The strengths and weaknesses of the killer fact

Earlier this year a striking fact made the news: Most cancers, about two thirds in fact, were down to bad luck rather than lifestyle or environmental factors. Cue a whole pile of discussion, with some declaring that we might as well take our chances, and others wanting to pick the ‘fact’ apart.

It’s a classic example of bad reporting on a science story. ‘Most types of cancer’ is not the same thing as ‘most cases of cancer’. Get it wrong, and you’ve basically told people that it doesn’t matter how they live, a message that many people would happily embrace.

  • The Daily Mail misunderstood it, with a lead sentence that claimed “most cases of cancer are the result of ‘bad luck’ rather than unhealthy lifestyles, diet or even inherited genes, claim scientists.”
  • The BBC got it right in the headline, Most cancer types ‘just bad luck’, but then muddied the waters in the very first sentence by using the example of smoking. Lung cancer and smoking is in no way a matter of luck. They then added a photo of a pint of beer and a smoking cigarette with the caption ‘time to throw caution to the wind?’ The article says it isn’t, but you’d have to read that far down.
  • The Guardian landed somewhere in between with the headline ‘Two thirds of adult cancers largely ‘down to bad luck’ rather than genes’, the ambiguous ‘cancers’ making it unclear whether we’re talking about cases or types.

I imagine the scientists behind the study are banging their heads on the wall. Their paper is called ‘Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions’, and it is much more concerned with DNA replication in different tissues types. It’s not really about the chances of you or I being diagnosed with cancer.

How did it get so misconstrued? Perhaps it’s from the John Hopkins University press release, which was titled Bad luck of random mutations plays predominant role in cancer, study shows. It’s not an irresponsible press release, but perhaps the ambiguity of ‘role in cancer’ opened the door to being misunderstood. The explanatory notes to the press release, posted a week later, are longer than the original story.

How did the ‘two thirds of cancer are down to luck’ story get so much attention? Because the media loves a striking fact – a statistic or comparison surprises and shocks.

ak47bananagraphicWhen campaigns use such facts deliberately, they’re often referred to as ‘killer facts’ – facts that cuts through the debate and, hopefully, strikes opposing arguments dead. Here’s one I’ve used myself.

A killer fact has real power. It will be repeated and passed around, especially when visually presented. It can generate headlines and discussion on TV and radio, and reach millions through social media. In can genuinely influence debate. I’ve had several conversations with people about cancer and lifestyle in the last few weeks. I’ve also had several conversations about inequality this week.

You get the impression that the ‘two thirds of cancers’ story became a headline stat at the media stage, and that John Hopkins Medicine weren’t entirely aware of what they were doing. Oxfam, on the other hand, are well aware of what they’re trying to do when they release their facts about inequality.

As I mentioned last week, Oxfam’s latest killer fact is that the richest 1% of the world’s population owns 48% of its wealth, and by 2016 they’re likely to have the whole half. It made headlines around the world, and sparked another round of discussion about inequality, including here on the blog.

YACHT-Landscape-print-billion-300x216It’s the third year in a row that Oxfam have seized the opportunity of the World Economic Forum in Davos to draw attention to global inequality. Last year we had the fact that the 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.

In 2013 it was ‘The top 100 billionaires added $240 billion to their wealth in 2012 – enough to end world poverty four times over.’

Generating killer facts is part of the strategy at Oxfam, and there are notes on how to do it well. With admirable transparency, those guidelines are public and you can look them up for yourself on the charity’s in-depth Policy and Practice pages.

One of the things the guidelines stress is the need to back up your statistics and be prepared to defend them. If in doubt, they say, don’t publish it. Oxfam have done their homework, though not all of it was in the briefing that accompanied last week’s PR effort. You’d need to root around in the wider Even it Up campaign and the charity’s research blogs for answers to some common objections.

However, no matter how much groundwork you do, the ‘killer fact’ is out of your control once it’s released into the wild. Like the cancer story, Oxfam’s inequality stats can easily be misunderstood and misreported. Last year I noted stories that suggested 85 people had half the world’s wealth, which is not the same thing as having the same wealth as half the world. It can get confusing.

Because these are such striking facts, they’re also likely to be endlessly repeated at the expense of those other narratives around inequality. As I’ve said before, there are several things happening at once around inequality. The difference between global inequality and in-country inequality is one of the important distinctions lost in the retweeting, for example.

So there are risks to the killer fact approach. You want to know that if people are going to attack them, they attack the interpretation rather than the fact itself (Tim Worstall on Oxfam’s stat is a case in point: “It does have to be said that their numbers are correct” he admits, “but also that they’re not very important.”) They should be approached with caution, but when they’re used well, at an opportune moment, the striking fact can be a powerful tool for jamming an issue onto the agenda.

