referendum was presented as a binary choice when the options were non-binary. There are several ways to leave the EU, each with different consequences. This produced a Condorcet Paradox. Remain, a single option, is more popular than each of the individual leave options, even if the combined leave vote was higher. Leaving cannot be done other than by going against popular opinion.

3. There are other things to take from the book. Three stand out. Urgency produces panic and bad decision making. This is why Tusk was right and Macron wrong about the length of the extension to Article 50. We needed more time to take stock and resolve our own constitutional crisis. Macron has put us under the sort of destructive pressure we imposed on ourselves by invoking Article 50 without a clue about what we wanted to get from it.

Secondly, the whole theme of the book about our wholesale ignorance of basic facts could not have been better illustrated by the bizarre sight of our prospective Prime Minister waving a kipper around, decrying EU smoked fish packaging regulations that were not EU regulations, but UK ones. All the while the audience cheered on the increased risk of getting listeria. Neither remainers nor leavers had much idea about the workings of the EU. Gathering by the abysmal quality of the debate and the coverage in the national media, they still don't. The few who do know - the experts in trade and international law for example - are holding their heads in their hands.

Finally, Rosling makes the point that we should resist blaming individuals and look at the system. Given the cast of Brexit this is hard, so hard, but he has a point. If there is one thing that this mess shows us, it is that the use of referendums on their own as a way of deciding complex issues is ridiculous. 'Respect the result of the referendum,' may trip smoothly off the tongue, but it raises four questions. Is respecting the same as implementing? Should we treat a tiny majority as an overwhelmingly decisive one? Should we deliver the result regardless of the consequences? And, why should we respect a process as manifestly unfit for purpose as this one was?

*You can take the test and find out more on Rosling's Gapminder foundation's website. And you really should read the book.

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