A very thought provoking article with this title
was published in the Guardian in the Journal sectionon 19 January
by William Davies. This section is sub-titled the long read, giving
authors chance to present a very detailed perspective on their theme.
provides a very detailed analysis of the current crisis facing statistics, and
the growing lack of trust in them as a source of truth, especially in the
political sphere. Statistics are suffering a decline in authority, as are the
experts who analyse them in the ‘post-truth’ world.
As Davies states: ‘Either the state continues to make claims
that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else,
politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and
intuitively true, but may ultimate be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes
mired in accusations of lies and cover ups’.
Facts v feelings
As Davies describes, the antipathy runs deep,
especially with those of a far-right persuasion, and we market researchers are
part of the supposed army of economists and statisticians rejected by voters as
being untrustworthy and somehow arrogant in their attempts to inform public
The public also feel that statistics,
numbers, do not represent them and their experience of the world. For example,
whilst data on the number of people in employment is collected, and now also on
underemployment, politicians tend to point to the former, whilst for many
people in today’s ‘gig economy’ the latter is the crucial issue. Similarly,
polling provides information on what the public feel about issues of the day,
but it is the application of statistics that provides the output.
simply collecting data on likelihood to vote provides nothing on the emotional
intensity people really feel about turning out to vote on the day. However, as
Davies argues many people respond warmly to qualitative
evidence – they may reject the data on immigration levels as untrustworthy, but
are more empathetic to stories of the plight faced by an individual migrant and
their family. Politics grounded on statistics is ‘elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments
in their community and nation’ - the politics of facts versus one based on
Politicians and technocrats have lost touch with what it feels like
to be an individual citizen. It’s that quant v qual issue, facts versus
feelings, as will be debated at a session at the MRS Annual Conference - Impact 2017next month (see my last blogon our latest Landmark Paper for more on this).
as Davies argues, the history of statistics since its emergence in the second
half of the 17th century as a key facilitator of a new government
perspective focussing on demographic trends demonstrates how they have enabled
people to understand society – the research undertaken by The Joseph Rowntree
Foundation and the national Census, being two long-lived examples in the UK. ‘Statistics would do for population what
cartography did for territory’.
Behind the curve?
Davies argues that the inability of statisticians
to keep pace with the changes in society over recent decades lies at the heart
of the current crisis. National figures fail to identify the polarisations that
exist within societies – successful economic centres, such as London, are a
world away from the plight of ‘rust-belt’ communities in other parts of the UK
when politicians take a macro, upbeat view of the overall British economy,
using indicators such as GDP and employment levels. We discussed this in the
context of social class at one oflast year’s IJMR Lectures.
A further threat to trust is the shift from
statistics emanating from public sources to ones collected by commercial
organisations. Here, we have often no knowledge they are being collected in the
first place, or what they say about us, ‘big data’ representing a different
type of knowledge, with a new mode of expertise – data is captured first and
the research questions come later. Confidentiality is the key to creating
commercial advantage. There is no equivalent of the Office of National
Statistics to put a seal of approval on them. Facebook, for example, can
analyse the data on billions of people, but has no incentive to reveal the
There is also the rise of a whole sector devoted to profiling
millions of Americans (and in other countries?) to create targets for political
campaigning. Again, the findings remain secret. All this sits uncomfortably with
campaigns, such as the Open Data Institute in the UK and MyData, to make data
publicly available or give citizens a right of ownership over the data they
generate. So, one of the most worrying aspects of a post-statistical society is
the privatisation of statistics.
Davis concludes that the battleground ‘is not between an elite-led politics of
facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still
committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the
ongoing disintegration of these things’. As market researchers, we are at
the centre of the storm, viewed as using our (derided?) expertise to provide
the statistics used by politicians that are perceived by citizens to be
painting a very different picture of the world as they see it, with little
compassion for their plight. We also know that we have encountered an
increasing challenge in predicting voter behaviour. We are also part of the new ‘big data’ world
where statistics are commercialised by large international corporates and
hidden from view, leading to anger and distrust with decisions based on
automated systems or where privacy concerns go unaddressed.
However, I’m sure
that at Impact 2017we will see many very positive stories where our work has
led to fresh insights that have led to societal challenges being addressed in
innovative ways, where real people having benefitted from our expertise in
designing research that really gets to the heart of a problem – whether quant
or qual, or preferably a blend of both to use the latter to add depth and
emotion to the former. We also need to ensure that we do keep pace with the
rapid changes taking place in our societies and do all we can to guide clients,
whether in the public or private sectors, to recognise the need to view things
We are proud of our evidence-based traditions, but we have to win
over an increasingly sceptical public by finding creative ways to regain and
retain their trust.