Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Imaginary numbers

David Aaronovitch goes fact-hunting:

The mystery stat was sitting on one of our Times blogs and read “the average Brit is caught on security cameras some 300 times a day” and, God knows why, I just decided to chase the number down and find out where it came from. …
One of the stories… referred “to the results of a study by the Government's privacy watchdog” (the Office of the Information Commissioner), which “found people were caught on a national network of 4.2 million CCTV cameras an average 300 times a day”.
… It transpired that the document, entitled The Report of the Surveillance Society, was published in 2006…
The specific “300 times” claim occurred on page 23. The second part read: “There may now be as many as 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain: one for every 14 people, and a person can be captured on over 300 cameras each day.” The source was given in a footnote as coming from a book The Maximum Surveillance Society, published in 1999, by two academics, including a C. Norris.
So I set to work trying to find the book. …
The footnoted page was towards the back of a chapter detailing a day in the life of a man called Thomas Reams, as he did various things in and around London. By the end “Thomas had been filmed by over three hundred cameras on over thirty separate CCTV systems”, the authors wrote, adding: “While this contrived account is, of course, a fictional construction, it is a fiction that increasingly mirrors the reality of routine surveillance.”
What? A fiction!
… So I began to wonder how the ICO report's authors had failed to notice that an important factual source was fictional. Had they not checked it? … Then I saw that Clive Norris, the Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and author of the original work of imagination was a co-author of this report. This amazed me even more. He must have known, surely?

And so on, and so on.

I don’t often say this about newspaper columnists, but I reckon this guy might just be good enough to be a blogger.


the Politeer said...

Hi Tom,

I couldn't agree more. There is far too many statistics quoted in the general news and press without a full understanding of where and how those statistics are generated.

There is hope though... on Radio 4. Tim Harfords programme 'More or Less: Behind the Stats' is a great antedote to poor journalism. Have a look at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/moreorless/

All the best, Heedy

Anonymous said...

This is all interesting, but really ... the central fact that the statistic holds up is left unchanged by the revelation that the specific statistic doesn't hold water.

The central fact is that in the UK, you are not merely in public, you are actively being surveilled almost all the time. That central fact isn't changed when one learns that the actual number of cameras catching you has never been adequately documented.

In other words, you're missing the forest for a mere twig underfoot.