Coal Mining and Fact Finding | Stats and Stories Episode 71 / by Stats Stories


Paris-based journalist Jonny Jacobsen works as an editor with Agence France-Presse news agency. He wrote his first article for Significance magazine during a sabbatical year in England to take a Masters in Data Journalism. He is preparing a longer version of that article, incorporating documents discussed in this week's podcast, for the Shorthand platform. DMs open on Twitter: @jonnymcj

+ Full Transcript

(Background music plays)

Rosemary Pennington: Coal mining is back breaking, dangerous labor. Accidents in mines can lead to disability or even death. But even when a worker walks away from the mine, they may not walk away from the health problems associated with mining. In the 1990’s, miners sued Britain's national coal board, after research indicated a link between lung disease and coal dust exposure. That Landmark lawsuit and the data supporting it is the focus of this episode of Stats and Stories where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Stats and Stories is a production of Miami University's departments of statistics and Media, Journalism and Film as well as the American Statistical association. Joining me in the studio our regular panelist John Bailer, Chair of Miami statistics department and Richard Campbell, Media, Journalism and Film. Our guest today is Jonny Jacobsen. Jacobsen is an editor with international news wire A.F.P. and a data journalist who has covered everything from Scientology to homelessness. Jacobson is also the author of an article in Significance magazine titled, “Defending the Data”, examining the battle between miners and the coal board over the data that linked coal dust to lung disease. Thanks so much for being here today Jonny!

Jonny Jacobsen: Thank you very much, I mean, it's a real pleasure!

Pennington: I'm just going to start off by asking you, what propelled your interest in this topic?

Jacobsen: Well it was a bizarre kind of serendipity. I was actually taking a year off from my job in Birmingham city university setting, for an M.A. in data journalism and it was around about that time that my father died. So, my way of coping with it was it was to notify the employees and start writing an obituary, do what I could do to help on that side. That was when I contacted Brian Tarran, a Significance magazine could you put a wee word in because he used to be a Member of the Royal society of Statisticians, the royal statistical society. And he said I’d be happy to post something or send something to one part of the website. I said you can do that but you know you should really do an article on this guy, because he had read the draft of the obituary there, to the Scotsman. So I had to think about it. I was a little hesitant at first because obviously there are problems writing about something which is in a sense, has a personal link and then decided it was a story worth telling.

John Bailer: What was the biggest surprise when you started to look, doing the research for the story?

Jacobsen: I think, I have to say that this is a case that was extremely important to my father, for all kinds of reasons. Because decades of research was being called into question, research which he had actually supervised and analyzed and vouched for twenty years. But what I hadn't realized was that the stakes were far higher than that. This was about claims for miners who were suffering from respiratory diseases which just weren’t recognized at the time as being industrially related at the time. The only game in town as I was told was pneumoconiosis which isn’t considered and industrial disease. But these guys were suffering from emphysema or a chronic bronchitis and they couldn't get any compensation or any benefits. So what was in fact happening is miners were dying of industrial disease and not getting any compensation. This case was about changing that and as it turned out, it turned out to have massive implications for tens of thousands of miners.

Richard Campbell: From reading the article, one of the things that was interesting was they tried to make an argument about the data on nonsmokers. Could you talk a little bit about that and what was problematic?

Jacobsen: Yeah the argument here was...the initial defense I would say that was taken by British Coal was that, well look, it may be that some people are having a few health problems from coal dust, but that's not the real problem. The real problem is probably just that these guys are smoking and its allied stuff. They are not looking after themselves and so the serious health problems that they are experiencing are actually down more to the smoking than it is to the coal dust. They would say this that others are going to be able to create problems with coal dust. There's no scientific evidence to suggest that in fact the coal dust was the problem and that was a major hurdle they had to get over and cases had fallen in the past on that, apparently. So the new approach was been taken was to be marshalling the evidence that was produced by the Coal Board itself to actually try to defeat that argument.

Bailer: So what was your Dad’s training? What was his background and how did he get involved in this story in the first place?

