• Immigration, GDP, emissions and housing figures were all wrong
  • How can you debate if you can’t count?
  • Stick to Megan Markle

Political and social debate is getting ever more divisive in the UK. We spend our time arguing over things like “What is a woman?” and which prince is worse. Anyone who disagrees with you is downright evil.

However, I think this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. I mean, what’s the point of arguing about the things that matter when we can’t even count?

Whether it’s GDP, Brexit, immigration, Covid or any number of other issues that affect you, the figures keep getting revealed as fluff that weren’t worth arguing about in the first place.

The latest blunder came from the NHS. After a year of countless videos, articles and economic analyses connecting Brexit with the UK’s economic underperformance relative to its peers, it turns out the numbers were just wrong. The UK is in the middle of the pack amongst its peers when it comes to our GDP recovery.

Each year, the forecasts of the UK’s economic underperformance are replaced with “despite Brexit” headlines. But that’s not my point. The point is that if we can’t count GDP, what’s the point in debating it for years?

Back in 2017, it was the issue of migration that was exposed as a pointless debate. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“The immigration figures are based on relatively small-scale passenger surveys at airports, […]”

I’m sorry, but WTF.

The Telegraph reports Britain’s official government immigration statistics are based on relatively small-scale passenger surveys at airports.

Small-scale passenger surveys at airports…

Surveys that are dramatically incorrect based on a comparison with a new system which aims to actually measure migration.

Incorrect by “tens of thousands” a year for international students alone.

“Based on previous figures the analysis suggests that around 3,300 people a year overstay their visas, far lower than estimates which suggest tens of thousands of people “vanish” after finishing their degrees.”

Yes, they do vanish… back home overseas…

All those foreign students we thought were staying in the UK illegally actually left a long time ago. Only 3% remain each year according to the new system’s figures.

And even the new system introduced in 2015 can’t handle it when an immigrant dies, has a second passport they use to exit the country, or someone misspells their name at customs.

The result was a radical recalculation of how many people were in the UK, upending the Brexit debate.

This wasn’t the only immigration blunder that unhinged Brexit arguments. When the government opened up applications for EU citizens to remain in the UK, they got millions more applications from EU citizens than they thought were in the UK at all…

In fact, more than twice the number of EU citizens were allowed to stay than the government estimated were in the UK at the time of the referendum. If you believe the numbers, that is…

Nothing spurred public debate in the UK like Covid statistics. Heck, a good deal of the excess deaths were probably family members killing each other over the arguments.

However, most of the measures we used turned out to be… dodgy. Infection fatality rates were nowhere near initial estimates, deaths from Covid turned out to be deaths with Covid, the protection offered by vaccines changed dramatically and so on and so forth.

How many of the passionate debates people had were subsequently rendered pointless because the figures completely changed?

If you’re going to be passionate, why not argue about something a bit more concrete like Megan Markle’s parenting skills and the rules of the Rugby Union?

We’re not the only ones struggling with dodgy data. A real estate expert in the US decided to do some investigating after the evidence from her own eyes didn’t match up with the housing statistics published by the government. What she found makes the Office for National Statistics look sophisticated.

My own brush with dodgy data came from a similar set of circumstances. As part of my never-to-be-completed PhD, I discovered that a good chunk of Australia’s mortgage data is false. The incomes that people claimed on their mortgage applications were frequently inflated (by bankers and mortgage brokers), turning a great deal of seemingly prime loans into what Americans would call sub-prime in reality.

No article is complete without mentioning the relevance of climate change, these days, but do you remember the diesel dramas when “the science” suddenly reversed? Or recent investigations into how much carbon is actually offset by carbon offsets?

Perhaps most dramatic of all were the revelations in Ross Clark’s book Not Zero (something he also discussed with me earlier this year) which revealed how sending our factory emissions offshore by moving manufacturing there supposedly reduces them…

How am I supposed to have a decent argument with anyone when the facts keep changing so often? By the time we agree, the facts will prove us both wrong all over again.

Denying the facts, fact-checking, and censorship of false claims – all these things rely on our ability to establish reality. But if you can’t even count, there is no such thing. One plus one indeed fails to equal two in a world where one might become two tomorrow.

As we try to analyse and consider our political, economic and financial futures, we face some serious questions to answer and decisions to make. But can we take any of the information we receive to help us with this challenge seriously?

If we can’t dismiss the kooks and conspiracy theorists, because they might be right, for a time, before the data changes again, then who can we listen to? People who have proven their inability to count in the past?

If we can’t count the amount of emissions from a diesel car, can we count the carbon emissions of the UK?

If we can’t distinguish between someone who was killed by or with Covid, can we count any other health statistical data?

If we can’t count GDP, can we claim to know how different decisions might impact it?

Perhaps we should follow the example of Oregon in the US, where politicians have decided to abolish the need to read or do maths if students want to graduate from school. It’s not like you need to do either when the facts and figures are wrong anyway…

Don’t let other people’s incompetence lull you into a false sense of confidence. It should spur you into taking action. Action that could help you secure your own financial future while the rest of the world denies reality exists… for as long as they can. Here’s how.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom