Dear Leavers

Caroline Lucas’s new project, ‘Dear Leavers‘, bills itself as making up for decades of neglect by the British establishment of the groups who drove the referendum result in 2016. Leaving aside the telling and correct implication that a Green MP is a member of the establishment, it exemplifies a recurring rhetorical problem for the British centre-left.

To illustrate, here are some choice excerpts from the introductory article she wrote for the i: 

Nearly three years after people voted for drastic change, her Government has done nothing to address the grotesque levels of inequality and disenchantment with the status quo that helped drive the 2016 referendum result.

General election after general election, their voices are ignored and their votes simply don’t count. They recognise the democratic deficit within our winner-takes-all electoral system.

Most leave voters think politicians are out of touch. And I don’t believe Theresa May’s closed-doors negotiations will do anything to fix that.

Lucas’s approach appears to be one of speaking to ‘normal people’ and figuring out how she can sell the Green manifesto – wealth redistribution, electoral reform, a second referendum –  to them, rather than actually listening to them. She still doesn’t think “Brexit is the solution to the very real problems we face”, but thanks Leavers for “giving the establishment a kicking”. The solutions she presents are not amenable to change, only the rhetorical targeting.

Nowhere is this more clear than in her two paragraphs on immigration:

Even where the real blame lies with successive governments’ failures to build affordable and social housing, several people believed immigration had helped to make homes in their area unaffordable. As a proud advocate of what I see as our wonderful right to move freely across 27 other countries, this wasn’t easy to hear. But it’s crucial that politicians like me genuinely listen to these deeply-held concerns – and do something to address them.

Because when large numbers of people move somewhere, whether from Canterbury or Calais, it’s vital that local councils, schools and health services receive enough government funding to cope with increased demand. Everyone in our society – from new arrivals to people who’ve lived in their area for 80 years – needs a warm, safe, affordable home and quality public services they can rely on.

Translated into normal language, this can be summed up as “the real solution to immigration is not to reduce the number of immigrants, but rather to enact the policies we have been arguing for years”. Whatever this is, it does not much resemble listening – rather more proactive public relations.

Remainers, especially People’s Vote enthusiasts like Caroline Lucas, are often accused of being patronising. Here, the Dear Leavers project attemps to avoid being patronising but ends up sounding much more patronising in the processIt is reminiscent of “We’re sorry you had this experience” customer service: there is nothing we can do, so here are some platitudes to sweeten the pill you’ll have to swallow. The actual process of listening sounds a lot different to this. It typically involves rather more silence and learning from the listener, rather than just seeking a good way to phrase everything one already believes.

It is bad strategy, of course. But the secret here is that Dear Leavers is not addressed to Leavers at all. Rather, it is for the consumption of Remain voters, especially the faction who are convinced that the government’s refusal to implement their series of policies (usually nationalisation, increased welfare payouts, tax rises and so on) is what led to Brexit. In this model of the world, the 17 million Leave voters are just Green voters who haven’t been woken up yet.

Dear Leavers reassures hardline Remainers that they are listening to the poor, benighted, uneducated Brexiters, while conveniently editing out anything that might actually threaten their programme, such as leaving the European Union or reducing immigration. It is a simulacrum of a listening exercise, not unlike a government consultation about an already-decided policy. It is not for the benefit of those being listened to, but rather the purported listener, who will adopt a look of pious concern and go on to implement the ‘solutions’ they had planned already. What incentive do Leavers have to talk to the establishment, when they have already decided what they are going to learn from the experience?


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Against fact-checking

What does it mean to check a fact? It’s a more complicated question than it may seem.

Let us take a simple example.

The sky is green.

Here the speaker is asserting: there is such a thing as a sky; it can be attributed properties of colour; and we can know what that colour is. One can go outside, look up, and check the fact.

Let’s take a more complicated example, such as the one Channel 4 FactCheck dealt with today.

Men are more likely to be raped than be falsely accused of rape.

Some of the suppositions contained within this statement are quite uncontroversial. There is such a thing as ‘men’, and ‘rape’, and ‘false accusations of rape’. We can all accept this, and we can broadly agree on definitions of each of those things, even if we might disagree firmly about the relevance and prominence of each.

The tricky supposition is the probability function contained within the expression “more likely than”. The reader may note that rape and false accusations are both, at least in theory, capable of being recorded and studied, so she might look for some data on their prevalence. However, by ‘checking the fact’ of whether men are indeed more likely to be raped than be falsely accused of rape, here are the premises the checker must accept:

  1. It is possible to perform a valid statistical comparison on these two probabilities.
  2. The sources from which we might acquire statistics for such a comparison are capable of supporting such a comparison.

