The Fake Numbers Game



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


73 thoughts on “The Fake Numbers Game

  1. DubLoony

    What matters gets measured, a basic business rule.
    If you aren’t measuring housing, hospitals, poverty accurately then they don’t count, according to govt.

    1. Ultan

      Well they obviously don’t to this Government. And I don’t believe FF would give too much of a sh*t about them either.

      1. Sheik Yahbouti

        Ultan, no truer word. In this bizzarre Faux Republic, what matters to our ‘Masters ‘ is – “How can I maximise my expenses” and, “can I cling onto office for three years in order to secure an unearned pension and a Severance deal”. Meanwhile, the rest of us that they despise and humiliate work for fifty years to earn a municifent 230 euro per week in our “Golden Years”. They are ugly, self serving people. I would grudge none of their benefits if they had earned them by ACTUAL public service.

    1. know man is an island

      You’re completely insufferable. I can see why they give you so much flak here.

      1. Holden MaGroin

        Good grammar is important. I noticed it too. It detracts from the point the person is trying to make as it undermines their ability to hold our attention. Also, if they can’t write in an accurate way why should I believe the argument they are putting forward is accurate?

        All that being said, I can be a bit of national socialist when it comes to these things though.

        1. Anomanomanom

          It says alot about you, not the poster, if a few grammatical errors means you lose attention and/or then question if they point they are trying to make is then valid.

          1. Holden MaGroin

            Well I did warn you about my…tendencies.

            But I think your point may be that I’m judgmental? Perhaps, but that is the way I, and most of us are educated. When you write something write it in an understandable way. If you don’t you risk losing the reader’s attention.

            I don’t think it’s that unreasonable a premise.

          2. rotide

            It’s not solely a grammar thing. The author intentionally used the lesser known iteration of the word to try to project gravitas/intelligence/something on the piece. The fact that he used the wrong application of the word undermines the rest of the article.

            Kind of like if you use inflated figures, you undermind your position and get people writing blogs about you.

          3. Tony Groves

            Is that what I was doing?
            And here’s me thinking I was just rambling on about feckless Greeks!
            Sure, that’s great, isn’t it, me projecting gravitas. Whatever that means.

          4. MoyestWithExcitement

            “The fact that he used the wrong application of the word undermines the rest of the article.”

            There you go. Rotide proves that his motivation; he’s not smart enough to form a coherent counter argument but his widdle fee-fees were hurt by the piece so he has to find *some* way of dismissing it. He’s a child.

        2. Topsy

          @ Holden McGroin
          You wouldn’t be very impressed with the likes of Einstein, Churchill & Jane Austin then – you Muppet.

    2. MKG985

      I always picture Rotide as one of the cranky old men from the Muppets. It always makes his routine fun.

      1. rotide

        Spent the last 20 minutes trying to change my profile pic to Statler and Waldorf but unfortunately Gravatar seems to run on some of the same tech broadsheet does and it won’t let me do it.

        Expect that change asap.

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          “Spent the last 20 minutes trying to change my profile pic”

          I believe that’s called a self own.

        2. Sheik Yahbouti

          I have a perfectly good Avatar, which appears on other fora automatically. Why not here?

    3. realPolithicks

      If you google the word “pedant” , rotides avatar shows up:

      a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.

  2. know man is an island

    Jaysus! So a lot of official figures get exaggerated.

    What a revelation!

    Here I know.

    Let’s do another entirely irrelevant blog about it!

    This points more to failures of accountabilIty by the press holding these morons to account than anything else. I see the Prone school of bs in there too. Finally you have to realise Tony that most people working in government departments are mediocre to begin with. It’s a question also of competence as to whether they could come up with relevant metrics even if the press were demanding they did so. The MPRN-based housing stats debacle is a good example of this.

    See how good your articles could be if you bothered to do some actual research or could write beyond leaving cert level?

    1. edalicious

      I like how you managed to make a point about the press not holding politicians to account AND call a blog post irrelevant, that’s trying to highlight the lack of accountability, in the same comment. Top notch stuff there.

      1. know man is an island

        His points were not well stated. No one will pay heed to him until he learns how to write decent stuff.

    2. classter

      Tbf this is a reasonbale point by Mr. Groves.

