As many as none

June 2, 2009

Tom Whipple
368 words
24 October 2008
The Times
Times2 5
English
(c) 2008 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

As many as three quarters of all Times journalists are, at any one time, drunk. Up to half of those have, on occasion, stolen a colleague’s press pass, staggered to the nearest station, and sold it to a tramp for half a can of White Lightning and a pinch of Cutter’s Choice.

On Friday afternoon, the home news editor leapt on to the foreign editor’s desk wearing a leopardskin thong, danced the rumba, and growled at passing reporters until they gave him beer money.

Only one of the above statements is false, but let me rewrite the first two. Between 0 and 75 per cent of all Times journalists are, at any one time, drunk. Less than 32.5 per cent of – and perhaps as few as zero – Times journalists have sold press passes for alcohol. This tells us nothing.

Where is this going? Last week, to choose a story at random, it was reported that a grim high street was preparing itself for recession. The evidence? Shops are cutting prices by up to 75 per cent. To test if an assertion is silly, try flipping it on its head: in this case, no shop is cutting prices by more than 75 per cent.

Anyone familiar with the television advertising oeuvre of DFS will know that there has not been a period in the past decade when a shop in Crittal’s Corner, New Malden or Milton Keynes has not cut the price of something by 75 per cent. So a single sofa could always have justified this “credit crunch” story.

A real story would be if average prices fell across all shops, but that would require research – and would also contradict the same paper’s assertion that things are getting worse for “hard-working families”.

“Up to” and “as many as” are phrases that are extremely useful for journalists. They can be used without evidence and they can be justified with only one example – or one upper-bound estimate by one scientist.

But on as many as 100 per cent of the occasions they are used, they are completely meaningless.

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