Lies, Damn Lies, and Politics

There have been a lot of “facts” thrown about in this referendum campaign and we should all be skeptical and challenge them and pick holes in logic and evidence quoted. Anyone trying to mislead voters deserves to be challenged and should expect nothing less.

As anyone who follows me on twitter knows, I have been doing a lot of that and I’ve had some complaints that I cannot be approaching this neutrally because I am picking fault with more Leave claims than Remain claims. The honest answer to that is that Leave are giving me more material to work with!

I noted a similar outrage earlier this week on a lunchtime programme when the two fact checkers a programme employed were picking more holes in Leave arguments than Remain ones. Again that was because there was more to counter. Non-bias and balanced does not mean to pick up on an equal number of claims on each side. It means you pick up on the relevant claims in the debate or area of debate and assess them. If in that assessment, one side is making dubious claims that can’t be supported and the other isn’t, then that is what Fact-Checkers will show. Balanced just means you listen to each side impartially and then try to be loyal to the truth, nothing more.

So I too am trying to be balanced; and I’m happy to address any claims made by either side if anyone thinks I should or have missed some.

In the meantime let’s look at what both sides are doing in order to try and win our votes.

Persuasion

Now we first need to discount the twisting and presenting of the facts. All politicians (and advertisers, sales people – in fact anyone who is trying to persuade you) will present their evidence and arguments in the way that paints them in the best light. We’ve got to be aware of this and rightly suspicious of it.

If someone says sales have increased by 15%, we need to ask over what period – a year or a decade? If someone says the risk of something has doubled – is that from 25% to 50% or from 1 in a million to 1 in 500,000? The claim isn’t lying; but the context has to be understood. And we all do our bit in this by just questioning what we are told and asking for the full picture.

How does this flick over into being misleading though?

Misleading

That is a very good question. The problem is that being a bit misleading is part of advertising and persuasion (though I am sure advertisers may hate be for saying that). We might rationally know a certain car doesn’t make us any better / sexier / more successful; but pulling up to a party in one will probably make you feel more positive about yourself.

It’s in our nature, I fear. We want to believe the dream – and often we can convince ourselves of something from a few factual hints, especially if we want to believe it. Politicians are masters at tapping into this and we all need to be very careful of them. We all need to be aware that they are trying to persuade us and there are a number of things we can do to try and protect ourselves against this. I’ll walk through this with the aid of an example from each side:

4300 claim

This is quite a classic case of misleading. Putting aside the merits and issues of the forecast it is based on (which I personally don’t think are that unreasonable – there are some issues though; but that’s a separate discussion), there is a big issue with how it is being presented.

The figure quoted is based on a forecast of GDP (Gross Domestic Product, which is a measure of the size of the economy or economic activity) in 2030 if we left the EU and had a reasonable trade deal. This has then been divided by the current number of households. There are two things to pick up on there:

Firstly, if you are predicting the GDP for the future, you should be using the forecast number of households. While there are some obvious issues with that, forecasts should try and be consistent.

Secondly, just dividing the change to the economy by the number of households doesn’t mean much to the average family. It’s technically and mathematically true; but it was phrased to imply that each family would be worse off by that amount, which it wouldn’t be. As many commentators rightly pointed out Household Income is not remotely the same as GDP per household.

So it was a reasonable forecast that the economy will grow less if we leave the EU; and the statement was technically correct; but it was misleading.

Misleading statements of truth will abound and it is very hard to legislate against them. The best method is to be suspicious of what you hear and ask for clarification. The person saying might not want to give any as it might detract from the message they are seeking to create; but push them. They’ll either be honest and admit it (especially where there is a legal requirement as with a salesman) or they’ll refuse to answer (politicians often do that). When they do, though, especially if they are asked repeatedly, it becomes painfully obvious what they are doing (and politicians usually look foolish when they do this – though they still do it regularly).

arrivals

There was a good example of this last week on one of the debates when Kay Burley was asking Michael Gove about the Immigration issue after he had claimed that the housing crisis was as a result of immigration. She correctly pointed out that the UK has not been building enough houses to meet the changing demand for them for a long time (certainly from before the current increase in migration) and she asked if that wasn’t the main reason – not the only reason but the main one – why we have a housing crisis?

