Tough Truths

‘Travellers are questioned for the International Passenger Survey only between 6am and 10pm, so it takes no account of overnight flights. Research by the Financial Times shows that a third of flight departures after 10pm from Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, were to countries within the top 10 origin nations for international students in the UK, including China, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. The ONS acknowledges the problem of missed flights and passengers.’


In 1944, philosopher Ernst Cassirer bewailed a curious dichotomy. ‘No former age was ever in such a favourable position with regard to the sources of our knowledge of human nature… We appear, nonetheless, not yet to have found a method for the mastery and organization of this material.’ ‘[O]ur wealth of facts’, he observes, ‘is not necessarily a wealth of thoughts’. Skip forward to 2016, so mired in unreadable data as to have been branded a ‘post-fact’ world, and it would seem our mastery is still lacking. For those who would obscure the realities – of immigration, of climate change, of inequality – lazy metrics and rampant assumption are oxygen to a flame.


As Author  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her powerful New Yorker essay this month, ‘Now is the time to talk about what we are talking about. Now is the time… [t]o be nimble and alert, clear-eyed and skeptical, active rather than reactive. To make clear choices about what truly matters… Now is the time to elevate the art of questioning… Now is the time to frame the questions differently.’


Immigration – the single most emotive issue in both Brexit and the recent US election – continues to soar above government targets and inflame headlines; the latest official figures, published this week, will show a figure around 3 times higher than the aimed for ‘tens of thousands’. And yet, as the FT reports, the deeply flawed International Passenger Survey – the main measure of net migration – is highly unreliable. ‘The data on Asian emigrants returning after a period of study in the UK have a confidence interval of 10,000 for an estimated figure of 40,000’. It’s bad news for foreign students: ‘According to the passenger survey, about 93,000 non-EU international students are overstaying in Britain after the end of their studies. This has prompted Home Office proposals for further curbs to student visas… Government visa data suggest the figure is about 40,000’.


To survive prolonged assault, metrics must toughen up – or seek new inspiration. Like the difference between the Cuban health system and its bloated US counterpart (respectively spending $813 to $9, 403 per person annually – yet just as effective) data needs a sense check. Cuba doubles up on doctors and sends them into communities to make robust, context-driven diagnoses. When it comes to testing data, the savviest bankers are doing the same: some are ‘buying daily satellite images of shopping mall car parks to predict footfall’; others pay people to count the number of ore trucks to test yield reports; one individual logs the universal sales numbers on their morning coffee receipt to track sales volume.


Since the crash, the financial world has learned the hard way to distrust contentious analytics, like the Black-Scholes model, and find better methods. Post Brexit and Trump, ‘post-fact’, change must come swiftly. As Cassirer concludes, ‘Unless we succeed in finding a clue of Ariadne to lead us out of this labyrinth, we can have no real insight into the general character of human culture; we shall remain lost in a mass of disconnected and disintegrated data which seem to lack all conceptual unity.’