I posted earlier today about a dodgy election graphic doing the rounds on social media (see left). I tweeted it out and put it about on Facebook. And wow – my blog stats went through the roof.
With yesterday’s post about another dodgy election graphic I’ve had over 1,000 hits yesterday and over 3,000 hits today. This is incredible for a niche vanity blog such as this, which does well to get 10 hits a day.
Anyway since the blog post got circulated I found a Facebook thread where a fella named Marrick Gaeafau actually modified the graph and added some extra context. He kindly agreed that I could share it on here.
I asked him where he got the data from and he said:
“The actual figures were gained from my own record of the elections. I’ve been keeping them since 1979”
The revised graphic is below along with a pro-Corbyn commentary that demonstrates once you have an accurate picture of what has gone how you interpret it matters too. The interpretation is where the debate should be.
I’ve had over 2,500 hits on my two posts on dodgy graphics and I’ve had one person challenge me about why I’m doing this. He suggested that as someone on the left I should not be unpicking this as it damages the left. I disagreed with him and you can read the Twitter exchange here.
Before I provide the commentary on the graphic I want to outline why, despite being a public sector trade union official, and long time Labour Party member / activist I have critiqued the two dodgy graphics. My reasons:
- If you drive a car with ice on the windows you are likely to crash because you cannot get accurate feedback on your progress due to the distorted (or blocked) view you have because of the ice. If we want Labour to win the general election in 2020 we need to plot our course based on an undistorted view of progress, otherwise we will most likely crash. We do ourselves no favours if we allow ourselves to have a distorted picture of reality.
- I, like many other Labour Party activists rightly pour scorn on the Lib Dems for their leaflets with their legendary dodgy bar charts like this and these. We are stinking hypocrites if we indulge in our own version of dodgy graphics, and we lose the moral high ground.
- It damages Labour’s credibility, especially Corbyn supporters, to be associated with this. Corbyn supporters are already characterised by a hostile media as “unrealistic dreamers” and circulating such distorted graphics only serves to reinforce that characterisation.
- It is fundamentally dishonest to promote dodgy graphics. I’ve done my own fair share of trying to show the impact of this Tory government by using data sensibly such as an analysis (here and here) of council cuts that shows the most deprived councils are hit the hardest. Such woeful data representation from the left, such as shown on this post, gives the right evidence to say we cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
- We should never be afraid of the truth even if it tells us things we don’t want to hear. Telling small lies to ourselves just escalates into telling bigger and bigger lies to ourselves and we then end up somewhere very ugly.
Going back to the revised graphic with the more relevant info on it. Of course, this can be spun as a criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. I don’t want to do that here, as there are plenty of people on social media and the mainstream media doing it and I don’t need to add to it; I’m going to give a pro-Corbyn spin on this instead.
For the record this is an academic exercise as I’m not sure I agree with all the arguments, but they are legitimate points of debate. My purpose for stating these points is not to argue for (or against) Corbyn – this post is more about the correct use of data – but I do want to demonstrate you can have a pro-Corbyn analysis of the results without resorting to distorting the way you use the data.
- Scotland was a mess well before Corbyn was leader and not of his making. It is far too soon to be expecting his leadership to fix these problems.
- Success in the mayoral elections in London and Bristol.
- Of course the council results were not good because the party was divided because of the public sniping from dissident MPs. That cost Labour votes. [Side nerd point: this is in fact a confounding variable that you’d want to control for. Therefore, if dissident MPs want to demonstrate Corbyn is electorally damaging they should stop their sniping and let him “fail on his own terms” to prove it is him and not their sniping that is the problem].
- The row over antisemitism lost Labour votes. [Side point: who is at fault for this becoming an issue is a whole other argument]
- In 2015 Labour suffered the worst election defeat since 1987. It is going to take a long time to turn the party’s fortunes around.
- They are actually a lot better than the loss of 100 – 150 councillors that were being predicted by the media before the elections.
Let’s not fool ourselves, compared to 1995 and 2006 these results were not good. But the above points do show it is still possible to make a pro-Corbyn argument around these results without using misleading graphics.
None of us should ever be frightened of the truth. Unless you have a clear and undistorted picture of where you are, you cannot make the right decisions to get to where you want to.
And before I sign off a repeat of my top tips to look out for when looking at graphics and data on social media:
- The graphic should have its provenance on it. That way people know who has done it and can track down the creator to ask questions. Not having the provenance on it doesn’t mean the graphic isn’t correct, but it should set alarm bells ringing.
- The graphic should say where the data was sourced from, with a link to the data if at all possible. If you cannot track down the data that created the graphic, then be very wary.
- If some significant calculations or data analysis is required then there should be a link to the spreadsheet or other analysis that was done so it can be checked. Remember the study by highly respected academics Reinhart and Rogoff, that purported to prove austerity worked; it turned out to have a spreadsheet error that made their conclusions invalid. It was only because they made their spreadsheet available that this error was spotted.
- If the graphic purports to compare things – ask yourself is it a fair or false comparison?
- If the graphic proves what you want it to, remember confirmation bias and ask yourself if you are just believing what you want to believe. Next, ask yourself if it proved the opposite of what you wanted, what would be your criticisms of the graphic? Finally, ask why these criticisms aren’t valid even though the graphic proves what you want.
- It if looks too good to be true, it might well be.
As the late, great physicist Richard Feynman once said
“the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”
Edit added few days after the original post: My claim in the blog title that this was as “corrected version of the dodgy graphic” may have had some issues. Several commenters have made some very valid comments of the revised graphic (read them in the post comments). So in the interests of fairness I think it is important to highlight this rather than let readers assume it is wholly correct and only find the criticisms if they dig down in the comments. I believe it is better to be upfront about this. I am of course unhappy at having posted the graphic without casting a critical eye over it first. In my haste on a Sunday morning to get the item posted I didn’t check it. My bad. But there should be no shame in acknowledging this. I would however point out, that my criticisms of the original graphic still stand and this second graphic still has some merits, especially in the use of NEV, but it was a mistake for the graphic not to point out it was using NEV. I’m going to post more about this (and other political graphics) when I get time as I think it has thrown up some wider issues especially on whether or not the use of NEV in the revised graphic was reasonable (I think it was).