Monday, 20 June 2016

"Facts" vs "facts in isolation"

A clever image courtesy of The Economist, taking the UK out of the EU and leaving both in tatters

Had a leaflet through the door last week entitled "THE UK AND THE EUROPEAN UNION: THE FACTS" (capitalisation and colouring theirs, not mine). It was not immediately obvious that it came from Vote Leave, although that is mentioned right at the end in the small print on the back.

I read it all, and recognised some of the facts though others were new to me. It was an interesting, if provocative, read.

What interested me most, however, was this leaflet's depiction of itself as the unequivocal purveyor of truth. After all, it was presenting THE FACTS, right? Not opinion, rhetoric, propaganda or flim-flam, but THE FACTS. Except, guess what, some facts are, it turns out, more factual than others.

Here's a fact from the leaflet:

"The EU costs us £350m a week. That's enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back and we have no control over the way it's spent - that's decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here."

How many things are wrong with this so-called fact? Well for starters, the gross weekly cost to the UK of being in the EU is £361m, not £350m. But we get £115m back to support public and private sector schemes and £85m rebate (the oft-mentioned deal struck by Thatcher). So we get £200m back out of £361m, or 55.4% ... when I went to school, that was more than half, not less. And we control how the Thatcher rebate money is spent, if not everything else.

Here's another claimed "fact":

"You don't have to be a member of the EU to trade with it. Switzerland is not in the EU and it exports more per person to the EU than we do."

Yes, there are some facts here. in 2014, the Swiss exported around £16,250 worth of goods and service to the EU per capita. For the UK, it was about £3,550. Factually correct. But Vote Leave can't have it both ways. For a start, Switzerland has to contribute to the EU budget, and gets the trade deals in return. So to be like Switzerland might not cost the UK £350m per week, but it would still cost something. Oh, and Switzerland also signed up to the Schengen Agreement, allowing free movement across borders. The UK opted out of Schengen. To imagine that, after leaving the EU, the UK might continue to trade with the EU in the same way just because Switzerland does is therefore an invalid argument. It's like me saying, "If you like apples, you must like bananas because, after all, they're both fruit."

I was going to go on and point out the half-truths, logic holes, incompleteness and inaccuracy of every "truth" in the flyer but I don't have to because the BBC has already conducted a reality check, as has Full Fact. I'd read both of these if I were you, not because I have a particular political allegiance nor because I am advocating one choice or another in Thursday's referendum. No. But I am interested in the truth. Thursday's choice is so complex, ironically so for a single-issue ballot with a yes/no answer, that I find I am reluctant to bang the drum one way or the other; I will, however, continue to read as much as I can on the issue between now and when I cast my vote, and hope you will too. And I hope we can all discern the truth, wherever it lies.

To read a more balanced representation of some pertinent facts, try this. Note that this still has a bias, even if only subconscious, as it comes from pro-Remain title The Economist. At least they declare this, in the introductory paragraph.

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