HUMOUR: Speaking in numbers

Gordon Brown…has he ever emerged well from a photograph being taken?

The point of statistics (and yes, there is one) should be to provide illumination – what we used to call in advertising planning ‘making the numbers speak’. The first people to lose the plot in any given culture are religious leaders, followed closely by politicians. The former are largely engaged in speaking up, and the latter have no interest in making the numbers speak, because they’re far too busy demonstrating their ability to speak in numbers.

Speaking in numbers is easy – anyone can do it, even Gordon Brown. Brown reverses the principle of statistics, and makes numbers a subject for dark pools of uncertainty. The uncertainty chiefly surrounds whether they’re true or not, and what their relevance could possibly be, on the off chance they might turn out to be accurate.

If you want to get on in New Labour these days, you either have to adopt Mandelsonian mendacity or Gordian number-knots. Most people who try to lie at the speed of Mandy come unstuck (it’s even happening to him nowadays – it must be an age thing) and so Government Ministers tend to go for the easier option of speaking in numbers.

It’s an effective strategy, because most of the commentariat can’t add up, and/or are too lazy to look up the stats. This allowed Brown to get away with several whoppers in a row during his Chilcot ‘evidence’, a process reported exclusively in these columns on 6th March last.

Suddenly switching from English to numbers also confuses most interviewers, and therefore buys time when asked a direct question. It certainly flummoxes David Cameron at PMQs, because of course the Opposition leader is even unclear about where decimal points should go. For over a year now, the Prime Minister has been using this simple stratagem, and it never fails: Dave blinks, and then reverts to his avoidance behaviour of preference, talking in gags.

One Minister who has learned to speak fluently in numbers is Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary. In his case, it was matter of urgent necessity, as he is a very stupid young man, and his portfolio requires 24/7 lying on a scale not even Mandelson can manage – although Alan Johnson made a good fist of it in his time. So as Andy is nowhere near the escape velocity required to fib one’s way out of a mess, numbers are his thing.

However, he tends to use them in much the same way that Gordon smiles – at an inappropriate moment. Interviewed on the BBCNews Channel yesterday, Burnham was struggling with the obvious reality that NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence) has been blatantly rationing drugs – and briefing GPs to withhold drugs – for years. But the Beeb’s hackette was a plucky girl who kept on asking the same question: will there be further cuts in health budgets, and will these include drug provision? Andy answered thus:

“Well, this Government has cut deaths from cancer among the over 75s by 10%”.

I had the sense that, were the interview to proceed further, Burnham would have pointed out that his beloved Everton had cut Birmingham City’s goal difference advantage by 10%. Luckily for him (and us) the interviewer ran out of time, but it might have been interesting to see somebody like Paxo taking him apart on the claim about ‘saving lives’.

There could be a hundred reasons why 10% fewer over 75s are dying of cancer nowadays. These range from them dying of other things like frostbite, right through to better diet – or increased suicides after absorbing the daily news coverage of madness and decline. And why over 75s? Are the figures absolutely dire for the under 60s? Also, 10% is a disturbingly round number. But chiefly, the question required here is ‘What the blue blazes has an alleged past performance on septagenarian cancer got to do with an enquiry about future access to medication for young people who might have chlamydia?’

Once the tendency of our MPs to legislative diarrhea has been surgically removed by national bankruptcy (and most of New Labour’s 38,913 toxic legal instruments dumped in the North Sea) there’s going to be room for some sensible laws. First on my list would be an obligatory requirement for all news media folk to challenge every politician on every statistic quoted. Second would be a ten-year jail sentence for every politician caught lying about numbers.