Alarming stories of a rise in knife crime + lack of confidence in understanding statistics = more fear for ourselves and our children, says Lisa Jardine.
I am someone who has always been fascinated by numbers. So I find it disconcerting when those around me confess that they are filled with apprehension whenever they are asked to do a simple mathematical calculation.
This week the graduation ceremonies have taken place at my college in the University of London. My own small research centre runs a Masters in Research programme, and the marks accumulated by students from the various exercises and modules have to be collated and tabulated to work out their degree result.
If so many find simple calculations hard to manage, how are they supposed to recognise whether the sensational claims are correct?
Since each module's mark represents a proportion of the sum total of those available, this involves calculating percentages - a task which seems to fill several of my otherwise highly competent members of staff with dismay, even though they are accustomed to processing arcane information from documents and archives.
Over the past couple of weeks we have been bombarded with figures by the media, on a range of topics, all apparently calculated to cause the person in the street the maximum amount of concern. Some of the stories based on these statistics have been the talking point at practically every social gathering I have attended.
In the aftermath of what has felt like an avalanche of shocking news stories, multiple arrays of statistics have been produced, purporting to show a sudden, alarming rise in knife-related murders of school-age young people.
Tributes to Ben Kinsella, stabbed in Islington
These have whipped up public anxiety to near-panic levels with headlines proclaiming an "epidemic of knife and gun crime", "spiralling out of control", creating a level of youth disorder which adds up to "a national crisis".
The first thing to say is that discrepancies in data collection methods make it hard to get a coherent story out of these numbers, though the journalists have certainly tried hard.
In spite of the statistics selectively used to fuel an alarmist story, all the available figures from reliable sources like the Home Office and the police seem to be showing that incidences of knife crime have remained relatively steady over the past five years, while violent crime as a whole has actually declined.
The 2007 British Crime Survey reported that the drop in violent crime "is part of a long-term trend - crime rates peaked in 1995, then fell by 42% over the subsequent 10 years".
A lengthy report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies - Guns, Knives and Street Violence published last month - summarises as follows: "The evidence on knife crime contains a number of ambiguities, but combining the various data sets, a rather clearer picture emerges. Despite increased media attention, levels of knife crime have remained fairly stable at around 6-7% of all violent crime."
On the other hand, the concern that those involved in knife crime have got significantly younger does appear to be borne out by the statistics. Home Office figures obtained recently by a Liberal Democrat frontbencher show that the number of young people sentenced for possessing an offensive weapon in school rose from 15 to 90 a year between 1996 and 2006.
Investigating a stabbing in Bristol
And Department of Health statistics reveal that almost 14,000 people were treated in hospital for stab wounds last year, over 400 of them aged 14 and under.
According to the latest police figures for England and Wales published this week, there were 22,000 serious offences involving knives in 2007-8. The 2008 British Crime Survey report reveals that over the same period 13% of violent offenders were school-age or under.
The total number of knife murders committed a year has hovered around the 250 mark for years, and those most at risk are urban, male and under 25. Given the numbers-allergy I detect all around me, though, it is small wonder that the public at large is being swept along on a media-generated tide of fear.
If so many people find simple numerical calculations hard to manage, how are they supposed to assess the data sensibly, or to recognise whether the sensational newspaper claims are correct? How can any of us decide on the basis of many column inches of figures what our personal reaction should be, and how each of us ought to behave - or modify our behaviour - as a consequence?
Whether rising rapidly or holding steady, the numbers for knife crime are still small when compared to, say, deaths on the road. But for many it is enough that the threat feels real. As Cherie Blair has said: "Anecdotally it seems clear that the perception is that it's much worse."
Gordon Brown acknowledged recently that "too many people, young and old, do not feel safe in the streets, and sometimes even in their homes, as a result of the behaviour of a minority". Perceived danger has made many people desperately anxious - particularly for the safety of their children.
This brings me to the second set of tabulated numbers to have caught my eye this week. Figures produced by Halifax Financial Services reveal an unexpectedly sharp rise in private day school fees over the past five years.
Fees have risen by 40%, according to this report, which is double the national inflation rate over the same period. The average annual private school fee is now about a third of gross annual average earnings. In 2003 it was a little over a quarter.
In this case, on the evidence of those I spoke to this week, people are apparently more comfortable processing the numbers. They can do some very simple arithmetic to understand the costs of what is now happening.
There is clearly a serious issue here to be faced by families who take the option of educating their children privately. If fees continue to rise at this rate, a child starting their private schooling this autumn could end up costing their parents £170,000 by the time they leave at 18, according to the Centre for the Economics of Education.
Figures like these might be expected to produce significant changes in patterns of education. Yet despite the increasing sacrifices that have to be made by parents, the number of children educated privately has gone up by almost 6% between 2001 and 2006.
Meanwhile, the number going to state schools has fallen. Parents who have chosen private education will, it seems, struggle determinedly with the fee increases, rather than move their children to the local comprehensive.
Faced with the lurid stories currently dominating our newspapers, of 11- to 16-year-olds with knives concealed in their school backpacks, is it any wonder that parents should be looking for any way they can to insulate their children from the threats of exposure to crime and intimidation on the streets and in the playground? The alarm generated by the banner headlines about escalating knife-crime spills over into fear for our children in the classroom.
It is just such fear of what might happen in the next encounter, on the next street corner, that drives school-age boys to carry knives in the first place, according to Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Alf Hitchcock, appointed by the Government to tackle the problem.
Some of the knives seized by police
Only 15% of knife-carriers intend to take part in crime or gang activity. The other 85% carry knives out of fear, in a world where they believe nobody else is there to protect them. In both cases, fear drives rational, responsible behaviour out of the frame.
