Anarchy for the UK. Ish.

April 3rd, 2011 by Ben Goldacre in presenting numbers, statistics | 29 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 2 April 2011

Here are two fun ways that numbers can be distorted for political purposes. Stop me if I’m boring you, but each of them feels oddly poetic, in its ability to smear or stifle.

The first is simple: you can conflate two different things into one number, either to inflate a problem, or confuse it. Last weekend, a few hundred thousand people marched in London against the cuts. On the same day, there was some violent disturbance, windows smashed, policemen injured, and drunkeness.

The Sun said: “Police have charged nearly 150 people after violent anarchists hijacked the anti-cuts demo and brought terror to London’s streets.” The Guardian republished a Press Association report, headlined: “Cuts protest violence: 149 people charged”. And from the locals, for example, the Manchester Evening News carried “Boy, 17, from Manchester among 149 charged over violence after anti-cuts march”.

In reality, a dozen of these charges related to violence, while 138 are people who were involved in an apparently peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Masons organised by UKUncut, who campaign on tax avoidance.

You will have your own view on whether people should be arrested and charged for standing in a shop as an act of protest. But describing these 150 people as “violent anarchists… who brought terror to London’s streets” is not just misleading: it also makes the police look over 12 times more effective than they really were at charging people who perpetrated acts of violence.

The second method of obfuscation is even simpler. After London was chosen to host the 2012 Olympics, Labour made a series of pledges, including two around health: to use the power of the games to inspire a million more people to play sport three or more times a week; and to get a million more people doing more general physical activity.

Politicians seem keen on the idea that large multi-sports events can have a positive impact like this, so the area has been studied fairly frequently, and last year the BMJ published systematic review of the literature. They set out to find any study that had ever been conducted looking at the real-world health and socioeconomic impacts of major multi-sport events on the host population.

They found 54 studies. Overall, the quality was poor (it’s a fairly difficult thing to measure, and most studies used cross-sectional surveys, repeated over time). The bottom line was this: there is no evidence that events like olympics have a positive impact on either health or socioeconomic outcomes.

Here is what they reported. One study looked at Manchester before and after the 2002 Commonwealth Games: overall sports participation (4 times or more in the past month) fell after the games, and the gap in participation rates between rich and poor areas widened significantly.

Another study in Manchester suggested there were particular problems around voluntary groups being excluded from using Commonwealth branding, and that new facilities tended to benefit elite athletes rather than the general population.

There was a vague upward trend in sports participation in Barcelona between the early 1980s and 1994, and they had the Olympics in 1992. Volunteers in the Commonwealth Games showed no increase in sports participation.

You will have your own views on whether the cost of hosting the Olympics is proportionate to the benefits, and where those benefits lie. From this systematic review, however, there’s no evidence for large multi-sports events having a positive health or socioeconomic impact overall, so only an optimist would make promises to the contrary.

This week, it emerged that both of the government’s targets for improving healthy activity after the 2012 Olympics are now being quietly dropped. By walking away from outcome indicators that will not be met, a government can create a false impression of success: if prespecified outcome indicators are ever to mean anything, after all, it’s because you report on each of them clearly, whether success is achieved or not.

But more than that, governments around the world spend billions of pounds on these events: by quietly dropping these outcome indicators, rather than carefully documenting our success or failure at meeting them, our current politicians pave the way for ever more false and over-optimistic claims by their colleagues, all around the world.

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29 Responses

  1. WayneMyers said,

    April 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    This article may shed some light on at least some of the rationale behind the arrests at Fortnum and Masons:

  2. briantist said,

    April 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    The main problem with “occupying” a shop is that the people who own it, in particular if the ownership is a national- or international- corporate body, is that it simply causes stress to the people who work there who are, in the terms of this debate “wage slaves”.

    I’m also not sure that painting swear words or “ACAB” (all coppers are bastards) on a posh people’s hamper- and weddingcake shop will really result in anyone paying “more tax”.

    Tax is imposed by parliament, people and corporations do not pay it voluntarily. The state coerces as much money as possible in the form of tribute to pay for the services and goods the state feels that it requires.

    So, UKunCut, whilst I agree with your feelings, the proper place to protest is either in the offices of HM Customs Excise and Revenue, or in Parliament where the rules are made.

    You can’t blame any individual or company for doing their utmost to minimise the tax they pay, anything else is clearly madness – with one clear exception: if you pay no tax at all yourself, but receive income from the state.

    Just saying.

