Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats those challenging the creed as dangerous
In October 1517, an unknown Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther changed the world when he grabbed a hammer and nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation started there.
The tale of how the 95 theses were posted is almost certainly false. Luther never mentioned the incident and the first account of it didnt surface until after his death. But it makes a better story than Luther writing a letter (which is what probably happened), and thats why the economist Steve Keen, dressed in a monks habit and wielding a blow up hammer, could be found outside the London School of Economics last week.
Keen and those supporting him (full disclosure: I was one of them) were making a simple point as he used Blu Tack to stick their 33 theses to one of the worlds leading universities: economics needs its own Reformation just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago. Like the medieval church, orthodox economics thinks it has all the answers. Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luthers time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin. Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics.
Keen was one of those heretics. He was one of the economists who knew there was big trouble brewing in the years leading up to the financial crisis of a decade ago but whose warnings were ignored. The reason Keen was proved right was that he paid no heed to the equilibrium models favoured by mainstream economics. He looked at what was actually happening rather than having a preconceived view of what ought to be happening.
Somewhat depressingly, nothing much has happened, even though it was a crisis neoclassical economics said could not happen. There was a brief dalliance with unorthodox remedies when things were really bleak in the winter of 2008-09, but by late 2009 and early 2010, there was a return to business as normal.
The intellectual monopoly is something of an irony given how central the idea of competition is to orthodox thinking, but it is a sad fact as the preamble to the 33 theses notes that the neoclassical perspective overwhelmingly dominates teaching, research, advice to policy, and public debate.
Many other perspectives that could provide valuable insights are marginalised and excluded. This is not about one theory being better than another, but the notion that scientific advance only moves ahead with a debate. Within economics, this debate has died.
That debate needs to be rekindled. A more pluralist approach would take account of the complexity of markets, the constraints imposed by nature and rising inequality. So what needs to be done?
Firstly, listen to consumers, because it is pretty obvious that they are unimpressed with what they are getting. The failure of the economics establishment to predict the crisis and its insistence that austerity is the right response to the events of a decade ago has meant the profession has rarely been less trusted.
Of course, there were economists who got it right and some of them Paul Krugman, for example wielded real influence. But it should have come as little surprise that when it came to the Brexit referendum, voters took the warnings from the UK Treasury, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England with a very large pinch of salt. After all, not one of these august bodies armed as they were with their general equilibrium models saw the deepest recession since the second world war coming, even when it was already under way.
It is welcome news that discontent is bubbling up from below on university campuses. True, the prestigious academic journals remain in the hands of the old order and in economics faculties there is strong resistance to change but increasingly students are showing their frustration at being told to learn and regurgitate economics that is not just narrow and of little relevance, but also plain wrong. Of the 33 theses pinned to the LSE, five involved the teaching of economics, with demands to be taught history and economic thought, and for the monopoly of the status quo to be broken.
One of the theses demands that economics must do more to encourage critical thinking, and not simply reward memorisation of theories and implementation of models. Students must be encouraged to compare, contrast, and combine theories, and critically apply them to in-depth studies of the real world. The fact that students feel the need to say this is a terrible indictment of the way economics is being taught, and their discontent negates the idea that this is just whingeing from aggrieved Keynesians.
Secondly, we should stop treating economics as a science because it is nothing of the sort. A proper science involves testing a hypothesis against the available evidence. If the evidence doesnt support the theory, a physicist or a biologist will discard the theory and try to come up one that does work empirically.
Economics doesnt work like that. Theories can be shown to work only by making a series of highly questionable assumptions such as that humans always behave predictably and rationally. When there is hard evidence that disputes the validity of the theory, there is no question of ditching the theory.
Thirdly, economics needs to be prepared to learn from other disciplines because when it does the results are worthwhile. One example is the way in which auto-enrolment has increased pension coverage. If humans were truly economically rational, it would make no difference whether their employers automatically enrolled them into pension schemes: they would decide whether to join schemes on the basis of whether they deemed it worth deferring consumption until they had retired. Yet, basic psychology says this is not the way people actually act. They are far less likely to opt out of something than they are to opt into something.
