Today I was involved in a Twitter argument with two Prominent Liberal Democrat Bloggers. I’ll leave their names and the precise details of the argument out, because it’s not germane (and also because I may inadvertantly misrepresent one of them in the very abbreviated precis that follows), although anyone who really wishes can look it up on Twitter. But the argument went something along the lines of:
Prominent Liberal Democrat Blogger 1: Sign this petition banning the distimming of doshes!
PLDB2 : But that says that studies show that distimming causes gostaks to go blind. In fact all the studies show it causes them to grow an extra foot!
PLDB1: That doesn’t matter! Just sign the damn petition! Distimming is wrong!
PLDB2: I’m not signing a petition with things in it that are demonstrably untrue!
PLDB1: But you can never be 100% accurate, so just sign the damn thing! Anyway, you can prove anything with statistics!
Me: Are you seriously saying that just because absolute inaccuracy is not possible, you shouldn’t make any effort to remove obvious falsehoods?
PLDB1: Don’t sidetrack the discussion! This is about distimming! Anyway, people will argue over anything, no matter what you do.
And then on, for many more 140-character responses, essentially going round in circles.
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this attitude recently – a couple of weeks ago there was a storm in a teacup over a famous campaigning organisation running a campaign for an excellent cause, but with a headline figure that was not very accurate. I won’t link to anything about that (although most politically-minded people reading this will have a good idea what I’m talking about), because I don’t want to give ammunition to the kind of people who will use the inaccuracy against the cause itself.
But the thing is, I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to choose between telling the truth and discrediting a worthy campaign. Using misleading or outright wrong facts is the kind of thing we excoriate the Mail or Express about, and we shouldn’t be doing it ourselves. Were the Mail to headline “75% of people think immigrants should be hanged!” then we’d be all over the article, tearing it to shreds, but the same people would be silent if they saw something saying “75% say ID cards are wrong”.
Citations of studies and statistics can be very useful, as can using raw numbers. Amnesty are currently campaigning to stop 128 executions in Iraq., for example, and that’s an important campaign. But it stands or falls on the 128 number, so they’ve ensured they’ve got it right. If it turned out there were only five people being executed, and the other 123 were being given free chocolate instead, Amnesty would quite rightly argue that the death penalty is still wrong, and that any executions are too many. But they would look idiotic. (Sadly, this is not a case where the numbers are wrong…)
We need, as ‘progressives’ (whatever that very devalued word still means) to be at least as strict with ourselves as we are with the other side. In particular, we need to acknowledge unpleasant evidence. We can’t say, for example “Cannabis should be legal, as it’s harmless” – it’s clearly *not* harmless, as the many people suffering from cannabis psychosis would attest. But we *can* say “Cannabis should be legal, *even though it can cause harm*, as the harm it causes is less than the harm caused by denying adults the right to do as they wish with their own brains”. Saying “the minimum wage doesn’t have any negative effect on jobs” is wrong – the minimum wage clearly prevents the creation of some small number of very low-paid jobs. But saying “the overall positive effect of the minimum wage – which prevents workers from living on starvation-level incomes – more than offsets its small negative effect” is truthful.
If our arguments are right, we don’t need spurious pseudo-evidence to back them up, and if they’re wrong we shouldn’t be making those arguments in the first place. Using factoids, rather than facts, is one of the things that makes people think ‘they’re all the same’ – because sooner or later one of those factoids will contradict the listener’s personal experience, and s/he will write the source off as a liar.
We can’t get everything right, but it’s not difficult to find a reliable source for any statement of fact you make (if it can be done for Wikipedia it can be done for a political campaign or petition) and if you do find such a source, at least you can then say “It was in reliable newspaper X or peer-reviewed journal Y”, rather than imitating Reagan and saying “facts are stupid things”.