Posted tagged ‘Statistics’

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics: Andrew Sullivan, Brit Election edition

May 6, 2010

Update:  The original of this post mischaracterized the Treasury figures for government spending as a percentage of GDP; I repeatedly referred to them as the percentage of GDP due to the deficit year over year.  It’s been corrected below, and thus, in fact, tracks the figures Sullivan was citing.  The argument remains the same, though in a post piously demanding attention to what numbers tell you, I can’t say I’m not embarassed.  Do not blog after too effusive a dinner party the night before; that’s my motto.

Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Lovable Liberal for the catch.

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging the Brit election extensively, and his reflexive loathing for Labour has come through on a number of occasions.

He has some considered loathing too, I’ll grant you, but he admits that “in my native land, unlike America, I have residual partisan loyalty…” to the party of his youth.

That means its just a bit hard to assign a root cause for his rote repetition of a favorite anti-Labour meme, that the party is a bunch of big government spendthrifts.

It could be Sullivan’s difficulty in dealing with facts presented in the form of quantified data (see for example, this old chestnut). Or it could be a leap to unexamined conclusions propelled by his self- acknowledged Tory partisanship. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

In any event, he parrots the charge that the 13 years of Labour government produced a spending regime that has dramatically changed the size and cost of British government.  He writes:

Britain’s debt piles higher – because 13 years of Labour’s reckless spending has neither solved the country’s social problems nor stabilized the country’s economy….

…And then he attempts to put meat on the bones of that “reckless spending” cliche by borrowing from The Wall St. Journal vie The Corner:

Since 2000, public spending in Britain has grown faster as a share of GDP than any other country in the 28-member OECD — up 17 percentage points to 53% of GDP, compared to 15 points for Ireland and 10 points for Iceland

Sullivan might have wanted to consider his sources.  Doesn’t he know that any statistic with political consequence that emerges from The Wall St. Journal has to be considered guilty until proven innocent — that is, checked for oneself?  And by all that the FSM considers holy (semolina, for one), he of all people has had enough experience of The Corner to realize that they are what Ronald Reagan should have been talking about when he said “don’t trust and verify.” (What — RR didn’t say that? Sorry — ed.)

Shoulda, coulda, woulda … but here, he takes on face value a number that should have provoked more scrutiny.

That would be the date for the start of the time line, 2000.  Why 2000?  First because that marked the lowest deficit figure for all thirteen years of Labour governance — and thus choosing that date, rather than the start of Labour rule in 1997, would make any increase since that time loom larger in percentage terms.  This is called gaming your data.

And then there is the question of context and trend.  What should we make of that one number for a deficit in 2000?  Was it much different from other years’ and other governments’ budget work?  Did what come after trace a steady trend, or were there distinct outliers that need particular explanation?

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I am an expert, or even knowledgeable about British state finances.  But even from a state  of near total lack of information, it just isn’t that hard to find the broad outlines of the history of UK government deficit spending.  A moment with Teh Google, leads one, for example, to this.

So what happened?

Well, from 1997 to 2007-8, the Labour government spent at levels that ranged between a low of 36.6.% to a high of 41.1% of GDP

From 1990-1997, a Tory government led by John Major, ran budgets that ranged from a low of 39.4% of GDP in the year he took over from Maggie Thatcher, to a high of 43.7% in 1993, from which it declined slowly to the number he handed off to Tony Blair.

Go back to the Thatcher years, and you see the same story.  She inherited a budget that accounted for 45.1% of GDP in Fy 1978-9.  She brought in a slightly reduced percentage the next year, her government’s budget spending coming in equal for 44.7% of GDP in FY 1979-80, but that figure rose for the next several years, and only dropped to the level she inherited in 1985-6.  Her high was 48.1 percent of GDP, and her best year was still above that best number achieved by Blair, with Brown as his Chancellorof the Exchequer — right around 39% for the Tories, compared with the Labour best figure of roughly 36 1/2 percent.

In other words:  for most of its time in office, Labour budgets included deficits well within the historical range established over the previous 18 years of Tory rule.  Just not much change in it — and often below that of their Tory predecessors.

