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
The RPI has recently been subjected to a sustained bout of unfair criticism from politicians and commentators. Despite this, the judge in the recent BT pensions case deemed that the RPI had not “become inappropriate” and that BT had no grounds for moving a group of their pensioners to the CPI which gives generally lower upratings. The RPI is, therefore, still fit for purpose. This was a relief to me – I was the expert witness arguing in favour of the RPI – if not a surprise. The full story as to how we got to the situation where so many people (mostly, it must be said, economists and the powerful and self-interested trying to cut their costs) are doing the RPI down is yet to be told. The decision was important for the pensioners as their incomes would not be unjustifiably cut. It was also a good day for common sense, and for the RPI, one of the country’s longest-standing, most trusted and widely-used statistics. The Thales and BT rulings taken together provide food for thought for those who continue to damage the reputation of the RPI without looking beyond the mantras and sloppy headlines. Continue reading RPI: Still fit for purpose
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 gender pay gap is one of the most misunderstood areas of British public policy statistics. The only question is the extent to which this is accidental or deliberate obfuscation by pressure groups. The UK Statistics Authority needs to step in to do its part in getting better data, better explaining the existing data it publishes and correcting those who misuse it. It is a shame that the respected IFS has added to the deluge of confusion with its latest report published today.
So far as the statistics are concerned, the pay gap is the average amount of money paid to men in work versus the average paid to women. So far as legislation is concerned, the pay gap is the difference between the pay of an equally qualified and experienced man and woman doing exactly the same job. Sadly the rhetoric swings happily between the two helping no one. Every time this blows up I simply wish for better data so that we can really understand the issue and put ourselves in a position where we can develop policies that will put an end to discrimination. Instead we get (mostly) ill-thought out hot air. Continue reading The scandal of the gender pay gap
This is a story about how I tried – and failed – to get some data about top performing GCSE students and girls doing STEM-related A levels. The story highlights weaknesses in the Department for Education but also in government statistics and their regulation systems more widely. The public deserves better. A report from the UK Statistics Authority on this quest was published today.
Exam success is key for a school pupil that wants to go to a leading university, on their way to a top job. As the AS levels will soon be a thing of the past, GCSEs are vital in that journey. Yet information about what sort of pupils from which type of schools in different parts of the country get the all-important top grade GCSEs (or study combinations of STEM-related A levels) is largely a mystery as the government denies access to the full set of school-level exam results. Continue reading School exam statistics – state secrets?
A new ONS website was launched in February. I was delighted that its predecessor (launched in 2011, which brought many apologies from the ONS and was the subject of ridicule, as in this article by Tim Harford) was dispatched in its entirety and I welcomed the new one. It looked much nicer. Sadly, a couple of months on after increasing frustration, I now have to record that, in my humble opinion, it’s different but no better than its predecessor. This site, unlike its predecessor, is redeemable but it needs work on it, and now.
Today’s pre-launch of the new house price index from ONS was a disaster. The proposals lacked ambition and the new statistics (based on Land Registry prices) could well disappear next year when the Land Registry is sold. “We’re not going to speculate” about that, said the ONS, who didn’t know who would own the statistics.
The Bean Review has been published and, it seems, has been universally acclaimed as a thorough report with widespread support for its recommendations. It is now official: the 2007 statistics legislation has failed to deliver. Yet, Bean was published over two weeks ago and still we have little idea of what will change as a result. This blog explores the options.
For anyone unable to get through 250 pages of the Bean Review report on government statistics this blog highlights the main issues raised (as I see them) from chapters 4 and 5, regarding the ONS effectiveness and governance. It’s not nice reading. There were positives but they were overshadowed by the negatives. It’s a sad story about a lost decade.