Category Archives: News

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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Filed under bad social science, News, Statistics and simplicity

Dumb

Now I like small and beautiful as much as the next person, and would use a MacBook Air as a second PC for travelling, but the latest marketing message is just dumb. As the BBC put it, ‘The MacBook Air is 0.11 inches thick at its thinnest point’.

But the important info isn’t that of the thinnest point, but of the thickest point. A really thick laptop could have a thin wedge sticking out; even an equilateral triangular prism has a thinnest point approaching zero.

No, what matters is the thickest point. It’s the thickest point that determines whether it fits in a given laptop bag, goes through your letter box. If the laptop was 0.11 inches thick at the thickest point, then that would impress me.

In fact, that’s what drew me to the story. At first I thought it said simply that the laptop was 0.11 inches thick, and I assumed it was a misprint as it’s impossible. But hey, many people actually have reproduced the story as ‘MacBook Air now 0.11 in thick’, and have fallen for the spin completely: I take it they failed geometry at school.

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Filed under News, Statistics and simplicity

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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Filed under bad social science, media, News, Statistics and simplicity

An order of magnitude

We know many people are bad at maths. However, most mistakes are easily spotted through experience and common sense. But sometimes, common sense is lacking: here I’m talking about the Conservatives gaff on teenage pregnancy.

So first, the Conservatives. A few days ago they launched a document called Labour’s Two Nations, that was supposed to show how there is great inequality in Britain today (let’s ignore the fact that the rise in inequality happened in the 1980s). What they wanted to point out was that under-18 girls in the most deprived areas are three times more likely to become pregnant than in the least deprived areas (Guardian). It’s not clear what this means with regards to ‘most deprived’ and ‘areas’ – I think it’s top and bottom centiles and districts – and I’m sure I could find a more shocking figure if I chose a harsher definition of most and least deprived. The mistake they did make, though, was to divide 54 by 1000 and come up with 54% not 5.4%. That’s if they did a calculation: some social statistics come as ‘per 1000’ or ‘per 10,000’ and it’s important to notice this.

This matters for two reasons. First, because 54% v 18% is a big difference and much more significant than a difference between 5.4% and 1.8% (significant thought this is). Second, because anyone with any sense would realise that 54%, that is over half, is completely absurd.  Anywhere with 54% of its teenagers pregnant would have babies everywhere. Either the writer and editor just missed this, or they genuinely believed that there could be such a place and they are massively out of touch with normal life.

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Filed under media, News, Politicians, Statistics and simplicity

Chinese whispers

While reading my local paper online, I came across a contribution from the public that complained that Muslims in the UK are given latitude to act differently to the rest of the people, showing that Muslim lobby groups have the government in their pocket. Combined with the Islamophobia that is prevalent now, it feeds into the idea that a different group is somehow taking over. And as ever, the full story is ignored for the game of Chinese whispers that is our media machine.

The specific claim is that ‘Ed Balls has made it legal to smack children in muslim schools’, and this something that can’t be done elsewhere. As ever, the object of the attack is the Labour government, who are seen to be ‘bending over backwards’ to incorporate minority viewpoints (usually accompanied by the claim that they rely on minority votes).

Reading this, I thought ‘this seems unlikely to be true’. Making opt-outs from laws on ‘community’ grounds, whether religion/ethnicity or anything else is fraught with danger, and the government would avoid it at all costs. And, of course, it isn’t true. The truth behind this story is that staff in schools haven’t been allowed to use physical punishment children since 1999 (for England and Wales) and in state schools this happened earlier. However, parents aren’t banned from smacking their children (unless it is ‘cruel and degrading’), and thus anyone standing in for parents (in loco parentis) isn’t banned either. The only people banned are teachers in schools. And to define a school, the government chose to define them as establishments where kids go for 12.5 hours or more. Therefore, football or gymnastics coaches, sunday school teachers, music tutors, home schooling tutors, scout masters, parents’ friends and family, and anyone who is asked by a parent to look after children is allowed to smack. The BBC have posted a good history of the law, and point out that:

‘Some MPs have proposed a new clause for an education Bill currently before Parliament… meaning that only a person with actual parental responsibility for a child could continue to justify battery of that child as “reasonable chastisement”.’

So how did this claim about muslim schools come about? First Ann Cryer, MP asked a question in parliament about ‘teachers in madrassahs or in other religious schools’ (Hansard, BBC). Ed Balls pointed out that ‘there is not one rule for a child in a madrassah and another for a child in a school or in any other circumstance’ but didn’t promise to do something about part-time settings, presumably knowing that it would be a step towards a ban on smacking by parents too.

Next, and because of the simplification required for the headline and first two or three sentences in news pieces (see Wikipedia for a good explanation – I think this is a Nut Graph(!)) the story became:

‘Under existing law, teachers at state and private schools are banned from smacking children but their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Keighley News)

This claim is a lie, and is only explained properly at the middle of the piece.  But this sentence gets repeated:

‘A loophole in the law means that while teachers in state and private schools are banned from smacking children, their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Guardian)

This is so close that in an academic context could be considered plagiarism, unless citing the source. Again, explaining the actual law comes later.

But that dig at journalism is a digression. Now we have the idea that all faith schools are exempt (due to simplifying the story), and that it’s got something to do with Islam. Then politicians get back in on the act with the Lib Dem spokesman saying “The government needs to legislate to protect children – not leave an opt-out simply because it fears some ethnic or religious backlash.” (Guardian).