The problems that underlie the apparent casual carrying and use of knives by young teenagers have deep roots. To begin to solve them, the debate has to be brought back from headline-grabbing expressions of moral panic and social despair, to a clear-headed and reasonable debate about long-term solutions. We need to sift and analyse the increasing volume of data that has been assembled on the where and why and how of violent crime, to arrive at a clearer picture of what is really going on.
Adolescent gang members who carry and use knives feel powerless, isolated and out of control. Responsible adults are not thus disadvantaged. They can, if they wish, take time to concentrate steadily on the facts before them, and to exercise their thinking and their influence to deal with the problem identified.
But we have to master the data if we are to get to the root of that problem and find solutions. A good start to overcoming our irrational fear for our children on the city street would be to begin by mastering our equally irrational fear of figures.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Considering that the British Crime Survey relied on by the Home Office does not interview people under the age of 16, I fail to see how reliable their statistics are. I suspect the fear many in this country feel is less due to an inability to understand statistics and more to do with the fact that we live under a government which would rather manufacture pretty numbers than deal with the root problems.
I'm a data analyst for the NHS and am forever exasperated by reports quoting the latest doom and gloom to overtake our apparently horrendous service when actually the real figures show a fairly robust performance. Not that the newspaper figures are made up, just interpreted in a very particular way. Lies, damned lies and statistics as they say.
The reports on knife crimes in the media are rarely presented with percentages, rather we are told how many people have been killed so far this year, but this information is presented with no reference to previous years. It is also presented as a stand-alone number, not as percentage of the amount of crime committed. The public's perception does not come from bad analysis, but is based on the media's presentation of the facts. When there was a spate of dog attacks a few years ago, any dog attack would immediately become headline news. However, as knife crime is now the main topic of discussion, dog attack stories end up as sideline stories in the middle of newspapers. Rarely a day goes by without reference to a knife attack story and it is this statistic, not those on the level of crime, which is creating the public fear.
DS, Croydon, England
Fantastic article. But it's not only about the figures, is it? We need to find out why it is that we're so desperately keen to believe news and gossip about how terrible things are now, about how horrible kids are, how asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and benefits etc. Why do we fling our arms around the faintest possibility that things are awful and grim and beyond our control while refusing to actually get out and make it our responsibility to involve ourselves in our communities?
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK
The comparison of the over-the-top headlines with the very real effect of the excessive increase in the costs of private schools is a good lesson in exactly why we need to keep a cool head.
Steve Molloy, Belfast (living in US)
This story is only partly fair. I suspect to the individual the key is the very local changes in crime. Living in Tufnell Park, I sense that there is a peak in very serious knife crime. Martin Dinnegan murdered a few hundred yards from the bottom of my road and now a 43-year old at the top of the hill. Is it really irrational to feel fear?
Tom, London, UK
It was the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major who famously changed the calculation of unemployment statistics 19 times. Is there any reason to suppose that this massaging of statistics has ceased under New Labour? Perhaps public concern over the statistics relating to knife crime is fuelled by suspicion that they are not true.
John Stockton, Nottingham
I heard two people talking behind me the other day. One said, "Statistically, the levels of crime are going down." The other said "but that's because people aren't reporting it, and anyone, the numbers don't prove anything, they can be changed to suit anyone." And these were law students. People believe stories rather then numbers - they mistrust numbers.
You say "fear drives rational, responsible behaviour out of the frame". Indeed it does, and yet in a world where no-one else is in a position to stop you being assaulted, taking extreme measures for one's own protection are rational and responsible. What seems less rational and responsible is the apparent desire of the state and media to whip up this fear, which drives more and more people into carrying a weapon.
James Marwood, UK
Let's not fool ourselves, the government could make a few common sense changes to the law and stop knife crime immediately if it wanted to. It's therefore easy to conclude that that the government is letting crime happen on purpose in order to create a fear-based society which doesn't protest when more CCTV cameras are installed in the local (terrified) community.
Thank you for putting risk in a sensible context. Nearly 3,000 people die every year on the roads (a disproportionately high number of them also under-25s). It is clearly far riskier to set children a poor example by speeding or not making them wear seat belts - something we can actually do something about - than any danger they will ever face from knives, or paedophiles for that matter. The media wilfully miss the point, preferring stories most of their audience can feel smugly responsible about. Understandable perhaps. But why do our representatives in Parliament always seem to fall for it?
Yet another example of something that is inadvertently contributing to the problem that it decries - confusing maths with arithmetic. People generally don't make any direct use of any of the subjects they learn at school in adult life, except for English & arithmetic. Maths has little or no relevance in the everyday lives of most people, whereas arithmetic is very useful. Children & adults reject "maths" as they see it, since they instinctively know that calculus, trigonometry & algebra play almost no part in most people's lives - you don't need to know these things to work in a call centre, supermarket, hairdressers, or behind the counter at a bank. As long as schools don't treat arithmetic as a separate subject from maths, children will reject arithmetic automatically when they reject maths and enter the adult world innumerate. So when they are presented with figures & statistics, they are unable to comprehend them. When Lisa Jardine says "those around me confess that they are filled with apprehension whenever they are asked to do a simple mathematical calculation", what she really means is "a simple ARITHMETICAL calculation". This sloppy substitution of maths for arithmetic needs to stop everywhere in society.
Diamond Dave, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
A very interesting and thought provoking article. I am a maths teacher and recognise a lot of what Ms Jardine observes. However, on what evidence does she state that "gang members who carry and use knives feel powerless"? I thought it was the general public who felt these emotions.