Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Numbers, scale and the truth - more than politeness

As regular readers will know, 'Public Policy and the Past' has long been getting hot under the collar about governments' cavalier use of statistics. It's one of the main trends poisoning politics, and it started long before the present administration's rather zig-zag progress through the halls of power.

But it does seem to have got worse.

Consider today's epic Twitter spat between Jonathan Portes, director of the respected (though, in general, Keynesian and committed) National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and Stewart Jackson (above), Conservative MP for Peterborough. Take a look here:

To cut a long story short, Mr Jackson tweeted out some 'facts' about immigration that turned out to be wrong, inflating the number of EU migrants in the UK that had never worked by a factor of three. Mr Portes sought clarification or withdrawal; the MP refused, becoming rather dismissive, while his colleagues also piled in on his behalf.

The MP emerged looking like a bit of a fool, and he certainly did his credibility no end of harm - no minor thing for a member of the Public Accounts Committee. A rapid apology and a 'sorry, I misread the stats' would have sufficed, and everyone would have retired with honour satisfied.

Except that immigration is one of those issues that the Conservatives are hoping to seize back from the United Kingdom Independence Party, rapidly closing in on their more right-wing voters. Any admission that the whole question might be much more complex than 'shut them all out' - that, for instance, immigrants are much more likely to be in work than the home-born population - can't be tolerated.

Some commentators have said today that there's no point stirring the pot: people will believe what they will believe about such emotive issues, and that's that. If MPs want to make fools of themselves with outrageous claims, let them.

But where would we be without a sense of scale and scope? A sense of how big some things are, and how small others remain? Back in the labyrinthine world where we can't trust the very makeup of our public numbers and our numbered common life, that's where.

In a very, very bad place indeed.

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