Facts Are Chiels That Winna Ding: What Poetry Can Teach Us about Data

Alan Mackie in Atlanta, Georgia, at the replica cottage of Robert Burns's birthplace.

Tonight is Burns Night, a celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns. This remembrance of the “ploughman poet” is not restricted to just Scotland. Tonight, Burns’ immortal memory will be toasted globally: from Edinburgh to Dunedin, from Edmonton to Durham, and from Eindhoven to Delhi. But what can Scotland’s greatest poet show us about data and how it can shape policy in the twenty-first century?

Even if you are unaware of Robert Burns, several of the eighteenth-century Scottish poet’s lines have passed into common usage: “the best laid schemes of mice and men”; “a man’s a man for a’ that”;“my love is like a red, red rose” (reportedly Bob Dylan’s favorite poem); and, of course, the ubiquitous singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight at new year’s eve parties the world over.

One of my favorite lines of Burns is “facts are chiels that winna ding, and downa be disputed”. Roughly translated from the old Scots this means that “facts are things that cannot be disputed”. We seem to live in an age of political spin, weasel words, alternative facts and the rise of conspiracy theories. However, these lines are a reminder of our Enlightenment ideas about independently-verifiable empirical facts and their importance to the development of knowledge and, ultimately, the idea of democracy. In fact, these words appear in Burns’ highly satirical poem “A Dream”, in which he mocks the Hanoverian court of King George III, and takes aim at the high taxes and corruption of Pitt the Younger’s government. Today we might say Burns was “speaking truth to power”.

Today, over two hundred years later, Burns’ words seem especially apt for those of us who use data to inform policy research and evaluation. Facts are facts, and while their interpretation and the conclusions that we draw from them are contestable, data are not. Our work is to gather and analyze data to develop evidence-based policy solutions for social problems.

Twenty-first century government is more representative than that of the eighteenth-century, and using data in research and evaluation has a fundamental role in our democratic societies. Data allows us to speak truth to power, or at least expose some inconvenient truths, although perhaps in a less poetic way than Burns did. No doubt he would see his belief in the importance of facts to good governance echoed in the work that we do now.

Facts matter at GtD, and we pride ourselves in providing definitive evidence to help organisations make a difference to society. For the past ten years we have worked with governments, non-governmental organisations, private companies, and non-profits. In each case we used data to highlight inequalities in the criminal justice system, the lack of access to healthcare and young people’s lack of opportunities for education, employment or training. Working with our clients we use data to establish constructive ways of overcoming the systemic obstacles to better justice and to improve access to services for everyone.

At GtD we believe in making a difference. If you would like to know how GtD can help your organisation to make an evidence-based case for its work, then contact alan.mackie@gtd-us.com or jack.cattell@getthedata.net We look forward to hearing from you.