Fact versus opinion

J Clive Matthews
22 October 2007
Discussion of facts or discussion of opinions?

Having been spotted by a friend in the background of Friday night's Newsnight coverage of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, I naturally enough scampered off to make sure that I wasn't to be spotted picking my nose just over the presenter's shoulder (as happened a few years ago when I got rather tipsy on free champagne at the Channel Four Political Awards...). To watch the report, go here, click "watch latest programme", and scroll forward to the 22 minute mark - assuming you're doing it on Monday 22nd.

Picking one's nose is, of course, a disgusting habit. If you spot someone picking their nose, you'll doubtless think rather less of them. But what if it's only that someone tells you that they've seen someone pick their nose - something the accused denies vehemently? When you haven't witnessed it yourself, and have no hard evidence to rely on, who do you believe?

Newsnight asks, at the start of its report on Tomorrow's Europe, "will putting facts before prejudice change what they think?" But throughout the weekend, factual information on the EU was sparse, to say the least.

This was not an exercise in weighing up evidence, but in comparing differing arguments. It was not that you saw someone picking their nose first hand, but that you've heard it from a third party, whose claim is immediately disputed. Because while the arguments presented to the participants in the briefing materials were indeed fairly balanced, they were also hugely simplistic and contained very little in the way of factual information.

Deliberative polling - and deliberative democracy more widely - has frequently been compared to a jury in a court case. The participants are presented with the evidence and competing arguments, and then discuss amongst themselves to reach a verdict. Yet with Tomorrow's Europe, though arguments were presented fairly and impartially, the evidence was sorely lacking.

When discussing potential future expansion, for example, where were the statistics for the economic developement of the likes of Turkey and Ukraine? From the final results, participants swung heavily against allowing Ukraine membeship in the future (39% heavily in favour of Ukraine's entry before, only 22% after), while opinions barely changed on Turkish entry, but why? My hunch is that the issues surrounding Turkey - indeed, Turkey itself, were better known than those surrounding Ukraine. But how can we tell?

The sheer complexity of working out roughly how decisions may have been arrived at is daunting. The small group discussions are apparently going to be transcribed (that's 18 groups, four discussion sessions - around 140 hours of talking), but what could be handy before that is to have the results broken down into the groups the participants made up. If, for example, a majority of members of group 10 significantly changed their opinion on the Ukraine issue, there's an indication that something significant happened during their discussions that was missed among the other groups. What was this anomaly - presumably a particularly convincing contribution - and was it factually accurate or overly emotional?

Plus, of course, the question also needs to be asked, does it matter if facts weren't available and some results may have been unduly skewed? Because, after all, the aim was to create a microcosm of Europe - and since when, in any political system, has the electorate been knowledgable about all the facts underlying the issues and remained unswayed by emotion in making their final choices?

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