Fourthly, economics needs to be demystified. One of the big battles between Catholics and Protestants in mid-16th century England was over whether the bible should be in Latin or English, a recognition that language matters. The easy part of an economic Reformation is to attack the current establishment; the difficult part is to present a compelling story without resorting to jargon. Control of the narrative as George Osborne realised when he criticised Labour for failing to mend the roof while the sun was shining is crucial.
At the launch of the 33 theses last week, Victoria Chick, emeritus professor of economics at University College London, put it this way: The economics mainstream has the hallmarks of certain religions. They think they have the truth. But read for yourself and think for yourself. Change has occurred before and it can occur again. Shes right. It can.
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The correspondence, dating from 1949 to 1954, was found by an academic in a storeroom at the University of Manchester
A lost collection of nearly 150 letters from the codebreaker Alan Turing has been uncovered in an old filing cabinet at the University of Manchester.
The correspondence, which has not seen the light of day for at least 30 years, contains very little about Turings tortured personal life. It does, however, give an intriguing insight into his views on America.
In response to an invitation to speak at a conference in the US in April 1953, Turing replied that he would rather not attend: I would not like the journey, and I detest America.
The letter, sent to Donald Mackay, a physicist at Kings College London, does not give any further explanation for Turings forthright views on America, nor do these views feature in any of the other 147 letters discovered earlier this year.
The correspondence, dating from early 1949 to Turings death in 1954, was found by chance when an academic cleared out an old filing cabinet in a storeroom at the University of Manchester. Turing was deputy director of the universitys computing laboratory from 1948, after his heroic wartime codebreaking at Bletchley Park.
Turing was a visionary mathematician and is regarded today as the father of modern computing who broke the Nazis second world war Enigma code. While his later life has been overshadowed by his conviction for gross indecency and his death aged 41 from cyanide poisoning, a posthumous pardon was granted by the Queen in 2013. His life was featured in the 2014 film the Imitation Game.
Prof Jim Miles, of the universitys school of computer science, said he was amazed to stumble upon the documents, contained in an ordinary-looking red paper file with Alan Turing scrawled on it.
When I first found it I initially thought: That cant be what I think it is, but a quick inspection showed it was a file of old letters and correspondence by Alan Turing, he said.
I was astonished such a thing had remained hidden out of sight for so long. No one who now works in the school or at the university knew they even existed. It really was an exciting find and it is mystery as to why they had been filed away.
The collection focuses mainly on Turings academic research, including his work on groundbreaking areas in AI, computing and mathematics, and invitations to lecture at some of Americas best-known universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It contains a single letter from GCHQ, for whom Turing worked during the war, asking the mathematician in 1952 if he could supply a photograph of himself for an official history of Bletchley Park that was being compiled by the American cryptographer William Friedman. In his reply to Eric Jones, GCHQs then director, Turing said he would send a picture for the American rogues gallery.
The collection also contains a handwritten draft BBC radio programme on artificial intelligence, titled Can machines think? from July 1951. The documents were sorted, catalogued and stored by the University of Manchester archivist James Peters and are now available to search online.
Peters said: This is a truly unique find. Archive material relating to Turing is extremely scarce, so having some of his academic correspondence is a welcome and important addition to our collection.
There is very little in the way of personal correspondence, and no letters from Turing family members. But this still gives us an extremely interesting account and insight into his working practices and academic life whilst he was at the University of Manchester.
He added: The letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turings work at Manchester, but they do add an extra dimension to our understanding of the man himself and his research.
As there is so little actual archive on this period of his life, this is a very important find in that context. There really is nothing else like it.
