Too many statistics? The Guardian’s view

I can hardly agree with The Guardian’s editorial today: “The Guardian view on statistics in politics: over-counting“.

Part of it is just what one might expect from a newspaper: wordsmiths rant against things they tend not to get, like evidence (all too often it has ruined a great story!), big data and “computers”. Add in some cheap shots along the lines of lies, damned lies ……… and you’re done. A good read it is.

But it also makes two very valid points. First, “From high on the mountain and above the fray, Sir Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority, or the Institute for Fiscal Studies, will be called to pass Solomonic judgments on the spin. It won’t make much difference. By the time the referees’ rulings are in, the circus will have moved on.” Yes, official and unofficial fact checkers are either underfunded or, like UKSA too often, a bit timid and slow.

Second, the article dwelt on yesterday’s “farce” of the latest incarnation of school league tables. That was a sorry tale indeed that hardly helped the reputation of statistics or of school data.

The Royal Statistical Society had a letter of complaint penned pretty sharpish. It said: ” ………. your readers might have come away with the impression that no numbers in the public arena can be trusted. They would be wrong. Of course statistics will be abused in the run up to an election. But the underlying quality of UK statistics is very high. ………….. But you are right to be concerned with how we can improve the quality of public debate using statistics. Three things would help. To ensure transparency, government should publish the evidence base for any new policy. To build trust, we should end pre-release access to official statistics, whereby ministers can see the numbers before the rest of us. And to build capability, politicians and other decision makers in Whitehall should take a short course in statistics, which we’d be more than happy to provide.” Very fair points.

Some of the comments attached to the Guardian’s article are worth sharing. In no particular order:

“Or the Guardian, being a newspaper staffed by professional journalists could itself step back from the spin of all parties and pull apart the figures. Giving up on trying to uncover the facts behind the spin seems defeatist and lazy. Begs the question, what is the guardian for?”

“Kettle calling pot….? How often does the Guardian drag up selective, dodgy statistics to reinforce it’s own political agenda.”

“The overuse of statistics, is driving me insane! The minute they’re released, another set are released which prove the first set wrong. Aaaaargh!!!”

“Or in other words: People can lie with statistics, so we shouldn’t use statistics. Next up: People can lie with words, so we shouldn’t use words.”

Footnote from Monday 2 February: The Guardian did publish four quite powerful letters that added to the debate.

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