Safety in Numbers… but for how long?

At a time when “post-truth” news is flooding our news and social media feeds, what does the future hold for research?

As the more observant ones of you may have noted in the “News in brief” sections of this week’s papers, a certain businessman-turned-TV-personality-turned-politician started his new job this week. Much has been made of his rise from joke candidate to terrifying prospect to terrifying reality – especially when it came to his creative interpretation of the truth – and he wasn’t alone.

So influential was “post-truth” in the shaping of 2016’s insane story arc that Oxford Dictionaries declared it the international word of the year. So, with reality seemingly collateral damage in favour of winning the argument, where does this leave good old fashioned research?

First and foremost, research should be viewed as a means of learning new points of view – not a vehicle for proving pre-existing opinions. It is not a coincidence that many of the greatest “post-truth” soundbites from last year did not contain numbers (apart from the famously fabricated “£350 million-a-week for the NHS” gem from the Leave camp prior to last June’s EU referendum), as these are usually easier to deconstruct, analyse and ascertain whether they fall into the ‘true’ or ‘false’ camp.

Now, clearly, there is rarely ever one absolute truth, and even trusty statistics can be warped to support a particular argument. Whatever country you’re in, whichever party you’re supporting, you can guarantee that in the months leading up to an election you’ll be showered with statistics on employment, the economy and immigration. Most of the time these statistics are hard to grasp theoretically and have even less meaning in a real-world scenario – as underlined by Professor Anand Menon’s recounting of a trip to Newcastle prior to the Brexit vote. Ultimately, what matters is how the speaker is able to transmit their own message through these statistics – and that is what led to the success of the Trumps and Farages of this world in 2016.

Only last weekWilliam Davies spiked this blog post with a (frustratingly) excellent article in the guardian on this very topic, listing a number of examples whereby the public has actively mistrusted official statistics. The article goes on to outline a near-future where traditional statistics – that is to say the “hypothesis – research – conclusion – behaviour” model – is overtaken by big data, where “data is captured first and research questions come later”, facilitated by the rapidly-growing ‘smart revolution’, which amasses data on everything from what you like on Facebook to when you’re most likely to buy your groceries.

As the article warns, there is no Office for National Statistics for this type of commercially-collected big data, and with no standardisation this data could potentially be vulnerable to abuse. With this shift in the way the public both perceives and interacts with data, could this see PR go to its own “post-truth” dark place and evolve into its own equivalent of the type of politics that dominated the headlines last year?

It may sound ridiculous, but so was a lot of 2016. In spite of all of the fake news and post-truth messaging flying around, many – barring those who have “had enough of experts” – still rely on new research to help better understand the world around them, so in 2017 it will be even more important for researchers, whether their focus is on the economy, climate change or public mistrust of research, to bring the truth to the public’s attention. The real challenge, however, is making them listen.

Written by Chris Jarvis, Head of Research

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