Lies, damned lies and statistics

Of course all politicians do it, but senior Government members’ almost habitual use and abuse of research is becoming especially alarming. This is incompetence at best. And could easily be interpreted as something more cynical. This week, it was the turn of daycare provision for  toddlers: Jonas Himmelstrand, a Swedish ‘expert’ called to brief MPs on subsidised provision, turned out to be something of  a charlatan. Himmelstrand was criticised by the professor whose work he drew on as his main source of evidence for having ‘no credibility’ and drawing invalid conclusions from the report. Elsewhere in Education, Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, has publicly warned Michael Gove about co-opting his research on the role of learning facts in education to justify curriculum reform. Elisabeth Truss, Childcare Minister, seems to have adopted the technique we might call Goving: cherry-picking a ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ in a ‘successful’ country (apparently chosen at random), decontextualising it and parachuting it in to justify telling professionals how to do their jobs. Needless to say, the French weren’t totally onside with this utopian vision of their nurseries (even if the food is better). This brings us neatly onto another, perhaps worse trend: policy based on anecdote rather than any pretence of using reliable evidence. A bit like Truss, over in the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith admitted to making policy decisions based on ‘personal observation’ and ignoring the relevant data. Returning to the misuse of evidence: a former chief economist at DWP has also accused IDS of misrepresenting his department’s own statistics – and again drawing invalid conclusions. And yes, it also turns out that a key piece of research used by Osborne to justify austerity contained ‘schoolboy errors‘ which greatly exaggerated the effects of debt on growth.

Inappropriate use of research? Tick!

Biased, inaccurate or invalid interpretation of the evidence? Tick!

Ignoring the evidence when it doesn’t say what you want? Tick!

Michael Gove has long advocated rigour in education. Maybe we could start by educating MPs, with a rigorous course on research methods. They should have no difficulty finding the £9000 fees.