Your book The Myth Gap is most explicitly about the failure of ‘rational arguments’ and ‘well-presented’ ideas, taking us through your personal journey as a policy wonk. Could your explore your background and explain the failure of this approach?
I spent 15 years as a policy wonk before I had the epiphany that this wasn’t the way to change the world. I worked in think tanks like ippr and Chatham House, and I’ve worked in the UK government as a special advisor, as well as the UN. As you allude to, my basic sense of how to change the world was to get the right evidence in front of the right policymakers and then change would naturally follow. It turned out this was not the case. Interestingly, there is quite a lot of data that shows that data does not change the world. There is a damning report where the World Bank's research department was commissioned to do a research paper on the impact of their research. It turned out that more than 70% of their reports were never cited, and 30% of their reports were not even downloaded.
In my own case, the epiphany came at a very specific moment. As I talk about in the book, I became the writer for the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. It was a body of the great and the good, a body of senior policymakers, set up after the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. It was an opportunity to think big about sustainability, and implicitly to put together an ambitious agenda for the 2012 Rio Conference on Sustainable Development. I knew the Secretary-General’s Office and a few staff members at the UN as I had worked with them some years earlier.
Back in 2004, I watched the UN set up a high-level panel that was tasked with clearing up the big bust up over the Iraq war. I thought it was interesting to see a group of senior policymakers, from all different countries being taken out of the day-to-day melee of firefighting and crisis management. They were given space to think and come up with really big ideas. So then you would have a ready made group of champions who will fight for those ideas. So I thought this is was a really workable model for getting things done. Except that panel had not addressed any of the issues that I’d been working on, such as climate change, sustainability, poverty, trade, and so on.
So I’d been nagging the UN to convene a panel on all of this unfinished business, and they finally went ahead and set it up. I was really pleased, and equally so when I was invited to come on board as a writer. But in the end it was an extremely disillusioning experience, because far from coming up with big answers to the global problems of our time, they were not even really prepared to engage with big questions. Immediately, the first question was, when you have an entire economy predicated on growth and it starts hitting natural limits, planetary boundaries, as we now call them, there are really pressing questions about equity and fair shares that arise in those conditions.
As you know, Left and Right-wing politics have had totally different accounts of equity for a long, long time, but they did essentially agree on the presence of an ever-expanding cake. Once that cake is finite, by definition it will mean more for one group is less for another. The evidence of the need to engage with this question was absolutely slam-dunk. And we did manage to get some of this evidence in front of some of the policymakers, but they were just completely unwilling to engage in any meaningful way. Instead, it was a classic case of what the political analyst Ian Bremmer called the ‘G-Zero’, a world where no global leaders grasp the nettle on any of the big issues.
So this was extremely disillusioning and depressing for me. At the same time, it was also a wake-up call that set me thinking. If data, evidence, and statistics aren’t enough to change the world, then what is?’ That was what got the ball rolling, the thought process that led to the book.
So why do you think that data does not resonate with voters?
There are two answers. The first one is practical and looks at our recent experience. We repeatedly tried to win arguments with rational reasons for people to follow our suggested courses of action. If you look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump, it was a very rational campaign. It was intelligent, backed up by good data and statistics. If you look at the Remain campaign during the Brexit Referendum, again, it was very rational, telling voters, ‘we will be this percentage poorer,’ ‘it’s not true that the NHS will receive an additional £350m a week.’