Reading evidence is one of the great challenges of the modern world. It is something that has become much more challenging in the age of the internet and, in particular, with the rise of social media platforms.
It is in this context that the publication this week of ‘The Wellbeing of The Nation, 2017’, produced by the Central Statistics Office, should be viewed.
All told, the CSO performs an invaluable service to the State and its people.
It presents the world not as people may wish it to be but as it is — allowing for errors and misinterpretation — according to the facts that they discern.
Its director general, Pádraig Dalton, has noted how the data in its reports offers the “raw material for accountability” and “an objective source of the truth”.
In the current age, and indeed in any age, that is a commendable ambition.
But even in the best of reports, there remain challenges of understanding the data that is provided.
For example, it is interesting to see that ‘The Wellbeing of The Nation, 2017’ records that the number of healthy life years one can expect to experience has increased from 66.9 years in 2014 to 67.3 in 2015.
So not alone are people living longer lives, but they are in good health for an extended stretch of those years.
But does this necessarily mean that people are living better, more healthy lives?
Or is it instead testimony to improvements in medicine and an increase in the ability to pay for such medical treatment? Finding answers to this question is not straightforward, but one place to look is with the world of sport.
It is routinely said about Ireland that it is a country where people love sport. And it is true that there are extraordinary sporting facilities on the island — facilities that allow for the playing of most forms of modern sport.
It is also true that sporting events shown on TV regularly fill out the top 20 viewed programmes in any given year.
‘The Wellbeing of The Nation, 2017’ — underpinned by research published by Sport Ireland — tells a more complicated story, however.
The report notes that the percentage of individuals aged 15 years or older who have taken part in sport in the seven days previous to the data being collected fell from 47.2% in 2013 to 45.0% in 2015.
By any stretch of the imagination, this is a significant fall. Particularly when you consider that ‘sport’ as understood in this report extends far beyond the realms of competition and across into recreational activities such as walking, cycling, and dancing.
Interestingly, recent research can be added to the figure from the CSO. The interim ‘Sports Monitor’ report produced by Sport Ireland shows that active participation in sport continued to decline through the early months of 2017.
The decline is not steep but it appears real, nonetheless, and manifests itself in a way that suggests the emergence of a pattern. Interestingly, the greatest decline appears to be among young males.
Across the spectrum, all available data makes clear that evidence of participation in sport is directly linked to educational attainment and level of income.
In other words, those who leave school early and who are unemployed are much less likely to pursue active sporting interests than those who go to university and secure a good job.
It may seem to be something of a contradiction to note that the CSO has also recorded that the average weekly household expenditure on sports and leisure has increased. It notes that in 2009-10, the spend was €14.40 per week, but that this had increased to €17.85 in 2015-16.
In its commentary on this increase, the CSO notes:“Leisure and sports activities can play an important role in communities.
These activities can improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, increasing individual’s self-esteem, and can help the development of communities.
Higher spending on these activities indicates higher levels of participation in events of this nature and can be regarded as positive for well-being.”
This is not necessarily at odds with the fact that fewer people are playing sport. The fact that the average weekly spend is actually on ‘sports and leisure’ means people could be spending more money on cinema, in pubs, or on other non-sporting leisure activities, rather than on sport.
Alternatively, given that overall participation in sport has decreased, the increased spend in sport and leisure means it is also possible that fewer people are spending more on sport — presumably because the costs associated with their sporting activities have increased?
And does that not, in turn, suggest that the barriers to involvement in sport — particularly ones of cost centring on a lack of disposable income — are actually increasing?
Either way, there are other facts from the CSO report that gives lie to notions of a country that considers itself in thrall to sport.
For example, the percentage of people over 15 who were classified as overweight or obese in 2015 was 60%, but this has risen to 62% in 2017. Further, the number of people over 15 who binge-drink in Ireland on a regular basis stood at 39% in 2017.
Where does the hope lie?
There is evidence in the report that individuals and society, as a whole, can change their behaviour. For example, since 2001 Ireland has dramatically increased its rate of recovery of packaging waste such as cardboard, paper, glass, plastic, steel, aluminium, and wood.
In 2001, this rate stood at less than 25% of such materials being recovered through recycling. But the recovery rate for such material in 2013 had reached as high as 88% and continues to climb.
In a related area, air quality is measured through the level of emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere. The CSO report shows that the level of these emissions has fallen since 2005 when 47m tonnes were emitted and by 2014, 36m tonnes of CO2 was emitted.
The question is what happens next? It should be the case that the presentation of clear information and the insights that flow from that information should, in turn, lead to better decisions.
These decisions can be arrived at by individuals and also by policy makers in the State. The independence of the CSO’s work is unquestionable and the stark reality of its conclusions as they relate to sport are obvious.
The element of personal responsibility in this is obvious, as is the role of the State. So, a simple question: Where is the national sports policy? This is a policy long promised but which remains undelivered.
Why is this? Why does Shane Ross, a minister who has so much to say about so many things that happen in other parts of Government, singularly fail to deliver in this area of direct responsibility?
It will be interesting to see what future reports from the CSO demonstrate.
One of the statisticians involved in putting together ‘The Wellbeing of The Nation, 2017’, Damien Lenihan said: “This publication is a starting point in measuring wellbeing and is an area which will be expanded further in the coming years.”
That is to be greatly welcomed. Will future reports show a society actually demonstrating a genuine engagement with sport?
Or will the numbers at play continue to diminish?
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