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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.