by scotslawstudent

Statistics are a great tool. It is pretty crucial for a lot of tasks that some very unclear, even indeterminate, things can be drilled down into some very specific figures.

One particularly sensitive statistic is the number of file sharers in the country. Firstly there are obviously two kinds of file sharing – there is legal and illegal file sharing. The legal file sharers are actually the cornerstone of the “information economy” we’re all supposed to be entering into while the illegal file sharers are potentially the worst threat to international peace and commerce ever seen and are pursued accordingly.

The two kinds look very similar but both take place in the legally protected privacy of the home. Without actually being able to put a camera in everyone’s house the only way you can find out if people are sharing, legally or illegally, files is to ask them.

It is well reported that the figures the Government put forward for file sharing are, if not categorically wrong are involved with a lot of guesswork and seem to be estimated at the high end of the range. The report is an amazing piece of statistical reporting which effectively took 136 affirmative responses and decided that people don’t adequately report on illegal file sharing and rounded up to around 7 million. It’s pretty terrifying even for a secret industry report.

Oh yes, the figure came from a secret industry report. That’s probably worth mentioning. The figure is officially cited as coming from a consultancy firm but it actually doesn’t, it’s from an unpublished BPI funded report. This means that the Government figures comes from an industry report that no one can read while telling everyone who reads the published, official report that they come from another source. Nothing can go wrong there.

This discovery was made by the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less, a program basically conceived for this situation – it deals with the “the powerful, sometimes beautiful, often abused but ever ubiquitous world of numbers” and is very good and worth listening to. The episode which revealed the file sharing figures also asked “why do England lose?” to which, of course, my heritage maintains perhaps a less than mathematical explanation.