Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Lies and statistics

'There are lies, damned lies and statistics,' said Mark Twain, apparently quoting Disraeli, though no one seems sure what his source was. For a long time I found this dislike of statistics hard to grasp. Coming from a physics and operational research background, statistics was an essential tool for understanding large groups in action. It was the only way to handle many, many issues. Yet now I do understand this. It's not a problem of statistics, it's a problem of the combination of statistics and either the media or politicians.

In a recent piece in the Times, David Aaronovich calls into question the much bandied about statistic that in Britain today, the average person is caught on CCTV 300 times a day. After a bit of detective work, he tracked this down to a book, where the number was used to describe a day in the life of a fictional person who has a very unusual day that conveniently takes him in front of many more cameras than the average person encounters. There is no basis for this number in fact whatsoever.

Now what's interesting here is not the made up numbers, but the attitude of some of the people Aaronovich questioned. A Dr Wood, co-author of a report for the Information Commissioner's Office which quoted this 'statistic' came up with the remarkable response: 'there are probably all sorts of questionable things in [the report], in fact I hope there are many.' He also said that it would be 'politically autistic' to argue that an incorrect or hypothetical number undermines the argument.

Leaving aside that rather unsavoury remark 'politically autistic' - what the good doctor was saying is, it doesn't matter if we tell the truth or not, as long as we persuade people to react the way we want them to. Am I the only one who finds this attitude totally disgusting? And leaving aside the dubious morals of such an approach, it can backfire. As I cover in Ecologic, Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was able to be attacked successfully in court because the movie took the same political approach to data - it doesn't matter exactly what it says, as long as we're using it for the right reason. The result was to give those who want to shoot down the concept of climate change considerable ammunition.

I know full well how essential it is for a media piece to be eye catching and attention grabbing in a world bombarded with information. But it doesn't justify lying to make your point.
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