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Columnists on the Shannon Matthews case: fun with selective statistics

Suzanne Moore in the Daily Mail:

Twenty-five years ago almost three-quarters of those who lived in council housing worked full-time.

Now fewer than a third do.

This is something that’s come up again and again in regard to this case, and it’s been used to prove that there’s a growing problem of child-abducting maniacs living on benefits, or something.

The problem is that the stats Moore’s quoted are only part of a bigger picture. The stats she missed: twenty-five years ago 42% of the population lived in council housing. Now, it’s 12%.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say the population is 50 million and hasn’t changed. That means 25 years ago, 21 million people lived in council housing, so  5.2 million of them didn’t have full time jobs. Today we’ve got 6 million people in council housing; assuming Moore’s right, that’s 1.9m people not working full time. Even assuming that not working full time is bad – those part-time bastards! – the stats show a massive decrease in the number of people who don’t have full-time jobs. Which proves that we’re going to hell in a handcart, or something.

I don’t have a particular agenda here; it just bugs me when stats are used to prove a point when they do no such thing.

23 replies on “Columnists on the Shannon Matthews case: fun with selective statistics”

80% of statistics are made up on the spot.

Facts can be used to prove anything that is even remotely true.

Etc etc etc

The thing about all the columnists who seem to have suddenly discovered the “welfare underclass” overnight, using this case as an example, is that not one has asked”but how is Shannon now?” Which is just what everyone around her did her whole life. It’s amazing how one little girl has become something that everyone uses for their own aims.

That link to The Mail‘s not quite right, Gary.

Anyway, no, I don’t think this is a statistical error. The point you make would be perfectly valid if council houses were evenly distributed throughout all the non-council housing. But they’re not; they’re concentrated together in particular areas. So it does make sense to talk about the percentage of their tenants who are [insert attribute here], because you’re talking about the attributes of particular groups in particular areas. How much of the population at large may be in those groups is a separate issue.

Also, I honestly don’t think journalists have been picking on the benefits issue for no reason in this case. The motive was to get free money under false pretences. It therefore makes sense to look at the benefits angle and the possibility of benefit fraud, which, after all, the Government keep telling us is widespread. Not saying that there necessarily is a link, just that there is a genuine reason to discuss the benfits culture in relation to this case beyond merely “I hate these bloody layabouts.”

You’re right about the conflation of “non-full-time” with “unemployed”, though.

This is good.

Not sure what the point of that post Joe’s linked to is supposed to be. Some Guardian columnist made some perfectly valid points about the media’s differing attitudes to “chavvy” Karen Matthews and the nice, respectable McCanns, but failed to spot that Matthews had actually faked her daughter’s disappearance. Hardly a crime, given that none of the rest of the press (or the Police, for that matter) spotted it at the time.

Unless the article is saying that class prejudice in the right-wing media is entirely justified because Karen Matthews is a sh*tbag and the McCanns are (as far as we know) innocent? I notice that there’s a link to Harry’s Place there and, given that their sole raison d’etre is to badmouth any political or media figure to the left of their (Blairite) position, I suspect that’s what’s going on here.

Thank Dawkins we have bloggers who’re prepared to stick their necks out by agreeing wholeheardedly with the vast majority of the mass media.[/sarcasm]

This is better: http://www.septicisle.info/2008/12/some-last-words-on-karen-matthews.html

@mcgazz:
> Hardly a crime, given that none of the rest of the press (or the Police, for that matter) spotted it at the time.

Is that true, though? The coverage seems pretty contradictory: on one hand we’re told that everybody was hoodwinked, but on the other the cops were apparently pretty convinced that the abductor was a family member, the mother behaved pretty strangely and the cops advised the McCanns not to help with the find-Shannon fund. If that’s what the cops were talking about, presumably the press would have found out about it and it would have tempered their enthusiasm for the story.

@squander two:
> I don’t think this is a statistical error.

I don’t think it is either. It’s cherry-picking.

@mcgazz:
> Some Guardian columnist made some perfectly valid points about the media’s differing attitudes to “chavvy” Karen Matthews and the nice, respectable McCanns,

That’s another selective columnist, though: she’s ignored the way the McCanns were basically judged guilty by the internet, or the dodgy reporting that cost express newspapers half a million quid.

