Category Archives: bad social science

What’s in a name?

We’re doomed… or so many people would have it. It seems to be a common thread in newspaper articles and their responses, and blogs too, that Britain is changing demographically at a huge rate, and so in X number of years ‘we’ll be a Muslim country’. The latest versions of this were the stories on baby names – an annual affair – and the recurring story that such and such a city will be majority Muslim, or majority X, or ‘whites will be in a minority’.

The baby names story is interpreted as:

‘Mohammed is top boys name’ (Express), Mohammed, the nation’s (secret) favourite name (Telegraph)

Often, this data is presented in terms of a conspiracy: the ONS is disguising the fact that Mohammed is the most popular boys name by treating all spellings separately. This is, of course, nonsense: the data is available for people to do these calculations, it isn’t buried. If we think about spellings and variants both the boys and girls lists would change. Do we count Harry and Henry together? What about Isabelle and Isabella? Putting these two together would make Issy the 2nd most popular girls name.

This discussion also misses the most important question about trying to translate baby name tables into demographic analysis. How do these name distributions relate to religious distribution? For if we are to look at the boys list, Mohammed is the only Muslim boy’s name in the top 100, and it accounts for 6,535 of 204,494, around 3.2%.

And this needs to be put in the context of how Mohammed is used as a name. Globally, one in five Muslim men have Mohammed as a first name, and I think in the UK it would be even higher. Often, though, it isn’t the name that is used: lots of people have Mohammed as first name, but are referred to by the name after (see the Indie for an example). It’s this convention that means that Mohammed getting to number one in the list does NOT mean that more Muslims were born than anyone else. I’d guess that the 3.2% of boys born being Muslim is probably close to the actual figure.

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Income distribution

A couple of weeks back I went to a debate about the legacy of the miners’ strike. There was a lot of shouting at Edwina Currie, being the only Conservative there, and a member of the government at the time. There was an element of nostalgia too, with mining jobs being romanticised a bit too much (George Galloway and Ken Loach were there too). However, the fact remains that these dirty and dangerous jobs seem to pay better than the service sector jobs that have replaced them.

One of the more interesting claims was that British workers have really good earnings. Edwina pulled out the ‘creative industries’ argument, like Charlie Leadbeater’s Living on Thin Air, effectively saying we could all be earning good money designing computer games. It is of course true that the average British wage is high, and the creative industries is profitable. But for the worker at the bottom of the pile, it’s the distribution that counts.

For example, if a company makes £1m p.a., after costs, and shares it between 50 workers equally, then they all get £20k each. But if they decide to ‘award’ the 4 managers with £100k salaries, then the remaining 46 only get £13k each. The mean wage in each is the same, so in any analysis we should examine the distribution, not just the minimum, maximum and means.

Thus, on the one hand the government can tell its domestic audience that we’ve never had it so good, and that we’re paid really well. This was Edwina Currie’s line. But when its audience is overseas investment, a different story is told:

‘The UK has a competitive salary structure in the service sector [i.e. cheap], particularly when compared to countries such as Germany, Ireland,Spain, Sweden and Switzerland… hourly compensation costs for production workers in the UK are also lower than in many other countries…’ (UK Invest)

The same document also shows that the UK has the reputation of the most flexible labour market [i.e. best for business, not workers], except for China:

UK has most flexible labour market

But internally, businesses give the impression of being hampered by red tape, unions with too much power, and the minimum wage. The CBI originally said the minimum wage would reduce the number of jobs, then each time there’s due to be a raise they say the same thing.

Perhaps at GDP per head, the UK is doing well, but we also have the most unequal wage structure outside the US, so people can still be badly paid here.

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Medical mistakes

Here’s another question of an order of magnitude… Daniel Ubani, a German ‘stand-in doctor’ who was over in the UK doing a shift as an on-call GP and gave a patient a fatal overdose of diamorphine (Guardian again). He gave the patient 10 times the amount – at first I wondered if he’d got millilitres and centilitres mixed up. However, you can now read the inquest material and it makes for interesting reading.