Jacobsen: My father trained in statistics and epidemiology before he worked for the Institute of Occupational medicine in Edinburgh. He had a few other jobs down south. But it was, once he arrived in Edinburgh, he had to take a crash course in this particular field that he was fully into industrial health. I think there's an anecdote on the website, as a taster to the main piece, in which his boss told him to prepare a projection based on the existing evidence of how miners would be health wise in terms of pneumoconiosis and they had to do a complicated calculation which only could've been done at a computer as one of his colleagues later told him. That was just one of the things he had to do, but there was a lot of statistics, there was a lot of the epidemiology. One thing I noticed when I was reading all the papers in the background to this was, there was a degree of suspicion between the medical profession, the medical specialists so to speak, and the statisticians and the epidemiologists and it took some time to overcome that mutual suspicion. You may know more about that than I do, right?

Bailer: So could you, for the listeners, can you define what epidemiology is?

Jacobsen: You put me on the spot!

Bailer: Oh I'm so sorry.

(Collective laughter)

Jacobsen: I’ll see if I can bluff my way through it.

Bailer: You know what, I’ll try to bluff my way through it if you can't, how about that?

Jacobsen: You can give me marks out of ten, let's see how I do. As far as I can understand, at least in this context, epidemiology is the science of discovering how diseases develop, and in that particular interest was in industrial health. So it's not necessarily about how to cure it but it's about looking at how it spreads. Just tell me how close I am.

Bailer: Oh I am, you know, I sort of…I would give a guess no less than ten out of ten, just because that's part of being a good host. No, I think you did outstanding!

Jacobsen: That's a relief!

Pennington: Johnny, I have a question for you. So I grew up in Appalachia here in the United States, coal mining country and certainly there were conversations about, you know miners’ lungs being unhealthy after coming out of mines for a very long time and some idea dating from the 1950s that this might possibly be due to coal dust exposure. What was it that this study your father was involved in, that became so controversial and how was it that the Coal Board who commissioned the study was trying to undermine it?

Jacobsen: This is what's so shocking about it, because effectively what was happening was British Coal, as it had become, was effectively trying to trash the evidence of decades of research that was carried out by its predecessor, the National Coal Board. This was something that was launched in the 1950s. With the advent of the National Health Service and the nationalization of the coal mines, there was a new kind of public spirited attitude to industrial health and the idea was to get twenty four twenty five sample mines and to try and find out what the problem was, what was causing these illnesses. It wasn’t so much…it wasn't so long before that. They weren't even acknowledging pneumoconiosis. At one point there was a very distinguished scientist name J.S. Holding said no coal dust isn’t actually doing it, it actually immunizes you against bronchitis. He got completely the wrong end of the stick and I mean he was acting in good faith but he was completely wrong about it. It wasn't until the late forty's the late thirty's early forty's that when it was finally known as the industrial disease. What this research was doing was a very systematic large scale study with trying to introduce as many different…account for as many different factors as possible to try and find out what the problem was. Was it the amount of dust, was it the quantity of dust? So that they could get some idea of what could be done to limit the damage and to do that they had to accumulate a lot of data, do a lot of medical testing not just the X -Rays which picks up pneumoconiosis, but also lung capacity test, which measures a different kind of….it is a different kind of health measure which is much more important in this case.

Campbell: What do you think, what motivated the attack on the original research? Was it just to save money? Was that what was going on? Liability?

Jacobsen: I mean…It's difficult to be sure but you know, well, let me stick my neck out. Yes, I think it was about damage limitation. And one of the things that didn't come into my story was a couple of memos I found in the National Archives, from British Coal, were discussing the case and around about May 1997 I think it was May/July 1997. And they would say look we knew we were going to have a hard time winning this case. They were discussing legal tax and they did have to limit the damage and it included delaying tactics, included time people are in litigation, they didn't want to make it easy. They just wanted it to go away because I think they knew that it was an open ended case into the damages. And it proved to be one of the biggest settlements that was ever paid out and we're talking about 2.4 billion pounds was eventually paid out in compensation, but they dragged it out and as they fought this case, as they fought getting to court, as they fought it in court, miners would die and that's really what's scandalous. It's not just about defending the honor of the research or the honor of the Institute. It is about the fact the miners were dying while British Coal fought their case. I think they knew they didn't have much chance of winning and I think that's where the real scandal lies. Not in the science and statistics but in the fact that they defended it so long and in fact I spoke to Gareth Logan about this and he had a few ideas as to why they decided to fight it out. I have that in a sound bite in case you might be interested in the case:

Michael Jacobsen: It was, what was known as the magic train to Cardiff. If you were working in the valleys, in a mine, you would be breathless, you would be sent on the train to the new pneumoconiosis medical panel in Cardiff. These men would be disabled, couldn't breathe, they would go down to the Cardiff where they would be told there was nothing wrong with them. Because what they were being told is they didn't have pneumoconiosis and it was an example of that there was any other condition that could cause breathlessness. So they rail, to go to Cardiff, where they are told they are OK, hence the term became, the magic train to Cardiff”.

