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How the government uses dirty data to legislate morality

So what's a standard deviation?

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Careful selection

The other way in which government manages to skew evidence for its policies is in the careful selection of the criteria it sets out to measure. Following on from an original assertion that there was no evidence for harm resulting from extreme porn, it put in place a Rapid Evidence Assessment which quickly concluded that after all, there might be some evidence.

This report has been widely criticised – not least on the grounds of the assumed bias of its authors. However, a far more serious criticism of this work is that it was scoped to report only on evidence for harm.

According to the Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents (pdf), Christmas trees, household linen, and underwear are all associated with some degree of harm. So should we ban underwear?

Any report on any subject that is directed to find harm is likely to do so to some degree. The real question is whether the topic under review causes net harm. Opponents of the extreme porn law have argued that the net effect of porn is to reduce overall sex crime in societies: The government review did not address this question. Nor did it report on instances where material reviewed showed positive harm reduction effects from porn.

It was essentially lopsided.

In closing our review of evidence in government policy-making, an honourable mention to Martin Salter MP, who has persistently talked up the evils of "Snuff" movies – despite numerous reports arguing that any such trade, if it exists at all, is tiny. A mention too to Keith Vaz, MP, who continued to claim that the killers of British schoolboy Stefan Pakeerah had been influenced by the video game Manhunt, despite police evidence that they had probably never seen it.

Congratulations also go to the BBFC, who are happy to quote the advice of experts when making their decisions – but who prefer not to name the experts concerned.

Pride of place, however, goes to the Home Office Committee charged with reviewing Sexual Offences back in 2000. In their report, "Setting the Boundaries" (pdf), they expressed surprise that necrophilia wasn’t actually a crime. They could find "no firm evidence of the nature or the extent of the problem," but, since they thought most people would expect it to be illegal anyway, had no problems with proposing its criminalisation.

That’s evidence-based policy-making for you! ®

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