I thought Mr E was quite good on this:
http://mreugenides.blogspot.com/2008/12/hackwatch-shannon-matthews.html

And Chicken Yoghurt quotes a good Guardian letter:
http://www.chickyog.net/2008/12/05/dont-hold-your-breath-mate/

> Some Guardian columnist made some perfectly valid points about the media’s differing attitudes to “chavvy” Karen Matthews and the nice, respectable McCanns

The point is that they weren’t valid points. What she failed to spot was that there are actually reasons why many people are perfectly reasonably suspicious of and critical of people who bring up their children while getting pissed and having a succession of short-term boyfriends. And, in this case, those reasons were shown to have merit, while the moral vacuum of bending over backwards to avoid saying that any one lifestyle is better than any other was proven, yet again, wrong. It’s almost as if there’s some sort of correlation between acting selfishly and being selfish.

> Unless the article is saying that class prejudice in the right-wing media is entirely justified

See, this is the problem. It’s not class prejudice. It’s standards prejudice. There are plenty of working-class people in this country who, I know, are deeply offended by the way you Marxists keep insisting that a prejudice against, say, women who raise their children with five different fathers is really a prejudice against the working class. It isn’t.

And, before you go claiming that the right-wing media don’t criticise such behaviour when it comes from the middle classes, you might want to check with Anthea Turner. (My legal department advise me to add that I have no idea how much Miss Turner drinks. I was referring to the infidelity, failure to provide a stable home for children, and utter refusal to acknowledge that she’s even done anything wrong.)

For the record, my mother was an alcoholic who spent half her life down the pub and chucked my dad out of the house when I was eight ’cause someone better came along. She’s thoroughly middle-class. I certainly do judge her harshly for her behaviour, and am prejudiced against anyone else who behaves in the same irresponsible, childish, reprehensible, scummy way. And I’d be first in line to agree that a large part of the problem came from the often scummy behaviour of the upper classes, who can afford the financial consequences of their actions, spreading downwards and catching on with those who can’t.

Bad behaviour isn’t class-based. It’s just bad.

> It’s cherry-picking.

No it’s not. Moore doesn’t even begin to make the point you’ve disproven.

Eh? FTA:

There are a class of people on drugs, in debt and despair.

We can argue about whose fault that is but we cannot deny their existence or their capacity to reproduce.

Twenty-five years ago almost three-quarters of those who lived in council housing worked full-time.

Now fewer than a third do.

The Right argues that the welfare system itself has produced this culture of worklessness and an underclass dependent on benefits with children drugged on Ritalin or, in poor Shannon’s case, anything that would keep her quiet.

That’s *exactly* the point she’s making: she’s used the figures to show that there’s a growing underclass of people drugging the shit out of their kids.

No, she’s used the figures to show that a growing proportion of the population who are in council housing are part of the underclass of people drugging the shit out of their kids.

Personally, I’d put the kid-drugging (since she mentions ritalin, which is legal but still mistaken, in my opinion) down to a whole bunch of other non-class-related factors. But that’s another matter.

That is brilliant, yes. Still makes one mistake that I’ve seen cropping up a lot, though:

One of the ironies of the Matthews case, in this light, is that it has given a brief insight into just how difficult the job of a child protection officer might be. Matthews not only duped her social workers over the years, she duped the entire media and the whole country, who scrutinised her every move for more than a month.

This doesn’t quite compare like for like. With cases like Baby P and Victoria Climbie, there was a failure to understand individual events which had been completed: the child had received a particular injury and social workers had seen the child and discounted it. With Matthews, what was being scrutinised was a single event that had not yet been completed, and, what’s more, in the absence of the child. To compare this to Baby P, you have to compare it to a social worker getting a phone call to say that Baby P’s been injured but not yet seen by a doctor. And, in fact, as soon as the Matthews event was complete and the child was once again observable, the authorities figured it out commendably quickly.

