Bogus statistical claims watch

by Chris Bertram on June 1, 2007

Jeff Randall in an article tellingly entitled “It’s not racist to worry about immigration”:;jsessionid=GC4DUTALG01A3QFIQMGSFF4AVCBQWIV0?xml=/opinion/2007/06/01/do0101.xml&posted=true&_requestid=6551 in the Telegraph:

bq. Never mind arguments over race, diversity and multi-culturalism, England (where most immigrants want to settle) is horribly crowded. With 50 million people, it is the fourth-most densely populated country in the world, excluding city states such as Hong Kong and Dubai.

The trouble with this sort of claim is obvious. If England (density: 388.7 /km²) counts as a country then all kinds of other non-sovereign-state units ought to be included in the sample — New Jersey (438/km²) perhaps, or Puerto Rico (434 /km²), or the Palestinian Territories (615 /km²). But if sovereign states (apart from city states) _are_ the relevant unit, then the UK (243 /km²) comes in behind “rather a lot of places”: .



Jo Wolff 06.01.07 at 6:28 am

I’m sure Chris and I are both on the same side in this debate, but the fact that there is a lot of empty space in Wales and Scotland doesn’t seem terribly relevant. I would have thought that the real problem with the argument is that population density has little to do with a country’s ability to absorb immigrants at least in the short to medium term.


MQ 06.01.07 at 6:46 am

People living in New Jersey are perfectly entitled to be against illegal immigration because New Jersey is too crowded. Likewise, people living in England are also entitled to be against illegal immigration because England is too crowded. No bogus statistical claims (or racism) need be involved.


ejh 06.01.07 at 7:15 am

Cobblers. In what practical way is illegal immigration making the country more crowded? Are they building lots of homes on enmpty countryside for illegal immigrants? Are illegal immigrants being billeted in peoples’ homes?


Richard 06.01.07 at 7:26 am

Both of the comments above are absolutely correct. The problem comes, however, from harnessing a completely uninformative statistic to a ‘soft’ value judgement (a practice that happens so often in public debate that it seems natural).

There is almost no analytical value in simply measuring average population density across the land area of a political unit – the result tells you nothing about carrying capacity, how much of the land is usable, or other factors (including social ones) that may be relevant. Monaco has the highest density on the list, but it would drop to the end if you chose to include the Mediterranean Sea in its land area. Of course, this is absurd, but it would give you a situation analogous (in terms of the untility of the land) to Greenland or Turkmenistan or even Surinam.

The fact that Monaco seems to be doing OK as a country suggests that the simple measure of crowdedness is also not a good metric for immigrant-acceptibility. Perhaps there’s something unique about the crowdedness in England (to do with mean income, or social/class/racial tensions, or the availability of bananas or beer) that makes it different… but it seems more likely that this is a value judgement, pure and simple: valid on its own terms as a perception, but not ‘objective’ as the appeal to statistics implies. People in Montana are entitled to grumble about it becoming too crowded (and I expect some of them do).


Chris Bertram 06.01.07 at 7:28 am

mq has failed to notice that article linked to is about immigration generally and not specifically about illegal immigration.


razib 06.01.07 at 7:28 am

oh yeah, as someone in bangladesh, i can you don’t don’t worry your pretty heads off. allow a bunch of under-educated third world immigrants into your countries, it’s all great, you’ve got so much slack before the ubiquitous smell of sh*t is in the air :-)


Chris Bertram 06.01.07 at 7:37 am

Jo: but the fact that there is a lot of empty space in Wales and Scotland doesn’t seem terribly relevant.

Well it does seem relevant to assessing the claim that England is _more crowded_ than other West European countries, say, since those countries are assessed with the empty space (Alps, forest, tundra) included and the anti-immigration polemicist gets to exclude empty space in the UK by using England-only stats. Some Bundeslander are much more crowded than Cumbria, but so what?


shane h 06.01.07 at 8:05 am

The UK is the correct unit because once an immigrant enters he is free to travel anywhere within the UK, not just England. This is why the UK should be compared to the Palestinian territories but not to Monaco or New Jersey.


nick s 06.01.07 at 8:07 am

Yes, it’s all about perception, but that does produce interesting contradictions: not least that Jeff Randall presumably lives in London, a somewhat dense conurbation. Given that the population density of greater London is 4,761/km², it’s presumably incumbent upon him to move out.

