New data reveals mixed public attitudes to statistics

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It was standing room only at the ‘Margins of Error’ event on 14 May 2013, a major policy debate co-hosted by the Royal Statistical Society with pollsters Ipsos Mori and King’s College London.
The event, which examined public understanding of statistics in an era of big data, is the first of a series of public lectures discussing perceptions of statistics. This lecture marked the launch of new research conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the RSS and King’s College London on the public’s understanding of statistics and their perceptions of the role it plays in public policy.
‘Margins of Error’ was chaired by RSS president John Pullinger, who introduced proceedings by talking about the aims behind the RSS getstats campaign. He introduced the panel of speakers, comprising Ipsos MORI MD Bobby Duffy, UK Statistics Authority chair Andrew Dilnot and head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London (and former RSS president) Denise Lievesley.
Bobby Duffy kicked-off proceedings by presenting the findings of new research which identified a lack of public confidence in politicians using official statistics accurately when talking about their policies – only seven per cent felt they did so. He also, however, revealed a rise of public trust in science and also a marked increase in civil servants.
Public attitudes to numbers were mixed: while 92% of respondents correctly deduced that 50 is 25% of 200, only a quarter correctly calculated that the probability of getting two heads in two tosses of a coin is 25%. The research also suggested that the public appeared not to value understanding of numbers very highly. When asked which would make them most proud of their child, 55% said ‘being very good at reading and writing’, as opposed to just 13% who opted for ‘being very good at numbers’.
Andrew Dilnot focused on the importance of data to challenge public misconceptions. He talked about policy makers being too focused on small quarterly changes in GDP, which has actually risen fivefold since 1948. Another misconception, Dilnot pointed out, was so-called ‘soaring teenage pregnancies’ which statistics show have actually been dropping in recent years. He demonstrated the importance of conveying the level of uncertainty with figures, using recent norovirus figures as an example. He also talked of the importance of looking at the ‘bigger picture’ rather than ‘getting wound up about small, short term trends’.
Denise Lievesley gave the statistician’s perspective, and spoke of the difficulties often faced by them when presenting data. She cited a number of ‘tensions’ faced by statisticians in their work, such ‘relevance vs autonomy’, ‘trust vs scepticism’, ‘measurement vs quality’ and ‘pragmatism vs purism’. She declared that statisticians should aid interpretation, adding: ‘numbers don’t speak for themselves’.
A lively discussion followed, which covered the lack of statistical training on university journalism courses, supporting statisticians around the world and the challenges of big data, which prompted Andrew Dilnot to conclude: ‘Big data does not necessarily equate to more intelligence’. John Pullinger ended the debate on a brightnote,  pointing out that it ‘has the potential to do so and it is up to all of us to make it happen’.
The debate continued afterwards via Twitter via the #MarginsOfError hashtag. More information is also available on the getstats blog, and the actual data report is available on the Ipsos MORI website.

Peter Diggle nominated for RSS presidency in 2015/16

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Professor Peter Diggle has been nominated to be the next RSS president after John Pullinger’s presidency comes to a close at the end of 2014.
He was chosen from a list of nominees considered by the President Nominating Committee and recommended to Council, which endorsed the nomination at the beginning of May.
Currently distinguished university professor in CHICAS (Combining Health Information, Computation and Statistics) at Lancaster University and professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, University of Liverpool. Prior to joining Lancaster in 1988 he spent five years in Australia, in the mathematics division of of CSIRO (Australia’s version of the UK’s Scientific Civil Service), where he was chief research scientist. He began his career in 1974 as a lecturer in statistics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Peter’s main methodological research interests are in spatial statistics, longitudinal data analysis and environmental epidemiology. Most of his research centres around applications in biomedical, clinical or health sciences, and in 1997 he received the Royal Statistical Society’s Guy Medal in Silver.
Peter has been active in the RSS for several decades; he was a member of the Research Section committee in the 1980s when he was also a member of Council. In the 1990s he was honorary secretary of the Society, chaired the Research Section committee again from 1999 to 2000 and was a member of the Society’s Honours committee from 2004 to 2008. Most recently, he has been joint editor of the Royal Statistical Society’s Series B Journal.

Society’s Annual General Meeting announcement

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The 179th annual general meeting of the Society will be held at the Royal Statistical Society, 12 Errol Street, London EC1Y 8LX, on Wednesday 26 June 2013 at 5pm (tea will be available from 4.30pm).
By order of the Council
S Pyke, honorary secretary

  1. Minutes of the previous annual general meeting
  2. Report of Council for the 2012 session
  3. Financial statements for the year ending 31 December 2012 and the report of the honorary treasurer
  4. Subscriptions

    To consider and, if thought fit, to pass the following resolution:

    ‘That, as from 1 January 2014, the basic subscription, as defined in bye-law 1(c), shall be £100 per annum and the additional subscription, as defined in bye-law 1(a), shall be £74 per annum.’
  5. Election of the auditor for 2014
  6. Report of the Long Term Strategy Group.
The AGM will be followed at 6pm by the Presidential Address and the Society’s summer reception. All fellows are invited, but pre-registration is required as places are limited; email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or telephone 020 7614 3910.

