A poll about murder... maybe they’re onto something

How can 94.4% of PN voters believe it was the government, while 22.2% – of the same pool of voters, please note – think it was the Opposition who killed Daphne Caruana Galizia?

It seems that 94.4% of Nationalist voters in the last election believe that ‘Government was behind Daphne’s murder’
It seems that 94.4% of Nationalist voters in the last election believe that ‘Government was behind Daphne’s murder’

I shall have to start this article by confessing that I never really understood the fine art (sorry, ‘science’) of statistics. And like many other people confronted by things they don’t immediately understand… I tend to dismiss the whole shebang as a load of hocus pocus.

To cite one example: on my travels in cyberspace, I recently encountered an online ‘Top 50 list’ of the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Animals’: categorised in order of their presumed threat-levels to human life and limb; and complete with a warning that… ‘the results may surprise you’.

I suppose it’s my fault for being suckered by such an obvious case of click-bait: but among the list’s more ‘surprising’ conclusions was that you are around 99.999% more likely to be killed by ‘your own dog’… than by ‘a lion’.

Erm… really? You don’t say. Could it perchance have something to do with the fact that you are also 99.999% more likely to actually own a pet dog… than a pet F***KING LION?! Coupled with the fact that – unless you happen to be a zoo-keeper, a circus animal handler, a big-game hunter, a poacher or a Masai from Western Kenya – your chances of ever even encountering a member of the species ‘Felis leo’ (still less getting killed by one) are, and will always be, practically ZERO?

Same with great white sharks, naturally (and polar bears, and crocodiles... but let’s limit ourselves to a few choice specimens). Apparently, great white sharks are a lot less dangerous than… horses. Which of course comes as an intense surprise, because – unless there has been an evolutionary quantum leap while I wasn’t looking, enabling great white sharks to crawl onto dry land – to be attacked by a shark, you actually have to be in the water yourself. And that automatically rules out all those billions of people around the world who have never swum once in their lives: either because they can’t, or because they live thousands of miles from the nearest beach.

Meanwhile, those who can and do swim (or dive, or surf, etc.) would still have to be unlucky enough to share their bathing space with one of the world’s rarest and most elusive marine predators. And even with both those factors firmly in place, there remains a fair chance that the shark would have bigger fish to fry anyway, and simply ignore you.

Compare that to your chances of one day getting too close to a horse that might kick you, or otherwise trample you to death. It is admittedly unlikely for most of us… at least, those of us who don’t cross the road while the Mnarja horse-races are in full swing… but how many people around the world live and work surrounded by horses on a daily basis? Farmers, ranchers, jockeys, show-jumpers, riding trainers, polo-players, mounted policemen, drivers of horse-drawn carriages... they all run that risk practically every day. Nobody in the world – not even Jacques Cousteau or Steve Irwin – could possibly say the same about great white sharks.

So yes, of course the number of people killed by horses annually is going to be much, much higher than the death toll accruing from all recorded great white shark attacks in history put together. I would have been surprised – ‘neigh’, astounded – had it been the other way round.

But the real problem is slightly more insidious than that. Statistical probabilities aside… how the bleeding hell can you possibly look at the above fatality statistics – which, by the way, I do not even remotely question – and come to the bizarre conclusion that dogs (or horses) are 99% more dangerous than lions (or great white sharks)… on an individual specimen level?

Well, it’s a very easy hypothesis to put to the test. Imagine you are faced with a choice of crossing one of two fields: the first has a sign saying, ‘Beware of the dog’… and the second, ‘Beware of the lion.’ Be honest, now: which field would you sooner walk across without a rifle or armed escort?

And it gets even more bizarre with the other two ‘dangerous animals’ (because let’s face it: though less intimidating than a lion, I wouldn’t take my chances with a random, unknown dog either). The choice is now between swimming across a stretch of water patrolled by a great white shark… and… um… walking through a paddock full of horses.

