Statistics - clumsy at best, deadly at worst

MARKETS are supposed to be good for us.

In fact, in the world we’ve lived in since the 1980s, markets seem to have taken the place once assigned to God – that of the only arbiter of goodness.

“The markets” decide what’s right, what’s good, what’s going to happen.

Which is pinning an awful lot on a vague concept. A concept which, when it comes down to it, just means a lot of people (mostly men) trying to sell each other stuff.

Each one of those mostly men is acting more or less out of self-interest.

According to the fundamental believers, that’s how they are supposed to act. Not in some “woolly liberal” pursuit of the public interest, but purely for personal gain.

The theory seems to be that if enough mostly men compete, bully, jostle and lie to each other hard enough their greed-based actions will somehow combine to produce the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people.

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The fuel, and the rather blunt measuring tool, for all of this is money.

And the oil that keeps the machine turning is advertising – by another name, propaganda. Or, to use its now more acceptable, market-led title, marketing.

Through advertising, or marketing, the markets determine everything.

They decree which brand of sweets is in favour in the playground this year. And whether the world cares enough about climate change to do something about it.

What will power the homes and factories of the future? The markets will decide.

Those few impassioned souls who truly want the best for all believe in renewable energy – wind, sun, tide.

Use them and they’re still there. Which unfortunately doesn’t sound very marketable. Not much cop if all you care about is selling stuff.

An eye-catching graphic has been doing the rounds on the internet lately comparing the safety records of three major sources of power.

It’s based on statistics that say that for every person killed by nuclear power, 4,000 die from coal-related causes.

So what does this show you?

That nuclear is the safest power source we have?

Or, perhaps, that following the disaster at Fukushima the nuclear lobby has got worried and started bombarding us with fresh propaganda?

One of the places the graphic has popped up is on the blog of Seth Godin, an American author described as a “marketing guru”. A title which in itself reveals the markets’ pseudo-religious status.

Being a guru, however, he is at least wise enough not to take the chart entirely at face value.

He says: “Vivid is not the same as true.

“It’s far easier to amplify sudden and horrible outcomes than it is to talk about the slow, grinding reality of day-to-day strife. That’s just human nature.

“Not included in this chart are deaths due to global political instability involving oil fields, deaths from coastal flooding and deaths due to environmental impacts yet unmeasured, all of which skew it even more if you think about it.”

Well yes, Seth – but maybe they don’t skew it quite the way you seem to think.

The environmental impacts of coal are known unknowns. Whereas those of nuclear power?

Statistics are at best a clumsy tool, more commonly a sophisticated method of lying. So where is the lie here?

For starters, the nuclear figure is the industry’s claim, not the truth, which is probably impossible to discover.

Stats on deaths due to nuclear power can only regarded as largely fictional – beyond those killed immediately by a catastrophic event.

Then, the figures include only those known to have died so far. No account is taken of the millions whose deaths could be caused in future.

And it is, surely, the future we are trying to decide here.

In any case “safer than the coal or oil industries” isn’t much recommendation. They’re both disgracefully dangerous.

They could both be made much safer. And in fact the figures are based on world averages, which include China, where the death-rate in the coal industry is 18 times higher than here or in America.

Interestingly, the graphic doesn’t show the gas industry, which produces more electricity in the UK than coal, oil, or nuclear.

According to the figures, the blob for natural gas should be one ninth the size of that for oil.

Those for solar, wind and hydro generation should be a little larger than the nuclear dot.

A little larger for now – but without the potential to grow suddenly, in one big bang, from a dot to a page-obliterating black splodge.

The fissile plutonium produced in nuclear reactors will go on being radioactive for thousands of human generations.

That’s further in time from us than the beginning of the stone age.

Can we build nuclear power-stations, and waste-dumps, to be safe that long?

Or are today’s politicians – the agents of today’s markets – in danger of taking decisions that will be a crime against humanity to come?