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How can we make 2017 the year we fight for the facts?

Max Lin 2017-02-20 13:24:58

When I returned to live in the UK in 1984 after some years in Greece, people warned me not to get ill. Margaret Thatcher’s public spending cuts had shredded the National Health Service. I looked into it. Government spending on the NHS appeared to have gone up. When I told people this, they said I was wrong. The official statistics were lies. Everyone who worked in the NHS could tell you that services had been cut to the bone.

A historical review by the King’s Fund think-tank shows that there was indeed a real-terms increase in public spending on the NHS in England in 1984-85 and in the few years before that. The government statistics were right.

This did not mean that health services weren’t suffering. But that may have been for reasons other than cost-cutting: an ageing population was imposing an increasing strain on the system, or advances in medical science meant a rise in costs higher than general inflation, or people’s expectations had risen beyond what the NHS could provide. These are issues that still dog the UK’s health service and it might have been better to have spoken openly about them then.

I mention this to point out that people insisting on their own “facts” is not new; nor is it confined to the Donald Trump/Brexit-supporting camps. We all have our own versions of the truth, whether we consider ourselves liberals or conservatives, nationalists or citizens of the world. We hear what we want to hear. We suffer from confirmation bias, leaping on events that support our world view and rejecting those that do not.
Many argue that social media has contributed to people living in information bubbles, encountering only views like theirs. This is true, but it was true before Facebook and Twitter were invented. People listened to those who agreed with them and read newspapers that told them what they wanted to read.
Even outright lies, such as the recent one that Hillary Clinton ran a child abuse ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria, have always been around. People used to pass them on by word of mouth.
What is true is that social media has given partial facts or outright lies wider currency, and have increased the speed with which they spread. Lies and part-lies are damaging our political cultures, enforcing division and disastrously degrading the quality of public debate.
How can we make 2017 the year we fight for the facts?
First, we need to admit that it is not just the other side’s fault. We need to confess to our own partial truths too. Here is one of mine. In May, angry about a pamphlet that Brexit campaigners had put through my door, I tweeted: “#VoteLeave leaflet uses exaggerated £350m a week figure and falsely links prisoners’ voting rights to EU.”
The first part of my tweet was correct; the Leave campaigners claimed throughout the campaign that the UK paid £350m a week to the EU which could be used to fund the NHS. That was actually the gross figure, taking no account of either the UK’s rebates or the amounts the EU spent in Britain — and the Leave campaigners have since admitted that the NHS will not see all that money anyway.

But I was wrong to say there was no link between UK prisoners’ voting rights and the EU. It was the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU institution, that found that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting violated their human rights — hence my tweet. But I subsequently learnt that the European Court of Justice, which is an EU institution, had ruled that a jailed French murderer could be deprived of his right to vote: the ban was proportionate because of the seriousness of his crime. This implied that those imprisoned for less serious crimes could demand the right to vote, and that UK prisoners could avail themselves of this. So the Leave campaigners were right to link prisoners’ votes to the EU.
This leads to fact-seekers’ second task: find the truth. The wide availability of digital information means this has never been so easy. Everything is now available online if you look for it: court judgments, parliamentary research papers, official statistics, critiques of official statistics.
The internet has facilitated the spread of lies, but it has also made it far easier to discover and disseminate the truth. Will finding the facts be enough to turn back the mendacious tide? Of course not. But every movement has to start somewhere, and each trend is the agglomeration of the efforts of determined individuals. Let’s make fact-finding the battle of 2017.

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