Shakespeare Review recommends plan for opening up government data

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The Shakespeare Review, an independent report commissioned by the UK government on next steps regarding the opening up of public sector data, was published last week.
Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of pollsters YouGov and chair of the Data Strategy Board, was invited in October 2012 to lead a review of public sector information (PSI) and explore the growth opportunities of information held by the public sector.
The research concludes that open data has the potential to deliver nearly £2 billion to the UK economy in the short-term, with a further £6-7 billion further down the line.
Key recommendations include the production of a National Data Strategy and the formation of a single body with enough clout to drive its implementation. It also recommends using a ‘twin-track’ data release schedule, where datasets are released quickly, followed by ‘Core Reference Data’, published later but to a higher standard.
‘We welcome the Shakespeare review in taking the discussion forward about open data,’ said Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS. ‘This government has started off very well in taking open data forward, but there is a risk that the agenda will stall unless continued political will is applied.’
One of the key recommendations of the review points to a number of capability and skills issues.  It identified a skills gap when it comes to data science and mentioned the RSS’s getstats campaign as a key initiative promoting statistical literacy.  The review’s findings also reinforce the Society’s statistical education agenda, stating:  ‘At school age, all students should have a basic understanding of where data comes from and how it is used to solve problems’ (p40).
Recent research conducted for the RSS has also indicated that the government will need to build public trust in open data. ‘Our recent survey with Ipsos MORI shows that the public lacks confidence in the government holding their data,’ Hetan Shah continued. ‘Much work remains to be done to think through privacy issues and reassure the public, in order to gain the potential economic and social benefits that open data holds out.’
The Guardian will be hosting a webchat with an expert panel discussing practical ways forward regarding the open data agenda on Friday 24 May, 12-2pm.

News website authored by academics launches in UK

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The Conversation, a new independent news and topical analysis website written by the UK’s academic community, has just launched in the UK.
The website has already made an impact in Australia, where it was launched in 2011 by former Observer, Big Issue and Melbourne Age editor, Andrew Jaspan. Since then it has grown to become Australia’s largest independent news and commentary site, with a reputation for evidence-based journalism.
Carrying a mixture of topical analysis and features the content is largely written by academic experts, working with a team of editors based in London. The site’s overall aim is to encourage a free flow of information and contribute to the understanding of current affairs and complex issues.
Authors may only write about subjects on which they have proven expertise, and are asked to sign up to an editorial charter and code of ethics, which compels them to disclose any funding or potential conflicts of interest. Contributing academics are able to sign off the article and the headline prior to publishing.
The website operates an open-access model, which means its content is free to be replicated elsewhere under Creative Commons licensing. Currently, 70% of the Australian site’s articles are republished in other outlets.
The Conversation UK is a not-for-profit organisation but has already secured funding from 13 universities as well as the higher education funding councils, the Wellcome Trust and the Nuffield Foundation.
A beta version of the site went live today (16 May 2013) and is available to view at

John Pullinger to deliver Presidential Address after Society’s AGM

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RSS president John Pullinger is to deliver his Presidential Address after the Royal Statistical Society’s 179th Annual General Meeting, scheduled this year for June 26 2013.
Titled ‘Statistics making an impact’, John’s Presidential Address will emphasise the ‘vital role’ that statistics has to play in a world where ‘the information landscape is confused’. A summary of the speech is published on the Society’s events page and a full transcript of it will appear in the Series A Journal of the Royal Statistical Society.
The Presidential Address will start at 6pm following the Society’s AGM and will be followed by the Society’s summer reception.

Review of consumer price indices launched

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The UK Statistics Authority has announced the launch of two reviews (opens as pdf) relating to price indices.
The first review, led by Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, will consider what changes are needed to the range of consumer price statistics produced for the UK. Acknowledging that the measurement of price change is challenging, the Authority’s chair, Andrew Dilnot explained that the aim is ‘to recommend a framework for consumer prices statistics that understands and best meets the needs of users, and is accountable, flexible, and transparent’. A final report is due for publication by summer 2014 and the terms of reference are published here.
The second review, led by Sir Adrian Smith, the Statistics Authority’s deputy chair, will consider the governance arrangements and structures in place at the Office for National Statistics regarding the production of consumer price statistics. ‘Sir Adrian’s review will tackle the vitally important question for the governance arrangements supporting the production of price statistics to underpin the quality, integrity and independence of price statistics for the public good, explained Andrew Dilnot. A final report is due for publication by October 2013. 
Jill Leyland, former RSS vice president, and a spokesperson for the Society on this subject, welcomed both reviews. ‘The Johnson review in particular has long been needed,’ she said. ‘The UK at the moment has an incoherent set of consumer price indices, with a number of user needs not properly catered for. The review needs to be fully comprehensive, consider all options and include wide-ranging consultation with actual and potential users.’

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