Facing up to the factoids: Truth can be an illusive commodity in the world of 'tactical research', warns David Nicholson-Lord

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The Independent Online
ASK YOUR average middle-Englander what he or she thinks about the minimum wage and you will probably get a disapproving response. Minimum wages destroy jobs, don't they? That chap Prescott doesn't know what he's talking about, does he?

A couple of months ago, you might have heard different views. But that was before the report on unemployment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Parachuted into the final stages of a Euro-election campaign by a government fearing electoral disaster, it proved a propaganda weapon for the Conservatives. Ministers' version of the OECD study - that it backed their policies of labour market deregulation and 'flexible' (ie, low) wages - became received wisdom. And no doubt they will be trotting it out again at the G7 summit in Naples this weekend.

You cannot, after all, argue with a 'study', least of all those from bodies like the OECD with grand-sounding titles. In Swift's The Battle of the Books, Homer, Pindar and Plato, representing the sweetness and light of the Ancients, take on the dirty and poisonous moderns, Milton, Dryden, Descartes et al, in hand-to-hand combat for the academic high ground of Parnassus. Modern propaganda warfare, like Swift, has a penchant for big names, but usually these are attached to research institutions, universities, private consultancy firms. Unlike Swift, the high ground is, well, on the low side. Often, someone wants to sell something. Usually, there is a powerful commercial lobby involved, which wants to pass or block a political measure. Hence the appearance of the 'tactical' research study and its product, the factoid.

The research report, survey and opinion poll each purvey 'facts' to the public in the hope of seizing a commercial or political advantage. Such commissioned research can be spectacularly successful: in the US, for instance, it helped torpedo an environmental campaign against disposable nappies. But because the rich and powerful can buy infinitely more research than public-interest groups, its chief effect may be to reinforce an orthodoxy of opinion.

The OECD jobs study is an excellent example of manipulated research. Just before the European elections, the Sunday Times reported 'powerful new evidence that supports the Government's jobs policies' and attacked Labour's commitment to the 'myth' of the minimum wage. Most ensuing coverage was in the same vein. A 'group of impartial experts', declared the Sun, had spelt out the unemployment-creating effects of a minimum wage.

In fact, out of 42 pages and 152 paragraphs of analysis, the OECD mentions minimum wages once, remarking that they 'often end up damaging employment opportunities for unskilled labour', but adding that regional and age variations can overcome this barrier. They may also, it adds, be judged 'desirable' as part of an anti-poverty strategy. As for lost jobs, most recent empirical research - from Harvard and Princeton Universities in the US, and the London School of Economics, for example - has found nothing to suggest that a minimum wage destroys jobs, and some evidence that it may create them. Moreover, Britain, the only EU country without protection for the poorest, has a significantly worse job creation record than pay-protecting members such as Germany, France and Italy.

Neither is the OECD a 'group of impartial experts'. It is an advocate of the new economic orthodoxy of the 1980s - notably in its support for labour market deregulation as a cure for unemployment. Equally important, its concerns are largely economic. American- style deregulation may create jobs; but it has also proved, in the US, to be a generator of crime, inequity and public disorder.

From manipulated research, selectively culled and partisan in origin, it is a small step to 'tactical' research. In the 1980s, under the impact of cuts in research spending and a new government-inspired emphasis on applied, 'near market' research, many universities and research institutes had to redefine their role. More specifically, they had to consider how to please their clients - and thus ensure their department, and their jobs, survived. According to academics quoted in a new book, Tainted Truth, by the American journalist Cynthia Crossen, it is not a question of the client dictating results but of the researcher 'unconsciously managing the results to . . . get a grant renewed'. Thus, 'a funder will never come to an academic and say: 'I want you to produce finding X and here's a million dollars to do it.' It's a subtle influence. It looks like if you produce finding X, you might have another study in your future.'

Coinciding with this has been the growth of relativism - as much a cultural climate as an identifiable philosophy - which has made researchers wary and often cynical of notions of truth and objectivity, and the spread of bewilderingly complex computer-based models. A small adjustment to one of the many pieces of information fed into such a model can make a vast difference to the result.

In 1990, according to Crossen, when environmental concern was high and more than a dozen American states were considering legislation against disposable nappies, a report from the Arthur D Little consultancy showed disposables were no worse for the environment than reusable cloth nappies. The research, which played an important role in ending the campaign, was paid for by Procter and Gamble, the biggest American manufacturer of disposables.

Such research, commissioned by big companies or industry associations, plays an increasingly important role in policy debates on issues such as diet, health, the environment. Last year, the Government was pondering how to resist European calls for a ban on tobacco advertising. A report from the Department of Health's chief economic adviser, Clive Smee, suggested a ban would cut smoking by 7 per cent. But tactical research came to the rescue. A study commissioned by the European tobacco industry and released by the Advertising Association found that a ban increased smoking.

The supermarket chain Sainsbury has commissioned from Oxford University's transport studies unit a study which, according to the company, contradicts the widespread assumption that building more out-of-town superstores increases journeys: in fact, they reduce vehicle mileage.

Such research is not 'unethical'. Researchers may, with every justification, feed different assumptions into their statistical models. In the disposable nappy controversy, for example, the Arthur D Little study assumed cloth nappies could be used only around 90 times. Rival research was based on almost double that figure. By the time such discrepancies have been reconciled - a process which largely defies public understanding - the wider political debate is probably over. One of the most important aspects of such research is its timing: it is not intended to produce conclusive 'truth' so much as to justify, in Crossen's words, 'a decision politicians may have made for other reasons'.

Much research may also appear good, harmless fun. Earlier this year, the Frozen Food Information Service, through some judicious weighting of its samples, was able to publish a survey demonstrating that chips were better for you than baked potatoes. In the run-up to Father's Day last month, the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance was cheerily proclaiming that the 'key to a healthy heart' lay in eating chocolate. The claim was based on research in the journal Metabolism, supported by the American Cocoa Research Institute.

We do not necessarily believe these studies, but they help to confuse us. What counts is the steady drip of publicity, and the residual impression it creates - a vague notion, for example, that it is now 'OK' to eat chips or chocolate. The supposed healthiness of chips, for example, was featured by Sky News, Meridian Television, Capital Radio, the Daily Mirror and many regional newspapers.

Thus the climate of opinion is changed. A few more selectively-quoted studies and pay protection will have the kiss of electoral death written on it. Labour could be tempted to junk its commitment to a minimum wage.

Ideas that are inconvenient to big business are often elbowed out of the debate in this way. Take organic farming or gardening. Why is the typical garden centre full of chemical products? Why do so many of us think organics are cranky or impractical? The answer lies very largely in the bias that has characterised agricultural research since the war. While billions were spent on analysis of fertilisers and pesticides, by both the Ministry of Agriculture and commercial companies, no public research funds were available for organic farming.

In the new and prosperous world of tactical research, constructed around commercial horizons and compliant media, truth has become a commodity, and one with a limited shelf-life. Much more important than truth is what people believe - or at least what you can get them to believe.

(Photograph omitted)