Non-partisan media & post-truth politics: Where to go from here

The petition to Restore truthful politics- create an independent office to monitor political campaigns recently asked supporters for their ideas on taking the campaign forward. Here’s my two pence:

An Office Electoral Integrity would be absolutely fantastic, but I think we could go even further to try and fundamentally change the way we hold national debates. The media has already done a good job of diagnosing its own problem here: when it attempts to report a debate in a fair and non-partisan way it follows the pattern of having two pundits, one from each side, taking it in turns to bash each other’s claims in a way that leaves the public — at least those that didn’t have a firm opinion already — with the impression that both sides are exaggerating/misleading in a roughly equal way. Both the public and the vast majority of journalists are simply not equipped to dissect complex arguments and separate out defensible claims from highly idiosyncratic ones. In takes years to become an economist, an expert in European constitutional law, or to really understand the legal and political context of international trade — how could the public be expected to analyse the respective worth of complex economic claims and counter-claims in the space of a thirty minute debate?

How do we fix that? To start with, how about making it part of the BBC’s charter to hold politicians and pundits to account in their use of statistics and research in a way that is effortlessly accessible for the public? A typical media debate would include frequent interventions from a non-partisan statistician or other relevant expert. The expert would identify weaknesses in both sides’ empirical claims and summarise them in an easily digested way.

It’s not just about statistics and unambiguously false or misleading claims (like saying “Britain sends £350m a week to the EU”, “EU accounts haven’t been signed off for twenty years” or, on the Remain side, “EU benefits are worth £3,000 per year to the average household”) there’s also a problem when comparing someone who is a complete maverick in their field with someone who represents an overwhelming consensus. A major example of this is climate change. The overwhelming majority of climatologists believe that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet whenever there’s a debate in the media it tends to be “Person X says this, but Person Y counters with this” so again you’re left with the impression that both sides are kind of equal. Whenever debates involving complicated evidence come up, the media should make it clear where the consensus lies. There are a small number of serious climatologists who reject the idea that human activity contributes to climate change — these people absolutely deserve a platform; sometimes the maverick experts are right and the expert consensus is wrong — but the public should always be clear that these people are outlying mavericks. It’s even more important for the public to be aware when the outlying maverick is actually lacking in any relevant qualifications: a maverick amateur rather than a maverick expert. Again, a maverick amateur might actually have some good points, but the media should wave a big red flag when presenting that person’s claims. The ideal would be if the BBC could be continuously conducting systematic polls with relevant experts on all the key questions of the day. I don’t think that would be particularly hard once a system was in place and both academia and the media recognised it as part of their public duties. There is often a shocking gulf between what the people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to studying a particular field know to be true, and what the people outside of that field believe to be true. There is so much more we could do tap into that ocean of often shy and media-unsavvy expertise instead of relying solely on the loud-mouthed rent-a-pundits who are only too happy to scream out their unexamined opinions to unwitting public.

Finally, and thinking long-term here, critical thinking should be the centrepiece of a revised National Curriculum. Children should spend a good portion of their school year repeatedly examining real-world media arguments — from all political persuasions — and identifying the ways in which their arguments are weak, with a particular focus on the use of statistics and experiments. No-one should grow up without having read something like Richard E Nesbitt’s Mindware, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, or Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto, if we want a citizenship fit for democracy.