Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
I understand it has been a long time. I wanted to update you all as to what I have been doing and thinking over the past nine months, on my political affiliations, statistical accuracy, online debating, misconceptions around the EU referendum vote, and my plans for the future.
After the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, I decided to leave the Conservatives, a party for which I had been a relatively active campaigner. This decision was not taken due to the result of the referendum, but the quality of the debate, and the conduct of various ministers throughout that campaign.
As a data analyst and statistician, I take statistical accuracy seriously, and I believe it is incumbent on influential people and institutions to correctly use official statistics, with all necessary limitations and caveats explained.
The Vote Leave campaign used a “core number” (to quote their Chief Executive) of £350 million, which is supposed to be the weekly amount the UK “sends” to the European Union. This figure was used in campaign literature, articles, radio interviews, television debates, digital display advertising, social media posts, and plastered on the side of a large red battle bus.
The problem with this “core number” is that the common description and usage of this number is inaccurate and misleading. This figure (£350 million) refers to the UK’s weekly formal membership fee (rounded down to the nearest £50 million). Since the “rebate” (alternatively called the abatement or correction) is deducted immediately, this amount never crosses the exchanges and is never sent to the EU. In addition, the EU sends monies back to the UK for various programmes, so the pre-rebate gross contribution is not the same as the amount we actually send to the EU, and nor is it the same as any fiscal gain (assuming no dynamic effects of leaving the EU) the UK might make.
Also, Michael Gove, then the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, stated a plain falsehood over this weekly contribution in a live television interview.
(Video: YouTube: rpmackey)
In normal times, a Cabinet minister stating an explicit falsehood, and then refusing correction, would have resulted in some sort of negative consequences. However, the standard conventions of our parliamentary system appeared to be suspended. The falsehoods over this very simple matter — how much the UK sends to the EU each week — persisted, propagated repeatedly by Conservative Cabinet ministers.
In addition, I found myself disturbed by the level and viciousness of the infighting on the Conservative backbenches, where back-benchers were accusing each other of engaging in conspiracies. The Vote Leave campaign also pushed a conspiracy theory about the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney in the late stage of the referendum campaign.
(Video: YouTube: Vote Leave)
Ultimately, the combination of statistical inaccuracies, conspiracism and populist rhetoric utilised by Conservative Cabinet ministers made my position within the Conservatives feel untenable.
None of these statements should be taken to imply that I believe the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign is somehow beyond criticism. In response to Vote Leave’s “core number”, the Stronger In campaign attempted to create one of their own, by repeating the central estimate for forecasted GDP loss per households (by 2030, in 2015 household volumes, in 2015 sterling) from the Treasury analysis on leaving the European Union.
This amount is a forecast, made under particular modelling assumptions, but was presented as the totality of costs per household relating to leaving the European Union. Indeed, it could be easily misconstrued as a loss of household disposable income. I felt incredibly uneasy having to deliver leaflets that contained this figure, particularly when unqualified by any detailed information.
Ideally, instead of being a party campaigner, I would like to be active and involved in campaigns around statistical accuracy in political discourse. Nevertheless, I hold my local Conservative party in high esteem, and wish them well in future elections.
Whilst knocking on doors and talking to strangers can be stressful, my typical means of debating people through social media. From the campaign, and the years that I have run this blog, I have come to some conclusions about why online debating can be so futile.
I have written previously on how debating argot is misused. Commonly, people will refer to an ‘ad hominem’ attack, when what they really mean is an insult. Ironically, burying a discussion under a mountain of misused debating terms is actually obstructive to a proper debate.
Someone even claimed I was making an “indefensible” “ad hominem attack” on them for seemingly implying they were interested in the issue they were making a long comment about. That’s not even an insult.
There was an odd discussion I had where someone simultaneously claimed that the £350 million figure used by the Vote Leave campaign was “factual”, and it is “accurate” that the rebate is deducted prior to the money being sent. These two statements cannot be true at the same time.
Whilst there are common misconceptions, the falsehoods that some people believe can be really, really strange. For instance, I found someone who honestly believed there is no English version of Article 50 TEU. Yes, yes, there is.
Even yesterday (and I am aware of the date, but they had asserted it before), I found someone who truly believed that people do not vote differently in local and general elections. Yes, they do. It’s called split-ticket voting.
There was a strange discussion I had — with a university professor, no less — where this person was convinced economies of scale in education do not exist.
I got into a rather heated discussion with two people, who were both insistent there was no real (non-spurious) association between education level and voting to leave the European Union.
In one corner, we have analyses of actual EU referendum results by local authorities and wards, polling and panel studies on this issue, and years of psephological research linking education levels to authoritarian social attitudes. In the opposite corner, we have one person offering pure assertion and the other a handful of conversations with Remain and Leave voters.
Well, the choice is clear.
I do not discount myself from this: I am rather pessimistic, and I get frustrated when people persist with false beliefs. What extra intelligence and tuition earns some people is the ability to be even more elaborate with their biases.
For example, a ‘debate’ can go in the following manner: an intelligent person describes their own position as the default and prior belief, and demands you provide countering evidence; once that evidence is provided, they dismiss it as irrelevant, and re-assert their prior belief; the cycle continues until you give up. Sometimes, this will involve a demand of evidence they cannot reasonably believe exists. This gives the intelligent, but biased, person in our intrepid tale the veneer of participating in a ‘debate’, without actually discussing anything of importance or real value.