Beleaguered PM is contrite and genuine in crunch meeting with 1922 Committee, promising to build consensus on Brexit
A contrite Theresa May bought herself time with Conservatives MPs by apologising for failing to secure an overall majority, while cabinet sources indicated that the prime minister would pursue a more conciliatory approach on Brexit to shore up her leadership.
May addressed a packed session of her partys backbench 1922 Committee on Tuesday with what was described as an upfront mea culpa. She declared: I got us into this mess, and Im going to get us out of it.
Senior insiders added that one of the ideas actively being considered to win backing across parliament was not to major on the controversial no deal is better than a bad deal position taken by May before the election.
Also under consideration is whether to exclude overseas students from the immigration numbers and even possibly to abandon the target to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. Although nothing has been agreed, any softening of the position on immigration could maximise the chance of a closer economic relationship with the EU.
The prime minister said more would be done to reach out to young voters and those working in the public sector. She was contrite and genuine, but not on her knees, said one senior MP who attended the meeting, adding that May had shown a warmer side. There was none of the Maybot, the person added, claiming that any talk of a leadership challenge had been silenced, for now at least.
Speaking after the meeting, MPs made clear that the prime minister had bought herself time with hopes that she could make it to the end of Brexit talks in two years.
A cabinet member admitted that work was under way on how to achieve a deal with the EU27 that could pass through a much more finely balanced parliament, involving seeking areas of compromise with other parties. Reports in the Telegraph and Evening Standard claimed that secret talks had already begun between cabinet ministers and some Labour MPs.
Any shift in tone will be seen as a coup for advocates of a soft Brexit, although those who campaigned to leave the EU are also offering their support to the prime minister.
Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, who has won more influence after the party took 13 seats in Scotland, said she was pushing for an open Brexit with maximum economic access after a private meeting with May in Downing Street. Davidson added that the party needed to reach out: I do think that there can be changes in the offer of Brexit as we go forward.
Downing Street is also preparing to put forward a skeleton version of a Queens speech, as the parliamentary mathematics threatens to bring domestic policymaking to a halt unless the Tories reach out to opposition parties.
The annual list of legislation, which may be delayed from 19 June, will have two big-ticket items of Brexit and counter-terrorism policy, but see most of the domestic agenda ditched, according to one source. Mays plans for a sweeping shakeup of education including new grammar schools could be boiled down to a few pilots, they said.
However, despite jitters within the party and suggestions that Mays days are numbered, her performance in front of the 1922 Committee appeared to reduce anger about the shock result. After the vote stripped the Conservatives of their majority and plunged the government into instability and the need for coalition talks with the DUP, Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, said the prime minister would be gone within six months.
However, after the 1922 meeting, Allen who has fought her own party over disability benefit cuts and tough positioning on Brexit said: I saw an incredibly humble woman who knows what she has to do, and that is be who she is and not what this job had turned her into. She has lost her armadillo shell and we have got a leader back.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who has been an outspoken proponent of Brexit, said: It was very positive to hear her take very firm responsibility for not being able to crystallise some of the seats wed hoped to win. I felt she had very deeply considered over the weekend whether she should continue and came to us to say: I will continue for as long as you want me to do so. And I think thats exactly what we all hoped she would say.
MPs said there was a tacit acceptance of the need to build a better consensus. A broader backing for Brexit has to be built and I think she recognises that, one former minister said. She was clear she was responsible. She agreed on the need to listen to all the wings of the party on Brexit.
One remainer on the left of the party was teary-eyed as they expressed their renewed support for the prime minister, while a hardline Brexiter agreed, describing her as very, very humble and saying: She has bought herself time. She showed a side of her that was very appealing. A warmer side.
At the centre of the debate were concerns about the manifesto. MPs admitted that it had been a disaster with voters, particularly the so-called dementia tax and the decision to press ahead with school funding cuts. Public sector workers felt very strongly about austerity, a former cabinet minister said. We have to offer a message of aspiration, which is a very Conservative word.
