The Numbers Game

When Herodotus wrote the story of the Persian invasion of Greece 480bc, it’s generally accepted that he used a little poetic license with the numbers. His story records an invading army of five million soldiers. Modern scholars reduce this figure to five hundred thousand and most believe the real figure was closer to two hundred thousand.

The question we should be asking isn’t was it five million or two hundred thousand. The real question is why was there such a vast difference between the story and the actual boots on the ground?

Some have speculated that this was because the Greeks weren’t very good at dealing with large numbers. It’s an interesting view, was there a numeracy issue in the cradle of democracy? Maybe, it’s true that the Greek word for countless, or innumerable, was the same word for ten thousand.

So anything beyond ten thousand was just said to be innumerable and whatever number suited their purpose might be applied. In the case of the invasion an exaggeration of Persian’s makes the Greek soldiers victory a thing of mythic proportions.

The reason for this little excursion down Herodotus way is to point out the old Greek Numeracy issues in modern day Ireland. We’ve had a Minister for Social Protection exaggerate Social Welfare fraud to be five hundred million, when the figure is actually closer to fifty million.

We’ve had a Minister for Housing tell us fifteen thousand houses were built, when the figure was closer to three thousand. We’ve seen Gardai overstate breathalyzer tests by one million.

We’ve had a Minister for Finance exaggerate his Fiscal Space. Not to mention the “Leprechaun Economics” of Corporate Tax Profits flying into Ireland in advance of the EU’s Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base Plan.

We’ve had Irish Water tell us 70% of people were paying, even though the money taken in amounted to less than 35% of peoples bills. We’ve had Irish Water Marches that were attended by tens of thousands, reported as a few thousand.

All of this would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. Nobody is condoning Welfare Fraud, but exaggerating a 1-2%  problem only demonises the most vulnerable in our society and deflects from the bigger issue of poor government management of the Welfare System.

Minister Coveney has gotten away with saying his exaggerated housing numbers by using the “It was like that when I got here”, Bart Simpson defense. Shortly we will have him claim to have achieved his promise to have no families homeless by the end of July.

But this will be another statistical fudge. Homeless families are to be but into Hubs and then reclassified out of the homeless statistics and into some sort of purgatorial nowhere zone.

The manipulation of Data, and the toleration of it by large swathes of the population and the media, is a blocker to us fixing underlying issues. Only by assessing the problem correctly can we make a plan fit for purpose.

Allowing Official Ireland play with numbers costs lives. People on trollies and people on our streets aren’t statistical tools for manipulation. They are your mother, your sister, your granny.

Those at the coal-face like Inner City Helping Homeless put faces on numbers. People like Lorcan Sirr point out that bad data leads to bad planning. The manipulation of Data in Ireland plays to the worst of our biases. It reinforces our, conscious or unconscious, view that people can be reclassified and therefore made statistically less than.

Herodotus exaggerated to make the Greeks glorious. This is not the sole fault of government. We, as a country, play with numbers to lessen crises and to pretend we are helping those worse off. Sure, it’s not our fault if they won’t help themselves, statistically speaking.

What’s the Irish for innumerable?


Tony Groves May 2017 abacus

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