The risks of imprecision

When being half-right can be worse than being wrong.

Chris Dillow has a nice post up, "in praise of imprecision". He argues that, in far too many situations, we argue over tiny differences in estimates when the overall answer is basically known. What's GDP growth for last year? It's basically flat. Yet for all the arguments, you would think that the difference between -0.3 and -0.1 per cent – or even between -0.1 and 0.1 – was the difference between life and death.

He illustrates this with a few neat little guesstimates. For instance:

How much does welfare scrounging cost the economy? Guesstimate the number of scroungers. Guesstimate the value-added they'd contribute if they were working. Express as a proportion of GDP. For plausible values, it's a small number.

Or:

What impact will the small uprating in the minimum wage have on jobs? The adult rate will rise by 1.9%. Economists forecast inflation this year of 2.5%, so this is roughly a 0.6% real fall. Let's call the price-elasticity of demand for labour 1.5. The Low Pay Commission estimates (pdf) that 5.3% of jobs are around minimum wage ones. Multiply these three numbers together and we get 0.048%. Multiply by the number of jobs in the economy (29.73m) and we have roughly 14,000.That's roughly one-eleventh of the sampling variability of employment figures.

It's worth pointing out that the same idea has been applied pretty consistently to the claim that families with three generations of worklessness are a public policy problem. We don't know how many there are – and nor does the government, we now know – but study after study has suggested that the number is tiny.

There are only 15,000 households with two generations which have never worked, and a third of them are because the younger generation left full time education within the last year. On top of that, less than 1 per cent of young people have never worked by the age of 29, so the younger generation is normally the one most likely to pull a family out of worklessness. Whatever the number is, in other words, it's really, really small.

But it's important to note the downside to imprecision. The way common knowledge is disproved is rarely through wholesale upheaval. Instead, it's a gradual process of refinement: new estimates are put out, slightly lower than the old ones; then lower estimates still; and they get steadily lower, until suddenly you realise that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

It's a lot harder to turn an estimate of "recession" into an estimate of "growth" through gradual refinement than it is to turn an estimate of "-0.3 per cent" into one of "0.5 per cent". So there's more of a danger that we'll be stuck with half-truths.

But with that danger in mind, the absence of accepted imprecision is still keenly felt in Whitehall. Too frequently, "no statistics" is used to imply "we have no idea of the magnitude of this problem" – but that's not true. We actually know quite a lot, albeit imprecisely. The trick is acting on it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution