Posts Tagged Statistics

The climate science isn’t “in”

aka back and better than the same as ever

MK has been dormant since June 2013 — almost 2 years! It’s been a while since I wrote a bona fide blog post, but I miss doing that, so I figured I would, and on one of my favourite old topics (see HERE). This one is dedicated to my handfuls upon handfuls of readers.

I believe in climate change. I also am not all that bothered by it.

That attitude seems to raise a few eyebrows. Most people assume that if you believe in climate change, then you must see a desperate need to “take action” against it and, conversely, if you do not care much about climate change, then you are obviously one of those “climate change deniers” (a term that’s a little too close to “Holocaust denier” for my liking).

I don’t fall into either category. My thoughts can be encapsulated quite neatly in three points (and I think I may be paraphrasing John Humphreys):

  1. Is the climate changing? Yes.
  2. Are humans causing that? Probably.
  3. Is it as bad as we think? No.
  4. Does it warrant drastic government intervention? Almost definitely not.

As points 1 and 2 have been adequately canvassed elsewhere, and point 4 follows from point 3, I’ll concentrate on point 3 for the balance of this post. Before I do that, I should give this qualification: I’ll admit that I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do have a statistics major, so I am at least somewhat qualified to comment on the research findings that people like to throw around. And I have read the most authoritative material out there, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and the major Royal Society reviews (see HERE).

So with the power of that limited knowledge and drawing on my hours of research, here is what i think:


The future hasn’t happened yet

People have been predicting the end of the world for as long as there have been people, and that includes in this “enlightened” age of “science” that we now live in. Yet the doomsayers have been proven wrong each time.

The problem with predicting the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. That may seem obvious, but it is constantly overlooked by “scientists” the world over. The standard way of predicting the future using maths, “time series analysis”, boils down to this: take what has happened in the past, figure out what the average was, and assume that the future will be the same.

This might seem intuitive — after all, the best indication of what will happen in the future that we have is what has already happened — but it is in fact an extremely flawed way of looking at the world. The best and most well known critic of the formula is probably Nassim Taleb. He makes the following criticisms:

   1. Outliers

The past is peppered with what Taleb calls “Black Swan” events and what everyone else calls “outliers”. Outliers are rare events that are different to all other events, and therefore cannot be predicted. It is impossible to predict the unpredictable, therefore any statistical projections will invariably miss the outliers, especially if it is predicting the future based on the past average.

This results in things like financial analysts missing the Global Financial Crisis (bad outlier), or Thomas Malthus predicting that all the food would run out and missing the productivity improvements of the industrial revolution (good outlier, back in Malthus’s time).

   2. Knowing it all

Time series predictions involve a degree of hubris. They assume that we understand the past and why everything in the past has happened, and can confidently reduce the infinitely complex universe into a few variables that will inevitably explain anything, and so if we know how one or two of these will behave then we can comfortably predict everything else.

We give ourselves too much credit. Our actual understanding of complex systems is much weaker than we’d like to think. “Experts” modelling complex systems mathematically are constantly even getting the past wrong, so how anyone thinks they can predict the future with much accuracy I have no idea.

   3. Proxies and correlations

Some things are easier to measure than others. Whenever an analysts wants to measure something complex that cannot really be measured they will use a “proxy variable” that would generally correlate with the unmeasurable variable. For example, it is not possible to measure “health”, so if you want to measure the health of a population, you might measure their average life expectancy. After all, if people tend to live longer, you would assume that they are healthier.

Makes sense right? Well maybe. One problem is that you might be missing some other variables that are affecting the situation. For example, maybe your “unhealthy” group are actually super fit and super healthy, but have an unfortunate habit of dying in car crashes. So perhaps life expectancy doesn’t correlate as well with health as you would expect.

But assume that the two variables correlate perfectly. That itself may be a problem.

Take this example: Christian Rudder from online dating website OK Cupid has found that regardless of gender, OK Cupid users who like the taste of beer tend to prefer having sex on the first date. That statistic is quite amusing, but no one would seriously suggest that this means that drinking beer changes the way someone thinks about sex, right?

Wrong. “Scientists” do that all the time, and the journalists who report their findings do it even more.

That example makes it especially obvious that the correlation between beer and sex is not causative. Liking beer does not cause someone to want to have sex on a first date, and wanting sex on a first date does not cause someone to like the taste of beer. More likely, there is a third factor at play that causes a lot of people who like beer to also want sex on a first date — probably youth culture or something. Or it could simply be a coincidence.

But that doesn’t stop people saying that hormone replacement therapy can help stop heart disease.

