Having what some would call an illogical mind, statistics bore me. I like to gather my own evidence from what I see, my own experiences and gut feeling. Scientists shudder as they need the facts; statistics, graphs, pie charts-God, how boring! Who invented statistics and what is the point of them? Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data.Could anybody stay awake through such a lecture? Statistical methods date back at least to the 5th century BC but its mathematical foundations were laid in the 17th century with the development of the probability theory by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. Probability theory arose from the study of games of chance.The use of modern computers has made possible new methods of statistical computation that are impractical to perform manually.
As everybody knows, the trouble with statistics is that they can be manipulated to prove anything that somebody has a keen interest in proving. These figures are generally presented in a raw way as a fact and it is only if one has the tome or inclination to investigate further that one can discover that all is not as the headline would make it appear.This struck me today whilst reading a piece in The Guardian on IVF. Professor Susan Bewley is a Professor of Obstetrics at Kings College London and admits that there is sleight of hand, massage and plain lying by omission in the world of fertility statistics.”It all depends on the denominator, the starting point. If you’re counting everyone who walked into the clinic, or everyone who can afford one cycle, or everyone who can afford three cycles. If you’re measuring people who have had three cycles, then they do have a 60% success rate, but the people who’ve been unable to afford more than one have a 30%. Some people who’ve dropped out, it will be because they’re told they haven’t got good eggs. So you’re weeding the failures out of your success statistic, which turns it into a meaningless statistic.” And worse, “I’ve seen women on the labour ward have two babies at 25 weeks, both die, but they’re counted as live births because they came out alive. They go into HFEA figures as live births …” If anybody seriously wanted to find out their prospects of having a successful outcome to IVF treatment, would there be any point at all in looking at the statistics. The private clinics clearly want to make success look likely and present the statistics accordingly-“look at all these live births we’ve had,” conveniently neglecting to add how many babies died soon after birth.
Even the BBC use statistics in a meaningless way, probably because they make a good soundbite.The campaign group Big Brother Watch has highlighted this problem:recently Radio 4’s PM news programme had a piece debating a new petition to be handed in to Government on Thursday calling for a ‘default block’ on internet browsing. ‘One of the key statistics relied upon by the campaign is that “1 in 3 10 year olds have seen pornography online.” They did recognise it was published in Psychologies Magazine in 2010, but the appearance is given that this is a serious statistic. It was also used in their ‘Key Facts’ briefing. If you had the inclination to dig a little deeper however, that definitely isn’t the case. The full section in the magazine reads:
“We’ve had plenty of letters from concerned readers on this very topic, and when we decided to canvass the views of 14- to 16-year-olds at a north London secondary school, the results took us by surprise.
Almost one-third first looked at sexual images online when they were aged 10 or younger.”
So, the statistic – used to introduce the PM segment and at the heart of the petition’s press release – is based on one magazine’s anecdotal research at a single school.
One only has to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail to see how statistics are used to obfuscate the truth.I’m with Mark Twain:’Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.’