In life, as in politics, facts are not the whole truth
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’.1
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 per cent. ‘Look,’ he said to the faithful, ‘here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened.’2
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’.3 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.4 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.5
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.
Some of this glee over the failure of poll crunchers—especially Nate Silver—results from one of the correct calls he made: that Bernie Sanders would not—and very early on in the process, could not—win the Democratic nomination. It wasn’t a surprise that progressives this year hoped that Silver, having been shown to be accurate in 2012, would assure them not to worry about Trump. Where Silver made his mistake was in being too ready to accede to that wish. His readers wanted him to tell them not to panic and he was able to find enough statistical reasons not to.6
Silver fell into the mistake made by those whom he has often criticised of finding the data to match their conclusion. His call on Trump was wrong, and has led to a great many sneers at Silver, who has gloated too much about the ability of traditional columnists to get it wrong.7 But unlike most pundits who make wrong calls, Silver admitted his error—giving a swift backhander to pundits along the way in a post he wrote titled, ‘How I acted like a pundit and screwed up on Donald Trump’.8
Silver certainly did screw up, but not as badly as many progressives would like. Amid all the criticism is the sense that they wish he (or the polls at least) had also been as wrong about Bernie Sanders. But whether or not Silver got it wrong is rather unimportant, and certainly no less so than when he got it right. Silver is excellent at what he does, but what he does is just the same thing that he has loudly criticised ‘pundits’ of doing—horserace journalism.
If you are going to report on polls, you might as well apply some statistical rigour9 rather than idiotically suggesting a 1 per cent movement is a ‘surge’.10 But good race calling is still just race calling. Where this becomes an issue is when it translates into thinking that political journalism should be judged by its ability to pick the winner.
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?’11 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 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’.12 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. It is therefore not surprising that Sanders’ supporters found Silver to be a spokesperson for the status quo.
The glee associated with the wonks failing was such that it appeared their failure was evidence of the failure of the centrist path—of those progressives who worshipped too often at the temple of neoliberalism. As one who is firmly in the wonk camp, I find the scorn and even anger towards those professing to use scientific method does cause a degree of introspection. All writers should care whether or not their words matter. For someone who writes in the public sphere on political matters there is also the worry of whether you may actually be doing harm.
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 you are pushing the debate towards the centre—and being part of the movement that then pushes that centre ever more to the right.
Among the most common straw 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.
Elections might be about trust, but it is really a matter of who can convince voters that they are the most trustworthy. And as soon as we venture into belief, we are not talking about facts. But progressives should not be in too great of a rush to dispense with fact just because Trump won the nomination or the Brexit vote was won off the back of a pile of lies.
Such a situation already exists on the conservative side of politics where writers such as the Australian’s Adam Creighton have argued for less evidence and more ideology-based policy.13 Such a stance might please the anti-democratic14 on the right and left, but a progressive side willing to abandon facts will soon abandon any right to support. Facts might be contestable, but without them we quickly find ourselves in the territory of might is right. And if they are honest, most progressives who argue for the sidelining of the facts know this, which is why they really don’t have their heart in it.
Alex White, the secretary of UnionsACT, for example, is one who has championed the end of fact-based arguments and argued rather that progressives should follow the work of thinkers such as George Lakoff15 and rely instead on moral or value-based arguments. But his own argument relies—with some knowing irony—on using evidence-based science.16 And as White himself admitted, the argument really is not so much values and morals only, but more ‘talk values first, facts second’.17 For those like me who are no doubt viewed as standard bearers for the mocked centrist wonks, such a concept is hardly revolutionary or foreign.
It might be true that Thomas Piketty and Ezra Klein have become overhyped celebrity wonks,18 but the reality is progressives need evidence-based policy more than do conservatives. Anecdotes may reveal discrimination exists in the workplace, but analysis of data can reveal that discrimination is widespread and which industries are more prone to abuse—and help those fighting such abuse better to target their campaigns.
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.19 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 progressive 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.
There is also danger when the wonks and fact checkers step so far back in order to adopt an objective academic viewpoint that they are no longer able to observe the point. A perfect example was when columnist for Vox.com Matthew Yglesias tweeted on the night of the Australian election, ‘Australia hasn’t had a recession in 25 years, but economic anxiety is sending Pauline Hanson back to the Senate.’20 When you think GDP growth solves or explains everything, you need to reassess your analysis.