To assess the prevalence of male rape, Channel 4 uses the figures from the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which estimate a yearly figure of around 8,000 victims in the entire adult male population (about 0.05%, it adds helpfully).

To assess the prevalence of false accusations, Channel 4 has a more complex method. In its cheery mid-Atlantic dialect it notes:

“First up, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: there is no reliable data that exists to tell us how many people are accused of rape in day-to-day life.

“There are all sorts of environments — at work, at home, in public — where someone could make an allegation of rape, truthfully or otherwise, that may go unrecorded. If false, these accusations could have far-reaching and profound effects on the accused’s life, even if they never result in police or judicial action.

“But we can only analyse the data we have. So, for the purposes of this article, we will look at rape allegations that make it to the courts.”

This is quite a caveat. Already we have hurtled past assessing a comparable statistical population. We are no longer considering what proportion of men in the whole population are falsely accused; rather, it is what proportion of men who are prosecuted for rape are falsely accused.

Overall, in the CPS’ view, false allegations of rape are “serious but rare”. They estimate that there is one prosecution for a false rape claim out of every 161 rape cases prosecuted. That means — according to the best available data — false allegations make up 0.62 per cent of all rape cases.

I have written before about how it is possible for an instance of rape to fail to meet the criminal standard while still being a true allegation. In this instance, Channel 4 outlines the statistics – noting with considerable understatement that “the data we have is not always directly comparable” – and concludes as follows:

“But from what we can tell: yes, men are more likely to be raped than be falsely accused of rape.

“According to the most reliable data we have, the average adult man in England and Wales aged 16 to 59 has a 0.03 per cent chance of being raped over the course of a year (based on 2016-17 figures).

“The best data we have — the number of people prosecuted for making false allegations — suggests that the average adult man in England and Wales has a 0.00021281 per cent chance of being falsely accused of rape in a year. (That’s based on 35 prosecutions for false rape allegations in 2011 compared to 16.5 million men aged 16 to 59 living in England and Wales at the time).

“By this measure, a man is 230 times more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.”

This is tricky, but look closely. We are being asked to compare:

  1. figures from the Crime Survey of England and Wales on the prevalence of male rape in the whole population to
  2. the proportion of prosecutions for perverting the course of justice which succeed, which are a proportion of the whole number of prosecutions for perverting the course of justice, which are a proportion of rape prosecutions which fail in court, which are a proportion of all rape prosecutions, which were themselves selected from the whole number of rapes and alleged rapes which exist in society.

Then, that proportion is taken to be exhaustive of the entire population in the way that the Crime Survey data is (statistically) a sound sample of the entire male adult population. By making the comparison, then, we inevitably compare one definition of “false accusation”  (successful prosecution for perverting the course of justice) to a definition of “rape” (anonymous response to a crime survey) which is not easily compared.

It is rather as if we used the number of watches successfully repaired in a given year as exhaustive of the number of watches that break down, and then compared it to the number of people who reported in a survey that their computer crashed. Many watches are not discovered when they break down. Many are not repaired at all for reasons of expense or laziness. Many are simply disposed of and replaced. Either way, the figure is simply not reflective of the underlying reality in the way that the survey on computers is.

This is why the Crime Survey of England and Wales is taken to be a better picture of the number of sexual assaults, as many go unreported. To compare like with like, we would need the Crime Survey of England and Wales to ask a question along the lines of ‘Have you ever been falsely accused of rape?’ The Crime Survey of England and Wales does not do this, for many reasons – but unless and until they do, a comparison reconstructed from prosecutorial data is inherently flawed and of virtually no use whatsoever. The very act of fact-checking itself alters the question being assessed.

Channel 4 does, to a degree, recognise this and makes an effort to steelman the case against it.

“…let’s put the stats through an even stronger test.

“Imagine for a second that you believe that every single one of the men prosecuted for rape in England and Wales in 2016-17 was falsely accused.

“Even if that unlikely scenario were true, there would still have been more adult male victims of rape (8,000) than men prosecuted for those rapes they “didn’t commit” (5,190).”

Here we are not so much comparing apples and oranges as comparing apples and lamb chops. We are still comparing crime survey data to prosecutorial data, but now we have tossed away the notion that we are comparing likelihood at all. Logically, those rape cases which succeed at court are (one imagines) the most promising cases of all and have the best evidence behind them – consequently, those are the least likely to be false accusations. A more testing statistical steelman would be not that all prosecutions are false accusations, but that all reports are false, as many more cases are reported than prosecuted. This would be closer to – though still very far away from – the statistical standard we see in the crime survey data. Instead, in purporting to use a stronger test, it actually uses a weaker  one.

