Sorry, Wrong Number!

The abuse of measurement

By John Brignell

(ISBN 0-9539108-0-6,  published September 30th 2000)

The subject is the misleading numbers that rain down upon us from Government, the Civil Service, the Press, advertisers, academics, special interest groups and a host of others that seek to influence us. The treatment is set at a level that should be understandable by intelligent lay reader and, where occasional statistical or mathematical illustrations are needed, these are worked out from first principles. The style adopted is discursive and irreverent, deliberately avoiding the approach of the academic treatise. Punctilious argument, copious references and footnotes are eschewed. The many examples are largely taken from the popular media.

The introduction sets the background and motivation for the book, starting from a brief history of measurement and describing the political and social conditions that give rise to the current situation. The second chapter covers the range of causes of wrong numbers, how they are produced and by whom. Simple statistical modelling is used to illustrate the tenuous basis on which many of the claims are established. A key point is the criterion that many of the proponents use as a standard of statistical significance, which is shown to be less than satisfactory. The importance of confounding factors and publication bias are particularly underlined. There follows a chapter on the classical fallacies of logic and number that give rise to the lies and misrepresentations discussed later. These are not overtly repeated in the remainder of the book (except for two at the very end) but the interested reader will be able to match them to the subsequent examples.

Chapter 4 is a discussion of the phenomenon of scares in the media, how and why they arise and who are the big players in their generation. The account is illustrated with, among others, examples from the environment, the diet industry, Frankenstein foods, electro-magnetic fields, disease and, of course, global warming. The subsequent short chapter gives examples of deliberate deception and fraud, cases being taken from the media and the authorís own experience.

The next four chapters focus on particular areas of activity. Chapter 6 describes the unfortunate state of much of modern science and how the scientific method and the peer review system are abused. Illustrated definitions are given of bad science, pseudo-science and junk science. Examples are given from a number of different branches of science. This account flows into chapter 7, which is an account of the rise and fall of modern scientific medicine; its rise through the early years of the century and its decline largely as a result of the introduction of the social theory. Chapter 8 deals with two topics that are the richest source of false propaganda, namely alcohol and tobacco. In particular, the EPA meta-study on Environmental Tobacco Smoke is analysed and shown to be one of the most egregious examples in the annals of junk science. Chapter 9 discusses the interaction of measurement with the law. This takes many forms, ranging from the rôle of expert witnesses to the shackling of science by the litigation explosion and the growth of the compensation culture.

The following three chapters are concerned with the consequences of the flood of information and the fad for tabulation that is so characteristic of the present scene. Chapter 10 deals directly with the abuse of computers and the numbers they generate, including modelling, packages and spreadsheets. Chapter 11 is based on the modern insistence of measuring the unmeasurable and gives examples in such areas as education and medicine. A prominent current phenomenon is the prevalence of league tables, and the chapter examines the determination of modern politicians to measure and tabulate everything, whether it is meaningful to do so or not. This is elaborated in a wider discussion of the political implications in chapter 12.

Chapter 13 returns to the question of risk as it is presented to and perceived by the individual. The statistical basis of mortality studies is explained in simplified form and these are applied to one of the most famous risk tables that are frequently published. Two of the more important number fallacies are revisited. These observations lead to advice on how to treat the injunctions of lifestyle gurus. Chapter 14 is a personal account of the unsatisfactory state of one small branch of science as experienced by the author when a novice researcher. In particular it is shown that the human operator can have a great influence on the outcome of scientific experiments. The way spurious orthodoxies are created and maintained is well illustrated by these observations.

Chapter 15 is a reprise of what has gone before, bringing out some of the salient points and dominant influences. Certain recurrent themes are evident. One is the political dislocation that occurred in the early eighties, which is remarkably matched by the account of James Le Fanu in an important recent book. The most prominent agency in the world for the generation and maintenance of wrong numbers has been the Environmental Protection Agency, so the nature of its contribution is reviewed. Other major influences such as The Harvard School Public Health and Vice President Al Gore are also discussed. California is shown to be the epitome of what is to come if the trends continue and the current situation in Britain is reviewed. Also covered are the growth of such phenomena as the cancer industry and smuggling as a result of policies induced by the sort of wrong numbers highlighted earlier.

Throughout the book common themes recur. They are not treated by formal cross-referencing, but built up by implicit reiteration of their appearance in a diverse number of areas of modern life. The overall treatment is designed to characterise the whole phenomenon as part of a social trend that resulted from the retreat from the age of rationality, which seemed to take place throughout the world and in a wide range of human activities during the final quarter of the century. The reader is invited to recognise the identified themes and the links between them in a wide range of current media stories and political gestures.

The length of the book is 136,000 words with illustrations and tables. The fifteen chapters are largely arranged in a logical progression from the origins of the wrong numbers to their social and political consequences.

There is a modest bibliography and a comprehensive index, but because of the instability of URLs, the webography has been transferred to these pages.





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