Category Archives: bad social science

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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