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.