Has the death of facts been greatly exaggerated?

Published: November 8, 2016

“If you are a political figure, a party leader, or a campaign leader for a particular cause, victories seem to be won with soundbites and rhetoric.”

As America goes to the polls, I’m reminded of the issue that defined current affairs in the UK this year: Brexit. Because much of the discourse around the Trump and Clinton campaigns touched on something raised during the build up to our EU referendum in June.

Conversation around both these seismic events has gravitated towards the use – or misuse – of facts.

Facts and evidence are often portrayed as the victims in the world of politics. If you are a political figure, a party leader, or a campaign leader for a particular cause, victories seem to be won with soundbites and rhetoric. Worm a catchy phrase into the minds of the electorate and you might just win their vote. That catchy phrase needs to be simple and memorable. Why muddy the waters with facts or figures?

This year though, the rhetorical arms race has ratcheted up a notch. It’s not just that facts are being abandoned in favour of soundbites. Rather, outright untruths are being pronounced on the campaign trail. False statistics sprawled on campaign buses, or claims made by presidential candidates that a quick Google search can disprove in seconds, stick in the craw of anyone who values sound evidence in important debates – whatever their political views.

The trend has been named and post-truth politics even has its own Wikipedia page, which describes:

“A political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.”

But those of us who still believe in facts shouldn’t despair just yet. After all, that so many people are worried about the abuse of facts in public life goes to show the cause isn’t lost just yet. And for proof that evidence and facts still matter, we need do no more than cast a counter intuitive glance at the communications industry.

The brightest brands recognise that to move thinking forward on important issues, and to challenge accepted wisdom, assertion without a sound evidence base is a damp squib. In fact, such public statements can come back to bite you. Ask ex-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer, who proclaimed a few years ago: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

On the other hand, communications campaigns underpinned by a robust body of research and facts stand up to scrutiny and offer a real platform for brands to shape the debate. Grant Thornton’s annual work on Women in Business offers fresh insights and practical recommendations for businesses, policymakers and workers, and is hugely successful with media, all of which stems from comprehensive research findings.

On extreme occasions this year, facts have been treated as a secondary concern. But there is a growing body of institutions who understand the power that well-evidenced facts can bring. Far from dying, in the world of communications facts are thriving and can still be a force for good.

Tom Yazdi
Senior Consultant
@tom_yazdi

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