THAT was one of the questions posed at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society to consider whether we really are in a post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’, and if so what we can do about it.
These terms have become commonplace as people try to make sense of a global political landscape that looks and feels different to what many would have predicted a year ago. So it was refreshing to hear a more critical take on the concepts such as post-truth, fake news and echo-chambers.
That isn’t to say that the panellists thought all is well. It was accepted that misinformation, ‘fake news’, and a lack of regard for evidence in some quarters are issues worthy of addressing, and that it’s vital for the health of our democracy that we do so. What’s more, Helen Margetts (Oxford Internet Institute) presented a compelling case that the Internet and social media may be exacerbating the problem.
“Is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence?”
What was questioned was the notion that there is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence.
Or, to restate the earlier question – against what previous golden age of ‘truth’ are we implicitly comparing our modern era to when we use the phrase ‘post-truth’?
This sense of perspective is welcome. William Davies’ recent piece in the Guardian, which has generated much discussion in the statistical world, painted a gloomy picture of the supposedly waning power of statistics. But as the National Statistician pointed out in response, our supposedly ‘post-truth’ era is also characterised by both a yearning for more trustworthy analysis to make sense of the world and an abundance of data out there to help inform it, if only we can tap into and make sense of it.
And that is central to our mission here at the Office for National Statistics. We are constantly striving to produce better statistics to support better decisions. We have ambitious plans to harness big data and exploit its potential to help us understand the modern world. And we are always looking to better understand current and future user needs and respond to them where we can.
“We will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.”
It’s not just about producing better statistics, however. There are challenges in explaining to a wide audience what the evidence says about any given issue when the matter at hand is complex, the evidence is not always clear cut, and the methodological limitations of statistics need to be made clear in the name of transparency.
The difficulty with that, as panellist James Bell from Buzzfeed explained, is that when it comes to dealing with a mass audience and a controversial issue, a simple and clear message usually beats a complex one.
Those of us working in the field of official statistics always need to challenge ourselves to communicate better and in a way that is clear and accessible. But we cannot get away from the fact that by necessity we deal in complexity and nuance, which can make it tricky to get our message across where others may be peddling a simpler line and in a louder voice.
The answer, as argued by Full Fact’s Will Moy, lies in recognising that the ONS and UK Statistics Authority, along with other bodies such as new Office for Statistics Regulation, are part of a bigger picture including civil society groups, media outlets, businesses and ordinary citizens. Working together is crucial to help people make sense of the world around them, to continue to build the case for evidence, and to challenge those who wilfully misuse or disregard it.
That’s why, for example, the UK Statistics Authority is partnering with Full Fact, the House of Commons Library and the Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Need to Know’ project. And it’s also why the work done by organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society to improve statistical literacy is so valuable, so we can all understand the importance of evidence and challenge its misuse.
Responding to Mr Davies’ Guardian piece, the National Statistician argued that “this is the moment when we can make our greatest contribution to society” by seizing the opportunities open to us to produce the statistics that Britain needs to answer the big questions of the day. That’s something we certainly intend to do. And working with others, we will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.
THE PRIME MINISTER’s attempt to reshuffle her ministerial team dissolved into a non-event on Monday and Tuesday (Jan 9-10).
The dramatic transformation trailed in largely sympathetic coverage in right wing broadsheets on online news outlets, failed to materialise as the reshuffle started with farce and proceeded to chaos as Monday unfolded.
The opportunity for the reshuffle was generated by the loss of former First Secretary of State Damian Green following a finding he had breached the ministerial code by being less than honest during an investigation into his conduct before he was a government minister.
The Conservative Party chair, Patrick Loughlin was widely supposed to be up for the chop; however, a tweet from Conservative HQ managed to not only pre-empt his departure but announce the appointment of the wrong person to his job, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.
Things were complicated by the unexpected departure of the Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who requires surgery just at a time when discussions regarding the long-running suspension into the Northern Ireland Assembly are moving into a new phase and are being given added urgency by Brexit negotiations.
While Jeremy Hunt was being predicted for a significant promotion from Health Secretary, the continuing crisis within the English NHS was suggested as a significant bar to him succeeding to the senior post previously held by Damian Green. Instead, Mr Green’s Cabinet Office role went to David Lidington but without the title of First Secretary of State.
Mr Hunt remained the centre of the drama by reportedly refusing to leave his post of Health Secretary to take up that of Business Secretary. A lengthy discussion on his role took place, with Mr Hunt emerging still Health Secretary and with responsibility for the government’s social care policy added to his portfolio.
Mr Hunt’s reluctance to move, meant that incumbent Business Secretary Greg Clark, tipped for demotion after some uninspiring performances, stayed in place.
The ramifications of Mr Hunt standing his ground unfolded when Justine Greening dramatically quit the government following a two and a half hour meeting with Theresa May, during which she was offered the post of Work and Pensions Secretary, having only recently taken control of the government’s struggling equalities policy within her former role.
Following her resignation, Justine Greening tweeted pointedly: “Social mobility matters to me & our country more than my ministerial career.”
