Statistics is the continuation of politics by other means, to misquote Clausewitz. One hundred and fifty years after the crushing of the revolutionary Paris Commune, historians still clash aggressively about the death toll. Was it as high as 40,000 or as low as 10,000?
It matters because the Paris Commune is a shibboleth, a great left-wing site of memory and martyrdom, made famous by Karl Marx’s pamphlet The Civil War in France. He presented the Paris Commune as the first great experiment in communist government. Its crushing by the army of the conservative Adolphe Thiers is depicted in left-wing folk memory as the ‘reactionary, repressive forces of capitalism’ ending an idyllic experiment in socialism. So for martyrdom’s sake it is better to put the number ‘slaughtered’ at 40,000 rather than 10,000. And historians go to great lengths to adduce statistical evidence in one direction or another.
In the 1960s demographers revealed that the Soviet government stopped publishing its statistics on life expectancy because they were not progressing as fast as in the West. Today Chinese GDP growth statistics are widely viewed as manipulated. Covid-19 pandemic statistics have inevitably become political too. As the Cambridge statistician Prof David Spiegelhalter wrote in the Guardian on 30 April, ‘people are not so interested in the numbers themselves – they want to say why they are so high, and ascribe blame.’ And why do they want to ascribe blame? Because other political agendas have not been laid to rest.
And so Covid statistics are the continuation of politics by other means. The relish with which certain international media highlight the death toll in the USA, for example, is a rather transparent attack on Donald Trump, especially when they fail to adjust deaths to 100,000 population.
The otherwise authoritative left-of-centre French daily Le Monde for example refers to the United States ‘as the most affected [country] as much in number of deaths (67,682) as in cases (1.15 million)’ but fails to account for population, which puts the US around tenth in the world.
Similarly UK death statistics are compared unfavourably with the likes of France, Spain and Italy that do not calculate ‘deaths in the wider community’, notably in the home, as I explained in The Spectator. Le Monde now refers to the UK as ‘the second most affected country in Europe’. But the paper nailed its colours to the mast with an excoriating editorial in June 2019 after Boris Johnson became favourite to win the Tory Party leadership race, entitled ‘Boris Johnson at the head of the United Kingdom? No thanks!’ It warned that his entry to Number 10 would be ‘a calamity for his country and for Europe.’ The day after Boris entered Downing Street, Le Monde’s editorial read: ‘Boris the threat’.
The ‘divine surprise’ for some media outlets will be when Trump’s America tops the coronavirus statistics table with Boris’s Britain in second place, as may happen today when the UK’s Covid statistics are published. Little matter that Belgium’s deaths per 100,000 will be around 69, Spain’s 54, Italy's 48, the UK's 43, France's 37 and the USA's 21. Little matter either that for all these countries, except the UK and perhaps Belgium, deaths ‘in the community’ are not included. Yet only two days ago Le Monde carried an article explaining why France will not be able to include her 10,000 deaths in the home for several months.
Of course, similar statistical manipulation is used by media of different persuasions to ascribe blame to the Chinese or the Russians or whoever the taboo country is. Presentation of Sweden’s statistics is heavily biased according to whether the compiler approves of its refusal to apply a lockdown or not. So in the end various media outlets will manipulate the Covid numbers to suit their own agendas. Politically they use statistics like the drunkard uses lamp-posts, for support rather than for illumination.