So instead of a bigger story about the fact that piano teachers are still allowed to rap children’s fingers with a ruler, Koran and Bible classes can enforce rote learning with similar methods, and parents, friends, family and babysitters are allowed to smack children in their care, we end up with the false claim that teachers in Muslim schools can smack and other teachers can’t. Is that right? No. Is it true. No again.

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No good reason

News that caught my eye this week included the rise in fines levied on people who take their children out of school. In the UK, a school can fine parents £50 (rising to £100 if not paid in 28 days), if their children are absent without good reason. The spin on this story is that some people are taking their children on foreign holidays in term-time because it’s out of season and so cheaper, and these people are damaging their children’s education.

However, it’s important to note that there are a number of reasons why a family can take a child out of school and will get permission. These include religious observance, weddings and so on. These absences can, of course, damage a child’s education, but the assumption is that these days can’t be changed, whereas a holiday can. Here is the official guidance.

This privileges certain kinds of events (religious festivals, taking part in ‘approved’ sport, wedddings) over others. It’s difficult to see why the state or headteachers should be able to make a value judgement as to which is worthwhile. Should a child be given an authorised absence for a political conference or a protest march? Who decides which religions count? What about looking after family members? One can see the puritanical hand of government here – work and education good, leisure bad – and also the audit culture: some absences count against the school’s attendance record and some don’t and schools don’t want bad statistics.

And when it comes to justice, it also raises the question, ‘what is freedom?’. Yes, theoretically all parents could choose to take holidays out of term time. But many can’t afford to. Perhaps there is greater harm in a child never having a holiday away from home than missing some school days. If the government really want to ensure people don’t take their kids out in term time, then perhaps they should force holiday companies to alter their pricing, subsidise poor people’s holidays, or, as a simpler solution, increase the minimum wage and benefit rates /introduce a citizens’ wage.

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Filed under government, News, Statistics and simplicity

Prejudice and equalities

Yesterday’s UK papers have been covering a spat between Philip Davies, a Tory MP, and Trevor Philips, the head of the UK ‘equalities’ body (see the Guardian, the Times). I do support the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but Trevor Philips doesn’t do the cause any favours in some of his answers to the MP’s letters.

The Tory MP is a mischief maker with too much time on his hands. He’s written lots of letters about ‘political correctness gone mad’ that fit into a Daily Mail view of the world. In this view, anything and everything is done for the benefit of ‘minorities’ and that would include ‘wimmin’, gay people, ethnic minorities, and anyone different to the norm. This argument takes in the myths about banning golliwogs and Christmas in schools.

Part of the problem comes in the name of the body. The word ‘equality’ means different things to different people, and political philosophers have used up much paper and ink working out what equality, justice, and the ‘good society’ should be. Particularly in the literature on multiculturalism, there’s the big question of group and cultural differentiation and rights. In essence, should people be treated differently just because of their (assumed) membership of a group, and the further (assumed) differences in needs and capabilities. This raises questions of the form ‘should women have separate sports sessions, as they may be put off by the presence of men?’ or ‘how far should employers adapt their working hours for those who need time off for religious reasons?’. Treating everyone the same isn’t equality, as people have different needs and capabilities (see Amartya Sen on capabilities), but treating people differently merely on the basis of group membership can create new injustices (see Sen again in Identity and Violence).

Of course, the work of the EHRC is informed by the historical injustices of the UK. So our history of colonialism and inability to welcome or assimilate newcomers leads to problems with regards to race. Moving from a patriarchal society means that gender issues are important, and so on. However, the EHRC also suffers from its own history. It was formed by the bringing together of a number of bodies that did similar work (the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission) but only on one inequality each. There was hope for ‘joined up thinking’ whereby the way that individuals’ multiple identities combine to form injustice could be addressed. Furthermore, other injustices could be addressed.

I was actually a researcher on a small study that informed the creation of the body, Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs’  Talking Equality (2003). I remember that the interviews and focus groups added a further source of inequality that got lost from the agenda: class. Indeed, if we added class to the mix it would help with some of the other injustices. It is surely more just (in terms of numbers), and so a higher priority and more likely to be supported by the public, to argue for equal pay for female cleaners than to examine the numbers of women in boardrooms. Similarly, addressing literacy problems across the board, and especially in white and Asian working class families, should be more important than BME business initiatives.

To go back to Trevor, and what I think he’s missing in his replies to the MP, just addressing the five or six ‘inequalities’ identified so far doesn’t bring justice. I know he was probably bored of the correspondence by this point but this exchange is particularly problematic:

Should anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended “to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)”?

“The answer to your question is no.”

Now I haven’t read anything about bald or short people, but there’s plenty of literature on discrimination or prejudice against fat people. Trevor Philips should have said that the body works to eradicate prejudice wherever it is found, and that if a group or type of people is found to be unjustly discriminated against then measures could be needed, perhaps laws, perhaps not. He’s fallen into a trap: he didn’t want to play into the anti-PC brigade (imagine the Daily Mail headlines re. short people), but instead he’s telling us that only some groups deserve protection, so we can have Daily Mail headlines saying that the body only protects ‘minorities’, so can be cut by a Tory government. A broader support for human rights and tackling discrimination is more likely to be achieved if it isn’t about sectional interests, or the different, but is for everyone and is promoted as being for everyone.

P.S. If you think that other, less talked about, prejudices are never as serious as racism, remember that one young woman was recently murdered for being a goth.

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