Not Saussure

June 3, 2007

Stats and moral panic

Filed under: Panic, Spin, Stats — notsaussure @ 4:05 pm

This, I’m afraid, repeats a discussion we’ve been having at Casa Worstall, but I thought it worth rehearsing here as an example of how statistics get twisted. I’m not trying to minimise the problem at all — we deal with it in the courts with depressing frequency — but it seems to me that there’s no point in exaggerating a problem by misreading what a report actually says.

Tim quotes Minette Marin in the Sunday Times:

Incredible though it may seem, there are hundreds of thousands of paedophiles living among us, perhaps next door or on the next floor. That, at least, is the estimate of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and nobody has seriously questioned its research. According to the NSPCC, 16% of all women and 7% of all men interviewed said they had been physically sexually abused before they were 12. That would amount to one in nine children.

These alarming figures come from Cawson et al., 2000, Child Maltreatment in the UK: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect, NSPCC. This isn’t available on-line, but an executive summary is, so let’s see what they have to say about Sexual abuse:

Numbers of respondents recording sexual activity with relatives which were against their wishes or with a person 5 or more years older, were very small: 3% reported touching or fondling and the same proportion had witnessed relatives exposing themselves. The other categories of oral/penetrative acts or attempts, and voyeurism/pornography were reported by 1%. Much larger numbers had experienced sexual acts by non relatives, predominantly by people known to them and by age peers: boy or girlfriends, friends of brothers or sisters, fellow pupils or students formed most of those involved.

The money quote, really, is right at the end of this section of the summary:

When respondents with experience of sexual acts as defined above were asked if they considered their treatment to have been sexual abuse, 6% of the total sample considered they had been sexually abused. There was overlap with the research defined abuse for those abused by relatives but much less so for others.

So that’s 6% — which is one in 16.7 rather than one in 9 — who actually ‘said they had been physically abused’. Still alarmingly high, perhaps, but not 1 in 9.

Furthermore, that’s 6% of the whole survey group — children up to the age of 16. I’m not completely certain, but I think what Minette Marin’s done is misunderstood the figures given in the section on ‘prevalence of abuse’, which is admittedly rather confusingly written, since it’s not at all clear when the figures refer to abuse in the sense of sexual activity between someone under 12 and someone 5 or more years older, whether ‘consensual’ or not, and when they refer to non-consensual sexual activity with ‘age peers: boy or girlfriends, friends of brothers or sisters, fellow pupils or students,’ and I think that to get 1 in 9 you have to do some double counting.

As I say, though, it’s clear from the summary overall that by far the greatest amount of ‘abuse’ as reported here comprises non-consensual sexual activity and sexual assaults by children of roughly the same age; and while there are all sorts of terms one might justifiably apply to a 14-year-old boy who sticks his hand down his 13-year-old girlfriend’s knickers without her permission, or grabs hold of a class-mate’s breasts, ‘paedophile’ isn’t one of them.


May 16, 2007

Online safety and moral panic

Filed under: Internet, Panic — notsaussure @ 11:10 am

Devil’s Kitchen is, to my mind, rightly sceptical about some shock … horror statistics from the NSPCC about ‘unwanted experiences’ that children in the UK apparently suffer each day when using the internet. Like DK, I’m of the view that ‘unwanted experiences’ are pretty much part of life and that computers do usually come with an off-switch. Indeed, you could argue that it’s probably safest that children learn to cope with the bullying or unwanted sexual advances that many of them will, unfortunately, encounter at some point during either their childhood or their adult lives by first encountering such things at a safe distance rather than face-to-face.

I’m not being blasé about this, but the fact is that the world isn’t always a particularly pleasant place, and life’s a lot safer and more enjoyable if you have the skills and confidence both to avoid getting into bad situations in the first place and also to deal with them when, inevitably, they do arise.   Better to begin to acquire them, perhaps, in the virtual world, where the threats are more controllable and help is usually closer to hand, than in the actual one.

One of the comments to DK’s piece suggests that

The NSPCC is an organization due a bigger looking-at than it gets,

which prompts me to chuck in my couple of euros’ worth. I fell out with the NSPCC in a big way getting of for 20 years ago when the ‘satanic ritual abuse‘ débâcle really got going. It sounded distinctly fishy to me and then I read Rosie Waterhouse’s classic article on the subject in the Independent on Sunday, which pretty much crystallised my concerns. Strangely enough, I can even remember where I was when I read the article; it made that much impression on me.

The NSPCC, it may be remembered, had been pretty vocal in helping stir up the, quite literal, witch-hunt. Since, at the time, I regularly contributed to the NSPCC, I thought I’d drop them a line asking why they’d been using my money to such mischievous effect. This was, I recall noting to them, particularly galling at a time when systematic abuse in various children’s homes was coming to light. It was, I reasoned, inconceivable that the NSPCC hadn’t received complaints from any of the children on the receiving end of this abuse, so how come they were apparently ignoring actual abuse and, instead, starting up wild-goose chases to disastrous effect?

