Lies, Damned Lies …

Were you, like me, too preoccupied with last Wednesday’s Comprehensive Spending Review announcement to remember that 20 October was also the first ever World Statistics Day, co-ordinated by the United Nations?

The day was celebrated in over 100 countries and territories and by 40 international agencies. In the UK it was marked by a series of events and activities organized by the Office for National Statistics, the Government Statistical Service and the Devolved Administrations and by the Royal Statistical Society.

It is often said that there are three kinds of untruth: ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. This phrase was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain in 1906, who attributed it to the nineteenth-century British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (although it is apparently not found in any of his works).

According to an Ipsos MORI poll, conducted by telephone on 15-17 October among a representative sample of 1,009 adults aged 18 and over, 65 per cent of Britons agree with this proposition, just 17 per cent disagree, with 18 per cent neutral or otherwise expressing no opinion.

The context for this question about ‘lies’ was British official statistics, which seem especially distrusted. Only 35 per cent agree that they are mostly accurate; and just one-quarter say that they are produced without political interference and used honestly by the Government when talking about its policies.

A related problem is that the public is not especially numerate. In an earlier Ipsos MORI survey, undertaken among 1,004 adults by telephone on 10-12 September, one-third of Britons could not convert 20 per cent into a fraction. The very youngest (aged 18-34) and very oldest (aged 65+) were the least likely to be able to answer this correctly.

The Ipsos MORI findings are freely available at:

http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemId=2682

They suggest that statisticians in general, and BRIN in particular, will have their work cut out to promulgate the quantitative gospel!


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