Gove avoided the question and kept going on about immigration. She repeated the question a few times I think and each time he kept not answering and going on about immigration. It’s understandable that he didn’t want to answer as admitting – as virtually anyone in the sector knows – that the main reason for a housing crisis is a lack of house building would severely damage his argument. So he just ignored her and kept saying his message. However, every time he ignored the direct question – or any person does – then it is telling and we can draw a conclusion that there is intent to mislead.

The unfortunate thing is that with politicians – unlike salesmen –it’s virtually impossible to legislate against (especially as they are the ones who would have to do the legislating). So engaging with politicians and challenging them is the answer. It means that if we want to be able to make an informed choice – we need to make the effort and engage. Or we will be misled.

Lies

Much worse than a misleading presentation of actual facts are outright lies. Now if you’re selling or advertising something, that’s illegal – and rightly so! Unfortunately, there is no such rule when it comes to politics and so it becomes more important than ever to highlight it. If people can lie and get away with it, then our whole political debate moves from being a discussion and descends into a mud-slinging shouting match, which is harmful for everyone.

Sometimes the distinction between a lie and a very tenuous interpretation of the facts needs is pretty narrow. So I’m going to go through two examples here – one from each side – to demonstrate the issue.

Leave Battle Bus

This is the infamous Leave claim that has been the subject of much contention. The “we” implies it is everything ever sent to the EU; but the second part of funding the NHS implies that is just government spending, not private households, as that is what funds the NHS. So let’s stick with that.

The starting figure is the UK subscription which is £19.1bn a year, and that comes out at £367m a week (slightly higher than the claim). However, that completely ignores the rebate which is never sent. This is worth £4.4bn, which reduces the weekly figure to £283bn.

So figure we “send” is £283bn and to claim otherwise is a straight lie.

But the claim plastered on the side of their bus is that this money would be available to spend on the NHS. Now while that may technically be true for the £283bn a week, we are into the realm of a truth so stretched that is becomes indefensible. This is because out of the money “sent” £4.8bn comes straight back as spending in the public sector – so government spending which the UK government would have to pick up if the UK left the EU. So while this money is technically sent and could be re-distributed, it is highly misleading to imply – as Leave does – that it is money we would get back and so is free to spend. It is not. Moving this money would be robbing one part of the UK to pay another.

Similarly there is £1.8bn (more of an estimate as they are not public accounts) spent by the EU into the private sector. Again, this could be moved, but it is just re-distributing and so is not available in any meaningful sense of the word.

Taking off the money that comes straight back, the money that would be saved by leaving the EU would be £7.1bn a year or £137m a week. (Note: I’m using the UK Statistics Authority’s Data for this which is well justified and explained – link – but there are plenty of other analyses, some of which will vary a little as it depends which year you are looking at)

So to claim that there is £350m available if we leave the EU to spend on the NHS (even if do you ignore the economic impact and its possible effect on public finances) is partly an outright lie; and partly severely misleading, stretching the truth beyond credulity to the point where it is hard not to call it a lie. Since all those using it know this, they do not have even the defence of making a mistake. It is a wilful deceit.

Comission Building

Remain can make claims which can be equally dodgy, though they have not taken centre stage in the EU referendum debate. One of the most prominent ones I have come across when debating the lack of democracy in the Commission is the claim that it is just the EU’s civil service doing the bidding of Council

This is pretty tenuous and doesn’t really stand up to any analysis or comparison. I can see where the people who say this are coming from and that was probably fair to say right back at the beginning. The Council of leaders set some priorities and then ordered some appointed officials to get on and make it happen. That was then and this was now. The officials now have the powers and responsibilities of a government – though within a restricted number of areas.

