There was wonderful example of a “statistics meets news” car crash on the radio this morning. Take an interviewer who seems to be uncomfortable with numbers, poorly prepared by the editors/researchers, some statistics that were not published, presented by a lobby group that has not heard of open data or modern publishing standards, and you end up with an amusing but fundamentally totally groundless piece. People deserve better. The story about the demise of the bearded collie was classic #fakenews and was of little consequence but when the same standards of data spinning and innumeracy are applied to something important we all suffer.
So, lets travel back to this morning and tune in to the BBC radio 4 Today programme, the BBC’s “flagship news and current affairs programme”. (There’s a recording here, and you need the 8.50am item, so 2 hours 50 into the recording.) On it you hear the generally wonderful Martha Kearney introduce an item about dogs and how some breeds are falling out of favour.
It turned out to be the usual non-news stuff about the trend to smaller dogs, urban living, less time for grooming, dodgy breeding etc. Drifting off I then heard Martha say that bearded collies were an example of a breed no longer in favour and that the “number registered has fallen down by more than 100%”. She did not mention over what time period the fall had occurred but surely no breed can fall by over 100% over any time period!
I wanted to see the numbers. I suspected that the falling by more than 100% was a nonsense but it’s always good to check and, in any case, what about the poor old bearded collie? (They even had to have one in the studio to apologise to!)
The Kennel Club published the data referred to in the programme and had a spokesman on the show. I say that they ‘publish’ the data but as of the time of publishing this blog they have still not published the data and press release. They told me they would be at some point but in the meantime all we know is that they gave some figures, unseen by us, to the BBC. I asked both bodies for the figures but they have not passed them on.
The KC does, however, have a web page with registration statistics. It helpfully gives 10-year trends of breed registrations (see an excerpt below).
It’s interesting stuff, but the good news is that the bearded collie seems to be fine according to the data (in the fourth row of the table). The 420 registrations last year was a larger number than in any of the three previous years! The number is down a bit from the years before but that’s not quite the extinction which I think is implied by the quoted 100% plus fall. It’s not a breed showing any trend very different from a number of others in the bit of the table shown. We will probably never know what drove them to pick on bearded collies, but it was unfair! The suspicion that news bodies make the same mistakes or misjudgements in more important areas of news is what harms reputation and damages trust.
As if to undermine the stupidity of bringing a bearded collie into the studio, the KC has a table of vulnerable breeds (see below). The bearded collie is not among the 25 or so in the main list, appearing only in the “at watch” section at the bottom of the table. The odd thing is that, with the exception of the Bullmastiff and given numbers bounce around from year to year, you’d be hard pressed to say that any of the breeds were on a distinct, noteworthy, persistent decline over the decade.
So, it looks like the demise of the bearded collie is classic #fakenews.
It’s a shame that a large organisation like the Kennel Club, with an annual turnover of over £20m, runs shows like Crufts and has 200 staff costing nearly £10m can’t produce better statistics. Surely if the aim is the “general improvement of dogs” and given (page 4 of the accounts) that it has “a significant emphasis on education”, decent evidence and good accessible statistics, suitably written up, ought to be a prerequisite. That means more data, better presented (not in pdfs), and not selectively releasing it to news bodies. Indeed some of its articles including one a few days ago that claimed to set out the “dog breeds that make you lucky in love” could be among the dodgiest surveys of the year!
The Kennel Club has a charitable arm that gives out relatively modest sums each year.