  3. timmbo said,

    April 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Reminds me of this old joke –

    A journalist, a psychologist and a statistician are travelling from London to Edinburgh by train. As the train crosses the border, the three travellers look out of the window and notice a black sheep standing alone in a field. The journalist says, “Look! The sheep in Scotland are black.” To which the psychologist replies, “Actually, we can conclude at least one sheep in Scotland is black”. The statistician shakes his head and boldly states, “I think you’ll find we can confidently say that at least one half of one sheep in Scotland is black.”

  4. scishark said,

    April 3, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Media is designed to catch the audience’s attention and clearly calling them violent anarchists is much easier then “some demonstrators”

    —————– – Interesting science and more

  5. stevestyle said,

    April 3, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Good article as always. I’m a little confused on this point.

    ‘Here is what they reported. One study looked at Manchester before and after the 2002 Commonwealth Games: overall sports participation (4 times or more in the past month) fell after the games, and the gap in participation rates between rich and poor areas widened significantly.’

    This suggests that the participation of poor Mancunians fell significantly as a result of the Commonwealth Games. Is this really what you are saying?

  6. stevestyle said,

    April 3, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Re my previous comment.

    I think you saying that both stats returned to the mean. Sorry for wasting your time sir!

  7. 300baud said,

    April 3, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    @briantist maybe you folks in the UK don’t pay taxes voluntarily. Here in the US, quite a lot of us do. I certainly am glad to pay for the many things I’ve asked government to take care of on my behalf. As one of our Supreme Court justices said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

    Oh, and I can happily blame companies or people for seeking to minimize the tax they pay, for the same reason I will mock any friend who doesn’t pony up enough for a shared dinner.

  8. thejuddermanuk said,

    April 4, 2011 at 1:11 am

    @300baud, are you seriously saying that tax in the US is voluntary? I’m quite sure that if you or anyone else decides not to pay your tax then the IRS will have something to say. Correct me if I’m wrong. And correct me if that is a misfit to the term ‘voluntary’. Taxes might be a price, but we have no choice but to pay it. You might reason that your government is using the money to do what you ask of it, but they don’t give a second thought to what you personally want; they take your money and do what they want despite your ‘behalf’.

  9. AdamJacobs said,

    April 4, 2011 at 8:20 am


    Tax in the US is voluntary? Seriously? I’m with thejuddermanuk on this one.

    How about you show us some evidence for that rather jaw-dropping claim?

  10. benjohn said,

    April 4, 2011 at 8:44 am

    briantist – “You can’t blame any individual or company for doing their utmost to minimise the tax they pay, anything else is clearly madness – with one clear exception: if you pay no tax at all yourself, but receive income from the state.”

    I personally expect people and companies to not to maximise their personal immediate gain, but to look to the bigger picture. When you are a massive global company, the big picture is that not paying tax will eventually have a damaging effect on the systems and societies that you exist in.

    You see which side my bread is buttered, I expect 🙂 I have this suggestion that might be attractive to the other side though…

    How about large companies voluntarily disclose their tax figures, show the level of tax that they are paying, and draw great attention to it in their marketing?

    As an individual, given the choice between two banks, one of which pays a significantly higher fraction of tax to my government (and perhaps even a little less interest to me), I know which one I’ll be picking.

  11. salmson said,

    April 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Surely the problem here is the adversarial nature of politics as much as the misuse of measurement, evidence and statistics.

    With regard to Ben’s closing statement,

    “But more than that, governments around the world spend billions of pounds on these events: by quietly dropping these outcome indicators, rather than carefully documenting our success or failure at meeting them, our current politicians pave the way for ever more false and over-optimistic claims by their colleagues, all around the world.”

    surely, in the case of London Olympics and sports participation, the question is why the current government *wouldn’t* drop this “measure” of “success”?

    If you know in advance that the measure (as the summary of the BMJ evidence presented above would suggest) is (1) borderline unmeasurable/meaningless (2) likely to return an adverse result and (3) was put in place by your opponents for an event *they* committed to but *you* must execute, then why would any politician of any hue remain bound by it?

    You’re set up to fail, through no fault of your own.

    (Usual disclaimers of this not being party-political – I’m Irish – apply.)

  12. Marwood said,

    April 5, 2011 at 6:23 am

    I’m not sure what is more absurd. People who call themselves anarchists protesting for a bigger and more powerful state, or aggravated trespass not being described as peaceful.

  13. mikewhit said,

    April 5, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Call it a “momentarily” thing, but “voluntarily” means “without compulsion”.

    Don’t think that US taxes are *optional*, what’s being said is that some US taxpayers perceive the value of what their taxes are supporting, and do not object.

