Of Statistics, Scoundrels and Scandalmongers

Some readers may recall an article of mine discussing climate change, and especially something called the ‘Hockey Stick’. This was a graph designed to show temperatures over the last thousand years, with an abrupt and decisive upturn of temperatures in the twentieth century – in other words, a graph that looked like a hockey stick. This was featured on the cover of a report prepared by the International Panel on Climate Change some years ago, and milked for maximum publicity.

Sadly, the graph was laughably and lamentably incorrect. Indeed, it was not just incorrect, it was a statistical artefact produced by manipulating the underlying temperature records in a certain way, according to a particular method. One critic even put random information from a telephone directory into the same system, in order to demonstrate that no matter what information was put in, a ‘hockey stick’ graph would result.

After this became widely known, there was a leak of correspondence from the Climate Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which shed much light on how the hockey stick graph had come to be formed. In sum, a group of scientists were so committed to the overall story of catastrophic global warming that they actively sought to suppress alternative points of view, not simply in their own research but also through manipulating the ‘peer review’ process. If there was information that didn’t fit the story that they were committed to, then it had to be eliminated. So much for the scientific method. (For those who wish to explore this question further, the best guide remains Andrew Montford’s ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’.)

I think of this story whenever I see statistics being used to advance a particular agenda, and it was especially brought to mind by the recent ‘Endpiece’ in these pages, which purported to show how “the world’s least religious nations are the most moral, peaceful and humane”. Where to begin shooting the fish in this particular barrel? Let me just emphasise the fundamental logical point. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the presently secular countries are more humane places, that only establishes a correspondence, not a causation. For the Endpiece writer to justify their conclusion they would need to show that the greater social welfare in these countries was caused by non-religious activity; indeed, to be a really strong case, the writer would need to show that the secular is better at promoting social welfare than the religious. Ideally, the writer would point to all the ways in which the cultivation of social welfare was taught in secular institutions, thereby bringing out into the open precisely what is understood by ‘social welfare’ in the secular view, and contrast this with the understanding of ‘social welfare’ that is taught by the religious institutions. The greater the contrast, the more likely that the writer’s point can be justified.

Of course, I think the project is doomed from the start. Given the way in which Christian thinking has informed progressive practice over the last several centuries (health care, education, the abolition of slavery to mention just a few) and continues to do so (who are the people running the food banks?) the disentangling of Christian social practice from a supposedly secular social practice seems to me like the definition of tilting at a windmill. We need more secular Sancho Panzas to provide the requisite commentary on these Quixotic endeavours, rather than leaving it to Christians like me.

Talking of tilting at windmills with tired old tropes, I feel I should say something about Alan Shillum’s article in the last issue. Mr Shillum was responding to my claim that a culture of vindictive accusation and blame has become prevalent in our national print media. In saying that, I don’t believe that I am very far from the national consensus – informed as it has been by the investigations into such joyous activities as the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. Notice, however, the grounds on which Mr Shillum seeks to defend the press – he argues from numbers, as if might made right, essentially saying ‘we’re more important than the churches, so shut up’. Mr Shillum claims “many more people on Mersea buy and read the Mail on Sunday than collectively attend the island’s churches”, and then asserts that there are “5,000 readers every Sunday just on this little island”. Given that there are only about 8,000 residents on the island, of all ages, that’s a pretty impressive rate of media penetration! If we assume that those under the age of 18 generally don’t read printed newspapers – which I think is a conservative guess – Mr Shillum clearly believes that just about every adult on the island does so; and people believe that we Christians are the delusional ones.

Let’s stick to the boasting about numbers though, in particular whether it is true that “many more” people read the Mail on Sunday than attend the churches. If we compare purchasing the paper to actually attending a church on a reasonably regular basis, then I don’t see much difference. The two Anglican churches on the Island have a combined membership of around 260; if we add to that the members of other churches then “about 500” applies to both the Daily Mail and the active Christian church. Ah, but there are three readers for every purchaser! Well, how many believers are there for every member? If the last census is to be believed, something like 70% of Mersea residents claim a Christian affiliation (down from 80% in 2001 – but then, newspaper circulations seem to have halved over the same period).

The thing is, might does not make right. Even if it were true that the newspapers had ten times as many dedicated supporters as all the churches in England, it would not make their behaviour righteous. Indeed, the notion that it could is part of the problem with the overweening arrogance and disregard for ethical and truthful conduct displayed so despicably by the press in recent years. Hopefully the Leveson inquiry and the various trials will lead to a new code of journalistic ethics and a renewed vitality and integrity in journalism. Heaven knows we need the whistle-blowers, as I have argued in these pages before. We can’t do without a free press – it is one of the “foundational freedoms” that I described a few weeks ago – which is why those activities which bring the press itself into question are doubly damaging.

We need, as a culture, to become much more humble about the truth – and quite possibly, writers of opinion columns in newspapers need to take especial care to cultivate that particular virtue. Part of what this means is being open about our own perspectives, the biases that we bring to our arguments. When this is open and well understood then it is easier for others to point out the errors of fact or logic that may enable the conversation as a whole to journey closer to the truth. It is only when there is a culture of openness and transparency that the social welfare is built up. There is no such thing as a completely unbiased perspective; there is only the question of whether a particular tradition has the internal capacity to critique itself. Without that, all that is left is the power struggle.

So what are my biases? Hopefully, unlike an anonymous author, my biases are obvious. I’m a committed Christian, someone who accepts the stories about Jesus as being essentially eye-witness testimony, and who accepts Jesus as the human face of God. Flowing directly from that, I’m a humanist; I’m in favour of all that leads to the full flourishing of each and every human being on this planet, and for generations to come. Flowing directly from that, I am profoundly sceptical of the power that is wielded by the ‘principalities and powers’ that dominate our public life, amongst which I include not just the government but also the other big beasts, such as industries, unions, media and, yes, the institutional churches. What I would like to be is a gadfly, or, perhaps, the small child pointing out when the Emperor is naked. Speaking of which…

2 thoughts on “Of Statistics, Scoundrels and Scandalmongers

  1. Sam,

    You are always eager to point out that secular notions are informed by Christianity. I am sure there is some truth in that. Are you willing to admit that this is a two way street. That modern Christianity owes much of it’s current form to secular influence?

    Also, while it is strictly true that secular nations being more humane does not necessarily ensure that it is secularism itslef that is the root cause. Would you be willing to admit that religiosity is not a requirement for a humane society?

    • Hobo – actually, I would go further – there are profound secular influences on Christianity from the very beginning, most especially through Stoicism. Nothing human is foreign to the faith in my view; and yes, I would be happy to accept that there are many occasions (eg Amnesty International) when the secular upbraids the faithful. What I see as most important, though, is that the faith can respond to such upbraiding generously, because the internal imperatives of the faith, their highest form, are higher still. I don’t know if the purely secular has enough ballast to make it through the dark ages that are now upon us.
      Did you see the Andrew Brown article recently related to your last question? He argued that religiosity and ethics are distinct, and I am minded to agree.

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