Repeat:  for most of Labour rule, budget deficits were in a very familiar range.  You can debate whether Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown were all drunken sailors ashore, but that’s a different question than whether or not Blair/Brown/Labour have a distinctively different record on spending than their friends on the right.  You can argue who will best deal with the situation going forward, Cameron, Brown or Clegg — and that’s a different question.  Nothing I’m writing here bears very much on that question (except, perhaps, to call into question the presumption that Cameron will be more fiscally responsible than his peers — but others have much more directly made that same point).

But hold on to the key point:  Most of the recent Labour record is one of ordinary, familiar approaches to the broad outlines of what British governments have approached spending levels for more than three decades.

Still, there is no doubt that the budget deficit is huge now, and the leap in government spending over Labour’s starting point quite noticeable.   From spending 41.1 percent of GDP of 2006-7, Labour governments produced a budgets amounting to 43 percent of GDP in 2008-9, with spending levels that are projected to rise as high as 48.1% in 2009-10 and 2010-11 — the same level as Thatcher’s high.

So, yes, a leap in government spending under Labour in 2008-10 period, just as there has been a leap in spending and deficits under Obama’s adminstration around the same time.

Now, refresh my memory:  what happened in September of 2008?

Oh yeah. The global financial system went into cardiac arrest, the American real estate bubble burst, and economies around the world shuddered under the impact.  US and UK governments responded in classic Keynesian fashion, perhaps not expansively enough, and spent much more than they had to pump capital into the banking system and cash into the daily economy.

Sullivan, of course, has lauded this on the American side, in grand tones and  little posts.  He does not do so for poor Gordon Brown.

Why he didn’t isn’t really that important.

The fact that he didn’t is, as it is a specimen of a dangerously common failure of modern political reporting.

Here’s my credo:  Numbers matter.  Understanding what they do and don’t tell you in any encounter with them is the crucial task for any would-be serious political journalist — hell of anyone who wants to take him or herself seriously as an observer of contemporary life.

Failure to do so means that you will get lots of your writing wrong — and you won’t know it, you can’t know it — until rude and wordy bastards like myself point it out (and one deigns to notice such gnats gnawing on the body politic).  But it matters, to audiences and to any writer who takes their craft seriously.

And in this story, here’s the bottom line:  it is certainly true that government deficit spending in 2010 in Britain (and the US) is much higher as percentage of GDP than it was in 2000.  But it is so for a reason, and that reason is not the one either Brown’s or Obama’s critics say it is.  Stating that out loud, as often as needed, ought to be the job of someone who aspires to be “of no party or clique.”

That is all.

Image:  Martina Schettina, “Fibonacci’s Traum (Dream)” 2008.

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Andrew Sullivan Gets Him Some Data: Contraception and Abortion edition.

October 20, 2009

Readers of this blog know that I usually slag off on Sullivan’s reluctance to engage data on issues in which he has strong views.I don’t believe, by and large, that he has a very solid grasp of either quantitative methods or scientific practice. (See, e.g., this post or this one.)

But when he’s onto something he does care about where the data and its manipulation matter, he can be like a dog to a bone, and today’s he’s done good.

The issue?  Whether contraception reduces the incidence of abortion.  His dissection of the dishonest manipulation of the research record (e.g. admixing a study of US women with a 197 country study) can be found here.

His conclusion:

Theocons cannot have it every which way. Practically speaking, if you really believe that all abortion is murder, a huge program of contraception education and access is the most practical life-saver out there. And yet the Catholic pro-lifers refuse to embrace it and go to these kinds of lengths to deny reality. By their own logic, they are the ones enabling the massacre of millions.

Exactly so.

The“every sperm is sacred” crowd has led to enormous suffering.  It’s good to see Andrew call them out on this one.*

I’m about to wrap up a three part post on Sullivan’s theodicy issues (part one and part two, for your delectation) and I’ve had some harsh things to say, with worse to come in the last section.  But when he is able to achieve some remove from his own internal conflicts on the vexing tensions in his faith, he is no dummy, not at all.  Credit where credit is due….

*Note:  I haven’t linked all the way through to the deeply disturbed person who calls herself the Anchoress…but if you want to see that with which Sullivan’s arguing, go ahead.  And surf through the second link; Elizabeth Pisani is as good as it gets on deflating the murderous hypocrisy and self-delusion of the better-to-die than-than-have-safe-sex crowd.

Image:  Postcard published in 1909; photograph by Irvin M. Kline, 1907.

Why science writing is hard — Andrew Sullivan (and surrogates) illustrate.

