Following Brexit and Trump’s victory, there’s a big push to highlight the emergence of a new ‘post fact’ political environment. There’s even a new BBC guide to help journalists understand statistics rather than take them at face value.
But problems with the reliability of facts — and statistics in particular — is nothing new. Ever since the state began to collect data in the 19th Century and statistics emerged as a field of science, numbers that inform political decision-making have been miscalculated, misstated, and misrepresented.
Injecting numbers into political debate has the effect of adding credibility, regardless of the accuracy of the data underpinning the number. Winning a political argument can sometimes result from the establishment of a single statistic as a talking point, which becomes the anchor around which an issue is debated. A recent example is the notorious ‘£350 million to the NHS’ claim from the Brexiteers.
A numerical element to an argument suggests objectivity; a ‘fact’ has been established. But the opinions that affect the data underlying the statistic are not objective. The process behind the creation of the statistic is more often than not left unchallenged, even by its opponents. If opponents take the time and effort to refute the number, they get accused of ‘getting bogged down in detail’ and not addressing the substantive issues of the debate. Questioning numbers in a debate is often seen as nitpicking. Refuting numbers also robs the opponent of precious air-time, which is not spent explaining their own position.
The complicated world of arms control
In the cold war, SALT II ratification, like Brexit, was a horrendously complicated issue. To fully grasp the substantive issues, one needed a deep understanding of technical aspects of numerous weapon systems of both superpowers, projections of advances in these weapons systems, and also a firm understanding of Soviet intentions. These final two aspects were essentially guesswork.
Ratification of the SALT II treaty ultimately failed because its opponents – led by the Committee on the Present Danger – distilled a complicated issue down to a simple slogan of ‘you can’t trust the Soviets’. In support of this position, they created reams of statistics that attempted to justify an alarming reading of Soviet strength and intentions – i.e. the inherently unknowable aspects of the debate. The headline statistic became the (non)fact that under SALT II, the Soviets would be permitted to deploy 500 Backfire bombers which could reach the US from the USSR (they couldn’t). These numbers were stated as fact and the approach to how these estimates were compiled left unexplained. Many were incorrect and all were based on a worst-case reading of the available data.
There’s a strong echo in the Brexiteer’s ‘take back control’ slogan and the ‘£350 million-a-week’ statistic. Could the vastly complicated issue of Brexit really be distilled to ‘taking back control’? Evidently, it could. Could one statistic really substantiate that slogan? Evidently, it could.
In 1979, facts did not particularly matter in the SALT II ratification debate. If you decided that you didn’t trust the Soviet Union, then the Committee on the Present Danger’s statistics supported your position. If you decided that you were prepared to trust the Soviet Union … you had to challenge the CPD’s numbers.
(While it isn’t the case that the CPD’s statistics were singularly responsible for the defeat of the arms control treaty, they did set the terms of debate in the media and in the Senate.)
My point: Important political debates — such as SALT II and Brexit — decided on shaky facts is nothing new.
Do ‘facts’ ever matter in politics?
Controlling an issue’s narrative as it enters wider political debate is vital. The Committee on the Present Danger was able to establish the terms of the SALT II ratification debate because the Carter Administration — working through the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) — waited too long to begin its own campaign in support of ratification.
The ACDA’s materials were then created in direct response to the Committee’s (non)facts; proponents of SALT II ratification were on the back foot from the start of the debate. Those Senators already predisposed to distrust the Soviet Union would be difficult to persuade otherwise.
How often do voters – whether Senators in a treaty ratification debate or the electorate in a referendum – weigh up the complex facts before deciding on an issue? Did Senators carefully weigh up multiple sources of data given that SALT II involved so much subjective data? Many were persuaded by data-backed pamphlets by the Committee on the Present Danger that the vote was about whether or not the US could trust the Soviet Union. Similarly, did all voters in favour of Brexit read the various economic forecasts in order to assess which was the most accurate prediction of the effects of Brexit? I don’t think so. They voted based on their reading of the what the vote was about, and Brexiteers successfully made the case that the vote was about ‘taking back control’.
Claims that we now live in a ‘post-fact world’ simply aren’t true; we’ve always relied on shaky data. The additional facet to the problem today is that we are bombarded with ‘viewpoints’ and ‘comment’, a result of journalists’ need to come up with clever ideas that attract page views in deference to a 24-hour news cycle. This means that we now have truckloads of ideas and strong opinions but hardly any content that carefully assesses the available data, explains nuance, and acknowledges complexity. 1 It’s often seen as boring work and boring reading and most readers already know where they stand on the issue, so why bother with this difficult and time-consuming task? Will this type of article expose banner ads to more readers than opinion? Probably not. Most readers are actively looking for facts to support their worldview, not more data and critiques of that data in order to dispassionately consider their stance on an issue.
What is the solution to this? I’m not sure. I’m just a historian. But it isn’t true that we’re entering a post-fact world. We’ve always had to deal with questionable data buttressing political viewpoints.
- Let’s not kid ourselves. An explainer infographic put together in an hour or two citing one unquestioned data source does not constitute a rigorous understanding of an issue. ↩