25% of Dubliners Have More than Two Legs!

The Sunday Independent this past week published an article whose headline claimed:

 25% of university academics earn more than €100,000

This is what we in the academic business refer to as a lie. Not just a misuse of statistics, but a misuse so egregious that it had to have been deliberate. Allow me to explain.

The numerator of 1,093 “academics” making over €100,000 is apparently taken from the entire third-level sector (universities, institutes of technology, teaching colleges, etc.) and includes all staff (including a lot of senior administrators) and not just academics.

The denominator of 4,327 is made up of academic staff (not other staff) at universities only. Notice the difference between the cohort making up the numerator and that making up the denominator: one is made up of all staff at all institutions and the other is made up of a certain category of staff at certain institutions.

Here’s an analogous kind of study one might conduct. Imagine that our intrepid Independent reporters have decided to find out what percentage of people in Dublin have more than two legs. In order to determine this they count the legs on all the people and also dogs in IRELAND. They then record the number who have more than two legs. Then, they divide that number by the number of people in DUBLIN in order to trumpet, in a headline, that

25% of all Dubliners Have More Than Two Legs!

One thing we could be sure of is that vast swathes of the Irish public would not only believe the claim, they’d repeat it to anyone who’d listen, since it was in the Sindo. Similarly, judging from the comments on the actual Sindo story, many were nearly giddy in their outrage at the thought of all those pampered lecturers.

Loath as I am to intrude into the midst of such joyful righteous indignation, I must nevertheless point out that, if you want to compare like with like and thereby come up with a meaningful rather than a meaningless statistic, then the 1,093 in all of third level (all categories of staff combined) who make more than €100,000 per annum should have as their denominator the 22,638 staff (all categories) working in third level. If we do the maths that way, we come up with 4.8% of all staff making more than €100,000 per annum. Not 25%. Which really does spoil the outrage party, now, doesn’t it?

Of course, anyone who thought about it for the few seconds they allow themselves between checks of their Facebook page would realise that the 25% figure was absolutely absurd.

The questions then are:

1) Why would the Independent publish such obviously absurd statistics? I did attempt more than once to point out the highly misleading nature of the statistics in the comments to the article in question but was met with the journalistic equivalent of “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” (i.e., they censored the post, repeatedly). One wonders what they are afraid of. Except one doesn’t have to wonder; I’ll tell you. They and, in particular, their boss, are afraid that the Irish people might get the impression that the public sector have suffered enough. In particular, the Irish people might come to realise that the public sector has been utterly hammered with the result that their younger children are now being taught 33+ to a classroom and their university-age children are being taught in large measure by adjuncts at 24 to a classroom, etc. etc. And if the people came to realise that sort of thing, they might start wondering about things like whether the corporate tax rate was adequate or who really bankrupted the country or how it is that (to take an individual at random) Denis O’Brien can control almost the entirety of the media here yet be non-resident for tax purposes. Indeed, they might start wondering why it is that the wealthy and the corporations have gotten off almost entirely scot-free during this crisis and not been asked to sacrifice much of anything. And WE CANNOT HAVE THAT.

2) Why are so many ready to believe such arrant nonsense? Is it because it confirms a set of prejudices that they very much want to believe despite having no evidence for them? I’m afraid I have no answer to this one. But I’m sure this guy does:

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