July 29, 2008

Outsourced largely to a e-mailer to Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

The back story: A study in the journal Obesity (press release here) extrapolates from current data to suggest an enormous increase in the percentage of Americans who become obese (defined as possessing a Body Mass Index over 30). If this comes to pass, it would evoke a huge amount of spending to deal with health consequences of such American expansion.

The claim gets picked up in Wired, which then lands it in a drive-by post on Sullivan’s extremely popular blog.

The only problem: no one in the expanding circles of puffing this very slender piece of work took note of the key phrase which, to the original study author’s credit, did make it into the press release that otherwise over-hyped its subject. The release said: “Their projections illustrate the potential burden of the U.S. obesity epidemic if current trends continue.” (Italics added.)

Here’s the comment that — also to his credit — Patrick Appel (subbing for Andrew) then published:

It never fails to impress me the fact that people see a journal article and then turn their critical reasoning skills off. Looking through the actual paper in question, it’ll be figure 1 that’s giving the headliner quote of 86% fat by 2030. Except that this is wrong….

…the kicker: these are *linear* extrapolations, taken out well beyond where they actually tell us anything. The tell-tale hint? Take those projections out another 15 years and they say the overweight plus obesity fraction will be 100% before 2045. Yes, that’s right. Not a single healthy person left alive in the US. Marathon runners? Triathletes? Starving supermodels? Richard Simmons? All of them obese. Presumably from the fresh vegetable blight of 2040, forcing every last one of us to subsist entirely on Chicken McNuggets and Spam.Oh, and that trend they’re talking about is extrapolated from 3 data points. Sure, it’s suggestive, but I wouldn’t scream bloody murder from these stats.

….Yes. Chalk this one up there with, “According to current trends, housing prices will keep rising, allowing us to take on LOADS of bad debt!”

Exactly so.

The moral of this story is one I and my colleagues at the MIT science writing grad program try to drum into our students very early. Just because a press release or a paper says something doesn’t mean you can suspend your bull-shit sensor. Science writing is a specialized beat because claims are asserted in technical language, and in many cases, in forms that require at least a bit of statistical due-diligence to assess.

Simply glossing a press release with a hip-ish reference to Wall-E (Wired), and then passing on the news as fact (Appel-for-Sullivan) ain’t close to good enough; in fact, I would say, this kind of slapdash reporting (or transcribing) that does a fair amount of damage to the public’s willingness to pay attention to scientific results — not as much as the overtly fraudulent kind of stuff that comes out of the Discovery Institute or climate change denialists — but still, this kind of stuff doesn’t help matters.

Now — professional or credentialed science writers are hardly immune to all kinds of flaws of their own, ranging from the cheer-leading problem (in which science writers only tell the “good” stories – and miss, for example stuff like this. (Abstract only — full article costs $).

Then there is the context problem – it’s possible, for example, to get so absorbed in the particular fashion in a field that it becomes hard to remember — and report, that there is more to physics than string theory, for example, or that the identification of the gene “for” something is only a tiny part of the biological knowledge needed to comprehend most of what’s going on in an organism.

And certainly, plenty of science writers don’t possess in themselves enough specialized knowledge to smell out dicey stories in much or most of what they cover. I could not do any of the science I have covered over the last quarter of a century. What I have learned (with some hard lessons, to be sure) is to check not just the facts of any story I want to write — but its meaning as well.

In this case, the facts were fine. A study does exist that says what the Wired item and the Appel post say it does. But it was the interpretation of those facts that was off. In this case, as the commenter above points out, the issue was simple — any trend line that suggests incidences exceeding 100 percent coming soon ought to raise a couple of alarm bells.

Ideally, this kind of first-order BS test should not require specialized beat-centered training. Anyone writing for the public about more or less anything ought to know enough about numbers to get that one; it is or ought to be as much a part of a liberal arts intellectual arsenal as is the skill of writing a clear sentence.

To that end, I wish I could publish here the guide to mathematical reasoning my colleague Alan Lightman has written to introduce the science writing grad students at MIT to the tools they can use to make sense of the hype factor in science news. He”s getting ready to turn that material into a short book, I believe, and it can’t come to soon.

In the meantime, this concise and funny book is a good place to start.

Image: Cornelis de Vos, “The Triumph of Bacchus,” 17th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.