There is an even more serious concern. A slogan like “men are more likely to be raped than falsely accused” is not used neutrally. It is by its very nature only used when the prosecution of a rape case has inflamed passions, typically on social media. In that scenario, the relevant population for the question of false accusations is not ‘all men’, but ‘all men who are accused of rape’. It would sound ridiculous to ask “what proportion of men who are accused of rape are themselves victims of rape?”, of course. But the statistical comparison only works if the same controls are embedded in the data. Otherwise we are confounding ourselves with irrelevant statistics.

The trouble with fact checking is that by checking a ‘fact’ it endorses the epistemic framework in which the ‘fact’ is produced, e.g. that a putative comparison between the Crime Survey and prosecution records is a statistically valid idea in the first place. Fact-checking therefore is in the unenviable position of reproducing the questionable premises of the ‘fact’ it is checking. Channel 4 is unlikely to conclude by saying ‘we cannot know and any comparison purportedly based on data is meaningless’, but that is the only honest response. By assessing whether the data backs up the claim, however, it implicitly accepts that the data can back up the claim – and that apples may speak to oranges on equal terms. They cannot.

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Quick update

My piece about the numbers crisis in the Church of England has been rejigged for publication at the Church Times. You can read it here. It’s shorter and better so please share that one in preference to this one.

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You don’t get to two billion believers without making a few enemies

It may be worth reading 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 alongside this post.

The news that General Synod had taken evangelism off the agenda this year – yet again – rather reminds me of the notorious Politico article that did the rounds after the election of Donald Trump. Confronted with deep concern on the ground about the potential for Mr Trump to pull off a surprise in key states, Mrs Clinton’s campaign preferred to stick to the strategy they had crafted from the start – and take activists away from the very states they were warning were weak spots.

“… I think it’s true that the plan was accomplished,” said a former labor leader in the state. “But the plan was not the right plan.”

Every year seems to bring a new plan for the Church of England to shore up its ailing numbers: the Thy Kingdom Come prayer drive; the Just Pray cinema ad which was unceremoniously, and predictably, dumped by distributors; countless initiatives with patchy take-up and only an occasional relevance for diminishing congregations; church plants which bloom and die without a trace, bluebells in our spiritual desert. None have worked. An 81-year-old is eight times as likely to be a churchgoer as an 18-year-old. “Terminal decline” does not quite capture the problem: we are in a tailspin. Far from expanding our numbers, it will be a miracle – in a literal sense – if we maintain them. Moreover, our potential converts know very well that we are in trouble. People can smell fear – and fear does not an appealing religion make.

In this context, the Church seems to have adopted a marketer’s view of ‘selling’ Christianity to a population which sees no real need for religion. Research indicates secular people often rather like Christians, and are glad churches exist. They may not even have an active problem with the establishment of the Church of England. Yet they are no closer to the way, the truth and the life, and a Church which cannot reach them is failing in every aspect. No marketing campaign will work on this: even a fire-and-brimstone advertising campaign warning of the eternal consequences of continued apathetic atheism is likely just to put people off, even if it does get past the Church’s significant contingent of annihilationists (among whom I count myself a reluctant member) and universalists. The general population don’t believe us when we tell them about sin, much less about Jesus, and still less about His Resurrection. They certainly won’t believe stern warnings about the fires of Hell.

The marketing approach, positive or negative, seems misguided to me. By contrast, perhaps we should look to those institutions which are successful without marketing. For instance, it does not seem wholly coincidental that social networking sites are as powerful as they are in an atomised society. Organised Christianity’s decline has been a significant part of the wider trends towards a lonelier society. Accordingly, it seems if we are to arrest the collapse – and to do so we will really need to win some converts, and fast – we ought to learn from Facebook, not from Hillary Clinton.

That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, buying up ads or harvesting data through Cambridge Analytica. Facebook did not become one of the most powerful companies in the world through a savvy marketing campaign. That would be magical thinking: people’s brains are not simplistic electronics that can be hacked with the right combination of words and images. Facebook became one of the most powerful companies in the world because of two things:

  1. The product is well-designed for the audience to which it is aiming, i.e. everyone.
  2. Everyone else is on it (cf. Google Plus, Bebo and Myspace).

