New Cambridge centre looks to improve communication of evidence

The public is still willing to listen to nuanced information, argues Cambridge professor, provided it is presented in the right way

November 20, 2016
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Voice of reason: ‘we’ve got to fight back. We should be demanding more carefully presented evidence. Our mission is to try and present balanced evidence,’ said Sir David Spiegelhalter

A new research centre has been set up to challenge the idea that we live in “post-truth” societies afraid of “expertise”.

Located in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Mathematics, the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication is chaired by Sir David Spiegelhalter and develops his earlier work as Winton professor for the public understanding of risk.

Speaking to Times Higher Education on the day Donald Trump was elected president of the US, he admitted that his first reaction was “just to give up” in terms of the drive to present evidence-based arguments to the public.

But he added: “No, we mustn’t be so feeble, we’ve got to fight back. We should be demanding more carefully presented evidence. Our mission is to try and present balanced evidence.”

In at least one respect, Sir David expressed a certain sympathy for the “rather jaundiced view of the political establishment” revealed by recent events. “Whenever evidence is presented on the radio or on the [BBC Radio 4] Today programme by a politician, it’s presented in a way to try and coerce us," he said.

"In particular, the numbers are always framed and arranged to either look big or small, depending on whether they want to frighten us or reassure us. Numbers are used as arguments, but we know they don’t speak for themselves but depend on the way they are framed, the context, the comparators. We are very ill-served in society in the way we as citizens hear about evidence.”

The Winton Centre, which has been supported by a gift of £5 million from charitable foundations linked to investment firm Winton, and which Sir David believes may be “the first of its kind in the world”, is specifically designed to combat this.

It will research and publicise best practice in presenting statistics, engage widely with the media and work with others in improving the communication (and often visualisation) of statistical evidence. It is currently helping to revamp, for example, the National Health Service’s Predict site, which sets out the pros and cons of different treatment options to women diagnosed with breast cancer.

The centre will also, as Sir David puts it, sometimes act as “a rapid-response unit”, aiming to react within two or three days, when it “comes across evidence presented with the pretence of informing people but actually trying to manipulate them”.

Despite these populist times, Sir David cites a study indicating that trust in government and experts in Britain is actually increasing. Even in the case of effective but controversial policies such as “using food vouchers to encourage pregnant women in poor areas to stop smoking”, which many people dismiss as just “rewarding the feckless”, he believes there is evidence the public can be won over “if you can really demonstrate they work”.

Around the world, adds the centre’s executive director, former BBC producer Alexandra Freeman, “statistics are badly abused by those who want to influence our opinions – we want to stop that and put their power back into the hands of individuals”.

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