Anyway, ‘too crowded’ just means ‘marginally more crowded than when I moved here’. And the main reason Randall uses England is because no-one in Scotland, Wales or NI reads the effing Telegraph.


Alex 06.01.07 at 8:36 am

Open borders vs. controlled immigration is only part of the issue. Tightening the definition of a legal migrant won’t stop illegal immigrants entering the country, and giving illegal immigrants amnesty won’t solve any problems either.

I doubt the influx of immigrants would be so high if we were properly tackling the British nationals luring them here where they work in the shadows as prostitutes and slaves. It makes the issue a whole lot less simple, sure, but it does mean tackling an actual problem rather than fabricating some kind of invasion or claiming that Britain can sustain so many people with a few convenient adjustments.

Of course, that would mean taking blame off the immigrants, partially, which nobody opposing their existence in this country seems to want to do. Forcibly ensuring that all workers are accounted for and treated equally in spite of their legal right to be in the UK effectively removes the incentive to bring them here as cheap labourers. We might also have to start arresting some pimps once in a while – who knows what we could accomplish if we stopped prosecuting victims of circumstance in favour of their exploiters?

I know that if I were living in complete poverty inundated with tales and images of a faroff land of wealth and opportunity, I’d risk my life and lie through my teeth to get there.

I’m fairly incredulous when people say “it’s not racism, it’s just common sense” because I still don’t think they’re including white immigrants. That is to say, I’ve never known a white immigrant be persecuted for having that status. However you and I have both known dark-skinned immigrants (and, for that matter, British nationals) be accused of invasion, disruption or the bewildering concept of job-theft.

I also don’t think Randall would complain about crowding if Britain were packed to the brim with born-and-bred British nationals. He’d be complaining about benefit cheats, or crap food.


ejh 06.01.07 at 8:48 am

More or less every day in Spain, there’s a news story about how immigrants have arrived on the Canary Islands (indeed, there’s one on the radio as I type). The outcome of this is a major political controversy dominated by the idea that there are too many immigrants.

Yet every day, more people come here from Northern Europe to settle. It never seems to occur to anybody, for instance, that I am an immigrant.

Incidentally, it is more than possible that Jeff Randall lives not just in London but somewhere else besides. He wouldn’t think of himself as using up too many resources of space, though. Only poorer people do that.


ejh 06.01.07 at 8:52 am

(As I was completing the above comment, an email appeared in my inbox, from the Telegraph, asking “What Do You Want From The Daily Telegraph?”. I suspect my actual answer is not what they want to hear.)


Alex 06.01.07 at 8:56 am

What Do You Want From The Daily Telegraph?



H. 06.01.07 at 9:08 am

an article tellingly entitled It’s not racist to worry about immigration

The implication is that you think it is racist to worry about immigration. Really? Surely almost everyone worries about immigration, in that practically no one is in favour of a total free-for-all; almost everyone wants at least some limitations. (Quite apart from the fact that it plays into the anti-immigrationists’ hands to label them all as racists.)

You may be right that the claim about England is statistical mumbo jumbo, but ultimately that’s nit-picking. The real question is whether population density should be an issue when considering how much immigration is desirable. Shouldn’t it at least be part of the general mix of concerns?


bi 06.01.07 at 9:23 am

H.: Then the question is, how dense is too dense? And why?


Andrew Brown 06.01.07 at 9:26 am

Chris, I think you underestimate the strength of the Frank Field arguments against immigration: that it threatens the welfare state by making it seem unfair to the poor whose promised benefits go to other people; also, Orwell, writing immediately after the war, had quite a lot about Scottish working-class resistance to Polish immigrants, apparently a major social problem for a while.


abb1 06.01.07 at 9:28 am

Ejh got it: it’s largely not racist; the race here is another case of correlation without causation, as it usually is. We don’t want the poor. We would take as many rich Arab sheiks and deposed African dictators as we can find out there and ask for more.


bi 06.01.07 at 9:28 am


“ultimately that’s nit-picking”

Not if that’s the main thrust of the argument.

Wait a minute, is it reverse racism to point out errors in logic? Maybe we just “played into the hands” of those anti-immigrants? The error in logic is just there as a trap to ensnare all of us? (Instead of, like, an actual argument that actually makes sense.)

= = =


“I’m fairly incredulous when people say ‘it’s not racism, it’s just common sense’ because I still don’t think they’re including white immigrants.”