  14. Jackeline B said,

    April 5, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I find the attitude to taxation expressed by most people here very depressing. I think its legitimate to criticise individuals and companies for seeking to avoid fair taxation – just because something is legal doesn’t make it morally right. Of course we should also pressure the government to close loopholes and improve the system. We all benefit (including big business)from the activities of the state not just those who (@briantist) receive an income from it and we should all pay a proportionate amount for these benefits. If you don’t like what the government does with the money tell them at the ballot box or start a protest!

  15. timbarclay said,

    April 5, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I think it’s a mistake to imagine that a business will, or even can, have a conscience. A business operates by trying to maximise its profits while minimising its outgoings – be they in tax, overheads or anything else. It is simply naive to suggest that any business will momentarily ignore this economic principle to voluntarily do the right thing by paying out more than the absolute minimum they have to.

    Unless, say, Topshop deem that the positive PR they would gain from paying all their taxes outweighs the financial cost of doing so, they won’t do it. Ever. And it would be unrealistic to expect that they would.

    If we want businesses to pay all the taxes that they are meant to (which, by the way, I do), the only way it will happen is by getting the laws changed to close up the loopholes that currently allow taxes to be avoided. Not by simply pressuring them to comply willingly.

    As Briantist said above, the protests should be aimed at Parliament, not at the businesses.

  16. Adam said,

    April 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    The F&M protest was silly because UK Uncut are muppets. The reason that F&M pays very little tax is that it is owned by a charitable trust, and makes a very large tax-deductible charitable donation every year. It is, essentially, part of a non-profit-making organisation.

  17. Jackeline B said,

    April 5, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    @timbarclay if as you say PR is important then embarrassing the companies by highlighting their tax avoidance to the general public might help encourage them to stop doing it. I agree the government has a big role to play. However it IS possible to run a business ethically and still make a profit. I’m sure the business world contains some who only care about profit to the exclusion of all else but just because its ‘business’ this doesn’t mean the people involved should be held to a less high ethical and moral standard.

  18. irishaxeman said,

    April 7, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Issue 1
    The sports stuff was PR B*S*. Increased exercise comes from increased GDP leaving higher disposable income or a very significant government expenditure and policy to enable participation. The latter would be possible with imagination and will. Otherwise the Olympics benefits big business (will it be a tax haven like the World cup?)and a few elite athlete groups.

    Issue 2
    Taxation in modern times is the permissive charge for basal services in an ordered society. As such any rational person would deem that profit-making business makes a proportional contribution. Most businesses nominally existing in the UK are neither doing that nor indeed actually UK businesses (e.g. Virgin, most of Amazon, all of, Arriva buses, most utilities….). The government facilitates much of the avoidance as those governing are either in the pockets of business, business themselves, wannabees at the trough(e.g. the expenses scam)or powerless to change things.
    The country is deeply corrupt and the most corrupt are now in charge following what was effectively a bloodless coup.

  19. HariboLector said,

    April 7, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Are we to believe that 300Baud and 14.Jackeline B add voluntary gratuities on top of their tax bill? 10% extra for mediocre service, 20% for going above-and-beyond? I

    I think it more likely that you pay exactly the amount that the authorities in your respective countries ask of you and not one ‘red cent’ more – much as businesses do.

  20. diabetic77 said,

    April 7, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    It seems the biggest benefit to the locals from the Olympics is the improved tube service they will have once the upgrades are complete. During the Olympics locals will want to shoot themselves from the overcrowded public transit systems though. I stayed a week over there just 1 month ago and the general public is not excited about having the Olympics come there. Local businesses are happy, local citizens are not so happy. Most of them commute from outside London to work there anyway.

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    April 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm

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  22. ferguskane said,

    April 8, 2011 at 9:59 am

    From what I can remember, events like the Olympics generally result in a net loss to the economy of the host country. This stems from a variety of causes including interestingly, reduced tourism. While some people may come to the UK to see the Olympics, more will stay away to avoid the related problems (if I have time to find the references I’ll post later, if anyone else has them to hand, great).

    There may be some benefits from the current Olympics, but it would be really nice to have a through analysis of who really benefits from it.

  23. ferguskane said,

    April 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

    As for F&M, well that may have been a bit foolish. But it’s not so simple. The owners of F&M appear to have both charity and standard business arms and do appear to engage in tax evasion. Further, the charitable arm of the owning company appears to have violated charity law to donate to the Conservative company (sorry party) and other right wing causes (one can see how UK Uncut might object to this, in a peaceful way).–mason

    Still overall, Muppets does seem like a reasonable description for those involved in such an obvious own goal.