It seems that the mistake came when David Gray’s partner mentioned 100mg and 10mg, pethidine and diamorphine, in the same conversation. Having no pethidine, Ubani chose the diamorphine. Hearing 100mg, he chose the bigger vial. As diamorphine isn’t used in Germany he wouldn’t know the correct dose: he didn’t look at the instructions kept with the drugs, hence ‘manslaughter by gross negligence’. However, the death could have been prevented by proper induction. It seems that no-one showed Ubani round his equipment: he should have known that the 100mg vial was for palliative care and used in slow release with a syringe driver, as opposed to all at once.

At the inquest there was a some discussion about Ubani’s proficiency in understanding English. However, one of his employers said that his English was OK, and it seems unlikely that this was a huge factor. His unfamiliarity with NHS kit and procedures was more to blame. However, the papers seem to have decided that the black African with a German passport was an example of non-English speaking foreigners making a mess of things (see the Mirror). There’s a lot of blame on the profit making agencies too.

But, as noted in the report, this has happened before, and the month before the deaths NHS Cambridgeshire were discussing changing the boxes of drugs to avoid this:

“In attempting to relieve patients in acute pain, doctors in two different situations erroneously selected the 30mg diamorphine vial…and administrated the entire contents to their patients by injection.

“This six-fold overdose caused respiratory depression and collapse; the patients had to be admitted to hospital for resuscitation. If this is repeated and the patient not rescued in time, death could result.” (C4)

I don’t know if these doctors were the stereotyped foreign doctor, unable to speak English, or not. The lack of media interest suggests not as I’m sure a scandal would be being promoted as I write.

Indeed, focusing on this rare occurence misses the wider issues in ‘patient safety’. If society is fixated on this one fatal mistake, then it can ignore the fact that in 2007 there were ‘as many as 860,000 errors or near misses involving medicines’ in the NHS (Guardian). I’m sure that not all these mistakes were down to foreign doctors, but are down to normal human error, the kind of error that can often be avoided with the right systems in place, good management and so on. Dull (and expensive but that’s another story).

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Say something often enough…

and people will believe it. Today I was annoyed with the repeated claim that a lesser crime such as fraud or avoiding tax on cigarettes funds a greater crime such as terrorism, drug dealing or people trafficking (National Fraud Authority).

This has been around for a while. I remember ads in London advising people not to buy counterfeit DVD’s in the pub as it would fund drug dealing, and this time it’s scam websites (see the Guardian).

The websites are thought to have generated millions of pounds for organised criminal gangs, which could then be used to fund other illicit activities, the Metropolitan Police’s Central e-crime unit (PCeU) said.

Now excuse me if I’m wrong, but those other illicit activities such as drug dealing and people trafficking (but not terrorism) tend to be quite profitable themselves. Given the risks involved I don’t see why an organised crime gang would take the money from credit card scams and invest it in loss-making drug and trafficking ventures. They don’t really need to be cross-subsidising unprofitable parts of the business. Drug dealers tend to make money and can use their previous profits to buy more product (see the Wire). People traffickers take the money up front, so they’d never be in a position to risk their own money.

Of course, a start-up drug dealing operation might need some capital, but setting up a fraud operation probably needs just as much. And perhaps credit card fraud can help with laundering, although I don’t see how. It’s more likely that the kind of gangs that are breaking the law and risking punishment are willing to diversify into other risky – in terms of punishment – businesses.

It would make sense to concentrate on the terrorism angle. After all, terrorists need money, and will use illegal means to get it. This part of the argument makes sense and should appeal to almost everybody.

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Yesterday saw the release of a report from the Mental Health Foundation, that claims that we Brits are feeling a whole lot more anxious and fearful than we used to. The Guardian reported it with:

A growing culture of fear triggered by widespread misconceptions about the risk posed by threats such as crime and terrorism is exacerbating the economic downturn and hindering recovery, according to research published today.

