The fraud of “independent” research?

Jolyon Maugham is the latest person to be described as an “independent expert” and turn out to be nothing of the kind. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls used his endorsement to justify their policy of abolishing “non-dom” status – yet it transpired that Maugham is a Labour party supporter who advised the party on its plans. So its hardly a surprise he agrees with them.

This is far from an isolated incident – and the Labour party is far from the only culprit. All political parties and many businesses like to claim the support of “independent” research, which does not always turn out to be as independent as it appears.

Every think tank and consultant likes to put the word “independent” in the first parargraph of their corporate profiles, whether they are or not.

And broadcasters like to attach the word to any organisation that appears to be in the centre of any particular debate, and they use the word in a really careless way.

Why do all these organisations do this – and why should we be deeply distrustful every time we hear the word.

What does this word mean. Probably as good a definition as any is: “free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority.”

So it is a particularly attractive word for those groups we instinctively don’t trust – politicians, bankers, gas and electricity companies, anyone selling anything and bureaucrats to name but a few. It carries with it the implication: “While you may not trust me, you can trust these other experts because their analysis is untainted by any political or commercial agenda.”

Thus Balls and Miliband will embrace Maugham – and the chancellor Goerge Osborne has done little but attribute the word “independent” to the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), which he created after the last election.

I dont for one minute doubt the independence of the OBR – but just because politicians are using a trustworthy source, it doesn’t mean we should trust the information they cherry pick from the reports.

And the same applies to commercial organisations – I go into their misuse of the word “independent” in an earlier blog  so I wont go over those arguments again. It is enough to say here that there is plenty of evidence that they behave in just as duplicitous a way as the politicians.

The reverence for the word indepdent extends to the media and the research organisations themselves – just google in the words “independent research” if you doubt me.

I am particularly nervous about the way media outlets like the BBC use the word.. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has almost achieved saintly status in the eyes of the BBC. It is always referred to as “independent” where other think tanks are referred to as left-leaning or right leaning.

This is pure laziness on the behalf of the BBC. Just because it is equally critical of Tory and Labour policies does not make it more independent than other think tanks – equally just because a think tank criticises from the right or left does not make it less independent.

Indeed, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (left-leaning) or the Adam Smith Institute (right-leaning), both use the word “independent” to describe themselves – and I have no doubt that they are both as independent as the IFS. The BBC needs to find a better word for the IFS.

Finally, there is the dodgiest of the dodgy sentences; “We commissioned independent research…” As if that would give the research extra credibility.

It doesn’t. You have to ask why that research was commissioned – odd how it always seems to confirm the views of those who commission it. And I remain forever sceptical at the thought that a think tank or research organisation can remain totally free from pressure from those who commission a politically or commercially significant report.

For example, I would have been profoundly surprised if this week’s survey of family doctors, carried out by ICM and commissioned by the British Medical Association, had revealed great enthusiasm for the government’s plan for seven-day surgery opening.

Moreove, if anyone doubts, how easy it is to lead people to a particularly conclusion, watch this wonderful tape from Yes Prime Minister.

My advice is this; whenever anyone claims the backing of independent research or presents someone as independent on the media, be deeply sceptical about what they say.


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