That word. Pah !
Yes – that one. Pah !
Three more times. Pah ! Pah ! Pah !
Good. Blood pressure reduced slightly.
Now, I’d better start with an apology to all chimpanzees everywhere for comparing them to Guardian Editorial Writers.
I find that small things slightly wrong can be intensely annoying.
The Guardian. This morning. In the sensible editorial, which is about the benefits of increased cycling in the UK. This:
The 111 cyclists killed on the roads in 2010 was the lowest annual figure for years.
Linked back to the source like this:
figures from the House of Commons show that cycling is not as dangerous as people imagine.
But the source says this in the summary on the web page:
111 cyclists were killed on the roads; the second lowest number in the last 61 years
ie no one had to even bother to read the pdf document to find out.
And someone assumed that “second lowest number in the last 61 years” meant “lowest annual figure for years”.
Unfortunately the last time the figure was lower, was … er … last year.
Here’s the 20-year graph, which I prepared for a piece about last week’s cycling Commons debate (data source) :
That may seem to be a small degree of laziness, both on the part of the Parliamentary Scribe and the Guardian, but let’s talk about consistency and editorial reliability.
And the way that exactly the same statistic has been used in different ways.
In reality the difference is completely irrelevant as anything other than a small annual fluctuation which doesn’t tell anyone anything about anything.
Then on December 27th, Mark King used the figure to tell us about the alleged increase in cycling deaths during recessions:
The number of cyclists killed in the UK has risen during three of the last four recessions, according to figures from the Department for Transport (DfT). The data suggests that, when commuters swap expensive train, tube and car travel for cheaper bicycles during periods of austerity, the death toll rises.
under a headline:
That was part of a silly story carried in several papers in October 2011, and the figures suggest nothing of the kind for the current recession.
And the next day, December 28th, they were using the statistic to stoke up a debate and create a map of “Ghost Bikes”:
Figures from the Department for Transport show that cyclist deaths rose by 7% last year, mirroring the increase in casualties seen during past recessions. The data appears to indicate that belt-tightening – cash-strapped households avoiding expensive public transport fares and motoring – leads to more cyclists on the road, and a higher rate of accidents.
What’s your experience? Is the money saved by getting around under your own steam worth the risk? Should more cash be ploughed into making the roads safer for cyclists, or public transport subsidies increased in order to bring down fares?
If people can’t be bothered to work hard on the easy bits to check detail of the detail, and get it right, then we know that they cannot be trusted with bigger things, such as drawing conclusions.
Which is one reason why anyone who thought about their reading knew that Johann Hari was unreliable years before he was also widely known to be a liar and a fraud, because he was reckless with simple facts.
Given the inconsistency, there would seem to be a number of statistical barmpots at the Guardian.
And not many fact-checkers to protect writers from themselves, or people taking a broader view across the output.
Verily, a dead parakeet.
And I feel better now. Thank-you.
(*) Yes, I know it’s a former Ring-Necked parakeet, but if I put up a pic of the African Grey I had for supper last night I would get a visit from the Gentleman From The Ministry. Anyway, there are more ring-necked parakeets than parrots in Clapham and Tuscany, and it was originally to be a metaphor for a certain writer’s argumentation.
Photo Credit: Yersinia