Juking the Stats

It says something about the quality of a work of fiction, when you think about it long after you’ve first experienced it, when its relevance to something apparently unrelated jumps out at you, because somehow it has perfectly captured the essence of an aspect of life.

It’s that way with The Wire, the HBO television serial for me.  I originally watched the DVD box sets of all 5 series in hotel rooms and on trains when I travelled a lot for work.  I rationed myself so as not to use them up too quickly: only one episode per evening, or two if it had been a particularly trying day, and, if there was still time to occupy, I’d watch them again with the commentary.

I’ve recently watched the whole thing again, and, in spite of my careful viewing the first time, I noticed new things for the first time, subtle foreshadowing of events to come, or extra reaction shots there to reward the attentive viewer;  while the sound of the music over the closing credits conjured the memory of hotel rooms in Paris, something which I suspect may be unique to me.

If you’ve not seen it, The Wire is a panoramic exploration of the near fatal decline of the  US city of Baltimore.  It starts out as a police procedural, the construction of a major criminal case against a gang of drug dealers, based around the use of phone tapping (‘the wire’ in question).  It subsequently examines the decline of the port, and the unholy alliance between port workers and illegal people trafficking and drug importation, moves onto the desperate measures the police department might take to improve their performance in the ‘drug war’, and how the school system fails to keep the children of the inner city away from drugs and dealing, and how craven politicians fail at every step, and  moves finally onto how an ineffectual press, in search of the spectacular headline, fail to hold any municipal authority properly to account.

I think about the programme every time I hear a news story about targets, league tables or financial objectives.  Although The Wire focussed on the police, the school system and the press, reflecting the experience and preoccupations of  David Simon and Ed Burns the creators, the stories it tells of short termism, and self serving cowardice in organisations can be seen reflected in many of the current shameful news stories in the UK.

If you ever want to see a case study in what can happen when you focus on quantity rather than quality, you could go a long way before you could find as effective a one as in Seasons 4 and 5.  Measuring the effectiveness of a police force by the number of arrests they make quickly, rather than taking a longer view and a little patience to construct bigger cases against the major players, leads the police to arrest lots of street level dealers while leaving the importers and distributors of the drugs safe to carry on in operation.

As soon as the key measurement of a health service is how many patients are dealt with in a particular time period, it doesn’t take a genius to anticipate that some practitioners will lose sight of the fact that their primary objective should be to take care of their patients.  Evaluating schools on how many children get the highest grades in exams will lead them to teach only to the exam questions; and each year awarding more top grades to students doesn’t make them more employable or more able to get into the best universities, it just pushes the responsibility of developing criteria with which to judge the academic abilities of one person compared to another further up the chain.   Rewarding bankers to make short term gains will encourage them to take risks and to massage the way they report their results.

Using statistics as the sole tool for measurement makes people find ways to misreport to achieve the picture that they think everyone want to see.  In The Wire, they called it ‘juking the stats’, and everyone was at it.

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6 Comments

  1. I can’t comment on whether this is apposite or not for the UK, but I can say that only fools would accept statistics that are generated by any South African government authority. (Government authority being an oxymoron, of course). Sadly, there are many fools here.

    Reply
    • We’ve just been treated to a report on ‘extra’ deaths at a hospital where too much attention was paid to the stats and not enough to looking after sick people….. I expect it happens everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. And even more mischief can be done through ‘interpreting’ the stats that are produced.

      Reply
  2. I never watched any of The Wire – I spend a lot of time out of the country, and so there are many series that people talk about that completely missed me by. But I could related to your experience with watching this as I did the same with Mad Men when my boyfriend went travelling for a month. I would ration myself just like you said you did. And yeah, when I watched the same episodes again I loved how the second viewing took me to a deeper level. And now, like you get memories of Paris, I always feel (when I see an episode) that strange sadness of heart that I felt when my boyfriend was away.

    Reply
    • There’s nothing like the comfort of a good DVD box set, is there? I love Mad Men too, for its cleverness that also bears close watching. Its opening music always invokes a melancholy feeling for me, so I can imagine it would be double if you were actually feeling a little bit sad when you were watching it.

      Reply
  3. You both watch Mad Men? Something else in common. I’m completely hooked.

    Reply

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