This whole thing reminds me of that annoying statistic that keeps getting quoted that most children are abused by close family members. If you look at the stats, you see that part of the reasoning behind that headline figure is an absolute refusal to consider parents and step-parents as separate categories. And step-fathers of the Matthews new-one-every-few-months variety are pushing those stats way up. But the fucking non-judgmental I-don’t-believe-any-culture-is-good-or-bad eejits would rather brand every parent in the country with the “potential child abuser” brush than admit that some types of family are better than others.

Not that you can brand with a brush.

> having a succession of short-term boyfriends

So, what are the acceptable standards when it comes to relationships? Cos I doubt anyone says to themselves: “screw the kids, I’m going to have a succession of short-term boyfriends”. Are you supposed to get a signed affidavit from a bloke confirming that he’ll stick around for x years before he meets your kids? [like the Kris Marshall BT ads ;-)] How dare poor people get laid!

Yes, working class people can be the most socially conservative of all sometimes. But the criticism of “chav” Matthews came from the media, and stinks of class prejudice, as well as hypocrisy.

I didn’t know Anthea Turner was “a tabloid staple” (Wikipedia), but I’m prepared the believe the tabloids reckoned her two(!) marriages would sell some papers.

I had an alcoholic parent as well. Presumably drunk parenting makes the kids into argumentative bastards…

I suppose it all depends on how you see the role of a parent.

You’re a great believer in individual agency, so why place so much stress on the morals of parents in relation to their children? Neither of us became alcoholics, while an awful lot of people with ‘ideal’ family backgrounds went on to have drink problems or worse.

You reckon a fascist can be a Doctor or Police Officer, as long as they do their job properly. My Dad may have been out of it a lot of time, but my folks kept me fed, clothed and housed. I think demanding all parents display certain behaviours is a dubious idea, and unlikely to have the desired effect.

> You’re a great believer in individual agency, so why place so much stress on the morals of parents in relation to their children?

Unlike many libertarians, who are just total fucking idiots on the subject of kids, I recognise that it’s no use telling a six-year-old “You’re free!” The reason to stress the morals of parents in the raising of children can currently be seen getting pissed and threatening passers-by down the bus-stop in the British town of your choice.

> Neither of us became alcoholics, while an awful lot of people with ‘ideal’ family backgrounds went on to have drink problems or worse.

So what? I’ve not suggested that you behave well in order to set a good example for your children so they can be just like you when you’re older. I’m suggesting that you behave well so that you can actually provide a stable home for your children now.

> How dare poor people get laid!

Yes, that certainly is a completely accurate characterisation of what I wrote. Especially when I mentioned Anthea Turner: she’s dead poor, she is.

Anyway, I thought this was exactly why the Left are so keen on contraception and abortion: to prevent children being born to parents who aren’t equipped to look after them. Matthews wasn’t unfortunately landed with five kids by the bad luck of being female and sexually active. She had them deliberately.

> I doubt anyone says to themselves: “screw the kids, I’m going to have a succession of short-term boyfriends”.

Really? ‘Cause I hear people spouting this shite all the time. But they put it differently. “I need some me-time.” “Sometimes, you have to put your own needs first.” “After ten years of marriage, I realised that I needed to find myself.” “I just don’t think I’m in love with her any more.” Self-absorption: the scourge of our age.

> Are you supposed to get a signed affidavit from a bloke confirming that he’ll stick around for x years before he meets your kids?

No, you’re supposed to get a signed affidavit from a bloke confirming that he’ll raise your children before you have them with him. It’s called a “marriage certificate”. (Unfortunately, some fuckwit came up with no-fault divorces, effectively voiding all marriage contracts. That’s working out well, isn’t it? Anyway.) Failing that, if you do make a mistake and get landed with a kid with a shite father, you’re supposed to look after your child by exercising some fucking judgment next time around.

> I think demanding all parents display certain behaviours is a dubious idea, and unlikely to have the desired effect.

The desired behaviour I’m referring to is “raising their children”. Demanding that parents did that actually did, for the most part, have the desired effect for quite a few centuries. Hey, but who cares if it works in practice? Does it work in theory?

> I’m prepared the believe the tabloids reckoned her two(!) marriages would sell some papers.

