Number of the Month

September  2002

Professional foul

When the progress of western society began to go into reverse, in about 1982, the changes were reflected in the alteration of the meanings of words. One of the words most affected was professional. The definition was always rather loose, but it implied that someone had served some sort of apprenticeship, formal or informal, and had developed early experience under tutelage. Now it simply means that one is paid.

One of the most significant changes has been in the arena of politics. Almost all civilisations have been governed by the elders, those who have developed experience of how the world and society work. From the earliest forms of democratic parliament, as pioneered by the likes of Simon de Montfort, members were men who had made their way in the world and had experience to offer. The mode of working of Parliament was such as to foster the continuation of members in earning their living by practising their true profession. Political leaders were people who had proved themselves in business, battle or other fields of life. Now they have merely served a token term in legal chambers, lecturing or some similar activity and become parliamentary candidates while they are still in their twenties, never having done a real job for any significant period. Professional politicians have optimised their working conditions, particularly and spectacularly their remuneration, so that they have no need to earn their living the way their voters have to. Even more egregious are the teeming new breed of political advisers, who go straight into highly paid and powerful jobs, often fresh out of university, and expect to get their turn at safe seats when their turn comes.

Is it any wonder that politics is dominated by impractical theories and undeliverable promises? It is no accident that Britain’s New Labour has ageism built into it: the mantra was New Labour, Young Labour. Experience is anathema to the new masters.

The scene is similar in academia. No longer do aspiring professors build up a solid reputation and expertise by years of patient application. Instead they plunge immediately into research grant applications for short-term projects in whatever areas the bureaucrats currently favour and churn out the requisite number of papers per annum as dictated by the Research Assessment Exercise. They are measured solely by how much money they bring in. The word scholarship is now an unused archaism. Much of what they do is not research at all by any traditional definition. Real research is a risky enterprise haunted by possibility of failure, for which there used to be no dishonour. Now the result is foreseeable at the outset; otherwise grants are not forthcoming. Academics change subjects as readily as a flea changes dogs. Many work in institutes that are not set up to further human knowledge, but rather to generate propaganda for a hypothesis that finds bureaucratic favour.

It is much the same in industry. Although there was always a proportion of company directors who were there because of who they were or who they knew, there was always a solid core who had served their time in the particular industry and knew what they were talking about. That was before the emergence of the fundamental myth of management, that you did not need to know anything about an activity in order to manage it. So whether it was a whelk stall or a giant motor manufacturer, as long as you had the required MBA or had developed sufficient street cred, you were in. The fact is that any fool can run a business in times of boom. When the chips are really down it is another matter. Large corporations took to looking for charismatic Chief Executive Officers who could talk up the share price, and of course the shareholders eventually paid the price. The rewards for failure are remarkably high. Incompetents who ruin large enterprises (such as Marconi) walk away with enough riches to live the rest of their lives in comfort, while their victims (employees, shareholders and pensioners) face poverty.

The undermining of the professions in the UK was a deliberate act. Margaret Thatcher took on board the Shavian dictum that All professions are conspiracies against the laity, and set about dismantling them. Professional bank managers once took pride in providing a service to their customers; now managerless banks exist merely to exploit their staff and customers for the highest possible profit. Lawyers in Britain were (on the whole) honest and straightforward servants of their clients; now they are just as corrupt and venal as those in the American system that was so eagerly copied. Stockbrokers were caricatures of dull propriety; now they ruthlessly push shares they know are worthless for the sake of a quick buck. Engineers build bridges that would be more in place in a fun fair and computer systems that stop from the word go.

What has all this to do with Number Watch? It is the fact that all these unreal activities have to be propped up by an elaborate structure of fantasy. The truth that they are unworkable has to be covered up by an ever-growing network of deceptions, evasions and downright lies. Sometimes there is a rude intrusion of reality, as has occurred recently in the industrial scene, but with determination and the cooperation of the ever helpful media, the illusion can be maintained almost indefinitely. There is always one small boy who inconveniently points out that the king has no clothes, but in the hubbub can anyone hear him?

Britannia waives the rules

A collector's item of statistical abuse is aired by New Labour BBC. Seizing upon a bit of academic nonsense from Australia, they claim to show that the suicide rate is higher under Conservative Governments. Looking at the raw data we can see that it is just a normal sequence of random numbers. Most of the numbers lie within a ten percent range, which is normal variation for almost any measured quantity in the biological or economic world. Outside this range there are three minima, which correspond to two world wars and the premiership of Conservative Edward Heath. There are also two maxima, one corresponding to the great depression under a coalition government led by Labour 's Ramsay McDonald and one to a time of great social upheaval under Conservative Harold McMillan. Even if we waive the rule that RRs of less than two are unacceptable, the point is not made, yet the conclusion is that 35,000 people have died unnecessarily because Conservatives were in power. Utterly contemptible!

