Blair vs Hitchens – some statistics and why the news has got it wrong

There has just been a well publicised debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on the role of God in the world – the motion was – “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world”. It was a bit of a bizarre one. Choosing one of the most controversial recent converts to Catholicism and an atheist dying of cancer. The Guardian and the Independent have called the debate for Christopher Hitchens.

But here is the issue. Prior to the debate 57% of the audience were ALREADY convinced of Christopher Hitchens views against 21% for Tony Blair. That is nearly a 3:1 margin with only 22% undecided. Yet in Canada at the census in 2001 only 16.1% said that they had no religious faith. The group with the largest atheist or agnostic grouping was in the 15-29 age group.

The Independent and the Guardian called it for Christopher Hitchens because for the Independent the final ratio was 2:1 (and no talk of the pre debate bias) and the Guardian were slightly more sophisticated and said that the undecided broke for Christopher Hitchens 11:10.

Now a few things here. If you have a crowd 3:1 in favour of someone isn’t it very likely that you will be swayed by the crowd? Isn’t it likely that the louder claps and the horrible situation that Christopher Hitchens faces might sway you? As the Guardian stated:

Throughout the 90-minute debate Hitchens seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy. That might have been to do with his ill appearance due to cancer, but was far more likely to be down to the sharpness of his verbal barbs and the fact that 57% of the audience already agreed with his sceptical position according to a pre-debate poll, while just 22% agreed with Blair’s side. The rest were undecided.

But if the ratio is 57:22 to start with and ends up with 68:32 the ratio was going in Blair’s favour (to translate those ratios – in the first batch 72% who professed a preference were for Hitchens dropping to 68% in the second).

The reality in the world is that atheists make up a very small proportion of the population of the world but around the “sacred” persons of “saints” such as Hitchens and Dawkins (the pair whom Professor Terry Eagleton rather amusingly refers to as Ditchkins) people tend to cluster. Our media is also incredibly sympathetic towards them and Dawkins gets away with things on the media that others couldn’t. Therefore it is likely (though not certain) that more people turned up at the lecture because of Hitchens. All such groups are self-selecting – including if it was one where the overwhelming number were predisposed to a religious viewpoint. Statistically the numbers have no merit to them – but of course it is easier to use them and make a story.

The reality is that people of faith contribute more to society than those that don’t have faith. As I have argued in an earlier post Indeed there was an article in USA today recently that made the same point. So, demonstrably Hitchens is wrong. The thing that I suspect went down well was the no holds barred approach he took and the fact that it is easier to score cheap points when you take this approach.

So beware of these statistical manipulations – from either side. I am a firm believer in good statistical approaches to things. The statistics for this event go no wider than the people inside the event.

One other thing was the statistics that were displayed for a world-wide survey where we are told that 48% see religion is a good thing and 52% is a bad thing. We are told that 18,192 people were surveyed – presumably to make us impressed. A few comments as I haven’t seen the full details. 8 of the 23 countries are European countries – yet they make up only 830 million of the world population of over 6 billion. So if they have a 1/3 weighting in the survey this is a nearly tripling of their true weighting. There is no China (larger than the entirety of the whole of europe) in the survey. As I have said I haven’t seen the underlying weighting but I can’t see that this is a worthwhile properly weighted survey.

Lets use statistics properly and not in this sort of way.

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11 comments on “Blair vs Hitchens – some statistics and why the news has got it wrong

  1. George
    November 28, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Yes, Will – I see that the attendees may have been influenced by Hitchens’s content and delivery – but I think that many would also have had an already adverse view of Blair, what with his pro-war stance and support for Bush – which they may have seen as clashing with Christ’s words about avoiding violence. So while accepting what Christ said, they may have seen the actions of this famous Christian as being hypocritical.

    • Will Cookson
      November 28, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

      George, I am sure you’re right and that did play an element for some.

      Although the problem with that is that Hitchens was and is pro the war in Iraq and I believe said as much in the debate (although I would need to re-check the transcript for that)! So neither of them was anti the war in Iraq!

  2. George
    November 28, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    Yes – my point is that as an atheist Hitchens could be either pro- or anti-war and people would not EXPECT him to be one way or the other – but as a Christian many folk would hope (expect?) that Blair would not have been SO pro-war – even to the point of not waiting for UN agreement. Personal opinion of course – but I think his (and Bush’s) ACTIONS certainly have given the impression to many that religion is NOT a force for good in the world. I guess it all depends on how we define religion. We know that acting as Christ wishes us to act is a force for good in the world (obvious examples being the lives of Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and millions of others less well known) – but Bush’s and Blair’s take on ‘religion’ is somewhat different. Trouble is that many people see those two ex-leaders as representing Christianity today – which is a great tragedy.

    • Will Cookson
      November 29, 2010 at 9:43 am #

      Yes – I take your point. I suppose that we just don’t know how many were affected by this in the audience (in statistical terms).

  3. Paul Barnard
    December 3, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    From an Atheists point of things Will,you’re starting to scare me as much as any other religious fundamentalist.
    You seriously think you are a better person than me because you have a faith.
    I know you’ve tried your best to ‘understand’ us but all I can see so far is a blinkered view of things.

