Wednesday 4 April 2018

Burning Injustice?

I sometimes worry (in a small way) about Theresa May. Does she really believe what she's saying when she declares that today's 'gender pay gap' findings represent a 'burning injustice'? Wouldn't it be better to save that kind of talk for, say, burning injustices (the world is never short of them)? As Jordan Peterson pointed out on the Today programme this morning, the methodology used to come up with these 'gender pay gap' figures was so staggeringly crude and inept that a first-year social science student would have been failed if they [note gender-neutral pronoun] presented such work. He ran through a few of the obvious reasons why, if the figures are totted up in this way, men will usually come out as earning more money than women – one of the chief ones being that most women are not mad enough to devote their lives, hearts, souls and all their waking hours to becoming 'top executives' and clinging on to their place on the corporate greasy pole. They have better things to do. As someone else pointed out later in the programme, if you ran the same methodology on part-time work, you'd come up with a marked 'gender pay gap', but this time in favour of women. No one seems to regard that as a 'burning injustice'. Hey ho.
  And then there's Radio 4's Book of the Week – Factfulness by Hans Rosling, the Swedish physician, statistician and showman (who died last year). The subtitle of this book is Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think, and it's clear that he is using 'facts' to support a particular (liberal, meliorist, Pinkeresque) argument. And that argument does have merit: thanks to capitalism, living standards have, by all kinds of measures, greatly improved, and continue to do so. But I put the word 'facts' in quotation marks because Rosling persistently equates statistical findings – often single statistical findings – with facts. The thing about statistical findings is that they are only as valid as the methodology that produced them, and that they can be used (and generated) selectively to support almost any thesis. They are not, in themselves, facts. We'd do well to remember the wise words of Mark Twain (okay, he didn't originate them*, but it isn't clear who did): 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'
  Incidentally, the 'gender pay gap' story, which was top of the news and monopolised discussion on Today, features nowhere on the BBC News website's 'Ten Most Read' stories. Apparently even Vince Cable's claim that the Lib Dems are a 'secret phenomenon' (?) is of more interest to those who follow BBC News.

* A fact.