  24. theboynoodle said,

    April 8, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    companies do disclose their tax, it’s part of the audited published accounts they are required to produce by law. unfortunately, the quality of financial journalism is akin to the quality of the science journalism that mr goldacre tells us all about. that’s why we get nonsense stories about barclays paying 1% tax.

    topshop (or, more aptly, the arcadia group) pays full uk corporation tax on it’s profits. the contentious issue is about a dividend it paid several years ago to it’s owner, phillip green’s wife. she lives in monaco

  25. theboynoodle said,

    April 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    continued (on account of iPad spazzitude)
    …..she lives in monaco and is not, therefore, liable to uk tax on her income. ukuncut argue she should be, as if arcadia profits are made here, dividends from them should be taxed here. i happen to agree… although ukuncut also seem to argue that barclays should pay tax on foreign profits in the uk because they are based here… and it’s got to be one or the other.

    it is correct that companies should minimise tax, but also that they should have regard to wider issues. it is also true that the onus is on tax authorities to ensure the rules are effective. ukuncut are raising awareness, far more effectively than they would if they picketed the treasury.. and that might both change corporate behaviours and prompt regulatory reform. the specific battles they fight are not well chosen, and they spin tax avoidance and evasion to suggest it’s all down to the wealthy (and that’s far from the truth) but direct action which makes people think about who is and us not paying their fair share if tax is hard to argue against.

  26. Second Adolescence said,

    April 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    It certainly looked like there was some pretty serious violence, anti social behaviour and vandalism and that’s the main thing.

    I mean, just imagine if the thousands of expensively militarized police all turned up carrying their human clubs, human captivity hand cuffs, electric taser weaponry, CS gas, pepper spray, sonic weaponry (I’m not making this shit up), riot shields, full body armour etc etc only to be confronted by a bunch of disobedient yet thoroughly civilized (the two are not mutually exclusive) working class types, families and cheery students in fancy dress all hugging and laughing and making their voice heard in a generally good humoured way, including treating the police as human beings too and being treated the same in return in sort of good natured civilized feedback loop of respectful human collaboration!

    OMG! I mean, talk about embarrassing!

    “Oh sorry folks, we came prepared to beat the crap out of you … but you’re just ordinary people …… OMG so are we!!!”

    But anyway luckily there was a bit of smashy-uppy-ness for the TV news to air, albeit not as much as was insinuated as Ben rightfully points out. And probably not much more than ordinarily happens on any Friday or Saturday night in any big city – the only difference being it happened in the touristy bits and during the day. But not as much as the smashy-uppy-ness happening in Libya, with all those bombs and missiles and depleted uranium and stuff not that we should draw such comparisons for the good reason that, for the good reason that, for the good reason that….. OK then just ‘because’.

    The above link to someone’s account of the day provides another interesting viewpoint not covered by the mainstream media. It talks of an 80 year old pensioner getting punched in the face by a police officer in Trafalgar Square, the kettling and illegal kidnapping tactics used by the police, a woman being punched in the head three times and Sky news journalists paying activists to throw bricks at a window.

    Many similar incidents have been documented on Youtube and elsewhere including catching undercover cops inciting violence while dressed as ‘anarchists’ in black with faces covered. For example at about 6 mins 45 seconds into this video.

    Why would the police (be encouraged by the state to) actually provoke violence or even dress up and cause it themselves?

    Well, for a start it justifies extra funding, new laws and extra powers which enable the accelerating erosion of human rights and civil liberties which we see happening all around the world now.

    You see, unless there is a decent amount of violence at these protests then it all quickly starts to look like it is the armed police punching grannies in the face who are the thugs and that the protestors are the good guys! And more specifically it starts to look like the police are little more than paid thugs of the state/ corporations (you know the people who are currently carrying out multiple illegal wars which have already slaughtered and maimed over a million innocent men, women and children, with the war in Iraq being based on the fraudulent claims of WMD’s only to justify the barbaric use of WMD’s such as DU on the Iraqi people which are having devastating and far reaching consequences for generations to come).

    Sorry, I know it’s wrong of me to use massive real world examples like that and I should stick to more abstract easily graspable ‘perceived’ threats closer to home such as ‘social breakdown’, ‘anarchy’, ‘hooligans’ and so on.

    The next video (below) offers an interesting perspective on the day as it contains both swearing AND hugging (very yin/ yang) … not to mention thousands of scary, heavily armed men in fluorescent jackets trimmed with the black and white checkerboard symbol of the Freemasons.

    While watching it I couldn’t help but notice how much the police were uniformed, homogenized, hierarchical (with many being members of this secret freemasonic ‘club’ with its funny handshakes and amazing theoretical ability to completely cover up of alleged crimes like this one for instance), all about obeying orders from some authority without ever really questioning them, arriving in their little mini busses, an being marched about the big city by their superiors in orderly ‘crocodiles’ like weaponized obedient schoolchildren.