Jeremy Corbyns massive gains with public sector workers appear to have driven anti-austerity into the centre of political debate, even among Conservatives. May acknowledged several warnings from MPs who described meeting people who said they could not vote Tory because of cuts to hospitals, schools or failure to increase public sector wages in real terms.
Anna Soubry told the Guardian it had been an issue she repeatedly encountered on the doorstep. Writing in a local newsletter, she added: We need a kinder Conservatism that recognises the very real concerns about reduced school budgets, a shortfall in NHS and social care funding, and that some of our most valued public servants such as nurses, have had their wages cut.
Others argued that it was OK for the Tories to keep their position but that they had failed to make the economic argument during the campaign. Soubry said it was outrageous that the chancellor, Philip Hammond, had not been given a bigger role in the campaign.
Several MPs told May they had had difficulties rebutting questions over school funding on doorsteps and in local hustings. May said that Justine Greening would address the concerns, and sources stressed that the education secretary had been making the case for better funding for schools for some time.
Tories banged on the tables for about 30 seconds as May arrived for the crunch meeting in a roasting hot room packed with members of the House of Lords as well as MPs. May took questions, but one MP described them as more like speeches.
There was no appetite for a leadership election, the MP said. Thats the last thing the country needs. She said she would serve us as long as we want her, and that shes been a party servant since she was 12 years old, stuffing envelopes.
MPs were pleased that the prime minister had removed her joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, as she pointed instead to her new top aide, the former Tory MP Gavin Barwell, and the chief whip, Gavin Williamson. One MP said that the party had faith in the two Gavins.
After the success of the Womens March, its International Womens Day on Wednesday 8 March. Here, 15 influential women, from Lena Dunham and Nicola Sturgeon to Susie Orbach, nominate a crucial next step towards equality
Lena Dunham: keep on protesting
I think the activism and organisation thats happening now is showing protest matters, calling your representatives matters, becoming involved in community organisations matters, sending your donations every month matters. It has never mattered more to show up with your money, with your body, with your time and with your voice than it does right now. Lots of people had valid criticisms of the Womens March, but it was the largest global protest weve seen and thats because every single person made the choice to take time off work, to give of themselves, to give their bodies and fill space and show they wanted to say no. That scares people and even if right now were not seeing the result we want, the government has been warned. They understand they are not supported. They are fighting an uphill battle against women and allies of equality in all of its forms. Lena Dunham is an actor, writer, producer and director
Nicola Sturgeon: great childcare is where it starts
Its a source of frustration that, decades on from legislation that was supposed to pave the way for equality of the sexes, too many gaps remain. I have made equality a key feature of my government, with a gender-balanced cabinet, one of very few in the developed world.
However, if there is one specific policy area which can permanently advance the cause of gender equality, I believe the answer lies not in the workplace itself, but in the early years. Delivering high quality childcare as widely as possible is, I believe, fundamental to achieving the kind of equal society that empowers women.
It is a simple fact that, for many women, the barrier to career advancement comes when they are faced with juggling the competing demands of a job and raising a family. And in too many cases, the lack of adequate childcare becomes a decisive factor in preventing women from continuing their careers.
Improving access and affordability in childcare is not an easy challenge and of itself will not solve all gender equality issues. But it is a challenge which must be met if we are to deliver a society which truly has equality of opportunity for men and women. Nicola Sturgeon MSP is First Minister of Scotland
With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing American computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network
Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the worlds press before him and told them they were liars. The press, honestly, is out of control, he said. The public doesnt believe you any more. CNN was described as very fake news story after story is bad. The BBC was another beauty.
That night I did two things. First, I typed Trump in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasnt how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of Go Donald!!!!, and You show em!!! There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the FAKE news MSM liars!
Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what Ive been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled mainstream media is And there it was. Googles autocomplete suggestions: mainstream media is dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won? Are we now the FAKE news? Is the mainstream media we, us, I dying?
