Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Lies, damned lies and statistics used by politicians

I've just dropped in on a debate on Twitter between Kilian Bourke and a Labour activist, in which the Labour activist claims that the Coalition have privatised 70% of NHS services since 2010. Welcome to the dark world of political statistics...

My father, who built his career on a very astute nose for bullshit and a firm grasp of numbers, once told me that 69.3% of all statistics are made up. At the time, the joke evaded me to an extent, although years as a fully paid-up sceptic have led me to appreciate just how right he really was. Bar charts on leaflets are just the start.

So, for example, has the deficit been halved since the Coalition came to power? In actual terms, no, but in real terms, yes. Naturally, more cynical politicians use the statistic which best suits the spin they wish to impart, preferably by blurring or simply omitting the context.

So, let's say that £3 billion worth of NHS contracts have gone to non-NHS providers (that's a figure plucked out of the air, by the way, simply for illustrative purposes). To the public, that's a bad number, big and scary. On the other hand, it represents about less than 3% of NHS spending. That's a small number, and not really scary at all. And, of course, they're both true. So, which figure would you use to win an argument?

Let's take the argument further. You believe that NHS contracts should stay within the public sector (let's conveniently ignore the fact that you were quite happy to allow it to happen when you were in power). You might focus on the value of contracts that have gone to non-NHS providers. Your opponent might respond by noting the savings achieved or the extra activities that can be delivered with the money thus released. It all depends on context, but your thirty second soundbite doesn't allow you to provide any. It is, in intellectual terms, the equivalent of two men in suits of armour hitting each other with maces whilst the world watches on the internet.

I hold the view that, if you treat the electorate like idiots, they'll behave that way. And, you end up with infantilised, short-term politics which ducks the long-term reforms that this country needs. Dodgy statistics, in the hands of discredited politicians - hardly a prospect to lift the spirits, is it?

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