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The beauty of statistics

Horace Camp | Published:

I’VE never been great with numbers. I was a whizz at working out pre-decimalisation change in Mum’s shop and I did OK reciting my tables at Amherst, but the moment I stepped through the gates of Elizabeth College they put me in bottom set maths, Set Three.

I managed to eventually climb to the dizzy heights of Set Two but languished among the ne’er do wells at the back of the class. Running up to the O-level examination we were set a previous paper as prep over each weekend. I failed them all.

In fact I passed only one maths O-level exam and that was the real one. And with a good grade as well. In fact it was so unexpected my maths master was convinced it was either an administrative error or I’d paid someone to take it on my behalf.

Imagine how 15-year-old Horace felt knowing that he would never have to attend a maths lesson again as long as he lived. Yes, that summer of 1970 it was quite a relief to say goodbye to numbers forever.

It didn’t last. Come the start of A-levels I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to take history because of timetable clashes and instead was directed to economics. Really, at whatever future time was I ever likely to need to know something about economics? And doesn’t economics include number work?

Still, it was better than nothing. We can’t have everything we desire.

But then the coup de grâce. To avoid boys having too much free time it was decreed that we had to select one AO subject. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the only one that worked for me was statistics. Nooooooooooooooo!

As you probably have guessed, I didn’t exactly throw myself into the subject and although my doodling and daydreaming skills improved immeasurably I didn’t actually manage to secure an AO-level statistics.

But it’s amazing how much of the information droned at you at school seeps into the subconscious mind. And in later life as a marketing man, I realised how useful statistics can be to spin a good story.

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Imagine the scenario where one of the departments you are promoting is not doing very well. Assets under administration are stagnant, new business is few and far between and there has been a rapid turnover of staff due to low morale.

How to find the good news when there is none? Statistics!

You note that the pound is weak against the dollar and if you convert assets under administration to USD you suddenly get a 15% increase year on year.

You note that the only two pieces of new business were Q schemes of which only three had launched that year. Now this toxic department has won 66% of all Q schemes launched that year in Guernsey. Being very careful to promote the big percentage and not the pitiful number it represents.

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You note that the new staff being wheeled in to replace the stars you’ve lost have all been in the industry for many years. Amazingly you are able to report that new hires have added over two hundred years of experience to the business (remaining silent about the years of experience lost and completely ignoring competence).

Back in the day when I was cock of the walk it was my boast that I could take the worst possible information and polish it up in such a way that it would gleam like gold. Happy days.

Which brings me to the 2017 Waste Management Report.

I take my hat off to the authors as a mark of respect from one professional to another. It is indeed a work of marketing genius. It brilliantly compares apples and oranges and then manages to slip in a pear as well.

The report basically tells us that between 2013 and 2017 we threw away about 25,000 tonnes of household waste each year. Around 13,000 tonnes going to landfill and 8,000 tonnes of dry recycled. The rest is ‘composted waste’ which I assume to be mostly garden waste. I may be wrong.

If we ignore the composted waste, the recycled percentage had improved 0.1% between 2013 and 2017 and had fallen by 1.9% compared with its peak in 2013. Only by including composted waste in the recycling do we see a marginal improvement in the recycling rate.

The beauty of statistics is that the media will report a headline figure of a record recycling rate of 50.1% in 2017, a whole 1% more than in 2014. However the average reader will not realise that the tonnage of dry recycled in 2017 had fallen 300 tonnes from its peak in 2014. Nor that but for an extra 1,000 tonnes of garden green waste the recycling rate would not have marginally improved to the ‘record rate’.

I’m reasonably certain that Mrs Le Page in Torteval reading about record recycling will imagine that we are recycling more, not less, material when hedge clippings are taken out of the mix.

I am not attacking the efforts of all concerned to get our waste under control but only the potential for ‘fake news’ misinforming the public. It’s clear to me that educating and persuading has done all it can to socially engineer us and that monetising the problem was the right way for the States to proceed.

Personally I think the States has missed a trick to spin the information in this report in such a way to justify the extra cost of the waste strategy. Statistics can be manipulated to support just about any policy?

I eagerly await the 2018 report but doubt if we will see any major change until 2019 when financial penalties kick in.

I rarely write about two topics but this week I was so torn between rubbish and political associations that I just have to put pen to paper about 2020. It was very clear to me during the IWV campaign that my loathing of the Islanders Association was personality, not policy driven. I was therefore somewhat cheered up when 2020, basically the Islanders Association less one, was announced.

However now ‘the one’ has joined 2020 will that mean a new political association will need to be formed which constitutionally bars men in hats?

Rosie Allsopp

By Rosie Allsopp
author

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