Ray Thomas

We all have a small number of people who heavily influence us. One of the big influences on my statistical thinking was Ray Thomas. I met him when we volunteered on several RSS committees. Sadly he died earlier this year. Links to some obituaries are below but his PhD thesis from 1999 is worth a read. The language and terms might be dated but “Statistics as facts about society” deals with many of the issues that plague us today. 

Ray’s thesis (search for “Statistics as facts about society” available free of charge via the British Library’s Ethos system) is a comprehensive reading list of articles and books – essential reading if you want to understand the tensions in the official statistics system. It explains in a series of chapters:

  • how statistics should reduce the area of uncertainty in policy making by “unobtrusively narrowing the area of disagreement”.
  • that statistics have a policy affirming not a policy developing influence
  • the doubtful value of performance indicators
  • how statistical systems are or are not independent of management
  • how the categorisations used in economic statistics invalidate the data as a measure of welfare
  • the misleading nature of many local area statistics
  • the issues around the “integrity” of official statistics
  • why statisticians should be public, not civil, servants
  • how the social sciences need to get into statistics

These were radical thoughts at the time, rarely articulated.

I’m pleased to say that three obituaries for Ray are now available. The Royal Statistical Society has a short notice and a full obituary. These are supported by obituaries from the Regional Studies Association and The Town and Country Planning Association (which is only accessible to members). Many thanks for these go to Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow for leading on these.

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