Sunday, 11 March 2012

Equalities Are Not a Numbers Game

Various statistics are being bandied around at the moment about how many people support or oppose equal marriage for lesbian and gay people. They're intended to persuade us of the moral worth of the arguments for and against. Not surprisingly, both sides are citing polls that support their position. There are also contradictory statistics doing the rounds about how many support or oppose abortion, or assisted dying, or how many Christians there are in the UK.

Statistics make for good headlines and propaganda but democracy should not be confused with the alleged will of the masses. There were times when the majority of people thought it was fine to deny women the vote, have slaves or force small children to work in factories.

If any group suffers some disadvantage or is denied a privilege or right given to others then morally it does not matter how many of them there are. Equally, if some group claims a privilege denied others, the numbers are irrelevant. Otherwise, when should we start caring? When one person is affected, or a hundred, or a million? Without a moral argument, numbers don't help.

The egalitarian will seek to redress the balance either by making an opportunity available to everyone (for instance, universal enfranchisement) or by removing a privilege from those who have it (for example religious groups claiming exemption from equality laws).

Any group losing its unfair privilege will of course complain, claim unfairness, cite some spurious historical precedent or scriptural justification or play the numbers game.

There are times when numbers can be useful, for example to show that a problem is widespread. However, statistics in isolation, without a moral argument, should be not given undue weight when equalities are the issue. They may be an indicator but sometimes what they indicate is that the egalitarian will have an uphill struggle. Opposing groups throw numbers at each other as if they were the killer blow. But might is not right, not on its own. The wisdom of crowds is often not very wise at all.

The pragmatist may be forced to play the numbers games with politicians who are aware that numbers may equal votes but there is no moral high ground in doing this and fighting fire with fire sometimes just makes a bigger blaze. Politicians often use statistics solely to give credibility to a decision they have already taken and ignore the ones that don't suit them.

Quoting percentages can be a cheap tactic, one often used in adverts - nine out of ten women agree! (and then in small print that the sample group was 119 women or some other improbable number). Or nine out of ten cats. Their effect often relies on the fact that people instinctively respond to big numbers, especially if you flash up the small print very quickly or hide your dubious methodology. It's instinctively safer to stick with the herd, particularly if you don't have a full grasp of the issues.

Polls can of course be manipulated by the way in which questions are framed in order to produce the desired result. It's often in the interest of people conducting polls to ask questions without providing both sides of the argument for people to make a reasoned decision. A quick emotive response makes for better spin.

The Government is now reportedly considering whether to include a question in their consultation on equal marriage about whether people think it is a good thing. The wording of this question will be highly significant, especially because of the weight of religious lobbying influencing politicians.

Being swayed by public opinion about whether a group should be given rights others have is not true democracy. The majority of men would not have agreed to give women the vote in the early 20th century, for example. Vested interests, ignorance, protectionism, manipulation by opposing groups or just plain bigotry are always potential obstacles. Many people do not apply Rawls' veil of ignorance when deciding what they think about equalities issues.

Mistrusting the apparent will of the masses is nothing new - in 1841 Charles Mackay wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Unfortunately, the moral argument often doesn't make for good headlines. It can be subtle or a hard sell or require time and effort to grasp, so people with the best of intentions fall back on statistics. It can be particularly hard to sell the moral argument when the opposition is a religious group claiming that there is no morality without their moral code or that people opposing them lack morality because they are not religious - or not the right kind of religious.

There are going to be a lot more numbers in the headlines around the time of the equal marriage consultation and politicians will have an eye on winning or alienating voters, especially if religious leaders persuade them that they can sway their congregations (conveniently ignoring the fact that polls show congregations disagree with doctrine).

In the case of equal marriage, it all comes down to whether we should withhold a right from one group of people. The religious extremists argue that we should because this group is not equal, they are effectively inferior citizens to whom human rights legislation apparently doesn't apply. They use statistics to mask this prejudice.

Playing percentages may make you (temporarily) popular but Cameron needs to stick to his guns and not be swayed by numbers or doctrine. Either he believes that equalities apply to everyone or he doesn't. Either he has the courage to put that belief into policy or he doesn't. Doing the right thing is not a numbers game.


  1. Lovely article. I think you're right about the wording of the question being very important, by the way. The huge variety in stats on this topic leads me to suspect that a lot of people really aren't that interested, and will let the wording of the question guide them in the direction of the answer the questionners want to hear. Possibly I'm wrong and it's about other factors, carefully picking your subjects for instance, but it's a hunch I have. They should try doing a few polls where the answers include several variations on "I haven't really thought about it" "It doesn't apply to me" to see what is really going on - or rather, what isn't!

  2. Applying the veil of ignorance can reveal some surprisingly bigoted reactions. I am more silent on some issues as a result and think more about things before speaking. I suspect that much bigoted ranting is more about ego stroking than about the actual issue, and that does occasionally include me!