      Coveney’s figures on housing are clearly so far out as to be risible. It is difficult to see how he could possibly (even with the best will in the world) make sensible decisions using complete raimeis numbers.

      1. know man is an island

        Who said anything about making decisions? It’s all about spin and bs and you centrist guys generally lap it all up.

  3. Holden MaGroin

    This article made me sad because this whole “Official Ireland” is quite the downer.

  4. Mary Jane

    Speaking of exaggerated figures. It always amazes me, how infrastructural projects which are supposedly tendered are dramatically more expensive in Ireland than they are in Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries; countries which one would expect to be more expensive.

    There is no rationale reason for this, other than a toleration for gilding the lily, or more likely a blind eye is turned to our tax euros being gouged. Ireland’s media elite never seem to properly question these figures, an example of which was the recent acknowledgment that the cost of the National Children’s Hospital has dramatically increased. The Tender process is not doing the job it’s supposed to do. If the price is way over the top, the submitters should be told to ‘get real’

    1. classter

      ‘It always amazes me, how infrastructural projects which are supposedly tendered are dramatically more expensive in Ireland than they are in Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries; ‘

      Do you have any reliable evidence for this statement at all?

      I’ve seen construction cost comparison tables and Ireland’s figures are pretty close to our Northern European neighbours – almost identical to the UK, about 8% more expensive than Germany/Netherlands, about 1% cheaper than Finland, about 11% cheaper than Switzerland.

      Given that we are a sparsely populated island, that doesn’t seem bad to me.

      I’d be interested if you had more authoritative / reliable figures.

  5. scanlas

    The problem with fake numbers and stats is how remarkably persistent they become.

    That one about Ireland paying 42% of the European banking crisis bill is arrant horsepoop concocted by Michael Taft. I’ve seen it eviscerated many times for the basic mistakes Taft made in arriving at the figure but since it suits a certain narrative, the headline is still spun.

    1. dav

      I noticed that most of the audited statements of accounts of the Irish banks Circa 2005 to 2008 were proved to be false, of course we’re not allowed to mention this, just accept that paddy partied and we should bale out the banks like a good serf…

      1. classter

        Were they proven ‘to be false’?

        Clearly they were misleading and the potential risks were underestimated or downplayed.
        But false?

    2. Andy

      His contention was based on using investments* in Banks from current government income and ignored investments* made from other sources (capital accounts, state investment funds, regional budgets [as was the case in Germany])

      *interchange with bailout

  6. Anne

    “We’ve had a Minister for Social Protection exaggerate Social Welfare fraud to be five hundred million, when the figure is actually closer to fifty million.

    We’ve had a Minister for Housing tell us fifteen thousand houses were built, when the figure was closer to three thousand.”

    49 million.. and mostly over payments, (not fraud)
    And 2 thousand, not 3 thousand houses built.

    1. anne

      i meant 41 million…so it’s kinda nearer to 40 million than 50..just sayin’ And it’s mostly overpayments.

      It’s an advertising campaign only.

  7. egghead

    I saw Colette Browne point this out last night on twitter. She immediately became the target for FG’ers.

          1. MoyestWithExcitement

            It appears to make you very uncomfortable given how big a deal you’re making of it.

      1. rotide

        Day 45: Subject making progress, 11 words and no B word, a new record! Subject has collapsed into exhausted heap with the effort, continuining to monitor

          1. Holden MaGroin

            You were doing so well.

            I’m only buzzin’ off yer head. Say it as much as you want.

          2. Holden MaGroin

            It’s kind of a running joke Dav and I have. And by “Dav and I” I mean me.

            Thanks Moyesty!

  8. egghead

    Yeah, the argument seemed to be was that welfare cheats were easier so caught than white collar criminals. Frightening, one FG Councillor even said the article was b0ll1x

  9. Robert Flanagan

    @Holden MaGroin
    “When you write something write it in an understandable way. ”

    Would anybody care to enlighten Holden as to the use of commas?

    Because these things seem to matter to Rotide and you.

    Clearly, not the fact that government ministers are lying through their teeth about “official figures,” which support their election desires.

    But you and Rotide must keep up this ridiculous strawman charade every time your puppet masters are challenged.

    Just try to maintain grammatical consistency when you’re calling people out on their grammar, won’t you?

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