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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496