The reply I received was so breath-taking in its cynicism that it shook even me. Yes, apparently they’d had their doubts about this ritual abuse malarkey but I had to realise that they did an awful lot of very necessary work for children, this costs money, and tabloid bandwagons are a very good way of raising much-needed funds. They rather ducked the question about why they’d failed to spot what was going on in various children’s homes over the years, and hoped they could count on my continued support.

People will perhaps not be surprised to learn that this hope proved misplaced.

Coming at a time when, over in the USA  apparently

parents rate Internet Safety as being a more serious health threat to children than school violence, sexually transmitted diseases, abuse and neglect.

Yes, the Internet,

with the predictable result that

“state and federal legislators appear to have responded to public concerns about Internet safety for children, considering new legislation and issuing consumer alerts”.

it’s perhaps not surprising that the NSPCC has seized this new fund-raising opportunity. But I can’t say I much like it.

As a bit of light relief, people might want to visit this prophetic animation, with a fine Doghorse and  Miss Prism ditty. You won’t regret it.

January 26, 2007

Overcrowded prisons and suspended sentences

Filed under: Law, nemesis, Panic, UK — notsaussure @ 6:39 pm

I don’t know what the government — or John Reid in particular — can have been thinking of with the now notorious suggestion to judges that they should use non-custodial sentences whenever possible; it does no more than restate sentencing policy and the media storm was an obvious consequence.

Some of the coverage is, in fact, odd, if not downright wrong. The case of Derek Williams, who was given a six months sentence, suspended for two years, for downloading child pornography and who was told that one reason he’d escaped an immediate custodial sentence was that the learned judge had to ‘bear in mind’ the Home Secretary’s circular is a case in point. The judge will also have said in his sentencing remarks that he had ‘to bear in mind’ the defendant’s guilty plea, pre-sentence report (assuming there was one), the quantity and nature of the images downloaded, his previous criminal record (two very old assaults) and the likelihood of his re-offending, but these comments don’t seem to have received equal prominence. (more…)

January 4, 2007

Mail readers — before you rush out to commit a crime, please read this…

Filed under: Panic, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 11:12 pm

The Daily Mail recently published the alarming news — well, not alarming to potential criminals, I suppose –that Only 1 in 100 reported crimes end in prosecution. This is extraordinary misreporting, even by the Mail’s standards. (more…)

November 27, 2006

This policeman offends my common sense — make a law to stop him!

Filed under: civil liberties, Law, Panic — notsaussure @ 2:24 pm

The reason, or so I gather, that Russian wizards and witches tend to withdraw from human affairs and live in the forests, far away from everyone, is that their words and wishes have power. Consequently, the idea goes, if you live in Moscow or St Petersburg, you’re bound to at some point to find yourself angry with someone who jostles you in the street or treads on your feet on the metro, ill-wish him, and then you’ve got the consequences on your conscience. That, and the fact your hut on hens’ legs needs plenty of space for its exercise, of course.

Anyway, I’m beginning to wonder if writing a blog isn’t a bit like that. John Reid opined a little while ago that something or other ‘involves nothing less than together renewing the social contract.’ The Reactionary Snob responded that the social contract

is a hypothetical construct to justify the state’s existence. We don’t actually sign a contract… although, I wouldn’t put it past you lot to try.

and, as if by magic, a few weeks later it transpires that

A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review,

a proposal memorably taken apart by Nosemonkey in a post that prompted someone to ask, of Blair,

Can’t someone just buy him a copy of SimCity and let him get on with it?


Now I write something entitled It’s grotesque — ban it, and, as if by magic, up pops the Met’s assistant commissioner, Tariq Ghaffur, asking for (more…)

October 29, 2006

Iraq war ‘fuelling UK terrorism’ — according to Downing Street memo (but not Downing Street spokesman)

Filed under: Iraq, Panic, Spin — notsaussure @ 9:24 pm

A memo, supposedly prepared by ‘senior Downing Street officials’ has been leaked to the Sunday Telegraph (though Downing Street deny it was written by their people, they’re apparently not contesting its existence). This, on the Telegraph’s account,

admits that, in an ideal world, “the Muslim would not perceive the UK and its foreign policies as hostile” – effectively accepting the argument that Britain’s military action in Iraq and Afghanistan has served as a recruiting sergeant for Islamist terrorist groups.

