Stranded on an island, or, musings on data literacy and democratic participation

Many if not most people in the UK now believe that benefit fraud is widespread, and that spending on welfare is driving us ever further into debt. It is fairly easy to verify that both of these statements are false: in reality the rate of benefit fraud is less than 1%, and spending on welfare is relatively insignificant compared to the budget as a whole. How have such blatant lies gained such widespread legitimacy?

These lies originate with the government’s own Department for Work and Pensions, in the form of a stream of press-releases in which either statistics are used in a misleading way, or the evidence-free opinions of politicians are delivered as if they were facts. The press releases are picked up by the media, and are often reported in the most exaggerated and attention-grabbingly preposterous way possible.

Of course there are left-wing figures participating in media conversations, in newspapers and on current affairs programs, who offer an alternative view, but they are losing the argument despite having the facts on their side.

Why do facts count for so little?

Facts only matter to people who have the skills to check for themselves whether or not the facts are true; otherwise, it’s just two talking heads arguing on television. The lefties who are on TV and in newspapers arguing against the government’s rhetoric find themselves stranded on an island of data literacy. They have the truth on their side, but democracy isn’t served by wielding a tool that is only available to an elite few. They could serve democracy better by working to spread data literacy skills among as broad a range of people as possible.

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