Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cynical discrediting of David Nutt

Further to my last post, it's now suddenly clear why Jacqui Smith felt quite so free to make some rather caustic remarks about the UK government's chief drugs adviser on Thursday night - he was about to be sacked by Alan Johnson. Smith's main complaint about David Nutt appeared to be that he had once said ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding. But the first thought that occurred to me was that if he did say that, wasn't it probably because there is hard statistical evidence to prove it?

Smith's insinuation was plain enough - that Nutt is a man who trivialises and belittles the pain and anguish of those who have lost a loved one to ecstasy. But surely it was precisely because he didn't mean that at all that he so readily apologised for his comment. It had simply been a clumsy way of illustrating the point that the perceptions of comparative risks and the reality are often some distance apart. I suspect Smith understood that perfectly well, and it was therefore more than a little cynical of her to pretend otherwise as a convenient way of discrediting a dangerously authoritative critic of her conduct as a minister.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jacqui Smith dissembles, but only to an extent

It was hard not to feel a touch sorry for Jacqui Smith on Question Time last night as she saw her safety-net of a potential seat in the House of Lords flash before her eyes. She couldn't afford to put a single word out of place as David Dimbleby pursued the inexorable logic.

"Do you think MPs disgraced by the expenses scandal should be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you think you have been disgraced by the expenses scandal?"

"Yes, I think to some extent I have been."

"So you think you shouldn't be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords?"

"David, this isn't about individuals..."

Yes, I think we can safely assume that in six months' time, having been sent packing by the voters of Redditch, Baroness Smith will be reminding us - "well, I did only say 'to an extent'".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The worst President we'll never have (hopefully)

Encouraging to read the news at Slugger O'Toole that Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen has withdrawn his support for Tony Blair as the first fixed president of the European Council. Earlier I read with interest (and more than a little surprise) Jeff's invoking of the spirit of Tony the Tiger from the Frosties ads in explaining his support for the Blair bid, but I'm afraid I can't - to put it mildly - muster the same enthusiasm. When some of us say that Blair is simply unfit for high office as a result of the web of deception that paved the way for the illegal invasion of Iraq, it's actually not just empty rhetoric. The fact that the man was able to remain Prime Minister for four more years and receive a standing ovation in the Commons on his final day in office was distasteful enough to be getting on with.

Dannii Bare explained

Dannii Minogue will reportedly reveal on Saturday night that the reason she posed nude for a photo-shoot more than a decade ago was that she needed the fee to pay off her £150,000 debts. Her father apparently begged her not to go through with it, saying "doing this is forever - you can never, ever change it". But as it turned out, it's difficult to see that she suffered any long-term cost at all - if I recall correctly, she was even allowed to continue presenting children's programmes afterwards (Janet Ellis must have been...well, bemused). In fact, I think many people would be quite envious that someone had even a theoretical option (however uncomfortable) to get a quick, clean break from such an unimaginable mountain of debt. The only time I've ever been offered anything to take my clothes off was a couple of months ago by this part-time novelist, part-time total nutter. Unfortunately the reward on offer was merely the chance to win back 'five English pounds' from a (in retrospect slightly tasteless) bet that he and others had browbeaten me into accepting. So I wasn't exactly tempted.

It wasn't all bad news, though. You'll probably have noticed the slightly disturbing pose of the aforementioned novelist/nutter in the photo linked to above. Before accepting his original bet, I had challenged him to provide photographic evidence that he was actually good for this 'five English pounds' he claimed to be in possession of. But as you can see, he appears to see no distinction whatsoever between Thai and English currency. So I realised he wouldn't have the slightest objection if I chose to settle the bet by, say, stuffing a load of Croatian kunas into an envelope and sending it off to him. Oh, and a single US dollar bill that I'd had pointlessly lying around the house for years and years and years. Yes, all in all losing that bet was a small but very real blow against the scourge of clutter.

Liberal conservatism was last year

I hope I'm not in danger of turning this blog into Chekov-watch (perhaps I'm still suffering withdrawal symptoms due to the abrupt departure from the scene of Scottish Unionist), but once again I can't help noticing a bit of a problem with his post today. In it, he draws some damning conclusions on the nature of the DUP - namely that they are divorced from the 'mainstream' of British politics - based on the fact that only their representative Gregory Campbell spoke in favour of the death penalty in a debate in Westminster Hall. The snag for Chekov is that Campbell's views are in fact shared by a significant minority of parliamentarians at Westminster - and most of them are to be found on the Conservative benches. Which poses the question of why on earth a self-described 'liberal Unionist' would be quite so keen on his party's return lock, stock, and barrel to the Tory fold, when the other two GB-wide parties have a centre of gravity on this issue much closer to his own views? There may well be a case for fathoming a credible way to allow voters in Northern Ireland to vote on ideological rather than sectarian grounds if they so wish, but if and when that happens, my guess is that a 'liberal unionist' could only ever ultimately feel comfortable in a liberal unionist party. Such a beast exists - but it's not called the Conservative party. There's a reason for that.

It's lonely at the apex

I've been having a look once again at the pro-Ulster Unionist (and therefore now by automatic extension, pro-Conservative) blog Three Thousands Versts of Loneliness. I was planning to say something about the new Tory-UUP alliance, but first of all I can't resist responding to Chekov's second most recent post, as it contains a series of digs at the SNP and Alex Salmond. Apparently, the First Minister's "smug countenance" will have been replaced by a look of "indignation" upon encountering the "news" that David Cameron regards the SNP as irrelevant at the next election. Now I don't follow his blog closely, but my guess is that Chekov must have an awfully earnest, almost 1950s view of politics and the Conservative party in particular. In his mind, there's David Cameron, a sage-like figure at the apex of British politics, imparting pearls of wisdom, while lesser mortals such as Salmond can only hang on to every word, desperately longing for any small sign of recognition or respect. In truth, I'd imagine Salmond and his advisers wouldn't have been so much crestfallen at Cameron's snub as rather gratified to note that a political rival who feels the need to 'talk up your irrelevance' is obviously a tad worried that many people don't see it that way.

Cameron knows perfectly well that he doesn't get to choose how 'relevant' the SNP will be at the next election, and words won't make that reality go away. If the SNP stay with only the seven seats they currently hold, they're unlikely to hold much clout even in a hung parliament. On the other hand, if the UK-wide race tightens, and if the SNP end up with 15-20 seats, it's a different ballgame. But even if we assume that Chekov is taking it as read that the former will happen and not the latter, what does the irrelevance of a party with seven seats say about the influence that a party that currently holds just one seat - the Ulster Unionist Party - can credibly hope to ever exercise in their hopelessly unequal new alliance with the Tories?

Chekov goes on to note that Cameron is "right to point out" that Salmond will not be a candidate at the general election. Memo to Chekov - Alex Salmond has made no secret of that, and it's hardly a point of shame for anyone in the SNP. Indeed, I seem to recall the criticism up to now from Unionist politicians has been that Salmond was - as a nationalist - rather too keen to hold on to his Westminster seat. Which raises a simple question - would Alex Salmond be justified in a) staying at Westminster and leaving Holyrood, b) holding on to his seats at both Westminster and Holyrood, or c) leaving Westminster and staying at Holyrood? If the answer is, incredibly, none of the above (and it may well be given that he's been criticised for all three at various points in the last eight years), it's little wonder Unionists find the First Minister so objectionable almost regardless of what he says or does.

Finally, perhaps in an effort to convince himself that everything's going to work out just fine, Chekov asserts that "in previous general elections, Scots have always rejected the SNP in favour of participating in a national contest". Well...up to a point, Lord Copper. I take it he means that the SNP have never won the popular vote in a general election, which is quite true, but they have finished in second place on three occasions, and beaten the Conservatives no fewer than four times (including all of the last three elections). Hardly suggests that Scots have been fully buying into this "only two parties are relevant in Westminster elections" line that both Chekov and Cameron so dearly wish they would. It's also worth noting that until eighteen months ago the SNP had never won the popular vote at any election, Westminster or otherwise - they've now done so twice. Records are only ever there to be broken.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Britain is still Great. We invented Oxfam! Lord Stern of Brentford is one of ours!

Slightly ironic that I posed the rhetorical question the other day of how opponents of independence were going to eulogise the 'greatness of Britain' now that they'd well and truly been stripped of their 'fourth-largest economy in the world' fail-safe line. David Miliband's article in the Times on Monday almost seems to be an attempt to answer that very question, albeit without having Scotland specifically in mind. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading. You must know you're struggling in an article like that when by just the fourth paragraph you're already falling back on the British origins of Oxfam and Save the Children, and when by the fifth paragraph you're enthusing about "Lord Stern of Brentford’s study on the economics of climate change", the importance of which is apparently "impossible to overstate".

Absolutely, David, let's all stop worrying about the dangers of overstating the importance of the Stern report. I must say the people I know all (with a quintessentially British misplaced modesty) worry about little else. It's silly and it's got to stop.

