The Use and Abuse of Statistics

Sound policies rely on sound data, but statistics can be very misleading. Here are some of the most obvious problems.

The person or organisation providing the data may, deliberately or otherwise, have selected data which supports their interests or their point of view.

Aggregated statistics can look very different to the underlying figures. Vehicle accident statistics, for instance, generally include young and accident-prone drivers, as well as injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. Indeed, I understand that a middle-aged car driver in good weather may well be just as safe, over most long journeys in the UK, as if he or she were flying, which is a very safe form of transport.

Small sample sizes can produce very misleading results. Try to identify or organise meta research which aggregates the results of numerous smaller samples.

Those who do not respond to surveys may have very different views to those who do. Imagine a 30 to 10 split "in favour" in responses to a questionnaire. Does this mean that "75% believe that ..." ? Not if the response rate was 40% and almost all the remaining 60% thought not. Matthew Syed reported one example as follows:

Those responding to questionnaires may not tell the truth, inadvertently or deliberately

Different organisations will record data in different ways. The classic example is in France where, if an elderly person is found dead without evidence of health problems, it is acceptable to attribute the death to ‘old age’, thus reducing the apparent incidence of heart attacks. But crime statistics can be similarly unreliable, as are many others.

Education and other regulators know that it is quite wrong to try to compare 'apples and pears". A 'First' from one university - or a First' in Engineering - may well be harder to achieve that a 'First' from another body, or in a different subject. And that is before you start allowing for grade drift as universities compete to attract students.

Equally, students and patients may not be the best judge of the quality of their teachers or doctors respectively. Professors who perform in an entertaining way, and doctors with great bedside manners, may be far from the best in their profession. Remember Harold Shipman ...!

The fact that there have been no incidents does not mean that something is safe. It is possible that the reason why fewer children are now killed on our roads is not because they are inherently safer than decades ago, but rather because they are so dangerous that many children are not allowed near them.

Death and injury rates can look very different when presented as a number (e.g. number of children killed in an incident) rather than as a proportion of the exposed population per annum.

A report of deaths caused by, for example, air pollution might include a high proportion of those whose death was already imminent, rather than deaths from amongst an otherwise healthy population.

Survival rates can be very misleading. Screening for cancer, for instance, often appears to generate a high survival rate (over 5 years, say) compared with the survival rate of those whose cancers are detected when symptoms become obvious. But this can be because the time of diagnosis is earlier, so it appears that patients live longer even if treatment is ineffective. Or it can be because the tests also identify slow growing cancers.

So what is to be done? If possible, you should design your own questionnaires and data-gathering exercises with the help of professional statisticians. To the extent that this is not possible, you must treat all data with a heavy dose of cynicism, bearing in mind all the issues listed above.

But do not be tempted, when faced with a hostile press or a one-sided lobby, to assemble your own dodgy statistics – or dodgy science – to fight them off. The inevitable result would be that those with whom you are trying to communicate would then see you as prejudiced and/or adversarial, and you might also then fail to pay insufficient attention to perfectly reasonable arguments from ‘the other side’.


Martin Stanley

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