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‘I read it in the Daily Mirror’ – Denis MacShane explains evidence based policymaking

October 23rd, 2009

Dr Petra

In the wake of Nick Davies’ investigation into sex trafficking in the UK, there’s been a welcome discussion on the issue of prostitution and politics.

Rahalia Gupta was quick to respond in a Comment is Free column in the Guardian. She seemingly misunderstood Davies investigation and complained he was denying trafficking existed. I’d predicted this might be a response from abolitionists, but it’s still depressing when basic information is accidentally or deliberately misunderstood. As a counterpoint Elizabeth Pisani (also in Comment is Free) expanded on Davies investigation and outlined why the governments anti trafficking stance could do more harm than good.

Academics (including myself) responded to Davies report positively, as it highlighted examples of poor research practice and the acceptance of inaccurate data by the government. While a number of MPs criticised Davies and again suggested he was denying trafficking.

The Guardian certainly seemed abuzz with this discussion. The excitement didn’t seem to be shared so enthusiastically in other parts of the media, which is a shame. However, bloggers did take up the story with interesting results. The tireless Belinda Brooks Gordon (who organised the academics’ letter to the Guardian linked above) wrote a fantastic blog on the Bogus Figures on Trafficking which outlined the flaws in the governments plans. Neuroskeptic returns to the issues of unreliable figures reported in Davies’ investigation. Over at Harlot’s Parlour, Claudia Belloqc reflects on how prostitution is misreported by the misleading trafficking figures (and related political debates).

Penny Red adds a different dimension to the discussion by expressing frustration with the way this debate has been handled, and how upsetting she’s found engaging in online debates about the trafficking story. A fair point given how heated many of the exchanges have been – before and after Davies story broke. A wider discussion of the science behind the trafficking statistics can be found over at Bad Science Forums.

However, the unwitting star of this news event was politician Denis MacShane. He famously told parliament on more than one occasion that 25000 women were trafficked into Britain every year. Nick Davies questioned this figure, and MacShane was asked to defend it on Newsnight. During this interview MacShane admitted he got the 25000 figure from something he read in the Daily Mirror. He claimed it was a figure produced by Amnesty International, although if you read the Mirror piece in question this isn’t quite true. A quote appears from Amnesty, but not from them raising the 25000 figure.

MacShane obviously is concerned about trafficked women, but his blustering and bullying performance on Newsnight does nothing for his cause. Not least because he is unable to defend his use of misleading data, and shows he did not check the statistics he asked parliament to base policy changes upon. Worse still, he appears completely unwilling to apologise for offering up a statistic of how many women are trafficked, when he freely admits he actually doesn’t know how many women are trafficked into the UK annually.

Sadly MacShane represents the way many politicians understand and apply evidence. He saw a statistic in a newspaper, it sounded plausible to him, and perhaps confirmed other concerns he had about this issue. So he accepted it.

What he didn’t do was question the figure, try and identify where it came from, or consider alternative evidence.

I can see why this might be. If you believe passionately about an issue you want to do something about it. If you’re focusing on trying to address a problem and you keep hearing about it then it might mislead you into thinking it’s more common than it is. You may see nothing problematic in enhancing figures or publicising worse case scenarios if it means you further your cause. Indeed you might view it as a necessary act of protection.

I think MacShane is a classic example of why this government is in trouble. They don’t understand what evidence is. They don’t have a full grasp of critically appraising evidence. They don’t take time to check information, they’ll go with what sounds good and is most likely to win people to their cause. It’s why poor research with no ethical checks is accepted, because there’s no awareness of what makes good practice. And why politicians are unwilling to hear from academics sharing a more balanced evidence base. Because it contradicts their standpoint plus may be something difficult to follow. After all if someone like MacShane can’t see why his reliance on something he read in the Mirror is a problem for informing policy, it’s unlikely he’d be willing to grasp more complex skills at searching for and critiquing evidence.

There is, of course, the more worrying issue that politicians are fully aware that there is a wider evidence base they ought to draw upon but simply refuse to engage or learn appraisal skills.

This debate looks set to continue, but it does appear that more people are becoming aware of the backplot to this story. And thanks to the behaviour of Denis MacShane it may be more people are aware that politicians don’t just fail to check their data, they don’t understand why that’s problematic.

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