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Not polling to be proud of

A study on Black Britons and national pride is based on unreliable stats

If there is a god of irony, it must enjoy the fact that the best-known phrase on falsehood is usually pinned on the wrong person. Nobody knows conclusively where the complaint about “lies, damned lies and statistics” originates, but it’s unlikely that it started with Mark Twain.

Whilst Twain is credited with popularising the phrase in the US, he thought Benjamin Disraeli said it first. There’s no record of the prime minister doing so, and many competing accounts of who said it first, however, which suggests it could be misattribution all the way down.

Given his reputation, one suspects that the Earl of Beaconsfield would have been extremely relaxed about finessing the figures — and in the wrong trade if this wasn’t true. Whether you are a worshipper or rejecter of experts, almost everyone in politics is cooking the books.

Fudging the figures is so ubiquitous that no less an authority than the University of Cambridge can be compromised. England’s second university recently helped author the Black British Voices Project, described by backers at The Voice newspaper as “an opportunity for black people to define themselves” when it was launched last year.

There’s no shortage of white leftwingers who find British pride a bit squiffy

The recently released topline results make for uncomfortable reading. The report found that less than half of black people in the UK feel proud to be British, with campaigners quoted by The Guardian saying it provided evidence of “chronic level of racial disparities”.

No doubt there are gaps between racial groups in Britain, many of them longstanding. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that you can’t prove that from surveying one group, though — and the Black British Voices Project only accepted responses from those who defined themselves as black or black mixed-race.

That’s fine, given the project’s aim to highlight the perspectives of black Britons, but it makes it impossible to draw comparisons or claim disparities. How many ethnically white or Asian people in the UK are proud to be British? Those people were not asked.

Even anecdotally, there’s no shortage of white leftwingers who find British pride a bit squiffy. According to an Ipsos Mori survey from last year, only 60 per cent of Brits would rather be citizens of the UK than anywhere else, suggesting that black Britons are not the only ones lukewarm in their feelings about this country.

The inability to compare between ethnic groups also undercuts other figures that the report’s authors want us to be shocked by. To take one example, 98 per cent of survey respondents believe black people “have to compromise who they are in their workplace”, either by changing their clothing, hair or speech, or by fielding invitations for a swift one after work.

The survey can’t tell you if white people have similar experiences, though one expects the feeling is commonplace amongst every group. As a white, privately-educated southern Englishman, I’ve been known to make some concessions myself for the sake of employment: cutting my hair before job interviews, ironing the odd shirt and even refraining from quoting Bill Burr jokes.

Lack of comparison between racial groups isn’t even the worst problem with this report. Whilst news outlets have noted the 10,000 survey respondents, with The Guardian calling it the largest survey of its kind, a look at the methodology admits a severe problem: none of the data has been weighted to make it representative of black Britons overall.

The headline figures, repeated unthinkingly by journalists, are based on raw data that is only slightly more robust than a Twitter poll. As the report concedes, three-quarters of respondents were women, and a majority were aged between 45 and 64. Young black men, a key demographic when discussing racial discrimination in the UK, are underrepresented.

Claims about racism tend to generate more press than class gaps

Had the data been carefully weighed, “it would be possible to generate a closer match” to the black British population as a whole, the report authors note. What a pity they did not have the backing of the third best university in the world, which might well have had the expertise to help.

The lack of weighting is not a minor quibble: it means that every figure is pretty meaningless. What’s more, many of the respondents will have found the survey via The Voice, a self-consciously black British newspaper — which makes the survey akin to asking Telegraph readers whether they think woke politics is a threat to the nation. Would they read the paper if they didn’t?

It’s not as if the Black British Voices Project were an aberration when it comes to misusing figures and amplifying perceptions of racial unfairness. Earlier in September, the Ramblers non-profit group claimed that whiter areas of the UK have 144 per cent more local paths than the most ethnically diverse counterparts.

I’m reminded of an old XKCD comic, which mocks geographic profile maps that are “basically just population maps”. As the full Ramblers’ report details, the racial gap is explained by factors like rural-urban and class divides.

As any savvy comms professional knows, claims about racism tend to generate more press coverage than those about class gaps. As long as such reports provide fodder for TV debates and opinion pieces on whether the countryside is racist, people will continue to pitch them in this way.

It would nonetheless be nice if we could aspire to be better than this. Reports that mismeasure or misrepresent data do both their subjects and readers a disservice, dividing credulous believers from those inclined to spot shenanigans in every official statistic.

To channel Rishi Sunak, the media and those who feed it could do with some remedial maths lessons — with an emphasis on the statistics module. It’s the only way to bury the shoddy statistics along with the lies, damned or otherwise.

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