   

4. The Wayne Swan error*

Ever wondered why the government’s budget always seems to blow out? Here’s why. Say the government projects that next year’s budget will balance, with a 2% margin of error and 95% confidence. This means that there is a 95% chance that budget will be within 2% of a balanced budget (a pipe dream right now, I know).

In reality, it is almost impossible that the budget will come in below the projection — as once allocated money to spend, very few (if any) government departments will choose not spend it. On the other hand, it is quite likely that the budget will blow out, as government departments have many unforeseen expenses. So there is not so much a 95% chance that the budget will be within 2% of balanced, there is a 95% chance that there will be a deficit of 2% or less, and a 5% chance of a deficit of over 2%. I like to call that the “Wayne Swan error”, after the former Australian Treasurer who seemed to manage to blow out the budget every year that he was in office (it is also fast becoming the “Joe Hockey error”).


Getting to the point

The reason I don’t think that climate change is so bad is that the predictions that I have seen of the impact of climate change fall into all of the above traps, along with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias. Arctic sea ice at record lows? We’re doomed! Arctic sea ice at record highs? We’re still doomed!

Remember Professor Tim Flannery? The “climate expert” who predicted unending drought when we had a drought, then unending floods when we had floods? My point exactly.

Even the most respectable science journals make outlandish predictions about mass-extinctions, rising sea levels, and economic misery based on people trying to predict the future from past averages and assuming that they understand complex systems.

Their predictions are constantly wrong. It turns out that nature is a lot more robust than we give it credit for. We forget that life on Earth has not been eliminated despite ice ages, periods of warming, super-volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and everything else that nature throws at us. I seriously doubt that the atmosphere warming a couple of degrees will mean the end of the world as we know it.

Further, as a result of nature being more robust than we think, as well as humanity’s propensity for alarmism, climate scientists’ projections are subject to the “Wayne Swan error”-style second order effects that I was talking about earlier.

Scientific papers wrongly predicting the end of the world are much more likely to be published than ones predicting that everything will carry on the way it has in the past, and are much more likely to attract attention once published. Also, scientists are more likely to miss mitigating factors than exacerbating ones, and therefore overestimate both global warming and its effects. We know what causes warming — greenhouse gas levels — but not what mitigates it. Accordingly, our measurements of warming are biased towards warmer rather than cooler, and our projections are biased towards “worst case” rather than “best case” scenarios.

The biggest problem with the way we think about projections is that people are not held to account for getting it wrong. Climate forecasts made 20 years ago have proven woefully inaccurate, yet they are somehow touted as being correct. A couple of years ago, the IPCC released a report saying how accurate their 1990 projections were, and headlines around the world said “climate predictions come true”, when what had in fact happened was that the world had consistently warmed more slowly than the IPCC’s projections, but (big woop!) the warming had been within the range that the IPCC predicted. See this graph:

Now, remember that the predictions were made in 1990. Notice how the model “predicts” that temperatures before 1990 (which would have been factored into the model) would be roughly evenly distributed around the middle line, but that temperatures since 1990 (which obviously were not known when the projections were made) have been consistently below that line.

Sure enough, according to the IPCC’s projections, the world should have warmed about 0.55 degrees between 1990 and 2010. It actually warmed 0.39 degrees. That’s 30% less than projected — a pretty dismal result really. Although I’ll admit that sea levels seem to have been rising at the top end of what was projected, despite the rise in temperature being lower than projected.

Anyway, the point is that a PhD in climate science is about as useful as a crystal ball and a red and white tent when it comes to making soothsayers. Meanwhile, both humanity and nature constantly surprise with their ability to not be destroyed by whatever calamity we are predicting at the time.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be reducing our CO2 emissions and switching to renewable energy. But a carbon tax? No.


Taleb makes some other criticisms which are a lot more technical and would be lost on most readers without a mathematical background. I encourage everyone to read his books, where he explains his ideas in a very accessible way.

For people who do understand this kind of thing, the Wayne Swan error is this: Most models use a 95% confidence level to compute “statistically significant” findings. If you’re lucky this will be at 99%. Not only does this a priori overlook the 5% or 1% of outliers which can have a far more significant impact on whatever the model is measuring than the 95-99% of “normal” cases, another common oversight make it likely that the confidence level is substantially underestimated: namely the assumption that the error terms are random. Often, the error terms are actually non-linear, which adds unseen biases to the model.

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Outright lying to make the O’Farrell government look bad

There is no other way to interpret this.

