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Sep 18, 2016

The Guardian | World | Australia | Australian Politics: Down on Data: Facts are nt The Onlu Truth in Life, by Greg Jerico - September 18, 2016

Greg Jericho
If there was a high point in the reputation and significance of fact checkers, wonks and poll crunchers it came during the 2012 US presidential campaign. It was the election where former president Bill Clinton held court at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Miami for just under an hour.

Such was the avalanche of statistics that night that fact check site Politifact called it “Our Clinton Nightmare”, bemoaning the “effort required to run down his many statistics and factual claims, producing little for us to write about”.
The numbers just rolled off Clinton’s tongue – 4.5 million private sector jobs, 500,000 manufacturing jobs, 250,000 more people working in the auto industry, 3 million young people between 19 and 25 insured for the first time, health care costs rising at under 4%. “Look,” he said to the faithful, “here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened.”
It was the first Twitter presidential election, and thus the first campaign to feature the instant fact-check. It was the election in which Barack Obama cited fact checkers in the third presidential debate to counter Mitt Romney’s assertion that Obama had gone on an “apology tour”.
It was also the election in which the poll aggregators such as Nate Silver had put down their glasses by the time of that third debate, and called the race for Obama. It was the election where insiders such as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan came to grief, believing their finger on the pulse was more accurate than the polls.
It was a total victory for the wonks, the fact checkers, the poll crunchers.
Four years later we have Donald Trump winning the Republican Party nomination with a record number of fact-checked lies, the British voting to leave the EU despite all advice to the contrary, the local ABC’s own fact-checking unit being axed and Nate Silver’s 538 statistical site even getting the result of the NBA final series wrong.
What the hell? With this seeming failure has come no small amount of glee from progressives. While poll analysts and fact checkers are not the same, they do work on the same side of the street, and are the cause of much angst among progressives, which would seem odd given progressives as a rule generally perform better on fact checks.
After the recent Australian federal election, Fairfax’s Matthew Knott reviewed the media’s coverage, in which he admitted, “Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?”
The story that was seemingly missed was not a policy or a hidden funding cut, but the margin of victory by the LNP. But really, who gives a damn? If you think the prime role of your job as a journalist covering an election is to predict the results, then there is a lot more wrong than just whether or not your prediction was faulty.
But the devotion to polling and prediction is also a concern for progressives because inherently polls – and thus their analysis – reinforce the status quo. As US political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has noted, the growth of public polling has been “most damaging to the political fortunes of the groups that represented the interest and aspirations of the working classes”.
Without polling, politicians can only gauge voters’ moods on certain issues either through meetings with constituents, letters or through observing political actions such as protests, strikes or rallies. Polls can give equal weight to the attitudes of the uninterested and the politically active.
For the progressive wonks the worry is not so much about advocating policies or programs that are detrimental to society, but whether the need for data and evidence means your arguments are being ignored by those who matter (itself an issue for debate) and that secondly you are pushing the debate towards the centre – and also being part of the movement that then pushes that centre ever more to the right.
Among the most common strawman arguments is that the Brexit vote and Trump’s ascendancy prove that relying on fact-checking and wonks is doomed to failure. And there may be truth in that, but I’ve yet to hear anyone suggest that facts should be the only weapon used in a debate. No election – not even the fact-checking triumph of 2012 – has ever been won on the basis of who told the fewest lies. Similarly no policy debate has ever been won just because a group of experts did a review and someone tweeted a graph.
If you are arguing that there needs to be action on climate change, yes you’re going to need more than a graph to do it. But you’re also going to struggle without one. A concept as divorced from most people’s lives as is climate change needs at the very least to be fought with data – especially when the opposing side is doing its best to suggest their data shows there is no need to worry. Among the most influential examples was the ultra-wonky documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Did the film win the debate? Did its numerous graphs on climate change lead to global action that saw a price on carbon? Well no, but that’s not to say nothing was gained – more perhaps that progressives have a tendency to discredit their victories. Australia did implement a price on carbon.
Now perhaps the reason the ALP subsequently lost the 2013 election was because there was too much of an emphasis on data and economic neoliberalism and not enough talk of values. Or perhaps the main reason we no longer have a price on carbon is because the ALP lost the election after three years fanning a dumpster-fire of internal division.
Who can say. But the wonk critics do also have a point. Despite what the authors of books such as Freakonomics might attest, economics neither explains everything in life nor persuades. Fact-checking is particularly useless at countering prejudice. A graph on the improvement of GDP from immigration is unlikely to switch the votes of people from Trump or One Nation hostile to the very idea of foreigners.
While there may be some objective centrists, I would argue in Australia the progressive wonks – and I put myself in this camp – write as much with passion for a cause as they do with passion for facts. When I write an article to dismiss the claims regarding the numbers of welfare recipients, I don’t do it from some neutral point of view. I do it because people are lying in order to hurt the most disadvantaged in society. I’m not going to ignore the lie—and using facts to counter it is not I would argue some anodyne approach.
The adherence to data can easily lead the wonks to prefer the safety of the status quo. This was something I was conscious of when arguing against the Abbott plan for extending paid parental leave to full replacement-wage level for 26 weeks. I argued that such a plan would do little to increase women’s workforce participation (the aim of the policy), and that the money would be better spent on child care. I could see the moral argument that paid parental leave should be paid regardless of the parents’ income, but I could also see the moral argument that governments should aim to improve the standard of living for women with children. For me the better policy response was in broader childcare policy rather than an expanded PPL.
But the risk – as soon as you suggest factors such as the size of a budget deficit should be considered – is that such an approach will always see you favouring a more centrist position. Consider for example the common argument about government spending and the size of the budget. During the last election campaign Anthony Albanese argued that “spending is higher as a proportion of GDP today than it was under the global financial crisis”. The ABC’s fact-checking unit found that statement to be incorrect because in one year during the GFC government spending was marginally higher.
This set off quite a debate – especially online involving economist Stephen Koukoulas, who argued the ABC fact checkers had taken far too narrow a view of what constituted the GFC period. And yet to what end was the fight? Do progressives really care that the ALP spent less than an LNP government? Doesn’t that merely reinforce the conservative position that smaller government is better?
Progressives love to blame themselves. Rare is an election defeat by the ALP that does not result in great internal angst, gnashing of teeth and writing of books charting what went right and what needs to be done. Such self-reflection certainly is preferable to the view that it is always the other side or the media which that is at fault – or even worse, that voters are to blame. But the anti-wonk fight is a futile one. Progressives should not give up on the facts, if only because doing so cedes the space to the conservative forces.
The wonks themselves need, however, to watch whether their work is merely perpetuating a status quo due to a fear of the bold, or a disinclination to countenance an upset, or because the lines within which they fight have been laid out by the conservative side.
But mostly they need to be wary that their adherence to the data can see them lose sight of the greater truth: that despite what some might have thought in 2012, facts – whether they be on GDP, climate temperatures or any other data – are not the only truth in life, or politics.
This is an edited extract of an essay that appears in the spring issue of Meanjin, out 15 September. RRP $24.99, eBook $9.99