Posts Tagged 'gell-mann amnesia'

The Gell-Mann Amnesiac’s guide to Canadian penal statistics.

Earlier today I was doing some research for an essay I’ve been working on. I was trying to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: what percentage of Canadians have served time in prison?

Turns out it’s not that easy a question after all. (If you happen to know the answer, I encourage you to leave a link in the comments.)

As a starting point I took the dummy route and simply typed into Google.ca the phrase, “Percentage of Canadians who’ve been in prison”.

The #2 result was a page from Statistics Canada – a pretty dependable source – and while it doesn’t quite answer my question, it does at least tell me roughly how many adult Canadians are in prison right now. Here are the daily average prison populations for the year 2014-15:

Remand: 13,650
Sentenced (provinces and territories): 10,364
Sentenced (federal): 15,168
Total: 39,182

I had to extract these numbers from a somewhat confusing table, and they require a little glossing:

“Remand” means that the prisoner is being held awaiting trial. (In the United States, the phrase “pre-trial detention” is more typically used.) These prisoners are in the custody of the provincial or territorial justice systems.

Upon conviction, prisoners sentenced to any term under two years will remain in the provincial or territorial system, while those sentenced to two years or more will be transferred to a federal prison. (Hence a term of “two years less a day” is common in Canadian sentencing.)

As you can see from the above numbers, within the provincial system, in 2014-15 more prisoners were in remand than had been convicted of any crime. But in the justice system overall, unconvicted prisoners were about 35% of the total.

(The 2015-16 stats are also available, showing that the share of prisoners in remand has since risen to over 37%.)

Going back to my internet search, the #6 result was a 2015 editorial from the Globe and Mail – Canada’s equivalent of the New York Times – with this headline:

Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?

The second paragraph proclaims that:

Across the country, 55 per cent of prisoners in provincial and territorial jails are not behind bars because of a conviction.

And the editorial ends with the question:

Is there a politician in Canada with the courage to take up the cause? Someone who won’t pander to fears whipped up by the tough-on-crime crowd, but will instead build a better system based on evidence, enlightened self-interest and a genuine respect for the right to liberty? Or will we continue to be a country where two out of three people behind bars haven’t been convicted of anything?

There’s no explanation, by the way, for how the anonymous editorialist managed to get from 55% at the top of the page to “two out of three” at the bottom.

In any case, neither the headline nor the closing peroration is in any conceivable sense accurate. And the second paragraph, while technically true, leaves out the important information – probably unknown to the majority of readers – that there are separate federal and provincial jail systems. With federal prisons included, “most” Canadian prisoners – in 2014-15, just under two out of three – have indeed been convicted of something.

I read this deceptive editorial in “Canada’s newspaper of record” and shook my head. “Well, that’s why I buy the National Post,” I thought, resuming my research.

Oh, wait:

More than half of Canadian adults in jail awaiting trial rather than serving sentences in 2014 and 2015: StatsCan

For over a decade, jails across Canada have held more adults awaiting trial than convicted offenders serving sentences…

Thus begins the National Post’s version of the same story. Once again, the lede is technically true – but the phrase “jails across Canada” misleadingly neglects to mention the difference between provincial and federal prisons.

At least – small comfort – the very final paragraph of the Post’s article acknowledges that:

The numbers do not include the approximately 15,168 prisoners who were serving sentences of two years or more in federal custody over the same period.

***

At a talk he gave in 2002, author Michael Crichton introduced the concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia (named in honour of his friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had formulated the idea):

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Unlike Murray Gell-Mann on physics, or Michael Crichton on showbiz, I’m not an expert on the Canadian penal system. If I hadn’t happened to be researching the subject when I came across these articles, I would have assumed their numbers were accurate. Our most respected national news sources wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

But what’s particularly galling about these misleading articles is that the number of people in Canadian jails is pretty easy to count. There is little argument about what constitutes a “prison” or a “prisoner”. Accurate figures aren’t hard to find – they’ve been made available on the internet by our government. The National Post article actually links to the Statistics Canada website that was my source for the table above.

If our national media can make such a hash of readily calculated, easily accessible statistics, how badly are they scrambling the statistics that aren’t so easy to pin down?

And what about me? The next time I read an op-ed piece confidently quoting reams of numbers at me – will I remember this incident?

M.