So the temptation is just to plough on. Keep calm, ignore the Trump and Brexit tumults, and carry on proselytising for evidence. Perhaps eventually things will calm down.
But they won’t. Whatever you think about the recent votes, or ‘post-truth’ politics, there are big chunks of the population frustrated with the status quo.
And throwing more data or facts at them is not going to change a thing. We are going to have adapt. Accept that our normal tools aren’t working. Eat a bit more humble pie. Following the lead of the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane who said it was a ‘fair cop’ for macroeconomic forecasters to be criticised.
Yes, we have political leaders unhinged from basic facts. Trump may even be mentally ill, according to a Change.org petition of 12,000 shrinks. But there was never some golden age of political truth. Twitter and Facebook have turbo-charged deceit and distortion. But all this talk of ‘post-truth’ is a smokescreen that hides the fact that many people are royally hacked off.
What are we to do about this? We could just do business-as-usual, shout louder for the value of statistics over prejudice. But many people dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. When Europe expert Professor Anand Menon, set out the economic impact of Brexit, one heckler yelled back: “That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.”
I don’t have any simple answers and I don’t think the Alliance can do much alone. But we can work with others and experiment with some new approaches (or rehashed old ones). Here’s a few ideas for starters:
1. Experiment with more deliberative democracy. Voting in/out, or left/right is not a great way to handle complex evidence. Social research rarely gives black or white answers. More shades of grey. So if traditional elections don’t work, we need to look at other deliberative forums, such as the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council or the Citizens’ Assembly experiment in Sheffield and Southampton, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Yes, ideas like citizen councils may seem a utopian fantasy and hard to scale. But who really thinks that our current democracy is working? We also need to get better at how to present social science to these citizen forums. How to avoid biased experts or skewed cherry-picked evidence, as was alleged to have happened in some past citizen juries.
2. Engage with different publics, such as through citizen social science and more participatory research? The Mass Observation Movement of the 1930s used hundreds of volunteers to write diaries and collect data, run from a working-class street in Bolton. John Maynard Keynes used their study of saving habits to argue for tax policy changes. But can this D.I.Y research create robust evidence? There has been a troubled history between participatory research and science, according to Liz Richardson from Manchester University. It needs a less troubled future.
3. Get better at ‘subjective’ evidence. There must be more national policymakers can do to get smarter at understanding personal views and opinions that don’t fit the aggregate data. Perhaps more mixed methods: splicing quant and qual research. I was impressed by a RCT+ study by Nesta in Manchester that mixed a Randomised Controlled Trial with qualitative interviews and longitudinal research. Even if you are a die-hard quant, you would do well to get out into the field. Meet your data. The best economist or expert is the one with the dirty shoes, who is not desk-bound but gets out there to find the ground truth.
4. Embrace the mood of anti-expertise. Yes, you read that right. Bashing experts is no bad thing. Experts on social and economic issues DO often get predictions wrong. Philip Tetlock has argued for decades for more accuracy. He has some top tips for being a super-forecaster and it can work for anybody – meteorologists, op-ed writers or armchair pundits. Let’s find alternative sources of expertise. Can we do more with collective intelligence to smash through some of the traditional hierarchies of experts?
5. More awareness of the distributional impact in ‘what works’. In the same way that the Her Majesty’s Treasury writes an ‘impact on households’ around Budget time, we can check the fairness of interventions. The question is this: not only do policies work, but do they work for everybody?
6. Getting out of our bubbles. We will be finding more champions and partners working with the most deprived parts of the UK (and yes we will define ‘deprived’ based on evidence: Office for National Statistics neighbourhood data). At the absolute minimum, we need to do more events with non-traditional audiences. We can’t do this alone, but we can do a friendly piggyback on other events.
7. Follow people on Twitter that we don’t agree with. It’s a small gesture, but we need to stop self-segregating on social media. This is an easy-to-implement idea from Carl Miller from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos in a BBC Radio 4 documentary on ‘post-truth’ politics. People who voted for Brexit or Trump are swivel-eyed alt-right basket of deplorables. Some may have a point. But you will never find that point if you don’t listen to what they say. At a recent seminar at the RSA, I was quite rightly criticised by its chief executive Matthew Taylor for never actually reading a news article by Breitbart. Even though I was quite happy to slag them off. So not very empirical of me. Which brings me to my next point ….
8. Don’t stop being empirical. Avoid groupthink. Is there really post-truth politics? Has populism and fake news really taken over? Maybe, maybe not. Only the evidence will tell, as set out in an excellent debate at the Royal Statistical Society. Stop for a moment and don’t just mindlessly repeat the conventional narratives. Going with the flow of these ideas can make them self-fulfilling. It plays well to Nigel Farage or Marine le Pen to say that there is an inevitable ‘tsunami’ of populism. If everybody starts believing their hype, maybe they too will get into power (the reality is that ‘nowhere have populists won majorities without collaboration of established conservative politicians’, according to Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Müller, and author of ‘What is Populism?’.)
None of the ideas are enough. But it’s an attempt to go in the right direction. A direction that involves sweeping away the ‘zombie orthodoxies’, as Geoff Mulgan, Nesta’s CEO described it. We need to find ‘new ideas which are rooted in empathy for the many who feel disempowered’, according to Geoff.
We certainly can’t do this alone, but we can work with others to try out new ideas. Part of the solution is recognising that the elitist evidence movement might be part of the problem. We need to be part of the solution. If you want to create any partnerships on that solution, do drop us a line. And be blunt. If you think the suggestions are daft, naive, or miss the point, let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Breckon is Director at the Alliance for Useful Evidence.
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