The election: a process in need of a scientific overhaul...
15 Jan 2020
As the dust from the election settles – Russ Swan tells us of a rather unique position he found himself in which revealed a process in need of a scientific overhaul
I write this with slightly bleary eyes on the day after the general election, having been on duty at a constituency count until well after 3am. Whatever your views on the outcome, the way we get there is little short of bonkers and has no basis in science or technology.
I really like elections, not for excitement at exercising a democratic franchise but because I get a chance to play at being a TV reporter. The big news organisations take pride in having boots on the ground at each of the 650 counts, and I was assigned as a stringer for ITN. Such is the life of an itinerant journalist.
It's an interesting gig, with one prime requirement: phone the headline result through to HQ before any of the others have reported it. What this means in practice is five hours of hanging around followed by a couple of minutes of frantic scramble.
The hanging about gives rare insight into the process. The weeks leading up to polling day are filled with projections based on a pseudoscience called psephology, which purports to use sophisticated statistical analysis combined with expert insight to predict the outcome.
It doesn’t. I can’t remember the last time psephology provided anything even close to an accurate prediction.
It is I think easy to confuse psephology with phrenology, a pseudoscience devoted to reading the bumps on a head. They seem to be about as reliable as each other and I really can't see why the London studios don't employ phrenologists and astrologists and various other charlatans to fill the hours of hollow speculation. It would make a change from vacuous experts and smug politicians.
Little green men Being at the count with TV credentials also gives privileged access to the candidates and their cohorts, and the chance to have your ear bent by the various eccentrics who put themselves forward for office with no realistic prospect of success. Trust me when I say that elections really are magnets for the weirder members of society.
I was cornered by the Green Party candidate, practically salivating at a two point increase in vote, as he tried to imprint the word 'breakthrough' into my conscience. Then he unleashed his policy bomb: "I'm the only Green candidate to be pro-nuclear" he told me.
Now, this is interesting. Nuclear energy is seen by some as the best way to reduce carbon emissions, but by others as too hazardous. How did he reach the view that nuclear was good, contrary to most of his colleagues? "I worked for many years at Sellafield, so I know for a fact that nuclear is completely safe" he told me. Aha! So you are a scientist or engineer? "Oh no, I did recruitment."
There you have it. An expert insider view on one of the trickier technical questions facing humanity, delivered with a straight face by a human resources specialist.
The really staggering thing is the antediluvian process of vote counting. Boxes of ballot papers are ferried in fleets of private cars to the counting centre, probably a leisure centre. Rows of trestle tables are deposited with bundles of papers. Dozens of staff first verify the number of papers, to check that this matches the votes cast at polling stations. This takes a couple of hours, then the staff get a break, and only then does anybody start looking at where the voters have scrawled their Xs.
It is a huge and well-practiced operation, with checks and safeguards that make it inconceivable that any large scale fraud could be committed. But an alien looking down on our version of democracy would conclude that humans were slightly insane for failing to find a slightly slicker way of using the technology we have to make the whole thing a bit easier.
Maybe that's what happened. The aliens saw the mess, and decided to participate. Just for the shizz. That would explain a lot.