The other major naiveté in such "research" is that it ignores the time element. The time lag between cause and effect in political action can be years. All governments take advantage of this fact by blaming all the shortcomings on the previous administration for a period of three years or more. Furthermore,  it is often the putting right of  the effects of bad government that causes most pain. It is just another symptom of the decay in academia that it joins in such cheap and empty propaganda. The McMillan government was possibly one of the least dreadful of them all, mainly because the Prime Minister was inherently lazy, an excellent attribute in a politician, since most political action proves disastrous.

Jobs for the boys

Headline in The Times (September 12) UK unemployment drops to the lowest level in 27 years. Yet, as The Times business editor, Patience Wheatcroft points out, there is less to this than meets the eye. There was a net increase of 3,000 jobs, but 124,000 new jobs were recorded in the public sector, which means that a further 121,000 jobs vanished from the private sector. This is a fine example of the principle of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. What are these new public sector jobs? Well, you only have to pick up a copy of the New Labour Guardian on any Wednesday to find out. On September 18 there were no less than 117 pages of advertisements for public sector jobs. Many of the job titles are meaningless to those of us who are politically incorrect. They include Executive Director - learning and ambitions (£100k), Corporate Director of Resources,  Older People Services Director, Community Safety Manager, Youth Service Manager, Head of Healthy Living and Sport, Strategic  Commissioning & Performance Manager - Children, Supporting People Project Officer, Consents Manager, Senior Neighbourhood Officer, Rural Renaissance Manager, Positive Action Worker, Team Leader (Sustainability), Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Youth Worker, Antisocial Behaviour Co-ordinator, Neighbourhood Facilitation Advisor, Black and Ethnic Minority Officer, Senior Parent Advisor, Senior Play Development Officer, Twinning Officer, Young Lesbian and Bisexual Women's Health Worker and on and on and on.

To pay someone £100,000 a year in the public sector, even neglecting overheads, requires at least ten ordinary people in productive jobs contributing all their taxes. If the number of people paying the taxes is continually decreasing and the number of people living off them is continually increasing, are there not inevitable consequences?


Reader David Gillies from Costa Rica draws attention to a fine example of post modern mathematics in an article on child poverty from the Daily Telegraph:

The official definition of poverty used in Britain is that any family living on less than "60 per cent of the median income" is poor. Median income is measured by halving the difference between the incomes of the highest- and lowest-paid people in Britain.

For a rather less creative discussion see June 2000.

Extrapolation of the century

It could only be  Nigel (thousands to die) Hawkes - Up to 7,000 may have caught CJD and not know it - The Times, September 20. 8318 samples of human tissue were examined for the presence of the prion believed to cause CJD  and one gave a positive result. The promoters of the CJD scare have long been a disappointed bunch: the millions they predicted have so far turned out to be a mere (but nevertheless piteously tragic) one hundred odd. Producing any sort of extrapolation from a sample of one, however, seems to indicate a condition verging on the desperate.

What do they do with the rest of their time?

British journalists used to be notorious for spending their time getting drunk in the bars around Fleet Street. Now in the era of political correctness few of them do that. When you scan the papers they seem nowadays to produce the odd few paragraphs here and there and then get it wrong. Last month we featured an article by two journalists in which the numbers, available from the original press release, were quoted incorrectly. How can anyone write a paragraph using a word (however unfamiliar) such as median and then give a ludicrously incorrect definition? How can an award winning science correspondent produce such guff as the above? Writing a couple of paragraphs from a press release must take all of ten minutes. Your bending author would love to know how they while away the time. At least there is something positive about getting drunk.

The ingrates!

Blow, blow thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude

As you like it

 400,000 is the number of people who took part in the march through London in the Liberty and Livelihood demonstration on September 22nd. What is the matter with them? Their Government goes to a lot of trouble to set up a socialist paradise for them to live in and they behave like this. There is nothing more despicable than the politics of envy. Just because the Prime Minister and his wife earn as much in a week as a farmer can earn in a year, they think they have an excuse to take to the streets. They think the Government do not care about the countryside. Why, then, do they think that the ruling party puts so much time and effort into the welfare of those cuddly little foxes that are such a delightful feature of the rural scene? OK, so they inadvertently slaughtered a few million farm animals for no particular reason and put thousands of rural workers out of jobs; you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Government ministers care a great deal about the countryside. After all that is where they spend their weekends; and they make sure that it is not made untidy by all those malodorous active farmyards, to say nothing of village pubs, police stations and post offices. These people say they don’t want to be dependent on subsidies; then have the audacity to complain when ministers fail to apply for those that are available from those kind people at the EU. Anyway, the Government has been equally successful in closing down thousands of industrial jobs and you don’t see those people out on the streets. No, they get on their bikes and take up the thousands of jobs that are available as social workers, snoopers, bullies and other pillars of society. So let us hear no more whingeing and a few more cheers for our caring masters.


