Thursday 28 January 2010

Duking the stats, redux

A while back I had a bit of a go at Chris Grayling's claim that "under Labour violent crime had risen 70%", on the grounds that it was total nonsense. But I wasn't able to find out what the shaky basis for his claim was.

Happily Mark Easton has rather more clout with Conservative Central Office than I do* and so when he made the same challenge to David Cameron recently, they very kindly provided him with the figures they used.

They're appalling. Transparent horseshit. Do read the full analysis, but the headline version of how you turn a consistent fall in violent crime into a 70% rise is:
  • Compare figures that you have been explicitly told are not comparable
  • Cherry-pick your comparison years so that downward trends become upward leaps
  • Have the unmitigated gall to pretend this is a meaningful contribution to political debate
It's not even sophisticated statistical bullshit. It's out and out manipulation of the figures to argue that fewer stabbings are really more stabbings, fewer shootings are actually more shootings, less crime is more crime.

I'm sure Grayling and Cameron weren't the architects of this. But you have to wonder if, when they were told that the violent crime stats were exactly what they wanted them to be, they even asked themselves whether they ought to check that their researchers hadn't been a little too helpful. Or whether they really cared - it's not very likely they're about to change their policies or rhetoric to match the evidence.

*A low bar there, to be sure.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Lawful Stupid

This is probably the geekiest analogy I'll ever make; an error compounded by the fact I'm basing it entirely on second hand knowledge. Which is a rather feeble way of saying that even though I'm about to talk about Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games, I've never actually played any.

One of the character types you can choose to play is the paladin: a knight dedicated to the service of a deity, from whom - this being D&D - he derives various mystical powers. It is a necessary characteristic of the paladin that he is both Lawful and Good (as opposed to Chaotic and/or Evil). More than that, while other characters could start off Good but find themselves slipping into Evil (by e.g. stealing useful equipmment, killing defenceless villains, lying to potential allies to get them onside etc.) the paladin is constrained always to be Lawful Good, otherwise they lose their god-granted powers. All clear so far? Awesome.

This constraint has led to the development of the term Lawful Stupid - what you get when paladins are so wrapped up in maintaining their alignment that they actively sabotage their own goals. For example, by waking up sleeping guards because it's evil to murder people in their sleep. Or by insisting on a daylight frontal assualt on the Evil Baron's fortress to recover the MacGuffin rather than just stealing it under cover of darkness. In general, Lawful Stupid means being willing to hand the forces of evil a major tactical advantage rather than sully your purity.

There's a point coming up, and I hope for all our sakes it's worth it.

Anjem Choudary's latest wheeze has stirred up all the predictable reactions, no doubt to his great consternation. Among those is the emergence of the free speech champions, reluctantly defending his right to march. They're not on his side, they know if it ever goes ahead there'll be a major shitstorm, but dammit, principles are principles. This is a position which cuts across the right/left diving lines, although the modes of expression are a little different. Longrider is clearly troubled by the dilemma raised:
So, welcome to Britain, the land of free speech. Free speech means allowing speech that you find offensive – and, let me restate it for those who are a little slow on the uptake; there is no right not to be offended...However, vile, obnoxious cunt though he is, Andrem Choudary must be allowed to voice his opinions. Out in the open, we can see him for the vile, obnoxious cunt that he is – sunshine being the best bleach. Let the world see and revile his views, let him remind us what waits for those who would find themselves living in his desired Caliphate. And, let us remind ourselves that freedom of speech means just that – freedom to speak openly, no matter how vile those opinions, no matter how upsetting, offensive or “inappropriate”.
And David Osler has his robust say-so here:
All of this leaves the principled humanist secular left with a huge headache. After all, if we do not uphold the elementary argument for freedom of speech, who will? So here we are, forced to extend our efforts in support of a manifestation of execrable religious bigotry. It is an obvious sucker punch, and we can even see it coming, but we have no alternative but to walk straight into it.

All of which leaves me asking - what's so great about free speech?

Seriously, what's the point? Why do we rate it so highly? It comes down to one of two reasons - it produces some end that we find desirable, or it's just an end in itself - it's good to have free speech because free speech is good, regardless of whether it actually benefits anybody.

I don't think anyone really believes the latter. Every proponent of free speech will tell you that there are tangible advantages to be gained (e.g. Longrider's "sunshine is the best bleach") from letting everyone have their say. And quite right - if you're going to argue that free speech is valuable, you have to show what that value consists in. Otherwise it all seems very arbitrary.

So fine - we value free speech because it creates the kind of society we want to live in. It's the cornerstone of the kind of society we want, in fact. Until it isn't. If we're supporting free speech because it produces results for us then we're entitled - required, really - to check that it's actually delivering for us. If it's not, insisting on it nevertheless is just a little Lawful Stupid.

Nor is this controversial. The well-worn example is that you don't have the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, because the advantages of sticking with the principle of free speech are outweighed by the disadvantages of panicky mob death. But wait! What have we here? A situation where deliberately inflammatory speech in a particularly volatile arena is rightly banned because it creates avoidable problems. Gosh. I wonder if that has any applicability to a anti-troops march through Wooton Bassett?