Wellbeing has become a hot political issue. Now it’s going to be measured, so that the nation’s wellbeing can be tracked along with more traditional economic measures of how society is doing. The Office for National Statistics is in charge of working out how best to measure it, which is no mean feat.
A set of proposed domains has been put together by the ONS and as part of a consultation exercise we all have the opportunity to respond. Yesterday, I received two emails from former colleagues who are heavily involved in arts for wellbeing, drawing attention to the fact that the proposed domains make no mention of the arts or creativity. This is clearly a huge oversight, and leaves me slightly tempted to make dreadfully judgemental assumptions about the worldview of statisticians, but that would be short-sighted of me.
Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world.
Personally, I’ve always known, in an intuitive, guttural way, that the arts matter. Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world. Moments of celebration, bewilderment or desperation often only really make sense and come to take on their full meaning because we can connect to an artistic expression of what’s happening in our lives. Art brings things to the surface that nothing else can, whether it’s being moved to tears by a perfectly played piano, feeling the real meaning of war by looking at a painting, or laughing with liberated abandon when we recognise our own foibles in another’s artistic utterance.
Certainly, art helps us through. But that’s not to say it’s just a luxury. In my view it is a necessity. We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend. At the peak of an impassioned chat about what’s wrong with the world, a good friend of mine once said to me that ‘the true test of everything is the arts’. In these times of multiple crises, we need the arts more than ever, to help us understand problems and come up with solutions. It’s not just about wellbeing, it’s about survival.
We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend.
So, of course arts and creativity should be included in the ONS wellbeing domains. But, even assuming enough people say so in the consultation, we need to be clear that these new measures are only ever going to be capable of sketching the vaguest picture of where we are on the wellbeing spectrum.
I quite frequently get my knickers in a twist about the inherent problems of measuring things. If you ask people questions, they answer them, but there are lots of reasons why the answers often don’t really mean much: desirability bias (saying what you think you should say rather than what you really think), suggestivity (ask someone if something is dangerous and you’ve planted the seed that it might be) and reductiveness (with complex things like attitudes, or wellbeing, the answer is often ‘it depends’, which can’t be captured by the bipolar response scales favoured by statisticians).
One of the huge challenges facing the arts is the obsession our society has recently developed with having an evidence base for everything. You can only fund your interactive art workshop for, say, young people in care, if you can prove that it ‘works’, according to one arbitrarily defined ‘outcome measure’ or another. I passionately believe that we should take steps to ensure that the things we do with and for people are effective ways of doing what we’re trying to do, and in that sense I am a firm believer in evidence based practice. But, what constitutes good evidence is a crucial political question. In the case of what ‘counts’ as an indicator of wellbeing, the exclusion of the arts is one example of the injurious ways in which we can easily get it wrong.
Boris Johnson has been kicking up a stink over being brought to task on his misuse of statistics. The issue in hand is to do with the statistics which supposedly demonstrate the reoffending rate of prisoners leaving the Heron Unit at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, which is funded by the London mayor. When Johnson cheerfully announced to a Commons Committee that only 19% of prisoners leaving the unit went on to reoffend, compared with the 78% national figure, it didn’t bother him that the figures related to people who had only been out of prison for a few weeks. Not only that, but the comparisons made were inappropriate because they do not control for differences in the characteristics of the different populations.
These discrepancies were summarised by Sir Michael Scholar, who is chair of the UK Statistics Authority, and wrote to the chair of the home affairs committee to tell him that the figures do not stand up to scrutiny and should not be used.
When questioned about the issue during Mayor’s question time yesterday, Johnson was blasé, and has been quoted as having said, “There’s this guy called Scholar who writes me letters, who appears to be some sort of Labour stooge.” Making such a slur on a highly respected, impartial champion of trustworthy statistical evidence shows an unwarranted lack of respect. The question the mayor was being asked was whether, in light of this latest misuse of statistics, he would now sign up to the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. His response to that question was “I’m not minded to.” This casual dismissiveness is troubling and draws attention to what Ben Goldacre has called the “contempt with which politicians hold evidence and statistics”.
Making such a slur on a highly respected, impartial champion of trustworthy statistical evidence shows an unwarranted lack of respect.
Goldacre points out that what politicians want to do with statistics is to use them as narrative devices, adding weight to whatever story they’re trying to tell. In defending his misuse of the statistics, Johnson said “I used the statistics I had in my head about the success of the Heron Unit, because I want to promote that unit and I want to see more work done like that. And if it means advertising the success, I am absolutely determined to do it.” This basically amounts to saying that he believes the unit is working, irrespective of statistical evidence, and he’s going to do whatever is necessary to convince people of its success, regardless of whether the statistics he has in his head are valid or reliable.
This complete lack of concern for accuracy represents a deeper problem with the way in which politicians, journalists and the public treat statistical evidence.
This complete lack of concern for accuracy represents a deeper problem with the way in which politicians, journalists and the public treat statistical evidence. If we believe something works well, whether it’s a young offenders unit, a new way of teaching maths, or any kind of social intervention, it’s easy to assume that once it’s collected, the evidence is bound to demonstrate it works well, so therefore it’s fine to grab the nearest statistic that corroborates your view and use it to gain support.
There’s plenty of examples of how this nonchalant attitude to statistical evidence leads to policy mistakes and wasted resources. The Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) initiative is a case in point. Based on the instincts of well-meaning academics and policymakers, a national programme was rolled out, for which there was only flimsy evidence of effectiveness. Only when it had been set up and delivered nationally was a robust evaluation conducted, which demonstrated that it had virtually no effect on the domains it set out to influence.
Instead of dismissing expert advice, Boris Johnson should take seriously the need to gather and analyse evidence properly, and I think he really ought to apologise to Michael Scholar.
I picked a copy of the Guardian out of a (relatively clean) bin on Saturday, and immediately congratulated myself on the discovery. The highlight was the science column by Alok Jha which gives some mathematical insight into the ‘We are the 99%’ mantra of the Occupy movement.
The vast inequality of wealth is related to broader natural patterns, described as power laws. Power laws have been simplified by trainers and consultants and turned into the so-called ’80/20 rule’ which looks less and less like a rule the more you think about it, and more like a rough and ready heuristic to explain something much more complex and important, which is what it is.
Jha writes: “The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.
The simplest version says that 80% of your company sales will come from 20% of your customers; that 80% of the world’s internet traffic will go to 20% of the websites; 80% of the film industry’s money gets made by 20% of its movies; 80% of the usage of the English language involves just 20% of its words. You get the picture.”
I could dwell on this for hours, but need to get back to serious work. Suffice to say that power laws are important correctives to the human intuitions on what is ‘natural’.
As Jha puts it: “The average height of the people in a room (following the normal distribution) might tell you a lot about the spread heights of people in that room, but the average wealth of a country’s citizens (which follows a power law distribution) tells you little or nothing about how rich or poor most people are.”