A while ago, I came across 'Sceptics Beware: The Dangers of Debunking Myths' at the Lay Scientist, and it's been in my favourites ever since. It made me question what I do here - am I actually spreading the myths I'm trying to debunk and actually making things worse? In the end, I decided I'm not. Lucky that, huh?
It's still important to be careful when debunking myths that originate in the mainstream media. Not so much because you might inadvertantly help spread the myth by bringing it to people's attention, but because you might fall into the trap of accepting the myth's premise when it isn't valid in the first place.
Yesterday, I blogged about the hogwash front pages of the Mail and Express that quickly fuelled the top news item on the BNP website. They were apparently churned from an article in the Spectator, blogged about by Fraser Nelson in 'British jobs for British workers...'.
Left Foot Forward quickly issued a rebuttal to the tabs that got a lot of coverage, 'The Express is wrong: Half of all new jobs have gone to UK citizens'.
It's great. It points out how people over retirement age and people in the public sector are excluded from the figures and, most importantly, points out that about half the people the papers are moaning about being foreign are actually UK citizens.
The trouble is, it assumes one or two of the Spectator's and tabloids' main premises; that the extra number of people in work since 1997 represent new jobs created since 1997, and that those people represent eveyone who has taken one of those new jobs. Regardless of whether you eliminate people from those calculations who are actually UK citizens, you're still using the same logic the Express used back in 1997 when it used a different time frame to come to the impossible conclusion that migrants took more new jobs than actually existed.
The truth is, we don't know how many 'new' jobs have been 'taken' by migrants. All we know is that the overall number of people in work has risen since 1997, as has the number of people born overseas in work, while the number of those born in the UK in work has slightly fallen.*
Think of all the people in the country who have entered the job market since 1997 - that would be everyone in work at the age of around 25-31ish and all those who would have entered the job market later in life. Are we really to believe that 99% of them were born overseas? Of course not. Because we're not actually talking about the number of people 'taking' new jobs, we're talking about the increase in the number of people in work - and since there is a far, far greater number of UK born people at retirement age being removed from the job market (or, more morbidly, by dying), the net difference will always be much lower than for people born overseas.
In quarter 4 of 2009, there were 26,691,000 UK born people in work - more than ten times the 2,288,000 born overseas, and we're in a discussion about whether 99% or 50% of new jobs are taken by foreigners.
There's a similar situation with Rod Liddle's racist and inaccurate blog post from last December. My initial reaction was to look at figures for people arrested and charged for crimes across London, but these figures don't actually prove the level of crime committed by black people in London at all.
There are all sorts of reasons why - the majority of crimes don't actually have anyone arrested for, crimes committed by black people might actually be proportionate in the areas they're committed, there's the possibility of racist approaches in the justice system, there might be an increased likelihood of being able to identify suspects when they make up a smaller section of the population - and on and on and on. (There'll be a full blog post about this soon - worse luck).
But focusing on arrests gives something to people moaning about the criminality of black people they don't deserve, and they can shift the argument to 'so maybe black people don't commit the overwhelming majority of those crimes - but they do to an incredibly disproportionate level and we shouldn't be afraid to confront this,' and yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill. But we don't know how disproportionately crimes are committed by black people, or even if they are at all. We just know they get arrested more for them.
It's a sympton of wanting to rebut arguments with evidence, which is absolutely the right thing to do. But in attacking someone's position, even using statistics and evidence, it's still possible to give too much ground and end up with a discussion that centres around something that was never proved and never right in the first place.
The ratio of extra people born overseas to extra people in work does not show how many new jobs were taken by foreigners. The number of arrests of black people in London do not show that they are hugely disproportionately responsible for crimes. We (and by 'we' I guess I mean 'I') shouldn't allow the eagerness to point out that someone's figures are wrong overshadow whether the figures even represent what was claimed in the first place.
*The irony of this is that Fraser Nelson was rebutting Gordon Brown's spinning of the figures to claim they show that 2.5 million extra jobs had been created since 1997. If Brown had been telling the truth in the first place, he'd never have made that claim.