In which The Author bucks the trend
Many years ago I wrote to the editor of the Observer, taking him to task over something that had appeared in an article about bus deregulation. The columnist Michael Ignatieff had written, without citing any statistical evidence to back up his claim, that ‘everyone [in Britain] has access to a car.’
Obviously, you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to see the flaw in this sentence. You don’t need to have read Darrell Huff’s classic book How to Lie With Statistics to be able to shoot Mr Ignatieff’s argument down in flames. To put it mildly, he’d perpetrated a schoolboy error. He’d taken the number of people in the country, divided it by the number of cars, got an arithmetical mean figure of approximately 2, then – again working on the basis of flawed reasoning – concluded that there must be one car per 2-adult household. This glaring error was allowed to make its way into print, which was why I put pen to paper. I ran off a long list of my friends and relatives who didn’t have access to a car, and mentioned a number of 2- or even 3-car households I knew, simply to put the record straight.
I’ve just looked up Mr Ignatieff’s biographical details online, and was surprised to learn to that he studied for some time under the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He obviously couldn’t have paid much attention, otherwise he wouldn’t have fallen into the classic syllogistic trap that every introductory Philosophy student knows:
All dogs have four legs. All cats have four legs. Therefore all dogs are cats.
(Oh, look, he’s even got me at it now! Do you see how easily – unconsciously, even – the words ‘every introductory Philosophy student’ slipped into that last sentence?)
I suppose I shouldn’t really generalise about students, should I? My colleagues and I did plenty of that when I worked in the book trade, often being staggered by the lack of basic general knowledge the students possessed. Surely, we thought, these almost unbelievable dullards must be the exceptional cases: the ones who’d got in through their parental wealth or connections; or the ones who were playing the Learning Disabilities card. We were wrong.
I returned to university in 2009 and realised that a fair number of people who’d entered Higher Education aged between 18 and 21 were pretty poorly-equipped to face the big wide world. I encountered two members of my peer group who didn’t know that the different-coloured areas on a map represented different countries (see Why Am I Here…?
) I also met a fair number for whom short multiplication and short division were insurmountable challenges (see Number Numbness.
) I’m not taking anything for granted any more.
Mind you, taking things for granted is something which politicians, journalists, newspaper columnists and the Man on the Clapham Omnibus seem to do with remarkable ease these days. Ipsos Mori recently carried a telephone poll for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, and found that public perception of key issues was usually well wide of the mark (Paige, 2013.)
As I’ve related on several occasions recently, according to the fuckwit so-called ‘Labour supporters’ in the pub, every non-white person in Aberdare (never mind the UK as a whole) is a terrorist. Not even a ‘potential’ terrorist, mind you; no, every single man and woman and child who can’t trace their ancestry back to coal miners or iron workers is an active Al-Qaeda operative, if the Labour-voting fuckwits are to be believed.
Meanwhile, I’m signed off for medical reasons at the moment (see The Dog, The Dog, He’s Doing It Again
) and I’m facing the prospect of a Work Capability Test at the hands of ATOS. This company has come under a huge amount of criticism recently, after many people who were found ‘fit for work’ died (or committed suicide) just days later.
ATOS are operating under orders from the Government, who’ve been led to believe (largely through the right-wing press) that every single person claiming benefits is on the fiddle. The Ipsos Mori poll has something to say about this, too. If you listen to people who read shit like the Daily Mail, £24 out of every £100 is claimed fraudulently. The Government’s own figures state that the true amount is nearer 70p. Please excuse the pun, but – go figure!
My friends who’ve already been through this process have expressed grave doubts about the medical credentials of the ATOS staff. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that a fair number of the people ATOS employ have either been struck off, or aren’t qualified to practice medicine in the UK for some other reason. When I’m called before them, I’m going to ask the ‘doctor’ in charge for his/her GMC registration number. Watch this space…
The sweeping generalisations which are increasingly annoying, though, are what I call ‘lifestyle’ generalisations. These are the ones which are casually chucked around by lazy journalists and broadcasters. You know the sort of thing: ‘Everyone‘s talking about Andy Murray’s victory…’, or ‘Everyone knows how the last Harry Potter book ends…’ BBC correspondents get away with making dozens of lifestyle generalisations every week, and I don’t think anyone ever challenges them.
For example, if they’re talking about Communications Technology (as the programme in the background is at the moment), an interviewee will make a sweeping remark about ‘everyone’ having a Smartphone. Well, I haven’t. I’ve got a Thickphone. Martin H. and several of my older friends have also got phones which make and receive calls, send and receive texts, and store numbers. They’re pretty much at the same level mobile phones were a decade or so ago. I know lots of people who have Smartphones, and from what I can glean they seem to be more trouble than they’re worth. I certainly can’t afford to pay £45 a month for one, even if my shot-to-fuck-and-back credit rating allowed me to get a contract.
I heard another throwaway generalisation this lunchtime, while listening to You and Yours on BBC Radio 4. In a mini-trailer for tomorrow’s edition, Winifred Robinson said something like, ‘We’re all used to paying extra for basic facilities when we fly.’
Er… Hello… I’m not. I don’t hold a current UK passport, and never have held one in my own right. Just booking train and/or coach tickets is an absolute nightmare these days (see A Farey Tale
and Meanwhile, In a Century Near You…
) A trip abroad is completely beyond my budget at the moment, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. I don’t have any reason to hold a passport (not even as a form of ID – yet!), and so I don’t see the point of spending more than my gross weekly income
to acquire one. For that reason, I’ve yet to experience the joys of low-cost air travel. I’m quite sure that the budget airlines do
ramp up their profits with hidden charges (hire fees for lifejackets in the event of a crash-landing, maybe), but I’m pretty sure that not everyone
is used to paying extra. Maybe Ms Robinson was generalising on the basis of her own social circle. Or maybe I just don’t fall into the Radio 4 target audience. I haven’t made my mind up yet.
Without seeking to generalise too broadly, I’m fairly sure that the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Ian Duncan Smith aren’t used to paying extra charges on low-cost airlines. I’m also pretty sure that they wouldn’t have the first fucking idea about how to go about living on £71 a week either, but that’s just my conjecture. There was an online petition circulating a couple of months ago, to get the odious Work and Pensions Secretary to put his money where his mouth was and see how he got on. Unsurprisingly, he bottled out. It certainly gives the lie to Cameron’s greatest ever lifestyle generalisation: ‘We’re all in this together.’