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"Corrosive of public trust in official statistics"

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Mark Easton | 17:27 UK time, Friday, 12 December 2008

Within hours of this blog posting concerns about the Home Office's selective use of knife crime statistics, the government has been severely rebuked over the release by the official body which oversees such matters.

While he was at the Treasury, Gordon Brown's anxiety over lack of trust in government statistics led to the creation of the UK Statistics Authority - an independent watchdog to ensure that official figures aren't used for political spin.

Now that very body accuses Number 10 of publishing premature, irregular and selective statistics on knife crime in yesterday's press release issued through the Home Office.

PC Alan Bell holds knives and an axe handed in to North Shields police station / Owen Humphreys/PAThe chair of the authority, Sir Michael Scholar, in a letter to the Permanent Secretary at Number Ten, paints a picture of the prime minister's officials and advisors deliberately breaching protocol. The release claimed that the number of teenagers admitted to hospital for stabbing injuries fell by 27% in areas covered by the government's Knives Action Programme.

But the statistics had not been checked and quality assured. Sir Michael goes on to reveal how, in his words, "the statisticians who produced them, together with the National Statistician, tried unsuccessfully to prevent their premature, irregular and selective release".

He describes what happened as "corrosive of public trust in official statistics and incompatible with the high standards which we are all seeking to establish".

The authourity (motto: Building Trust in Statistics) is charged with overseeing a new code of practice enshrined by act of parliament. The Home Office protocols under the code appear to have been breached on a number of counts.

Publication of statistics should be pre-announced; they should be orderly and planned to ensure no perception of interference and policy and operational staff need to be involved to ensure quality assurance.

It would appear that none of these conditions were met. Sir Michael's letter demands no repetition of this breach, but the damage may already be done - to the credibility of crime figures, to confidence in official statistics generally, and to trust in politicians.

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  • 1. At 5:57pm on 12 Dec 2008, petoskystone wrote:

    smart people do not depend on the statistics from a sole source. rather, they go out of their way to read at least one newspaper, listen to two news shows (preferably from different sources), & then look around their environment.

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  • 2. At 5:59pm on 12 Dec 2008, tedyeoman wrote:

    Typical of this Government ... announce something , build it up and then change the rules entirely. Destroying public confidence in every thing associated with it just to meet some short term end.

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  • 3. At 6:31pm on 12 Dec 2008, stanilic wrote:

    Time for the police to be called in again, methinks.

    Or is it acceptable for the government to issue misleading statistics?

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  • 4. At 6:52pm on 12 Dec 2008, supascienceteacher wrote:

    There are two main problems with the media - journalists have no concept of statistics and both the media and politicians are far too short-termist.

    We need to have a proper informed debate about crime (and the economy and lots of other issues) but when we're just relying on politicians spinning the results of knee-jerk initiatives to journalists who can't analyse the results, we're in a mess.


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  • 5. At 7:02pm on 12 Dec 2008, brynmill wrote:

    Funny how each time we get a new Government they promise to sweep away the sleaze of their predecessors… Only to replace it with their own

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  • 6. At 7:06pm on 12 Dec 2008, kaybraes wrote:

    Somehow I'm not surprised that figures issued by this government are inaccurate. No announcement they make can be trusted; Brown keeps repeating the message about how Britain is best placed of all the G7 nations to ride out the recession yet knows full well that this is a deliberate blatant lie.

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  • 7. At 7:30pm on 12 Dec 2008, magicblackfrog wrote:

    The reason government sources get away with releasing such dodgy statistics is the complete lack of any common sense continually exhibited by those in receipt of those and any other "leaks" they come by.
    News progs yesterday could not get enough of it, extensive coverage, time spent digging out same old archive footage of yobs with swords, and the flashy graphics etc keeps the grateful lincence fee receivers fully employed.
    Should the news folk actually stop and look at what they are being fed then we might have a far more balanced view of the world.
    Anything much happen east of Dover lately?

