Thursday 23 December 2010

Crap predictions

As any pedant will tell you, we are now in the last month of the first decade of the century. And so, on that tenuous note, let's revisit some of worst predictions for what would happen by 2010. In Britain.

Over at Spiked, Rob Lyons rightly lays into the myth of the obesity time-bomb, which was only ever the result of taking existing trends and making the bone-headed assumption that they will continue at the same pace forever. Some readers will recall Caroline "window dressing" Flint predicting that there would be 13 million obese adults in the UK by 2010.

The report warns that, based on current trends, 33% of men and 28% of women will be obese by 2010. The government says it is the "most accurate estimate so far" of future obesity rates.

The data is published just days after a "minister for fitness" was appointed.

Unless a lot of people hit the turkey and mince pies in a big way over the next two weeks, this prediction looks to be what it has always been: a scare story based on junk statistics. As Rob points out:

According to the lastest results from the Health Survey for England, regarded as the best source of information on the topic, obesity rates have fallen. Yet you could have been forgiven for failing to notice: it’s barely been reported. After all the sensationalist headlines over the past few years about an ‘obesity timebomb’, would it be too much to expect some balanced reporting over the fact that the aforementioned explosive might not be going off after all?

Of course, the powers that be can always say that they prevented the obesity time-bomb by taking action, to which Brian of Nazareth might cry "well, what sort of chance does that give me?" In fact, the decline in obesity began before Jamie Oliver got involved and before the middle-class media started sneering at parents in Rotherham. The obesity time-bomb didn't happen because it was never going to.

And what has happened to the binge-drinking epidemic that was supposed to follow the introduction of the wildly misnamed "24 hour drinking"? As Monsieur Puddlecote and myself never tire of saying, it never happened. Whether one looks at alcohol sales, per capita alcohol consumption or self-reported drinking levels, the story of the decade has been one of falling consumption. And as Dick has recently noted, police arrests for drunk and disorderly have also fallen throughout the decade. But who cares about these silly things called 'facts' when the media can show some ropey bird in high heels lying on a bench with a bottle of WKD beside her?

The tabloid version of "Binge Britain" (another classic panic phrase) is not, and never has been, the truth. And as our present recedes into the past, the hysteria is already being documented by sociologists. Rather marvellously, for those who vividly remember the prophecies of doom when the Licensing Act was passed in 2003, the whole thing is already going down in history as a great British moral panic. A study by Henry Yeomans in Sociological Research provides an academic discussion of the frenzy and reminds us of the drivel that was spouted at the time:

The Licensing Act 2003 was speculatively linked to a projected explosion of violence, sexual assault and general disorder. On the eve of the Act coming into effect, The Sun reported in battle-ready terms the creation of a ‘field hospital’ in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to handle the imminent ‘casualties of 24-hour drinking’ (Perrie, 2005). Of course the press may be prone to sensationalism, but it was not just the Daily Mail who believed that ‘the binge is about to become an uncontrolled riot of drunkenness’ (Daily Mail, 2005). David Blunkett MP described the Act as ‘a leap in the dark’ that risked worsening crime problems (Daily Mail, 2005) and Mark Oaten MP claimed that ‘when the problem is running out of control in our town centres, extending drinking hours to twenty four hours a day is madness’ (Plant & Plant, 2006: 100).

It all seems like yesterday, doesn't it? All those predictions of "urban savages", mayhem and an epidemic of drunkenness, alcoholism and disorder. In some sections of the press, the panic endures, even as alcohol consumption falls year after year (with the steepest fall in 62 years coming in 2009). Perpetuating the fear is an easy job since—as Tom Papworth wrote at Liberal Vision —"it is these days very easy to send a film crew down to a town centre and film a few dozen people behaving badly, and extrapolate this to the wider country."

Yeomans paper (which is worth reading in full) explains the panic in terms of Protestant asceticism and the 'Iron Cage of Temperance'.

This paper views the reaction to the implementation of licensing reforms in 2005 as a moral panic for two reasons. Firstly, it was an intensified period of concern about alcohol use in Britain within longer term processes that have constructed alcohol as a social problem.

Secondly, the reaction appears irrational and disproportionate to the level of threat actually posed. This is partly because of the diminutive number and length of licence extensions granted and also due to the negligible effect on crime and disorder. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s evaluation of the Licensing Act 2003 found no uniform detrimental effects (DCMS, 2008) and Home Office statistics show that crime levels continued to fall from 2005 to 2008 (Kershaw et al, 2008).

Although it is easier to appreciate in retrospect, the mayhem widely predicted clearly did not materialise. In the absence of any rational support for the public outrage, this paper thus seeks a moral and ideological explanation for the events of 2005.

And finally, as Britain endures its coldest December for a century—and its third "unusually cold" winter in a row—this gem from The Independent in 2000 has become rather popular on Twitter. You need to read the whole thing to fully appreciate the hubris, but this gives a flavour:

According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia,within a few years winter snowfall will become "a very rare and exciting event".

"Children just aren't going to know what snow is," he said...

The chances are certainly now stacked against the sortof heavy snowfall in cities that inspired Impressionist painters, such as Sisley, and the 19th century poet laureate Robert Bridges, who wrote in "London Snow" of it, "stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying".

Not any more, it seems.

Merry Christmas to all readers. I'll be back in a few days with the worst junk science of 2010.


Curmudgeon said...

How long to go before the Great Global Warming scare goes the same way?

Anonymous said...

One more cold winter and even the thickest of the sheeple will twig their being had.
Next winter will be just as bad .
Looks like were going into solar minimum.
Madness how so called quack climate scientists ignore something that is as mind bogglingly big as a star.
Are they thick or what ?
No not thick ,on the make more like.
No wonder they get on so well with the majority of politicians

Anonymous said...

Health Survey smoking prevalence for 2009 stubbornly stuck at 22% for third consecutive year.

Chris Oakley said...

Merry Christmas Chris and thank you for your contribution to the causes of truth, justice and reason throughout 2010.

I think it fairly safe to predict that(insert name of government funded pressure group) will continue to lie throughout 2011, that parliament will continue to pander to vocal minorities rather than exploring the realms of fact and that the BBC will continue to treat all those who hold a medical degree together with unqualified spin doctors from favoured “charities” as infallible "experts" on just about anything.

Have a good one.

ftumch said...

Merry Xmas Chris,

I got your book today, in spite of the postal back-log. Good stuff, tho you preach to the converted here. I just wanted to show my support.

Keep up the fight.

And eat your sprouts.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it sbout time that we had a reverse hockey stick graph?

Best wishes to all.


jredheadgirl said...

Merry Christmas Chris!

JJ said...

Crap all round I would say!

Merry Christmas

david c said...

Happy Christmas. Thanks for all your work on junk science - keep it up! Best wishes for 2010.

Malenfant said...

A FFS moment for boxing day:Tasmania faces outright smoking ban.

Quote "... If Burnie City Council gets its way, the sale, possession and consumption of cigarettes would be illegal Tasmania-wide. Even back gardens, the last refuge of dedicated puffers, would be smoke-free. Smokers would be forced to go cold turkey – or emigrate to the mainland. ..."


There's just no stopping these tossers!

Doubting Richard said...

Sorry to be a pedant, but the first decade of the century still has a year to run. Good points abound elsewhere, but contrary to the left-wing educational dogma being correct is important.

Curmudgeon said...

"Sorry to be a pedant, but the first decade of the century still has a year to run."

No, even if you take the view that the century starts on 1 January 2001, the first decade covers the ten years from 1 January 2001 to 31 December 2010.