I’m very engaged in the referendum debate in Scotland. I think it’s fascinating, and a very good thing for Scotland, and the UK, no matter what the result is. However, watching the debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, I was slightly overwhelmed by the claims, counter claims, statistics and figures, and this despite my substantial engagement. It got me thinking about decision-making, referendums and research. Appropriately, given the general tone of the debate, we start with an argument…
I once had a very gentle disagreement with a friend’s dad about wind farms. He’s very much an outdoors guy; he cycles for miles, regularly walks up munros and other large prominences. He was a tree surgeon prior to retirement so his outdoors credentials are pretty substantial. And, he hates wind farms. Primarily, he doesn’t like the way they look, but also because, as he has read, the operators get paid to turn them off. Now, I love wind farms; I think they look amazing. I love the fact that, from various parts of Glasgow (particularly up by the university), you can see Europe’s largest onshore wind farm.
It’s even better up close (if you stand under one, it’s like an aeroplane wing is about to fall on you, pointy end first, but it never does, repeatedly, two or three times a second).
So, I thought, he can’t be right about that, and that I’d look into it a little. However, it turns out, operators are paid to turn their wind farms off, but so are operators of coal and gas-fired power stations. It’s all done as part of managing the changes in demand for electricity with time of day and time of year; because they can be adjusted more incrementally, wind farms are cheaper to turn off and back on again than an entire coal or gas-fired power station.
So, what does this show? Well, it shows a couple of things. It shows that incomplete information can sometimes be misleading. It also demonstrates the benefits of going that little bit further to find out what the details mean in as complete a way as possible. In this sense, it demonstrates the value of research.
However, it also shows that we sometimes have a bias to prefer information that confirms our pre-existing points of view (“confirmation bias”, if you prefer). Both my friend’s dad and I have done this; we stopped at the point where we had managed to find some information that supported our pre-existing views. In this situation, neither of us suffered any particularly significant consequences as a result of having done so. However, both he and I, and you, frequently come up against situations where this is not the case.
In Scotland, at the moment, there is an unimaginable amount of data, figures and research based information going around. Much of it is trying to influence those of us on the electoral roll here in relation to the referendum on September 18th. Even if you’re not able to vote, you may well do so soon in a referendum on the UK’s relationship with Europe, so it’s important to know how to navigate your way through this kind of situation.
But how do you even begin to make a decision in the face of so much information? How do you know what sources to trust, and, fundamentally, what good information is? How do you know where to begin? Are you really open to having your mind changed, or are you just looking to reinforce what you know already. How thorough is your approach? Are you listening to all sides of the debate, as well as to people who are more neutral? How do you ensure that you’re getting the best information, particularly when both sides of the debate sometimes use the same information to different ends? How do you know what your audience, customers, employees, or service users are thinking? How might it affect them?
Well, one way is to take yourself out of the equation all together. Obviously, this is difficult on an individual level in relation to voting in a referendum. However, to be aware of how research works, and how it is used and abused is a good place to start. An awareness of biases in information gathering, on an individual basis is going to be helpful, if you want to avoid confirmation bias and other related issues. Understanding that different polling organisations have different methodologies and so produce different results might not go amiss either.
At an organisational level, it’s easier to remove yourself. Not so much in terms of your vote, but in terms of working through what implications each outcome has for your organisation, while freeing yourself from the biases that you bring, unknowingly. In short, you might want to speak to some researchers.