It’s hard to see where the evidence for this is, either in the report or the MHF’s webpages about the report.

First, the misconceptions. The report says:

‘We are fearful for our children’s safety, and yet the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger are extremely small (a little more than 1 in 200,000 per year). The likelihood of being a victim of terrorism – another common fear – is also miniscule (although 60% of people cite it as a reason for increased fear)’ (MHF, 27)

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to fear an unlikely event while knowing how unlikely it is. We don’t find out anything new here about ‘misconceptions’ of risk. More importantly, it’s perfectly normal that crime and terrorism should be a reason for increased fear. If someone was previously ignorant of such issues (perhaps they were a child, didn’t read, or were just not looking) and then became aware of them their impact on fear should increase. I’m currently not scared of ghosts/UFOs/jedi, but if I became aware of their threat then they would be a reason to be anxious. I might forget about some other fears, though, making me no more anxious than I was before.

Indeed, without any good longitudinal data it’s hard to know if we are becoming more anxious anyway. There’s no comparison to previous findings so we don’t know if similar numbers were anxious in the past. The report does tell us that slightly more people are being diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but this could be because of better diagnosis, or a culture in which people are more likely to seek help than keep their problems to themselves.

As with many issues, a vast tranche of people belief that everyone else is getting more worried, while they themselves are not. And as with much research, asking questions like:

How strongly do you agree with the following statement?
I get frightened or anxious these days more often than I used to

Strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree

seems to me to be a recipe for bad sociology. What does not agreeing or disagreeing with this actually mean? If one ‘strongly disagrees’ does this mean being less anxious these days? Do people get more anxious as they get older anyway? Does anyone remember how anxious they used to be?

Finally, the assertion that the ‘culture of fear’ is stopping economic recovery is laughable. Going back to Roosevelt the MHF say:

fear is partly driving the economic crisis because the emotion is over-riding logical thinking. Individuals and institutions – keen to protect themselves – are now too afraid to lend, spend and invest, despite the fact that these actions could assist in ending the recession.

It’s not the ‘culture of fear’ of terrorists and paedophiles that causes this. It’s the fear that putting your money into housing or shares means losing some of it if the market goes down. This has always been the case, and why we have booms and busts. These booms and busts occured long before we had our current ‘culture of fear’. And the worst thing about this analysis is that it blames us for problems caused largely by politicians, traders and bankers. Even though governments allowed the economic system to become evermore unstable, it’s the average Joe who’s holding recovery back because he wants to put his money away for a rainy day instead of buying more consumer goods he might not afford if he gets made redundant.

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British National Party membership: the null hypothesis

A few weeks ago the British National Party membership was leaked online. Although this was a breach of individuals’ privacy, the media seized upon the list and provided a great deal of analysis, to satisfy the curiosity of those who want to know ‘who are the BNP?’ (see the Telegraph,  the Guardian, the Times, and many more). We’ll leave aside the question as to whether the media and public would have been so curious if it was a mainstream party, and focus on the assertions that the BNP are either ‘ordinary’ or ‘different’.

What interested me, from a ‘bad social science’ perspective was how much of the analysis was missing a check as to whether the data was actually significant, i.e. whether this analysis showed the members to be any different to the larger population or from political activists. An uncontroversial example would be the finding that BNP members were mainly men, when this would also be the case in other political parties too. Indeed, less than a fifth of our MPs are women.

Similarly, the Telegraph article notes that ‘at least 30 people named on the list have criminal convictions’. However, at least a third of all men in the UK have a criminal conviction by the time they are 30, and in poorer areas this is likely to be even higher. So the members might be less criminal than the public at large. For comparison, we’d also need to know how many members of other political parties have criminal convictions.

