Policy

Standing for Dudley South

This year, I am standing in Dudley South for the Liberal Democrats at the General Election. I have three reasons for doing this.

First, it is absolutely essential for democracy to survive and to thrive that people put themselves forward for election. I’ve too often heard people say — in different parts of the country, and with different parties as ‘x’ — “there’s no point voting here, the x-party always gets in” or “there’s no point standing here — you could put a blue/red/yellow rosette on a donkey here and they would still win”. The truth is, no-one knows the outcome until the election is fought, but without candidates, there is no democracy at all.

Second, I believe every voter should be able to choose the party that they most support. There is a solid under-current of Liberal Democrats in almost every seat in England, Scotland and Wales. Every one of them should have a Liberal Democrat candidate they can vote for.

Third, and most importantly, I believe that what most voters fundamentally want is what the Liberal Democrats offer — even if many voters are not aware of this. The parties of left and right talk about stark choices, they paint pictures of how Britain will collapse into compassionless capitalism or chaotic socialism if the other party gets in, and they position themselves as the radical champions of their cause. What voters actually want — and what the country genuinely needs — is the reasonable party of the centre ground. Swinging from left to right or right to left is almost certainly nowhere near as dangerous as those parties make out, but Britain is nonetheless in a far better position sticking with the middle ground.

Liberal Democrats will cut less than the Tories, and borrow less than Labour. We have proven ourselves in government. We have learned how to make tough choices, and also, in a time of tough choices, how to continue to protect the most vulnerable, give help where it is needed, reduce taxes for the many not the few, and invest in a fairer society, a stronger economy, and opportunities for everyone.

The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

A Guinness commercial a few years ago pumped out a stream of ‘strange but true’ statistics. It finishes ‘88.2% of statistics are made up the spur of the moment’.

I have to say, I was totally taken in by the bogus statistics the first time I saw it. They were all quirky enough to be true — though implausible if you thought about them — but it was the way that they were presented that made them seem reliable. First, they were spoken in a quiet Scottish voice, of the kind we usually associate with serious public service announcements. The accompanying pictures were all in black and white. Mingled among them were things that seemed like they had to be true, for example ‘98% of Man United fans have never been to Old Trafford’. They included ‘facts’ that sounded like facts you’d heard before. And, crucially, they were all eerily specific — a double digit percentage as often as not with a decimal point thrown in as well.

In case you missed it, here’s the advert.

It was funny at the time, though I still prefer Stella.

However, what began as farce is fast recycling itself as the run-up to tragedy.

Here is how to format a falsehood in such a way that it is not questioned.

fakememe

 

This is a format you’ve seen thousands of times on Facebook.

Usually, the images included are entirely ‘false’, in the sense that they have nothing to do with the story and are miscaptioned. However, we’re so programmed for ‘seeing is believing’ that we don’t question the captions.

What’s more, the image on the left — benefit scroungers, MPs, religious extremists — represents a group of people that we may not like, but feel a bit guilty for not liking. We know that we are being judgemental when we think bad things about them, and that makes us feel guilty. However, seeing a picture this group allegedly (because it’s in the caption) doing something terrible makes us feel all right about being cross about them.

The image on the right, on the other hand, will be shot in evocative lighting and show real suffering. Again, it will be falsely captioned. For example, a picture taken from Google of ‘homeless people’ will be captioned as ‘homeless ex-soldier’, while a picture of a nurse will be captioned that she (and it will be a she) is earning less than a family on benefits. Again, this caption will be entirely false, but we are programmed not to question captions.

However the captions work, they will boil down to this: ‘People who deserve bad things are are having a great life because society is over-compassionate, while people who work hard for all of us are suffering — do you think this is right?’

The ‘Do you think this is right’, whether explicit or implied, is the clever bit. By being asked to make an (obvious) moral judgement, you are more prone not to question the ‘facts’ presented through the captions. It’s irrelevant that the two things have nothing to do with each other — the moral sense being engaged isn’t a true moral sense, merely a sense of outrage which you’re likely to go for simply because of the format of ‘Do you think this is right?’

But, it gets cleverer. In case you might be on the point of saying ‘even if nurses are on low pay, it’s not linked to families who are on benefit’, the next part brings things closer to home. ‘Thousands won’t share this, share if you support our nurses/ex-servicemen/firemen, etc’. Suddenly you are being put in the position of one person ready to stand against the tide of indifference. If you share this, you support the nurses etc. If you don’t, then you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Do you share or not? A bizarrely large number of people do, but, even if you don’t, you may still have fallen into the trap. The meme’s designers want it to be propagated, but only for the purposes of shifting your and others’ perceptions towards believing that society is soft, that benefits should be capped, families of criminals punished, and other such mob-rule responses. In Britain, these things are usually right-wing, but there’s no implicit reason why they have to be.

