Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Beware statistics

How sceptical we've all become about statistics. We just assume straightaway they've been massaged, fiddled and adjusted ad nauseam to give the desired result rather than the real one.

The health service is improving by leaps and bounds? Schools are doing a fantastic job? We've all got more money to spend than ever? We just don't believe the figures any more, there's a funny smell about them.

A lot of the time, they just don't chime with our personal experience, or our friends' experience. The health service has never been better? So how come Uncle Ted has been waiting six months for a heart op? How come I've been waiting nine for physiotherapy?

The fact is that too many people have a vested interest in cooking the figures to their own advantage. Politicians looking for votes. Drug firms dependent on safe medicines. Police forces expected to solve crimes. If the stats look bad, they'll give them a little tweak in the right direction.

We all know examples of people being caught with their pants down. When A&E waiting times dramatically decreased it was discovered that senior managers had stealthily improved them by falsifying admission and treatment records. The figures were worthless.

Individuals are no more reliable. If someone's asked how often they have sex, "Several times a week" is a lot more likely than "Actually, I can't get it up. I've been a washout for six months." Who freely admits their failings and weaknesses?

Statistics gathered by reputable academics with no axe to grind may be 100% legit. Unfortunately these principled souls are thin on the ground.

So those precise-looking figures may look good in a newspaper headline. They may be presented by a jolly authoritative chap in a smart suit from the Institute of Something-Or-Other. But most of us take them with a bucketload of salt and think "Sure. So who stands to gain? Where's the pay-off?"

(Bet you didn't know that 57% of estate agents are transvestites, 23% suck their thumbs and 39% are satanists? Who'd have thought it?)

NB: This post was completely rewritten on 17.10.08


  1. Mean, Median, Averages, many different ways of perfectly justifying a lie. Studying economics in my younger days I took STAT101 and 102... Talk about manipulating numbers.
    All the statistics you gave examples of, don't phase me as much because I don't pay attention to them. All lies. Yet something very relevant to my big butt and is very annoying: advertised percentage of fat in foods. 99.9% fat free, what the hell is that? It kills me.

  2. Well that's another thing - it might be 99.9% fat free (that's no fat to you and me) but how about the 50% salt or the 60% sugar? That's not quite so prominent. Carefully selected stats to tempt the punter. Yes and some of these junk foods really will kill you....

  3. The thing with stats in the U.S. is that even if they are accurate, many people will only acknowledge facts if they conform with their overall worldview. If a study says prayer heals people they rush to bandy it about, but if it says the opposite they dismiss it as blind secular science.
    You could smack people in the face with the truth and they still wouldn't accept it.

  4. Very true Medbh that people want the facts to conform with their worldview. Though sometimes the 'facts' are not what they seem, so a sceptical, world-weary eye can be a helpful sieve.

  5. 86 people have looked at this post and only 2 comments! Sorry if I'm boring you all....

    I won't be around for a few days, so will respond to comments (if any) when I return.

    Am I (a) in Casablanca for the sex-change (b) in Honolulu for the marathon (c) in the Priory for rehab (d) in Venice with my secret mistress (e) none of the above? Find out later!

  6. Every time I read one of your posts I couldn't agree more. So sometimes I don't know what to say except YES!

    Am sitting at a desk with 4 big thick books on statistics and psychology staring back at me and every one has a section devoted to "Facts tell lies".

    An hour ago was talking with a friend about the way High Street Banks say things like "we have to charge you lots for letters because profits from high street banking are falling as a proportion of our total profits". Still twice what they were last year though!

    (a) Casablanca

  7. Great post Nick, even more so as one of my children teaches Stats.
    I think you're finally in physiotherapy, yes I do...or hold on....maybe taking that quiet little honeymoon after the quiet little wedding????

  8. Bell - very amused to hear of the Facts Tell Lies sections! And yes banks get more and more breathtaking in their ingenious attempts to boost their astronomical profits even further. Not (a) that was Jan Morris.

    Gaye - not (d) Jenny would kill me, and anyway the constant deceit would do my head in.

    www - no, have had the physio which was useless and not worth the waiting. No honeymoon, or rather we regard all our holidays as yet another honeymoon.

    Will reveal all ASAP.