Rather more troubling than amusing is Miliband's suggestion that we should also take pride in that lest vestige of Britain's colonial privileges - our permanent, veto-wielding status at the UN Security Council, which he claims to defend "out of pride in what we do today, not our role of yesteryear". Isn't that the condescending line of the self-styled 'benevolent imperialist' down the ages - "we exercise power over lesser peoples, but only for their own good?" In reality, Britain is far from being the most pernicious voice on the UN Security Council, but the real damage of the UK and France's apparent determination to defend the current veto system to the last breath (albeit in modified form) is that it provides useful cover for the real Neanderthals of the 'international community'. Naming no names.

I might actually be able to take a little more pride in being British if our government had the imagination to stop clinging to a vestigial power and influence at the UN that has not been earned, and in so doing help to bring about something that would be far more valuable to people in both Britain and beyond - a democratised international system in which all nations are equal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A fascism of statistics

Last night, in a lengthy programme on Channel 4, Rageh Omaar explored the highly controversial issue of whether there are innate differences between the levels of intelligence of different races. In each thread of his investigation, Omaar allowed the proponents of the most provocative theories to set out their case, before seeking to demolish their arguments. From my own perspective, he did so extremely convincingly, by showing that the genetic differences between races are too minimal to produce the dramatic differentials in intelligence that have been suggested, and by pointing to the 'Flynn Effect', which could imply that IQ tests are less of a direct measure of intelligence, and more a measure of an individual or group's "adaptation to modernity". However, as the programme progressed, I could just imagine the self-anointed experts on the field of IQ (many of them statisticians) saying "this is proving nothing, he's missed the point entirely, anyone who thinks that IQ tests do not directly and accurately measure intelligence simply does not understand statistics".

And that, I think, is the essence of the whole problem with the debate over the validity of IQ tests, regardless of whether it relates to race, or merely the 'classification' of individuals by intelligence. There's a kind of 'statistical fascism' at play, whereby the statisticians refuse to seriously engage with any of the powerful counter-arguments to the prevailing wisdom that IQ tests are meaningful measures of intelligence - unless it is done on their own terms, with detailed reference to 'meta-analyses' and 'regressions' and all sorts of other incomprehensible language. Given the huge importance of this subject to everyone, it simply can't be right that authoritative discussion of it is restricted to such a narrow area. For one thing, anyone who has ever taken an IQ test (I've taken the American SAT, which in its old form closely resembled an IQ test) won't need a grounding in statistical theory to intuitively understand that it simply can't be a pure measure of intelligence - your score will also be significantly affected by your level of motivation to do well, your composure under severe pressure of time, etc, etc. The statisticians would respond by pointing out that, if an individual takes several different IQ tests, the outcome will typically be remarkably close every time. But this doesn't really address the point - if someone's composure and motivation levels remain fairly constant every time they take the test, it follows that the scores would remain constant as well. This constancy does not constitute proof that IQ tests accurately measure intelligence.

Ah, the statisticians might respond, you're overlooking the high level of correlation between IQ scores and success in life, as measured by educational attainment and income levels. But doesn't an individual's composure under pressure and motivation to succeed also play a significant role in determining their life chances? If an IQ test is partly measuring those things, it's hardly surprising there would be such a correlation.

In fact the buzz phrase of statisticians in this field appears to be "intelligence tests are the most accurate of all psychological tests". Just goes to show how ropey all the others must be.

More of a black hole than a window

I for one - and I don't seem to be the only one - hope that the EBU reconsider their decision to extend the televoting window at the next Eurovision Song Contest from the current ten or fifteen minutes to...well, the full two hours the songs are being performed. Perhaps it's true that there is evidence from the trial run of the new system in Junior Eurovision that songs performed late in the running-order will not be unfairly disadvantaged (however counter-intuitive it seems), but even if that is the case, there remains the question of perception and credibility. It hardly helps to counter the popular notion that people are voting mainly for countries rather than songs if, for instance, it's perfectly possible for them to cast a vote for a song that hasn't been performed yet.

My guess is that this has far more to do with maximising revenues than it has with the stated reason of preventing the telephone lines from becoming overloaded. You normally don't have to look much further than the revenues whenever the issue of telephone voting on TV shows comes up. (Although of course Ant and Dec knew nothing about any of that.)