Those readers who have worked in advertising will have decoded very quickly that this style of meme follows the advertiser’s AIDA format. AIDA is the basis on which most effective ads are constructed. It stands for Attention, Information, Decision (or Desire), Action. The attention element could be a compelling photograph, an illustration, a headline, anything which grabs your attention. As soon as the ad has your attention, it gives you information. Research by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority suggests that provision of information is the first, essential element in an effective advertisement. The more plausible and objective sounding the information, the better — but it must also tickle the intellect, or the moral sense, or the emotions. Once you’ve got the information, it moves straight on to suggesting that you make a decision now. Finally, it gives you an action to undertake immediately. It doesn’t matter how slight that action is — even tweeting or sharing on Facebook is enough to solidify your commitment to the messages of the advertisement, even if the ultimate action that the advertiser wants you to take is much more arduous.

Now, advertisements in the United Kingdom are heavily regulated. Ads which fail to satisfy the ASA’s CAP code are removed immediately. They have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. If it’s on TV, or on radio, or in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, or on a billboard or the back of a bus, you can count on it being so. A well regulated advertising industry means that you can generally trust the advertisements much more than you can the news, which is altogether less reliable.

However, this only applies to ‘real’ advertisements. Facebook memes and other such things are not regulated at all. By following a reliable format, which is also a powerful format, the Facebook memist gets a double benefit.

Why would anyone spread falsehood?

For the heck of it, to sell a product, to sell attention, to spread a political viewpoint, other ideas will come to mind.

Have you heard the story that Microsoft is doing an experiment and the 1,000,000th person to share the Facebook meme (previously an email) will win a huge reward? This has been debunked many times, and yet it continues to persist. Who would have created such a thing? A hoaxer of some kind, but there seems to be little benefit. Nonetheless, these hoaxes have an enormous currency.

“Something ordinary and perhaps slightly annoying started to happen, what happens next will blow your mind”. You’ve certainly seen this kind of thing. Generally it takes you on to a mildly diverting YouTube or other video, as like as not one which takes you to a product advertisement at the end. Many of these are commercially produced videos designed to seem as though they are user generated content. Often they will be ‘sown’ a hundred thousand times, because research shows that the spread of such a commercial meme depends on the number of times it is sown more than on any other factor.

“Maggie lost 2.5 stone using this weird old trick. Click here to find out more.” This, alongside the one about dentists hating someone, life insurance people hating someone, and so on, if you do bother to click on it, will take you somewhere deeply dull. The weird old trick will be using different kinds of diet pills (why not the weird old trick of eating less?), or using baking powder instead of tooth-paste, or some such. Despite your misgivings, when you’ve clicked on it, you feel that you haven’t really been tricked — after all, they aren’t selling you anything. Actually, what has happened is you’ve been taken to a website which is earning income by the number of page views, in the expectation that you may well click on one of the other, commercial advertisements on the page. Of course, you wouldn’t would you…? Well, since you clicked on the ‘weird old trick’ ad, you’re a prime target for the others.

The most famous examples of the Facebook dodgy memes are from Britain First. Britain First is run by an ex-BNP member, and they are all about getting ordinary voters riled up against ‘liberal’ and ‘left-wing’ ideas. As a card carrying Liberal Democrat (no, seriously, I carry my membership card in my wallet), I find these tedious and annoying Many people who really ought to know better, though, do share them — and they can get very cross if you point out where they’re from.

Is this all important? After all, why shouldn’t people be allowed to have a little fun?

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, points out what Rousseau was to point out later in Le Contrat Social: that society operates on a social contract where, even though humankind is by nature egotistical, people work together out of enlightened self-interest. It can be shown logically, rationally and even statistically that even criminals working together will get better results than working alone: that is why we have such strict laws on conspiracy.

Generally speaking, society has prospered on this basis, aside from the occasions where people have got together to fight wars or where a majority has decided to perpetrate an injustice on the minority. This has produced some appalling atrocities, but, everything taken together, we are wealthier, healthier, better educated and safer than we used to be.

There is an exception to the enlightened egoist. It is the amoral agent who has calculated that, although society as a whole prospers most when people behave out of enlightened self-interest, and would collapse if people behaved with selfish egoism, this collapse will not happen in their life-time.

