Friday, 26 October 2012

The One-Sided Equation Trick

Drinks industry correspondent Phil Mellows has written a very good piece explaining how the debate about alcohol has departed from proper cost/benefit analysis, and instead become a political numbers game. It's worth reading in full, but this particular observation jumped out of the page.
One of the odd things that always struck me about the Sheffield modelling study, on which claims for the potential efficacy of minimum unit pricing is almost exclusively based, is the compulsive costing of everything, and it attracts particular attention from Makela
To take the most staggering example, Makela points out you can’t calculate the cost to society of people with alcohol problems becoming unemployed because someone else comes off the dole and takes the job. There’s a heavy loss to the individual but no loss to society. 
Yet in the Sheffield modelling no less than 75% of society’s gain from a 40p minimum price comes from a fictitious reduction in unemployment. 
Perhaps minimum pricing will work. Perhaps there is an ethical case for it. But spurious cost savings aren’t going to convince me.
He's right, of course. Public health is in the habit of grabbing any kind of dubious statistic to suit whichever cause they are advocating for at any one time, so it isn't surprising to know that Sheffield Uni are engaging in the time-honoured practice of the one-sided equation. There's more about their flawed 'science' here, and a little bit about their incompetence here.

"Spurious cost savings" is a very good description, especially since we've seen the same in reverse from the tobacco control lobby.

You see, while Sheffield are declaring that loss of earnings is a total disaster for the country, Policy Exchange in 2010 were pulling all manner of contortions to discount the same in their appalling "Cough Up" report. As I mentioned at the time.
Page 16 concludes that all these smokers giving up, while deletorious to the tobacco industry, will have an impact on the economy of £nil as the money will be spent elsewhere (the economic 'free lunch', benefits without corresponding cost). Conversely, however, the cost of cleaning up cigarette litter is valued at £342m with no reasonable assumption that the streets will still need to be swept anyway (unless there are dedicated fag butt sweepers paid £342m pa that I didn't know about).
You see, both cannot possibly be correct at the same time. What we are seeing is the one-sided equation when it suits them, and a two-sided one when that is the better option for their pre-conceived conclusion. Either Sheffield bods are negligent in not acknowledging that unemployment will lead to societal opportunities elsewhere, or Policy Exchange were negligent in stating that opportunities will occur elsewhere (while also stating that they, err, wouldn't).

Furthermore, Policy Exchange discounted profits made outside the UK - despite the fact that they are taxed here - and also ignored indirect costs (presumably because they didn't fit the agenda) in some places but included them in others.

It all points to the one conclusion, though. Public health will twist statistics to their own advantage, including or not including whatever they believe will gull politicians in favour of their case.

They're not interested in impartial analysis - never have been - just what statistical lies they can get away with.

If it were truly about health, they'd be honest, scrupulous and consistent in their methodology. The fact they aren't, proves that it isn't.


david said...

He's more than happy to accept the smoking ban though, mainly because it suited him even though it was based on similar dishonest tactics he highlights in his article.

I believe he blocked most comments....

PC covered it here -

Curmudgeon said...

While Phil does write some thoughtful stuff, as far as I can see no comments on his blog have ever been approved, which rather misses the point.

Incidentally, Dick, please bring back Blogger comments and scrap this useless system. While I supposedly have a Disqus account it rarely if ever actually lets me log on.

Anonymous said...

"If it were truly about health, they'd be honest, scrupulous and consistent in their methodology."

Bloody optimistic today aren't we? That's either extreme sarcasm or you've been hitting the sauce a bit too hard.

"If it were truly about health, they'd be as dishonest, unscrupulous and inconsistent in their methodology as they always are, to exaggerate their claims so as to be able to demand more control and more money as usual."

There, fixed it for you.

SteveW said...

Trouble is, they've realised that politicians and civil servants will just take whatever they churn out and repeat it, ad nauseam, with no form of fact checking. Why would they not tell the scariest story, the one most likely to get them more funding?