Spinning the stats

I’ve known a number of journalists who were brilliant before 1pm and useless after 2.30: Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, had a raft of reasons for naming its archetypal Fleet Street reporter character Lunchtime O’Booze. The advance of new technology into journalism, however, has sunk the five-pint lunch: you just can’t fly a computer keyboard after a good session in the Stab in the Back the way you could a manual typewriter.

It may be because bibulous, red-nosed excess has almost entirely vanished from British journalism that our national newspapers get so up their own posteriors about any story involving alcohol consumption, pub opening hours, “binge drinking”, teenage drinking, “alcohol-fuelled violence” and other staples of the Daily Mail-style scare story. They credulously accept all the propaganda that the anti-alcohol lobby puts out, and spin stories themselves to put the worst possible interpretation front and centre.

The Times last week splashed on crime figures it claimed showed “alcohol-fuelled crime figures rose in the first full year of relaxed licensing laws, with a particular jump in the hours after midnight”. The page one headline roared: “Drink, Drugs and All-Night Violence”, But the figures eight paragraphs down in the story showed serious violent crimes, woundings, assaults and criminal damage cases between 6pm and 6am were up just 0.74 per cent. There had been a “surge” of 22 per cent in the number of such cases between 3am and 6am since pubs and clubs stayed open later, the paper shouted – but the actual number of cases was tiny, and had risen by fewer than five per police force per week. The average police station probably saw one extra case a fortnight. Surge? Not even a ripple across a teacup.

I’d have written a letter to the newspaper complaining, but I’d had a letter in The Times a few weeks before complaining about another nonsense alcohol story, where Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, was insisting “a very significant percentage of the population” drink too much, and prices should go up to stop them. There is still no evidence to show that increasing the price of alcohol and restricting its availability make any difference to excess consumption. Studies that purport to show that they do are based on dubious statistical foundations. Any attempt to punish the majority of social drinkers to halt a tiny minority of problem drinkers will fail to deter excessive drinking, to the detriment of the rest of us who will find our pleasures suddenly more expensive.

Indeed, as I said in a letter published in The Guardian a couple of weeks later,

If … controlling the availability of alcohol really was necessary to reduce heavy drinking, then banning alcohol completely would reduce heavy drinking to zero. Inconveniently, the American experience between 1920 and 1933 shows this argument to be nonsense.

Somebody, of course, came back the next day and said that at least Prohibition cut deaths from liver disease in the United States. But as usual, if you pick your statistics, you can prove anything. What the letter writer didn’t say about the drop in deaths from liver disease during Prohibition in the US is that the fall represented just 0.04 per cent of the total US population per year – a result you might, if you wish, regard as not really enough to justify the means by which it was achieved. Meanwhile the murder rate went up by nearly half in the same period, leaving deaths from the two causes combined almost the same as before Prohibition began …

There were also plenty of other unwanted effects of prohibition, of course, including one I had never heard of until I found it serendipitously today on testycopyeditors.com, a blog written by and for American production journalists: Jake leg. It’s an interesting story, but it doesn’t say if the sufferers from Jake leg ever recovered …

0 thoughts on “Spinning the stats

  1. Thanks for writing letters; more of us need to do it. I’ve had letters published across the States, even in Guam, about the ridiculous U.S. legal drinking age, keg registration, “binge drinking,” etc. If we don’t say it, chances are no one will.

    And on jake leg…every mention I’ve come across of it said it was a permanent condition.

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