Sunday, December 31, 2006

My top ten favourite Toynbee errors

Between May and December 2006, this blog detailed the factual errors in Polly Toynbee's columns.  I have now stopped doing this, but here are my favourite Toynbee errors for that period:

10. Polly implies that 142% of people are dissatisfied with Tony Blair [insert own joke].

9. Polly asks of "Cameron's set" the following question: "Do they know the median (middle England) salary is just £21,000?" when it wasn't.

8. Polly copies a sentence from an IPPR report, pausing only to strike all references to the sources, which would have revealed the factual inaccuracies in the sentence.

7. Complaining that more prisoners reoffend when she actually meant were reconvicted, while in the same column she praises two trends which would lead to higher reconvictions even if reoffending had remained flat -- improved detection and fewer abandoned trials.

6. Polly is £100bn out in her approximation of state spending.

5. Polly actually cites a source for her assertion that "Arnold Schwarzenegger drives his own Humvee in San Francisco".  Sadly, the source she cites makes it clear that it is not his.

4. Toynbee's colleague, Mike White, disbelieves her "facts".

3. Polly says that emissions have gone up by 3%, when they had gone down by 3%.

2. In a column criticising Stephen Byers for using "mendacious figures", she says "[t]his week City dealers' bonuses soared higher than ever, to £21bn".  She later backtracks, and puts the total for all City bonuses (not just dealers) at £9bn, with no acknowledgement that her earlier number was mendacious.

1. Polly writes a 21-word sentence with five facutal errors in it.

Shutters down

After eight enjoyable months, I'm going to mothball this blog.  This is not because Polly Toynbee has suddenly started using real facts that she undertsands -- on the contrary, her sloppiness and inaccuracy continue unabated.

No, rather it is because I want to do other things more than I want to do this.

This blog -- my first serious effort at concerted blogging -- was an experiment that was successful in many ways but also limiting in others.  I'd quite like to write about a broader range of topics than Polly's columns, and would also like to express opinions.  That won't work on this blog, which is after all about Polly Toynbee's misuse of facts.  So, in order to give myself the time to do this, I'm going to stop posting here, and will write elsewhere under a different guise.

I'm glad I've done this.  I don't see this as embarassing  juvenalia to be forgotten, but rather a successful first endeavour which has taught me a lot, introduced me to some humblingly good bloggers, and has given me plenty of food for thought about what I should do next.

There is more below the break, but for those who are stopping here, thank you for reading.


My lowlights

The biggest has to be the two times when I've goofed.  The first was back in June, when bizarrely one could have said "six months ago, Labour were ahead by 10% in the polls" and "six months ago, Labour were behind by 9% in the polls" with equal accuracy, and I thought that quoting the latter was enough to disprove the former -- though it genuinely was an occasion when two contradictory statements were both true.  The second was when I mistook newspaper circulation and readership, and as a result was only as inaccurate as Polly Toynbee.

Another lowlight has been some poor debating on the web, be it the bafflingly thick Neil Harding's argument that I must be right-wing because I criticise Polly Toynbee, Cassilis's characterisation of refuting the statement that "social mobility has come to a halt" by citing academic research that people born into the lowest income quartile have a better than 60% chance of escaping that lowest income quartile as "semantic hair-splitting", or the folks who stumble across the blog, look around for a few minutes, leave a sarcastic comment and then disappear without caring if there is a reply.

And the final lowlight has to be the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, which does not "correct significant errors as soon as possible", and in fact ignores many errors which are brought to its attention.

My highlights

I fully accept that this is a profoundly unoriginal insight, but the internet is a phenomenal research tool.  I have said in my profile that "I've learned a lot by reading the research that [Polly] skims", and it's true.  There is a wealth of interesting work, research, information and data which is out there which is waiting to be found by anyone with a browser, broadband connection and a familiarity with Google.  And, nota bene Polly, intellectual curiosity.

I've  also been thoroughly impressed by fellow bloggers.  Despite my comment above about poor debtaing on the web, there are enough writers out there who are informative, entertaining and thought-provoking to make it a fascinating medium, as well as some very good writers.

