Dumb and Dumber- the malady of the quotidian

Now, what I want is, Facts

May 26, 2009

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them . . . Stick to Facts, sir!’ Gradgrind, in Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

We have never had greater access to facts, yet according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, only 34% of the worldwide public trust news media, a figure down from 46% last year. The percentage falls to 28% in the UK, which boasts the world’s the highest per capita spend on media, yet is outside the top 20 in terms of trust in its information providers. These facts – or, more accurately, statistics – presented at the recent Editorial Intelligence /Reuters Institute/Edelman panel discussion, merit an article in themselves (on its way). We are certainly living in sceptical times, but, more worryingly, there appears to be a direct and accelerating correlation between the amount of information thrown at our citizens and their capacity to believe it. The blatant professional manipulation which has become a hallmark of politics and, to a marked degree, of business reporting, has corroded our faith in the media itself.

Lies are arguably less dangerous than the manipulation of empirical truth. Facts, and notoriously, statistics, can be partially and selectively presented and juxtaposed to persuasively justify unreasonable scenarios, especially if ‘emotional intelligence’ is set aside in the grim pursuit of ‘empirical reason’ – more or less Dickens’ core argument against Utilitarianism. It is no coincidence that John Stuart Mill is a Blairite poster boy in an age and a country where facts are ostensibly in oversupply yet trust in government, and especially the media, has rarely, if ever been lower. Thus said, I love fact and favour empiricism over hypothesis, but believe that the currency of fact itself has been debased. The most telling facts have a thusness which does not require deep analysis. You can take them or leave them, but if you allow them to speak for themselves, they resonate of their own accord. Here’s a random selection from last week’s UK media, mostly aggregated by Ten, one of my favourite websites. Make up your own mind as to what they imply:

• A third of all UK MPs employ members of their close family, some of whom receive as much as £40,000 a year of taxpayers money. BBC

• 69% of voters think Gordon Brown has handled the MP’s expenses scandal badly, 23% think he has handled it well; 55% credit David Cameron with handling the issue well and 35% badly. (ICM/Guardian poll)

• Seven Speakers of the House of Commons were beheaded prior to 1560. (Guardian)

• More than 50 employees of the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) earn more than the UK Prime Minister. (Thus)

• Elizabeth 1 had a plaque in her Whitehall Palace bedchamber that read: The fall of Rome was due to three things: self-interest, hidden hatreds and youthful council. (TEN)

• Confidence among business professionals rose to -28.2 at the end of March, from -45.3 at the end of the previous quarter. (Institute of Chartered Accountants)

• UK home repossessions in Q1 rose by 50% on the equivalent period in 2008. (Council of Mortgage Lenders)

• The number of women giving birth over the age of 40 has more than doubled to 26,419 in the past 10 years; greater equality means more women choose to spend their 20s and 30s pursuing careers while higher mortgages mean others have put off having a family. (Mail)

• Pringles have been designated a crisp, despite Proctor and Gamble, its owners, arguing in court that it is only 42% potato – it now owes HMRC £100m in back taxes. (FT)

• 275 million people are now using Facebook – it’s growing at a rate of 500,000 per day – which accounts for 4.1 per cent of the world’s online time. (T3)

• The CEO of BT may receive a £680,000 bonus despite the firm reporting a full-year loss of £134m, announcing 15,000 job cuts and a 50% cut in its dividend. (Ten)

Thanks again to Ten.