Facts and myths: the example of Trident

This is a version of an article I published on my other blog.

Statements repeated enough in the independence referendum debate often become treated as irrefutable facts, whether or not they are true (more on this in a future post). This example arose from someone saying on Twitter about people in Scotland

the majority wants Trident out.

Collaborative Scotland’s principles of ‘respectful dialogue’ I cited recently urge people to use ‘credible information’ in debate and the issue of Trident seemed a good chance to do that.

I found these statistics from the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, courtesy of ScotCen Social Research:

Trident table

Source: Table in Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013

Of course, the question asks whether Britain should have nuclear weapons, not Trident specifically. But since Trident missiles are the only nuclear weapons Britain possesses it’s a reasonable approximation. It should also be noted that the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is a reputable, reliable and statistically valid source of opinion on the subject matter it covers. I know of no other up to date neutral source that addresses the same issue.

If you look at the percentages, you’ll see that 46% of the respondents to this survey say they are somewhat or strongly ‘against Britain having its own nuclear weapons.’ That might be counted a large minority. It is not a majority.

When I pointed this out to the person who’d made the original statement he said

nice manipulation of the data … Out of those that have an opinion, the majority want it out.

My response was that people ‘neither in favour or against’ have an opinion and should be counted.

He disagreed and the discussion rumbled on for a few more tweets before we both gave up.

The nub of the difference between us was whether people who answered ‘neither in favour or against’ should be included in the calculation of the percentage of people for or against Trident. I say yes because to be neither for nor against is to express a view. Moreover, even a survey of this high quality is a relatively blunt instrument at catching the full subtlety of people’s opinions. So I could easily imagine a whole range of views underlying an opinion that someone is neither in favour nor against Britain having its own nuclear weapons. For example

  • You know, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got more important things to worry about
  • Well, I can see things for and against. It’s a fine balance
  • It’s not really relevant to defence these days but if the experts want it…
  • and so on.

In any event, the statement originally made was that ‘the majority wants Trident out’, not ‘the majority excluding “don’t knows” and those “neither in favour nor against” want Trident out’ – as the other person concerned amended his claim to when challenged. These are two quite different things.

To put it another way, if you lined up 100 Scots and said ‘Will everyone who is somewhat or strongly against Britain having nuclear weapons please step forward?’ 46 would. That’s a minority.

This sort of detail is important because it’s the only way to tease out the claims and counter-claims that accompany the independence referendum debate.

Incidentally, the question of Scotland being different from the rest of the UK features prominently in ‘Yes’ claims about the independence referendum. It is interesting to compare the results of the same question asked in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s sister survey south of the border (the small percentages of ‘Don’t know’s have been excluded from this table).

Trident UK

In summary, 43% of people asked in England and Wales are strongly or somewhat in favour of nuclear weapons, compared to 37% in Scotland.

As the authors of this comparison say

The differences in the level of support are not that large, and both parts of the UK could reasonably be described as being divided on the subject (the full report can be downloaded here).

To go back to the original issue, I maintain that there is not a proven majority of people in Scotland who ‘want Trident out.’ But I’m open to reasoned arguments that prove the opposite.

Footnote: my own views on nuclear weapons generally and Trident specifically should not be inferred from this discussion.

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