It was nothing to do with the number of marriages and everything to do with upgrading from her own husband to someone else’s, breaking up two families with children in the process. It simply didn’t occur to her that she had any responsibility for anything beyond her own wants. And she was so thoroughly pilloried for it by the media and, to be fair, detested for it by the right-thinking public that made up so much of her audience that it’s taken her years to claw back a little bit of her career. Good.

> I suppose it all depends on how you see the role of a parent.

The role of a parent is to put their child’s needs ahead of their own. It’s sad that people even think there should be a debate about this.

> I’m suggesting that you behave well so that you can actually provide a stable home for your children now.

That’s a bit of a non-sequitur – being morally upstanding doesn’t, in itself, put food on the table. An alcholic who keeps it together enough to make it into work and provide for their family can do that despite behaving like a complete prick.

> Yes, that certainly is a completely accurate characterisation of what I wrote.

That was me commenting on the tabloid attitude to ‘loose women’, not directly at you. Sorry, I should have made that clearer.

> Self-absorption: the scourge of our age.

Oh, definitely – and something that has nastier ramifications than just unreliable parenting (but that’s a whole other post).

> No, you’re supposed to get a signed affidavit from a bloke confirming that he’ll raise your children before you have them with him. It’s called a “marriage certificate”.

You’ve matured into a family values Tory ;-)

> Unfortunately, some fuckwit came up with no-fault divorces, effectively voiding all marriage contracts.

Although over-reliance on contracts is a very Libertarian failing ;-) [sorry!]

> Demanding that parents did that actually did, for the most part, have the desired effect for quite a few centuries.

If you reckon. I tend to find that, on closer inspection, Golden Ages are never that golden.

> The role of a parent is to put their child’s needs ahead of their own.

Up to a point. I don’t totally disagree with you – people do have kids without thinking about the long term ramifications and just how much work is involved. Mostly this is just down to stupidity (as most things are). But we can’t all be as socially continent as some people would like, and anyway, you can take this “noble self-sacrifice” thing too far. From what I gather, kids are pretty resilient things while being trapped in a loveless marriage isn’t a lot of fun for anyone.

> That was me commenting on the tabloid attitude to ‘loose women’

And, once again, given the tabloids’ attitude to Anthea Turner, you’re wrong if you think it’s because of money or class.

> That’s a bit of a non-sequitur – being morally upstanding doesn’t, in itself, put food on the table. An alcholic who keeps it together enough to make it into work and provide for their family can do that despite behaving like a complete prick.

You’re mistaking degrees for absolutes here. You can behave nicely to your kids and provide for them too, which is the ideal. Or you can behave badly but still provide for them materially, which is worse. Or you can provide for them neither materially nor psychologically, which is even worse. The existence of the “even worse” category doesn’t imply the non-existence of the “worse” category. Such behaviour should still be improved.

Besides, who’s talking about putting food on the table? Read that Guardian piece Gary linked to. Shannon Matthews called any adult male who entered her life for a few days, including her kidnapper, “Dad”. I’m sure she got enough to eat at home. But she didn’t have even one parent she could rely on. Her mum was an overgrown child living like an overgrown child. And, coming back to the original point of all this, those people who noticed that and pointed out at the time that she was morally reprehensible were proven right. It turned out large amounts of evidence that the woman was an appalling parent in some ways really were indicators that she was an appalling parent in other ways. This shoud surprise no-one.

I’m seeing a similar fuss building now about that girl who was murdered in India last year after her parents left her in the care of a man they didn’t know. My attitude, and a lot of other people’s too, is to sympathise for the victim while being shocked at her appalling stupid fucking hippy of a mother who thought it was OK to leave her attractive fifteen-year-old daughter alone in Goa with a man she’d known for a couple of days. She’s middle-class and well off. Who cares? This is standards prejudice.

> I tend to find that, on closer inspection, Golden Ages are never that golden.

It used to be assumed that parents would bring up their children. For the most part, they did. Are you seriously disputing this? It’s within living memory.

Now, it is no longer assumed that parents will bring up their children. And loads of them don’t — with, apparently, no significant adverse social consequences for them.