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 some anodyne approach.21 Even the best grassroots organisations—such as the Fight for 15 in America—make use of facts to support their case.22 But the Fight for 15 movement is also a classic case of the dangers of a total slavishness to wonkery—and a warning to progressive wonks that their adherence to objectivity may work against their own cause.
Numerous economic writers regarded the push for a national minimum wage of $15 in the United States as futile. Dylan Matthews, writing in 2013 for the Washington Post’s WonkBlog, cited study upon study to suggest no-one could really say what the impact would be—good or bad. As a result he argued—to cite the headline of the article—‘A $15 minimum wage is a terrible idea’.23 It’s not really surprising that an economics writer would take such a stance. Economics is much better at seeing things as they are and asking why, than it is at dreaming things that never were and asking why not.
That’s why many Bernie Sanders supporters turned up their noses at articles that suggested his economic plan would not be able to deliver the growth he predicted.24 Of course, they argued, such growth hadn’t been achieved in the past because no-one had tried to do with government spending what Sanders was trying to do. That doesn’t mean the wonks were wrong, but it did show the failure of facts to convince in cases where people believe the underlying assumptions are faulty. 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.25 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 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.26
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.27 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?
I have done such fact checks when looking at wages growth (lower under the Fair Work Act than under WorkChoices) and industrial disputes (the same). And while there is validity in suggesting such things are economically good, it does also see you arguing on the turf of the conservative side—that an IR system with low wages growth and low industrial disputes is an intrinsic good.
Thus progressive wonks need to be on guard, but also not be overly self-flagellating (plenty of progressives will do the whipping for them). For the wonks, I would argue, have also achieved recent success in the policy debate. Over much of the past 30 years, negative gearing was considered sacrosanct—political poison to touch. Yet in recent times reports by organisations such as the Australia Institute, the Grattan Institute and fact-based articles by writers, including me, argued that the policy needed to be changed.28
Such articles and research not only suggested sound economic reasons for changing the policy, but also evidence that it need not be politically disastrous. The lack of any real sense of electoral harm to the ALP by adopting this policy would suggest that sometimes the wonks can lead the way—especially when coupled with the moral argument that people should be able to afford to buy a home.
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 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 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—on GDP, climate temperatures or any other data—are not the only truth in life, or politics.
1. ‘Our Clinton Nightmare’, Politifact, 6 September 2012, <http://www.factcheck.org/2012/09/our-clinton-nightmare/>.
2. Bill Clinton, ‘Speech to the Democratic National Convention’, 5 September 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/05/us/politics/transcript-of-bill-clintons-speech-to-the-democratic-national-convention.html>.
3. Commission of Presidential Debates, Third Presidential Debate, 22 October 2012, <http://debates.org/index.php?page=october-22-2012-the-third-obama-romney-presidential-debate>.
4. Peggy Noonan, ‘Monday Morning’, Wall Street Journal, 5 November 2012, <http://blogs.wsj.com/peggynoonan/2012/11/05/monday-morning/>.
5. Neil Paine, ‘Hey, at least the cavs might not get swept’, FiveThirtyEight, 6 June 2016, <http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/hey-at-least-the-cavs-might-not-get-swept/>.
6. Nate Silver, ‘Dear media, stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls’, FiveThirtyEight, 23 November 2015, <http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/dear-media-stop-freaking-out-about-donald-trumps-polls>.
7. In 2012, Silver observed in an interview for ‘Google DC Talk Series’ that ‘punditry is fundamentally useless’, Mike Allen, Playbook’, Politico, 13 December 2012, <http://www.politico.com/tipsheets/playbook/2012/12/hill-aides-change-plane-tickets-due-to-cliff-nate-silver-punditry-is-fundamentally-useless-bush-43-to-be-grandpa-in-spring-purdum-vilsack-bernanke-bday-009656>.
8. Nate Silver, ‘How I acted like a pundit and screwed up on Donald Trump’, FiveThirtyEight, 18 May 2016, <http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-i-acted-like-a-pundit-and-screwed-up-on-donald-trump/>.
9. Greg Jericho, ‘The War the Bloggers Won’, Inside Story, 23 August 2013, <http://insidestory.org.au/the-war-the-bloggers-won>.
