Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Statistics are a wonderful means of formatting reality into a concrete form that we can interpret. They help us realise patterns, trends and measure success and failures. They inform our decisions and actualise big, abstract systems and events into a form we can analyse and interpret.

However, they can and regularly are misused and deliberately misinterpreted – especially via social media platforms such as Facebook – to not illustrate but distort the truth of what is happening.

The Offending Image

bseucorbyn

The above image is a great example of how this can happen.[1] It is a bold, eye-catching claim – why is poor Jeremy getting so much stick when he tried his best?

It is also completely inaccurate.

The page in question, “Another Angry Voice” (which regularly fills my newsfeed with this kind of shit) is run by an “independent blogger from Yorkshire,” rather than a reputable organisation or group of people. It doesn’t bother to footnote where its bold claim is from, so its baffling to see so many people treating any statistic it shits out likes its gospel. Unlike said page, I will footnote and substantiate everything I write here.

For those who do appreciate claims of this magnitude to be substantiated, the 123 stat is  derived from here:

https://blog.lboro.ac.uk/crcc/eu-referendum/uk-news-coverage-2016-eu-referendum-report-5-6-may-22-june-2016/

I wont beat around the bush here: the way AAV – a supposedly tell-it-as-it-is page with a 270,000-strong audience – has presented this statistic is as reprehensibly dishonest as the techniques the Murdoch press employ. The media coverage report from where it is derived is a report on just that – coverage. When they say media appearances, they do NOT literally mean interviews and filmed talks, but media coverage in the following forms:

Television: Channel 4 News (7pm), Channel 5 News Tonight (6.30pm), BBC1 News at 10, ITV1 News at 10, Sky News 8-8.30pm.

Press: The Guardian, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, The Sun, Star and the I.

To reiterate: the study is NOT into media appearances, but into media coverage. There may be statistics that do show Jeremy Corbyn to have made many, many media appearances, but I have not been able to find any.

To present, therefore, these statistics in terms of how hard these candidates campaigned represents either a deliberate desire to mislead, or woefully lacking reading comprehension on AAV’s part.

Even there, however, and even if subsequent statistics did emerge showing Jeremy Corbyn had made a significantly larger amount of appearances than Angela Eagle and Alan Johnson, the signs from the media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn are altogether that he failed to perform in the EU referendum.

Corbyn’s Performance Relative to Other Prominent Figures

Assessing Corbyn’s media prominence relative to his other party members is a pretty bizarre barometer to judge the commitment of these individuals; Corbyn was always going to receive more media attention as party leader – and thus the face of the second-largest party in the country – then relatively-unknown MPs like Angela Eagle and Gisela Stuart. After all, it is not the job of anybody but the party leader to lead the party.

Comparing Corbyn’s performance compared to the other most prominent figures in the referendum, however, makes a lot more sense:

Table 2.1: Top thirty media appearances (6 May – 22 June)

Position Name Number of appearances Percentage of items in which they appeared
1 David Cameron (Conservative IN) 499 24.9%
2 Boris Johnson (Conservative OUT) 379 18.9%
3 George Osborne (Conservative IN) 230 11.5%
4 Nigel Farage (UKIP OUT) 182 9.1%
5 Michael Gove (Conservative OUT) 161 8.0%
6 Ian Duncan Smith (Conservative OUT) 124 6.2%
7 Jeremy Corbyn (Labour IN) 123 6.1%
8 Priti Patel (Conservative OUT) 65 3.2%
9 Gordon Brown (Labour IN) 52 2.6%
10 John Major (Conservative IN) 47 2.3%

Compare the difference in the amount of appearances between Corbyn and Cameron – a staggering 376 (18.8% of the total number of ALL media appearances). It is very easy to blame this on the right-wing tendencies of the media, and this did play a huge part in this. The report notes:

“National press coverage was highly polarised, with pro-IN papers emphasising pro-IN campaigners and arguments, and pro-OUT papers emphasising pro-OUT equivalents. In aggregate terms, this produced a ‘coverage gap’ of 60%: 40% in favour of OUT campaigners. However, when these differences are weighted by circulation, the difference extends to 80%: 20%.”

However, this does not absolve Corbyn from blame – it is the job of the leader to make his message heard. Extensive media coverage requires not just a high number of appearances, but also (i) high visibility and (ii) high quality in these appearance, which Corbyn simply did not provide

In terms of visibility, Corbyn refused to appear in the main televised debates – with viewing figures of 2.7 million and 3.9 million in the ITV and BBC debates respectively providing an excellent opportunity to make yourself seen. [2] Even with a right-wing media, if you create the news then you will be covered; Jeremy Corbyn failed to make any significant appearances.

This isn’t just about the real problems of sharing a platform with Conservatives. Ultimately, Corbyn simply failed to ever engage with any of the big-hitters of Leave (such as Boris and Farage), leaving it instead to figures such as Sadiq Khan and Angela Eagle.

As for high quality appearances? Appearing on The Last Leg and saying you are only 70% in favour of the EU does not constitute this (it is quite an amusing appearance nevertheless). [3] Compared to the genuine passion a speaker like Gordon Brown or Hilary Benn provides, Corbyn – who implicitly admits his heart wasn’t in the Remain campaign – just fails to inspire. Ultimately, he failed to provide anything with near the impact of the rapturous applause Boris Johnson received in the final BBC debate.