Media release by NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson:

The month of July saw 2,256 more people become unemployed and NSW continues to suffer with 5,861 fewer jobs today than when Barry O’Farrell took office.

The release cites this data from the ABS. The ABS website says:

The number of people unemployed decreased by 2,500 people to 635,100 in July, the ABS reported.

Seriously.

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Discrimination in Australian Jewry… again

Just saw this post on Galus, showing the number of female speakers in Melbourne shuls over Shavuot (in most cases, the number was “0”).

Shavuot Scorecard – Where are the Women? | Galus Australis | Jewish Life in Australia.

I may have a bit too much time on my hands this week, and I did a little survey after I received an email of all the Tikkun Leil Shavuot events happening in Orthodox shules [eds: The Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an evening of Torah learning that is held on the first night of Shavuot].

Each shule is hosting between 3-11 speakers on the night. Below is a list of how many women are speaking at each shule.

St Kilda Shule: 0

South Caulfield: 0

Elwood: 0

Spiritgrow: 0

Chabad Malvern: 0

Elsternwick Shule: 0

Hamayan: 0

Yeshiva: 0

CBH – Katanga: 0

Chabad Glen Eira: 0

Kew Hebrew Congregation: 0

Chabad on Carlisle: 0

Blake Street: 1

Bnei Akiva: 1

Mizrachi: 1

Caulfield Shule: 1

Beit Aharon: 2

Shira: 7

Regular readers may know that I have been looking at a lot of material on discrimination recently — mostly to do with racial discrimination, but there is an obvious overlap with gender.

A couple of very important points to note are firstly that discrimination is generally not a conscious decision and secondly that it is generally hard to see in individual cases, but reveals itself when you start looking at the broader picture.

This is a case in point. No doubt, each shul would have a very reasonable explanation for who they invited, but taken as a whole, it is obvious that Melbourne’s shuls are not interested in hearing from women. I would venture a guess that the picture would not look too different in Sydney (or indeed in most Orthodox communities).

This is once again a sign that Orthodox Judaism is a sect by and for men. As I have often maintained, manifest discrimination during the religious service filters into all other aspects of life on some level. This is off-putting even for people like me who are not women.

Yet the rabbis of these shuls are sitting there, staring at thousands of empty seats and wonder what could possibly be keeping their congregation away…

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In defence of skepticism on climate change

Reviewing the “Heartland affair”, Robert Murphy notes how one climate scientist did not think that the actual evidence against Heartland was enough and decided to forge a more “damning” document; and how gleefully the rest of the climate change movement began adopting this clearly forged document with no skepticism whatsoever:

Diminished Climate Alarmism: Lessons from L’Affair Heartland — MasterResource

Now to be sure, climate science isn’t the same thing as politics and the blogosphere. Just because these climate alarmists showed ridiculously bad judgment when it came to the Heartland affair, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong about the trajectory of global temperatures in the absence of mitigation strategies.

However, I do think this episode—and the reaction of the skeptic community during Climategate—are quite illustrative of the two camps’ approaches to the actual science. Back when the Climategate emails were first spreading around the Internet, I distinctly remember many people in the comments at blogs such as ClimateAudit warning their peers by saying things like, “Guys, remember, we’re skeptics. This is too good to be true. Let’s not jump up and down on this, because it might be a trap to make us look gullible.”

In contrast, the major players on the other side—when Heartland was “caught” saying things that were far more absurd than what the Climategate emails revealed—jumped with glee. For example…

Walter Russell Mead posits his analysis of the incentives leading to distortions in the climate debate:

How Green Gullibility, Hyperpartisanship Are Wrecking The Climate Movement | Via Meadia.

  • The climate movement’s proposals (above all, the global carbon treaty that in theory will subject the economic output of  every country on earth to global controls) are radical, costly and virtually certain to fail.
  • To be enacted, these unpromising measures require an unprecedented degree of consensus, as every major country on earth would have to accept, ratify and then enforce the climate treaty the movement seeks.
  • The climate movement must therefore be, in Dean Acheson’s words, “clearer than truth” in order to stampede public and elite opinion around the world into a unique and unparalleled act of global legislation.
  • Because many in the climate movement believe that this treaty is literally a matter of life and death for the human race, the moral case both for stretching the evidence and attacking critics of that agenda as aggressively as possible looks strong to weak minds.
  • The absence of any central authority or quality control in the climate movement (and the tendency of unbalanced foundation execs and direct mail contributors to provide greater support to those ready to take more aggressive action and espouse more alarming ideas) gives more radical and less responsible voices undue prominence and entangles the whole movement in dubious claims.
  • The increasing obstacles encountered by such a poorly conceptualized and poorly advocated agenda cause the embittered and alarmed advocates to circle the wagons and become both more extreme in their rhetoric and less guarded in their claims when precisely the opposite approach would work better.