10. Philip Hudson, ‘Surge puts PM on cusp of victory’, Australian, 27 June 2016.
11. Matthew Knott, ‘Election 2016: The uncomfortable truth is the media got it wrong. How did we do it?’, SMH.com.au, 6 July 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2016-opinion/election-2016-the-uncomfortable-truth-is-the-media-got-it-wrong-how-did-we-do-it-20160705-gpzatm>.
12. Benjamin Ginsberg, ‘Polling and the Transformation of Public Opinion’ (paper), distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, Washington, DC, 1982.
13. Adam Creighton, ‘Ideology-based policy is what this nation needs’, Australian, 9 November 2012, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/ideology-based-policy-is-what-this-nation-needs/story-fnc2jivw-1226513334934>.
14. For example, Creighton wrote in a column in the Australian in 2012 that democracy was ‘probably not sustainable’: A Creighton, ‘Joe Hockey on the right track, if slightly idealistic’, Australian, 20 July 2012, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/joe-hockey-on-the-right-track-if-slightly-idealistic/story-fnc2jivw-1226333744455>.
15. George Lackoff, Don’t think of an elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate—-the essential guide for progressives, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vt, 2004.
16. Alex White, ‘Using evidence-based science for effective communications’, Alex White blog, 6 July 2014, <http://alexwhite.org/2014/07/using-evidence-based-science-effective-communications/>.
17. Alex White, tweet, 12 February 2014, <https://twitter.com/alexanderwhite/status/433733291082924032>.
18. See, for example, Jason Wilson, ‘Graphs are no longer enough: It’s time wonks and experts joined the fight’, Guardian Australia, 21 June 2014, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/21/graphs-are-no-longer-enough-its-time-wonks-and-experts-joined-the-fight>.
19. John Cook, ‘Ten years on: How Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” made its mark’, the Conversation, 30 May 2016, <https://theconversation.com/ten-years-on-how-al-gores-an-inconvenient-truth-made-its-
20. Matthew Yglesias, Twitter, 2 July 2016, <https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/749336541152047104>.
21. For example, Greg Jericho, ‘You’re not a “bludger” if you pay no net tax in Australia’, Guardian Australia, 12 May 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2016/may/12/youre-not-a-bludger-if-you-pay-no-net-tax-in-australia>; and Greg Jericho, ‘The truth about “bludgers”: Welfare dependency in Australia is falling’, Guardian Australia, 12 February 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2015/feb/12/the-truth-about-bludgers-welfare-dependency-in-australia-is-falling>.
22. The Fight for 15, and other organisations such as 15 Now and the 15 and Fairness, frequently cite data and economic studies. On Fightfor15’s Facebook page among the shareable memes are numerous data—such as ‘42 percent of US workers make less than $15 an hour’ or a graph that shows that ‘a half-million minimum wage workers have college degrees’.
23. Dylan Matthews, ‘A $15 minimum wage is a terrible idea’, Washington Post, 22 June 2013, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/06/22/a-15-minimum-wage-is-a-terrible-idea/>.
24. Chief among such views were those proffered by Paul Krugman in his New York Times blog, such as ‘What has the wonks worried’, New York Times, 17 February 2016, <http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/what-has-the-wonks-worried/>.
25. Greg Jericho, ‘Abbott’s paid parental leave will do little to bring women to the workforce’, Guardian Australia, 10 March 2014, <https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2014/mar/10/abbotts-paid-parental-leave-will-do-little-to-bring-women-to-the-workforce>.
26. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Is government spending today higher than it was in the GFC?’, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-31/fact-check-is-government-spending-today-higher-than-
27. Koukoulas wrote a series of tweets regarding the ABC’s Fact Check. See, for example, <https://twitter.com/TheKouk/status/737750354628988929?lang=en>.
28. For example, Greg Jericho, ‘Negative gearing: A legal tax rort for rich investors that reduces housing affordability’, Guardian Australia, 19 March 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/business/grogonomics/2015/mar/19/negative-gearing-a-legal-tax-rort-for-rich-investors-that-reduces-housing-affordability>; and Michael Janda, ‘The myth of “mum and dad” property investors’, ABC’s The Drum, 24 September 2014, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-24/janda-the-myth-of-mum-and-dad-negative-gearers/5766724>.