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  • 8. At 7:48pm on 12 Dec 2008, alexandercurzon wrote:

    MORE DISHONESTY IN HIGH PLACES?






    WHERES NEW LABOUR?





    AT THE HIGH TROUGH.

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  • 9. At 7:50pm on 12 Dec 2008, john wrote:

    This surely must be on a par with the inflation figures routinely published i.e. far from reality . 'Lies , Damn Lies and Statistics ' must now be amended to include 'Government Pronouncements ( Spin to you and me ).

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  • 10. At 7:53pm on 12 Dec 2008, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    Mark.....
    it is good that this agency rebuked the government for the improper usage of data.

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  • 11. At 8:20pm on 12 Dec 2008, kcband8 wrote:

    Mark

    How refreshing to hear you, a BBC editor, actually sounding annoyed that No. 10 has issued "selective" statistics in advance of checking against the wishes of their own watchdog.

    This is NuLab spinning per normal and no criticism seems to phase them at all.

    What it does do of course is reinforce the sceptism of the public that this Government has no moral compass and any figures issued to keep us quiet and docile can only be accepted with extreme caution.

    The history of crime figures and immigration data is littered with questionable numbers for political purposes.

    Please keep up the unbiased reporting.

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  • 12. At 9:02pm on 12 Dec 2008, BeebLeeMoore wrote:

    While he was at the Treasury, Gordon Brown's anxiety over lack of trust in government statistics led to the creation of the UK Statistics Authority - an independent watchdog to ensure that official figures aren't used for political spin.

    One of the funniest sentences I've read all year. It is true that Gordon Brown was anxious over the lack of trust in government statistics - not anxious that the government's statistics should be made free of spin, but anxious that the government's ever taller tales were becoming so tall that even the some of the people who can be fooled all of the time were beginning to get a bit suspicious.

    So another government quango was set up to provide "independent" support for the next set of porkies - and at the hundredth time of asking it has finally pointed a feeble finger at one of the government's grosser bits of deceit. No doubt we'll be getting a "review" soon to look into how to improve things even more.

    Gordon Brown is anxious again tonight. Anxious that the truth might leak out. Watch out Sir Michael, Plod could be sent round in the morning.

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  • 13. At 9:39pm on 12 Dec 2008, digitalpuppy wrote:

    Was there ever any trust in Politicians ?

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  • 14. At 9:59pm on 12 Dec 2008, Sparklet wrote:

    Well done to Sir Michael Scholar for standing up to the Govt. If only more officials would do the same.
    After the devastating damage the arrest of Damian Green and the ensuing manipulation of parliament it is good to know that some seniors have the guts to stand up to this out of control executive.
    Refreshing too to read a BBC report that doesn't contain the usual levels of govt. spin - keep it up - at this rate who knows - the British public may yet decide the licence fee is worthwhile after all.

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  • 15. At 11:59pm on 12 Dec 2008, George Rule wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 16. At 00:30am on 13 Dec 2008, stuartychiz wrote:

    First the arrest of an opposition MP, then the release of phoney stats, Ministry of Truth anyone? Welcome to 1984

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  • 17. At 01:25am on 13 Dec 2008, cheesed-off wrote:

    But this government has been doing this sort of thing for years - releasing data and then correcting it later. They have always made statements at a time convenient to them - by burying bad news late on Friday night or releasing "stuff" (to paraphrase a certain private secretary) at a time when something else (bigger) has hit the headlines.

    It doesn't matter too much to them if a press release is incorrect - it's all for political gain, because it's the first headlines are the one's that stick in people's minds. These articles also remain live online, and are often referenced later by people who don't know any better. (It's rare to see a correction referring to the original, wrong, news item or edited into the article itself.)

