83 Percent of All Statistics Are Made Up on the Spot

by Dr. Tim Ball on May 4, 2011

in Data,Government,History,Philosophy,Politics,Theory

Saki (H.H Munro) said, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.” Today we have tons of inaccuracy and very little explanation. Most inaccuracies come from claims based on historical data either non-existent, extremely crude estimates, or incorrect. It’s prevalent in environmental issues but particularly bad with climate and animal extinctions. The reason is because they’re the most politicized, which automatically takes them further from the truth. As Henry Adams said, “Practical politics consists of ignoring the truth.”

A good example is a 2008 report that claimed,

Human activity is wiping out close to one percent of every other species on Earth every year, a global environmental report said Friday.

What absolute rubbish. They can’t possibly substantiate these claims. We don’t know how many species there are. We don’t have even crude estimates of populations. We don’t know how much population numbers vary. What do they mean by “every other”? They should name all the species that comprise their claims.

Numbers in the 2008 Report are part of the ridiculous, completely unscientific claims made originally by E.O. Wilson about species extinction. Self-proclaimed Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki traveled across the country a few years ago claiming the demise of 2 species an hour. He wouldn’t name any of them because it’s a false claim. It undoubtedly originated with E.O. Wilson, who is listed as an honorary Board member of the Suzuki Foundation 2003 Annual Report.

Wilson introduced his idea of extinction based on mathematical estimates and false assumptions:

A good proxy for the rate of extinction is the rate of growth in energy used by the human population. In other words, extinction rates are increasing in step with the product of population growth times the growth in affluence.

He produced a ludicrous graph whose shape is reminiscent of the infamous “hockey stick” graph, and as falsely derived:

E.O. Wilson's species extinctions graph

E.O. Wilson's species extinctions graph

Wilson’s actual extinction claim was 27,000 per year. He also predicted 22 percent of all species will be extinct by 2022.

It’s time the media provided a daily obituary column with names of the 48 species provided by the Suzuki Foundation. It won’t happen because they don’t exist, but that won’t stop others making false claims.

Claims of declining numbers work because we’re emotionally vulnerable to charges that we’re negatively impacting animal populations. They work because people believe populations don’t change much naturally, so large or sudden changes are due to humans. They work because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a statement in their 2007 Impact Report that

Global-scale assessment of observed changes shows that it is likely that anthropogenic warming over the last three decades has had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems.

This is out of context and unsupportable. The word “likely” is defined as a 66-90% probability, which undercuts the certainty of the statement. It’s out of context because you can’t determine the human effect without knowing or understanding natural change. This is the major problem with the IPCC Science Report on climate, so it is not surprising to see it repeated in the Impact Report.

Several situations can cause distortion. Most measures are snapshots taken at a single point in numbers that have naturally wide variation. They vary because of actual change in the total or because the species moves to another area. For example, a July 4, 2009 letter to the English magazine The Spectator complained about the disappearance of swifts in London (the common swift of Europe; forked tail; nests on city buildings). A week later a letter said,

I think they may have come to north-east London. This year the skies above Hackney have been filled with them as never before.

None of this would surprise Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur traders.

Moses Norton’s journal for January 14, 1771 reads,

Ever since I knew the country I never experienced so great a scarcity of partridge.

On January 1, 1810 William Cook wrote in his HBC journal,

Indians complain of scarcity of food.

Then on the 12th, he notes,

Scarcity of partridge and rabbits.

A year later he writes,

Thus are we receiving supplies from one party and witnessing the most abject poverty in another but it is perfectly consistent with the nature of the country that it being not at all uncommon for one set of Indians to be absolutely starving while another party at the distance of 40 miles are living in the utmost profusion.

HBC records provided data for the first research on natural fluctuation of populations by Charles Elton.

His publication with Nicholson in 1942 shows variations in Lynx numbers in a very long record. My current research (unpublished) plots this graph against the 11-year sunspot cycle and shows a high correlation.

HBC lynx returns (Elton and Nicholson)

HBC lynx returns 1820-1934

The day I read the second letter, I was involved in a radio phone-in program about the decline in salmon along the west coast of Canada. A general theme of callers was that humans were to blame, whether it was sea lice from fish farm salmon, forestry, or global warming due to humans. Unfortunately few knew or even considered natural variability even though it was reported in some research:

Shifts in climate in 1977 and 1989 resulted in significant changes in production for a number of marine fish species including Pacific salmon.

You can claim these are recent and still due to human causes. How then do you explain comments of the fur traders or the oral tradition of the west coast people that speak of failures of the salmon runs with descriptions that indicate they’re related to weather changes?

Many examples exist of groups blamed for decline in numbers when the cause was natural. In the late 1980s, farmers – especially on the Prairies of western Canada – were blamed for a significant drop in numbers of migrating waterfowl. They were accused of draining the wetlands, cutting the trees, and using chemicals. The actual cause was drought and accompanying wind pattern changes, especially in 1988 and 1989. Significantly increased numbers were reported to the east and west as the birds adjusted and followed their usually practice of flying 88 percent of the time with a tail wind to areas were water was available. When the rains returned the birds returned and bird counts were the highest in over 70 years. Of course, no reports in the media and no apologies to the farmers.

Over 30 years ago, Roger Pocklington approached me about weather conditions in eastern arctic Canada. Roger was an oceanographer studying water temperatures from Newfoundland to Bermuda. He reported they were falling. He was welcome at conferences because it fit the consensus of the day: global cooling. Temperatures in eastern arctic Canada had declined for over thirty years and resulted in a cooler Labrador Current. Colder, denser water was pushing further south. We determined this would impact the cod fisheries of the Grand Banks, but nobody would listen. Roger was also ignored because he continued to record and report cooler temperatures, but the politics of climate change had switched to global warming.

Cod numbers declined and, as usual, humans were blamed. This is not to say overfishing was not part of the problem. If you assume numbers are relatively constant, then a natural decline will make the fishing harmful at a certain level. The problem is, we don’t know how much the numbers vary. The Canadian government effectively banned cod fishing in 1992. This was akin to banning corn production in Iowa. After 17 years, the numbers haven’t recovered. Where did the cod go? They migrated into warmer international waters where Europeans fished them and shallower warmer inshore waters where they off limit to Canadian fishermen. In 1996, I stood on the dock at Fortune Harbour in northern Newfoundland with an 84-year-old fisherman. He said cod were more plentiful and larger than he could recall in the bay, but he was banned from catching even two to feed his family. The great irony of the story is that oil drilling at Hibernia on the Grand Banks saved the Newfoundland economy.

Animal populations and distributions vary considerably over time. Every report of decline or discovery in a new location is now attributed to human induced climate change or other human activity. Perhaps the most outrageous is the claim of humans hunting Ice Age species to extinction. All ignore natural variability, but that is the pattern of anti-humanity environmental hysteria. As Lord Dunsany said,

It is very seldom that the same man knows much of science, and about the things that were known before science came.

His comment is even truer if the science is perverted to political ends.