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.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear