Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics – Can We Really Believe What We Are Being Told?

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics – Can We Really Believe What We Are Being Told?

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics:

This phrase was attributed to the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli by the writer Mark Twain and the greater my involvement with politics and current affairs becomes the more I am convinced by the veracity of this statement. It was brought home to me in a powerful way this week when I was a writing a piece for our Kip McGrath Education Centre blog-site. My inspiration for the afore-mentioned article was a news item that revealed an increasing reticence amongst students to ask for help with their maths as they get older. The process of writing a response led me to a Guardian article about the GCSE Maths results for 2010-2011 which claimed that boys were outperforming girls in the subject because a higher percentage of boys had achieved the Government’s performance standard measurement of A* to C Grades in Maths. Having already established that this didn’t seem to tally with my own findings relating to the ratio of male to female students enrolled at our Centre for Maths tuition I was left with an uneasy feeling about the validity of the Guardian’s statement. Upon further investigation of the figures which involved examining the progress of both genders in the individual grades within the A* to C banding it became clear that rather than outperforming girls, boys’ performance was in decline year on year. This decline in performance is being masked by the artificial banding of Grades and consequently no policies are being put in place in order to address the under achievement of male students in this area. (If you would like to read more on this subject please check out my article: School maths lessons: Pupils ‘scared to ask for help’ – How Can I Help My Child Do Better In School.)

These results are of course far from being the only statistics in the news. Every day we are bombarded by percentages and ratios that are being used to compare one set of numbers with another whether for the purpose of showing how well an institution or policy is doing or to prove the opposite as true. In the past few weeks for example, we have heard the GCSE results statistics being used to great effect in relation to the Government’s controversial Academies programme. Parties with opposing standpoints are able to draw out portions of the information available in order to justify their argument. Each will then tell you that they are right and the statistics prove it. In the case of Academies, Michael Gove and his colleagues at the DfE shout down their opponents in the Anti-Academies Alliance and the journalists in the Observer who claim that the Academies don’t work as an education model.  I for one, must confess to being against Academies and for a whole host of reasons that go far beyond the student performance argument (please see my blog on this site: (Why Academies Don’t Work And Michael Gove Must Resign).  I have looked at the figures and am not convinced by Michael Gove’s use of the information to justify his policies. In this instance it appears that his ideological and personal ambitions are overriding any concern for the well-being of students even when the empirical evidence is showing that he is wrong and it is our children and young people who are paying the price.

But, if we look beyond the issues of Academies and try to see the bigger picture there is something infinitely more worrying taking place. By trusting the headline figures that we are being fed each day in our newspapers, on the television and radio, and the Internet we are in danger of being influenced by those statistics as they fuel our opinions and prejudices. Furthermore, how many of us can honestly say that the statistics published actually convince us to change our minds?  In my opinion, they are far more likely to entrench our beliefs further (if they support what we already hold to be true) or we dismiss them as a twisting of the facts and propaganda by the opposition.

In the digital age this is far more of an issue than it ever has been before. Eric Schmidt (Chief Executive of Google) has estimated that we produce as much information on the Internet every two days as man produced in our entire history up until 2003. The statistics we are given are capable of fuelling racial and religious hatred and influencing political campaigns which can effect the efficay of democracies. But, they can also, as I have previously mentioned, mask genuine problems which need addressing. As a consequence, countless individuals suffer on one level or another as a result of the misuse of statistics.

So are statistics directly responsible for the suffering I have highlighted? Of course NOT, no more than one can blame a lie for the damage it causes when the fault rests with the liar!  I remember being stopped in Newport (South Wales) shopping centre many years ago and questioned about my drinking habits for a survey. When it became clear I was a moderate drinker the lady carrying out the survey halted the questioning before we had completed the questionnaire and moved on as she felt that the information I was providing was not useful to her. Some months later an article appeared in the Western Mail with headline grabbing statistics about the heavy drinking habits of the Welsh male population. It was clear that the sponsors of the survey had already decided before-hand what they wanted the outcome to be so they discarded anyone who would skew the results in a diferent direction. In this case it was the producers of the statistics who were at fault and liars. The statistics were accurate: of those questioned X percentage drank above a certain level of units per week. That couldn’t be argued against. The problem was their bias in their choice of interviewee.

We must therefore, never take any statistics at face value because we never know the motivation for the survey, how it has been carried out or whether figures have been taken out of context. Always be wary of the quoter of the statistics. And finally, if you can, try digging a little deeper for yourself. You never know, you may just learn something new and if a few more of us did it the world might become a better place as a result.


The Art Of Writing A Blog – How Hard Can It Be?

Welcome to my first bona fide blog

Most people who know me, particularly my long-suffering wife, will tell you that I have a gift if one can call it such for being able to verbally express an opinion on a wide variety of topics sometimes regardless of the actual depth of my knowledge on the subject.  In this matter one might call me a jack of all trades and master of none and I feel certain that I am not alone in the possession of this dubious character trait.  It is with this in mind that I have long harboured a desire to find a wider audience for my earbending pontifications (or should that be eyebending if it is a blog). It is thanks to the advent of WordPress that I am now able to fulfil this ambition.

Next comes the hard bit:

  1. What do I use as my blogger name? Surprisingly difficult as every name I wanted was already taken!
  2. What do I write about? With so many subjects on offer where do I start?
  3. What  do I want to say and how do I make it interestingMy opinon will depend on the topic and whether it is interesting will be for you as the reader to judge, not me. 
  4. Last but not least how do I ensure that I actually have some understanding of the topic? This may actually be the easist part – Research

So maybe this blog writing lark isn’t going to be as easy as it appears.  On the other hand, if it teaches me to read up a little on a subject before spouting forth so that I am able to offer an informed opinion then that might not be a bad thing.  Has it really taken me nearly 42 years to learn this lesson?  

My aim will be to write regularly on anything that takes my fancy and provide an interesting and well thought out viewpoint. I hope that you will enjoy reading my blogs and provide me with constructive criticisms and feedback wherever necessary.  I will look foward to hearing from you.

Thank You For Reading And Goodbye For Now

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