I don’t know if there’s a typo and they meant to say ‘the Muslim world’ or something, or if ‘senior Downing street officials’ really do talk about ‘the Muslim’ (bit touchy, don’tcha know; sound chap, nevertheless, particularly when led by British officers). I do know, because I know someone who was there, that at a meeting at Downing Street between senior civil servants and law enforcement officials held in 1993 to discuss the Russian mafia and suchlike, the Downing Street chaps referred throughout to the ‘Soviet Union’ and the ‘Warsaw Pact’, so nothing would surprise me; as he said, ‘but I thought the reason we were having this meeting was that don’t exist any more.’ (more…)

October 28, 2006

Critical Thinking and undistributed middles

Filed under: Panic, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:20 pm

Garry, writing at The Sharpener, takes issue with a prevalent line of muddled argument both among politicians and in the blogoball (© Garry; he says he’s dissatisfied with the other word and this term has the advantage of not being it). He gives a non-specific example thus:

Let’s say that A is a defined characteristic or experience and that X is a particular act. We do a study and discover that every single person who commits act X has first conformed to characteristic A. Can we conclude that characteristic A causes act X?

and then shows how it’s applied in specific cases;

Let’s try a real example. Characteristic A will be defined as those who have smoked cannabis. Act X will be injecting heroin. In that example, studies have shown that almost all injectors of heroin were cannabis smokers first. I’ve seen any number of politicians say that this proves that cannabis is a “gateway drug” but it is a conclusion which cannot be drawn.

Here’s another example. Characteristic A will be defined as those who have smoked cigarettes. Act X will be injecting heroin. In that example, studies have shown that almost all injectors of heroin were cigarette smokers first. Now if you’re a smoker and you think I’m wrong in the previous example, you might be starting to feel unease here. Doesn’t this prove that tobacco is also a ‘gateway drug’? No, it bloody well doesn’t.

It’s also, as he says, used of suicide bombers and Islam:


October 21, 2006

Matthew Parris on the scramble to save reputations as the ship goes down

Filed under: Iraq, Neo-conservatives, Panic, UK — notsaussure @ 1:13 am

Matthew Parris in today’s Times:

HARK — CAN YOU hear it? Borne on the wind, can you hear the sounds of construction — of hammers hammering and woodsaws sawing? And do you detect a note of panic? I do. The good ship Neocon is going down. She has struck the Iraqi rocks, the engine room is awash, and on the deck in anxious pursuit of something to float them away is a curious assembly.

Her Majesty’s Brigade of Neocon Columnists and Leader Writers mingles with much of the elite of British politics. The new Labour Cabinet and its courtiers and most of the Opposition’s front bench rub shoulders with Fleet Street’s finest. Is that David Aaronovitch I see, hammer in hand? Jack Straw is handing him the nails. There’s Michael Gove scribbling notes while Danny Finkelstein rips a blank sheet from a discarded do-it-yourself regime change manual, and ponders a hastily sketched design. Willie Shawcross has the saw and Tim Hames and Margaret Beckett are ripping planks from the deck. Gordon Brown skulks behind the mast as those unlikely bedfellows, Matthew d’Ancona, of The Spectator, and Johann Hari, of The Independent, assemble what timber they can find.

They are building a lifeboat for their reputations. The task is urgent. It is no small thing to find oneself on the wrong side of an argument when the debate is about the biggest disaster in British foreign policy since Suez; no small thing to have handed Iran a final, undreamt-of victory in an Iran-Iraq war that we thought had ended in the 1980s; no small thing to have lost Britain her credit in half the world; no small thing — in the name of Atlanticism — to have shackled our own good name to a doomed US presidency and crazed foreign-policy adventure that the next political generation in America will remember only with an embarrassed shudder.

Read more

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October 18, 2006

Quote of the week

Filed under: Blogroll, Islam, Panic — notsaussure @ 10:42 pm

Veiled Muslim women are caricatured as oppressed victims who need rescuing from their controlling men, while at the same time accused of being threatening creatures who really should stop intimidating the (overly tolerant) majority

Salam Yaqoob Via Andrew Bartlett

(Both linked stories date from after the quote)

October 16, 2006

More on The Paranoid Style

Filed under: Blogroll, Panic, Politics — notsaussure @ 2:34 pm

One of the comments to Rachel’s piece on “Anger. Yes, its another conspiracy theory vent.”, about which I wrote yesterday asks

why are you so stressed by what the conspiracy theorists say? Everybody has a right to an opinion. You have yours, they have theirs. You are convinced they are wrong, and they no doubt are convinced you are wrong. What’s the problem with that? My own view is that I don’t know what happened. I have read the conspiracy theories and I have no idea if they are right or not. How could I know? But I certainly don’t accept what T Blair says as gospel. I’d be mad to do that, wouldn’t I?

To my mind, the question’s a bit rich, given that Rachel’s just answered precisely that question in her article. However, I’ll have a shot at explaining why they irritate me. (more…)

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