Fiction is the new fact

photo of Tess CaseyTess Casey
Chief Executive
Inclusive NZ

Truth has always been a bit of a movable feast.   Any student of history, or parent who has tried to get to the bottom of an argument between their kids, knows that there are two sides to every story.  It’s the reason that the Romans portrayed the goddess of justice holding scales.  Getting to the truth isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.

It is less straightforward than ever in our modern world of photo-shopping, fake news and alternative facts.  It seems that you can make up pretty much anything and pass it off as the truth.  I’m wondering if this may explain the current international obsession with data and evidence.  Every sector wants data.   It’s become a commodity.  The more data we have the more effective we think we will be.  We want data like we want the latest IPhone.  We’ve been convinced that it will transform our businesses, organisations and public agencies, although we are a little hazy on exactly how.

Data has gone from being something relatively straight-forward – it’s just information after all – to being something contentious.  The current difference of opinion between the community sector and the government about the collection of individual client level data is a case in point.  It has raised issues of privacy, of ownership and of transparency.  At the very heart of the matter is a problem of trust.

The government has a bit of a credibility issue when it comes to protecting the personal information of people who use social services.  In the last few weeks there have been examples of letters containing personal information being sent to the wrong person and incorrect information about a person being supplied to the Courts.  Minister Tolley very rightly points out that people make mistakes.  The problem is that these mistakes can have severe consequences and they do nothing to build public confidence in data systems.

There also seems to be a double standard in the application of data and evidence.  The government’s investment approach is about making sure our tax payer dollars are spent on services that are proven to work.   But at the same time we are seeing investment in things that international evidence would show to have questionable results, such as social bonds, charter schools, national standards and the privatisation of prisons.  It feels like one rule for the NGO sector and another rule for government.

The problem with data is that it can be interpreted in a variety of different ways and used to defend a variety of different positions.  The more controversial an issue, the more likely you are to find that the opposing sides have each collected data and commissioned a report that backs up their argument.  How are we supposed to know what to believe?

With all this emphasis on data, anecdotal evidence is getting a bad rap.  Over the past few weeks we have been talking about rape culture in New Zealand, following the alarming Facebook posts of school boys who seemed not to have any understanding of consent.  The thing that has struck me in all the conversations generated by this event is that every woman I have spoken to, young and old, has a story to share about sexual harassment.   One young woman, who has only recently left school, shared a story about walking through the grounds of a neighbouring boys’ school during lunch time as she returned from a music lesson.  A boy she didn’t know pulled her top over her head and then shoved her into a garden while his friends looked on and laughed.

Like most of the women I have spoken to, she never told anyone about what happened.  Their experiences are not recorded in any data set, which means that the data we do have about the incidence of sexual harassment is likely not to provide a true picture.   And even if it did, we would only have a better understanding of the size and scope of the problem.  The data would not tell us how to go about fixing the problem.  Potential solutions would require a willingness to try some new things – like incorporating discussions about consent into sex education in schools, which the government has, incidentally, rejected.  Their belief is that this is something best discussed at home.

Data needs to be kept in perspective.  It is useful but it is no magic formula or silver bullet.  It is open to misuse and misrepresentation, and to justify positions we don’t want to change.  At the end of the day someone, somewhere still needs to exercise some judgement and make some decisions about what to do.

When we are dealing with community and social services, truth and fact are never going to be as certain as we would like them to be.  We have to make sure that we don’t over-estimate the place of our bright new shiny data at the expense of the deep understanding we gain from working in trusting and respectful ways with people and communities.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices
ComVoices actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.
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