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34 Comments on “The strengths and weaknesses of the killer fact”

  1. DevonChap January 28, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    The trouble with killer facts is that they breed a discourse of contradiction rather than deliberation. The killer fact is created by taking the worst case you can get away with (hence Oxfam making their prediction that the 1% will soon own half the net wealth by drawing a line using a starting point of 2009 when they had data back to 2000 that would give a different trend.)

    Real issues are far more complex. Killer facts are used by those who don’t want to engage in real debate. If you think killer facts are the way to go you are demonstrating you are not serious and should be ignored.

    • Jeremy Williams January 28, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

      The bit you’re taking umbrage with is not the fact, but an extrapolation from it. The data from Credit Suisse only starts in 2000, and there’s a financial crisis in the middle of that series, so it’s not unreasonable to look at the current trend.

      Of course the issues are complex. That’s why this post is called ‘the strengths and weaknesses of the killer fact’ and not ‘hooray for the killer fact’. But perhaps you didn’t bother to read it in the rush to tell me how irrelevant I am.

    • DevonChap January 28, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

      The you was a more generic one, you in question here being Oxfam.

      As to extrapolating, the data suggests that the share of net assets of the 1% goes down in booms and up in recessions. Since recessions don’t last forever they are clearly choosing the point that makes the biggest impact rather than sober analysis. As I said before, this is advertising and no more worthy than a claim by Garnier that your wrinkles will disappear, in fact the ASA forces Garnier to be more honest.

      • DevonChap January 29, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

        Good blog on this with its own killer fact – The top 1%’s share of net wealth was higher 15 years ago.

        http://www.thetablet.co.uk/blogs/1/548/davos-may-be-misguided-but-oxfam-is-misleading

        • Jeremy Williams January 30, 2015 at 10:19 am #

          Worth reading Oxfam’s blog posts on this, as he’s not saying anything they’re not aware of:
          http://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blogs/15-01-27-wealth-debt-inequality-criticism-response

          I actually agree entirely with Booth’s question: “What really matters is how people become rich – are people enriching themselves through enterprise whilst helping to make others better off too, or are they enriching themselves at the expense of others through corruption and cronyism?”

          The Oxfam research answers that question fairly emphatically – and it’s the latter, through the rent-seeking of finance. The little graph you’re refering to is from the Credit Suisse data, which goes back to 2000. What we see is inequality falling – thanks to growth in emerging economies. Then there is a reversal with the financial crisis, as the rebound from the recession goes largely to the top.

          The growth in fortunes is highly concentrated in the financial sectors, and is therefore not the job-creating enterprise we’d like it to be.

          The danger here is that by fending off the matter of inequality for ideological reasons, we blunder into a hollowed out economy, a declining middle class and a dysfunctional democracy.

          • henry1941 January 30, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

            Rent-seeking by the financial sector is primarily capture of land rental value eg through credit granted for land purchase.

            This is so difficult to see because land titles are so well wrapped-up and concealed in financial instruments such as securities – so much so that there is a widely-held view that “land does not matter any more”.

            This is far from the truth – in a developed commercial economy land – urban land in prime trading locations – is worth orders of magnitude more than in an agricultural/artisan economy.

        • DevonChap January 31, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

          The reason why even if the great and the good at Davos are worried about inequality they don’t do anything about it is that most of the ideas suggested to tackle it would harm the reduction of poverty of the very poorest.

          The last 30 years which supposedly have been a terrible time for inequality have also been the greatest one for reduction of genuine poverty. This is more than a correlation, the policies that aid one aid the other. Now it can be argued that if inequality was lower then some growth would be higher, but that relies on optimal policies being followed, and the policies Oxfam argued for in its Even it Up campaign you so like are mostly massively suboptimal and would slow the decline in poverty.

          There are three kinds of inequality; inequality of wealth, inequality of income and inequality of consumption. Of the three inequality of wealth is the most mutable since it depends on asset valuations and these can easily be changed, though well massively economic consequences. This is the one progressives like to focus on because the numbers are so big and they can pretend you could take that wealth and give it to the poor to end poverty which is obvious nonsense. They also don’t want to talk about income inequality and consumption inequality since they are declining.

          So we end up with simplistic ‘killer facts’ that fit Twitter but are only fit for twits.

          • Jeremy Williams February 1, 2015 at 9:35 am #

            Let me just copy and paste my comment from above and then be done with this.

            What we see in the graph that I posted is inequality falling – thanks to growth in emerging economies that you rightly champion. Then there is a reversal with the financial crisis, as the rebound from the recession goes largely to the top.

