15 July 2005

Statistics don't lie! Its the way we look at them!

Statistics are misrepresented and misinterpreted!

I'm one of these sad anorak type of people who routinely shout at my TV or newspaper everytime I see or hear the word 'average'. 'Mean or Median' I cry, this is because I know most people will be thinking that the quoted average (always the mean) is the figure located in the middle of a range, this my friend is the median average. Why is this simple fact never explained? This is one of the ways statistics are misrepresented and on things like average earnings etc. can make a massive difference.

Then of course we come to the sensationalist stories in the press, particularly the Express and Mail, although the broadsheets are sometimes at it as well. They quite often make use of statistics in a misleading way so they will be misinterpreted. One example they regularly use is, instead of quoting the falling number of yearly firearm deaths since the handgun ban, they quote the rise in firearm incidents, which they neglect to mention is down to the rise in legal replica and other firearms! They use these misrepresented figures to create an impression that the handgun ban has been a failure.

Of course to cover themselves some of newspapers put a priviso at the end of a story, knowing only too well that most people only browse stories rarely getting past the headlines and a few paragraphs down.

My tips are always read a story starting at the end paragraph working backwards. Think carefully about how the statistics were collected and find the source, if its not shown ask why, e.g if British American Tobacco commissioned research on passive smoking, I'd like to scrutinise the raw data in detail! Ask yourself, do the raw statistics really correlate with what the journalist is intimating?

Then we come to surveys, which need the closest attention. The wording of the question, how it was collected, telephone, internet, face to face. These all make a difference to the results.

Of course in politics, statistics are manipulated by all parties, businesses, and the media, in fact everyone. There are loads of examples of misrepresentation, using 'rate of' to make upward figures seem downward or vice versa and don't think Blair and Brown were the first, Nigel Lawson for example was a master of deception. For the countless ways statistics are misinterpreted see this guide here. Im off to bed now. If you think I have finally lost the plot, post a comment, cheers!

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