How pirates think

Journalists love surveys. Six out of ten men floss before sex is a great headline. So they are never tempted to look behind the survey outcome and ask what it was based on and if it has any significance at all. No-one likes to let facts get in the way of a good story.

So to Somali pirates. Evidently a survey of Somali pirates found that they think prison is the worst place, they attack ships because they are poor and they fear the international navies deployed in the Indian Ocean above all.  Plus they would stop their bad behaviour if their families or communities told them to.

All very helpful to academics studying piracy, and manna from heaven to Admirals with budgets to protect. Plus it makes a lovely headline, in this case in the vibrant online news site gcaptain, which has a liking for news about navies. But of course, look a little closer and it is yet more boloney.

All the actual evidence shows that piracy attacks have diminished because there is improved rule of law ashore and because shipowners have hardened their ships with armed guards. There still has been no successful attack on an armed ship.

So why the bent survey? The results are based on questioning 66 Somali pirates who are in jail. Now I have met a few Somalis and to put it politely, they were not great strategic thinkers. More tactical, in a naval sense. Or as normal people would say, they tend to react to what is in front of them without thinking about the consequences. So when asked what is bad, if they are in prison they say prison. When asked what they fear by someone in authority they say the navies. And the answers from 66 people from a complex system selected by all of them being in the same position have no statistical validity at all.

It is quite right that community pressure is a massive force in Somalia, and if that is harnessed to a rule of law then piracy stops. But if you went and asked the pirates still there what they fear most they will tell you that it is armed guards on merchant ships. Grey ships bristling with missiles somewhere over the horizon don’t enter your head when you are bouncing over the waves in a small dinghy chasing towards a ship you intend to board. I can tell you that if you think there is someone on that ship who might shoot you then that is the first thing you think about. It is the only thing. And when they open fire you don’t want it to be the last thing you think about so you turn away.

We could do a survey of editors. Zero out of ten headlines writers read surveys before writing about them. Maybe not something we will see soon.

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