‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’ -Fact and the Referendum

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‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’ -Fact and the Referendum

In the final weeks before the EU referendum voters are asking for the ‘facts’. This is a common occurrence in general elections, however, its appearance in this referendum is arguably significant. Despite the wealth of information available and the depth of debate around the EU question, neither side can firmly outline Britain’s prospect after the votes have been cast. The EU question and Britain’s destiny is one with an unknown answer.

To their credit, both the Remain and Leave campaign have been passionate in their support for their chosen cause and have attempted to clarify the positives and negatives of the EU. That said, there are a number of trusted organisations and websites whose role it is to produce impartial facts and figures around many political and social debates; this is especially the case with the EU referendum. A few of these organisations are listed:

  • Fullfact.org are an independent charity who analyse commonly held ‘facts’; FullFact are often found on Twitter covering BBC’s Question Time:  https://fullfact.org/europe/
  • The Royal Statistical Society is a professional organisation who see the relevance of statistics in decision making: http://www.rss.org.uk/Default.aspx
  • Open Europe are a neutral think tank and aim to seek solutions to policy issues facing the EU. During the referendum they are acting as non-partisan and are commenting upon the arguments of both sides: http://openeurope.org.uk/intelligence/category/britain-and-the-eu/
  • The Royal United Services Institute deals with discussion over foreign policy. During the referendum campaign they will be publishing findings of both possibilities from a security and foreign policy perspective: https://rusi.org/EUVote1

This referendum has started a debate over perceived fact, figures and the reliability of both claims and figures. To demonstrate how facts can be ‘spun’ and the importance of reliable figures, FullFact researched a claim made on literacy of schoolchildren in the UK.

It was claimed by several newspapers that ‘British youngsters are the “most illiterate” in the developed world’, a claim that was based upon findings in a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2016. However, FullFact concluded in their research that the report did not say that British schoolchildren were the most “illiterate”, rather that the proportion of 16-19 year olds in England who have “low literacy” was the highest of the 23 countries and regions within the OECD. More so, low literacy skills, as termed by the OECD within the report, involved having difficult with simple written information (FullFact, 2016).

Terms and figures are subjective, and there ought to be caution exercised when interpreting data. That said, this example suggests that a degree of clarity can be found amidst the reported facts.


Reference:  Sippitt, A. (2016) https://fullfact.org/education/ask-full-fact-are-british-youngsters-most-illiterate-developed-world/

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