Last Word

23.04.15

Stats, facts and evidence in the general election

Source: PSE - April/ May 15

Is there any hope of getting more evidence into political debates running up to May? Jonathan Breckon, head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, explores the issues.

Surely inconvenient statistics and research go out the window when it comes to election time. It is much easier at this stage to promise some future billions on housing or tax gifts, and ignore the actual evidence. 

It would be unwise, however, for any politician to play too fast and loose with the facts. Campaign groups are marshalling to jump on any dodgy claims in the run up to the election. 

The UK’s Full Fact will be checking the statistics and evidence around health, immigration, education and other areas of social policy. They’ve set up a ‘war room’ of staff and volunteers who will work 18 hours a day, from 6am to midnight in the run-up to voting day. 

They have already built up quite a head of steam. Since launching in 2010, nearly every national newspaper – from the Sun to the Financial Times – and politicians of all hues have issued corrections at their request. It has many fans in the media too, from Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday, to David Dimbleby on BBC Question Time, and Juliette Jowit in the Guardian. 

There are others also waiting to pounce on the politicians and pundits. Sense About Science’s campaigns ‘Evidence Matters’ and ‘Ask for Evidence’ are asking voters to hold candidates to account on the research behind their promises. They will celebrate politicians who get it right, expose those who don’t, and debate the uncertainty in between. 

And the Alliance for Useful Evidence, a network championing the use of evidence in social policy and practice, is working with media outlet The Conversation UK to evidence-check the major parties’ manifestos. Manifesto Check will use the expertise of university-based academic experts and researchers from think-tanks. Campaigning groups are excluded. To control for biases of the experts, The Conversation is also planning on some blind peer review – where social scientists evaluate the quality of other researchers’ work without knowing each other’s identities. 

Some of the more traditional media and think-tanks are also zeroing in on the election. The Channel 4 News factcheck blog crowd-sources some of its expertise to make sure the public are feeding in and they are not missing out. 

One of the UK’s oldest independent research bodies, The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has examined the macroeconomic implications of parties’ fiscal plans – the only independent analysis so far. And if you want a post-mortem on the Coalition government, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has launched an election website, funded by the Nuffield Foundation (which is also funding Full Fact), analysing what has happened over the course of this Parliament and the implications of the different parties’ fiscal policies. 

However, this movement doesn’t end on voting day. In the next Parliament, the drive for making smarter use of evidence will grow. The fresh intake of MPs will get training from bodies such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. A campaign by the Royal Statistical Society has also got statistically illiterate MPs to sign up for statistics training. 

Checking basic statistical facts is one thing. But how much can we look at the much less clear-cut research evidence to clarify politicians’ claims on social policy? Will, say, reforms to welfare policy have research to back them up? Will changes to teaching do any good? These are difficult, nuanced and contested areas with no easy answers. 

Research offers some important caveats and qualifications, but rarely crystal clear right and wrong answers. That might not be headline-grabbing, yet it’s still important for voters to know that politicians’ certainties are misplaced. 

Fact-checking is now a global movement, boasting 80 organisations worldwide. Where did this all come from? The trend started during the 2004 US presidential election with organisations such as Factcheck.org, and from 2007 PolitiFact, a Pulitzer prize winner. In 2012, these bodies publicised false claims by President Barack Obama’s team about Mitt Romney’s business record, and misleading Romney statements about the economy and the bailout of the car industry. The Republican and Democratic parties had to employ staff just to deal with the fact-checkers. 

Politicians will always make bold claims that are hard to back up with evidence. And voters will – and should – vote for the things based purely on values and beliefs, sometimes against what the evidence tells us. But to make democracy work, we have a duty to inform the public.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

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