Misleading government stats and the innumerate media who repeat them

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37 Responses to “Misleading government stats and the innumerate media who repeat them”

  1. Seegras says:

    This is called “False Positives”, and in a security-context,
    EVERY FALSE POSITIVE IS A SECURITY FAILURE.

    To sum this up: Arresting 150 people instead of 12 is not only shoddy work, but a total failure of police work. The responsible officer ordering this should be dismissed immediately.

  2. EH says:

    My comment was an jibe directed at some poor soul that apparently had a shocking epiphany that Sun newspaper reporters are not accurate and unbiased investigative journalists, and that the government lies

    Ah, so your reaction to “some poor soul” getting just a little more educated is ridicule and disdain. Your children must be awesome.

  3. dargaud says:

    I seriously think the media should be fined when using so-called statistics that are pulled out of their asses. If it’s not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, you automatically get a fine. One can dream.

  4. jack lecou says:

    Well, let’s see, several sources give the march crowd estimate at half a million people, so 150 violent arrests divided by 500,000 equals 0.0003. The percentage of the marchers who were arrested for violence is 0.0003%.

    It’s worse than that. The number of arrests which could reasonably be considered “violent” is at most a dozen or so. Probably not even that.

    Add another zero.

    • dragonfrog says:

      Indeed.

      1 x charged with possession of an offensive weapon and going equipped for criminal damage
      1 x charged with possession of an offensive weapon
      2 x charged with violent disorder and assault on a police officer
      1 x charged under Section 4 Public Order Act
      1 x charged with drunk and disorderly
      2 x charged with assault on a police officer
      3 x charged with criminal damage

      So,
      violence against a human – 4
      possessing a weapon (but not using it) – 2
      property damage – 3
      general rowdiness – 2
      trespassing – 138

      That’s from the link you posted above, http://content.met.police.uk/News/149-charged-following-disorder-in-central-London/1260268747783/1257246745756

      Incidentally, strangefiend – you can’t just switch between fraction and percentage. If the fraction is .0003, the percentage is .03%.

      In fact, it’s more like 4/500,000 = 0.000008 = 0.0008% of protesters arrested for violence.

      • jack lecou says:

        In fact, it’s more like 4/500,000 = 0.000008 = 0.0008% of protesters arrested for violence.

        Exactly.

        And stated this way, it actually seems incredibly low.

        Commonsense would suggest that getting half a million people together will, statistically, result in a few unfortunate incidents, regardless of how peaceful and levelheaded the individuals might be or how noble the motives of the crowd might be.

        It would be interesting to have some concrete measure of this. It seems quite possible that 4 or so incidents in half a million is, statistically speaking, indicative of perhaps a much *lower* than average level of violence or violent intent.

  5. Onecos says:

    IMHO, the media is not here to report news. Reporters are tasked with selling newspapers and air time. Therefore, whenever possible, they sensationalize the news. What gets more attention, “peaceful protests” or “150 participate in violent protests”? Just remember it’s entertainment based on the news. However, if you read it on the internet it’s the truth!

  6. manicbassman says:

    being used to make an example of as in “don’t fsck with the establishment”… if you do, you’ll get a criminal record and will never be able to get a decent job again…

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s why I work for myself – I can do whatever the fuck I want; as long as I’m not put in prison … I just keep on going :)

      Also, I learned to ignore any statistic printed in the media as it’s almost guaranteed to be wrong in some way or another. If it doesn’t have a source, and isn’t put in context, it’s probably intentionally misleading.

      My favourite of all time was in the Metro and stated something to the effect of:

      “4/5 men think that it’s acceptable to strike a woman.”

      I mean really, common; 4/5 of all men on the planet? In the UK? In London? Or 4 out of the 5 people you asked in that wife-beaters anonymous meeting you went to last week and asked a question like “If a woman was stabbing you with a machette, would you defend yourself?”. We just don’t know and never will.

      It really annoys me when people refer to the Metro as anything other than an entertainment rag; but what’s damaging is that they’re allowed to call it a newspaper. I mean it’s no Fox, but there should be regulators for fact reporting (if it didn’t benefit the government so much to have a fearfully ignorant population I suppose there would be).

