If you know you’re right, then does it matter if you make up the numbers?

The Tories have always had disdain for scientific evidence - and the situation is getting worse.

Politicians have a bad relationship with evidence. Like the rest of us, they’re quick to seize on facts that support their beliefs, and heroically slow to notice ones that don’t. No political party, left or right, has given us a ‘golden age’, where policy was based on objective effectiveness rather than on prejudice or political expediency. But if we’ve never had our golden age, we’ve certainly had our dark ones. And right now we’re living through one of them.

Fans of evidence (or as Karl Rove once reportedly put it “The reality-based community”) had plenty to complain about during the Blair-Brown years –the sacking of David Nutt being an example worth remembering. However, that could be considered a mere trifle next to the consistency and sheer, towering arrogance with which the coalition government now dismiss any science they disagree with. They are so imperturbably convinced of their own rightness that anyone arguing to the contrary must, ipso facto, be either an idiot or a scoundrel (or both). Witness Michael Gove’s response to a letter arguing that socialisation and play might be more important for very young children than formal teaching and testing. He could have simply disagreed, or better yet, cited some evidence of his own. Instead he described the letter’s authors (including education experts and academics) as “…a powerful and badly misguided lobby” who “bleated bogus pop-psychology” and were “responsible…for the culture of low expectations in schools” – his previous career as a journalist clearly qualifying him to decide what constitutes legitimate research in developmental psychology.

Iain Duncan Smith is another high-profile offender. He has a nasty habit of backing up his welfare changes with dodgy numbers (a proclivity for which he has been repeatedly reprimanded by various statistical authorities). His appearance on the Today programme in July this year saw perhaps my favourite attempt to justify these statistical deceptions. The UK Statistics Authority had just politely informed him that his claim to have forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work could not be proven with his numbers. His response: “I have a belief that I am right…you cannot disprove what I said”. In its way, this is a remarkably honest admission that he simply does not care what the numbers say. He just knows because he knows. This might explain why other Conservative figures have also proved so comfortable relying on faulty statistics. If you know you’re right, then does it matter if you make up the numbers?

These are just two recent (albeit particularly egregious) examples. We haven’t even got to Tory backbenchers describing a UN Special Rapporteur as “a loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence”, or to George Osborne’s complete denial of any possible alternative to austerity. This antipathy for evidence runs deep in the current Conservative party. But where does it come from?

In an uncharitable mood, I might say it’s necessity. If all the facts are against you, your best tactic is to make stuff up and hope you can shout the other person down (changing your mind obviously not being an option). But more than this, I think their vocal resistance to evidence reflects a peculiarly (small-c) conservative frustration with ‘liberal’ science. Social scientists, the ones doing a lot of the policy-relevant research, tend to skew left in their politics (economists being the exception). Social-scientific findings also have an annoying (if you’re a conservative) tendency to support fluffy progressive ideas; like children doing just as well with same-sex parents, or custodial sentences not helpingto reduce criminal reoffending.

Inside the Conservative bubble it’s obvious these ideas are wrong. Hard facts are obviously better than woolly ‘socialisation’ or ‘self-esteem’. Gay couples can’t be as good at raising children as traditional ones. If the scientific evidence says otherwise, then it must be the science that’s wrong – the scientists “misguided” by their loopy liberal ideas.

This combination of arrogant self-righteousness and suspicion of the liberal academy is absolutely poisonous to good policymaking. The objective of any policy worth the name should be to make things better – to make kids smarter or happier; to help people find good jobs or lead better lives. If your fundamental mindset rules out whole fields of accumulated knowledge because, for example, they’re part of some Marxist scientist conspiracy to ruin education, then you’re not off to a good start.

To inject a note of selfishness right at the end, this dismissal of evidence is also kind of a bummer for the scientists themselves. Our job is to try and find out how things work. What interventions cause what outcomes, how certain policies might help and how they might hurt, and so on. This sort of presupposes that the people in a position to change things actually care about how the world works, rather than how they think it should work. I guess I’m not holding my breath on that score. But for now I’d be happy not being told what constitutes legitimate science by people who have no earthly idea what they’re talking about.

Raquel Rolnik was called a "loopy Brazilian leftie" for criticising the bedroom tax. Image: Getty

Robert De Vries is a Sociologist at the University of Oxford.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.