    They have undermined the public's trust in government - by not trusting us to understand what is happening to the country; by telling us they don't want to publicise certain “sensitive” things because of “national security”, previously it was because of the “war on terror” (as if you can declare war against an emotion!). They must take us all for idiots, because they certainly treat us that way – and we want to know what they're trying to hide from us. We pay their wages, they are public servants, it is us who do the hiring and firing at election time – something they would do well to remember.

    They have consistently ignored and over-ruled public opinion. Our Prime Minister goes into hiding when he has to do something he knows we disagree with (signing the Lisbon Treaty on his own – as if not being in the group photo made any difference!) They have also conveniently forgotten certain groups of the population – notably married couples with or without children, but we too have a vote.

    Mr Brown forgets that he represents the whole country, not just those who voted Labour, and I believe has undermined the UK's credibility on the international stage. I believe that by his actions he has devalued others' opinions of me and mine, and I don't like that very much.

    If Government is really complaining about leaks, and believe in the validity of demanding Police investigations, they ought to put their own house in order first, and stop talking to the media until the right time. They cannot expect one rule to apply to their party and a different rule be applied to others.

    Earlier this week they deliberately released details to the press before telling parliament - which they know is wrong. If any other party had done this, Labour would be the first to complain about a breach of protocol.

    They're happy to criticise others, but the moment any of their policies are criticised they make personal attacks, vilifying the individual concerned. I'm appalled by the way the Home Secretary keeps repeating that Cameron isn't fit for government. It's nothing to do with her, it's the electorate who will decide, and it's the party that governs, not the individual – we all know that party leaders can be changed mid-term without public consensus.

    There is a rule that you should attack the idea, not the person. Could somebody ask Mr Mandelson to tell Mr Brown et als just that, please.

    And now I'd better shut up!

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  • 18. At 05:26am on 13 Dec 2008, elgrant wrote:

    Personally I'd like to see the statistics on 'knife crime' come from A & E departments, and not from reported crime figures. We would then get to know the real extent of this problem.

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  • 19. At 07:14am on 13 Dec 2008, badsworthboy wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 20. At 07:21am on 13 Dec 2008, IslandDoctor wrote:

    Why should we be at all surprised? Gordon Brown has manipulated statistics all his time in Government. Now that Mandy is back every opportunity will be taken to try and show what excellent results Nulab have achieved. Well done Sir Michael, I am so pleased we have at least one public official who will speak out about this Government's complict use of statistics.

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  • 21. At 08:37am on 13 Dec 2008, John1948 wrote:

    My only question is this: If the statistics had been in their present (repeat present)unchecked state, but been detrimental to the government would their subsequent leaking to an opposition MP be seen as a fine example of whistleblowing?

    I express no opinion on my question here, but suggest certain bloggers try turning their arguments around before declaring what they think is a 'common sense' approach.

    As far as the present issue is concerned, who are these politicians who ignore advice? Did Gordon say, after being told that the figures had not been checked, to go ahead anyway? Or was it some 'school child' who one day hopes for a career in politics told Gordon only half the story before getting his approval?

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  • 22. At 09:05am on 13 Dec 2008, PutMeInCharge wrote:

    17. cheesed-off

    No, don't stop. You're just typing what many people feel!

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  • 23. At 10:10am on 13 Dec 2008, magnificentpolarbear wrote:

    Why were these unchecked statistics sent to Number 10 & the Home Office in the first place?

    Perhaps Sir Michael should answer that question befor criticising others.

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  • 24. At 11:48am on 13 Dec 2008, sicilian29 wrote:

    It's yet another cynical example of trying to grab positive headlines to put themselves in a better light. It fools noone.

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  • 25. At 12:04pm on 13 Dec 2008, professor_driftwood wrote:

    As Machiavelli might have put it had he written a book of advice on how to succeed in democratic politics: "The electorate are ignorant and fickle. Consequently they can and must be systematically lied to if you would gain and hold their support".

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  • 26. At 12:26pm on 13 Dec 2008, hurrahforwazoo wrote:

    Q. How can you tell if a politician is lying? A. Their lips move!! This is just another example of lies, damned lies and statistics by Jackie Smith. This woman wouldn't know the truth if it came and bit her on the rear on the backside.