The problem here is that there are far too many occasions, especially recently, where the successful selfish egoist really can bring society crashing down around them. We remember Nick Leeson the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank, in 1995. He had calculated that the bank was big enough not to miss the money he was losing. He was wrong. The 2007 banking crisis was not quite as simple, but there were elements of ‘it won’t happen in my time’ to it. Ponzi schemes, and the pyramid schemes that almost brought down the entire Albanian economy between 1991 and 1997 are stronger examples.

Deliberate misinformation on the internet is dangerous for the same reason that rogue financial dealings are dangerous to a bank. A thief who steals tools from vans or shops is not going to bring down the whole tool-making business. In fact, to some extent, the trade will benefit as insurance pays out and tradesmen are forced to buy new tools. However, a tool-making company that starts to skimp on the metals used to make tools is much more likely to destroy its industry. When the tool makers make bad tools and when the banks cannot be relied upon with money, society begins to lose its foundations.

If this seems somewhat obtuse (or over-obvious — it’s always difficult to know which), the point is that the internet exists solely for the purposes of spreading information. Misinformation rots the internet in the same way that spam rots email and viruses rot computer systems. More and more time and money is spent filtering out the misinformation and spam and blocking the viruses.

What happens when the time required to determine if what we find online is true is more than the time it would have taken to get things by other means? Progressively, those who need information move off the ‘free’ internet to pay-wall protected sites and purchased content. The more they do so, the less information is given away for free, since giving it away for free makes it valueless when the user cannot distinguish it from bogus information.

At what point will this happen? Impossible to measure or predict. In some sectors it has already happened. On the other hand, there is always a human vitality pumping free, valuable information in, notwithstanding the rubbish that it has to compete with.

Nonetheless, maybe think twice before sharing something on the web again, without checking if it’s really true?

Can we pick our science?

Can we pick our science?

Why opinion on climate change is the most significant environmental issue of our age

I wrote an article the other week about scientific illiteracy in Doctor Who, and got a set of conflicting responses. One group of people said ‘yes, science is important’. The other group said ‘it’s a children’s TV series — it doesn’t matter’. There were scientists and non-scientists on either side.

There’s a certain amount (among my scientific friends) of ‘how can people be so stupid?’ versus ‘it doesn’t matter what non-scientists think about science’ frustration. The chemists, biologists, physicists and ecologists I talk to most often struggle to understand how people can benefit from a modern education and yet feel that science is a matter of opinion, balanced with the shrugging notion that it doesn’t matter what non-scientists think, because they aren’t going to be doing any science anyway.

But it does matter, and the crunch comes on climate change.

Carbonbrief.org has done a useful study on the way opinion on climate change varies with time.

From Carbonbrief.org

It’s a UK study, so if you’re reading this internationally you may need to look at results from where you are. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has consistently found that it’s 30-40% who believe that the current overall warming climate change is caused by human processes. UKERC, the UK Energy Research Centre, has been finding it in the 20%-30% zone. IPSOS Mori, in a 2014 poll, had the figure around 60%. The changing answers depend a lot on how you ask the question: if you allow a middle ground of ‘both human and natural’ you get what is on the surface of it a much more climate-change-skeptic result.

Politicians are fond of saying that the only poll that counts is the ballot box. However, there is not and never will be a ballot box on climate change. This is where the danger lies, because it is in politicians’ perception of what people think that policy is formed and implemented during the life of a government.

DECC has published a deeper-level study of public opinion on climate and energy issues, available here. While interesting in themselves, the opinion graphs on renewables, shale gas, nuclear and concern for climate change are much more revealing when taken together.

Let me summarise. According to DECC’s findings, most people (59%) are in favour of renewable energy, and would back a development near them. This is an opinion survey result, of course. Experience suggests that most people who actually take an interest will oppose almost anything, whether it be new housing, solar or wind power developments, or changes to the frequency of bin collections. 68% of people say they are fairly concerned or very concerned about climate change. 42% of people favour nuclear energy, as opposed to 27% who oppose it. More people (29%) support the extraction of shale gas, aka fracking, than oppose it (22%), but 48% took a neutral stance. It’s customary to lump the ‘very concerned/supportive/opposed to’ with the ‘fairly concerned/supportive/opposed to’ when creating headline figures for this kind of research, but what really stands out is that most people take a fairly neutral stance on most things. The ‘fairly concerneds’ and the ‘not very concerneds’ on climate change account for about 70% of respondents. Almost half of all respondents neither support nor oppose fracking. A third of people neither support nor oppose nuclear. About two thirds of people either support or neither support nor oppose renewables, as opposed to strongly support.