            Nothing to celebrate about the capture of the financial system, but because you’re so allergic to the idea of greater equality, you risk a hollowed out economy, a declining middle class and a dysfunctional democracy.

            You stand to lose from this too, but it’s your right to look the other way. Just don’t tell me I should be doing the same thing, especially if you can’t be bothered to engage with my reasoning.

          • DevonChap February 1, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

            You don’t seem to grasp the trade-offs here. The increase in wealth of the top is in large part due to quantitative easing which boosted asset prices but does seem to have avoided a worse recession for the UK and US (compare us to the Eurozone). That would have hollowed out the economy even more. We all stood to loose a lot more if we hadn’t enriched the 1%.

            When QE is unwound then we can expect to see a resumption of the previous trend of decreasing wealth inequality thanks to lovely neo liberal globalization.

          • Jeremy Williams February 2, 2015 at 10:14 am #

            You’re making my case for me. Of the many ways to stimulate the economy, we chose a big old slice of upwards redistribution.

          • henry1941 February 2, 2015 at 11:07 am #

            Talk of redistribution worries me. It avoids the question of why wealth is maldistributed in the first place. The labourer is entitled to the full value of his production. If he is not receiving it, who is, and how are they getting hold of this value?

          • Jeremy Williams February 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

            I’m not a fan of redistribution either, but when money is taken from the poor or middle classes and given to the 1%, that’s the worst kind of all. Like QE, or securitization, using the mortgage payments of ordinary people to underpin exotic financial instruments that only profit the very richest.

            Land reform would be one of the ways of redressing the power balance so that redistribution isn’t necessary, and those sorts of solutions are much more interesting to me. Worker owned businesses and profit sharing are another.

          • DevonChap February 2, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

            Redistribution upwards. That is precisely where you go wrong. Fixed cake thinking.

            No money has been taken from the middle classes and the poor and given to the richer. New money was created that has inflated the assets of the richer but also maintained the wealth and income of the poorer. The crash could have been so much worst.

          • Jeremy Williams February 3, 2015 at 10:01 am #

            Tell that to a 30 year old trying to get on the housing ladder.

            QE will out. The money is not literally taken from anyone, but the benefits of that asset inflation accrue to a small minority at the eventual expense of everyone else. Along with that increase in wealth comes increase in influence, ensuring that they can shape policy and continue to benefit in future. It is therefore upwardly redistributive of both wealth and power.

            I’m not arguing that QE doesn’t stave off recession, but that we chose a form of economic boosting that benefited the 1%, rather than everyone. If you’re happy with your crumbs from the rich man’s table, good for you. I have bigger aspirations for society.

          • DevonChap February 3, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

            “Try telling that to a 30 year old”. Much better to make up some wishful thinking rather than the truth.

            ‘Oh the richer are so powerful, that is why no one adopts our policies’ is a good self justification but it ain’t true. More likely your ideas are duff. Fantasy economics is all very well but as I said the proposed solutions are worse than the problem. It’s a trade off. Based on our economic knowledge so far we can choose a system that has delivered for the very poorest or move to some combination of policies we know fail and fantasy ones that are unlikely to work. It’s better to aspire to what works rather than create a bogeyman of the super-richer to blame.

          • Jeremy Williams February 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

            Ours is not the only model of capitalism, let alone government. There’s no shortage of alternatives, tried and tested ideas, and that get the best out of markets and enterprise. But as I say, if you’re happy with it as it is, that’s your loss.

            Enjoy your crumbs.

          • DevonChap February 3, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

            If these ideas where so great they would outcompete my crumbs, but they haven’t.

            Tried, tested, failed.

          • Jeremy Williams February 4, 2015 at 9:08 am #

            They do outcompete your crumbs. To take one example, Sweden outcompetes Britain in almost every metric going, including GDP. I know we’re not Sweden and you’ll have a million reasons why I should be sceptical, but it’s a simple fact that other models exist.

            Things can be different. If you can’t see it, that’s your loss.

          • henry1941 February 4, 2015 at 9:53 am #

            The Swedish model is also coming to the end of the road, unemployment is worse than the UK. The country has been living off the fat laid down forty years ago. The old successful industries that the country lived from have largely vanished, there have been a few successes in IT and design but these do not make up. It is often forgotten that Sweden is also a primary producer eg iron ore and timber, and the small population and large land area helps to reduce the impact of the policy mistakes.

          • Jeremy Williams February 4, 2015 at 11:52 am #

            I don’t dispute any of that, no country is getting everything right. My only point is that other models exist.

