The Truth, Plain and Simple

Didn’t the UK do well at the Olympics? Second only to the USA with 67 medals. Not as well as the Aussies apparently, we spotted this picture on Facebook before the Rio Games had even finished. As Algernon says in Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Ernest: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”Aussie_statistics

One of the most competitive sporting nations on Earth, the Aussies just don’t know when they’re beaten; half our medal total but they still want to kick sand in our faces. Except by their chosen measure the flaming Kiwis beat them massively – cripes, that’s even worse than being beaten by the Poms! And Granada beat everyone with their single medal. The actual numbers can be found here:

When carefully selecting figures to prove your case, first choose an appropriate period. Here, the optimistic Aussie used the number of medals his country won at the London Olympics, not Rio as you might have thought; the Rio medal score was only 29, so the gap with the Brits was actually greater.

We spent at least 50% more than them in the four years leading up to the latest Games but got more than twice the number of medals; then again the Australians sent a much bigger team. A number of calculations can be done with these data, such as the overall return on investment (the amount paid against medals won), what it cost per athlete to win a medal, how many chances there were “to medal” given that the number of entries per country per event were limited (Australia had more chances to win), etc. We could also include a country’s relative wealth (medals per capita-GDP) since richer countries do well, perhaps because they have better opportunities and facilities, and Australians are wealthier than Britons.

The top countries vary hugely depending on how they are scored. The EU was even proud that it had far more medals than the US (but also far more athletes and more entries per event). If they’d taken Brexit into account the EU would have lost about a third of its medals.

The fact is the Aussies have got worse every time since Sydney in spite of copying the “brutal but effective” funding model the UK adopted to improve its position after its poor performance at Atlanta in 1996 (only Sir Steve Redgrave won gold), especially in the run-up to London 2012. Finding out why is a more interesting, difficult but worthwhile exercise than fiddling with the numbers. Yet this is what politicians and economists do all the time. Andrea Leadsom found a neat excuse for Leave’s quoting the UK’s gross contribution to the EU budget rather than net of what it gets back: “you don’t quote your salary net of tax“. Treasury officials (rightly) ran their model of the UK economy against a range of post-Referendum, possible outcomes, good and bad. George Osborne seized on the simulation that asked, “what-if-everything-went-against-us-and-we-did-nothing-to-help-ourselves?” That predicted families would be £4,000 a year worse off by 2030, a far less abstract impact on the pound in people’s pockets than £350 million per week (or whatever the net figure is) spent by government on their behalf.

Physics is the most mathematical of the natural sciences but we’re pretty confident physicists are right that earth’s gravity is 9.8 metres/sec/sec at sea level, and they’re almost certainly right about lots of other things too. Economics is the most mathematical of the social sciences but economists get to choose the numbers they prefer – we can’t blame them, it’s a precise “science” but not an accurate one.


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