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You should march with the left and dine with the right, but beware of statistics

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Dinner with the quality: serpentine water carafes coil up from the polished tabletop, pheasant is bitten. I can’t remember who it was who advocated that you should march with the left and dine with the right but I’ve often concurred, taking the view that I personify the great tolerance of Britain by consenting to being regally entertained. Besides, there is a degree of truth in the view that while the left are worthier, the right are wittier.

I’m generalising: within the categories of “left” and “right” there is considerable variation in good humour, dependent in a large part on whether individuals have, or have not. Some 82 per cent of Tories with incomes lower than the national average laugh seldom or not at all; while 74 per cent of Labour voters who pay the highest rate of income tax have seen every episode of Peep Show. Not that I believe Peep Show to be an infallible litmus test for a sense of humour – although being a higher-rate-tax-payer anarchist myself, I strongly identify with the character of Super Hans – but I think we can all agree that the credibility of any statistic rests to a great extent (studies suggest as high as 86 per cent), on the conviction with which it is uttered.

That there are three kinds of lies: the ordinary kind, the damned kind and statistics, is a universal truth. The line was attributed by Mark Twain in his autobiography to Disraeli, but the earliest appearance in print is a transcript of an 1895 speech by the Liberal politician Leonard Courtney. That this same bearded weirdo two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society tells us all we need to know about High Victorian – and Liberal – hypocrisy. If, say, 40 or 50 per cent of the people who had coined the expression were themselves statisticians, we’d begin to register concern, but for 100 per cent of the people who first said “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” to be prominent statisticians seems to give the lie, conclusively, to any kind of statistical truth.

Yet we remain prisoners of the bell curve, concentrated inside its bellying walls; which brings me back to the dinner table. My neighbour was a prominent journalist: a maker of current-affairs documentaries and an author of tomes. Of the rightward tendency, certainly (although not notably funny), but with leavening libertarian characteristics. His entire career has been founded on the factual and its political import, which is why, when the pseudo-subject of the Islamisation of Britain came up, it was bizarre to hear him fling this statistic down as if it were a trump card: “10 per cent”.

This, in response to my asking him what he thought the proportion of British Muslims was to the general population. In fact, the Pew Research Centre’s 2010 study puts the figure at 2.4 million or 4.6 per cent. The Daily Mail, in 2011, built on the Pew figures – assuming a continuing higher British Muslim birth rate and substantial immigration – to forecast a 10 per cent Muslim population in 2030.

The Pew Research Center is, by the way, one of those “think tanks” set up as retirement homes for US politicians and funded by plutocrats, but even so, let’s just assume that their figures are right; this still makes my wayward dining companion out by a whopping 50 per cent. I suppose one should pity someone maddened by a purely statistical crowd – but unfortunately my 50 per cent friend exemplifies the way the haut always conceive of the bas, which is as an undifferentiated and faceless mass. I write as someone who has no more time for repressive Islam than he does for repressive Christianity or Judaism but at least look at the face in the hijab – and try to imagine the one beneath the niqab – before you depersonalise its wearer.

Not only is the statistical madness an assault on individuality, it’s also one on temporality too. Statistics – even when accurate – are only an image of the past that can then be Photoshopped before being pasted on to the future. Who’s to say that the vast majority of British Muslims won’t spontaneously recant and convert to being Jedi or wishywashy Anglicans or Dawkinsian atheists by the time 2030 rolls around? Of all people, my interlocutor should have understood the real cultural arithmetic; after all, there he was sitting in his cords and V-neck at table with the quality, and cheerily bigoted. It was an impressive piece of assimilation for the son of someone who arrived here on a Kinder-transport.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone