Stubborn facts?

Toby Young (Fulbright Lecture, 2014, reported by Laura McInery):

Kids can't analyse or think critically without first learning facts

Post Date
09 September, 2014
Reading Time
4 min read

Toby Young (Fulbright Lecture, 2014, reported by Laura McInery):

Kids can’t analyse or think critically without first learning facts

I’m not an educationalist, but broadly I agree.  Inequality is a subject that attracts people who are both passionate about the issues and intensely nerdy about the facts and data. So my eye was drawn to a blog on this topic by Mr Young, entitled: “Why the leader of the TUC should vote Conservative”, which appeared to be packed with facts and data. Leaving the headline aside, the point of the article was (broadly) to argue that inequality had grown under Labour and is shrinking now. This is just about arguable, although tendentious at best (see John Rentoul and Declan Gaffney for further discussions).

I was not, however, surprised, given previous experience, to find that several of the “facts” in the article were not merely tendentious or selective, but just plain wrong.  Three in particular stood out:

Under Labour, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer

Of course they didn’t, as this IFS analysis or this JRF chart show.

Those on lowest incomes are now paying less tax than under Labour

This is only true if you don’t think VAT is a tax (the clue is in the name). More on this shamelessly dishonest conflating of income tax with “tax” here.

income inequality has fallen to its lowest level since 1986

This was tendentious somewhat over a year ago (false according to the data usually used by government and external researchers, but true using a different data series), but is now simply false, as tables 1 and 5 here, from Mr Young’s source, show. On this source inequality rose last year and is higher than in 2004-05.

After an exhausting and exhaustive twitter exchange, Mr Young grudgingly conceded on all three points, all of which have now been corrected in the link posted above.  Credit to him for that at least (although good practice, followed by every serious blogger, is of course to footnote the fact that errors have been corrected and explain what’s going on.  See me here for example).

But the interesting thing is not so much the errors, or their correction, as the consequence for the substance  of the blog. Presumably, his view that inequality had grown under Labour and is now shrinking – the analytic substance of the argument – was in large part driven by the original data and evidence cited in the article: the fact that the poor got poorer under Labour, that inequality was shrinking, that the poor were paying less tax. 

So presumably, now he is aware and has accepted that none of these statements is actually true, he has reworked his analysis. Obviously, anyone with his stated views, in the quote above and elsewhere, on the need for facts to precede critical thinking and analysis (which, at least as set out above, I broadly share) would feel the need to do that.  Better still, he might even have taken down the blog for a while and tried to do the research properly (he could, for example, have replaced the table with an accurate, up to date version, as I suggested). Of course, he might still come to more or less the same conclusion – that would be fair enough – but it would be based on correct data this time.

Er, no. Not a bit of it. All the remainder of the blog is completely unchanged, even where the result is that his argument makes no sense at all: take this, from the revised version:

But is O’Grady right to claim “the gap has got worse” in the past four years?  Absolutely not. Income inequality fell in 2011-12 to its lowest level since 1986.

What year is it again? Has Mr Young not noticed the fact he is now quoting really doesn’t make any case against Ms O’Grady’s statement? (which is indeed arguable at best – but Mr Young hasn’t shown it).

Keynes famously said (or maybe he didn’t, but it’s a good sentiment anyway):

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

Well, we know what Toby Young does. Saves time I guess.