Interviews

Alex Evans

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.22, Summer 2018
by Matthew Carey Simos

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.’

This is, of course, what climate activists were like pre-2009. They had a peer-reviewed scientific database and thought that having scientists onside was enough. They never saw the Tea Party coming and this is what led to this disastrous outcome at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. So there are is quite a lot of evidence to show that when progressives think they are going to win with data, they actually come face-to-face with a reality check. Within each of those cases, they were met by more regressive forces that had more resonant stories. Donald Trump did not have good data on his side, that’s not how he won the US election. Trump had a really resonant story, it was an unpleasant story, but it still was a story that resonated with American voters. The same goes for Nigel Farage in the UK. He was just a good storyteller.

I think the climate movement example is interesting, as climate activists learnt this quite early on after their disastrous defeat in 2009. They asked Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, to tell them what happened. She said, the Tea Party ran an outsider, values-led game against your inside, fact-led game, and they ran over you with a tank. The climate activists were willing to hear that feedback and they got smart. From the ashes of Copenhagen, a genuine climate movement grew. Just think of the 2014 climate march, or protesters closing down Germany’s largest open-pit coal mine, or the flotillas of kayaks heading out into the Pacific Ocean to stop oil rigs from blowing up. It is a totally different theory of change. More grassrootsy, much more morally grounded, much more resonant stories.

The second reason is that I believe we are all storytelling animals. There is lots of data, again, to show that people don’t make their minds up on political issues because of arguments and facts. They make their mind up based on what people they trust think and on what stories resonate with them.

I’m not saying let’s give up on facts, or be post-truth like Donald Trump. Absolutely not. But I am saying that having the right data on your side is not enough to win these very polarised debates. We need to get as good at storytelling as the forces arrayed against us.

Campaigns and movements can utilise both ‘moral challenges’ and ‘technical rationality,’ and you've explored the Tea Party’s success. Surely both approaches are valuable, it’s just a question of how and when to use them?

Absolutely, it’s not an either/or proposition. I’m obviously not talking about progressives as one homogenous groups, there is much diversity, but I am thinking about progressive political parties like the US Democrats or New Labour, as it was back then, and the big ngos in spheres like climate change and international development. These organisations tend to subscribe to this view that campaigns work on good arguments that are based on good data. 

Their approach is ‘Beltway’ politics. If you look at the failure of US climate legislation before Copenhagen, climate activists thought they were on course for a really terrific win. They had just won the 2008 presidential election between two candidates who both believed that climate change was caused by humans and was urgent. They had also just seen the first climate legislation pass in the House of Representatives. All that needed to happen then was for it to clear the senate, and they thought it was going to the fine as all the polling data suggested the majority were in favour. 

It was the Tea Party, though, that understood that polls showing the majority favour a particular issue, is what is known as a ‘thin yes.’ They might be in favour, but it does not mean that they are going to fight for it and call their legislators. And this is exactly what the Tea Party were willing to do – go to town halls, call up talk radio shows, besieging Republican senators, and really scaring the ‘bejesus’ out of them as the climate writer David Roberts put it. And so the environmental ngos didn’t realise at the start of the summer that there was a huge constituency mobilising and turning the political context upside down. By the time everyone came back after the summer the chances of passing the climate legislation had just dissolved, and the rest is, as they say, history.

It’s recognising that polling data does not cut the mustard, you need a constituency of people fired up to actually do stuff. And, as we know, the conservative activists really understood that at the time.

You explore ‘enemy narratives’, explaining how they risk political polarisation, encourage activists to be more interested in maintaining the moral high ground, rather than bringing along others with different views, and also conflate ‘struggling rural families, an elderly Christian on a small pension, a community shopkeeper and a Wall Street Banker.’ 

One of the cautionary notes in the book is that there is a real danger in using enemy narratives, where we are the good guys, and they are the bad guys. If you look at the climate activism of 350.org, they are very good at firing people up against enemies, which might be corporations such as Exxon. For 350.org, Exxon are the equivalent of Big Tobacco – they know the consequences and are hushing up the data. Or it might be Saudi Arabia who are deliberately throwing grit into the UN and the climate summits. Or it might be the Koch Brothers funding hard-right thinktanks and lobbying for astroturf campaigns. They are great cartoon baddies and we know that those baddies are really effective at firing people up.

My deep unease about this approach is two-fold. One part, and especially on climate change, is that it creates a stark divide that is not exactly true. It might be comfortable for me to feel completely exonerated for creating climate change and that it’s all Exxon’s fault. But that’s not true. I’m not saying it’s all a question of individual volunteerism, and about riding a bike instead of riding a car. Obviously not, obviously we need systemic solutions. But I am part of the problem if I eat meat, or if I go on lots of flights, or if my household is not energy efficient. That makes me part of the climate problem. So actually it is a commonly owned problem, and though I know that projecting it all on to cartoon baddies makes for good campaigns, at the same time it does not really get to grips with the nub of the issue.

Alex Evans is author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? He is a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and has spent the last year working with Avaaz as a Campaign Director.

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.

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Published in STIR magazine no.22, Summer 2018