I click Googles first suggested link. It leads to a website called CNSnews.com and an article: The Mainstream media are dead. Theyre dead, I learn, because they we, I cannot be trusted. How had it, an obscure site Id never heard of, dominated Googles search algorithm on the topic? In the About us tab, I learn CNSnews is owned by the Media Research Center, which a click later I learn is Americas media watchdog, an organisation that claims an unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture.
Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding more than $10m in the past decade from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trumps single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money $13.5m of it behind the Trump campaign.
Its money hes made as a result of his career as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He started his career at IBM, where he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics called revolutionary breakthroughs in language processing a science that went on to be key in developing todays AI and later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.
One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees money, is the most successful in the world generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns all Republican and another $50m to non-profits all rightwing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.
The designer of the London Olympics aquatics centre, Guangzhou opera house and buildings in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia and South Korea to Azerbaijan, bequeathed a lump sum of 500,000 to her business partner Patrik Schumacher. Hadid also left a total of 1.7m to four nieces and nephews, as well as her brother Haytham Hadid, whose share was 500,000.
The architect, who was made a dame in 2012, was unmarried with no children and left her international design businesses, which account for the bulk of her wealth, in trust.
Statisticians can now amass more data more quickly than ever. This could help us to make decisions based on real numbers, not prejudice
In the post-truth society there is a huge opportunity for statistics. On the face of it that may sound like a contradiction. But as individuals trying to work out what is really going on in the world around us, for businesses trying to decide on their next venture, and for governments trying to form effective policy, there is a common desire: data.
There is great potential for us to mobilise the power of data to help us make better decisions. However, the technology that has allowed us all to be so wonderfully connected has also allowed us each to live in our own world, separated from others. In our online lives, we risk connecting only with those with similar views to our own and not encountering those who think differently something many commentators are now terming the social media echo chamber.
But this is not new we have always tended to mix with people of similar backgrounds, and inevitably we have tended to read those newspapers whose outlook we prefer. However, what is different, is that for many people, especially the young, looking to the web rather than broadcast bulletins, this risk is growing. In this situation, it becomes increasingly hard to understand how anyone else can have a different view. It also becomes increasingly easy to think little of those who do.
This can make us prey to those who choose to support their own perspective with facts that show just how right they are (and how wrong everyone else). These facts can be made up. They can be biased or out of context. Often they fit the old adage about the drunk and the lamppost used more for support than illumination. This wilful blindness is dangerous.
Of course decisions are made on the basis of emotions and beliefs as well as science. Those of us who work in the world of data need some humility in what we claim. But good evidence does matter. Anyone who wants us to succeed as individuals, families, communities, businesses and as a country should stand up and make the case.
Unless we have a trustworthy understanding of where we are now, unless we can analyse what works, and unless we can focus attention on what matters, we are unlikely to make the most of the opportunities we must now seize in the months and years ahead.
My current job as a government statistical adviser was first created by Winston Churchill in 1941 when he said, with uncharacteristic understatement, that the utmost confusion is caused when people base arguments on different numbers. He called for someone to provide information that could be accepted and used without question. That remains a powerful rallying call for me and my colleagues.
And today, while the data revolution has created a moment of danger, it also provides the opportunity to gain new insights. It is now possible to get those insights much more quickly, in more fine-grained forms, and to design them to illuminate the issues that people care about. Recent reports produced by my team on domestic violence, our ageing population and UK productivity are just some examples of what is possible. With the right rules in place to respect the fact that we make use of information about individuals and individual businesses and must not betray their privacy, there is an unprecedented potential to use data to serve the public good.
So, with the supply of data increasing rapidly, perhaps our real challenge is to take our statistics off the page and find ways to listen and connect with those people who have been left perplexed and disappointed by experts. For us in official statistics, as well as the wider statistical world, that means our mission has to shift fundamentally, from being mere producers of numbers to providers of an essential public service. That way we can realise the potential that now exists to help us all make better decisions.
