RSS responds to Guardian editorial on statistics in politics

Written by Hetan Shah on . Posted in News

This morning an editorial appeared in The Guardian that criticised the use of statistics in political debate. On behalf of the Royal Statistical Society, this reply was submitted to express the following view.

Dear Editor,

From reading The Guardian view on statistics in politics: over-counting your readers might have come away with the impression that no numbers in the public arena can be trusted. They would be wrong. Of course statistics will be abused in the run up to an election. But the underlying quality of UK statistics (such as our census, our health statistics or even the new figures on well-being) is very high. And they quietly play an important role to help inform lots of day to day decisions: Where do we need new transport links? Who is at risk of flooding? Which medicines might work?

So the numbers are generally in a good state. But you are right to be concerned with how we can improve the quality of public debate using statistics. Three things would help. To ensure transparency, government should publish the evidence base for any new policy.  To build trust, we should end pre-release accessto official statistics, whereby ministers can see the numbers before the rest of us. And to build capability, politicians and other decision makers in Whitehall should take a short course in statistics, which we'd be more than happy to provide.

Hetan Shah
Executive Director, Royal Statistical Society

UPDATE 2/2/15: The letter has been published in today's edition of The Guardian.

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