I must say that I have a lot of sympathy for this position, although I do not think the phenomenon is limited to the “the world is ending” side of the debate; the other side is just as irrational and just as selective in its facts/deliberately deceptive for policy reasons.

What we essentially have is a political debate posing as a scientific one. The best example of this is the fact that the most commonly cited reason to believe in the climate change alarm is the supposed “scientific consensus” shown through petitions like this one — the idea being that if 31,487 scientists agree with something, it can’t possibly be wrong.

The very idea makes a mockery of Read the rest of this entry »

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Fair Work story breaks and I’m taking the credit

On Saturday, I published this story rebutting two pieces by Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite trying to convince us that the Fair Work Act is working (it isn’t). In the post, I pointed out that Thistlethwaite was using ABS data on work hours lost to industrial disputes and trying to pretend that the number of hours had gone down when it had in fact gone up. Shortly thereafter — and for completely unrelated reasons — I decided to start using the Major Karnage Twitter account properly and started following a whole load of Australian journalists.

Lo and behold, a few days later the story breaks in the Australian and in the Australian Financial Review that the FWA has caused a rise in labour hours lost due to industrial disputes. I see no possible reason for that other than my blog.

Yes, of course this could in theory be because the figures for the December 2011 quarter were released yesterday, but I’m going to conveniently ignore that, seeing as conveniently ignoring facts seems to be the in thing these days.

Surge in disputes under Fair Work.

The number of working days lost to industrial disputes almost doubled in 2011, the most since 2004. There were fewer strikes, but they became more prolonged over issues beyond simply pay and conditions.

Former BHP ­Billiton chairman Don Argus told The Australian Financial Review that he saw no sign of the trend abating.

“That sort of data does not help with the productivity that is required to keep Australia competitive, it is as simple as that,” Mr Argus said.

The data fuelled the employer push for changes to Labor’s Fair Work Act, including narrowing the range of matters that can be bargained over.

Business says the data also fails to capture accurately the fallout from industrial action as it only includes actual stoppages, not overtime bans or threatened action cancelled at the last moment.

Fair Work laws blamed for lost days | The Australian.

THE number of working days lost to industrial disputes has almost doubled in the past 12 months, with business and industry sheeting home the blame to the bargaining provisions in Labor’s Fair Work laws.

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So those magazines I like don’t seem to run women

A post in the Jewish Daily Forward by Sarah Seltzer led me to this study done by VIDA – an organisation aimed at increasing female representation in literary arts – of bylines in major literary-focussed magazines and book review sections that were written by men and women. The results, shown in a series of piecharts, make for quite bleak viewing:

Before I discuss the results, I have to be annoying and discuss the study methods. As regular readers will know, I generally follow the Tuftian theory on data presentation, meaning that I absolutely hate pie charts and anything else that you can make with Microsoft Office. This is a very ineffective way of showing data, what I want is a nice spreadsheet and maybe a scatterplot – that would mean that I could find trends, averages, standard errors and all of the other things that nerds like me like to look at.

I’ll also note that bylines are just a small part of the picture, the study did not include important factors like the breakdowns by gender of: the number of submissions received; the editorial board members; the pool of potential writers; and — especially important — the readership.

Note: gender scholar Danielle Pafunda has written a relatively compelling argument for other factors being less important than they would seem, noting that much of the result still comes down to editorial policy and that the selection process is far from passive (i.e. editors actively source their writers). I am not entirely convinced by this (especially where she claims that the superior quality of women’s submissions counterbalances the lower volume), but there is something to it.

Looking at the wrong magazines?

This point was raised in one of the comments on the VIDA site:

Many of the largest-circulation magazines in English are primarily written by and read by women. What you’re saying is that if you ignore magazines aimed at women and focus on much smaller magazines that don’t tend to be written by and read by women, there are more men. OK.

My question: why are magazines that focus on women uninteresting, unprestigious, and ignored?

What would happen if you analyzed these magazines, instead of the smaller ones you picked?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_magazines_by_circulation

This is a valid point, what is also not explained by VIDA is what led to the choice of these particular magazines and the list feels quite arbitrary.

