“Facts are chiels that wanna ding”

‘Facts are chiels that winna ding.’ That’s a lovely, well-worn phrase, isn’t it? Unlikely bedfellows, Alex Salmond and Michael Gove have both wielded those famous words – ‘dinging’ their political foes with the seeming solidity of Burns’ 18th century Scots aphorism as well as its actual impenetrability.

I would be tempted to use this ancient zinger myself. If only I didn’t keep forgetting what it means. Or, indeed, if I were convinced that – a few basic laws of physics aside – there were such things as ‘facts’ any more.

Last week, the UK Statistics Authority had to chide Work and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, for making statements which were “unsupported by the official statistics published by the department”. Coming from a statistician, this is something akin to cold rage. Next time, they are threatening to send the boys round to re-arrange the minister’s paperclips.

You can be sure it will happen again. The division of the nation into ‘strivers versus skivers’ captures the complex reality of modern recession-stricken Britain so clearly that, like many people, ‘facts’ are becoming redundant.

With leaders whose real world experience revolves around PR, ministers are becoming serial ‘misleaders’. This week it’s been revealed that Education Secretary Michael Gove got his ‘facts’ straight from press releases from such venerable research institutes as Premier Inns, UKTV Gold and the Sea Cadets. Far from proving today’s teenagers’ weak grasp of history, it suggests the present government’s fondness for fiction.

Are we surprised by such fork-tongued simplifications? Of course not. We can barely stifle a yawn when a politician is ‘economical with the truth’. But barefaced lying – ignoring the official evidence and making the rest up – that’s a new level of brazen in British politics.

Part of the problem is that the public has become so used to being sold a crock that we barely notice any more. From the snake-oil of economic austerity to the conveyor belt of reality TV ‘stars’, we accept the counterfactual as part of everyday life.

Perhaps too, we are now arriving back at an almost mediaeval conception of the duality of human nature: the popular entertainer and paedophile; the homophobic holy man and gay sex pest; the happy-go-lucky bus driver and monster. Everything is comprehended in this Jekyll and Hydeous squared circle, and still incomprehensible.

More philosophically still, you might argue that we are rubbing up against the tattered veil of experience: the essentially unknowable, fuzzy velveteen of reality which we call knowledge.

It’s distressing to learn how small the circumference of human understanding must be. Can you believe that even all our scientific models are wrong, even if some are useful? For example, the value of pi they taught you at school is incorrect: 3.14 is just a rough approximation of this irrational number where the decimal runs to trillions and the exact figure may never be known.

No wonder we are all at sea. They will try to tell you that Britain’s mainland coastline is 11,072.76 miles long. But the exact distance changes with the measuring scale you use. The more finely you follow the wiggles of the coast, the bigger the distance becomes, until an infinitely small ruler suggests the island’s outline is infinitely long.

It’s enough to make you think about jumping out of a window. But the acceleration of a falling body due to gravity isn’t really 10 metres per second per second. It’s probably closer to 9.8 m/s/s but also changes depending on altitude. However, even this level of imprecision won’t stop you coming slap bang up against the reality of the pavement.

Truth and absolute accuracy may be different things. Indeed, data that’s more finely sliced generally makes a less actionable plan. But that’s completely different from lying.

For the next couple of years, things will only get worse. As the #indyref and the next general election approach, you will not know who to believe. Whether Scotland leaves the UK, or the UK exits the EU, the truth is already packing its bags.

One simple example will be the issue of immigration. It is testament to the strategic naïveté of the current coalition that they have hoisted this petard into public consciousness at a time when net immigration is falling. Now, with UKIP on the march, it has blown up in their faces. In flirting with reactionary forces, the Conservatives have inadvertantly legitimised some deep, dangerous tendencies in British society which the post-war consensus largely suppressed. But pandering to the right will not encourage rational debate: it merely makes parading national prejudices commonplace.

Yet the evidence on immigration is overwhelming and fairly straightforward. Immigrants do not create unemployment. (That’s George Osborne’s job.) It’s fairly certain too that they have no impact on wages, except perhaps minimally for the most unskilled work. Crucially, they tend to be young and healthy and in work. So, rather than making welfare demands, they contribute to the public purse. In government parlance, they are strivers not skivers though don’t expect to read that in the Daily Mail.

As the LibDem’s Vince Cable suggested recently, the ‘facts’ will be ignored or distorted by those who have already made up their minds that migrants are not welcome.

Similarly, in Scotland’s constitutional debate we can expect unhelpful contributions. Last week, former Scottish Labour leader Ian Gray penned a vastly entertaining squib on the currency issue for this paper. For all the fun and flourish, the tales of currency meltdown in banana republics and bampot dictatorships sounded a ‘cautionary note’.

It’s a classic persuasion technique known by psychologist as ‘representativeness’. Often used by sales reps, admen and, yes, government ministers, the technique exploits a systematic flaw in our decision-making in which we allow worthless but emotionally resonant information to colour our thinking and cloud our judgment.

If we pause for a moment, we can remember that Scotland is a sophisticated first world economy. We have robust civil institutions and political structures. And, just as just as no serious economist feels we can rely on the certainty of unlimited oil revenues, none expects an independent Scotland to fail either.

As the independence debate hots up, other ‘representative’ issues – from EU membership to the armed forces to the maritime border – will be as excitingly misrepresented. Yet the tedious truth is that, should Scotland decide to become independent, such matters would be resolved rationally, even if it takes a little more time and negotiation than the SNP currently allows.

As a result, the only question that matters about the independence question is how you feel. That’s because all our decisions ‘ebb’. We flow from Emotion to Belief to Behaviour. Even if we like to believe we are Spock-like calculating machines, the key phrase is ‘like to believe’.

If we’re honest, the evidence of our own lives will prove we’re not particularly logical. All memory is emotional, and we filter the ‘facts’ till they fit how we feel. And frequently, we let falsehoods in.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr admitted the difficulty. ‘The opposite of a fact is falsehood,’ he said. ‘But the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.’

So, the next couple of years will be difficult for the thinking citizen. We will need our wits about us to sift competing profundities from sleekit half-truths and downright falsehoods. But, amid the whirlwind of fair comment and the hurricane of institutional propaganda, two truths remain.

The past is the best guide to the future. Equally, though, the future is unformed. Over the past 50 years, Scotland has changed and not always for the better. Whether you’re a ‘Mibbes aye’ or ‘Mibbes naw’ kind of person, we’ve got a chance to redress the past and alter how the world works out for us. And that’s a fact that winna ding.

 

A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’