Lies, damned lies and statistics

By | 1st December 2009

Unusually for me, I found myself recently on a bus in a queue at road works at a bridge overlooking a swollen River Ouse on my way to London.

I should explain that I do not always travel to London this way. On the day in question I fell foul of one of those increasingly irritating quirks of public transport in this country when I arrived at my usual station to be met with an announcement that my train had been cancelled “owing to there being no train crew available”.

First Capital Connect has not had a good time recently. I recall weekend trains across the Midlands in the summer being cancelled regularly for this reason but this was the first time it had happened to me. Not for them the excuse of “leaves on the line”. They now have a leaf fall timetable which essentially means that trains take longer to reach their destination in the autumn but, because this is announced in advance, the trains are not shown to be late so that the statistics do not show a rise in late running trains. I look forward to the snow fall timetable, when appropriate, although this will presumably just be a long list of cancellations because the snow ploughs were in the wrong place.

No one available to turn up for work is an odd concept for an organisation which purports to offer a regular train service to the travelling public. How are we meant to view an organisation which cannot so order its staff to put in place a roster to ensure there are sufficient drivers to operate the trains they advertise? But, to their credit, they told me the truth!

As my simple journey became more complicated, eventually taking some 3 hours 35 minutes to complete a one hour 25 minutes journey, I had ample opportunity to ponder official reasons given for failure. We are all familiar with services which do not run or which are delayed “due to a technical fault”. But how genuine are these?

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said:

If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

We live in a strange world today where people are afraid to say what they mean for fear of giving unintended offence to one group or another, because of political correctness or possibly because people just enjoy lying!

You will imagine my delight when I discovered on my bus that the papers were full of such instances.

Firstly, there was Lord Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, setting up a new foundation to counter the arguments of the climate change brigade on the basis, at least partly, that there are alleged to have been efforts to doctor evidence about global warming. Apparently a hacker had gained access to emails passing between scientists at the University of East Anglia which appeared to suggest that attempts had been made to alter or suppress evidence that there had been no significant warming of the planet since the dire warnings of disaster at the end of the 1990s.

As the article said:

Moreover, the scientific basis for global warming projections is now under scrutiny as never before. The principal source of these projections is produced by a small group of scientists at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU), affiliated to the University of East Anglia.

Last week an apparent hacker obtained access to their computers and published in the blogosphere part of their internal e-mail traffic. And the CRU has conceded that the at least some of the published e-mails are genuine.

Astonishingly, what appears, at least at first blush, to have emerged is that (a) the scientists have been manipulating the raw temperature figures to show a relentlessly rising global warming trend; (b) they have consistently refused outsiders access to the raw data; (c) the scientists have been trying to avoid freedom of information requests; and (d) they have been discussing ways to prevent papers by dissenting scientists being published in learned journals.

Justine Roberts, co founder of Mumsnet, was also in the news. For those of you who are not up to speed on such matters, Mumsnet is a website described as “by parents for parents” which we are told is going to have such a significant effect on the next General Election that the leaders of the three main English political parties have all appeared before the “ranters”, as they have become known, to deliver earth shatteringly important views about whether they like a particular type of biscuit or not! Justine wondered whether “lying” to children was good or bad. She gave the example of mothers who clubbed together to be Secret Santas to deliver presents to those mothers who could not afford to buy presents for their children and asked if that was necessarily a bad thing.

In a similar vein, there was an article by Mark Barrowcliffe in The Times, under the title of “Tell that to the tooth fairy”, which argued that a study which had found that lying to small children may harm them, was “rubbish”.

And then there was the start of the Chilcot Inquiry. Sir John Chilcot has been charged with looking at a mountain of material, together with his four colleagues, to come to some conclusions about the reasons for the Iraq War. As the Prime Minister has indicated that no one is going to be blamed, we may safely assume that the conclusions will be at best bland and at worst unable to satisfy those who were either always against the invasion of Iraq or became incensed as it became clear not only that weapons of mass destruction did not exist, as Hans Blix had said all along, but also that there was little or no planning for what would happen after the troops reached Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. As a result we have had a period of armed involvement which has lasted longer than the whole Second World War and thousands of people have been, and are still being, killed unnecessarily.

The Inquiry is not a judicial Inquiry headed by a (former) High Court Judge like the Baha Mousa Inquiry, the recently announced Forbes inquiry into the so called “Danny Boy” killings in Iraq or the Scott Inquiry into the arms for Iraq affair. It is an inquiry staffed by members of the establishment like the Franks Inquiry after the Falklands War or the Butler Inquiry and the suspicion felt by many will be that such inquiries tend to confuse people by the amount of material they adduce, that, in the end, people are just happy they have come to an end and cease to care if they reach any conclusions or not or what those conclusions are.

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

Marmion. Canto vi. Stanza 17.

Sir Walter Scott’s famous quotation and the various items mentioned above led me to conclude that the world of forensics was not all bad after all!

Personally, I would prefer to be told the truth. If the real reason to go to war in Iraq was to enforce regime change or to preserve oil supplies to the West or the prevent Iraq, Iran and Syria forming an implaccable ring of states opposed to the existence of Israel, I would prefer to know. I am not against a small dose of pragmatism (some may call it a white lie) whether it is to prevent little children from making everyone else’s life a misery or to render really unpleasant news a fraction more palatable, but I would always rather be told, as First Capital Connect said, that there was no train driver available than that the delays and cancellations were caused by a “technical fault”.

Fortunately, most people are aware that by pressing the delete button on your computer, you do not actually “delete” anything. The technology exists, for example, to decode passwords, to access hidden files, to preserve, retrieve and analyse email files stored on a hard drive, on an external network or on a removable hard drive and it can retrieve deleted emails in many cases.

The future of the planet is surely too serious to be left to the machinations of groups of scientists out to “rubbish” the conclusions of others or to “sex up” information to suit their purposes, particularly when those purposes are limited to discrediting another group who happen to disagree with their conclusions.

Fortunately, technology can come to our assistance in such cases. I am pleased to say that more and more lawyers and their clients are becoming aware how useful it can be. It will not always uncover the truth, but there is a fair chance that it will satisfy many doubts about what was said, by and to whom, and in which circumstances so that others can make reasonably accurate and informed judgments about the subject matter.