Friday, May 19, 2006


On days like today, I feel disappointed I elected to critique factual accuracy rather than, say, writing style. In today's column, potatoes are launched, and herrings hijack. She manages to speak to the energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, and she writes:

So I asked Malcolm Wicks the vital question.
The vital question, it turns out, is this:
Will nuclear power get any special inducement not offered to other forms of energy generation? Will there be a genuinely level playing field giving every prospective form of clean energy the same chance to prove its viability? That means nuclear power stations would have to pay not only for their waste storage, but the high cost of full insurance: currently they only cover themselves up to a paltry £140m of risk - so a Chernobyl would leave the state picking up a huge bill for compensation and clean-up. Will future nuclear generators be forced to pay into a fund each year enough money to cover all their own decommissioning? The state is now paying a £70bn bill to close existing stations - with the price still rising.
127 words, five sentences and three questions. Bafflingly, Wicks replies "yes" four times to three questions. I also enjoyed the setup to the interview with Wicks, which was:
Bumping into him yesterday, he gave a wry shrug

The image of someone shrugging wryly as they bump into themselves will stay with me for a while.

I am also disappointed that I choose to quibble on facts rather than on logic, as the triumphant glee with which Polly suggests that people won't invest in nuclear power stations because the benefits are public policy ones rather than private ones can surely not be the same Polly Toynbee who wrote in her previous column that
money doesn't buy as much happiness as common social goods. Taxes are good value: health, education, the arts, parks or sports are more precious and pleasurable than anything bought in a shop.
Incidentally, I value food -- which, tediously, I sometimes buy in a shop -- above sports.

But no, I had to go and set myself up as someone who critiques the (non-)facts. Luckily this is not onerous.

She writes
Writing yesterday in the Financial Times, Alexander Johnston, from a leading consultancy to Fortune 100 companies, lays out the terms he thinks investors would require.

I presume she is referring by "leading consultancy" to Arthur D Little, on whose advisory board Johnston sits. Arthur D Little is (no offence) not a leading consultancy to Fortune 100 companies. It has had a fair share of economic trouble, having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US and having to sell itself off (see, for example, this news story). Its website currently shows only two US office locations -- Boston and Houston. I am sure it is a fine company full of worthy professionals, but it is not, say, a McKinsey.

Polly also writes:
Look how simply labelling white goods with energy-saving ratings made virtually all of them AAA in a short time.
I think she may mean new white goods sold (unless she thinks the labelling scheme has somehow magically made washing machines bought in the 1980's more energy efficient). Even given this generous leeway, it's not strictly speaking true. As a quick check, I had a quick look at the washing machines John Lewis offers on its website. The first four on offer were:
  • John Lewis JLWM1202 Washing Machine, White
  • AEG L16830 Washer Dryer, White
  • Miele WT2670 Washer Dryer, White
  • Zanussi ZWF1421 Washing Machine, White
The energy ratings, respectively, were: A+; B; A+; and A.

I know this is not a rigorous empirical test, nor is it statistically robust. But it is enough for me to not believe that "virtually all of them [are] AAA".


Neil Harding said...

So you couldn't (once again) find anything wrong in Toynbee's use of stats. You are once again having to resort to personal abuse, typical right winger.

FactcheckingPollyanna said...

Neil --

I wish there were a simple label like "right wing" that easily summed up my politics; it would make the decision about how to vote so much easier, and it might also lighten the load of trying to establish some facts in order to feed into the thought process. Doing this is not easy, and it is one of the reasons why inaccuracy irritates me so.

I do poke a little fun at Polly's writing style, admittedly, but face it, "launching a political hot potato" is not an elegant phrase.

I do think I contradicted, with sources, two of her "facts" -- that Johnston works for a "leading consultancy to Fortune 100 companies" and that most white goods have an AAA energy rating.

I don't think I indulged in any personal abuse, though if you can tell me what you mean it might make it easier to rebut the allegation.