Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Blindness, hairy palms, and varicoceles

I have a bit of fun with some recent reporting on fitness and eligibility for the Chinese People's Liberation Army over at our Insights Newsletter.
Spanking another dodgy stat

It’s too easy for bad statistics to influence policy. About a decade ago, BERL added up every dollar spent by heavier drinkers, counted some other costs twice, and claimed that alcohol use cost New Zealand $4.8 billion per year.

The number still floats around when someone wants to justify the next round of restrictions on drinking. So I pay a bit of attention to dodgy-looking statistics.

The Los Angeles Times last week reported on Chinese youth boot camps encouraging boys to shape up into ‘alpha males’ rather than emulate ‘boy band’ idols. It all seemed a bit humdrum. But a supporting statistic in the piece was eye-catching.

According to the Times, the People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper complained that “20% of recruits were not fit enough to pass the fitness test for admission because they were overweight, watched too many cellphone videos, drank too much or masturbated too often.”

I couldn’t let a statistic like that just pass by.

What proportion of recruits failed the fitness test for each of those reasons? And how could the PLA possibly know about that last one?

While China has compulsory registration for military service, Wikipedia says volunteers staff their army. So the statistic likely wasn’t generated by opportunistic ticks of a box on a recruitment form (or worse!) to avoid the draft. Getting out of the army can’t be that easy, Klinger!

So I wondered again, how could they know? – and, with horror, realised that a government spying on everyone’s movement and their web history could probably make a pretty good guess. Ceiling Xi is watching you.

I tracked the statistic to an August 2017 article on the Chinese Ministry of Defence’s website – which Google Translate helped me read.

I couldn’t find the 20% statistic. But of those unfit for service, 17% were ruled out on a blood or urine test, 46% by an eye exam, 20% due to obesity, 8% due to varicoceles, and 13% for heart conditions or high blood pressure.

And then, without any justification, the military website blamed mobile phones for eye problems, and that for the varicoceles. While embarrassment prevented me from calling up our GP, neither WebMD nor the Mayo Clinic website listed that as a risk factor for or cause of varicoceles.

Dodgy statistics can be bad for policy. Hopefully, this one winds up providing more amusement than harm.
I had to do a lot of Googling around using kinda dodgy search terms for this one. Are varicoceles really caused by that? What other euphemisms can I find for that that can help avoid the content filters on newsletters? Do people still know what I mean if I refer to that simply as Portnoy's primary hobby?*

Fortunately, I haven't yet started seeing the kinds of ads you might expect from that search history.

* Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Sokath, his eyes opened! This problem seems to be getting worse with the fragmentation of culture - which has generally otherwise been to the good, but does mean that attempts at metaphor and euphemism inevitably become in-jokes for those who know the reference. Like Ceiling Xi. I'd originally had "and Portnoy's Complaint for the varicoceles" in the penultimate paragraph; that was dialled back when I was reminded that I was already requiring people to remember who Klinger is, what Ceiling Xi might be, and that they'd probably (like me) have to Google to find out what a varicocele is (it's a varicose vein in the relevant area - who'd have guessed?).

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