More amusingly, one Guardian journalist wrote:

And there are, of course, the serious headbangers: BNP leader Nick Griffin may boast that this list proves his members are not “skinhead oiks”, but there are still martial arts fanatics, people suspended for “inappropriate tattoos” and at least seven email addresses incorporating the number 88, which is neo-Nazi code for HH, or Heil Hitler. Other email addresses are lordhawhaw, saxondelight, darkenedangel and napalmdeath. Someone gives his pastime as “World War II reenactment”.

Now these people might well be ‘serious headbangers’, but this evidence doesn’t tell us anything. The tattoos could be on someone’s face and, like many employers, the BNP feel it doesn’t fit with the image they wish to portray. But many people, some ‘headbangers’, some not, have tattoos like this. The ‘napalmdeath’ email address might have been chosen as a tribute to Napalm Death, a band whose anarcho-punk origins, cover of the Dead Kennedys’ Fuck Off Nazi Punks, and contributions to anti-racism activism, make them an unlikely ally of the BNP. Perhaps the member with this address doesn’t know this history, or has switched sides (it does happen). And to note that seven email addresses contain ’88’ requires comparison to other numbers too. It could be the year of someone’s birth or connected to another ‘memorable name’ etc.  If a similar number of email addresses included ’87’ or ’89’  I’d be wondering whether the ’88’s were just coincidental. It would be also useful to look at the context… there’s a world of difference between AryanNation88 and dave.bloggs88 or dave.bloggs120388.

What the analysis should do is test the theories against a null hypothesis: is this sample of people, email addresses and so on, different to the wider population, or could those characteristics arise from any sample of UK citizens.

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I’ve had a new baby, and two children take up all your time, so I’ve not added to this blog for a little while. However, a bit of research (that is vaguely connected to having kids) inspired me to restart my writing here. The headlines were:

Pressure of modern life causes accidents in the home

This is just the kind of ‘bad social science’ I love to find, partially because I used to be employed doing this kind of stuff. The research is commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance, who get their name in a news article in an ‘advertorial’ mode, and it is conducted by a consultant (David Moxon), and he probably got one of the big name survey companies to do the survey. We have a number of social facts, in this case a ‘shorter attention span’, ‘a “surge in domestic accidents’, and people ‘blam[ing] stress or too much work’ (see PA’s report). More accidents mean we should go out and get insurance!!!

However, some of these social facts are questionable, and thus the links between them don’t make much sense at all, and others may have much more obvious explanations. The one thing this research found was that some people had accidents and blamed it on stress, and that attention spans were shorter in younger people. Let’s look at each part in turn:

More accidents: A&E statistics do show a rise but a strange one. Between 1987 and 2003 the figures were very steady (and presumably decreasing when you take into account population growth). The numbers grew suddenly but this coincided with changes in the way figures were compiled and new ways of organising A&E provision. I’m not convinced there are more accidents.

‘more stress or too much work’: Time use surveys show that the average amount of total work done (paid work and unpaid work such as housework) was actually decreasing between 2000 and 2005, and this is true across all age groups. I guess it’s possible that those having accidents have had their hours increased while others have seen them decrease, but this seems unlikely. The activities that are taking more of our time are watching TV and using computers.

The fact that attention spans are shorter in young people points to other explanations. First, younger people are more likely to have young children. The attention parents need to pay to their kids is attention they could be directing to the burning toast. Presumably this has been true since the beginning of time. We need to know if attention spans of the 25 year old mum have decreased over time to know if any other explanations are needed.

Second, if attention spans have decreased over time, using the word ‘pressure’ seems absurd. We have more labour saving gadgets, more leisure time, more money and resources than we had in the past. The ‘pressure of modern life’  phrase does a disservice to people who worked all hours in Victorian times, survived two world wars, went through the great depression and so on. It wasn’t so long ago that the normal working week in factories was all-day Monday to Friday, and Saturday morning. The word we are looking for to describe the effect of our times on attention spans is ‘distracted’: too much telly and internet and, oops, the bath is overflowing.

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