As Mrs May’s options narrowed, even Andrea Leadsom – managed to retain her post as Leader of the House of Commons.
While other parties piled into attack the reshuffle, the Conservative’s press office managed to ignore the fact that ministers had quit and refused to be moved by claiming the Cabinet was the right team to lead the country. Bearing in mind that a few hours earlier the party’s own leader did not share that view, the statement demonstrates the depths of Theresa May’s humiliation and powerless state. Unable to move ministers she wanted to move and carry out the reorganisation she wanted, instead of new lamps for old around the Cabinet table, it appears that Mrs May has found the limits of her power and there has been much heat but no new light.
The party’s over for new UKIP AM
THE IDEA that UKIP is less a political movement than a long running feud has been given more credence by the Assembly group’s refusal to admit new UKIP AM Mandy Jones to their number.
UKIP has shed two AMs since the Welsh Assembly elections. Mark Reckless left to be with but not of the Conservative Party, while Nathan Gill, who left the group after being displaced by current leader Neil Hamilton, now departed to concentrate on the European Parliament after being notable for his poor attendance in Cardiff Bay.
Under the regional list system, Mandy Jones – the third choice UKIP candidate on the North Wales list – succeeded to Nathan Gill’s vacated seat on December 29.
Her succession to the seat was lauded by UKIP’s Assembly leader Neil Hamilton, who said: “We are looking forward to welcoming our new team member, Mandy Jones into the group. UKIP is stronger with an additional member in the National Assembly and on the front foot in Wales. We are looking forward to 2018, where we will be even more active and vocal, as we continue to stand up for the people of Wales against the cosy Cardiff Bay consensus.”
However, having been on the front foot UKIP now seems to have taken two steps forward and one step back.
A press statement released by the part on Tuesday (January 9) said: ‘After discussions with Mandy Jones, AM for North Wales, we have collectively and unanimously decided that she will not be joining the UKIP Group in the National Assembly.
‘Despite being asked by all five members of the Group not to do so, she has chosen to employ individuals in her office who are either members of, or have recently campaigned actively for, other parties, or both. They have been personally and publicly abusive to some of the UKIP AMs and sought deliberately to undermine UKIP Wales. Their behaviour and attitude makes it impossible to work with Mandy Jones on a basis of confidence and trust.
‘The UKIP Wales Group are united in this decision’.
The release repeated UKIP’s pledge to ‘continue to speak against the cosy Cardiff Bay consensus.’
That promise appears likely to be borne out, bearing in mind its inability to form a consensus with those elected under its party colours.
Those Mandy Jones has chosen to appoint to work with her were all members of former UKIP leader Nathan Gill’s staff.
WG announces £50m Brexit fund
FIRST MINISTER Carwyn Jones has announced a significant cash boost to help Welsh businesses and public services plan and prepare for Brexit.
The EU Transition Fund – supported by an initial £50m – will be developed in partnership with Welsh businesses, public services and other key organisations, to provide tailored support as the UK prepares to leave the EU.
The fund will provide a combination of financial support and loan funding, and will support the provision of technical, commercial, export-related and sectoral-specific advice for businesses.
In addition, the EU Transition Fund will be designed to help employers retain and continue to attract EU nationals, who make a crucial contribution to Wales. The fund will underline Wales’ welcome to people from other countries who have made Wales their home.
The fund will also provide dedicated development support for Wales’ agricultural industry as it prepares for transition and the future once the UK has left the EU.
First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “Brexit poses different challenges and opportunities for each and every aspect of Welsh life – from our local businesses and major employers, to our farmers, hospitals and universities.
“The EU Transition Fund will help meet the challenges that lie ahead. Developed in partnership with our businesses and public services, it will provide targeted and innovative support, which will help them survive and, indeed, thrive outside the EU.
“I am making an early announcement about this fund, so we have the greatest opportunity to design this fund with those organisations and businesses it is intended to help.
“My priority is to ensure Wales is in the best possible position to deal with the challenges and opportunities ahead. As a government, we are committed to providing solutions which work for Wales and we will continue to work with partners to make the most of every opportunity.”
The £50m EU Transition Fund is supported by an initial £10m down payment in the 2018-19 final budget. It builds on £5m allocated for Brexit preparedness over 2018-19 and 2019-20 as part of the 2 year Budget agreement with Plaid Cymru.
Responding to the announcement Welsh Conservative Brexit spokesman, Mark Isherwood said: “In the Autumn Budget the Chancellor announced an extra £3bn to help prepare the UK for Brexit and once again, Carwyn Jones and his Welsh Labour Government is playing catch-up.
“This is a small step in the right direction but sadly for Wales, since the referendum, the First Minister and his government has been in a state of paralysis, which has ensured that our country has been a step behind.
“I have long called on the First Minister to end his prophecies of doom and gloom over Brexit and provide the people of Wales with words of confidence, optimism and importantly a plan to lead our nation to success.
“Carwyn Jones urgently needs to up his game and ensure that Wales is sufficiently resourced and prepared to embrace the opportunities and tackle the challenges that lie ahead.”
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