          • DevonChap February 4, 2015 at 1:18 pm #

            Thing is, you made this about wealth inequality, which is similar in Sweden to the US.

            http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/wealth-inequality-in-sweden.html

          • Jeremy Williams February 4, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

            I’m not interested in debating Swedish current affairs. You know as well as I do that there’s a Nordic model that’s a proven alternative.

          • henry1941 February 4, 2015 at 8:57 pm #

            The problem in Sweden is not the Wallenberg family, it is (a) the huge deadweight losses caused by the tax system (b) the large welfare bill due to reasonable benefit levels which are a disincentive to work due to the high withdrawal rate if those on benefit go into work and (c) growing numbers of unintegrated and unintegrateable immigrants and their numerous equally unintegrateable children.

          • DevonChap February 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

            Sorry, you made this about wealth inequality, you then cite an example that you imply is a better model but that has just as high wealth inequality. Now either Sweden isn’t a good alternative or wealth inequality isn’t an issue. Which is it?

            You go that there are alternatives but those alternatives either aren’t what you think (Sweden – growth oriented neo-liberal economy with high wealth inequality that has a large welfare state) or they have bigger failings than what we have now. You can’t pick and choose.

          • Jeremy Williams February 5, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

            I’ll give you that – Sweden’s not a good example. I should have said the Nordic model more generally, which is what we’re looking at, and the discrepancies between Sweden’s equality of income and inequality of wealth are interesting.

            Taken more generally, the Nordic model is a clear alternative to the British or American approach. Continental Europe is different again, Germany or the Netherlands in particular. Poland is an interesting case, with relatively low levels of inequality during transition out of communism. New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan – none of these are unsuccessful economies.

          • DevonChap February 5, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

            The ‘Nordic’ model doesn’t really exist. Denmark has higher wealth inequality than Sweden, Iceland went bust and Norway as a petro-state with a small population is hardly a model many can follow. So your Nordic model is Finland.

            You do really need to decide what type of inequality is the problem. As I said, wealth inequality is the least important which is why Oxfam focussing on it shows how unserious they are and how pointless killer facts can be.

          • Jeremy Williams February 5, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

            Oxfam have prioritised wealth inequality here because its in the context of Davos. Both kinds of equality matter, for different reasons – and more besides, such as inequality of power or information.

            Politics always defies easy categorisation, but Northern Europe is widely recognised as having chosen a more inclusive model of capitalism – which is my very simple point here. Other models exist.

          • DevonChap February 5, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

            Those Northern European countries have high levels of wealth inequality.

            http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSBREA1P1VJ20140226?irpc=932

            They know that you need a successful growth economy to pay for the inclusive social spending. Successful capitalism requires capital, or as Oxfam call it, wealth. Wealth creation needs to be rewarded for a successful economy. Wealth inequality is a healthy sign. These other models are built on inequality which is why saying that they are other models when you seem unhappy with any inequality undermines your argument.

            I repeat my point, wealth inequality isn’t important. Now you are more generous to Oxfam than I. I think they focused on wealth inequality because the numbers sound big and currently its going up, while income inequality is falling. Hence the technically accurate but pointless Killer fact. Otherwise they wouldn’t have much to complain about and that doesn’t raise money to pay arts graduates in Oxford.

          • Jeremy Williams February 5, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

            Oxfam focus on wealth inequality because they’re using the opportunity of Davos and using the Forbes rich list (Forbes are after the big numbers too presumably). Look at the broader Even it Up campaign, or last year’s report, and you’ll see Oxfam don’t actually privilege wealth inequality over income inequality:
            http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-cost-of-inequality-how-wealth-and-income-extremes-hurt-us-all-266321

            Thanks for the lesson on wealth creation. I do understand how capitalism works, I just disagree with you when you say it can’t be made to work better. Perhaps I have more faith in human ingenuity than you do.

  2. sprokkelen January 28, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

    Thanks!

  3. henry1941 January 28, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

    What does this “wealth” actually consist of?

  4. davefolkerson January 29, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    Great post, Jeremy. Referencing Oxfam’s own guide was particulary helpful/interesting. I’m a huge advocate of the “killer fact”, especially when delivering presentations – where a strong hook in the opening is so incredibly important – so long as you are confident of your facts. In regards to the media, well, journalistic laziness is nothing new, unfortunately. Although it might be getting worse (whole other topic).

    David
    http://www.bettercommunicator.ca

    • Jeremy Williams January 30, 2015 at 10:32 am #

      Thanks, and great blog, by the way. I’ll be checking in on that, because I learned a few useful things just now.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Book review: The Myth Gap, by Alex Evans | Make Wealth History - March 21, 2017

    […] want to make a fairer and more sustainable society, we can’t bombard people with facts, even killer ones. We need a story that makes sense of where we are, and that offers a vision of where we go next. […]

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