Lies, statistics and self-interest
Some politicians routinely use lies, misleading statistics and exaggeration to make arguments that suit their cause. The campaign leading up to the 2016 British referendum, on whether or not to leave the EU (a so-called ‘Brexit’), is providing many examples; as AOL reported, “Both sides in the Brexit battle are playing fast and loose with the truth”.
Lies were told. The Vote Leave campaign’s battle bus was emblazoned with the eye-catching claim that “We send the EU £350 million a week”; its statement for the 2016 EU Referendum Voting Guide (published by the Electoral Commission) made the same claim four times in fewer than 400 words. That claim is an exaggeration, amounting to a lie – as explained by FullFact.org, which revealed that “the UK actually pays just under £250 million a week” (less than 1% of its GDP). And the EU gives some of that money back in grants, so the net cash cost of the EU was £163 million a week in 2015.
Among the many smaller lies and misleading statements, Boris Johnson, for example, said that it was “absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing”. Jon Henley, in The Guardian, fact-checked Johnson’s statements. The claim about bananas was a lie; the EU does not control their shape; it has standardised the classification of shapes on product labels, so that retailers know what they are buying from the producers. There is a plan to limit the power of vacuum cleaners, but Johnson failed to explain that “the UK government actively supported the measures and, like every member state, could have blocked them if it wanted to”; his implication that the EU was imposing such measures on the UK was misleading (but wasn’t strictly a lie); he just wanted to arouse indignation in his audience (and he didn’t bother to explain that the reason for the measure was the likely benefit to the environment).
Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted. A UCL study, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, was quoted by the pro-EU Guardian, Independent and Financial Times to say that EU migrants contribute £20bn to Britain – but the anti-EU Telegraph and Mail used a different part of the study, in a way that its authors described as “misleading”, to report that migrants as a whole had cost the economy £118bn. The organisation Migration Watch UK challenged some of the UCL study’s assumptions to produce its own report, which was used by the Sun newspaper to claim in its headline on 16 May 2016 that “EU Migration costs Britain £3m every day, shock report warns”.
The future is unforeseeable, so forecasts are always conjectures. Nonetheless, the pro-EU Britain Stronger in Europe campaign saw fit to publish a leaflet saying, among other claims, that the UK economy “would be hit to the tune of £4,300 a year for each UK household” (quoting one of the figures from an official Treasury Report). It described its claims as “the facts from independent experts”, but in no sense of the word can such projections be described as facts.
Exaggeration has also featured strongly in the campaign. Boris Johnson (repeating a similar claim made earlier by Dominic Cummings) grossly exaggerated when he said that “The European Union is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate”. The EU carries out almost none of the functions associated with a State; its job is only to maintain collective rules on trade, joint policing and the environment; its total spending, covering all member States, is less than one sixth of what the UK government spends. Nor is it a dictatorship: it is under the collective democratic control of the EU’s members; British Ministers, Prime Ministers and elected MEPs have agreed to its rules and to the UK’s membership contribution; and Britain has a right of veto on some decisions.
The many conflicting details, proffered as ‘facts’ by both sides, are misleading and confusing. It is more honest and more understandable to present a high-level vision when making an argument; supporting statements from influential individuals and organisations should be presented as opinions, not facts. The public can then make up its own mind, based upon which vision it prefers and which supporting statements it trusts. The lies told by the Leave campaign undermine the trustworthiness of those who are leading it. Its slogan, “Vote Leave, take back control”, is a cause for concern – given that its leaders want that “control” to be given to those who are deliberately misleading the public.