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.


March 8, 2007

Manufactured consent at the taxpayers’ expense

Filed under: Politics, Spin, UK — notsaussure @ 8:44 pm

Back in December, I expressed my reservations about the government’s plans to resurrect People’s Panels under the new name, Deliberative Forums; these, I opined, would be focus groups to determine ways better to sell potentially unpalatable policies to the paying public.

Via Chicken Yoghurt, there’s an account in the Groan by someone who attended one of these events, Liam Curtin. Mr Curtin writes,

I felt we were being used to rubber-stamp an assortment of controlling measures designed to keep an errant public in place. There was not much time given to open discussion, and no opportunity to put forward other ideas.Despite the press releases, this was not a dialogue – more a crafty way to get endorsement for a raft of reactionary measures aimed at imposing responsible citizenship through a patronising system of rewards and punishment. That it involved a cross section of the populace just gave the illusion that the ideas emerged from the street.

So it looks as if these aren’t even attempts to devise ways to sell the policy; from Mr Curtin’s account, people were given various loaded questions — e.g. Should people who harm themselves by smoking, etc, be allowed hospital treatment? (as opposed to, for example, Should people who harm themselves by participating in sports, etc, be allowed hospital treatment?, or Should the NHS continue to provide universal medical assistance, free at the point of delivery, to those who need it) — and asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposal , presumably so HMG can later say, ‘Well, we’ve consulted the public.’

It’s a bit like the way they used to ‘prove’ people can’t tell Stork margarine from butter; according to my late father, who participated in one of those rigged events, they apparently had him sample half-a-dozen or so little cream crackers. Then, having thoroughly confused his palate, they asked him which one had Stork on it; this he was understandably unable to do, much to his annoyance, even though he’d obviously have had no difficulty in distinguishing between the two if they’d have just given him one biscuit with Stork and one with butter.

Seems a bit off, to me at least, to spend the taxpayer’s money organising one of these fake consultations — including putting people up at a good hotel, apparently, and giving them £50 for their trouble — just in order to be able to say your policies enjoy public support. Shouldn’t that come from party, rather than public, funds?
Oops! Still think this panels are a bad idea, though.

UPDATE:   It would appear that, as with Road Pricing (see Crushed by Ingsoc’s comment below), the public hasn’t been as cooperative as it might, despite the leading questions.    The Indy reports

A representative panel of 70 ordinary people who took part in the Government’s policy review agreed that citizens had responsibilities as well as rights. But when they debated how that should be turned into policy, they favoured a “softly, softly” approach.

The verdict is a setback for Mr Blair, who wants changes such as cutting the benefits of single mothers who do not look for work when their eldest child reaches the age of 12. At present, this sanction does not apply until they are 16.

Oops.   Still think these panels are a bad idea, though; doubtless the only lesson the government will derive from this is that they’ll have to ask the questions rather differently to get the right answer.

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March 7, 2007

More fun from the Home Office

Filed under: Foreigners, Law, Spin — notsaussure @ 7:25 pm

Via Mr Eugenides, who really is in top form at the moment, the strange news that John Reid has announced that

People visiting Britain on visas are to be sent text messages warning them that their “time is running out” as part of John Reid’s get-tough policy towards illegal immigrants.

Mr E spots a little flaw in this plan.

Dr Reid is clearly in a pugnacious sort of mood, apparently because he’s under impression an illegal immigrant has pinched his giro (don’t ask me… he reckons they ‘come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits,’ thus clearly differentiating himself from crude demagogues who say they come here to steal our jobs) also apparently proposes to review

how the driver licensing system can be used to identify and combat illegal immigration. This will include identifying those illegal immigrants applying for licences fraudulently, will be denied a licence and targeted for enforcement action

This puzzles me. It’s already illegal, of course, to use a fake passport to apply for a driving licence, and I can’t see how, other than by seconding pretty specialised immigration department staff to the DVLA, you’re going to spot more fake passports (or ones that have been tampered with) than you do at the moment; unless it’s a very crude forgery, even the Immigration Service staff have to submit documents to a special department who can recognise forged overseas passports or well-faked UK entry permission stamps. And, short of requiring everyone who applies for a driving licence to attend a face-to-face interview, I don’t quite see how you’ll catch people who just submits someone else’s documentation (in the event they can find someone who’s entitled to a licence but doesn’t want one and who’s prepared to go along with the fraud).