This might seem a tendentious reading, but it’s important. If you survey any group of people and offer them a choice between something which the questioner appears them to want to say and something which is the opposite, most people, if they know nothing about the subject and have no particular opinion, will either choose to support the questioner’s point of view, or not to commit. This is a well known phenomenon in survey design, and pre-employment surveys specifically include these kind of questions as a way of gauging to what extent the respondent is just trying to please you with the answer. A survey on climate change is likely to gain a positive response about renewables just because it sounds like the right answer: as I mentioned above, experience suggests that people will campaign quite hard to prevent solar farms and wind farms being constructed. For all the other results, the ‘don’t know or not really fussed’ group is the most influential.

In the spring of this year, the energy companies in the UK conducted the most effective lobbying campaign I have ever seen. Facing widespread public opprobrium on energy prices, they responded by saying that it was the green levy which was causing all the trouble. The green levy, of course, was stable, and was not part of the sudden price rises which energy companies had been applying (or been perceived to have applied). The prime minister’s response was to abandon the green levy, leaving this government’s green policies significantly damaged. This was not so much because of the cost to public finances, nor because of the lessening of the impetus to become more energy efficient, but because it revealed that government was willing to abandon long cherished green policies over a short term public outcry.

Politically speaking, the prime minister had read the charts correctly. While the cost of living is the public’s number one current concern, climate change, according to DECC’s figures again, is only number four on the list, with just 8% of people saying they are important. While around 68% were very concerned or fairly concerned about climate change when asked directly, 85% said they were very or fairly concerned about the prospect of steep energy prices in the future.

When political parties formulate their policies on energy, they are not considering climate change on its own. They are considering it in the context of what people will have to give up or put up with in order to take it seriously. Energy prices trump climate change for most people. The majority believe that climate change is cause either by natural processes or a mixture of natural and human processes (despte all the evidence being that the warming caused by human processes is actually offset by natural processes). When pushed, most people would say they are fairly concerned or very concerned about climate change, but a much more significant majority are fairly concerned or not very concerned.

 

We can take some heart from the fact that climate change skepticism is gradually reducing. However, this masks the fact that there shouldn’t be any skepticism about it at all.

From 1998, there was a pernicious theory put about that MMR vaccines were a cause of autism. It subsequently emerged that the paper published in the Lancet was fraudulent. Nonetheless, vaccination programmes in the UK took years to recover, resulting in a rise in mumps and measles which resulted in deaths and permanent injuries. Much of this was fuelled by the UK media reporting the matter as a controversy of two sides, each of which deserved an equivalent airing.

Science is not a matter of opinion. What we learned from our very first experiments in senior school (or earlier, if we were lucky enough) was that everything must be done as objectively as possible, and written up in such a way as to remove all possibility of opinion. Hypotheses to be tested were to recorded as such, so that there should never be any confusion between the evidence and the hypothesis. Conclusions were to be drawn from the observations. Anything which was inconclusive had to be couched carefully in order to avoid any indication that it had been demonstrated.

The challenge, for those who take climate change seriously, is to shift the majority who are ‘fairly concerned’ or ‘not very concerned’ about climate change to ‘very concerned’, and to get a higher proportion of people concerned about climate change than about energy costs.

In terms of total cost over the life time of the facility, renewables are still among the more expensive ways of generating energy. DECC’s figures for projects commencing in 2018 are given below, taking account of capital costs and decommissioning. Gas remains the cheapest. In terms of cost for the customer using today’s infrastructure, gas comes in at 4.21 pence per kWh, oil at 6.43, LPG at 8.59, coal at 3.92, and electricity at 7.09 for off peak but 13.52 for standard rate. Aside from burning locally sourced wood or wood pellets, which are carbon neutral and potentially cheaper than gas, all renewables currently produce electricity — currently the most expensive way for consumers to heat their homes.

Levelised costs of energy projects 2018 10 percent discount rate

Levelised costs of energy projects 2018 10 percent discount rate

Being serious about climate change means recognising that we are going to have to accept — at least in the short term — higher prices for our energy. At the moment — and Conservatives, Labour and UKIP all know this — the public is not ready to trade cost of living for tackling climate change. The science is unequivocal. Climate change is real, and it isn’t a matter of opinion. More than anything else, the greatest challenge in green issues is to get people to accept that this is, quite literally from a long-term public policy perspective, the most important thing in the world.

Optimistic and generous: what political parties aren’t, and why they should be

In March, Marketing Week ran an article based on an ‘exclusive look’ at research done by COG for Isobel, about the secrets of being a happy brand. Cadbury, Andrex, Google, Fairy and Nivea came top. Liberal Democrats, RBS, Conservatives, Ryanair and Labour came bottom.