  7. Cowicide says:

    I think one of the most radical things you could possibly do in America is teach this exact type of critical thinking skills to kids in elementary school systems (especially the less privileged children in public schools).

    This kind of stuff should be spread far and wide to the general American populace as well.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I for one, welcome our new double-plus good police overlords!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Reminds me of a demonstration a few years ago which the British press had labelled violent due to injuries among police officers. Turns out the injuries were a wasp sting and a policeman who had accidentally caught his hand between the door of his police car.

  10. Zoman says:

    Everything is a lie… ooooh noooes.

    Personally I envy people who live in a magnificently structured delusion where they actually believe that newspapers report the unbiased truth, politicians have our best interests at heart and we live in some sort of democracy.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree. However damaging in the long run, it would be a much happier life.

    • Stooge says:

      Are you also envious of leprechauns for their crocks of gold?

      • Zoman says:

        My comment was an jibe directed at some poor soul that apparently had a shocking epiphany that Sun newspaper reporters are not accurate and unbiased investigative journalists, and that the government lies. Personally I’m not a fan of The Guardian, and this kind of woolly-headed reporting just comes across as clueless.

        To answer your question though, I an not envious of mythical creatures.

  11. splint says:

    Being a complete cynic has it’s place. I assume the government and media are misleading. I also assume those 150 people are cannibals.

  12. AGC says:

    Reminds me of this scene in How To Get Ahead in Advertising – The bag contains pork pie.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxcRG9pi3ZE&feature=related

    • PaulR says:

      I was watching a TV show talk, where an economist pulled a quote from a politician. Something along the lines of “The Free Trade Agreement could create more jobs.” He explained that “This means that the Free Trade Agreement could eliminate jobs.”

      Whenever newspaper use weasel or misleading words like your and Cory’s example, we need to take them to task.

      Mind you, the The Sun’s spell checker is likely the culprit. It’s set up to replace all instances of ‘anarchist’ with ‘violent anarchist.

  13. dragonfrog says:

    It would be interesting to have some concrete measure of this. It seems quite possible that 4 or so incidents in half a million is, statistically speaking, indicative of perhaps a much *lower* than average level of violence or violent intent.

    Per – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_London

    Assault causing injury, 2008 – 2009: 16.5 cases /1000 people, accounting for about 40% of violent crime offences.

    16.5/0.4 = about 41.25 total violent crimes /year /1000 people

    That’s an average of 41.25 /365 = about .11 violent crimes /day /1000 people.

    .11 violent crimes /day /1000 people * 500,000 people = about 55 violent crimes expected in a random sample of 500,000 people in London in one day, as a background rate.

    And they got 4.

    My doubtless wildly bogus statistics thus demonstrate that the people at the “violent” demonstrations were on the whole about 7% as violent as the average Londoner.

  14. PaulR says:

    Forgot to add this blog entry at slacktivist, which talk about this quote from Alan Greenspan: With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

    One of the commenters countered with “With notably rare exceptions, Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the play.”

    http://www.patheos.com/community/slacktivist/2011/04/02/with-notably-rare-exceptions/

  15. prentiz says:

    Umm – how is the section quoted anything to do with Government stats? I very much doubt that the Government issued a press release, for example, saying “150 arrested after violent protest” or whatever. What is more likely to have happened is the journalist in question rang up the Met Police press office and asked “how many people were arrested following the demonstration” and were told 150 – possibly with what they had been arrested for. The journalist then wrote that up as 150 arrested after violent protests, which, whilst sensationalist, isn’t strictly incorrect.

    So suggesting that this is the government “manipulating” the news media, without any evidence at all to suggest that is the case, is pretty sensationalist, in and of itself.

    • adamnvillani says:

      prentiz makes an excellent point. This is yet another case in which Boing Boing’s headline and added text don’t accurately describe the article they’re linked to.

      The misleading element of the articles are in the conflation of the ~150 people arrested and the nature of the protests being violent. But that’s all in the wording of the original articles, or in the Press Association release. Is there any indication in the Bad Science article that this conflation came from the government? No, it all appears to come from the journalists, unless the government wrote the Press Association report.