Jacobsen: But the problem was, it came down to money.

Bailer: Yeah, I know. So in your story you suggest that your Dad was a little reluctant to get involved in kind of the court part of the story and some of the issues related to that. What was kind of the transition point? What was the tipping point for him to get involved?

Jacobsen: Well you are right. He was initially very reluctant. My father had very strong political views but he made a very clear distinction between his activism as a committed citizen, he viewed political activism as the duty of anyone of who cared about things, to engage in. But that was something that was entirely separate from his role as a scientist and he didn't want to be caricatured as someone who is biased or who is getting politically engaged. He wanted the science to speak for itself. One of his colleagues, Trenton Hurley who recently retired as the science director of the Institute said that my dad used to say, what is the data telling you? And that was his point. It wasn't about preconceived arguments. It was about looking at the data and seeing what came up and I'm sure you come across that on all kinds of scientific inquiry. You shouldn't be trying to fit the facts on to your theory. You should be looking at the facts and telling them and listening to what they're telling you. So when he came under pressure from the miners, basically the miners’ lawyer said look, we've been to other people and they're not interested. We have a lung specialist who is trying to digest all this complicated statistics. That's not really his field. And that was Robin Rudd, he spent several weeks in the witness box and so he was very much a kind of a last minute, lost cause call, that he said only in the opening week, in the opening days of the trial, they realize that this was a line of defense that British coal was going to take, that they were going to trash the data itself. So they need somebody who really knows that data clearly and he said well look, I don't want to be a defense witness and I don’t want to be getting paid for this. He would only do it on the basis that he would get expenses only and no payment for his expert testimony and in the end that's what happened. They had to subpoena him to get a grand title from the Chief lawyer of Britain in which he was summoned to give evidence before the Queen’s court.

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Pennington: You're listening to Stats and Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I'm Rosemary Pennington with Miami university statistics department chair John Bailer and Media, Journalism and Films Richard Campbell. Today we're talking with data journalist Johnny Jacobsen. Johnny, this article very much is a discussion of this data, this controversy but also your father Michael Jacobsen's role in this suit, and earlier you mentioned, sort of the complications of reporting on something that's so close to you. I know here in our journalism program we're constantly telling our students that you don't report on things that are close to you, right? Because you need to maintain that critical distance. As you were sort of navigating this story and trying to do it justice, to the miners, to the data and to your father, how did you navigate that issue of reporting on something that you were so closely connected to?

Jacobsen: Well the personal element was something I had to be careful about. I mean, it was an advantage as well because when I went to talk to people and say look, I'm doing this article about this court case and my father was an expert witness who helped to win the case, I mean the doors opened! I mean on his reputation alone, people were willing to talk and people said some very kind things to me about my father’s work and the contribution that he made to this Coal case. But at same time I had to be careful about looking through his personal papers, there were exchanges with colleagues which when obviously not things that were ever meant to be made public and I had to make decisions about when to respect privacy and also if he was corresponding with somebody else, I need to try and make sure if I was going to use that material, I need to make sure the other person knew about it, even if I wasn't naming them. It was really sort of checking the facts and making sure I hadn't got anything wrong. I mean it also has to be said there was a personal element to this battle. I mean people's reputations were made or damaged on the basis of this and I had to make a decision, do I want to get into that and in the end I decided no, because as far as I'm aware the experts on both sides were giving their evidence in good faith and it wasn't a question of cynical people in the pay of the cohort. No, they were saying what they believed. So I made an early decision just to stick to the science which I think is also something that my Dad would have preferred and in fact my Dad’s former boss at the Institute of Occupational medicine wrote me an e-mail which basically, never forget that your Dad made a very clear distinction between politics and the science, that was what guided me in my work on the article.

Campbell: Very good. Keeping it on a personal level, your Dad's training was in statistics. Your early training was in English literature and German.

