Outside Edge

Outside Edge: Learn to love that statistical feeling

First published in the Financial Times, 8 August 2009

Maligned and misunderstood, statisticians have at last found a spokesman: the Chinese author of a poem celebrating a life swimming in data.

“Why is it that statistics/Put a calm smile on my face?” the poet writes, responding to a morale-boosting campaign dubbed “Statistical Feelings” organised by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. “Because of statistics/ I can rearrange the stars in the skies above.”

Hmm. Slightly awkward, that one. In a week when China’s economic statistics have earned more scepticism than usual, it might not be wise to talk about astronomical manipulation.

Even the state-controlled Chinese media have admitted that 91 per cent of citizens do not believe official Chinese statistics. Statistically speaking, that may not be too bad. Another survey, published in Insight China, reckoned that 7.9 per cent of respondents think prostitutes are trustworthy. This figure seems low, but places prostitutes as the third most trusted group in China, well above politicians and scientists, let alone what China Daily describes as “the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors”.

If you are following the statistical argument, Chinese statisticians are more trusted than its sex workers. Or perhaps I am relying on one of the 82 per cent of statistics invented on the spot. Or one of the 46.79842 per cent of statistics that claim an unjustifiable level of precision.

China’s official statisticians are not the only ones facing scepticism. In the UK, only 36 per cent of people believe that official figures are generally accurate. This is, however, an official figure, so 64 per cent of us would hesitate before placing much confidence in it.

“Some mock me for doing statistics/ Some loathe me and statistics”, writes China’s poet-statistician, but our relationship with statistics is more complex. We feel that no argument is complete without a gesture towards the data, yet few of us understand how they are compiled. We sense – rightly – that statistics are often abused through ignorance, or manipulated.

I am a non-statistician who deals with statistics and statisticians frequently, and in my view statisticians are unsung heroes. Statistics are essential to understanding the world, but statisticians get little credit. We accept the numbers in the news as fact, without considering the skill in producing them from small, non-representative samples.

The most striking statistical story I came across this year was that adding statistical information to a charitable appeal reduces donations. It seems that merely reading a statistic makes us meaner.

This is the kind of obstacle statisticians must overcome. So sing out, poet-statisticians of China. Bean-counters of the world, unite!

8th of August, 2009Outside Edge • Comments off