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  • 27. At 1:01pm on 13 Dec 2008, Gednorth wrote:

    This may seem a little off tangent but it's amazing what you can do with statistics - global warming for example:

    U.S. Senate Minority Report Update: More Than 650 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims

    http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=2674e64f-802a-23ad-490b-bd9faf4dcdb7

    Is is just another tax con?

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  • 28. At 2:05pm on 13 Dec 2008, stalisman wrote:

    People tend to say that statistics lie.

    I dont tend to believe that.

    I find that people just do not understand the statistical method.

    The trouble with statisticians is that they obverly find themselves Normal.

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  • 29. At 3:09pm on 13 Dec 2008, kikidread wrote:

    there always has been knife crime here, there and everywhere.

    statistics and stereotyping avoids social issues, problems and solutions for individuals.

    politicising work to help solve or criticise efforts is manipulative.

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  • 30. At 3:27pm on 13 Dec 2008, Nick Drew wrote:

    Martin Scholar and Karen Dunnell are heroes for our times.

    A return to integrity in government has to start somewhere: perhaps it starts here. Long overdue.

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  • 31. At 8:05pm on 13 Dec 2008, systemsthinkwe wrote:

    The problem is that this is the tip of the iceberg. The government actually control a much broader range of statistics than it will admit to.

    It prescribes what performance measures are used in public services, and then gets the Audit Commission to police the application of those measures.

    The reality is that they do not measure what is important to customers. This means that performance looks really good, and very good politically. Actually it has been found that performance can be as much as 80-90% worse when measures that relate to customer purpose are used.

    That is the tip of the scandal iceberg. Just ask the management guru and systems thinker John Seddon. The Audit Commission must independent from the government, or the public sector just reports the good gloss. Ironically these services are provided to the poorest members of society. Labour supporters.

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  • 32. At 9:08pm on 13 Dec 2008, badgercourage wrote:

    This is only the latest in a long and ignominious record of the government misusing data for political ends.

    Politicians in general use statistics "as a drunk uses a lamp-post: for support not illumination" (attributed to Andew Lang)

    But at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, this government, more than any before, is only interested in things which give them electoral advantage. They want evidence to support their policies, not evidence-based policy,

    When experts explain to them their policies will have bad effects, or that there is no evidence to support them (eg Academy Schools) , the experts get sidelined as the Message is more important than the Truth.

    In any case, knife crime statistics like other similar data are only useful for analysing long run trends, not for short term point scoring. It will be some time before we know whether recent numbers represent a blip or a trend. But most politicans' time horizon is a week at best.

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  • 33. At 9:21pm on 13 Dec 2008, Tig wrote:

    Have you forgotten this story?
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5348596.stm

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  • 34. At 00:57am on 14 Dec 2008, elderlybloke wrote:

    Your previous Dear Leader was even worse than the one you have now.

    Do you remember how he and the nut in America used lies to get your nations to invade Iraq without justification.

    That is known as a Crime against Humanity.
    We hanged Germans for that same crime.

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  • 35. At 08:36am on 14 Dec 2008, BrownbankruptsBrits wrote:

    How about some explanation of this worrying report:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/comment/city-eye-facts-on-a-plate-our-population-is-at-least-77-million-395428.html

    Sounds about right to me.

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  • 36. At 3:09pm on 14 Dec 2008, Jim Barron wrote:

    "The authourity (motto: Building Trust in Statistics)..."

    A freudian slip?

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  • 37. At 5:09pm on 14 Dec 2008, John Wood wrote:

    One of the more damaging allegations by the office is that the Government seized on targets that they had met but deliberately hid the facts or the facts that there were targets that had been missed in their announcements.

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  • 38. At 6:31pm on 14 Dec 2008, John Ellis wrote:

    The problem with statistics is that they only ever show what you require them to show, because they are just numbers taken for examples usually of a fixed opinion minority.