With this in mind, then, I think our best shot is as follows. First, it is critical that Christians actually go to church. The obvious problems of keeping the lights on aside, the Church needs an agglomeration effect in order to bring more people in. When people bring their friends and family to church, it must not feel like a ghost town (more like a Holy Ghost town – sorry). It is not enough for people to occasionally utter a prayer at night and sound off about how much they love Ecclesiastes on Twitter: they must go to church, every week, preferably without fail. I cannot say honestly that I am an exemplar in this, but it has become far, far too easy for Christians to write off their obligation to attend church. They cannot. It is existential. Just as ‘everyone else’ is on Facebook, ‘everyone else’ should be at church.

But, secondly, the church’s role (I use the lower case advisedly) is no less important. Church must be somewhere people feel they ought to go and don’t mind going. That is not the same as wanting to go. The people who want to go to church early on Sunday morning are a rare breed, and we should protect them (or ordain them). But most people will not want to go. It is not enough, then, that church should not be an objectionable place to be. It should full to bursting with the Spirit, steeped in the traditions that tickle at the back of the secular mind and facing the world in serene knowledge that it is the living conduit to the maker and sustainer of all things.

That means well-conducted liturgy, in traditional (or, at least, formal) style; that means organ music; that means intelligent preaching, borrowed from the Church Fathers where appropriate; that means sermons that are clear, comprehensible and brief; that means the congregation properly singing the hymns; that means smooth services that start and finish at the same time every week; that means offering a newcomer a biscuit and a cup of coffee, but introducing her to the churchwarden too. It means regularity, routine, familiarity and community. It also means, as far as possible, the avoidance of the most fatal emotion anyone can feel in church: embarrassment. The Church’s obsession with gimmicks, technological and liturgical, shuts out five normal people with a normal cringe reflex for every one oddity it attracts. One should never feel embarrassed about the Gospel.

None of this can be introduced by fiat. A letter sent by the Archbishops could make influential individuals in each church sit up and listen, but the truth is that any revival in the Church is dependent upon an effort among those we already have to observe their obligations. Come. Stay. Bring a friend. Bring your children. Do what you know in your heart that you have to do. You are a member of the Body of Christ: do as He did, and keep establishing the Church, every day, every week, every month. Not just at Christmas or Easter. Strengthen your community and perhaps, one day, God willing, the bums-on-pews figures might go up year-on-year, not down.


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First World Problems and waiting for Hitler

Spoilers for a recent Radio 4 drama follow.

Radio 4’s drama First World Problems, part of their ‘Dangerous Visions’ season, was a useful insight into what one might call mainstream eschatology. It envisions a future civil war in the United Kingdom, at some point in the mid-2020s following a financial crash. Scotland secedes and civil order breaks down. Republicans kick off – again – in Northern Ireland. Over the intervening months full-scale war breaks out: the drama follows the Fletcher family as they are pushed unceremoniously from their home in Manchester to Wales to Bristol to Birmingham while dealing with familial strife along the way. It’s a pretty smart piece of drama, if laden down with rather shrieky dialogue, an excruciating reference to Game of Thrones, and more than a few visits from Basil Exposition. The problems of dealing with a disabled child and an elderly grandmother are handled sensitively and without cliché, in probably the strongest character-driven parts of the drama.

The trouble is, though, that it is demonstrates a persistent habit among the creative classes in dealing with dystopia. David Runciman once referred to this tendency as “waiting for Hitler”: an excessive fondness for 20th-century models of dystopia, and a lack of imagination in how society and democracy might – will, eventually – collapse. First World Problems suffers a bit from the very thing that makes it compelling, namely the involvement of journalists from the Yugoslav wars in the writing process. The largest military power is called Greater England, without any explication of an irredentist ideology driving it (for example, it makes no effort to retake the secessionist Scotland except for the nuclear weapons at Faslane). Manchester, de facto capital of the Free English Territories, is laid under siege. Wales engages in severe ethnic cleansing of English residents (episode 4, which follows the family as they are forced to march out of Wales on foot, is the most grimly visceral and best-written episode of the series). By the time a nurse talks about an “incident” of mass war rape somewhere in the North, it begins to feel a little bit forced – not because these things don’t happen, but because the programme gave the impression of working from a Yugoslav checklist.

A more serious gap in the programme’s imagination is its failure to push the ethnic conflict as far as it could be taken. The British Civil War is a tremendously white ethnic conflict. The Serb-Bosnian model is used for the traditional South vs the traditional North, which simply is not a comparable situation. It is noticeable how much more chilling the ethnic cleansing of Wales is, partly because of the very well-handled linguistic barrier. The programme assumes that vague internal divisions resolve themselves into ethnic warfare, which pushes the model to breaking point and misunderstands the history of the Balkans.