And on a purely personal note, a big highlight was discovering that Ken Livingstone had paid Polly Toynbee £7,000 of taxpayers' money in an non-competitive tender to rehash some of her old Guardian columns.  That money came partly from me; the re-hash including some particularly misleading distortions of some academic research; and Polly Toynbee is quite an overt flatterer of Ken's.  Until discovering that, I was prepared to accept that she might just be careless and sloppy in her use of facts.  After discovering that, I think her morally bankrupt.

Friday, December 29, 2006

No gift of accuracy or consistency for Xmas

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes of:

Restore the laws limiting media ownership by any one magnate, abolished by Margaret Thatcher to let Rupert Murdoch acquire his empire, so that he now owns over 40% of the press plus ever more dominant Sky.

Thanks to my goof over circulation and readership, we've seen the results for both; News International has 32% of circulation and 36% of readership.  Note, by the way, that these figures are for most of the national dailies and Sundays.  They exclude the local press.


She also writes:

Boasts about "inward investment" to Britain are often just a sign on the borders saying Britain for Sale

Strange; on 13 October she thought it was good news:

the latest UN figures for inward investment show that last year the UK attracted more inward investment than any other country. It was twice as high as America's, growing by 183% last year. Meanwhile, the OECD ranks the UK as one of the most attractive places for foreign direct investment. The World Bank rates the UK top of the EU for best business conditions.

Here is more good news for the CBI to stick in its pipe
[emphasis added]


She also writes:

For decades there have been reliable measures of relative national happiness: countries with least inequality are the happiest. (Yes, the Nordics come top.)

According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators 2002 (handily reproduced at the indispensable NationMaster website), the country where the richest quintile accounted for the lowest share of national income was Slovakia, with 31.4% (source).  Their net happiness score (i.e. the proportion of people who say they are happy less the proportion who say they are unhappy) was a pretty miserable 4% -- 45th of 50 countries listed (source).

The next most equal country was Belarus, with the richest 20% getting 33.3% of national income.  Their happiness score was actually -8%!  The third most equal country, Hungary, had the richest quintile with 34.4% of national income and a happiness score of a slightly more respectable 46%. 

Friday, December 22, 2006


In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Thus Gordon Brown personally is well ahead of the three party leaders as "doing a good job". Blair's rating is -34, Cameron is -5 and Campbell -9.

The MORI research actually has Brown on zero -- it says:

Over two in five (42%) people say they are satisfied with Gordon Brown's performance with as many saying they are dissatisfied — giving a net satisfaction rating of zero. When Ipsos MORI last measured public approval of Gordon Brown in February 2006, 47% of the public said they were satisfied with his performance (5 points higher than now) and 36% dissatisfied (6 points lower than now).

Not that "well ahead" of -5, one could argue.


She also writes:

Remember at the same point a year after becoming leader, Blair personally hit 30% approval while David Cameron is down on -5%.

The Labour leadership election was July 1994.  By July 1995, according to MORI, satisfaction with Blair was at 51% and dissatisfaction at 24% -- a net approval of 27%, and not 30% on a directly comparable basis.


She goes on to write:

The Cameron myth has cracks: he is not scoring well with women, and he is only ahead on traditional Tory turf - tax, crime, asylum; leading a little on health is his one break with tradition.

Maybe we would be wise to distrust people who peddle the "myth" that Cameron does well with women?


Polly asks:

Why isn't Labour doing worse? It's the economy, stupid. Look at Ipsos Mori's end of year assessment and it is the one issue where Labour gallops a mile ahead. People are secure in work in the most prolonged growth since records began...

Yes, do look at the Mori research:

The December Economic Optimism Index stands at minus 27


In November 2006, MORI asked:

On balance, do you agree or disagree with the statement that "in the long term, this government's policies will improve the state of Britain's economy"?

39% agreed, 51% disagreed (source).



It is almost Christmas, and it is good to see the old favourites being dusted down and recycled again, like:

...the papers predict next year's house price rise at 7%, 10% or 15%. That means 70% of the population gloats daily over their rising wealth and good luck their parents never dreamed of. This is the true national lottery - and all home owners are winners.

We've seen the 70% of the population are homeowners before a number of times this year, and it is not true.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Channelling Lionel Richie, strangely enough

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

But yesterday Hutton shook a threatening stick at those he regards as social-contract defaulters. He made a good case: one in 10 of those who draw jobseeker's allowance has spent six of the past seven years on benefits...