    The example of this was the blog on alcohol and cost. how something changed in the early 70's to start the binge drink culture we are now forced to live with. As a minority that understands the political events of that time concerning recreational habits of the world I can say "told you so and its your own fault" but that is my understanding of a set of figures that are meant to be believed.

    Maybe one day we can get over statistics on how life is and should be and live it for a while.

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  • 39. At 09:13am on 15 Dec 2008, Laurelist wrote:

    Would your colleagues use of percentages in the following article "House Prices to Fall by 30%" at

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7782939.stm

    stand up to extenal scrutiny?

    Somehow I would have expected the headline to read "House-prices to fall 10-15%"...Are the Editors short of a good financial scare headline this morning?

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  • 40. At 11:17am on 15 Dec 2008, U13235548 wrote:

    60% of the time statistics are never challenged so you can say what you like - OK , I just made that up .. but you can see what I mean
    Are you really surprised that this government (or any other for that matter ) would selectively release statistics to support their activities ?
    I think they should have thought a litttle harder here - they created the body and made them independent - and then set about undermining the Statistics Authority by releasing selective extracts on crime figures - did they think that a body that is just 9 months old would let that go?
    DOH!

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  • 41. At 2:25pm on 15 Dec 2008, badgercourage wrote:

    Mark

    The right and left hands of the BBC don't seem to touch...

    Prominently on your website today (Monday 15 December) is a story entitled "Mapping Teen Murder".

    Maybe you should talk to colleagues about this sloppy and sensationalist journalism.

    The story lists 72 young people who died this year. That's 72 too many.

    BUT...only when you read the story do you find out that:

    a. Not all of the young people concerned were murdered - the figure of 72 people is actually of all violent deaths, some of which will turn out to be tragic accidents or are clearly family murders.

    b. One of them was not even a teenager, being 11 years old.

    c. A high proportion (32) were legally adults, of 18-19 years. So there were 39 teenagers 13-17 who died violent deaths.

    d. There is actually no clear trend of increasing gang-related murder of teenagers with knives - the relatively high figure this year may well be a one-off. The article does point out that "Home Office figures supplied to BBC News indicate that the number of teen killings in England and Wales has remained largely stable in recent years".

    e. London is disproportionally represented in these figures.

    f. The numbers involved, while far too high, are tiny compared with the number of young people who die in accidents, especially road accidents. At the bottom of the article it says:

    "Of the 1,574 youngsters aged 10-19 who died in England and Wales last year, half were killed by illness and 546 by accidents, of which the vast majority were road deaths. A further 84 committed suicide."

    It's clearly not just the Government that maipulates crime statistics for its own purposes...

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  • 42. At 2:52pm on 15 Dec 2008, OnTopic wrote:

    "Corrosive of public trust in official statistics"

    Oops! a slip up, but just another one of many and hardly any more corrosive of public trust - but only because it can't get much lower.

    If we elect people to represent us on the basis of lies told before and during election campaigns what else can we expect to get afterwards - BUT MORE LIES!

    Time to have a clean up, and a clean out. At the next general election we should start with a new broom. This means a change from both Tory & Labour, who have between them, run this country since the end of W.W.ll.

    Just in case anyone cares to mention that others are lacking "experience" just remember that a lack of experience in government by deceit could be a big bonus for the British Public and for "Our Country" as a whole.

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  • 43. At 5:04pm on 15 Dec 2008, stewing wrote:

    Why so angry? This labour gov. under both Blair and Brown have made it an art form of massaging statistics to suit their purpose. Why would anyone employ a person like Alistair Campbell if not to lie to the public?. What has been unfortunate is the way that the BBC has been taken over entirely by the same new labour thinking. Consequently, viewers and listeners at first accepted that what was put out by the BBC had been checked and was the truth. Now however , over the last ten years, we,ve began to see discrepancies in what we are been told and what we see everyday. H ence, I assume, your anger and bewilderment, not at the figures being massaged, but at our sceptism and disbelief at any gov, quoted information repeated by the BBC.

