The idea behind Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, is a neat one. Collect 48 practical insights from academic research, write them up in sharp, clear and short pieces, throw in a 49th chapter about cats, spice it up with a 50th chapter based on headline-seeking research into sex, add in a bonus chapter also about sex for good measure and publish a book.
The execution is pretty good too.
What makes the book particularly good is that it doesn’t take a simple line about either voters or politicians all being evil / smart / amazing / stupid and instead mixes up the verdict on them as the evidence allows.
So voters for example, are both shown often to be ignorant of political facts (“demonstrating voters’ ignorance about matters of public policy is the political science equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel” writes Phil Cowley). They also hold on to their views even when shown contrasting evidence and yet they do have an underlying logic to their outlook.
That’s neatly illustrated by overseas aid, on which voters regularly think Britain spends far more than it does and that it should be cut – and still stick to their support for cuts even when discovering the truth about its actual much lower levels.
That’s both illogical from one perspective, but also consistent from another: if you think for reasons other the detailed numerical totals that overseas aid spending is too high (such as because you fear too much of it is wasted), why would discovering your guess as to its level is wrong change your view?
Moreover, as other evidence presented in the book shows, although the attempts of voters to estimate figures such as the level of immigration tend to be pretty inaccurate, views do change in step in response to such figures rising or falling, again showing some logical connection between views and facts even whilst details are often got wrong.
It all makes for both an entertaining and enlightening read, not only in those chapters that try hard to be funny (I’m looking at you, Joe Twyman) but in them all.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Talking to a brick wall by Deborah Mattinson.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.
UPDATE: There’s now a second edition, which includes a chapter from myself on how people give far too much attention to general election campaigns.