The Long Read: The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over and putting democracy in peril
In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone no matter what their politics can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here.
Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various experts that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some peoples sense of political decency.
Nowhere is this more vividly manifest than with immigration. The thinktank British Future has studied how best to win arguments in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. One of its main findings is that people often respond warmly to qualitative evidence, such as the stories of individual migrants and photographs of diverse communities. But statistics especially regarding alleged benefits of migration to Britains economy elicit quite the opposite reaction. People assume that the numbers are manipulated and dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. Presented with official estimates of how many immigrants are in the country illegally, a common response is to scoff. Far from increasing support for immigration, British Future found, pointing to its positive effect on GDP can actually make people more hostile to it. GDP itself has come to seem like a Trojan horse for an elitist liberal agenda. Sensing this, politicians have now largely abandoned discussing immigration in economic terms.
All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy. Put bluntly, the British government its officials, experts, advisers and many of its politicians does believe that immigration is on balance good for the economy. The British government did believe that Brexit was the wrong choice. The problem is that the government is now engaged in self-censorship, for fear of provoking people further.
This is an unwelcome dilemma. Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups.
The declining authority of statistics and the experts who analyse them is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as post-truth politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to peoples emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own truth of what is going on across society.
Is there a way out of this polarisation? Must we simply choose between a politics of facts and one of emotions, or is there another way of looking at this situation?One way is to view statistics through the lens of their history.We need to try and see them for what they are: neither unquestionable truths nor elite conspiracies, but rather as tools designed to simplify the job of government, for better or worse. Viewed historically, we can see what a crucial role statistics have played in our understanding of nation states and their progress. This raises the alarming question of how if at all we will continue to have common ideas of society and collective progress, should statistics fall by the wayside.
In the second half of the 17th century, in the aftermath of prolonged and bloody conflicts, European rulers adopted an entirely new perspective on the task of government, focused upon demographic trends an approach made possible by the birth of modern statistics. Since ancient times, censuses had been used to track population size, but these were costly and laborious to carry out and focused on citizens who were considered politically important (property-owning men), rather than society as a whole. Statistics offered something quite different, transforming the nature of politics in the process.
Statistics were designed to give an understanding of a population in its entirety,rather than simply to pinpoint strategically valuable sources of power and wealth. In the early days, this didnt always involve producing numbers. In Germany, for example (from where we get the term Statistik) the challenge was to map disparate customs, institutions and laws across an empire of hundreds of micro-states. What characterised this knowledge as statistical was its holistic nature: it aimed to produce a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics would do for populations what cartography did for territory.
Equally significant was the inspiration of the natural sciences. Thanks to standardised measures and mathematical techniques, statistical knowledge could be presented as objective, in much the same way as astronomy. Pioneering English demographers such as William Petty and John Graunt adapted mathematical techniques to estimate population changes, for which they were hired by Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.
The emergence in the late 17th century of government advisers claiming scientific authority, rather than political or military acumen, represents the origins of the expert culture now so reviled by populists. These path-breaking individuals were neither pure scholars nor government officials, but hovered somewhere between the two. They were enthusiastic amateurs who offered a new way of thinking about populations that privileged aggregates and objective facts. Thanks to their mathematical prowess, they believed they could calculate what would otherwise require a vast census to discover.
There was initially only one client for this type of expertise, and the clue is in the word statistics. Only centralised nation states had the capacity to collect data across large populations in a standardised fashion and only states had any need for such data in the first place. Over the second half of the 18th century, European states began to collect more statistics of the sort that would appear familiar to us today. Casting an eye over national populations, states became focused upon a range of quantities: births, deaths, baptisms, marriages, harvests, imports, exports, price fluctuations. Things that would previously have been registered locally and variously at parish level became aggregated at a national level.