By Episode 5, England’s substantial ethnic minorities finally get a look in, with the reappearance of the Croatian cleaner from Episode 1 and safe haven finally found – temporarily – in a substantial part of Birmingham seized by Islamic militias. Yet this idea is not handled very well: the notion that ‘Greater England’, an implicitly fascist military junta, is headquartered from London (White British population of around 45% at the last census), imagines that our civil war is taking place in the 1950s rather than the 2020s. A deep engagement with the consequences of a UK civil war might be unbroadcastable for reasons of sheer complexity, given the enormous diversity of British cities compared to their surroundings. An Islamic militia seizing large parts of Birmingham is one thing, but how would the Greater English ‘London’ cope with (for example) the secession of Tower Hamlets? What happens to the gangs in Northern cities, largely organised along ethnic lines and relatively well-armed?

It’s only a radio drama. And it’s well done. But a really ‘Dangerous Vision’ of a UK civil war would be as confusing and as all-over-the-place as the Balkan conflicts which inspired this one. As the UK becomes more diverse and ethnic relations become more complex, fiction serves an important role in elaborating the challenges society faces in simply staying together. To write out an eighth or so of the population in pursuit of a white North vs white South dynamic isn’t the science fiction we need. We cannot keep waiting for Hitler, because whatever comes in his place will completely blindside us if we do.

P.S. My favourite dystopia of recent years is Jack Womack’s tremendous 1994 novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, which handles ethnic tension in cities (New York, in this one) very well.

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Three reasons why you should not say the Voltaire quote

  1. He didn’t say it.
  2. Everybody says it.
  3. No you wouldn’t.

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The median and the message

How does the man on the Clapham omnibus stay in shape? NHS Choices has an idea.

It’s fairly reasonable for NHS England to worry about lazy weekends. The British population is very inactive, worrying given the extraordinary physical benefits of regular exercise. The limited effect of the UK’s public health campaigns urging us to take more exercise despite years of messaging is also undeniable.

The above tweet does helpfully illustrate a pervasive style that characterises most British public health messaging. You could fruitfully compare it to the five-a-day campaign, guidelines setting out the number of alcohol units men and women should respectively drink, even the laughable ‘Go for Gold‘ effort to reduce the potential carcinogenic effect of overdone toast. The easiest way to describe it is as rational: clearly linking a defined behaviour with a defined problem, and offering a solution with a different activity.

What I mean by this is best illustrated with a simple thought experiment. Consider the sort of person whose weekend is largely sedentary: football on the TV, alcohol in the pub or at home, fried food, transport largely by car. Then, ask: is this person likely to be willing to undertake a ‘sofa workout’ at all? To ask the question is to answer it.

To expand: NHS Choices appears ignorant of selection problems. The traits which lead to couch potato syndrome are precisely opposite to the traits which would induce someone to undertake exercise on the sofa towards a defined health benefit. The problem is not the activity being recommended, the problem is that the people most in need of exercise are also the least likely to be responsive to the prescription they get. The same is true of five-a-day campaigns. If you like, the sort of person who is likely to carefully mediate what they eat, count portions, plan meals and so on is probably quite conscientious and has a little above average intelligence; she probably has a university degree, or would have if she came of age after the expansion of higher education in the 1990s. In other words, the only people on whom the messaging works are the people who will be fine anyway. The marginal benefit is almost nil.

This strikes me as a particularly serious problem in nations like the UK, where virtually all policy of import in both the private and public sectors is designed by university graduates – who, by definition, are selected for above-average conscientiousness and above-average IQ. The trouble is that, by definition, half of the population have below-average IQ and below-average conscientiousness.  It might be natural to assume that this messaging will work if everyone around you talks casually about getting their five-a-day or their half-hour of exercise; when it comes into contact with the average person, it will likely be less effective. As a result, we see the same problems again and again: public advice made for homo economicus, who calmly, rationally and dispassionately analyses his habits to eliminate the bad and promote the good. It should not need to be explained that most people simply do not (and cannot) think in this way. Public health, without coercion, at scale, remains an unsolved problem.

To even begin to address this, it is not enough to “speak broadsheet to graduates“, but we have fewer and fewer interpreters as the intellectual selection processes for powerful institutions become stronger and more rigid. Our politics is increasingly designed for a particular grade of intelligence and for a particular set of habits of mind, so it becomes hard to see where the imagination necessary to cross the rationality gap might come from – and how the gap can even be pointed out to those too bright to see it.

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