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Tuesday, March 03, 2009


The average Brit gets caught on CCTV 300 times a day. If you haven't read it in the Daily Mail, you've read it in the New Statesman. So it must be true, then.

Or not. David Aaronovitch gives us the secret biography of a junk statistic, and it's a real eye-opener.

Over the weekend I nicked my brother-in-law's copy of Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge for long enough to skim-read it. What the book reveals is scary enough, but I think I find Aaro's piece even more worrying. In my rationalist wisdom I can look down from a great height on those poor souls duped by the claims of reflexologists, creationists and 9/11 truthers, but how do I innoculate myself against the kind of disinformation exemplified by that '300 times a day' stat? It's like a virus spreading through the mainstream media, accepted and passed on uncritically because it supports a mainstream political agenda - one which I at least partially subscribe to, so my guard is down too.

Thomson exposes the scandal of universities offering degrees in homoeopathy, but at least we can easily divine that they're not worth the paper they're printed on. Sociology, on the other hand, is a real academic discipline dealing, potentially at least, with real and important knowledge. When a social scientist who works at a reputable university, and is entrusted by something ironically called the Office of the Information Commissioner with the writing of a an official report, announces that it is 'politically autistic' to expect an attention-grabbing statistic to have an empirical basis, how and where are we to draw the line between counterknowledge and the real thing?

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Soundbites, Nr Grumpy - we are all too easy subverted by short and easily absorbed soundbites.

Too bad, but there is no inoculation against this, and media experts know it very well.