New techniques were developed to represent these indicators, which exploited both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the page, laying out data in matrices and tables, just as merchants had done with the development of standardised book-keeping techniques in the late 15th century. Organising numbers into rows and columns offered a powerful new way of displaying the attributes of a given society. Large, complex issues could now be surveyed simply by scanning the data laid out geometrically across a single page.
These innovations carried extraordinary potential for governments. By simplifying diverse populations down to specific indicators, and displaying them in suitable tables, governments could circumvent the need to acquire broader detailed local and historical insight. Of course, viewed from a different perspective, this blindness to local cultural variability is precisely what makes statistics vulgar and potentially offensive. Regardless of whether a given nation had any common cultural identity, statisticians would assume some standard uniformity or, some might argue, impose that uniformity upon it.
Not every aspect of a given population can be captured by statistics. There is always an implicit choice in what is included and what is excluded, and this choice can become a political issue in its own right. The fact that GDP only captures the value of paid work, thereby excluding the work traditionally done by women in the domestic sphere, has made it a target of feminist critique since the 1960s. In France, it has been illegal to collect census data on ethnicity since 1978, on the basis that such data could be used for racist political purposes. (This has the side-effect of making systemic racism in the labour market much harder to quantify.)
Despite these criticisms, the aspiration to depict a society in its entirety, and to do so in an objective fashion, has meant that various progressive ideals have been attached to statistics. The image of statistics as a dispassionate science of society is only one part of the story. The other part is about how powerful political ideals became invested in these techniques: ideals of evidence-based policy, rationality, progress and nationhood grounded in facts, rather than in romanticised stories.
Since the high-point of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century, liberals and republicans have invested great hope that national measurement frameworks could produce a more rational politics, organised around demonstrable improvements in social and economic life. The great theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, famously described nations as imagined communities,but statistics offer the promise of anchoring this imagination in something tangible. Equally, they promise to reveal what historical path the nation is on: what kind of progress is occurring? How rapidly? For Enlightenment liberals, who saw nations as moving in a single historical direction, this question was crucial.
The potential of statistics to reveal the state of the nation was seized in post-revolutionary France. The Jacobin state set about imposing a whole new framework of national measurement and national data collection. The worlds first official bureau of statistics was opened in Paris in 1800. Uniformity of data collection, overseen by a centralised cadre of highly educated experts, was an integral part of the ideal of a centrally governed republic, which sought to establish a unified, egalitarian society.
From the Enlightenment onwards, statistics played an increasingly important role in the public sphere, informing debate in the media, providing social movements with evidence they could use. Over time, the production and analysis of such data became less dominated by the state. Academic social scientists began to analyse data for their own purposes, often entirely unconnected to government policy goals. By the late 19th century, reformers such as Charles Booth in London and WEB Du Bois in Philadelphia were conducting their own surveys to understand urban poverty.
An aggressive brain tumour meant that my family knew his time was short. We set out to make Christmas special
It is hard to believe that its now 10 years since that last, defiantChristmas.
In the summer, we had celebrated my fathers 70th birthday. In the autumn, he began to lose his words.
He called me one day to say hed been having a few, sort of memory problems, and there was something in his voice beyond the usual mild-mannered hesitancy. Something that made me immediately take my dog and catch a train to Cambridge. My parents met us at the station. As soon as we got into the car, my dog scrambled over and climbed on to my fathers lap.
The memory loss was particular and strange. It was as though certain words had become detached from the objects they signified. We were eating strawberries, I remember. Dad looked down at his bowl and frowned. Microphones? he said. A blood test, he described to me as them taking some ink from his arm.
The impression was not of delusional thinking. Dad didnt believe the strawberries were actually microphones. Rather, he looked at the strawberries and the word for them wasnt there. He reached for another and tried it for fit. Microphones? It wasnt right, but he couldnt find the word that was. Strawberries? I said. And he laughed. Of course! Strawberries, he said. How silly.
