Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Statistics, Damned Lies and the Renaissance

The BBC on Radio 4 carries a programme called More or Less. During the General Election it ran a fact-checking series putting the politicans' figures into context and pouncing on the misleading ones.
Of course people use statistics that are favourable to their own arguments. They’d be dumb not to. Sometimes the difference in the statistics used by the political parties is not because the underlying facts are being abused but because each party has a different conclusion to draw from them. For example it is possible to complain that wealth gap between the top 10% of the population and the bottom 10% is widening… whilst also welcoming a rise in absolute living standards for the bottom 10%.

There are other times when they simply mislead.

I received recently a letter from someone who claimed that their organisation was undergoing a “renaissance”. This is because they were doing well in a certain number of wards. This would have been impressive… had they not actually done better in more wards the year before… and the year before that too. In fact, this year’s ‘renaissance’ for them was last achieved - as a low-point - in 2005.

You could call it optimism bias, you could say somebody hasn’t checked their facts… but they should know better than to peddle dodgy stats to me. As for the "renaissance", it was not all that is was cracked up to be... Lucretia Borgia anyone?


  1. Some would say the Renaissance is a product of hindsight that draws more-or-less simultaneous advances in disparate fields together and comes out with this phenomenon - a bit like the Enlightenment.

  2. To have a renaissance, you need to have a group of people who have common aims and objectives.

    It is better to achieve this by kind words and compromise than by expelling anybody who does not obey every wish of The Leader.

    I think that I can identify the organisation of which Richard is thinking. As the banks used to write on your cheque, "words and numbers do not agree".