Statistically Speaking

Back in my student days – yes, I know it was a long time ago – one of my favourite textbooks was How to Lie with Statistics by the US journalist Darrell Huff. In a humorous manner Huff explained that it isn’t the actual figures that matter, it’s how you present them.
This has resulted in me being rather cynical when it comes to official statistics. Take for example the UK unemployment figures. Over the past 30 years the rationale for calculating these figures has altered so much that the statistics have lost a great deal of credibility. I am not alone in my cynicism, nor is this anything new. Over a century ago Mark Twain famously talked about Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.
There is now an all party parliamentary group on statistics which tries to keep on top of the 1,700 sets of statistics produced annually by the Westminster Government.
There is no doubt that the media love statistics and many stories are based on surveys which show that x percent of us behave in a certain manner. However, I do get angry when journalists present statistical information in a lazy and inaccurate way. If inflation was running at one percent and is now at two percent, that is NOT a one per cent increase! It’s an increase of one percentage point.
If we are presenting statistics to the public, we need to do so in a way which is both accurate and easily comprehensible. There is little point in simply telling people that your organisation’s budget has been cut by 15 percent as this will mean nothing to them. It is far better to use actual figures and put things into context. If you say that your budget will be cut by £X million and that this is the equivalent of running two primary schools for a year, people will relate to that.
Statistics are a useful communications tool and can help make issues more readily understandable, but we need to take care in how we put them across.


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