Wednesday 12 October 2016

Facts, information and alternative narratives

I've got a bit obsessed with seeing alternative narratives all over the place at the moment.  Here's a few.

1 Brexit. These thoughts were prompted by a comment by colleague Magnus Ramage a while back - about a blog post (or contribution for The Conversation) that he thought of writing but didn't get around to [edit: he has now written a post for his blog]. During the run up to the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU, he'd seen someone calling for more information to help decide which way to vote, and he was reflecting on the relative roles of narratives and information in the debates. I'm not sure what Magnus would have said (I'm sure it would have been far more academically rigorous that what I'm saying here!), but my argument is that the bigger problem was the narratives.

Famously, the 'leave' campaign made a lot out of this: "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's find our NHS instead." Even putting in on the side of their campaign bus.

Sending the EU £350 million a week sounds like a simple fact - information - and indeed it is.  The remain campaign could not say "We do not send the EU £350 million a week" because we do.  But immediately beyond that, the next sentence on the side of the bus ("Let's fund our NHS instead") is narrative which may be disputed. Yes, it might theoretically be possible to spend the £350 million a week on the NHS instead of sending it the EU if we left the EU, but in reality there was never any chance that would happen. The former leave campaigners now acknowledge this - now that they have won the referendum. They have changed their narrative.  A narrative as to why we would not have £350 million a week more to spend on the NHS was very eloquently put by an episode of the radio programme 'More or Less', which you can listen to: "The Cost of EU Membership". So I'll not repeat the arguments (narrative) here, but in essence we would only have the £350 million to spend on the NHS if we didn't replace the current EU funding of, for example, Welsh farmers, with our own funding. (And there's the really bizarre bit about the EU having to continue to give as the 'rebate', even after we were not paying the money to be rebated, if we were to have an extra  £350 million.)

And yet, for enough of the population, the narrative which presented a scenario in which we had an extra 350 million a week to spend on the NHS won the day. We voted to leave. Of course it wasn't just that: there were plenty of other aspects to the narrative and other information information, but my point is that the referendum was decided on force of narratives.  Why the 'leave' narratives held sway is very complicated, but I don't think it had much to do with how much information was available.

2 Halal meat. At various times I've been asked to sign petitions calling for a ban on Halal slaughter, on the grounds of preventing animal cruelty (eg, this one on Let's assume, for the sake of the argument, that Halal slaughter is more cruel than non-Halal (though even this is disputed). Although I feel very strongly about animal cruelty, I've not signed these petitions, because I think that factory farming is much bigger animal welfare issue than Halal.

So there are two pieces of information:

1 Halal Slaughter is cruel 
2 Factory farming is cruel.

One narrative, which asks me to sign the petition, presents #1 and ignores - or downplays - #2, while I'm arguing the other way around. (I'm not vegetarian but I avoid factory-farmed meat, having a low-meat diet and sticking to vegetarian food if I can't get free-range meat.)

But why should that stop me signing the petition anyway? The problem is what else the anti-halal narrative entails, which tends to be aligned with either right-wing Islamaphobia (so, for example, the right-wing, Trump-supporting, Breithart news supports it) or new atheists such as Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins. I'm not saying I automatically oppose anything supported by the new atheists (or even Breithart news, for that matter), but it does lead you to wonder whether the narrative is really about animal welfare or opposition to religion. I mention Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins because they were praising Denmark for banning halal, yet Denmark has a terrible record on factory farming.

Two other issues that I've thought about in terms of narrative but won't spend time writing about now, are: 3 Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Leadership and, onto more serious issues... 4 Should the manager of MK Dons, Karl Robinson, be sacked? (No!)

Discussion.  I was chatting with a reader of this blog (there are some!) last week, and she referred to a conversation that she'd had about an issue with two competing stories. Her interlocutor had said 'what we need is more information'.  That is based on a positivist paradigm where the information/data is 'out there' waiting to be found, and that there is a 'best' (some would even argue, a 'correct') narrative to fit the information/data.

My argument here is that 'more information' does not in general help, because the narrative chooses or creates the information to fit the story.  But still, not all narratives are equal.

My narrative itself needs more work!

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