“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” (attributed to Disraeli)
Statistics help us to understand complex situations and analyse events, but they can also be used to misrepresent and distort our picture of the world. This may be done deliberately, through the selective use of data or misleading language, but it can often be the unintentional result of flawed information gathering and interpretation, leading to unsupported conclusions or oversimplified analysis.
Many of us are not mathematicians and we can struggle to understand the context and meaning of statistics, probabilities and risks. However, there are several useful and reliable guides that can help you take a critical approach to reading statistics and avoid some of the common pitfalls and errors.
The Sense about Science guide aims to provide users of statistics with “a source of questions you can ask and pitfalls to avoid”. It features advice from statisticians, journalists and scientists on how to make sense of statistics and how to identify when statistics are being misused, whether by accident or design. It also has an excellent list of recommended further reading.
Official statistics in the UK are monitored by the UK Statistics Authority, an independent body that is “required to promote and safeguard the quality and comprehensiveness of official statistics, and ensure good practice in relation to official statistics.”
Some of the biggest misuses of statistics are concerned with health scares and medical studies. Ben Goldacre’s book Bad science challenged many of these falsehoods and the NHS ‘Behind the headlines’ website performs a similar role, looking at the facts and science behind the latest health stories.