There are stats – data about the economy, child poverty levels etc – and then there is Statistics, the techniques used by statisticians to arrive at those figures.
Statistics is a toolkit. It helps us to understand the world around us and the society we live in. But ‘statistics’ is often taken to mean ‘my facts’. And when my facts are controversial (sometimes wrong) the other side has a go at ‘statistics’.
In a typical debate, there is usually a point where opponents start picking holes in the other side’s numbers. As their tenuous grasp on the numbers slips, ‘statistics’ become the common enemy. Pundits and presenters then talk about statistical ‘fog’, statistical ‘spin’, ‘magic’, and so on. They are implying that the stats are inherently misleading, divisive, made up and difficult to grasp.
Confidence around stats seems to be at the heart of the problem. …not distrust of the production of stats per se but mistrust of the handling and reporting of the stats and lack of confidence that users and communicators of stats really know their stuff!
If there were more stats users and communicators (and listeners,viewers and readers) with the understanding and confidence to make sense of stats so they have an independent sense of when numbers are being used well or badly……debate would be far less likely to turn into a verbal brawl…and if and when it did, stats would be less of a ’whipping boy’ and more ’the good guy’ who intervenes and refocuses the discussion on the evidence at hand.