Spinning the statistics is counter productive

It is poignant that one plausible origin of the phrase, “if you are not with us, then you are against us,” comes from the Bible: Matthew 12:30, “Whoever is not with me is against me…”  I say poignant because it seems to me that much of politics today has become almost religious in its fervour.  Any criticism of one side is immediately seen as traitorous support for the other and no middle ground is allowed.

I preface this blog post with what really amounts to a disclaimer because I have made my views on Brexit pretty clear. I am of the opinion that the referendum and the mess which followed came about because of reckless political ineptitude and the Vote Leave campaign was one of the worse pieces of political deceitfulness seen in my lifetime.  Nevertheless, I am a scientist not a politician and so perhaps I see things though more rational eyes. I therefore feel obliged to counter nefarious arguments used against Brexit which seem to me to be as equally twisted as some of those used by Vote Leave.

I refer to one particular claim that only a third of the electorate voted for Brexit*.  If this type of analysis fell across my desk for peer review, I’m afraid it wouldn’t get very far.   The actual referendum results were that out of an electorate of around 46.5 million, 16.1 million voted to remain in the EU and 17.4 million voted to leave.  Of the total votes cast (33.6 million) 48.1% voted to remain and 51.9% voted to leave with a turnout of 72.2%.  Even with this relatively high turnout, almost 13 million of the electorate didn’t vote at all.

Those that didn’t vote were abstentions of one sort or another and so you simply cannot draw any conclusions from those numbers.  All you can really do is to exclude them from the calculations in the same way as they excluded themselves from voting.  The case that only a third of the electorate voted for Brexit however, takes the approximate 13 million that didn’t vote and essentially adds them to those who voted to remain.  (The third of the electorate voting to leave is therefore expressed as a fraction of the total electorate, rather than those who voted).  This is rather like a company conducting a customer satisfaction survey finding 33% of those surveyed were satisfied, 33% were not and 33% declined to answer but then reporting 66% were not dissatisfied.  If that then ended up on a TV advertisement, the Advertising Standards Agency might have something to say about it.  If that isn’t politically spinning the statistics, then I don’t know what is.

If I was a hardened Brexit politician (which I am not) then I could equally turn these figures around and claim that only about a third of the electorate voted to remain in the EU. Surely it’s just as legitimate to add the abstentions to the Brexit side as much as it is to the Remain side?

And the reality is that such nefarious spinning of the data is not necessary. The outcome of the referendum was that the electorate advised the government to leave the EU (whatever leave means?) by a margin of just 3.8%. The question should be, can the government take such wide sweeping and irrevocable decisions based upon the advise of the 3.8%?  That is the real and valid question without the need to try and rewrite the books on statistics.  I really do feel that those making the “only a third of the electorate voted for Brexit” argument are damaging their case and many should really know better, but as I said, I’m no politician so what do I know?

* - I have numbers from 24% to 37% but that’s approximately one third