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  • 44. At 5:35pm on 15 Dec 2008, nolemonade wrote:

    Nice one Mark...

    I like your sense of humour:

    "confidence - official statistics - trust in politicians"

    And all in one sentence!

    Kick the whole lot of the lazy scoungers out of the Commons and get them cleaning the streets or something else useful.

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  • 45. At 5:56pm on 15 Dec 2008, MonkeyBot 5000 wrote:

    There's no trust there for them to corrode.

    Although, that's probably a much healthier system than having people just accept what politicians say - if we all believe them, they have no real incentive to tell the truth.

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  • 46. At 10:21am on 16 Dec 2008, jamesinpiter wrote:

    One of the biggest problems, is that the two professions that most enjoy using statistics - the media, and politics, are two professions that never have any professional training in subject.

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  • 47. At 12:19pm on 16 Dec 2008, JeremyP wrote:

    Does ANYONE believe anything that comes out of Number 10 any more? If Brown told me he'd had Fish and Chips for supper, I'm not sure I'd believe him...

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  • 48. At 6:14pm on 16 Dec 2008, NutitanicPassenger wrote:

    Statistics are a curse because you can so easily make exactly the same data tell a completely different story depending on how you choose to represent it.

    It can be used as a subliminal manipulation of the way people think.


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  • 49. At 10:49am on 18 Dec 2008, Winseer wrote:

    Statistics are the main tool of being able to tell lies mixed with the truth - A speciality of the Devil himself!

    "Oxygen is a deadly gas, since everyone that ever breaths it will die - if they haven't already!"

    "Smoking is harmless, since no one has ever dropped dead from a puff!"

    Unemployment? - Is it anyone who claims UB or Jobseeker's benefits? Benefits can be disqualified, and then the person drops off the radar. The best measure would be "Anyone not paying tax" (ie does not have a real job) but of course THAT involves telling the truth, which sticks in the throat of politicians.

    Crime rate? - Since the police do not follow up many crimes committed by juveniles, the victim no longer bothers to report it. "Crime figures down!" we hear....

    Innoculations? - Thousands of people will die over the coming years from not being innoculated after being scared off by "statistics" stating that unlikelyhoods are common. MMR is perhaps the best example of this. Causes Autism? - My Foot! Statistics have made what must easily be a million to one shot sound as likely as deformities caused by inbreeding. (A Japanese study has now even poured some doubt onto THAT concept!)

    All in all, Statistics should be used for inanimate concepts like business returns & gambling odds - not playing around with people's lives.

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  • 50. At 11:14am on 18 Dec 2008, pandatank wrote:

    Should read "corrosive of public trust in official anything" more like. I voted for Labour because I wanted a change from Tory sleaze, unfair distribution of wealth, an economy built on short term greed, "justice for the poor and knighthoods for the rich" for essentially the same act and particularly I voted for a Govt. committed to listening to the people (not the media moguls) instead of a Govt. using a 5 year vote as a mandate for any half baked legislation they can dream up.

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  • 51. At 3:28pm on 20 Dec 2008, stalisman wrote:

    When media moguls are allowed to distort the brains of folk into the way they 'should think' and governments are happily so formed then perhaps one should consider the very basis of democracy.

    Rant not against Labour or even Tories .. read some Marx instead :-)

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  • 52. At 09:52am on 22 Dec 2008, Curryking wrote:

    I think most people have known for many years that government statistics are manipulated or just made up. Take all the junk science and lies that were told about the risks of passive smoking before the smoking ban in pubs and clubs. No evidence has arrisen to back this claim up but we were fed a load of lies so that the government could get their own way.

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  • 53. At 11:00pm on 22 Dec 2008, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    That is why, stats in numbers should never be allowed to be as spin by; the political party in office at the time....

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