Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics – Boring Numbers or Powerful Tools?

Posted: October 20, 2009 in Life, News, Tenerife
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I have to admit to being a bit of a geek here and say that I love statistics. A lot of people do, they just don’t realise it and they also don’t realise that they are being constantly manipulated by the media who ‘creatively’ use statistics to further their own agenda.

One of the worst offenders is The Daily Mail who regularly uses that old trick of ‘interpreting’ statistics to fit what they want to report, rather than the actual conclusions of statistical reports. It’s easy to use statistics this way to trick anyone who’s never had experience of working with and interpreting statistics beyond their face value. This report in the New Statesman is an excellent example of outrageous media manipulation.

Part of the work I did before I moved to Tenerife involved interpreting statistics to produce reports for government ministers. Sounds dull, but it wasn’t (honest) and involved collaborating with all sorts of different and fascinating people around the North West of England.

An example of this was one particular report about the levels of unemployment in Manchester, especially in relation to minority ethnic groups. To cut a long report short, statistical figures showed that the two groups which had the lowest unemployment rates in the city were Chinese, where there was almost nil unemployment, and Manchester’s Indian residents who experienced very low levels of unemployment.

Seems straightforward doesn’t it? If you were Chinese or Indian you were more likely to find employment. Except it wasn’t quite like that. Sure, generally speaking, the Indian residents who had been born and educated in Britain were more likely to have better qualifications than every other group including white British, and were subsequently more employable because of that. The picture for the Chinese residents was completely different. A woman who worked for a Chinese community organisation in Manchester took me into Chinatown to explain why the statistics were completely flawed.

Many Chinese were as well educated as Indians and did have jobs, but whereas Indians were working in occupations which fitted their qualifications, their Chinese counterparts were working in family businesses – restaurants, supermarkets etc, and weren’t actually being employed in the sort of jobs or receiving the level of wages their qualifications deserved. There was virtually no unemployment, but their problem was one which was completely hidden by statistics.

When we left Britain, I thought I’d also left interpreting statistics behind, but no. Throughout each week we analyse statistics relating to our various websites and, saddo that I am, I still find them fascinating. In fact I’d go as far as to say they’re essential for understanding patterns relating to tourism in Tenerife and adjusting projects we’re working on to suit.

They tell us all sorts of things. We can tell when there are school holidays in Britain, we can tell when different nationalities’ seasons are due to begin, we can even tell what the weather has been like in Britain without going near a weather report, the little rows of figures are full of information.

But you do have to be careful with statistics. We occasionally meet people who quote statistics at us, some using volume as an indication of success. However, statistical info is one of those areas where size doesn’t necessarily matter; individual numbers are only component parts which need to be viewed as a whole to give them their true value.

The problem is that anyone who doesn’t know this might not always be able to see that bigger picture and that’s when manipulators like the Daily Mail pounce.


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