Given that it has governmental powers then it is the equivalent of the government in any country. Most of the work of government is always carried out by civil servants – that is absolutely true -but the head of the government is elected. If we ran the UK in the same way as the EU is run then MPs would stay in parliament and the departmental heads of the civil service would sit as the cabinet. Perhaps that would be more efficient; but I don’t see anyone advocating that – and I’m certainly not!

For anyone to defend that I find pretty amazing; especially as there is also a separate Civil Service that serves the Commission – link. It’s not technically a lie – but it requires an interpretation of the definition with facts so stretched as to be beyond credence. And, like with the Leave example, I think a lot of people who say it don’t really believe it (or perhaps hadn’t really thought about it); and say so to defend the fact that the Commission isn’t elected. So while it’s not an outright lie, it’s a tenuous defence of an otherwise indefensible position. So pretty damn close.

Experts

Lastly, I just wanted to say a brief note on experts because they have come in for a lot of flack in this debate, especially from Leave. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that if some person, body or institution says something that you don’t like you can just rubbish and try and discredit them.

Of course, anyone person can be biased. In fact, if we are all honest to ourselves, there is usually a bit of unintentional bias in all our work (see earlier post) And the way to work round that is to widen the sample.

Listen to as many experts as possible, quiz them, challenge them on any preconceived opinions they may have; and look at their track records. And yes, do look at their funding. If someone gets all – or most of their funding from a certain source – they are very likely to be well disposed towards that body. But when virtually everyone – regardless of past views, regardless of levels of funding (if any) regardless of personalities ALL say the same thing, it really is time to take them seriously.

Online, I used an example of a doctor. If a doctor gives you a diagnosis and recommends a treatment– you might well not be happy with it and want a second opinion; especially if that doctor is receiving commission from the drugs company for putting their patients on that treatment. Absolutely – get a second opinion and a third and a fourth. Get hundreds if you can. But if they all – including those who get no commission from that company and all those who have always said what they think – say the same thing, then you really should listen.

So with economists and the EU Referendum debate. The reason that virtually all economists are coming out and saying that leaving the EU is economically risky and likely to reduce our growth is because economically that is almost certainly true! I’ve discussed this in an earlier post; and while there are other reasons for leaving, the economics consensus exists because virtually all economic theory and forecasting point the same way. I know Leave don’t like that; but they should accept it and focus on the other, more credible, reasons for leaving.

This seems especially true given that the only economists who are really breaking that consensus are the ones who nail their colours to the mast at the beginning, like Prof Minford, and say I want to leave for other reasons. They then talk about how the UK could deal with the economic impact and that is a perfectly credible approach.

Similarly, in debates, people who say their main motivation for wanting to leave is for democratic or sovereignty  reasons almost always admit that the economic plans are all about minimising the risk and uncertainty that is inherent in Brexit (inherent because we just don’t know what will happen).

Pointing out those failings is perfectly balanced. And it’s far from telling anyone how to vote. It’s simply saying that economically, leaving the EU is a risk and so other reasons need to be more important to you. And for many people they are.

Conclusion  

In any election or public vote, there will be people trying to persuade you to buy into their view and support them. They will try and present their case and their argument in the best way possible and will gloss over or try to avoid the areas that don’t help them. This is to be expected.

For our part, we counter this by engaging and asking questions. Forcing them to say the things that they don’t want to admit to and discuss the areas that they would rather stay hidden. If we don’t do that, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we are misled.

But that relies on a politician fundamentally telling the truth – however they try and present it. If you back them into a corner, one should expect them to either avoid the question or finally admit the point. There is unfortunately little defence against outright lying except making it totally unacceptable. To do that we need to highlight it whenever it happens and make politicians suffer for it – ideally electorally as that is the only thing that matters to them.