Thursday, 22 May 2014

Who can we Trust?

This page collates the main sources in the Scottish Referendum debate (with links to key documents) and prioritises them in descending order of objectivity

  • Impartial Observers: IOs
  • Respected Industry Bodies: RIBs
  • Retained Advisers to Governement: RAGs
  • Lone Wolves
  • Campaigning Organisations & Groups: COGs

To help me sift and assess the mass of research, analysis and - most importantly - opinion available around the Independence referendum debate I decided I needed some sort of framework for working out what weight to give to what sources. This is a best-efforts basis attempt from somebody who is new to 'this sort of thing' so any constructive feedback would be highly welcomed.

With so many contradictory opinions out there it is self-evident they can't all be right and all opinions are not of equal worth.  People have a natural tendency to place more weight on opinions or pieces of analysis that support their intuitively preferred argument and less on those that don't. To help at least partially shield us from this tendency I propose the following categorisation of sources (and invite additions, amendments or proposed re-allocations)

Who Can We Trust: In descending order of objectivity;

Office for National Statistics (ONS) 
  • Factual, historical data (not forecasts)
  • Be wary of simplistic single measure comparisons (as I discuss here: GDP/Capita)
Impartial Observers: IOs 
Think of Jupiter's moon Io, orbiting the debate and with the benefit of distance possibly seeing a bigger picture than those mired in it

Respected Industry Bodies: RIBs
Think of them as forming the rib-cage, representing vital parts of the economic body
  • What are they
    • Long standing institutions who existed long before and expect to exist long after this specific debate
    • Characterised by a need to be considered and balanced because the views of their members are very unlikely to be unanimously behind one position or the other
  • Look out for
    • The depth of their research; do they merely aggregate opinions or actually invest in primary research and analysis?
    • Their funding: do they rely on donations from particular political parties, businesses or private individuals?
    • Egos: how prominent is the leader's personality in their communications?
  • Think of them as
    • Organisations who have to be very careful before taking a position; if they do, its likely to be pretty well thought through
  • Examples
    • Confederation of British Industry (CBI) [have become clearly #No and tried to register as such with the electoral commission, but I place them here because of their long-standing credibility, breadth of representation and transparent governance structure]
    • Institute of  Chartered Accountiants (ICAS)
  • Relevant Reports / Recommended Reading
    • ICAS
    • CBI
    • Federation of Small Businesses
      • Your Business, Your Vote  which includes the following stunning (when you consider the question was not directly asked) snippet >
      • "In the comments section of this question, 134 members volunteered that they would consider or would definitely be relocating their business outside of an independent Scotland, while a further 51 stated that they would look to close, downsize, sell, or retire early. This totals 185 respondents (10%) who would consider withdrawing their business from the Scottish economy"
    • Weir Group

Retained Advisers to Government: RAGs
Think of them as rags used by government to soak up data and from who they wring out answers. These bodies aim to provide independent & authoritative analysis but are often accused of losing objectivity because they serve a particular political master (the rag wringer!).

Lone Wolves
Think of them circling the debate, jumping in to bite (often very powerfully) but normally not deigning to stay and fight if challenged.
  • What are they
    • Individuals, ostensibly objective and non-party aligned, relating their expert view
    • Often academic, normally publicity seeking
  • Look out for;
    • Their ego; are they making bold, provocative statements or taking extreme positions to get "airtime"?
    • Any perverse incentives: who has engaged them, are they being paid, do they have anything to gain by leaning for one side of the argument of the other?
    • Remember they lack the intellectual checks & balances that wider bodies (should) have in place
    • Their qualifications and experience; how relevant is it to the topic they are speaking on?
  • Think of them as: 
    • Not as someone who "must be right" but as an academic who has put a paper forward for peer review ... so check their peers' comments before concluding on the merit of their input.
    • Think of climate change debate -- there have been plenty of "respetcted academic" climate change deniers 
  • Examples:
Campaigning Organisations & Groups: COGs
Think of them as cogs in a gear-chain, often grinding against each other, rarely meshing but certainly capable of making a lot of noise
  • What are they
    • A collection of people who have gathered together united by a common interest and determined to push one side of the argument (often at all costs)
    • Often "single issue" or "single perspective" focused
    • Normally formed specifically to make noise in this debate and not too fussed about how they do it  (If they intend to spend more than £10,000 in doing so they must register with the electoral commission
  • Look out for
    • Who their members actually are, who actually drives the group, how credible is their claim to be "the voice for xxx"
    • Are they the construct of a political party designed to gain "non-party aligned" credibilty for the party line?
    • Do they provide reasoned and balanced arguments for their case, do they present evidence, are they open in their thought process ... or are they set on generating publicity for a particular view?
    • What is their motivation, what drives them?
  • Think of them as
    • Groups who unashamedly argue one side of the case only: don't expect objectivity or reason, know that any data presented or quotes made are likely to be highly selective. Never take at face value anything they say (but of course you should try and fact check what they say).
  • Examples
    • The White Paper itself of course: Scotland's Future
    • Registered with Electoral Commission as Permitted Participants (so permitted to spend >£10,000) as of 29/07/2014
      • Better Together 2012 Ltd - No
      • Better With Scotland - No
      • Britannica (ex-BNP organiser) - No
      • Business for Scotland Ltd - Yes (this is a very particular cabal, profiled in detail here.)
      • Christians for Independence - Yes
      • Conservative Party - No
      • Cumbria Broadband Rural and Community Projects Limited - No
      • English Democrats - Yes
      • Farming for Yes
      • Generation Yes
      • GMB - No
      • Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland - No
      • Labour for Independence - Yes
      • Labour Party - No
      • Let's Stay Together - No
      • Liberal Democrats - No
      • Mr Alistair McConnachie (barred from UKIP for extreme views) - No
      • Mr Angus MacDonald - No
      • Mr Tony George Stevenson - No
      • Mrs Sarah-Louise Bailey-Kelly - Yes
      • National Collective (Artists and Creatives for Independence Limited) - Yes
      • No Borders Campaign - No
      • Racial Independence Campaign - Yes
      • Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - Yes
      • Scottish Green Party - Yes
      • Scottish Independence Convention - Yes
      • Scottish National Party (SNP) - Yes
      • Scottish Socialist Party - Yes
      • Spirit of Independence - Yes
      • Sterlingshire for No Thanks - No
      • The Scottish Research Society - No
      • Union of Shop, Distributive & Allied Workers (USDAW) - No
      • Wealthy Nation - Yes
      • WFS2014 Ltd (Working for Scotland) - No
      • Wings Over Scotland - Yes
      • Women for Independence - Yes
      • Yes Scotland Limited - Yes
I suppose I should include these; but you've read them already, right?

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