Some of the magazines are dedicated book review journals, some are academic literary journals and some are just highbrow magazines with book review sections, including feature-based magazines (The New Yorker, The Atlantic) and political commentary (The New Republic); all of these are left-leaning, all but one are published in the UK or the USA and some that to me would be quite obvious choices have been left out (e.g. Vanity Fair, The New Statesman, The Spectator).

Also, none are web-based magazines, ignoring important publications like Slate and The Daily Beast, and it has included the literary supplement from The London Times, but not from other similarly regarded/circulated newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian etc; all of which have literary supplements. This is not to say that these publications would necessarily be any different (although some probably would — Vanity Fair comes to mind in particular), but it would be good to rule that out, or at least to explain the reason some were chosen but not others.

Maybe the topics are the problem?

Some interesting thoughts on this issue come from another Forward blogger, Elissa Strauss (my bold):

Too Pink for the ‘Thought Leaders’? – The Sisterhood – Forward.com.

I never bothered to pitch any of the magazines on the VIDA count last year. This wasn’t because I didn’t think they would pay attention to me because of my gender, but rather because they don’t seem to be much interested in covering the things I like to write about. I am talking about topics like gender, sexuality, culture and the intersection of the three.

In the world of the “thought leaders,” these “lady issues” are all still largely niche topics. We get an occasional bone thrown at us, like Kate Bolick’s piece on single ladies in The Atlantic, but these stories always seem to require a strong first-person angle in order to make them newsworthy. Overall, however, women’s issues and gender equity, are just not important or interesting enough to the editors.

There are those that argue that in order for more women to appear on these mastheads, we must leave our comfort zones and take on the “big” stuff like politics and money. I agree, but I also think that it has to go both ways. Sure, more women should, and do, try to inch their way into these beats. But we should also stay determined about the fact that the things we like to read and write about are important, too, and that they don’t deserve to always be relegated to an occasional feature or culture piece.

Essentially, she is suggesting that these magazines need to make an effort to have more “female-focussed” content (i,e, publish more stuff that she writes about). As a subscriber to several of these magazines (though admittedly not a woman), I find this a little absurd. As the comment above pointed out, there are already many magazines aimed at women which speak about these kinds of issues – presumably, these are the ones Strauss pitches to – so why change the subject matter of the ones that have other foci? There is a reason that I subscribe to The New Yorker and not Cosmopolitan (or GQ, for that matter).

These are magazines that publish articles on what Strauss refers to as “the ‘big’ stuff”. They are not the most highly-circulated magazines, but they are the most highly regarded magazines amongst left-leaning, English-speaking “intellectuals”, which seems to be the market that everyone mentioned in this post is going for. It’s not that issues related to gender or sexuality are overlooked in these magazines; they get the occasional feature, but they are not the general focus and nor should they be.

I also don’t understand why women can’t write on the issues that these magazines do cover: politics, science, culture, the arts and assorted human interest stories; in fact, many women do – maybe not most women, but then neither do most men; again, these are niche publications.

That said, I would really have no idea about this, not being a woman and all. So I would like to pose the question to anyone who made it this far: are the issues that I care about (i.e. the ones I read/write about) really not things that women are interested in? Thinking about it, this does seem true to me anecdotally; I find that I have more male friends with whom I can engage with on these kinds of issues than female friends. What I do not understand is why.

Ingrained culture?

On a similar note, the other common explanation that I found was the theory that women are somehow conditioned in ways that make them less apt for this type of writing. The best example came from the New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait, responding to Elissa Strauss’ article on last year’s near-identical list (my bold):

New Yorker, Harper’s, NYRB and TNR Editors on the Dearth of Female Bylines – The Sisterhood – Forward.com.

My explanation, which I can’t prove, is socialization predisposes boys to be more interested both in producing and consuming opinion journalism. Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits. I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.

Now, a magazine can try to encourage women to have more confidence in their opinions and their right to engage in debate and challenge others. I like to think I’ve done my part here. But overwhelmingly, by the time they reach this stage in their career, the battle has already been lost.

I also have trouble dealing with this argument for the simple reason that most of Chait’s response was describing the soft affirmative action at the New Republic and how many women seem to be around the office, if not writing the bylines. I feel like there must be something else going on.

 

What’s More

This post is getting much too long, so here are some more responses that are worth reading for anyone still interested: Roxane Gay wants affirmative action; Robin Romm notes the cycle of literary awards and accolades; Ruth Franklin shows that the problem may not be the magazines, but the publishing houses.

And for the record, my favourite female writers:

Again, I am quite puzzled by the issue and would appreciate any thoughts on it. You can reply in the comments section, by email or on Twitter (see the “About” section on the right of the page).

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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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