Pennington: (Chuckles)

Campbell: So what I want to know is that, the journey from being an English major to getting your Master's in data journalism much, much later and sort of ending up being able to write an article like this which you know, as also as a former English major, I thought this was a terrific article and I understood almost everything but the graphs and charts that were inside.

Pennington: (Chuckles)

(Voices overlap)

(Collective laughter)

Campbell: So talk a little bit about going in English Literature when your father was a statistician.

Jacobsen: Well let's just say it was a steep learning curve even when I was doing English literature. I did a year’s study of philosophy and I remember he gave me a great deal of hell on the basics of syllogistic logic I think I still have his notes on my undergrad notes. My undergraduate is on philosophy, in which he was very kind of surgical in his…

(Collective laughter)

Jacobsen: That was very sobering, well that was a long time ago, 30 years ago. I was gradually moving into the data end of things over the last few years. And I was just discussing that with him, as discussing people like Martin Gardner, you know that wonderful writer on science. I came in the sense via people like him who was a real polymer, writing about anything from Alice in Wonderland to the advances in quantum physics and actually making it understandable so I'm a journalist my job is to make things clear and it was really just a…when it came to tackling this article, I had to try and make complicated ideas really simple. I was helped a lot by Hancock, the Union leader, and by Robin Rudd, the lung specialist and also by Gareth Morgan who gave these wonderful summaries that were actually what happened in the coal case. They were write-ups. And in the end, it's not about science is about people info. And the most difficult part of the argument, of the article, was trying to explain my father’s sense of the data. In the end what made it really clear and allow me to catalog the scientific material was what Garrett Morgan told me. He says in the end it's about the signal, not the static because even though there were minor errors in the research, and that was quite clear that this was not perfect, the whole you know, journey as his field research was it had its flaws and that had to be acknowledged but if the overall message was still the same after all these mistakes and caveats had been taken into account, the message of the basic research was sound and that seemed to me the best way of putting it, rather than getting buried in the data, which I didn't fully understand obviously. But it's been a real education for me and I hope to look further into that, because I know this is still very much an issue in the other parts of the world, the United States for example.

Campbell: You know that there was that Morgan quote about comparing the…there was a metaphor about radio signals and the noise?

Jacobsen: Yeah.

Campbell: And what the signals getting stronger…

(Voices overlap)

Campbell: And that made everything clear to me when I read that metaphor. It was a metaphor that helped me understand what was going on here so I appreciated that.

Jacobsen: Yeah I was so glad to have him say that. You know when you're in an interview and somebody gives you exactly what you need,

(Collective yeahs)

Jacobsen: It really solved, it really undid the knot. It resolved the problem for me. It was a great relief. I’m glad that it was as much help to you as it was to me.

Bailer: You know this was really a great way to honor your father. I think that it's a remarkable testimony I think, I want to congratulate you for that. When you were looking at kind of the evidence here, you know that…so clearly, you agreed with your Dad’s conclusion at the end of the day, but did you start out thinking, gee I wonder if this is really is true? I mean did you start out saying I'm going to look at this and see if I'm convinced as well? Or how did you approach the stack of data and all the information you're going to have you know go through?

Jacobsen: Well I had the advantages of knowing the ending before I got to the story, so inevitably I’d be approaching the story in a different way because this is something that happened a while back. What I hadn’t appreciated was how important it was and how much money was paid out to the miners as a result of this case, not just because of my father but also because of the evidence of the other experts involved, including Robin Rudd the lung specialist. So the moral of the story is, I know what the result was and I wasn't in a presumed, trying to question the science. I was looking at why was it so important, what was the attack on the research that was being made and who is making it and really having read the judgment one of the first places I started was reading the judgment. It was clear to me that there was no doubt about it that the research was sound. And so I didn't have an approach where I was going into this with an open mind I mean that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think there was no second guessing the judgement, it just really happened to be it. Again if there's something new to be uncovered it was somewhere else and in fact what I found I think was new simply covering the fact that the research can be challenged in the first place, which didn't give us coverage at the time because most people reported on the judgment, not on actually what happened in court, that was a new angle. But also these memos, these British Coal memos, they were, for me required reading. The rest not so much. That’s science but this was politics.

Bailer: Yeah, it seems like it's harder to do what you've done, which is basically kind of build up the story and a lot of times, I think there is this real sense of let's get to this ending, let's just talk about the punch line, the settlement. I think you're trying to tell the story of how the data and the evaluation of it led to the story.

