Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pie Chart Conundrum

The industry where I used to work became replete with right brain-dominant people pretending to be left brain-dominant. 

One of the most obvious symptoms of this was the use of pie charts to illustrate states of affairs that should not logically be illustrated this way. 

The EU referendum last Thursday, and the shocking result we woke up to on Friday, is a classic example of this sort of basic analytical misconception. Call it the revenge of PowerPoint on political common sense. 

Let's start by pointing out that voting for whether to LEAVE or REMAIN in the EU is not the same sort of binary choice as that which will face Americans in November: Trump or Clinton. 

This is because both candidates will present well-defined and media-scrutinised plans to the US electorate, and a pie chart showing which proportion of the popular vote eventually goes to each candidate would make perfect sense, even though the result is finally decided by the electoral college. 

In the case of the recent referendum however, the British people were instead being asked to decide between THIS THING and NOT THIS THING, or between a well-defined set of rights and restrictions and something else which the Brexiters chose to leave as ill-defined as possible. 

Additionally, one of the options involved the possibility of voluntarily renouncing the EU citizenship that Article 28 of the Lisbon Treaty had given us, with the implication that if this was chosen by the majority, everyone else would have it forcibly taken away. 

Cameron speaks of the ‘will’ of the people, but ever since philosophers started debating freedom they have understood the basic distinction between freely choosing to do something and having to do it under duress. 

I now face the prospect of losing my EU citizenship rights AGAINST my will when, like most ex-pats, I had no say in the referendum. 

From a legal standpoint this is completely different to signing them away. (e.g. The fact that 52% choose to jump inside a lake of molten lava does not give the state the right to toss the remaining 48% in.) 

This significant legal and moral imbalance would occur the moment Article 50 is triggered and must surely be one reason the Brexiters are reluctant to do so in a hurry. 

In all of this Scotland is a bit of a distraction. Their government appears to be saying that their own local pie chart (65% Remain / 35% Leave) has moral force over the national one, but in fact the 48% that voted to stay in overall can deploy exactly the same moral argument, and have the greater numbers transcending existing geopolitical boundaries. 

It’s not the stupid answer that was given but the stupid question that was asked that we should be recriminating over. 

Make no mistake, this is largely David Cameron’s fault and his rather smug, hand-washing approach now is especially galling. 

He had some form on this, by asking a similarly dumb question of the Scots in 2014 and actually most Brits outside of Scotland, left or right-brained, seemed to at least vaguely intuit the pie chart conundrum back then. 

The two options were however much better defined for our northern neighbours, and citizens of the rump UK were apparently not going to lose anything quite so tangible other than the abstract concept of union and the sense of being diminished as a nation.

In the end the uncertainty over the currency swung it for Remain. In this campaign the Britain Stronger In camp lacked a comparable lever. They should therefore have made much clearer the notion of concrete loss. 

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