Unsurprisingly, the cloak of anonymity provides some people with the sheer bravery they need to call a complete stranger names. In my experience, this has ranged from the merely insulting (“fat”, “stupid”, “narcissistic”, “d***head”), to the downright abusive (“f*** off”, “liar”, “idiot”, “Remainiac”, “traitor”).
I do not respond well to this name-calling. As a matter of returning to this blog, I will be limiting comments to 28 days after the post is made, as one of my earlier posts attracted comments that I was propagating “false, bullshit, misinformation”, for stating the demonstrable truth that later episodes of an anime series had higher ratings than earlier episodes.
Needless to say, being corrected in a public forum can be somewhat embarrassing. Some people respond to being corrected by avoiding the issue entirely, shifting and sliding their beliefs to whatever shadow the light of truth has yet to shine. Others just tell you to “f*** off” for daring to challenge their elementary misunderstandings.
This is not to say that debating things online is always an entirely fruitless endeavour. The problem is that some people do not wish to engage in polite discussion, do not wish to be enlightened, and are happy to maintain false and incongruent beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Given I have changed my mind on various political positions throughout the years, I have no issue with correcting any empirical statements when I get them wrong, nor shifting my political position if I believe available evidence no longer supports my previous stance. However, like the bird chipping away at the stone, people appear to change beliefs based on a slow erosion. It is the persistent act of debate, not a single instance, that can change a mind.
In the wake of a sui generis political event like the European Union membership referendum, various myths around the referendum have developed, that have particular political resonance for each side. What is frustrating that these myths fall away with rudimentary consideration.
History is supposedly written by the winners, so let us deal with the Leave side first.
16.1 million people voted Remain in the EU referendum. That is not an “elite” by any reasonable use of the term, and like the Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum and the Yes vote in 1975 EC referendum, exceeds the amount of voters for a political party in any general election. Remain voters are an electoral coalition, like Leave voters.
Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.
The reason that education was such an important factor in the EU referendum is because the campaign was not fought on the primary dimension of British politics (left-right), but on the secondary dimension (liberal-authoritarian).
It was beliefs in powerful authority (“take back control”) that were associated with voting Leave, which drove a weaker association between voting Leave and social grades and income. Breaking people out by these social attitudes reveals no clear, underlying relationship between income and voting Leave, in the British Election Study panel.
Next, the Remain side have some myths of their own.
Vote Leave were so clear about leaving the EU single market that the Stronger In campaign made a poster referencing this declaration.
Whether the referendum itself provides a political mandate for this policy, and whether leaving the EU Single Market is a good idea are two separate discussions. However, Vote Leave were clear about this particular intention.
Whilst it is true that two polls taken in the direct aftermath after the referendum showed Remain ahead, polling in the latter half of 2016 suggests little to no movement towards Remain. People are still as broadly divided on this issue as they were on June 23rd, with the vast majority of respondents believing the way they voted was still correct.
Contrary claims of a massive Remain swing appear to be based upon selective quotation of BPC member polls, or dependent on invalid, open-access voodoo polling.
Stated in that form, this is just a grotesque generalisation. However, some Remain voters (and some Leave voters, for their own purposes) extrapolate this statement from the relationship (previously discussed) between education level and voting Leave.
For explicit reference, this relationship is not about intelligence — as education is not the same thing as intellect — but about social values.
The most obnoxious phrase to be repeated since the EU referendum is the ‘will of the people’. When I consider my own politics, I am thoroughly an anti-populist.
What is meant by this phrase is that, during a particular campaign period, more people voted Leave than voted Remain in the national referendum. However, in a democracy, people are free to change their minds, and no particular expression of opinion or belief on a particular day binds a nation forever.
This is why we have regular elections to select our representatives in parliament. Throughout each parliament, matters of public importance are brought, proposals are made, inquiries and consultations are conducted, amendments are debated and legislation is passed.
For some Leave voters and campaigners, democracy has taken on a new definition: all must be subordinate to the referendum result, or be destroyed.
The House of Commons was the first in line, where sitting MPs were called “Remoaners” and “Remainiacs” for expressing entirely justifiable concerns about the government’s new policy. Next, when a British citizen raised a matter of British constitutional law in a British court, she was viciously abused on social media and received death threats, and the judges in that case were declared ‘the enemy of the people’. As the ruling was challenged, a march on the UK Supreme Court was planned, but later abandoned.
Because our membership of the European Union establishes rights and a source of legislation in the UK (“EU law”), leaving the EU extinguishes those rights and that source of law. The Referendum Act 2015 contained no effect based on the result of the referendum, as the effect of that law was to hold the referendum. As leaving the EU will change primary legislation, it requires Parliament to permit this action by the UK government. That is the ruling of both the High Court and the UK Supreme Court.
Next, for daring to seek to amend a Bill granting the government the power to leave the EU, petitions and placards went up calling for the abolition of the House of Lords. The House of Lords revises Bills: that is its function within our political system.
Most recently, a number of MPs have suggested that the BBC’s coverage of our exit from the EU has been too pessimistic, warning that its future “will be in doubt”.
We are leaving the European Union, but we do not cease to be a liberal, parliamentary democracy under the rule of law.
I aim to be regularly posting about official statistics and their usage in political discourse, as well as more general political posts. I doubt that this will be more regular than once a week, but there are many things I want to say. I want to be happy with what I’m posting, as well as commenting more regularly on the posts of others.
This is the dawn of a new day.