      • emmdeeaych says:

        I always figured it was the responsibility of a responsible government to release enough specific facts to quell public fears. These facts were released strategically to make it seem the police had a huge problem on their hands.

        If the charges filed in the end justify the boasts of the police, in fact, if more than 10% of those arrested are even charged, I will eat my hat.

    • jack lecou says:

      Umm – how is the section quoted anything to do with Government stats? I very much doubt that the Government issued a press release, for example, saying “150 arrested after violent protest” or whatever.

      Really? I figured they probably did exactly that.

      And sure enough, 30 seconds on the Met website turned up this:

      http://content.met.police.uk/News/149-charged-following-disorder-in-central-London/1260268747783/1257246745756

      Obviously it gives the actual charges some way down (as, perhaps, do some of the newspapers) but the damage is done with the headline.

      • adamnvillani says:

        Right, and said press release only pairs the 149 arrests with the “disorder,” not “violent protests,” which is a relatively neutral description of what happened. It was the non-governmental journalists who paired the 149 figure with violence, Bad Science who reported on that, and BoingBoing that incorrectly reported that Bad Science was criticizing the government’s description of the situation.

        • jack lecou says:

          Right, and said press release only pairs the 149 arrests with the “disorder,” not “violent protests,” which is a relatively neutral description of what happened.

          There’s no doubt that the press accounts made additional exaggerations, but the fundamental inaccuracy nevertheless began with the official police press release. The press accounts followed that lead.

          You say “149 charged following the disorder” is not misleading, but it is. Consider the alternatives. Suppose the headline were some variation of, “4 charged with assault on a police officers in connection with March 26th protests; several others face charges including possession of a weapon and criminal damage; 138 non-violent protesters charged with ‘aggravated trespass’; over 200 arrests made in total”

          Doesn’t have quite the same implication, does it? And yet it is more accurate, and arrays the charges in something more closely approximating their severity and connection to any actual violence – while also acknowledging the mass arrest of non-violent protesters.

          Of course, it’s also a very long headline. An actual headline might have room for just the first portion, maybe something like: “4 charged with violence following March 26th protest events.” (Subhead: “over 200 protesters arrested”).

          Don’t you think that provides a rather more accurate representation?

          • Anonymous says:

            “4 charged with assault on a police officers in connection with March 26th protests; several others face charges including possession of a weapon and criminal damage; 138 non-violent protesters charged with ‘aggravated trespass’; over 200 arrests made in total”

            That isn’t more accurate than the press release. It is, however, more precise.

            “4 charged with violence following March 26th protest events.” Don’t you think that provides a rather more accurate representation?

            That’s accurate in itself, but isn’t a *more* accurate description of the situation as a whole, since it clearly leaves out the 138 people charged with aggravated trespass.

          • jack lecou says:

            That’s accurate in itself, but isn’t a *more* accurate description of the situation as a whole, since it clearly leaves out the 138 people charged with aggravated trespass.

            You’re forgetting that we are speaking only of a headline. It’s the nature of the medium that some –indeed, *most*– of the facts and details will be omitted. The question is which facts and details are most relevant? Which are most representative of the events being reported? Which facts in isolation might be most misleading?

            In my opinion, there are two key facts which should come across in the headline: 1) that only a small handful of individuals were charged with any violent or destructive acts*, and 2) that large numbers of [non-violent] others were nevertheless swept up and arrested.

            The original police news release, and subsequent press headlines, woefully distort both of these points. Reporting only that 149 people have been charged [with unstated crimes], following an incident where there were reports of violence, leaves the impression that most or all of those ~150 or so were themselves involved in the violence. Moreover, it completely papers over the fact that large numbers of people were arrested for more or less unobjectionable activities – at most civil disobedience, and in many cases merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

            My headline at least *attempts* to convey both key points – thus it IS more accurate. (Though the second point is perhaps rather weakly stated — it may belong in the headline proper, not a subhead, for example — and the wording could no doubt be tightened all around.)

            —-
            * Let’s not forget that some of those cases may themselves be rather dubious: “assault on a police officer” is notorious as a trumped-up charge. It’s also rather easy for a squad of hyped-up riot police to maneuver a crowd of similarly overexcited youths into a creating a few incidents. It’s remarkable that there weren’t more.

