“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
I cannot with any confidence attribute this quote as its origins are ambiguous. Some very famous people, such as former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and American author Mark Twain, have at least repeated it and have been credited for it, but it like predates them.
Of course, it is not true. Statistics are not lies. The things people often do with statistics are frequently lies, but the numbers themselves are just potentially useful numbers.
Selectively discrediting statistics, however, is a very common tactic, particularly for politicians. I say selectively because the same politicians often rely on statistics to make their cases when the numbers suit them.
Crime statistics are a classic example. They’re skewed when they’re up, but valid when they’re down.
Personally, I love the end of July because that is when StatCan traditionally releases the crime severity indices for the previous year.
The math is beyond the scope of a general news story on the latest stats (Page A2) so I offer a brief explanation here.
Each criminal code offence is given a value (weight) based on the severity of sentences imposed by the courts. Crimes such as assault obviously are weighted higher than crimes such as mischief.
The actual number of police-reported incidents of each offence is multiplied by the weight for that offence, then all those numbers are added together and divided by the population of the jurisdiction. To make it more manageable, the results are then standardized to a base of 100, kind of similar to how the consumer price index is calculated.
What we get is numbers that, for B.C. in 2021, ranged from 20.01 (Bowen Island) to 293.52 (Fort St. James).
Guess what? The math doesn’t really matter. And the numbers for any given jurisdiction are largely irrelevant on their own. Where they become useful is in comparison with other jurisdictions and over time.
Municipal leaders, especially in jurisdictions with small populations, often try to downplay the significance, citing the skewing effect that one particularly prolific vandal could have on the stats or that their particular police service does a better job of reporting than others.
While there can be a grain of truth to these kinds of concerns, they do not make a significant impact compared to other jurisdictions and over time, especially now with the weighted nature of the severity indices.
The methodology is sound and in the larger context, the numbers are very meaningful.
The trends that are important are that crime is more prevalent and severe in the west of the country than in the east, in rural areas more than urban areas and in the north more than in the south.
There are, of course, individual exceptions, but these are the general patterns. In that context, it is not surprising our northwest B.C. communities generally rank very high compared to the rest of B.C. and the rest of the country. And that remains true over time regardless of the methodology we are using.
Way back in the day, the first time I was in Smithers, when we were still using the crime rate instead of the crime severity index and I broke the story about Smithers having the highest crime rate in the province for several years running, the excuse was, ‘oh, but all of our crimes are petty crimes’.
Apparently, that was invalid because even with the shift to the crime severity index, we’re still ranked 23rd out of 181 jurisdictions in the province and have been consistently in the upper ranks for at least 20 years.
Statistics are merely a reflection of reality and an opportunity to examine why they are as they are and what we are going to do about it.