Alastair Meeks looks at the politics of statistics
Every few days, a twitter account run by the Guardian called @thecounted tweets the cumulative total of deaths at the hands of the police.Â The number is shocking.Â As at 10 December, the total stood at 1061 for the calendar year 2015.Â As often as not Guardian News retweets this information to its predominantly UK-based followers.Â The impression given, presumably deliberately, is of a police force that is too trigger-happy by far.
This may be true.Â But the figure in question relates to deaths at police hands in the United States.
Neither @thecounted nor Guardian News have ever, so far as I can tell, tweeted the equivalent figure for the UK.Â This is not because the numbers are difficult to come by.Â Since the beginning of 2010, the cumulative figure for the whole of the UK for people directly killed by law enforcement officers is 7 â€“ an average of just over one per calendar year.Â The shooting on Friday was in fact a really rare occurrence.
The total number of people who died in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in 2014 was 32, and many of these would not have been counted by @thecounted because they were what they deem to be self-inflicted deaths.Â When equalised for relative population sizes, we can see that the rate of deaths at the hands of the police in Britain is running at something like one tenth of that in the US.
Now you might still wish to argue that deaths at police hands in Britain are too high, but you cannot argue that based on US statistics.Â When a UK newspaper twitter account, given additional publicity by that UK newspaper’s main twitter account, is broadcasting US statistics to its followers those statistics will inevitably colour the judgements of its UK readership.
This is far from unusual.Â One of the most charged discussions in British politics concerns whether Britain is too unequal a society and if so how that should be remedied.Â You often read that real average wages have barely increased for decades.Â That’s true in the US:Â Â But it’s not true in Britain:
Similarly, we hear a lot about the wealth of the very richest.Â We recently saw a lot of publicity about the factoid that the wealthiest 20 Americans are as wealthy as half of the US population combined.Â In Britain the numbers are not quite as stark: the equivalent factoid is that the five richest families are as wealthy as the poorest 20% of the population combined.Â There’s still a very big difference, but nowhere near as great as in the US.
Again, you can still argue that Britain is too unequal.Â Too often, the argument revolves around the wrong statistics.
Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the British public erroneously believe their society to be far more unequal than it actually is.Â Ipsos-MORI found that the British and US public had very similar preconceptions about how unequal their societies were.Â Both were wrong, but Britain is far more equal than the US:
As you can see in the chart at the top of this thread, Britain’s top 1% has accumulated less of the national household wealth than their equivalents in Germany, Sweden, Spain, Canada and Norway.Â I doubt many British people would believe that.Â British respondents were the worst guessers on this question of any of the 29 countries polled, giving the joint highest guess when in fact Britain’s top 1% have the joint fifth lowest share of their nation’s household wealth.Â Australian, New Zealand and Canadian respondents weren’t much better guessers, which strengthens my belief that the spread of US statistics across the Anglosphere may be giving English speakers outside the USA a misleading impression of their own countries.
This matters.Â British politics are very different from American politics, Britain’s social policies and problems are very different from those in the USA. Â If we are to get the right policy solutions, the public need to have an accurate feel for the nature of our problems.Â Politicians are going to need to think carefully about how to avoid cross-contamination of statistics across the Atlantic.