Sunday, November 29, 2020
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Blitzed by daft data

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YOU’VE undoubtedly noticed how these days we’re assailed with surveys, polls and studies.

Some surveys are blatantly commercial – a wig-making company finds most men would prefer not to be bald. Or a pet food firm tells us that eight out of ten cats love its moggy meat.  

Studies seem to appear more nuanced, not seeking to sell you something and perhaps with some interesting intellectual or educational content to impart.  

The latest in this category comes with the eye-catching headline: ‘Britain’s blitzed cities are still deprived 75 years after the war ended: Child poverty rates are above average.’ 

That briefly conjured up for me alarming images of skeletal orphans scavenging amid bomb-ravaged urban wastelands right now in 2020.  

But the headline turned out to be referring to an odd piece of research trying clunkily to link two unrelated subjects – the 1940s German bombing raids and current levels of child poverty.  

Dr Timo Hannay, of the educational data analysis firm SchoolDash, produced the study to mark the 80th anniversary of the Blitz and Remembrance Sunday.  

He mapped today’s childhood deprivation, wellbeing and educational achievement against regional towns and cities that suffered high levels of casualties and destruction in the Blitz.  

‘The results are striking,’ he said. ‘Today, almost all of these have child poverty rates well above the national average.’  

He also found low achievement by primary and secondary pupils and low participation in higher education.  

‘Self-reported life satisfaction also tends to be low. On top of all this, Covid-19 death rates in many of these areas, specifically, those in the Midlands and the North, have been much higher than in the country as a whole.’  

Are the results really that striking or unexpected? The Germans dropped their bombs on Britain’s seaports and industrial centres, whose large working-class populations – adults and children – were no strangers to deprivation and poverty.

Historically, life had never exactly been a bed of roses for these dockers, labourers, factory workers and their families. And for many, things hardly improved after victory in 1945 as Britain’s manufacturing base was eroded. So it’s hardly surprising that even all these years on, things remain relatively bleak economically and socially in some of these places.  

If the Luftwaffe had targeted only the country piles of the aristocracy, presumably we’d now be hearing how having wealth, status, privilege and a place at Eton and Oxbridge in 2020 correlates almost perfectly with having been blitzed in 1940.  

Indeed, Dr Hannay admits that there is no active connectivity in his findings, saying: ‘None of this is to imply a causal link between 1940s bombing raids and current social challenges.’  

In that case, why do academics bother with these irritating, pointless exercises? All they seem to show is that with a little statistical jiggery-pokery and an impressive set of graphs, you can link anything with anything.  

So I think we can file this one away in the archives of that ancient and noble seat of learning, the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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