Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Lazy Brits 2: Attack of the Zombies

[Starring Toby Young and Daniel Hannan MEP (title roles), Daniel Knowles and Chris Cook (data geeks), and Dr. Anna Hedge (punchline writer)]

As I hope is clear from the title, this is a nerdy post about statistics and research.  In his Sun column on Sunday, Toby Young said:
As [Daniel] Hannan points out in his book, Britain is the seventh largest economy in the world, the fourth largest military power and the fourth largest exporter.
The last point looked odd; surely the UK exports less than any of China, Germany, the US and Japan?  So I questioned it, via twitter.   First, Mr Hannan said:: "It is both true and surprising"; then, when I said that I didn't think it could possibly be right, he pointed rather vaguely to one of "the IMF, OECD, CIA Factbook".

Finally, he gave a source: none of these organisations, but rather a "briefing note" produced by an organisation called Global Britain, a "geopolitical thinktank" that "examines the feasibility of the UK leaving the EU".  This does indeed claim that:
"According to the IMF, the UK was the fourth-biggest global exporter of Goods,Services, (receipts of) Income & Transfers in 2009". And there's a table to prove it.
But of course there's something a bit odd here; the definition.  It's not entirely clear what "(receipts of) Income" means, but they don't come within any definition of "exports" normally used by the IMF, our own ONS, or anyone else. Investment income receipts and payments do indeed show up in the "balance of payments" accounts, but not as "exports" or "imports". That Global Britain are including things that nobody else does when they talk about exports is pretty obvious from the raw figures, which imply that UK "exports" are greater than 40% of GDP. This is much too high: about 30% is the figure that springs to mind, see for example World Bank data here.  [A secondary point is that 2009 is not exactly up to date, and was an odd year, seeing a huge collapse in world trade].

So what does the IMF actually say?  Daniel Knowles, formerly of the Telegraph and now of the Economist, pointed to their DataMapper, which gives reliable, generally accepted, and up to date data.  We are sixth, very slightly behind France, but well behind the other four countries mentioned above.  "Equal fifth" seems about right, given the usual data uncertainties/revisions. So fourth is just wrong; it's an invented statistic, used by no-one else that I know of.

So, to recap, Toby Young's "source": a book by a Conservative MEP, quoting a briefing note by a small and obscure anti-EU pressure group, that misintepreted and/or misrepresented out-of-date IMF data, in order to come up with the wrong answer.  If a 15-year old did this for a GCSE project, you'd hope they'd fail.  Even worse, this was totally unnecessary; one google search would take you quickly to the IMF data Daniel Knowles pointed to.

Mr Young's intervention in this debate was confined to the following tweet:
"You could lay all the economists in the world from end to end and they'd still never reach a conclusion"                 
Well, this may be true of the debate between Keynesians and Chicago-school economists, or proponents and opponents of accelerated fiscal consolidation, but we're talking about bog-standard data and definitions here. We tend not to disagree about those.  Essentially what Mr Young is saying is that it's fine for him or Mr Hannan to simply invent economic data and present it as fact.  If anyone points out that it's wrong, he can just point out that economists tend to disagree about lots of things. [In the US, this approach has been labelled "Niallism", in honour of Niall Ferguson's similarly cavalier attitude to the facts.]

Perhaps one of Mr Young's subsequent tweets, on a different topic, and presumably intended as sarcasm, is unintentionally revealing:
"Forget knowledge – that's just for public school toffs".
Indeed.  Why does this matter? Well, the odd thing that from an economic or analytic perspective it doesn't really.  The correct statistic that the UK is the world's sixth (or fifth) largest exporter is surely (almost) as compelling as the incorrect one.  So using correct, and properly sourced, statistics would not have detracted from the argument Mr Young and Mr Hannan were trying to make (the merits of which I'm not discussing here) in the slightest.   I don't think they were in any way deliberately misrepresenting the data; they didn't need to.

Instead, this matters because it's a symptom of the phenomenon I describe here; Mr Young and Mr Hannan are members of what I describe as the "political version of celebrity culture"; they think that entitles them to make statements about evidence and policy without bothering to do the basic research to back them up.  The public deserves better; it should be able to make up its own mind about their arguments, without having to check their facts.

Finally,  as a coda, Chris Cook, the FT's education correspondent, pointed out that one of the "signatories" to the Global Britain note, Lord Harris of High Cross, died in 2006, suggesting you might not be that interested in his (mis)-intepretation of IMF data on 2009 trade flows.  This, in, turn, allowed Anna Hedge to sum up the whole story:
"Now that's what I call a zombie statistic".

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