Corbyn’s Minimal and Antagonistic Involvement With Labour Remain

Furthermore, suggesting that the only complaint people have had with Corbyn’s campaign was the amount of media appearances he made is disingenuous. Corbyn’s involvement in planning the campaign itself has been heavily criticised, with Chuka Umunna claiming that Corbyn, or indeed anybody from his office, failed to attend even a SINGLE Labour Remain meeting.[4] It’s a shocking claim and we only have Umunna’s word for it, but both the BBC and the Guardian (albeit not in an editorial) reported that leaked Labour documents – supported by multiple anonymous Labour sources – implied Corbyn’s office had deliberately sabotaged and watered-down the campaign.[5]

For example, Labour campaigners were told to redirect people they met from immigration, whilst multiple Labour remain materials had reduced focus on immigration than what was agreed at meetings. Claiming that “Corbyn was one of the only ones who spoke to the public as if we’re adults,” [6] therefore, does not really fit when, under his leadership, Labour refused to engage with the singular main issue of this referendum – immigration. Positively campaigning for the benefits of EU immigration, whilst admitting some areas were under too much pressure due to Tory policy, would have been a far better move here – as Tim Farron did with some aplomb.

Finally, the Labour Remain campaign launched too late – as many observers at the time remarked. Corbyn, again, must take the blame for this.

Concluding Remarks

So there are three main problems with this picture:

  1. It doesn’t show what it purports to show – it is MISLEADING
  2. Even if it did, it ignores explanations for these trends that do not fit into its narrative – it is BIAS
  3. It ignores wider trends – it is PARTIAL

It is far from alone in possessing these flaws; there are broader implications from this picture that means that these three problems must be kept in mind with whatever you’re reading.

Firstly, the best way to avoid misleading statistics is to never read a statistic at face value – even if the statistic is actually real, it might not mean what you think it does. Statistics are essential to interpreting trends and patterns, but must be analysed in context and alongside other statistics.

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Secondly, consider bias – obviously in the attitudes of whoever is presenting evidence, but also in the attitudes that might influence how you approach the evidence; always avoid confirmation bias. People largely believe what they want to believe, and we’re all guilty of this – even those of us like this author, who like to lecture others on this. Check every statistic you read, even if it supports your own view.

In fact, especially if it supports your own view.

Finally, in terms of ignorance of the wider context and partial evidence, the last point I would make is very simple: don’t trust random shit you read on the internet. Most of it – especially the political stuff – is pure, refined, 100% bullshit made by people who probably have less of an idea what they are talking about then you do.

Conor Dunwoody


[1] https://www.facebook.com/185180654855189/photos/a.389966974376555.89655.185180654855189/1225110630862181/?type=3&theater

[2] BARB website – BBC 1 week June 20th and ITV week June 12th

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/11/jeremy-corbyn-under-pressure-with-labour-staff-reduced-to-tears/

[4] https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/labour-party/news/76950/jeremy-corbyn-failed-turn-single-labour-eu-remain

[5] BBC report; Guardian article

[6] http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/what-do-people-mean-when-they-say.html

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Military Intervention, Syria and the Trolley Problem

Ok, disclaimer: I disagree with the proposed air strikes in Syria. I don’t think they’re well-thought through, with no clearly-defined ground strategy needed to dislodge IS forces, nor any end-plan besides hurting IS. It reeks of Cameron trying to flex his muscles and appear as the man of the moment, rather than any genuine belief these strikes will either reduce attacks in Europe, or help those fighting IS. The most shameful part of all is that he is using the tragedy of the Paris attacks to push through something on his long-term agenda, in effect trying to score political points on a matter that is quite literally of life and death.

However, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated at some of the posts I’m seeing about the topic. It’s not that I disagree with the judgement that the strikes are wrong, but that I disagree with the reasoning behind so many of these judgements.

Far too many people are opting for an idealised, pacifist view on a a complex issue, and have clearly never even considered that military intervention may be necessary and even the right thing to do. To put it another way, too many people made their minds up the moment they saw the words “bomb Syria” without even thinking why, besides the idea that military intervention is inherently wrong.

Too many assume that civilian casualties are somehow avoidable, when in these situations they are not. 200,000 people have died in the Syrian war, which is a figure that will continue to rise. Lives are being lost every day, and in such a circumstance there is no inherent victory to pacifism. The reality of a situation such as the one in Syria is that innocent lives will be lost regardless of what we do, so the only choice we have is to minimise this – the ruthless arithmetic of war sometimes boils down to a hundred people dying so that a thousand can live. Sometimes, the only choices you have are bad ones, but that doesn’t give you the right to refuse to choose out of an arrogant unwillingness to dirty your hands.

It’s the classic trolley problem – a choice between killing one person to save another five, or letting the five die so you don’t get the blood of the one on your hands. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it does have relevance to our situation – we are at a crossroads. As a military power in NATO, we have the power to act. We can either chose to act and accept that some innocents will die, or sit back and allow untold more innocents to die. Either way, a country in our position will ultimately bear responsibility for those that end up dead – be it through our misguided action, or through our misguided failure to act.

Of course, I’m not saying that these strikes will really help the civilian population in Raqqa – I don’t think they would, and again I personally don’t support them – and things are of course nowhere near as simple as the trolley analogy. The strikes probably will harm as much as they help, and aren’t combined with the ground strategy needed to dislodge IS forces. Neither do they reflect an underlying strategy to tackle global Jihadism that is desperately needed in the battle against IS.

Really, though, whether or not the strikes would work is irrelevant to the point I’m making. The point I’m making is that they could work, but that too many people appear unwilling to ever entertain such a possibility – which is truly worrying. Coming to any conclusion on an issue of life or death from a closed perspective is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Without considering all the possibilities and all the eventualities, you are risking a narrow course of action that reflects dogma rather than reason.

By refusing to properly engage with both sides of the debate from the start, you end up ignoring any evidence and points that jar with yours. In effect, you are thinking and behaving with the exact same mindset as Tony Blair and George Bush did in 2003.

So basically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with opposing military action in Syria – but please, please do so with an open mind.

Conor Dunwoody