From top: Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar and Tony Groves
The manipulation of data, and the toleration of it by large swathes of the population and the media, is a blocker to us fixing underlying issues.
Tony Groves writes:
When Herodotus wrote the story of the Persian invasion of Greece 480BC, it’s generally accepted that he used a little poetic licence with the numbers.
His story records an invading army of 5 million soldiers. Modern scholars reduce this figure to 500,000 and most believe the real figure was closer to 200,000.
The question we should be asking isn’t, ‘was it 5 million or 200,000?’. The real question is why was there such a vast difference between the story and the actual boots on the ground?
Some have speculated that this was because the Greeks weren’t very good at dealing with large numbers. It’s an interesting view. Was there a numeracy issue in the cradle of democracy? Maybe, it’s true that the Greek word for countless/innumerable, is the same word for 10,000.
So, anything beyond 10,000 was just said to be innumerable, and whatever number suited their purpose might be applied. The exaggeration makes the Greek’s victory a thing of mythic proportions.
The reason for this little excursion down Herodotus Way, is to point out the old Greek numeracy issues in modern-day Ireland.
We’ve had a Minister for Social Protection exaggerate social welfare fraud to be €500million, when the figure is actually closer to €50million.
We’ve had a Minister for Housing tell us almost 15,000 houses were built last year, when the figure was closer to 3,000.
We’ve seen gardaí overstate breathalyser tests by 1 million.
We’ve had a Minister for Finance exaggerate his fiscal space. Not to mention the “Leprechaun Economics” of corporate tax profits flying into Ireland, in advance of the EU’s Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base Plan.
We’ve had Irish Water tell us 70% of people were paying, even though the money taken in amounted to less than 35% of people’s bills.
We’ve had Irish Water marches that were attended by tens of thousands, reported as a few thousand.
All of this would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.
Nobody is condoning welfare fraud, but exaggerating a 1-2% problem only demonises the most vulnerable in our society and deflects from the bigger issue of poor government management of the welfare system.
Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has gotten away with peddling exaggerated housing numbers by using the ‘It was like that when I got here’-Bart Simpson defence. Shortly, we will have him claim to have achieved his promise to have no families homeless by the end of July.
But this will be another statistical fudge. Homeless families are to be put into hubs and then reclassified out of the homeless statistics and into some sort of purgatorial nowhere zone.
The manipulation of data, and the toleration of it by large swathes of the population and the media, is a blocker to us fixing underlying issues. Only by assessing the problem correctly can we make a plan fit for purpose.
Allowing Official Ireland play with numbers costs lives. People on trolleys and people on our streets aren’t statistical tools for manipulation. They are your mother, your sister, your granny, etc.
Those at the coalface such as Inner City Helping Homeless, put faces on numbers. People like Lorcan Sirr, point out that bad data leads to bad planning. The manipulation of data in Ireland plays to the worst of our biases. It reinforces our, conscious or unconscious, view that people can be reclassified and therefore made statistically less than.
Herodotus exaggerated to make the Greeks glorious.
Today, we do it for a myriad of reasons. Most of them self-serving. This is not the sole fault of Government. We, as a country, play with numbers to lessen crises and to pretend we are helping those worse off.
What’s the Irish for innumerable?
Tony Groves is a full-time financial consultant and part-time commentator. With over 18 years experience in the financial industry and a keen interest in politics, history and “being ornery”, he has published one book and writes regularly at Trickstersworld