    I’m starting to get a bit confused who is trying to incite and justify violence, chaos and all round insecurity and who is trying to prevent it and fix it…

    Having said that, personally, I don’t really see that protests and marches do that much good in the big scheme of things – but then again neither does spending your entire waking life obsessed with sports and shopping and all manner of dumbed down entertainments like ‘X-factor’ and ‘Strictly’ instead of thinking about real stuff.

    Any behavior which allows for such crimes against humanity to proceed unchallenged can be considered destructive behaviour. And now it is so apparent that ‘criminals run the world’ (simplistic assessment for the sake of brevity, but entirely provable nonetheless!) one might say that any behaviour which does not INTERFERE with such crimes against humanity (from cuts to banking scams to genocide) is by definition destructive behaviour … let’s not forget destructive behaviour includes SELF destructive behaviour such as watching TV, being dumbed down, being apathetic, being gullible, being ignorant etc. Is the the majority of the UK not engaged in such self destructive behaviour to such an extent that if it were projected OUTWARD it would result in the smashing up of every street in the entire nation?

    It seems to me that not only are the figures for violence at demonstrations manipulated, and the violence not always as it is depicted by the mass media, but that the ENTIRE PARADIGM of protest, activism, destructive behaviour, perceived/ actual threats to society and to life needs to be addressed.

    Here is were we are currently – and from an objective perspective, I would call this a major malfunction which needs to be urgently addressed by all of us.


    This is an example of NOT really addressing that malfunction at all, but simply smoothing over it instead.

    This is slightly better…..

    Are there any other reasons why people aren’t more quick to condemn (or even notice or care about) such unacceptable behaviour by (some of) the police – but more importantly by those who set the agenda for the police to be trained to enact?

    Perhaps the plethora of sexy cop/ detective dramas has something to do with it. Or all those fly on the wall shows following the heroic deeds of motorbike cops, or paramedic teams or community support workers as they save people’s lives, stop some tink driving without car insurance (at which point you can hear the nations saying: Yes!!!), chat amiably with an east end wide boy before rescuing a cat up a tree and returning to base. (I don’t mean to take away from the good and difficult work many of these genuinely fine people do, it is the propaganda nature of the TV shows themselves I am criticizing).

    But more than those subtle forms of propaganda, the answer seems to be that we are being flat out predictively programmed to see full on militarized police forces as perfectly normal…. or even ‘cool’. This is especially true for young people who watch corporate funded mass entertainments – they are the generation who will have to live in this increasingly militarized, brutal and dehumanized police state world.

    So in this giant playground called ‘society’ the question is: will the minority of bullies (and hangers on) be able to terrorize (and recruit from) the rest of the children and take over, or will the majority of the kids realise they will have to all stand up to them (and are in fact quite capable of doing so) to put a stop to such out of control and uncivilized behaviour?

    Because the ‘punch line’ is that most police are human beings with families and loved ones too who would never *choose* to live in a brutal police state control grid!

    Perhaps it is important thing to consider that the police, just like schoolboys in a playground, can easily get caught up with the wrong crowd and led astray …. and even without fully realising it… and especially if left unsupervised!

    And so perhaps to steer society away from this Orwellian nightmare vision of a total ‘insecurity state’ we need to promote a culture where we do not tolerate ANY such violence or high tech weaponry and instead we introduce more genuine and authentic ‘security measures’ such as love, compassion, empathy, critical thought, reason, communication, human interaction, eye contact, hugs!…. that would be the grown up and responsible thing to do, would it not?

  27. heavens said,

    April 10, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Taxes in the US are not “voluntary” in the sense of “optional”, but in the sense that Americans like me are perfectly willing to pay them.

    Also, enforcement is imperfect in some areas, and there are certainly some people who report and pay income taxes on income that the government didn’t know that they earned. (There are also freeloaders who conceal such income, including most drug dealers.)

    But I’m happy to pay my share, and I would be equally happy to have my taxes go up (a bit, at least) to reduce our debts and/or improve our services.

  28. JustinWorsley said,

    April 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    The thing about the Olympics being basically just a very nice street party to make the population feel good, was, ironically, the key finding from “Game Plan” published by the Number 10 Strategy Office in 2002, which was, er, before we won the Olympic bid.

  29. aardvarkfilms said,

    November 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    @heavens “There are also freeloaders who conceal such income, including most drug dealers”

    You mean there are some drug dealers who declare their income for tax purposes?