Go figure… how they lie with statistics

I am posting My Archives – this from a journo from the daily mail –

When I was new to this inky trade, the first lesson I learned was one passed down the line from Samuel Johnson himself: "Round numbers are always false."
To which, after a bit of experience, I was able to add a personal coda: "So are 94.67 per cent of precise figures."
Thus I grew into manhood with a deep distrust of statistics wherever I found them lurking. So when I come across, for instance, "30 per cent of women", I immediately ask, 30 per cent of which women?
"Up to 100 free texts per month" – what do they mean by up to? Does up to include including? "As many as one adult in every five" – does as many as include as few as one in 100?
This morbid scepticism spawned what became the National Guesswork Authority, with its imposing headquarters in the City’s Counting House Yard.
But today, the Authority is shaken to its foundations with what looks at first sight like a throwaway paragraph in last week’s Queen’s Speech:
"A Statistical Reform Bill will create an independent body to enhance confidence in government statistics" – an idea backed by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
When all three major parties agree, you can bet they are up to something. What they are up to here is finding new and more sophisticated ways of pulling the wool over the public’s eyes.
There are many ways of going about this, as any junior clerk in the National Guesswork Authority can confirm. The most popular is by quantifying the unquantifiable.
An example produced in Home Office documents this weekend, doubtless with the object of discrediting the outgoing Prime Minister, is that Tone’s on-the-spot fines for yobs cost £91 for every £45 collected.
This meticulous costing is arrived at by working out that the paperwork involved ties up police and court officials for an hour and six minutes.
This in itself is a nonsense figure. Even in these bumph-laden times it doesn’t take more than a fraction of an hour and six minutes to dish out a fixed penalty notice.
Even if it did, the cost cannot be pinned on to Blair’s on-the-spot fines wheeze, unless the time consumed can be proved to have been taken away from some other but not necessarily better use, such as catching up with other paperwork or drinking a cup of tea.
Next, percentages – a class of statistics that can do pretty well what they like unless they are carefully watched.
You may read, therefore, that a 10 per cent fall in car robberies plus a 10 per cent drop in house burglaries represents a 20 per cent fall in crime figures. Not at all.
Percentages of one thing cannot be added to percentages of another – ten apples plus ten oranges are not 20 apples, they’re just a bowl of fruit.
Averages. You can prove just about anything you like, provided you choose the right type of average.
Most of us went through our arithmetic classes without ever being told that there are mean averages and median averages, which can add up to different answers.
I certainly didn’t know this myself until, years ago, I read a little book called How To Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff, first published in 1954.
Huff advised that before we take any dubious statistics into the fold, we ask five questions: 1. Who says so? 2. How does he know? 3. What’s missing? 4. Did somebody change the subject? And 5. Does it make sense?
The Stern report on climate change fails all these tests – yet it was gulped down whole by the likes of Pollyanna Toynbee, who then complained about dissenting ‘know-nothing’ newspapers.
But now Tony and his cronies want a Statistical Reform Bill. Wouldn’t they do better with a National Guesswork Authority? Go figure.
With Tony Blair in Pakistan, and Gordon Brown in Basra, who is in charge of the sinking ship? Need I ask? And what have they been doing to consolidate their reckless collection of air miles?
We know that Tone has been knocking up more Brownie points towards his world statesman badge, but how about Gordon? So far as I can see, he has simply been in Iraq for the ride.
Or perhaps he just wants to add to his growing reputation as the Pooh Bah of New Labour politics – a similar role to that endured by Prince Charles as he waits for the throne to fall vacant.
Only the other day Gordy was stepping into the Lord Chancellor’s shoes – or do I mean standing on his toes? – by calling for a change in the law so that BNP hotheads found not guilty under the existing law could be found guilty under a new one.
Next he is taking on the role of Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, not to mention his near-namesake, Defence Secretary Des Browne. Don’t the Chancellor and his boss still have day jobs to go to?


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