Chris Bertram 06.01.07 at 9:33 am

The implication is that you think it is racist to worry about immigration.

No, I don’t dissent from the _proposition_ that it is not racist to worry about immigration, so there is no such implication. However articles entitled “It’s not racist to worry about immigration” in right-wing newspapers are typically attempts to legimize pub rants about how “they” are “swamping” us (and similar).


Chris Bertram 06.01.07 at 9:34 am

Chris, I think you underestimate the strength of the Frank Field arguments against immigration

I may or may not underestimate the strength of Frank Field’s arguments, but I’m not sure how you can tell, since I don’t address them here.


ejh 06.01.07 at 9:40 am

that it threatens the welfare state by making it seem unfair to the poor whose promised benefits go to other people

And yet it is curious how often political attacks on immigration go hand in hand with political attacks on welfare.


Alex 06.01.07 at 9:48 am

Bi: Not trying to be rude here, but I’m really having trouble understanding your last post. Could you explain it?


Aidan Kehoe 06.01.07 at 9:55 am

And yet it is curious how often political attacks on immigration go hand in hand with political attacks on welfare.

Depends where you are. IIRC some of the less laughable opposition to immigration in the Republic of Ireland in the last decade or so came from the trade unions, who tended to be concurrently for benefits.


bi 06.01.07 at 1:54 pm

Alex: to put it simply, I agree with you.


Alex 06.01.07 at 2:10 pm

Ah, okay. I understand stuff.


Michael Mouse 06.01.07 at 3:04 pm

the UK (243 /km²) comes in behind rather a lot of places

… as does England at 388 /km². It’s hard to see how you can come up with “fourth” on that data. Even if you extend “ignoring city-states” and “ignoring other non-sovereign states” by adding “ignoring countries with less than ten million residents” – on no basis I can reasonably imagine – you’re still left with Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands ahead of England.


roy belmont 06.01.07 at 8:46 pm

The great apes are leaving, being thrown overboard. Mangrove swamps, key elements of much essential life-source, are being replaced by shrimp farms, oceans replacing fish with plastic trash, and ethanol/grain production as alternative to burning fossil fuel, which is pushing weather cycles out of balance, threatens all of the above and more.
Immigration is really about population numbers, not race or even economics though they color it and give it names – it’s about numerical increase by “other”. And that’s the last taboo before the big throwdown.
All these problems will be resolved by a big reduction in human population numbers, but no one competent wants the responsibility for it.
Crowdedness, lack of resources, etc. are about too many people, pretending it’s about too many people coming to where you are is weak. Too many people here – for the way we live not where. No one wants to change the way they live if they’re comfortable, and no one wants to take responsibility for reducing the population. So we get snivelling and bickering and whining and statistical misdirection.


bi 06.01.07 at 8:53 pm

As Alex points out, crowdedness is about having too many non-whites.


abb1 06.01.07 at 9:11 pm

Yeah. After reading this O’Reilly – McCain transcript, maybe it is mostly racist, after all.


novakant 06.02.07 at 12:42 am

this is fun, little did I know that the population density in Kensington and Chelsea is, wait for it:


last time I went there, they seemed to be doing just fine; that said, London is a tad crowded


dr ngo 06.02.07 at 5:02 am

you’re still left with Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands ahead of England.

Ah, but Taiwan isn’t a proper “country,” as anyone who has lived under the shadow of China for a while (I spent 18 years in Hongkong) will tell you. (And, BTW, the status of Taiwan and HK explain why NIC’s – Newly Industrializing Countries – had to become NIE’s – Newly Industrializing Economies – in the jargon.) So let’s hear it from England now: “We’re Number Four! We’re Number Four!”

BTW, was anyone else who linked to the chart provided dumbfounded by the realization that Ruwanda (!) is roughly as densely populated as Belgium? I still can’t wrap my mind around that, although possibly everyone else knew already.


Craigers 06.04.07 at 1:28 pm

the realization that Ruwanda (sic) is roughly as densely populated as Belgium

Rwanda, however, is a great deal more crowded from a practical sense, since (1) a very large part of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture, with consequently much greater land requirements; and (2) a good part of the country is covered in volcanoes and other mountains, a problem that Belgium (to say the least :) does not have.

From the point of view of the ability to absorb population increase, Rwanda is one of the world’s most crowded countries if not the most crowded. (If you ignore the city-states)

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