Monday, 16 August 2010

Brothers in Arms, Creative Darts, and Connie's Take On Statistics

Igor comes in to the office first thing. Again. He wants The Boss to get him a job as a postman, and brings bribes - sorry, I mean gifts. Three bottles of Vodka, and a fedora hat the same as his own. The Boss is vocal in his thanks for the alcohol, but seems less sure about the hat. He sneaks it onto my desk behind a pile of filing when Igor suggests they go and have "breakfast-lunch" together. I wait until Andrew thinks he's got away with it, and is about to go out of the door, then I run after him and say,

"Don't forget your hat!"

"Oh, don't worry, Molly. I'll be back to get it later." The Boss tries to walk on, but Igor's having none of it. He takes the hat from my hand, crams it onto Andrew's head, and says,

"There, my friend. Now we look like the brothers we are - in our hearts."

"You look more like the bloody Chuckle Brothers to me," says Greg, but they've already gone.

I hang out of the window to watch them walk along the street below. They look ridiculous. Igor simply because he's Igor, and The Boss because he's in his usual crumpled outfit of mismatched trousers and jacket, topped with the ludicrous hat. He seems to be trying to lag behind Igor, and keeps taking sneaky sidelong glances into the shop windows, as if to confirm what he already knows: that he looks a total prat. This is going to be a good day.

And so it proves to be. Only an average number of abusive phone-calls, just one threatening message left on the answer-phone, and less than the usual number of spam emails too. Greg and I power through our work, and even manage a game of darts at lunchtime. Greg gets a bullseye several times, so we have to replace the photo of Andrew with a new one, as his nose has been obliterated by the holes. I am more artistic than Greg, and manage to position a feather dart earring on each of Andrew's ears. They'd look great with the hat.

Now I come to think of it, Igor could prove to be a real bonus during the rest of Recess. Mid-afternoon, The Boss phones and says,

"Everything okay there?" He sounds knackered.

"Yes, thanks," I say. "Where are you? You've got that meeting here in an hour."

"Is there any way we could cancel it? I feel rather worn out and think I might work from home for the rest of the day. Igor was a bit much."

"Well, the chairman of the Mental Health Trust will no doubt be distraught to miss the sight of you in your lovely new hat," I say. "But I suppose I can cancel, if you insist."

"Do that, then," Andrew says. "If you can manage without me, that is."

"Oh, I think we can," I say."So you won't be back at all today?"

"No," says The Boss, almost in a whimper. "Bye, then. See you tomorrow."

I put the phone down and punch the air, while Greg whoops and does his version of Igor's Russian dance. This reminds me of my nightmare so I make him stop.

I actually finish work on time, and am really glad to get home. Connie arrives shortly after I do - now that she has finally grasped the concept of flexi-time, this happens more often. We sit down to watch the news together, then she says,


"Yes, Con?"

"Political question."

"Con, it's very nice of you to take an interest, but you really don't have to."

"No, I am interested. It's about these benefit fraud figures they keep quoting on the news."

"Oh, yes?"

"Well, if they know exactly how much money benefit fraud costs the taxpayer, then doesn't that mean that they must know who's committing the frauds and how much they're each getting away with?"

"Er - I have no idea. I've never thought of it like that before." I say. Good point. How do they know?

"Well, either they know about it, in which case why don't they just do something about it - and tax fraud too - or they don't know. In which case they must just be guessing and pretending they aren't. Mustn't they?" Sometimes it takes Connie's highly-literal brain to see what normal people's don't.

But I'm too relaxed after today to be capable of deep thought. Or even the shallow kind.

"Well, then they must be guessing, Con. After all, they've pretty much had to do that about the size of the population for the last God knows how many years."

"Well, they shouldn't present it as fact, then - should they?" says Connie. "They should call it a guesstimate."

I must get her a copy of that brilliant old book on how to lie with statistics. In case she ever wants to go into politics.


  1. Well, why not tell Connie to look at the DWP website. Their reports on "Fraud and Error in the Benefits System" are available to read and download.

    They make it clear that these figures are estimates. They set out the methodology used to make the estimates (for the most important benefits, detailed examination of random samples of claims). They cover, and distinguish between, overpayment due to claimant error, official error and fraud. They also cover underpayment.

    The answer to Connie's point - if they know how much the fraud is then they must know who is doing it - is that they only get the statistics by deep and expensive case-by-case analysis. To identify all the fraudsters would involve the same deep analysis of every single claim - this would be a massive and disproportionately expensive exercise. If Connie has been taught any statistics she will understand that a useful estimate can be obtained by analysing, say, a few thousand cases, perhaps less than a thousand. This will only identify a tiny proportion of actual fraudsters but will give guidance on the aspects of the system vulnerable to fraud and the characteristics of those committing it - characteristics other than just being a claimant!

    I don't want to be hard on the poor girl and I know they don't get taught much nowadays but I thought they were at least taught how to use the internet and formulate an effective Google search.

  2. Thank you for your very comprehensive comment - do you work for the DWP?! As for Connie, I don't normally require my kids to ensure that they have carried out comprehensive research before making a passing comment in the privacy of their own homes - but maybe I should. In fact, it would be very helpful if this could also be a requirement upon constituents, before they are allowed to contact their MPs ;-)

  3. "Thank you for your very comprehensive comment - do you work for the DWP?! "

    No, never worked anywhere near DWP or socil policy - I'm just an elderly retired person. My comment was the result of about 10 minutes research triggered by my expectation that using the internet to seek original sources of such statistics might answer the questions. If oldies like me can answer these questions so easily then our hyper-IT qualified children and grandchildren should also be able to do so. OK, I understand enough maths and statistics to know that small random samples can provide valid predictions of the characteristics of large populations - but I'd got the impression that lots of kids are taught that too, nowadays.

  4. Aside from the fact that Connie's comment was made in passing, as previously mentioned, the substance of her point, i.e. that the figures given are estimates rather than documented fact , remains valid - as far as I can see? Possibly informed estimates, but none the less, estimates.

  5. In response to Anonymous's comments, do you spend 10 minutes researching everything before you speak a single word?! If so, you must not spend much time chatting to people (as you would have to be constantly double-checking every thought before it passed your lips), or you are a blatant hypocrite.

    Get over yourself and give the poor girl a break. As Molly says, it was just a passing comment/thought.