Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

An interesting article in this weeks issue of The Economist drew my eye to a new body being set up by the UK government – the UK Statistics Authority. This is designed to try and fix one of the big problems with the presentation of statistics by politicians, and that is the spin.

Now, the body wont eliminate spin, but it will act as an independent repository of the raw data used in compiling the press reports so that anyone can study the same file that the PR people and politicians got when issuing their “aren’t we wonderful” statements.

Determined sleuths have always been able to get this data – but having it all in one central location is certainly going to make life a lot easier for us amateur commentators who don’t have the time (or skills) to dig through the current mishmash of reporting bodies. I expect the political bloggers such as Guido and DizzyThinks to have a field day with this.

The new body may even issue public rebukes to naughty politicians who overstep the mark in spinning the data to a favourable light.

Quite whether it will be able to force the statistics to be gathered in a manner which would result in uncomfortable reading remains to be seen, as the law promoting the new body doesn’t seem to grant them any statutory powers in that area. They can complain about poor quality statistics – but that seems to be all they can do.

For example, the changes to the benefits systems outlined the other week will push more people into work and hence we can expect flurries of spin about how many people are now getting a job. However, will the statistics also record how many of those people end up back on benefits after the minimum 4 weeks required to claim they are now employed?

That’ll be the true test of the new body.


The Economist

Press release about the new body


Lies, damned lies, and statistics – this well-known saying is part of a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and popularized in the U.S. by Mark Twain: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The semi-ironic statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, and succinctly describes how even accurate statistics can be used to bolster inaccurate arguments.

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