Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore should I? However yesterday’s headline piece in the Daily Wail: ‘Random attack by thugs every 30 seconds as ‘stranger assaults’ soar in binge Britain‘; was an impressive piece of extreme dishonesty. The old saying about lies, damn lies and statistics really belongs in the Daily Mail because everybody knows that statistics can prove anything. Now I’m no expert… well, actually, I am an expert… statistics are really powerful and are a vitally important way of ascertaining the truth of complex problems such as crime rates. It is obviously true that statistics can and often are twisted to make whichever point the user of statistics wants to make (as this article brilliantly demonstrates). The fault lies with the argument and not the statistics. The great irony is that the Mail often abuses statistics and uses them to make any point they wish, whilst at the same time fuelling the belief that statistics cannot be trusted and thus appealing to the preconceived ideas of the reader. Crime rates are probably the best example of this.

This article is based on the British Crime Survey data released last week. The report can be found here on the Home Office website [PDF file]. The BCS is a very interesting, powerful and important piece of research. For obvious reasons, the public have very legitimate concerns about crime, and hence the government needs to know what is happening with crime – both in order to shape policy and to demonstrate to the electorate the effectiveness or otherwise of various policies. One set of data that is used is the recorded crime rates – crimes reported to police. There is no doubt that these figures, whilst important are flawed. Not all crime is reported – for a lot of reasons; and thus the reported crime rate may not reflect what is actually happening. Is a rise in the reported crime rate a good or a bad thing? Well, a rise in crime is clearly a bad thing – but if crime rates are steady and the rise is a reflection of increased confidence in the police then clearly it is a good thing. Hence the British Crime Survey which seeks to ascertain by means of extensive research people’s actual experience of crime and thus what the actual crime rates are.

You get a very good idea of the intent of the article from this one line:

“The true picture of street violence could be even worse. Some experts believe that fewer than a half of such crimes are reported to police.”

To be fair, this statement is not necessarily false. There probably are some ‘experts’ who believe rates are much higher, though it would be nice to know who they are – no wait, I know who it is, it’s the Daily Mail editorial board… Of course it could be true but it’s the second part of the sentence that’s worrying to me. We know the statistics come from the British Crime Survey and are hence related to actual crime rates and having nothing to do with reported crime rates so it is totally irrelevant that fewer than half might be reported – that does not affect these figures at all. Not so much Lies and statistics as statistics, reporters and lies (rearrange these words to make a sentence). There’s even a complaint that we’re convicting too many women:

“Last month, the Daily Mail revealed that the Government’s own figures show the number of women being convicted for murders, vicious assaults and other attacks has rocketed by 81 per cent since 1998.”

So our failed justice system is now convicting too many criminals? I’m confused.

The main thrust of the article is aimed at showing how out of control violent crime is and quotes this stat that violent attacks by strangers has risen from 32% of all violent crime to 50% of all violent crime.

The most important fact that I want to communicate here is the one they don’t tell you: Violent crime is down. Way down. It’s less that half its peak level which, for the record was in 1995. We are now back down to 1981 levels (oh, sorry, didn’t you know that crime (and violent crime) rose steadily though out the 80’s until the mid-nineties and has been falling since?)

Please do not misunderstand me, one crime – especially one violent crime – is one too many and there is a lot of violence out there. However because that is true, we should celebrate the massive reduction in violent crime that has taken place. Furthermore the use of crime as a political weapon by stoking up the fear of crime is particularly sick.

So, finally what about this claim that stranger attacks have soared from 32% to 50%. There were approximately 4 million violent crimes in 1996. 32% of 4 million is 1.3 million and 50% of 2 million is 1 million. How’s this for a headline? Violent attacks by strangers SOAR from 1.3 million to 1 million.

Lies, Damn lies and Daily Mail Reporting.

P.S. I notice that the byline is given to one James Slack – maybe that’s a description of the journalist rather than his name?

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