Social Science, Big Data and Gut Instincts: The General Election 2015 in review

Reflections on the 2015 General Election
by James Addicott, 2015© 

During the 2015 elections in the UK, what I found quite baffling was that, even as a PhD student (without blowing my own trumpet), I really did not feel that I had enough knowledge or facts to make an educated decision about who to vote for. I don’t think anyone did. The peculiar thing here is that we are constantly being told that we live in an age of “big data”; an age of metrics and digital solutions; an age of “transparency”. If this is the case, then why did I feel that I was going on sheer gut instinct when ticking the boxes to elect our future government?

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Although I can read now – in hindsight – about the statistics of which parts of the population or general demographic voted for which parties, the stastistical facts prior to the election were simply not to hand. So many unanswered questions: which party invested the most into the military efforts in the Middle East, Conservatives or Labour? Which party made the most cutbacks on public expenditure overall? Which party reduced unemployment the most? What exactly were the statistics on immigration? Did gross domestic produce increase or decrease while Labour was in office or during the Conservative’s run?

The obvious answer is that all these facts are infinitely complex. They are therefore open to interpretation – and, perhaps it’s a cliché of our time to say “the facts are open to interpretation”?

The other odd thing is that I can download an analyse OECD, NATO, EU or UK Gov. statistics for myself. Anyone can.

Russell Brand seems able to commit himself to an acting career in the US while also managing to download statistics to support his own political arguments (which by the way, are crap). But are the facts that he cites actually valid? Who knows? The way that he presents them is as if these statics just simply “tell it all”, but we are never actually sure where he gets his information from, and how this data is being collected, and by whom, and to what end. I know for certain that Brand never cites from actual academic sources such as journal publications; whereas social scientists are forced to.

The point about Brand is that he is an example that demonstrates how it seems like a fore drawn conclusion that whichever party presents whatever “facts of the matter”, there will always be some degree of biasness behind those statistics, the way they have been compiled, or an even greater likelihood that an opposing party will contest that data with another data set, or an even more “credible” sources. It is pointless then to even compile factsheets or databases given this constant tussle between the “to-be-believed” and the “unbelievable”. The only solution seems to be to reside to voting on gut-instincts or blind-faith – or to play the “national lottery game” and close your eyes, tick a box and wish for the best of luck.

The facts are out the windows then? Well, clearly not because not only to scientific facts help to generate energy, make humans live longer, aid plant growth, or inform political policies around the world.

It seems that it is not only the civilians that are having problems with scientific data but the government too. Right until the night of the elections all media networks reported that the parties were literally “neck and neck”. However, the outcome was fairly unanimous. How was that so impossible to predict in this big data age of algorithms, social surveillance? To the conspiracy theorists, this might seem like a ploy to draw people to the voting booths. I am happy to accept that literally no one actually knew; not even the elites at GCHQ.

As part of my PhD I am currently studying and supervising students on the idea of “reflexive modernity”, put forwards by sociologist Antony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. According to these two, this is the current status of modern culture or modern societies of which we Brits are a part. The idea in short is that environmental degradation, media and communication networks, global markets and economic crises, cause modern people and modern societies to reflect upon their actions. Another aspect of their argument is that in this day and age people have become a lot more critical of scientific knowledge or the knowledge of the experts. For example, no-one is absolutely, 100% sure weather on not we are experiencing “climate change” (a natural change in weather conditions) or “global warming” (a change in weather patterns caused by aerosol cans or the burning of fossil fuels), even though the vast majority of sciences around the world confer that changing weather conditions are caused by industrial processes.

This idea of reflexive modernity also ties in quite neatly with what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1986) suspected and predicted about our contemporary age. For Lyotard “post-modernism” or “post-modern” societies and cultures were distinguishable by a breakdown in trust, or rising skepticism, towards ‘grand narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’. Such grand narratives are the overarching narratives to Life itself. They would include religious narratives (e.g. Christianity), politics (e.g. Marxism) or even scientific or philosophical thought (e.g. the Enlightenment). Again, the idea is that modern societies are loosing faith in scientific knowledge, and our sense of “Truth”, correctness or validity. For some people, that’s a good thing.

The other odd thing is that classical sociologists theorised that modern, scientific knowledge would eventually lead to an end of mythology and spiritualism – Max Weber or The Frankfurt School in particular. This would reduce the feeling of enchantment obtained from Life. This would lead to increased political disenchantment, of the sort expressed by non-voters such as Mr. Brand. Brand’s contempt for politics could therefore be rationalised or explained according to such theories. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the media-spin game; the celebrity-based campaigns, and the gut-feelings or impulses that lead me to tick the boxes I ticked in the general election of 2015, were only marginally informed by socially scientific research. My vote this year was based around a whole game of enchantment, mythology, and lots of new “soon-to-be-broken” promises. In this sense, I would have preferred to make a well-informed decision, but it seemed impossible to do so. It just falls down to a trust game; whom do you trust to lead your country?

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I would like to be able to make better decisions about which political parties to vote for. More than likely, this is an age-old observation and an age-old argument put forth by civilians voting in democratic states. We want “The Truth!” Again, the truth is so open to interpretation. Is this feeling of disenchantment, rising skepticism in scientific evidence really that new then? This really calls into question the whole idea of a “Big Data Society”. So what if we have big data? What does it tell us? What use is it to us is it won’t help us to answer the most simple of questions: “red, yellow, green or blue party?”

Lyotard J-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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