Spectator editor Fraser Nelson has 'always been fascinated by the way statistics shape public debate'. But like many today, he is worried by the ease with which fake facts are pedalled to, and accepted by, the masses.
In an address to RSS Conference on Thursday, he despaired at how misinterpretations and falsehoods gain rapid virality – especially those that the present the world, our society or a particular issue in an unfairly negative light.
'People are simply more interested in reading stories about things going wrong,' said Nelson. We are receptive to this negativity, whether it appears in the news media or through social networks. And because of this innate preference for doom and gloom, 'fake statistics have such virality'.
Riffing on the work of the late Hans Rosling, Nelson argued that we are living through 'a golden era of progress'. He said the frequently heard claim that people in their 20s are now poorer than those a generation ago was not supported by data from the Office for National Statistics. And yet 'facts' such as these have come to define the narrative surrounding the 'millennial generation'.
Nelson began his career as a financial journalist, which is where he gained an affinity and appreciation for numbers. In finance, he said, you could often rely on reported facts and figures as being correct as it is illegal for companies to lie in their financial disclosures (and Enron-type accounting scandals are fortunately rare).
Later, on becoming a political journalist, he admitted to being left 'open mouthed' with shock at the ways in which politicians stretch statistics and data to the point of snapping in order to score political points. Referencing the RSS tagline of 'Data | Evidence | Decisions', he said politics often operates on the basis of 'Decisions | Evidence | Data' – or 'policy-based evidence', rather than 'evidence-based policy'.
Quoting the Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, Nelson concluded: 'Unless we understand how the numbers are put together, and what they mean, we run the risk of seeing problems where there are none, of missing urgent and addressable needs, of being outraged by fantasies while overlooking real horrors, and of recommending policies that are fundamentally misconceived.'
- Fraser Nelson’s talk was titled 'Fake stats: mythmaking in the digital media age'. He was speaking in the session 'Communicating statistics in a post-truth age'.