Are our charities playing ‘hunger games’ with the evidence?

I am somewhat perturbed by the countless similarities between the dangerous smog engulfing Beijing and our own experience of a cloud without a silver lining.  I mean, of course,

Leaders wearing face-masks telling people that everything is alright while shops and schools are closed.

A lack of light.

Stunted crops that serve as a wilting metaphor for important work in our health service that will be held back.

But I am ever the optimist…..Tomorrow, I am attending a meeting with NHS England before popping along to a Patients4Data press conference being held by George Freeman MP.

It will all be different…

it will all be different…

….he says in a dream-like manner.

Anyway, that’s not why I am here.  Last weekend I watched ‘The Hunger Games’ with my children.  Based on the book by Suzanne Collins, it tells the story of a futuristic world in which each year 12, once warring districts, pick two young people out of their starving populations to fight to the death in a televised reality show…

Here back on earth, 27 bishops have gone into battle with the Government over rising levels of hunger in the UK population.  This included an open letter under the badge of the ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign.  It prompted an article in The Times (paywall) on Saturday challenging the evidence on which the campaign claims are based.  ‘End Hunger Fast’ have stoutly defended their evidence base.  Cue counter-claim and further articles, no doubt in the hope that bishop will annul bishop until we are left with one isolated soul as in the film.

I can’t say definitively who is right or who is wrong in this argument.  And I apologise if it sounds as though I am attaching ‘End Hunger Fast.’ I am not.  Yet the episode has made me think more deeply about evidence that is generated by charities and campaign groups in support of their case.  More over, whether we should be scrutinising it more closely than we do now.

After all, lots of charity surveys are home-grown, not peer-reviewed and use a biased sample such as their own members without making this clear.  I know.  I used to concoct and press release them.  I am also very good at rounding-up and rounding-down.  There is no denying these surveys and similar can be important contributions to debate but only if they are done with probity and presented fairly.  My hunch (he says, with no evidence to support it other than casual monitoring of the media!) is that standards are slipping across the sector, more readily than we might like to admit.

If you are followers of BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ you will know that the figures being bandied about by charities and campaigners can quickly unravel under closer scrutiny.  As they do quite quickly and embarrassingly on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme or BBC “‘s Newsnight.   Or under the watchful eye and incisive pen of people like Ben Goldacre. Fact is, I fear charities are under increasing pressure to blow our minds and our pockets with inflated facts and figures that make them stand-out in a crowded market-place.

But what could be more counter-productive than the force of an argument being so clearly undermined by sloppy evidence? Ultimately, the only losers will be the charity’s beneficiaries.

So I hope that charities who are committed to using evidence and statistics appropriately will seek the sort of expert help that can keep them out of an unseemly media fight to the death. The sort of help provided by organisations such as FullFact set up just a few years ago and whose job is to shed light on those numbers you hear in the news.

And no I wasn’t sponsored to mention them…I am sure there are others.




One thought on “Are our charities playing ‘hunger games’ with the evidence?

  1. As and educationist I recognise the need for very careful scrutiny of any set of figures. The cry for evidence must not go unanswered and scrutiny should be routine. I found FullFact enlightening.
    Furthermore how can we educate researchers to research what will what valuable to the layman. Telling us, for example, that of those reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets only four in ten understood them, is hardly worth glance. I think there is a latent campaign here.


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