In fact, he talked about 12 per cent according to the, er, Guardian, which is a lot closer to one in eight, and is certainly not one in ten.


She also writes:

As the City reaps its £9bn bonuses, that money fuels an ultrasonic house-price boom. It's bad enough around the country at 180% up in the past decade, but far worse in London.

That's now the second time we've seen the £9bn figure for City bonuses (first time on 14 November).  We've also seen a £21bn figure for City bonuses twice (on 22 August and on 15 September).  Pick enough numbers, one of them is bound to be right...

The 180% increase on house prices is the same number that Michael Portillo cites here, in a piece which also juxtaposes the £9bn/180% increase figures.  According to the Halifax, though, the figure is 187%.


She also writes:

Rents are sent sky high, making it impossible for the unemployed to lose housing benefit by taking a job. They will never own a shed in the capital as the gap yawns ever wider between the 70% homeowners counting untaxed winnings every month, while the rest and their children are consigned to social housing forever.

The prose seems a little mangled here, but the 70%-of-people are homeowners figure really does need to be decommissioned.  The actual figure is that 70% of dwellings are owner-occupied, according to National Statistics.  This is not the same thing.


Compare and contrast, from today's column:

This social contract has mostly been kept by both sides under Labour.


Let's look at how the state breaks its side of the social contract.


Friday, December 15, 2006

More hot air

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Political pessimists fear that nothing short of the catastrophic flooding of New York, with millions dead, will make the rich world understand that climate change really is the greatest global terror of all. Now the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development issues a warning on the future of the Alpine skiing industry. Could a lack of snow in Klosters, Gstaad and Courchevel have the same electrifying effect on powerful opinion formers without millions having to die first?

The OECD warning actually says that:

There will also be "winners" and "losers", both in terms of regions – for example Alpes Maritimes, Steiermark/Styria, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia are considerably more vulnerable than Grisons, Valais, and Savoie

and that

Switzerland would suffer the least

Courchevel is of course in the Savoie, and Gstaad and Klosters are of course in Switzerland.  But then naming the ski resorts that are actually vulnerable would not be quite so evocative of the rich and famous.


She also writes:

this week Douglas Alexander made a resoundingly important environmental announcement on re-regulating buses - but it went hardly reported.

That is, hardly reported apart from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


She also writes:

A reversal of climate change needs strong action by the state at home and abroad, especially in the EU; Tory shrink-the-state Euroscepticism can't do that. It needs admission that the damaged environment is a market failure; the Tories can't admit that.

Really?  Apparently, according to Zac Goldsmith, writing in the, er, Guardian:

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, speaking in Japan today, will describe environmental pollution as a market failure. "It is a classic case of what economists call an externality. Because the pollution is external to the market, polluting can make life easier, while the true cost is paid not by the polluter, but by everyone else." Given what we can expect if even the most conservative climate change predictions are accurate, failure to correct this market failure is not an option.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Something rotten

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

...if they [the Tories] regain power, they will at least be embarrassed if child poverty soars as it did last time (from one child in nine in 1979 to one in three by the time they left office).

The last two times we had figures from Toynbee about child poverty in 1979, it was 14%, which is one in seven, and not one in nine.


She also writes:

Tax credits are indeed a problem: why should the taxpayer subsidise low-paying employers? But naturally the party that opposed the minimum wage does not draw the obvious conclusion — that if earnings rose there would be no need for state subsidy... 

[O]ne fact is conveniently missing from these reports: Denmark has exactly the same proportion of one-parent families and the least child poverty in the EU.

Talking of conveniently missing facts:

Denmark has no statutory minimum wage.

According to Minister for Employment, Claus Hjort Frederiksen.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wealth OK, income not; accumulate but don't earn

In today's column (can't seem to find it online yet.  UPDATE it is now here) Polly Toynbee writes:

Meanwhile the annual Rich List this week will show runaway wealth at the very top jumping up another 18.4%. (Maybe that's modest for self-made stars and private entrepreneurs, when the real scandal is CEOs of top public companies paying themselves 30% more this year.)

The 18.4% increase in "runaway" wealth comes from the Sunday Times Rich List, and represents £63bn (source).  The 30% increase for CEOs is actually FTSE-100 CEOs, and represents an average increase of about £0.9m each (source), that is £90m total.

Sorry, but which one is the real scandal?