Gee, that’s a tough one, innit? Thank goodness, it’s not the sort of decision we all have to face each time we go to work…

But in any case: by now you will surely have spotted the flaw in the statistical reasoning. The calculation is based simply on a straight comparison between the annual fatalities associated with lions/sharks, and those caused by dogs and horses. It tells us absolutely bugger all about our own individual chances of emerging alive from a direct, one-on-one encounter with any of those animals. And that – and no amount of global statistics – is the real yardstick whereby the ‘danger’ of any animal is measured. (Oh, and just to make this list as unfair as it is wildly inaccurate: with horses it even extends to accidental deaths… i.e., riders who fall off their mounts and break their own necks. Like it’s the bloody horse’s fault…)

But to conclude this over-lengthy preamble about ‘the world’s most dangerous animals’: the biggest ‘surprise’ on the list was its number one killer (drums rolling): the Anopheles mosquito… which carries malaria… which is in turn responsible for literally millions of deaths each year, etc.

Two small problems with that. One, people who die from malaria are not directly killed by the Anopheles mosquito, in the same way as shark-attack victims are directly killed by sharks. The real killer will be the malaria virus carried by the parasite. Two: if we are going to extend this list to also include viruses and (worse still) bacteria, on the basis that they are carried and spread by individual animals…. then never mind the ‘Top 50’: the ‘Top 5,000 Most Dangerous Animals in the World’ would all be carriers of infectious diseases such as rabies (another reason dogs get in so high, by the way), yellow fever, murine typhus, bubonic plague, etc.

Yet interestingly enough, the common sewer rat – a carrier of at least two of those killer diseases, present everywhere in the world where there are human beings – doesn’t even get an honorary mention…

OK, so this particular set of statistics was a pile of junk. You probably all knew that anyway. But the reason I went into so much detail is that: well, for one thing, I’ve been meaning to get all that off my chest for months (God, I hate those stupid lists. Which is why I click on the link every single time…); two, I am sorry to have to add that most other ‘facts’ derived from statistics – even serious international scientific studies, or local political polls – tend to be just as ludicrous, for broadly the same reasons.

I could litter this newspaper with analogous accounts about how ‘drinking black coffee may turn you into a psychopath’… because a statistical study concluded that most known psychopaths take their coffee black. (Yeah, but what about all those psychopaths we don’t know about, who prefer their coffee with milk? Not to mention the millions of people out there who also drink black coffee, but never quite progress to the stage of burying their dismembered victims under the kitchen tiles?) But I won’t bother, because the underlying illogicality tends to always be the same. We apply micro-reasoning to a macro scenario. We try to draw specific conclusions from facts and figures that have only global – as opposed to individual – application.

To conclude with a local example (arbitrarily, I admit: on another occasion it might have been one of our own surveys… or at least, our newspaper’s interpretation of its own statistics), take Lovin’ Malta’s most recent poll.

The headline is ‘If you voted Nationalist, you are four times more likely to believe that government was behind Daphne’s murder’ (to which my immediate response was identical to the choice between horses and sharks, above: gee, who would have ever guessed?). But in this case, it is the figures themselves that strike me as curious.

It seems, for instance, that 94.4% of Nationalist voters in the last election believe that ‘Government was behind Daphne’s murder’: leaving, as far as I can see, room for only 5.6% to think otherwise. And yet, somehow, another 72.2% think it was ‘a local crime organisation’ (OK, perhaps they were sarcastically referring to the same government); 55.6%, a ‘foreign crime organisation’; 38.9%, a ‘foreign government’; and – wait for it – 22%, ‘The Opposition’.

Huh? What? For starters, the grand total of all those categories – including the 11.1% who answered ‘none of the above’ – adds up to a staggering 294.4%: making you sort of wonder how the PN managed to lose the last election, with the support of almost three times as many voters as the laws of mathematics actually permit. But let’s close an eye at that anomaly. There could, after all, be a perfectly rational explanation: it may have been a multiple-choice scenario.

Even so however: how can 94.4% of PN voters believe it was the government, while 22.2% – of the same pool of voters, please note – think it was the Opposition? How can there not be an overlap between those two, entirely contradictory positions?

OK, like I said earlier… I’ve never really understood statistics, so maybe I’ve just made a fool of myself by asking those questions.

But as far as I can make out, it can only mean that around 16.6% of people who voted Nationalist in the last election think that both Government AND the Opposition were behind the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Which is either mathematically flawed, or else patently…

Hold on a minute: now that I’ve actually thought about it for a second or two… who knows? Maybe Lovin Malta’s survey is more accurate than I gave it credit for. Maybe that 16.6% really is onto something there....

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