Furthermore, such measures will, I fear, do little to catch the chap who simply doesn’t bother with a driving licence in the first place. And, since he doesn’t mind staying here illegally (and stealing Dr Reid’s benefits) I wouldn’t put it past him.

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February 24, 2007

War on Terror: mad ideas and driving people mad

Filed under: Mental Health, Spin, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 1:37 am

Via El Reg, an interesting article about the Sky TV programme ‘24‘ (not Sky’s synopsis of the programme, I think) by one George Smith, a Senior Fellow at, a defense affairs think tank and public information group who writes the Dick Destiny blog, of which I was hitherto unaware. The article itself is an entertaining critique of the show, both for its technical lunacies — of the fact that the Bush administration supposedly ‘loves’ the show he writes,

Vexingly, that would seem to indicate some people in high places believe one can carry suitcase nukes under the arm and that computerized detonators for them are put in the trust of a teenager and stored in a shoebox hidden in a wall of a ranch house in the San Fernando Valley until needed. In this season’s story, terrorists have to go through a contortion to get one nuke to work, combining two separate parts, at which point it blows up Valencia. Despite that, in subsequent episodes no one really panics and the freeways and surface streets of LA are still clear for further high-speed chases

— and for its portrayal of torture. (more…)

January 22, 2007

Shaking hands with Sir Ian

Filed under: Spin — notsaussure @ 7:13 pm

The Telegraph reports

Scotland Yard said yesterday that a Muslim woman police who refused to shake hands with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police at her passing-out ceremony would be dismissed if she did not “engage” with people as other officers do.Sir Ian Blair personally congratulated all 200 recruits at a ceremony in London last month, but shook hands with only 199 after the woman specifically requested that she should not be required to do so, apparently for religious reasons.

She also asked not to have her photograph taken with Sir Ian, Scotland Yard said, but a spokesman refused to confirm reports that the officer had cited her concern that a picture would be used for “propaganda purposes”.

Do we actually know that her objection to shaking Sir Ian by the hand was religiously founded, I wonder? Seems to me that it’s not only Muslims who have problems with the Commissioner.

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January 19, 2007

In defence of Jade and her coven

Filed under: harassment, Jade Goodey, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 7:32 pm

Defending the indefensible can sometimes be illuminating as well as profitable, so, since I predict that within a few days some soi-disant controversial columnists (are you thinking what I’m thinking?)will decide that their readers are probably bored by now with hearing that racism and bullying are bad things — that’s so last week — I thought I’d help them out by exploring a few tropes and topics they might want to deploy in defence of Ms Goody and her friends.

The first, of course, is that they’re merely exercising their freedom of speech. We may well dislike what Ms Goody and her chums have to say about Indians being thin because they undercook chicken, or that Ms Shetty can’t speak English properly and should ‘fuck off home’, but should we not defend — to the death, if necessary, according to Voltaire — their right to say it? (more…)

January 5, 2007

Wanted posters and human rights — a myth in the making?

Filed under: civil liberties, Law, Spin — notsaussure @ 8:58 pm

The Daily Telegraph reports

The “human rights” of foreign ex-prisoners on the run from police are being put before public safety. Detectives across the country are refusing to issue “wanted” posters for the missing criminals because they do not want to breach human rights laws. Forces said that the offenders had a right to privacy and might sue for defamation if their names and photographs were released.

These, it transpires when you read further down the article, are the chaps Charles Clarke mislaid;

In his final Commons appearance before he was sacked, Mr Clarke said that police and immigration officers were engaged in “very intensive work” to find and deport 38 serious offenders who were released from jail without being considered for deportation.

That is, they were released on licence in the normal way and the Home Office neglected to implement the trial judges’ recommendations that they be deported. The report goes on to tell us that

Police forces pointed to human rights legislation as the reason why names and photographs cannot be issued. They also said the on-the-run former prisoners were not sought as criminals, but instead as the perpetrators of immigration offences.

This is all very odd. Quite how one of these chaps would be able to seek damages for libel is beyond me, since the police would, presumably, have the perfect defence that whatever they’d said on the posters was completely true — that so-and-so had been convicted of whatever it was, sentenced to so many years, later released on licence and was now subject to administrative recall because he’d broken the terms of his licence. How does that defame anyone if it’s true? (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…)

December 29, 2006

E-credits for more gifted pupils?

Filed under: Education, Spin, UK — notsaussure @ 1:10 am

The BBC reports that

The government is arranging “e-credits” for schools to access extra lessons for an estimated 800,000 gifted pupils.

The £65m scheme is part of its drive to ensure all children in England with special talents are given extra help.

It requires all schools to list their gifted and talented pupils in the census data it now collects each term.


each pupil would initially receive the equivalent of a number of credits – worth about £80 – which their schools could use to buy extra lessons from companies, independent schools, universities or learned bodies.

The report goes on to explain that these pupils — rather endearingly refererred to as ‘G&T pupils’ by the DfES — apparently comprise about 10% of the pupils in each school and are to be identified by … well, it’s up to the school, really. The DfES provide a range of indicators so wide as to be virtually meaningless.

This hasn’t gone down astonishingly well with some teachers; one teacher wants to know, not unreasonably,

What do you say to a hard-working Year 8 girl who says, “Miss, I really wanted to go to the giant insects workshop today, but I’m not clever enough”.

to which the DfES’s response is, somewhat opaquely,

Please let me assure readers that the scheme is not about selection, and it is not a case of children not meeting the criteria being neglected or losing out on activities or opportunities

which leaves me a tad unsure what it is supposed to be about; I mean, presumably these ‘e-credits’ are supposed to buy something for the 10% who receive them that they wouldn’t otherwise — and the 90% won’t — receive. Otherwise, what are they being used to pay for?

I suspect that, in practice, this is more of a contingency fund to allow schools to lay on extra-curricular activities of one sort or another, and good for them. Just seems a bit of a gimmick to dress it up as some special initiative.

My main worry, on reading about it, was where on earth are some of these children going to find the time? I have in mind one of my nieces, who’s a terrifyingly bright and talented 14-year-old. She scoops the pool each school prize day and still finds time to act, play the violin and represent the school at county level in athletics. She achieves this partly because of her natural abilities and partly because her parents encourage her — and can afford both the time and money so to do — in all these extra-curricular activities. How she’d find the time to fit in still more special activities I do not know, and it might well be argued that there are other girls at the school who could probably benefit more from the investment than would my niece. But if the school’s going to draw up a list of the most talented and gifted pupils that doesn’t include her, then it’s a nonsense.

Just another gimmick, I suppose.

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December 20, 2006

Murder suspect may have fled in pantomime horse outfit, police reveal (but he won’t be able to do it when we’ve got e-borders).

Filed under: civil liberties, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 8:14 pm

As Reuters reports,

Asked whether Mustaf Jama had used a full Muslim veil to evade checks, a spokesman for West Yorkshire police said: “It’s a possibility. He could have been wearing a pantomime horse outfit as well. But until we get him, we won’t know for sure.”

The evidence for my theory is, as 5CC‘s comments suggest, quite as strong as that of the Daily Express for their interpretation of the officer’s remarks (I realise that probably more people have been observed leaving the UK wearing veils than dressed as pantomime horse, but at least I’ve reported what the police actually said, which is more than the Express front page headline did). As The Flying Rodent says, (more…)

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