Unfortunately, COG has not published the actual research behind it, though you can view the full 100 list on Isobel’s website. However, Marketing Week did explain a little of the methodology: consumers were asked to rate each brand on five core characteristics, being playful, happy, trustworthy, generous, and optimistic. Winning brands scored highly on all five. Political parties fell down on two: generosity and optimism, something they have in common with banks and newspapers.

We don’t need this poll to tell us that political parties are unpopular. Actually, the information it gives us is quite the opposite. You can’t look down the list of brands for very long without coming to the conclusion that, by whatever alchemy they reached it, this is a pretty good list in terms of our intuitive associations of which brands are happier. In other words, the accuracy of the list goes a long way to justifying the methodology, rather than the other way around.

Let’s talk politics for a moment.

It’s always disappointing to be at the bottom, though, as a Liberal Democrat, I know we’re not the flavour of the month. What is more worrying is that only RBS and Ryanair separate us, respectively, from the Conservatives and Labour. On a list of 100, with only three political parties considered, this is as near as makes no difference, and it shows that politics, rather than simply the Lib Dems, has a problem.

Is it that we are insufficiently playful? Surely pictures of David Cameron eating a bacon sandwich prove that politicians do at least try to be a little playful. Boris Johnson and before him Ken Livingstone were always being playful.

Is it that we are insufficiently happy? Given the number of times voters are exposed to pictures of smiling politicians, that probably isn’t the core of the problem.

We do have a problem with trustworthiness — as discussed in my previous article. There is no way around that other than to become more trustworthy by getting better at being as good as our word, and less prone to shifty behaviours. However, on trustworthiness, we are not at the bottom. The Daily Star and the Sun beat us to that.

Our two problems which are not often noticed are generosity and optimism. When was the last time you read an optimistic leaflet put out by a politician? (If you’ve never actually bothered to read a leaflet, when was the last time you heard a politician being optimistic in an interview?) As The British (with capitals), we are always rather pessimistic about optimism. Listen to the cricket commentary for half an hour and you will hear talk of ‘jinxing’, and the strange effects on play commentators have when they say that a batsman is doing well. Speaking well of the future is something that troubles us, and politicians, particularly, are deeply nervous of saying that things are going to be good, in case they aren’t.

When was the last time you heard a politician say something generous about an opponent? Candidates are urged not to mention their opponents by name in their literature, as this is more or less free advertising for the other party, but, when they do, it is almost always negative. This is despite repeated studies showing that negative campaigning rebounds on the campaigner. Science has quite literally demonstrated that when you point the finger, three fingers point back at you.

I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there myself. Praising an opponent gets you dark looks from your colleagues, and any praise will be quickly seized on by the other side. But is this a bad thing? If I am quoted praising another candidate, I am still being quoted, and am getting the benefit of the free advertising, and in a positive, not negative light.

Electorally, it may seem worth a few votes to challenge the negatives and point out the flaws in the opposition. In the long term, though, this is part of the same corrosive effect I looked at in the last article.

As I said before, I don’t believe UKIP will be the evil enemy who storms in to wrest democracy from our hands. I don’t agree with them on most things (quite possibly on anything), but I’ve always found the UKIP candidates to be affable chaps — they’ve always been chaps, in my experience — who believe they are doing the world a favour by standing.

There are others out there, though, who have already begun to master the art of appearing to be optimistic and generous. I’m thinking, of course, of the people who put pictures of nurses, ex-servicemen, pensioners and so on on Facebook with supporting text like ‘Mr [name] fought for our country. 99% of people won’t share this. Will you?’

I have seen these kind of posts on a very large number of people’s Facebook statuses. They gained more ‘likes’ last month than any of our three political parties, with 350,000 clicks on the ‘Like’ button. Hope not Hate estimates that two million people a day interact with their material. A short check on Wikipedia will show what these groups are really about, but most people do not check, and, if challenged, say that they may not agree with everything the group puts forward, but they do support nurses, ex-servicemen, the RAF, and so on. Occasinally ex-servicemen’s groups have contacted the creators of the images to ask that they not be used in those campaigns.

This probably comes across as a little ungenerous. It’s not meant to be. People share these images because they appear to be a generous, optimistic response to the pessimism and name-calling of politicians.

Various people have tried to get this particular group banned, and there is an amusing, satirical Facebook page which parodies them.

However, the real answer is this: those of us in mainstream political parties need to make a conscious, possibly even collective, decision to become both generous and optimistic. Without wishing to fall foul of Godwin’s law, history shows that, in the absence of mainstream politics fulfilling these requirements, people are ultimately willing to vote for those who merely seem to fulfill them.

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