On regulation, racism and taxation, newspapers can’t do the math

A couple of articles popped-up yesterday that really showed the difference between journalists and…people who know what they’re doing when it comes to reading data. Take, for example, Tim Colebatch, writing to defend recent welfare cuts in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Tax benefit anger wasted on those earning $150,000

In 2008-09, only 3 per cent of Australians reported taxable incomes of $150,000 or more. Since then, household incomes per head have grown by 5 per cent. If evenly distributed, that would put 3.5 per cent of Australians above $150,000.

As a maths graduate, I find that calculation offensive.

But the Herald was not the only criminal here. Stephen Lunn wrote into yesterday’s Australian to try and convince us all that we want more alcohol regulation.

Nights of drunken rages | The Australian.

Yet there is a growing view that alcohol is a societal problem. The report finds “the vast majority (80 per cent) of the population [state] that Australians have a problem with excess drinking and alcohol abuse.” This is up noticeably from the 73 per cent in the AER Foundation’s initial survey a year ago. And while more people consider illicit substances than alcohol to be the most harmful drug in Australia, the gap is narrowing.

Here’s the issue: it relies on whoever was taking the survey to define “problem” – if I say that Australians have a “problem” with “excessive drinking”, that could be totally different from what anyone else means when they say the same thing. After all, how much drinking is “excessive”? Furthermore,

IT’S a paradox and a grand self-delusion. It is this: Eight in 10 Australians say there is a major alcohol problem in this country. …But despite our unambiguous acknowledgement of the problem, seven in 10 of us are comfortable with how much alcohol we personally consume. Just 7 per cent admit to being concerned about their own consumption levels, a recent survey by the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation finds.

EXCUSE me? 7/10 of us are comfortable with how much we personally consume, but 7/100 of us are concerned about our consumption levels. Congratulations Steven Lunn, you just skipped a factor of 10. So in reality, 93% of us are satisfied with our drinking levels – which would support that, as I said before, we are not use the same definition of a “problem with excessive drinking” as the people Lunn is interviewing. That doesn’t stop suggestions like this:

Things have clearly gone backwards over the past 10 to 15 years. Governments have been spending millions on treatment, on community services, on advertising campaigns, but the policy approach has been centred too much on personal responsibility and it has failed,” Thorn says. “What we need is a more sophisticated regulatory approach to preventing alcohol having such a detrimental impact on society.”

Ahh, things have gone backwards over the past 10 to 15 years. And the esteemed Michael Thorn of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation knows this from a clearly flawed survey that his foundation has been doing over the last two years.

This is actually a serious problem. Misrepresenting data like this can completely change societal attitudes on certain things, once something becomes “viral” in the press (read: one journalist misreads something that sounds sensational and dozens of others re-report the mistake without bothering to really check if it’s true or not). This happened earlier in the year with some research about Australia’s racial attitude.

Nearly half of Australians are anti-Muslim: study – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

A decade-long national study has found that nearly 50 per cent of Australians identify themselves as having anti-Muslim attitudes.

Luckily, there were some others in the press to pick up on the mistake a little down the track. Funnily, we did not see a huge amount of coverage of this little gold nugget.

Simple errors can exaggerate level of bigotry | The Australian.

What the journalists did not explore was how these results were obtained. Yet the answer was not hard to find. The Challenging Racism tables headed “Racist attitude indicators” provide data for specific regions and then calculate variations from state and national levels.

These tables provide the statistics on the anti sentiment and explain the methodology. Surprisingly, the calculation rests on just one question. Respondents were asked: “In your opinion, how concerned would you feel if one of your close relatives were to marry a person of Muslim faith?” The question was then repeated for the Jewish faith, Asian background, Aboriginal background and so on.

It is quite a jump from concern over marriage of a close relative to a person, for example, of Muslim faith, to labelling the result, without qualification, as anti-Muslim in a table headed “Racist attitude indicators”. A wide range of factors could explain concern over the marriage of a close relative, not least the strength of the respondent’s identity and desire for transmission of values to children, without drawing a straight line to “racist attitude”

So essentially, various media journalists mis-read a survey to create a racism problem that is not really there. Even now, someone trying to research racism in Australia would probably still use that survey because of the articles that pop-up on Google when they do a search. 

I would just like to finish by begging people to really look at the data on various issues before we start putting more tax on drinks that already cost us almost twice as much as they do in most other countries…

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