Jacobsen: It is one of the challenges, of doing something at the archives, finding a way of creating the Jeopardy.

Bailer: No I think that's true. You know you went to school as a data journalist you know so you've got journalists here and you've got a statistician here. Talk to us about how does one what does one do to become a data journalist given the….the course of study you followed.

Jacobsen: Well I was lucky in that I was able to take a year out fairly late in my career. And I had already been doing data graphics, news graphics at AFP, which is a different way into it and I have a long background of writing and researching but what I was hoping to do was to pick up some of the tools of the trade in terms of coding and the more technological approaches. It has to be said that there are journalists half my age, who are coding like crazy when they got there and I was still peddling in the shatters. And I have to accept that there are limits to my skills. What I can do is I can tell a story and so I learned the basics of R and a little bit of Python. But I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a data journalist in that sense. But what I try to do is to take complicated issues and simplify it and statistics is something I can get to grips with. I can understand the logic of it so it's really about making it's really science writing is what I’m doing as a data journalist. There are other people with other skills who can support and help and enhance the work I’m doing. But I'm really a storyteller with a few fancy bells and whistles.

Bailer: So what's next for you? What's kind of the next big story that you're going to tackle?

Jacobsen: Well I'm back to the day job which is working as a Desk editor at the AFP, an international news agency which keeps me sharp, but I want, if I can, in my spare time, to continue on this issue of industrial health. I've been talking to some people in the United States and the situation in the United States and there are stories to be told there but it's difficult to commit to something new when you're so far away and I think there’s some Pulitzer Prize winning journalism in this area, and I don’t pretend to be able to reach those heights so what I'm looking for is stories much closer to home, either in Britain or even in France, in which I can apply some of the skills I picked up in the last year in Birmingham with Paul Bradshaw. Just a few stories here, so for example this is a great operation for London the Bureau of Investigative journalism and they've developed a local network of journalists to look into things like homelessness and use statistics and Freedom of Information requests to try and get a proper idea of the story and also put human faces on it and I'm just wondering whether we can’t have something like that in France as well. There is something being done at the moment, but I’d like to see if I can’t apply some of the skills and the lessons learned in Britain to doing something similar in France. But that takes time and I don't have a great deal of that.

Pennington: Before we go, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about sort of what was the legacy of the judgment in this case.

Jacobsen: It was an extremely important judgement and it was fairly uncompromising coming out in favor of the Union that brought the action, in favor of the miners and against British coal. It said that British Coal did not take sufficient measures to protect the safety of the miners, but also the attack on the research which was underpinning the miners' claim was not valid and in fact by the end of the trial British Coal had retrenched, withdrawn that position, so that was fairly unequivocal. What did happen is a massive program of payments was instituted to pay compensation either to the miners or to their widows or to the surviving members of their family. But even that took a long time to get it organized and pay it out, so I would say I think it's something that more than half of the payments were made not to the miners but rather to the widows or to the families. And though we're talking about large numbers of people receiving compensation and quite large sums in some cases it was I think the largest class action and the largest set of compensation paid out in Europe at that time. I don’t know if that’s still the case but the fact is a lot of those miners never lived to see the money and never lived to see any sense of Justice being given and I think that's what makes a lot of people angry, certainly find it distressing to see.

Campbell: You point out at the end of the article that the British Coal and the National Coal Board no longer exist but there is something called the coal authority and at the time you wrote this they had not responded to you. Did they ever respond to you? Jacobsen: They didn't I'm afraid. It may simply be that the people who are really responsible for and involved with this are no longer working, maybe, I expect many of them in my father's age retired, if not already died. So maybe that getting the chain of responsibility that far back is very difficult. But I am pursuing this story particularly on the issue of the British coal memos and I'm beginning to get a lot of very angry responses. We run a show which is in the Daily Mirror, which is a British tabloid. So I don't think this story has given up all its secrets and I'm hoping that we can push a little harder to get some kind of accounting for what was done because those memos and even the way they conducted themselves in the trial I don't think it bears very well on British Coal or the government at the time, so watch this space.

Pennington: Well Johnny thank you so much for joining us today.

Jacobsen: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.

Pennington: That's all the time we have for this episode of Stats and Stories. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University's departments of statistics and Media, Journalism and Film and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter, Apple podcast or other places you can find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program, send your email to Or check us out at and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.