Election fact checking

There was a very good event organised by The Alliance for Useful Evidence last week at Nesta. The details are here.

I asked a question – mainly as I felt that UKSA and IFS were being a bit too self righteous when they were doing little to help at the sharp end of data misinterpretation by press and politicians.

To Ed Humpherson I said that UKSA was not really pulling its weight, as it never initiated interventions on (possible) misuse of (its) data. If Labour write more letters to UKSA than the Tories do it might look like the Tories are behaving less well than Labour. More importantly, major misuses go unreported just because no one picks up on them or bothers to write to UKSA. So why doesn’t the UKSA initiate letters of correction where it sees malpractice rather than limiting itself to often very minor issues that are raised with it? Not one of the letters sent by UKSA this year – election year – is taking the initiative.

To Paul Johnson, I suggested that the IFS had failed in its duty in the release of an election briefing on living standards on the same day.

The danger in its work is that it presents averages and medians in aggregate and then they are interpreted as relating to individuals. Normally this wouldn’t matter much over a short period (a year or two, say) when compositional changes in the labour market are modest. But when we have had a huge increase in employment and it is bundled at the lower end of the pay range, an average earnings figure derived from a total pay bill divided by worker numbers will give a distorting impression of the “hard working family” experience. IFS does not do enough to stop that widespread misunderstanding. Indeed, has it ever corrected a misrepresentation of its work?

We do know that most people (85% roughly) are in continuous employment from one year to the next and on average their incomes are showing quite healthy growth, even in real terms. For the IFS not to acknowledge that average and median incomes at the economy level do not reflect an average family’s experience if you have unprecedented job creation mostly at low rates of pay is a simple school boy error.

So UKSA and IFS might do great work and be independent but they are not really doing what is needed to keep the (pre) election debate on the straight and narrow. We need people to watch over these people.

Ed did respond by saying that he wanted UKSA to do three things: stop pre-release access, get better official statistics, and get the authority to take the initiative on misuse of statistics. Sounds easy but it will not be easy to deliver. But they are the right aims.

For a flavour of how the event went try the Twitter hashtag #statsfacts2015

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