It is obvious that sound policies must be based on facts. As Greta Thunberg repeatedly points out, you cannot formulate policy on climate change unless you “listen to the scientists.” And a similar argument applies to other areas of policy.
Unfortunately, it is equally obvious that far too often policy is not based on facts. In the US, President Trump has repeatedly claimed that climate change is a hoax aimed at weakening America. And he pulled his country out of the Paris Climate Accord on the grounds that signing the accord was, “[a] self-inflicted major economic wound.“
And in the UK, the continued policy of austerity has been based on the claim that the state of government finances means that there is no alternative. The facts clearly say otherwise.
And the vote for Brexit came after a campaign whose two key claims were that leaving the EU would free up £350 million per week for the NHS and prevent 70 million Turks from immigrating into the UK.
This is deeply worrying for many people. Is there no hope of voters being told the truth and voting rationally? Is there no hope of policy-makers basing their decisions on facts rather than myths? In short, is there no hope for democracy?
Fortunately, as well as these negative trends, there are also some positive ones that do give hope:
• there is a sharp rise in the availability of independent fact checkers
• there are also an increasing number of academics and think tanks providing independent analysis on topics – such as poverty – on which politicians would rather not be forced to dwell
• new techniques for policy-making based on fact are becoming increasingly well known.
There is a sharp rise in the availability of independent fact checkers
Although fact checkers have been in existence since the early 2000s, there has been a rapid rise in recent years. Almost half of the total (well over a hundred different sites) were founded in the last two years.
As the chart below indicates, most of these sites are operated by journalists or activists, with policy experts and academics close behind.
Although these fact checking sites remain far less popular than the mass media sites they critique, they do nevertheless provide an extremely useful resource for ordinary citizens who would like to know whether or not they have been told the truth.
There is more independent analysis on critical topics
As awareness rises of the dangers of going post, academics and think tanks have been stepping up.
Cambridge University, for example, has founded a Centre for Risk And Evidence Communication, which is hosted within the Faculty of Mathematics. The aim of the centre is to ensure that relevant facts on important issues are presented accurately and transparently. Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chair of the new centre’s executive board said:
“we reject claims that we live in a post-fact society, and that people are fed up with experts. We do acknowledge, however, that the public, professionals and policymakers are often ill-served by the way in which evidence is communicated. We hope to work with others to improve how this is, and empower people to make informed decisions”
And when the UK government abandoned its existing measure of poverty in 2015, ostensibly because it was a flawed measure (which it was), but more probably because poverty was not a topic the government wished to draw attention to, the Social Metrics Commission stepped-in to provide a new measure. According to their definition of poverty:
- There are 14.3 million people in poverty in the UK. This includes 8.3 million working-age adults; 4.6 million children; and 1.3 million pension-age adults
- The current rate of poverty is 22%, which is the same as last year and only slightly lower than the 24% seen in 2000/01 (the first available year of results using the Commission’s approach)
- A third (31%) of people in poverty – 4.5 million people – are more than 50% below the poverty line, and this proportion has not changed since the millennium
- Just under half (49%) of those in poverty – 7 million people – are in persistent poverty, meaning they are in poverty now and have also been in poverty for at least two of the previous three years.
The news they provide is very bad news, but the fact that they provide it makes it far harder for the government to deny that there is real poverty in the UK.
And there are many other think tanks doing good work in this space: the IPPR, the NEF, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, et cetera.
Between them, they do an excellent job but of shining the light on the problems and of pointing the way towards potential solutions.
New techniques for fact-based policy-making
This year’s Nobel Memorial prize for Economics was won jointly by three economists: Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. The prize was awarded “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.”
All three have been affiliated with The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. The Lab describes itself this way:
“The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Anchored by a network of 194 affiliated professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer critical questions in the fight against poverty.”
In other words, they were awarded the prize for finding ways to base poverty-reduction policies on facts rather than myths.
Although post-fact politics remains a real phenomenon, and a very dangerous one, there is increasing evidence of a push towards the truth.