> You’ve matured into a family values Tory

Not really. My view is that people used to get trapped in marriages back in the days when you pretty much had to get married in order to be respectable. Today, society has changed to the extent that it’s perfectly socially acceptable to be going out and getting high and sleeping around in your fifties or sixties. If that’s what you want to do with your life, go for it. But what that means is that there’s no longer an excuse for abandoning your wife because you’ve realised that you need to find yourself, or whatever. Now, the only reason to make the marriage vows in front of witnesses is that you really want to. “For better, for worse” is arguably the greatest catch-all legal phrasing ever. It’s watertight, and it’s very easy to understand. Not in love with her any more? Worse. Met someone nicer? Worse. Live with it. If you don’t want to be bound by a promise, don’t make it.

> being trapped in a loveless marriage isn’t a lot of fun for anyone.

Well, this comes back to the same thing again: responsibility and putting others ahead of yourself. People always talk about how awful it is for children to watch their parents fighting every night, and I agree, but the reason the children are having to watch that is not that their parents dislike each other but that they can’t be arsed hiding that dislike from their kids. As for whether it’s fun for the parents, who cares? Marriage can be fun at times, but what it’s about is commitment. Having someone you know you can rely on no matter what is a valuable foundation for building your life on. Nowhere in the marriage vows is “fun” mentioned. If you want to get out of your marriage because it’s insufficiently fun, grow up.

My aunt and uncle stuck together until my cousins had left home and my uncle’s father had died. Then it transpired that the marriage had really ended years earlier and they’d just pretended all that time in order not to cause unnecessary distress for other people. And they pretended well. Good for them.

> It used to be assumed that parents would bring up their children. For the most part, they did. Are you seriously disputing this? It’s within living memory.

So are Fred West and Joseph Fritzl. A minority of children have been physically and sexually abused by their parents throughout history. We’ve had alcoholic parents since at least Hogarth’s time. We’ve had dysfunctional families as long as we’ve had families. Rich Victorians never saw their kids, while poor Victorians sent theirs out to work.

Yes, people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t be arsed looking after them properly (we agree here), but to suggest it’s a problem confined to the era of Californian “me time” psychobabble and post-Fordist kidultism is short-sighted John Majorism.

I think it would help if society didn’t continually reinforce the message that to be a complete person and legit member of society, you have to reproduce. The world has more than enough children.

> A minority of children have been physically and sexually abused by their parents throughout history. We’ve had alcoholic parents since at least Hogarth’s time. We’ve had dysfunctional families as long as we’ve had families.

And the big difference we have now is that if a modern girl were sexually abused by her father, she wouldn’t know who he was. And he’d not recognise her either.

OK, I exaggerate, but, in recent years, there has been a massive and unprecedented increase in the number of parents who don’t bring up their children — that’s not as in “bring them up really badly” but as in “have nowt to do with them at all”. The large number of parents who don’t actually go as far as abandoning their children but who can’t be arsed changing their own lives in any way whatsoever in order to accommodate them are a part of that change. That’s got nothing to do with the likes of Fred West and a lot to do with Karen Matthews.

> Rich Victorians never saw their kids, while poor Victorians sent theirs out to work.

Yeah, but that’s not due to negligence; that’s just that they had different ideas about bringing up children. When the rich sent their children away, it was usually to get what was then considered to be a good start in life. And poor Victorians didn’t send their three-year-olds out to work. They just had a different idea of when one should start work. And not just the poor, either: rich Georgians sent their kids off to be midshipmen when they were about eight or so.

> I think it would help if society didn’t continually reinforce the message that to be a complete person and legit member of society, you have to reproduce.

There speaks someone who hasn’t tried actually taking a child out in public. If you think the world is trying to enforce a message anything remotely like that, you are deluded. If you have a child, you are a problem, and people let you know about it.

> The world has more than enough children.

See, on the one hand, I love the fact that lefties subscribe to this bullshit more than the rest of us, because people tend to pass their valuies on to their children. (Amazing fact: both Bush’s wins can be directly correlated to birth rates. The states that voted for him are growing whilst those that didn’t are shrinking. Merely from a strategic point of view, being against birth must be the stupidest political stance ever.) On the other hand, it’d be nice if you’d also stop pushing the welfare state at us, since its viability is based on exactly the opposite demographics to those you promote.

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