His GP had referred him to the memory clinic to be assessed for dementia. There was a three-month wait, but in any case, dementia seemed unlikely. We had known people with dementia and it did not present like this. My mother thought it might be psychological. Dad had retired in the summer from his readership in pure mathematics, and though, externally at least, this change had made little difference he still cycled in to his old department every day, where he was working on a book on Banach algebra, and he still played an active part in college life Mum thought the loss of his professional role might be having an impact on him.
My sister and I were unconvinced, and so, I think, was she. We rang his GP and got put through to a different doctor, who agreed to see Dad that evening. At 8am the following morning, he was having an emergency scan.
Glioblastoma multiforme is the most aggressive type of brain tumour. Thread-like tendrils burrow deep into the brain, making it all but impossible to remove the tumour completely. Dads was on his left frontal lobe, in the area responsible for expressive language. They operated to excise as much of the tumour as they could, and Dad came round to discover that, as if by magic, his words had returned. Still high from the anaesthetic, he lay, head bandaged, in his hospital bed, riffing with consummate fluency, this gentle, self-effacing man, unaccustomed to the centre stage and rather surprised to find himself enjoying it after all.
There was no question of survival. A few weeks to a few months, they said. It was incomprehensible. But perhaps the finality of the prognosis was in some sense also a blessing. We did not invest our hopes in some percentage chance; there was no chance. We focused instead on the now.
And so it was that we embraced that Christmas, in a spirit of neither despair, nor hope, but rather, of defiant celebration. We would enjoy the best Christmas ever. We would relish every precious moment. We would be happy, and we were. We didnt do anything different. The pleasure of Christmas is in the traditions. The same decorations hung on the tree. My sister and I joke-argued as we had every year over whose angels turn it was to top it. I cannot remember who won. We ate the same foods, played the same silly games word games mostly: consequences, drawing book titles. I can see Dad now, his scar extending from under his yellow paper crown, dabbing tears of laughter from his eyes at Mums attempts to guess Love in the Time of Cholera from his peculiar pencil squiggles. It was all the same, but the light at the heart had been turned up a notch.
We went to midnight mass at the friary. My parents were Catholics; I am not, but there is comfort to be found in the rituals of Christmas, the line stretching forward and back. So too in the rituals of death. In a few months, my fathers coffin would sit in this chapel the night before his funeral. I did not consciously think of it, but I can see now it was an awareness of this, of the inevitability of the end, that made that Christmas so joyful. Christmas is about birth, of course, but it is also about death. You cannot have one without the other. Time is precious. Thats why the wise men bring myrrh.
Brexit is just the latest instance of politicians bending figures to match their agenda
I love numbers. They allow us to get a sense of magnitude, to measure change, to put claims in context. But despite their bold and confident exterior, numbers are delicate things and thats why it upsets me when they are abused. And since theres been a fair amount of number abuse going on recently, it seems a good time to have a look at the classic ways in which politicians and spin doctors meddle with statistics.
Every statistician is familiar with the tedious Lies, damned lies, and statistics gibe, but the economist, writer and presenter of Radio4s More or Less, Tim Harford, has identified the habit of some politicians as not so much lying to lie means having some knowledge of the truth as bullshitting: a carefree disregard of whether the number is appropriate ornot.
So here, with some help from the UK fact-checking organisation Full Fact, is a nine-point guide to whats really going on.
Use a real number, but change its meaning
Theres almost always some basis for numbers that get quoted, but its often rather different from what is claimed. Take, for example, the famous 350m, as in the We send the EU 350m a week claim plastered over the big red Brexit campaign bus. This is a true National Statistic (see Table 9.9 of the ONS Pink Book 2015), but, in the words of Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority watchdog, it is not an amount of money that the UK pays to the EU. In fact, the UKs net contribution is more like 250m a week when Britains rebate is taken into account and much of that is returned in the form of agricultural subsidies and grants to poorer UK regions, reducing the figure to 136m. Sir Andrew expressed disappointment that this misleading claim was being made by Brexit campaigners but this ticking-off still did not get the busrepainted.