    The reality is that people of faith contribute more to society than those that don’t have faith. As I have argued in an earlier post Indeed there was an article in USA today recently that made the same point. So, demonstrably Hitchens is wrong. The thing that I suspect went down well was the no holds barred approach he took and the fact that it is easier to score cheap points when you take this approach.

    So beware of these statistical manipulations – from either side. I am a firm believer in good statistical approaches to things. The statistics for this event go no wider than the people inside the event.

    One other thing was the statistics that were displayed for a world-wide survey where we are told that 48% see religion is a good thing and 52% is a bad thing. We are told that 18,192 people were surveyed – presumably to make us impressed. A few comments as I haven’t seen the full details. 8 of the 23 countries are European countries – yet they make up only 830 million of the world population of over 6 billion. So if they have a 1/3 weighting in the survey this is a nearly tripling of their true weighting. There is no China (larger than the entirety of the whole of europe) in the survey. As I have said I haven’t seen the underlying weighting but I can’t see that this is a worthwhile properly weighted survey.

    Lets use statistics properly and not in this sort of way.

    Yet you thought you’d post it anyway…WAKE UP!

    • Will Cookson
      December 3, 2010 at 8:26 am #

      Paul, as I said in another reply. I don’t think that I am better but atheists (as a whole) need to work out how to make a difference to a broken hurting world. The stats say that some Christians don’t make much of a difference to society but those same stats say lots of atheists don’t. This is not a personal – I think all atheists are rubbish – thing. I don’t believe that. I do say to atheists, as a group, that you aren’t contributing as much as you could. The stats say that, Roy Hattersley in the article from the Guardian says the same, the studies say the same. You may well be doing loads and I totally applaud you for that. You may well be volunteering and helping and I think that is wonderful and that you may well be a great person who it would be a privilege to meet. But atheists, as a group, need to move on from polemics (and Christians need to be way less defensive and hung up on things) and work out how to make a difference.
      This article was less about Christopher Hitchens, who I think had great fun in the debate, and more how statistics can be selective and manipulated (and as I said from either side).
      Hope this helps to clarify things a bit.

  4. George
    December 3, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    This is developing into an interesting debate. And I should say that Paul and I haven’t previously discussed this so it’s not a strategic policy statement by Ecocell!
    As in most (but not all) debates, there is something of the truth in both sides.
    We talked in the past, Will, about some of this stuff and I think I know where you are coming from.
    I do think, however, that Paul makes a really good point.
    From my own perspective, most of my closest friends over the past 4 decades have not been Christians. Some have benn agnostics, some atheists / humanists and others are from other belief systems.
    In almost all cases these folk have been deeply concerned about the state of the planet / economy / society – and are involved in trying to change things through a variety of means, eg being ACTIVELY involved in campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace, FoE, CND, Climate Camp etc – and many local community activities, eg One Planet Sutton, Sutton Community Farm, Lavender Group etc. Some are living ‘alternative community lifestyles’ in an effort to find a less damaging and more peaceful way of life. Many are vegetarian / vegan because they consider that eating meat involves animals being treated terribly at many points in the ‘food chain’.
    The point I’m trying to make is that statements like “….atheists (as a whole) need to work out how to make a difference to a broken hurting world” sends out the wrong message. The insertion of the words in brackets may well attempt to put your view in a more measured context, but the key message which goes out from your statement demonstrates, in my opinion, such an (evangelical) certainty which sees the world in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong.
    You go on “I do say to atheists, as a group, that you aren’t contributing as much as you could”. That is verging on appearing (at worst) insulting and (at best) disrespectful to all those people who are ACTIVELY doing much more than many Christians.
    We all need to be bit more respectful of other belief systems (even atheist belief systems!) and refrain from generalised statements.

  5. Will Cookson
    December 3, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Hi George,

    There are TWO Paul Barnard’s on the site! The Paul here is not your Paul!! If that makes sense.

    I really am not trying, in any sense, to say that atheists and others are not making a difference. I am saying that statistically not as many of them are making a difference as others. Its not right/wrong – its asking all people to care for a broken world where so much needs doing.
    Statistics are there to help us make generalities which are not always true for specific cases! They should help us to see where we can do better – Christians as well as non-Christians.
    I think that its all too easy to read into that something that I am not saying!

  6. George
    December 3, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Thanks for explaining about the 2 Paul’s – I was getting a bit confused (and very surprised) by the atheist stance!

  7. Paul Barnard57
    December 3, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    For clarity and to avoid confusion i will now post in future as Paul Barnard57.

    and for the record i think i am probably somewhere in between the other Paul and Will.
    IF there are some statistics that, in general, back up the point Will is making then in some ways Will is right to start the discussion, and it is a valid duiscussion.
    but they can only be a very board generalisation (as i’m sure Will would acknowledge) and the danger of having the discussion has been demonstrated here, in that it sometimes seems to reinforce the negative opinions (which are also generalisations) that athesists and others without a faith have of Christians.

    which is a similar point that i made on the other posting “Good without God” (that is mine as is the one on the royal wedding, i disown any other ones 🙂 )

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