The Home Secretary’s repeated data storytelling fails

There are many things one could say about Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and her carefully-chosen words, designed to capture headlines in the more hysterical sections of the right-wing media. Many – including Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker – have drawn parallels between Braverman’s inflammatory language and that used by historical political regimes looking to demonise desperate people taking desperate measures to flee desperate situations. That line has been well trodden by others, and I don’t think there’s more I can add that they haven’t already eloquently said.

What I object to as a data storyteller are the Home Secretary’s repeated failings in her improper use of numbers in her narrative. Yesterday, Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid called Braverman out on her irresponsible claims that 100 million people around the world are “displaced and on the move” and that there are “billions more eager to come here [to the U.K.] if possible”. It’s worth watching their interchange here before we look at Braverman’s data storytelling fails.

Fail #1: context-free millions and billions

Braverman’s first riposte to Reid’s challenge was that the 100 million figure came from the United Nations – passing the authority on to a higher, neutral, respected third-party. It represents those displaced by conflict, persecution, and environmental factors.

First, Reid calmly parried that only a quarter (26 million) have left the countries where these tragedies are unfolding.

Secondly, she used Braverman’s own figure of 45,000 who have attempted to cross to Britain – usually from France – in small boats in the past year.

45,000 out of 100 million represents four hundredths of one percent of the total displaced, or fewer than one in two thousand (that’s my maths #1).

45,000 out of two billion – I’m assuming two, because Braverman told the standard bearer of anti-immigration rhetoric, the Daily Mail, that “billions more” were “eager to come here if possible”, so let’s be generous and assume just two billion rather than the possible eight. 45,000 out of two billion represents two thousandths of one percent of the total displaced, or fewer than one in 44,000 (my maths #2).

The context-free nature of Braverman’s casually-pitched “100 million” and “billions” reminded me of Dominic Cummings’ EU Referendum earworm of £350m a week. A deliberately context-free big, scary number that was gross not net and in fact represented half of one percent of UK Government expenditure at the time of the Referendum (£3.7bn out of £735bn). I talk about Cummings and Johnson’s zombie statistic – £350m a week – really quite a lot in my 2018 book, Narrative by Numbers, particularly pages 23-32. Amazingly, when Johnson was Prime Minister that money wasn’t returned to the NHS. But that’s a distraction and another story altogether.

Skewered by Reid’s cool-headed analysis, Braverman lurched into information overload, and her second data storytelling fail in two short minutes. First context-free millions and billions, then the Curse of Knowledge.

Fail #2: The Curse of Knowledge

When we know a lot about a topic – and migrant numbers and their cost to the nation are a Mastermind-level specialist subject for Braverman – it’s difficult to appreciate that other people don’t know what you know. This, the Curse of Knowledge, is an all-too-frequent but under-appreciated phenomenon, eloquently detailed in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker picks out academics, scientists, lawyers, those in finance, and – of course! – government officials as the worst offenders in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Braverman then reverted to media training and attempted to overwhelm Reid by reeling off a detailed list of what she called the “real-world impacts” of the migrant crisis on the British public. Trying to make out she was the voters’ friend, she counted: 45,000 migrants “illegally” crossing the Channel, £6m a day on housing migrants in hotels, 100,000 cases waiting for judicial decisions, £3bn a year in tax-payer’s money. Attempting to overwhelm someone you’re arguing against by parading the scholarship is a massive data storytelling fail. By failing to put oneself into the mind of the audience – by failing to appreciate their likely data tolerance – this approach turns them off and drives them away.

Braverman lurched from too little to too much information, from WTLI to WTMI, deftly side-stepping the Goldilocks zone of “just the right amount”. And – I’d argue – she did so quite deliberately. As the writer Armando Iannucci pointed out on Twitter yesterday evening, the rhetoric of migrants and asylum seekers “pouring into this country” has been a staple of the right-wing press – and one organ in particular – for decades.

It’s about time politicians and politically-motivated media outlets started using data more responsibly and with less edge and side, following the simple and easily applicable golden rules of data storytelling. Avoiding context-free millions and billions and cutting out the Curse of Knowledge would be a very good start for Braverman, Mail editor Ted Verity, and all. Thank heavens for the bastions of good data storytelling like Susanna Reid, willing and able to hold those who cut fast and loose with numbers to account.