Here is an explanation of two eccentricities of British English that have caused some confusion of late:

Whinge was originally a dialect word from the same root as whine (Old English hwinen to whine or Old Norse hvina). It is now widely used in British English to mean perpetual complaining and is frequently applied by politicians to those of us who fail to appreciate their efforts.

 League Table is a term in British English originally to describe rankings as used in sports leagues but now of much wider application. In the early 1980s, football in Britain divided into two camps. The rather dubious legend is that one William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it in 1823 at Rugby School. Whatever happened there were two creeds Rugby Union and Association Football. They became known in school and university slang as Rugger and Soccer. After much bitter wrangling about professionalism in soccer, the Football League was born in 1888. The winner of the League Championship was determined by the League Table at the end of the season.

In Britain of the 1980s the myth that everything can and should be measured came to be a fundamental tenet of politics and it was particularly strongly adopted by the neo-Thatcherites of the 1990s. Ranking things became an obsession and the term league tables was applied to almost everything (schools, universities, hospitals etc.) and it was seized with enthusiasm by New Labour when it came to power.

Observing the effects of this activity led your bending author to formulate the following (in Sorry, wrong number!):

Brignell’s law of league tables

All measures used as the basis of a league table always improve.

Corollary 1
All other measures get worse to compensate.

Corollary 2
What you measure is what you get.


Neuroscience unlocks a load of old cobblers and Nature publishes it.

Each way bet

If it gets warm it is due to global warming. If it gets cold it is due to global warming. In other words - heads we win tails you lose.

A mysterious outbreak of truth

Praise be! The Mail has discovered another journalist, in addition to Melanie Phillips, who can see beyond the press release at the end of his nose. He is Stewart Steven, who produced a trenchant article (September 29th) headlined Governing by numbers just doesn’t add up. Readers of Number Watch or the associated book will be familiar with the argument, but here is someone saying it a national newspaper, and he does not pull his punches – “….these days all, I repeat all, Government statistics are wholly bogus.”

And there’s more

“Why would a police chief who knows his career depends upon it, not massage his detection rate? Why should a hospital chief executive tell the truth when he is on a massive bonus not to – and when he knows the truth cannot be revealed by mere number-crunching? The Government is genuinely baffled by all this. Its figures show that things are getting better. Our experience is that things are getting worse.

They say we are influenced by unrepresentative and anecdotal information. We know that the truth is usually to be found on the streets, seldom in Government statistics.

It reminds me of the foot-and- mouth catastrophe. The Government constantly told us the outbreak was under control. Every farmer said it wasn't. The Government had its figures. The farmers had their ears, eyes and years of experience. We now know who was wrong.

So what is the result? Believing in its statistics rather than in its professionals, the Government seems increasingly to be wrong-footed as the facts stubbornly refuse to conform to their story. It tries to stop the rot by intervening. What on earth has the Education Secretary got to do with the marking of A-levels? Why can't a small army of Ministers make any impact upon the railways?” and so on.

Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 Number of the month 560

560 is the number of years since substantial snow fell so early in Munich. This is not so remarkable as the fact that the matter was reported in The Times. Was it a breakdown in the self-censorship that imposes ratchet reporting of the weather, or had nobody bothered to explain to Paul Simons the importance of only reporting unusual warm spells in order to prop up the global warming myth? Simons provides interesting and entertaining daily “Weather Eye” vignettes on the back page of the newspaper.

Certainly 1442 provided a remarkably cruel winter. Snow was on the ground for eight months and the major European rivers were frozen for three months. They were hard times, when the European wine vineyards were decimated and there was widespread hardship. Simons compounded his apostasy by referring to the Little Ice Age, which in the global warmers’ canon never happened, despite the fact that it is well attested in both history and art. There were frost fairs held on the river Thames in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1715, 1739, and 1789, the last being held in 1814, when people were able to walk from Queenhithe to the opposite bank. There was a well-documented lack of sunspots during this period.

The other weather entertainment on The Times back page is the five-day forecast, which takes the form of five little pictures along the top of the page. It is amusing to observe the way the picture for a particular day changes as it moves from right to left. The people who can tell you what the climate is going to do in a hundred years time cannot get it right for five days time.

On the other hand

Reader Peter Hearnden queried this story with the German weather service and received the following response:

Dear Mr. Hearnden,
 In Munich it snowed last time on Sept 1954 29rd, but only for about 10 minutes, the ground was not covered with snow. In the year 1931 it snowed on Sept 23rd, and it became a cover of snow of 2 cm in the morning of Sept 24rd.
This year it snowed in the evening of Sept 24rd without covering the ground.
Sincerely Yours
Gerhard Hofmann
Leiter des RGB München

Sorry, wrong number!