Truth in a time of crisis

Plymouth student protest against the cuts ((c) BBC)With the sound of student protest ringing in my ears in London – and some of it even carrying across the Irish sea – the crisis is beginning to feel less like an arcane piece of economic theory, and instead become a tangible fear about the future.  Research budgets will be a part of the cuts, and many of us will understandably be fearing for our own careers.  But if we somehow manage to cling on to a life in research by our fingertips, then what is it that we should be doing within our ivory towers as the inequalities around us multiply?

I was jolted into thinking about this by a senior colleague of mine at LSE (and one of my role models),  who recently told me that they felt that their previous three years of research had been a waste.  All this tinkering with theoretical detail just didn’t seem to matter when real people’s lives are being so badly affected by job losses and benefit cuts. (My colleague was actually worrying over nothing as their work is highly practical theoretical tinkering – but the concern is a real one).

It’s tempting to delve into the fascinating philosophical debates about what a ‘well-ordered science’ would look like (to use Philip Kitcher’s phrase) – but I’ll hold these conceptual musings back for another time.  Instead, here are my four thoughts on what inequality-concerned social scientists can do:

  • Describe the world truthfully. Inevitably there will be innumerable falsehoods being spread around by those responsible for the cuts.  In the UK we’ve already seen many examples of this, not least the bizarre claim by the deputy Prime Minister that the Institute of Fiscal Studies – without doubt the most respected economic think-tank in the UK – was talking ‘distorted nonsense’ in their claim that the cuts were not progressive.  The DWP (which is responsible for welfare payments) has already been forced to admit that  statistics claimed to come from the Office of National Statistics instead came from FindAProperty.com.  More seriously, the Head of the UK Statistics Authority has rapped the DWP over the knuckles for ‘serious deficiencies’ in their use of statistics.

In this climate, the role of researchers as defenders of the truth is crucial. Nice though it is to make causal claims, sometimes simple descriptions of the world have a power beyond that of even the fanciest statistical models.

  • Defend the data necessary to do this. There are going to be cuts to Government surveys, and these are the bedrock on which much UK social science is built.  The Office of National Statistics is currently consulting on what to cut – so we should loudly stand up for the most important sources on different inequalities.  There’s a meeting at the Royal Statistical Society next week for anyone in London who wants to know more.
  • Evaluate the impact of the cuts on disadvantaged groups – and on inequality in the long-term. This is the most obviously necessary task that’s facing us: we need to look at what was done, and figure out what effect it had on who.  There will be some cuts subject to dire warnings that weren’t actually that bad – and others that were quietly disastrous… And we need to show which is which.  But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of focusing entirely on the short-term, as cuts in middle-class benefits will also have harmful long-term impacts on the future of inequality in the UK – as I’ve argued both on Inequalities and elsewhere.
  • Generate ideas for the post-crisis world. When the deficit has been reduced we will have a much-reduced welfare state with some obvious holes.  For thinkers on the left, there will be a ‘policy window’ in which radical ideas can be adopted.  If we only start thinking of these at the time, then we’re likely to be too late.  This is the lesson of the current UK coalition, where right-wing think-tanks like the Centre for Social Justice carefully prepared policies that the Conservatives are now implementing – and which the Tories failed to do in their wilderness years in opposition.

Criticisms/further suggestions in the comments below would be welcome though – at the very least, these are the issues that will frame the next five years of my life, once I pass the (significant) hurdle of finding someone to employ me…

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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8 Responses to Truth in a time of crisis

  1. Good ideas. I think to communicate with the general public and gain support for reducing inequality, you have to consider what effect the inequality has on people. Education is unequal so some people won’t have a sufficient level of knowledge to understand the evidence and arguments, so people involved in the public communication of science must try to simplify without dumbing down.

    And the idea of people as completely rational economic actors may be outdated, but personal concerns over taxes are an obstacle for the case against inequality. But this is just a knee-jerk reaction, and the case against inequality can appeal to self-interest, as for instance the Spirit Level shows everyone can be better of in a less unequal society. People who think in this way have to be show that they are acting irrationally from a self-interested perspective, especially as inequality leads to more selfish opinions.

  2. Jack Cunliffe says:

    Immediately upon reading your post Ben I thought pretty much the same as the previous comment. It’s one thing do work in an ‘Ivory Tower’ but we’ve got to be able to parcel that information across in a short discussion with someone who may not have knowledge of the subject, explaining the problem, the trends over time and the likely implications of the current governmental policies. It’s more than a matter of unequal education – even highly educated people may not have an day-to-day interest in our subject and have completely erroneous idea of what is going on. I’m sure I heard a nameless Professor who works in this area describe the 90:10 ratio as being around 7.2 recently…

    maybe a good idea for a post – a “bus ride conversation on inequality” – key facts etc. and so forth, in a digestible quotable format… and may I recommend http://www.equalities.gov.uk/pdf/Findings%20final.pdf (5 pages but could be compressed to just figure) for the trends, then it’ll be some work for the current policy implication but yes, IFS would be a start.

  3. Ben Baumberg says:

    Cheers for the comments – you’re completely right that communicating our findings to the wider public is even more of a priority in the post-crisis world. (And Jack, you’re right that the National Equality Panel report is a great example here!). Exactly what we present is crucial though, as there’s a balance between simplicity and robustness (see my post on Wilkinson & Pickett in the first post on the blog.

    As an aside, what do you guys think of the Leon Feinstein graph that shows that less intelligent kids from more advantaged backgrounds overtake smarter, more disadvantaged kids by the age of 10? (This has been reproduced a lot, e.g. Figure 2 of this). This would probably be my pick for the most influential inequality graph in the last 10 years, but I’m not sure if it works for everyone…

  4. Philipp Hessel says:

    …one of the things coming tomy mind is really the link between necessary data and research on ‘disadvantaged’ groups and/or minorities.

    the fact, that in many countries governments are indeed planing to save money by (partly or entirely) replacing offical statistics (such as censuses or representative population surveys) by ‘process’ or ‘user generated’ data (you give the example of ‘FindAProperty.com’, online surveys etc.) might severely limit the capability to analyse/infer to certain sub-populations.

    the reason for this is quite simply because the vast majority of ‘process’ or ‘user generated’ data is only representative for the actualy USERS. thus, in the case of online-data you’re eventually missing out all those not having www-access (which might be linked to poverty in the first place!) etc.

    actually stephen fienberg and kenneth prewitt have recently criticised this issue in more detail in an article in NATURE called ‘save your census’.

    as they put it: ‘Most scientists and policy-makers worldwide fail to appreciate what is at stake until it is too late to repair the damage of short-sighted decisions.’ [!]

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7310/full/4661043a.html

    • Jack Cunliffe says:

      Too true PH – take for example the lack of a longitudinal cohort study from the 80s or 90s.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      I’d forgotten about this – thanks for reminding me! But remember that most population surveys also miss out a lot of people by focusing on the household population, so missing people in institutions (e.g. care homes) and without fixed addresses (inc travellers, homeless people). Process-generated data is often poor, but I’m open to the idea that it’s a better balance to scrap the Census in favour of a high-quality survey, and then spending the money saved on separate efforts to research disadvantaged groups.

  5. The inequality graph sounds powerful – it should disabuse people of the notion that inequality is the result of differences in natural talent. I think it also violates our sense of natural justice, that everyone should be able to fulfill their potential, although I don’t think genetically determined inequality is any fairer than environmentally determined inequality.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      I completely agree – I’ve never understood why inequality based on genetic endowments is seen as fair. I’d love to do some research on people’s attitudes around this at some point, should I find a funding body that wants to commission some research on it…

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