Thursday, 9 June 2011

Statistics - what to make of them

We've all heard the saying I'm sure, that "There are Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics". However, statistics do play an important part in everyday life.

But what to make of them, is always the question. I've compiled and distributed statistics for years, and I am well aware of how you can manipulate them to your own ends. When I say manipulate, I don't mean to tell lies; I mean to put the most positive spin on them, and hope that no one wants to look too closely at anything surrounding those statistics.

This is an important subject, for central and local government are constantly seeking to present statistics in such a way that shows life under them is better than under previous administrations, and that our lives as local citizens is not as bad as some people want to make out. But what to make of such statistics, and do we fully understand them? I've been thinking of where recent statistics in Ireland (but examples could be taken from anywhere) are being shown to illustrate an improvement in particular situations. But what to make of them when you delve a little deeper.

A couple of days ago, I was reading an article on the Irish Left Review web site (I read the Irish Left Review because I'm interested in Socialism and Ireland). It was written by Stephanie Lord on the subject of abortion in Ireland. Before going any further, it is worth noting that abortion is illegal in Ireland unless the pregnancy is in threat of endangering the life of the woman. Incidentally, it's still illegal in Northern Ireland as well.

The UK Department of Health have issued statistics over the last nine years showing a decline in the numbers of women giving Irish addresses when accessing abortion services in Britain. The 2010 figures were released at the beginning of this week, revealing that 4,402 women gave Irish addresses to British clinics. This was another decrease over last year.

Pro-Life campaigners have called it an "astonishing drop over the years", with Dr Stephanie O'Keeffe, Acting Director of Ireland's Crisis Pregnancy Programme, praising the figures, saying that "The numbers are actually very low by international standards. We have been bucking the trend compared to other countries, where abortion numbers and rates have been increasing". Pro-Choice campaigners take the opposite view, and question whether these statistics actually tell us anything about abortion rates in Ireland. So, what to make of the statistics. Do they give a true, clear picture, or will closer inspection show a different story?

The 2010 figure represents a drop of 20 on the previous year - a decline of 0.5%.  This is hardly remarkable given the scale of the numbers. Let's have a look at possible reasons for the numbers, and whether the actual figures could be much higher.
  1. Emigration - there were fewer Irish people living in Ireland last year than the previous year. The Irish Government's Central Statistics Office shows that emigration among Irish nationals increased significantly in the year, from 18,400 in April 2009, to 27,700 in 2010. "This is the highest level of net migration since 1989". There were 20 less registered Irish women going to Britain for an abortion, but there were 27,700 less Irish people in the country.
  2. Poorer Households - the financial crisis of 2008 is still affecting the Irish economy severely. Ireland now has the highest level of household debt relative to disposable income in the developed world at 190%. About 50% of households are suffering negative equity positions on their family homes. The cost of travelling to Britain, Spain or the Netherlands can be beyond the reach of many working class women.
  3. Giving false addresses - the figure of 4,402 is only those women who gave Irish addresses to British clinics. There is no idea of how many may have gone to other countries, or how many gave false addresses in Britain to perhaps protect their anonymity. The figure is therefore based on limited information, and should almost certainly be a lot higher.
  4. Buying over the Internet - the organisation Choice Ireland submitted a Freedom of Information request that revealed that the Irish Customs authorities had seized 1,216 abortion tablets in 62 operations that had been ordered over the Internet. How many more got into the country undetected, we'll never know. (For example, the UK Border Agency admit that they only seize about 1% of heroin and cocaine coming to the UK). The tablets seized in Ireland were destined to provide 1,216 abortions. Everyone is agreed how possibly dangerous to health and life this procedure is. Research has shown that between 50% - 90% of all medicines sold on websites which conceal their address are fake. You just don't know what's in the tablets. But desperate people take desperate measures.
  5. Buying over the counter - in a Sunday Mirror Ireland article, January 2011, Samuel Hamilton reports that abortion pills (though illegal) are on sale in some supermarkets across Ireland. Two years ago, a Chinese woman was convicted and fined for importing and selling the pills in her Dublin store. Niall Behan, of the Irish Family Planning Association, believes we have barely scratched the surface of the problem. "I believe that these drugs are still on sale in Ireland, and I think this can be backed up from the fact the Irish Medicines Board confiscated so many of them last year".
  6. Backstreet abortions - understandably there are few facts and figures for this, but anecdotal reports indicate that at least an element of this goes on.
Stephanie Lord says, "The idea that the number of women travelling to Britain for abortions is the sum total of Irish women actually having abortions would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. The reality of the situation for women in Ireland is much more disturbing".

Don't just accept statistics. You should dissect, examine and place them in context. The official Irish abortion figures are not what they seem. This is often the case with a whole range of statistical information. How we use figures and words is so very important. Let's close with Lewis Carroll.

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more or less".

"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things".

"The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all".

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