BTC: Stats can

Last month, I wrote a piece for the magazine about the Harper government approach to the truth—their spin on the idea of truthiness, as it were. Part of that piece picked up on something that was much more eloquently dissected by Dan Gardner in a January column for the Ottawa Citizen

What bewildered Dan was this bit from a speech by the Prime Minister to Conservative supporters in Ottawa.

“Canadians feel less safe than they once did … Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics. Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from the Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.’ But Canadians can see behind the curtain. They know there’s a problem.”

As Dan wrote at the time, this was “an epistemological claim of staggering primitiveness.”

And it will probably surprise you little to learn that Mr. Harper repeated the argument in a speech this month. But what’s surely all the more impressive is what he managed to say in between his two public pronouncements on the fallibility of statistical analysis in relation to crime.

First then, to his remarks of April 14 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, pegged to his announcement of new auto theft legislation.

“… despite great work by the Winnipeg Police Service in bringing down the numbers in recent years, this city still has one of the highest auto theft rates in the country. On average, at least one car is stolen every couple of hours in Winnipeg. And contrary to popular opinion, it’s not luxury sedans, sports cars and SUVs that make the ten most stolen list. In fact, a minivan is the vehicle most likely to be stolen…

“… if you add up all of the costs including treatment for people injured in stolen vehicle accidents, policing and court costs, as well as out-of-pocket expenses for things such as deductibles, it’s estimated that Candians pay more than $1 billion every year for the crime of auto theft. That’s not even counting higher insurance premiums. Auto theft costs the insurance industry over $600 million a year…”

“Roughly one in five cars stolen in Canada is linked to criminal gangs…”

A few months pass and he’s in Vaughan, Ontario, speaking at a gala for the Canadian Crime Victims Foundation. Different audience, different purpose.

“… It’s one thing that they, the criminals do not get it, but if you don’t mind me saying, another part of the problem for the past generation has been those, also a small part of our society, who are not criminals themselves, but who are always making excuses for them, and when they aren’t making excuses, they are denying that crime is even a problem: the ivory tower experts, the tut-tutting commentators, the out-of-touch politicians. ‘Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong,” they say. ‘Crime is not really a problem.’ I don’t know how you say that. I don’t know how you tell that to the families of the victims we saw on the screen today. These men, women and children are not statistics…”

A charitable observer might wonder why the Prime Minister keeps changing his attitude.


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