A name can tell a thousand lies

Interesting (not to mention dismaying) that Jeff has anecdotal evidence that the recent surge of publicity for the BNP could lead recent arrivals to these shores to wrongly conclude that the politics of the similarly-named SNP are similar. I used to know a Chilean man who had been frightened by a documentary on the BNP, and was completely convinced that not only was the SNP a similar sort of party, but was in actual fact the Scottish branch of the BNP! I was particularly surprised by this given that he had lived in Scotland ever since fleeing from the Pincohet regime in the mid-1970s, and therefore must have been here during at least part of the SNP's 70s heyday. But perhaps the language barrier had at that stage prevented him from following local political developments.

Unfortunately it's difficult to see in practical terms what the SNP can do about such confusion, although it does give all of us sympathetic to the party another reason (not that we need one) to hope that the BNP publicity circus dies away very soon. I do seem to recall a few years ago that Alex Salmond remarked in an interview that if he'd been starting from scratch, he'd have preferred to christen his party the 'Scottish Independence Party'. However, it is of course a complete non-starter for a large, mainstream party that's been around for seventy-five years to consider changing its name just because the Brit Fascists in the latest of their many guises have decided to part-copy it.

ComRes : Labour slump to third place in Scotland

The new ComRes poll for the Independent paints a completely upside-down picture of Scottish public opinion compared to the poll just a few days ago for the Independent on Sunday. Here are the full figures from the Scottish subsample -

SNP 32% (+20)
Conservatives 24% (+3)
Labour 22% (-7)
Liberal Democrats 10% (-19)
Others 12% (+2)

I had an exchange a few weeks ago with people who felt that it was absurd to take subsamples of such a small size even vaguely seriously. This is one instance that would appear to bear out that argument, because clearly the changes of support for the SNP and Liberal Democrats in particular are thoroughly implausible. It's also incredibly unlikely that the Labour party are really in third place at the moment (although second place would not be entirely surprising). However, when you look at these subsamples over a period of months it's actually striking how rare such freakish findings are - the SNP and Labour nearly always occupy the top two places, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are nearly always in third and fourth. So while subsample figures need to be treated with extreme caution - due not only to small sample sizes but also to the fact that the figures may not be properly weighted - it's clear they're not completely meaningless, or 'just a bit of fun' as some people put it in Snow-esque fashion.

Almost nothing can be learned from looking at one subsample in isolation, given the mammoth margin of error, but it seems to me that if you look at a pattern of several of them it's possible to get a feel for what is going on in public opinion. However, others take a different view, and from the SNP's perspective it may be just as well they do - since by definition Scottish subsamples of UK-wide polls relate only to Westminster voting intention, and understate the party's likely performance at Holyrood elections.

It might also be worth mentioning why I first started looking closely at subsamples in the first place. Just under a year ago, Mike Smithson rather astonishingly devoted an entire thread at his excellent site to a single Scottish subsample of fewer than 100 people, which he used as supporting evidence for his theory that the Labour vote in Scotland was holding up dramatically better than elsewhere in the UK, meaning that it could be reasonably inferred that the potential swing to the Tories in English marginal seats was being significantly underestimated by UK-wide polls. Given that the posters on are overwhelmingly Tory-supporting, this theory has unsurprisingly entered the site's mythology, and it is periodically referred back to without much reference to hard figures. And, as the insufferable Dennis MacShane demonstrated on Newsnight last week, it's amazing how long a mythology based on one set of dubious figures can go completely unchallenged, if it never occurs to anyone to check up on it.

In this particular poll, we certainly see no evidence of the Labour vote holding up better in Scotland - they are seventeen points down on their 2005 performance in Scotland, but only nine points down across Great Britain as a whole.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some facts are not allowed

The news that the Lockerbie investigation is to be reopened is clearly worthy of a guarded welcome, but I'm sure one key question will be forming in the minds of many people today. Given that the new investigation will concern itself solely with the search for "Megrahi's accomplices", and given that the forensic evidence will be re-examined with the aid of recent technological advances in a search for new leads, what happens if (as seems rather likely) the forensic evidence now points decisively towards a culprit other than the Libyan state, and demonstrates that Megrahi could not have been guilty in the first place? Do the police simply say to themselves - in Orwellian fashion - "these facts are not permissible"?

Also more than a touch cynical of David Miliband to switch his line on a public inquiry from "there is no need for one" to "this is a matter for the Scottish authorities". If I was the Scottish government, I'd be sorely tempted to call his bluff, and just seek some clarification from him as to whether all relevant British officials would be made available to give evidence to a Scottish-sponsored public inquiry under oath. If the answer to that question happened to be no, it would become abundantly clear to everyone why an inquiry cannot primarily be a matter for the Scottish authorities.