The media coverage of the results of the local elections (in May 2019) has at times been deeply misleading with voting outcomes not being accurately described. The problem is two-fold. First, the usual way of presenting the figures – in terms of seats, percentage share of the vote and swings – can give a very misleading impression. It has on this occasion as the usual metrics have been distorted by the plummeting turnout compared to 2015 (when the turnout was high due to the General Election). No one single summary statistic can be relied upon in all circumstances. Second, it is nigh on impossible to get the actual voting figures. The country deserves a central publication point for election data to allow anyone to do their own, neutral, assessment of the trends. The time has come for the UK to have more transparency about its election results – surely one of the most fundamental of all statistics – as befits a developed democracy. Without this, the voters are unlikely to get a fair sense of the results given much of the interpretation is being done by politicians or columnists skilful enough to select their factoids to suit their own story or others who are innumerate, wilfully or naively ignorant of the facts, or producing projections from black box models.
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. Continue reading Ray Thomas
There was wonderful example of a “statistics meets news” car crash on the radio this morning. Take an interviewer who seems to be uncomfortable with numbers, poorly prepared by the editors/researchers, some statistics that were not published, presented by a lobby group that has not heard of open data or modern publishing standards, and you end up with an amusing but fundamentally totally groundless piece. People deserve better. The story about the demise of the bearded collie was classic #fakenews and was of little consequence but when the same standards of data spinning and innumeracy are applied to something important we all suffer. Continue reading Not the dog’s b*ll*cks!
The monthly release of the inflation figures (due tomorrow Wednesday 16th) is always a reminder of the futile attempts by ONS/UKSA to suppress the RPI. The RPI is the most popular statistic produced by the ONS (as measured by web hits, calls to ONS etc.) yet there’s no commentary on the RPI and the numbers do not appear in the 11 page press release. The breakdown of the RPI is hidden away in the back three pages of the 19 page data pack (just after the table that gives the rates for Lithuania, Slovakia and other EU states that the ONS presumably thinks are more interesting to users). To note the madness of this continuing practice, please find below a fairytale. Continue reading The king and his fish: the RPI fairytale
This is about a bad trend in some questionable data: the official data says that the UK has a huge balance of trade deficit in goods, it’s getting worse and the driving force behind the trend has been the growing deficit with the EU. True? Probably. This trade deterioration needs to be noted, diagnosed, discussed as part of the Brexit negotiations and reversed. Continue reading The UK’s trade deficit in goods
Can the Retail Prices Index be killed off? Should it be killed off and, if so, for what reason? Or is reform needed? A meeting is coming up (at the RSS in London, on 13 June, book here) to discuss the future of the RPI and the changes needed to all consumer price measures to keep them fit for purpose. Why not come and hear the views of John Pullinger, the UK’s National Statistician, and other experts?
Without wanting to engage in BBC bashing it must be said that this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme had too many examples of sloppy use of data. There were school boy errors: focusing on the latest figure not the trend, comparing annual data to quarterly data, getting the number wrong, ignoring the impact of inflation when comparing figures over time, choosing the wrong denominator and flooding the debate with large but ultimately meaningless numbers. I am not a regular listener to the BBC’s flagship news programs but I hope they are generally better than this! Continue reading BBC and sloppy numbers
The ONS published this week a new – I’d say conceptually more sound – experimental house price index. It is based on the stock of homes not the flow so tells us what’s happening to the whole market not the price of what’s just been sold. The estimate of the average price is lower than under the old methodology – £194,000 compared to £215,000 in the old measure, about 10% lower. The stroke of the methodologist’s pen has made homes more affordable even though no prices have changed! Perhaps this is the time to reflect on the full range of house price estimates at our disposal – and, dare I say it, how meaningless the average numbers are? Depending on what you count and how you add the numbers up, the resulting averages can be wildly different, as much as £100,000 apart. Continue reading The price of a house – a stupid average
The recent political coming and goings (the EU referendum, the arrival of a new Prime Minster and Labour’s travails) has seen a period of unusual attitudes to facts. More people seemingly want information and yet the (accurate) use of facts by politicians, some elements of the media and quite a few people has fallen to new lows. Experts are being rubbished, institutions’ reputations are being damaged, and the media is accused of being biased, prompting discussion of a post-truth society. There is much talk of a fractured Britain as technology and globalisation have hastened economic disruption affecting many livelihoods.
This note sets out a few steps – go local, kill the average, be open, do good research, un-spin and tell good stories – that the statistics world might take to help people reconnect with reality and help policy makers understand what might be needed if we are to establish a more sensible approach to debate and policy. It has much in common with the Data Manifesto published by the Royal Statistical Society two years ago. Continue reading Post-truth, post-Brexit statistics
The rise of migration to the UK has been one of the extraordinary stories of the last 20 or so years. A majority of Britons want migration to be lower and think (by six to one) that the Government’s policy towards it as been unsatisfactory. High migration was surely one of the main reasons why the referendum happened and why the “leave” camp won. Perhaps curiously, Mrs May, who has been Home Secretary for six years, is the odds-on favourite to be the next Prime Minister, despite having overseen a migration failure. She did not get to grips with the mismanagement of e-borders, promoted the conceptually ridiculous net immigration target, signed up to the “tens of thousands” manifesto pledge, and then missed it by a factor of around ten. Under her watch, there has been net immigration of 1.8m and gross immigration of nearly 3m despite a myriad of mini-adjustments to migration rules. Conservative party members who are concerned about migration will want to see a clear commitment from Mrs May to end free movement in Europe and introduce a new immigration system and work permits. Continue reading Mrs May’s record on immigration