        • adamnvillani says:

          Just to clarify, I’m saying that “disorder” is relatively neutral, not “violent protests.” Or even if you think it’s not, the journalists augmented the problem; they didn’t merely repeat it. And the Bad Science article linked to lays the blame at the feet of the journalists, not the government. If you want to place the blame for the reporting with the government, you can make that argument, but it’s not the argument the linked-to article is making.

          • jack lecou says:

            And the Bad Science article linked to lays the blame at the feet of the journalists, not the government. If you want to place the blame for the reporting with the government, you can make that argument, but it’s not the argument the linked-to article is making.

            Note that I was originally objecting merely to prentiz’ suggestion that no such original police news release existed, and the press accounts sprang from whole cloth. I thought it would be odd if the police hadn’t released just such a statement. And indeed they had.

            I don’t know about the linked-to article, but I would say there are clearly two related charges here: that the government manipulates statistics; and that the “tame and innumerate” news media abet this practice.

            I don’t know that it is useful to impute malice, or deliberate manipulation, to either. But both institutions are nevertheless at fault (and, conveniently, both can blame the failure on the other).

            For the government’s case, it seems quite reasonable, even desirable, to release statements to the press about their activities. And from the perspective of someone in the police press office, a “police blotter” point of view seems natural, beginning with a statement of the bottom line: total arrests. It’s merely a dry official recounting of numbers, why should one matter more than another, and why should anyone have to worry about the wider implications of this initial choice*? It’s the press’ job to make a story out of it.

            Then, from a reporter’s or editor’s point of view, well, they are merely following the lead of the police department. The “official account” is obviously neutral and factual, so why should they endanger their own objectivity by radically re-framing the story and emphasizing different facts?

            I think on the whole, it is the press that bears the brunt of the responsibility for creating an inaccurate portrayal of such incidents in the public mind – in theory, they have a responsibility to see through such things – but it’s still something of a collective action problem.

            —-
            * Of course, it is also true that the “total arrests” number is the one that tends to reflect most favorably on the police department, and it would be surprising if police officials and press flacks were unaware of that fact.

  16. strangefriend says:

    What percentage of the protesters were the ‘violent anarchists?’ Well, let’s see, several sources give the march crowd estimate at half a million people, so 150 violent arrests divided by 500,000 equals 0.0003. The percentage of the marchers who were arrested for violence is 0.0003%.

  17. jfrancis says:

    Elizabeth Taylor died after violent anarchists…

  18. Anonymous says:

    In my experience – the papers always report the ‘number arrested’ inaccurately (as in the story above) – clumping everyone together under the most serious charge(s).

    However out of these 150 arrested I would very surprised if more than 4 make it to court – and more than 2 are convicted.

    However you won’t find the papers reporting a follow up story on that – no they like to leave it in the minds of the public of “150 arrested for violent behaviour”

    I was there on the day – we had our 3 year old nephew with us – at no point did we fear the ‘violent anarchists’ – however we did fear the panic the police cause with their balaclava’d faces and their random truncheon swinging.

    …oh – didn’t the paper mention that the TSG cover their faces? – and you just thought it was the black bloc…..

    Oh – and when an officer is hit with bleach it’s “ammonia thrown in officer face” – but when a nespaper seller is attacked by a violent and out of control officer – costing him his life – it’s described as ‘pushing to the ground’.

    You need to stop believing the shite put out by the media – they are as guilty as the perpe-traitors themselves.

  19. teapot says:

    If people are not allowed to protest in peaceful ways against businesses that are behaving immorally then those who would choose to protest peacefully may have to resort to less obvious but more destructive methods.

    10 surreptitiously damaged products cause paperwork nightmares that far outweigh the risk and effort required to cause the damage. I suggest the stores involved encourage the police to stop their crap or I suspect there will be bigger and more costly retribution.

    People don’t want anarchy, but we are willing to participate if given no other options.

  20. emmdeeaych says:

    Which group is posturing and irresponsibly spreading fear in the media and the streets?

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