In light of the UK Statistics Authority’s criticism of the Department of Work and Pensions use of figures on welfare benefits, the misrepresentation of statistics is back in the spotlight. New research, conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London reveals important challenges in trust in and the value given to statistics.
The survey identified a lack of confidence in politicians using official statistics accurately when talking about their policies – only seven per cent felt they did so. Politicians were also the least trusted when providing information (8 per cent). Scientists (74 per cent) and academics (63 per cent) are the most trusted.
61 per cent say they are confident they understand statistics in the context of government spending cuts. When asked if people could explain the difference between ‘debt’ and ‘deficit’, 82 per cent choose the correct definition. However only half demonstrated that they actually do understand the definitions in the following question: ‘True or False: the national debt will always go down if the deficit is decreasing’. 28 per cent answered ‘true’ and 20 per cent didn’t know – while 52 per cent correctly said this is false.
This confidence is partly reflected in the British public’s ability to answer simple mathematical questions – 92 per cent correctly say that 50 is 25 per cent of 200. However their ability to deal with probabilities is much lower – only a quarter of the public knows that the probability of getting two heads in two tosses of a coin is 25 per cent.
The research also revealed that the public appears to put little value on the understanding of numbers. People are four times more likely to say they would be proud of their children if they excelled in reading and writing (55 per cent) than if they were very good at numbers (13 per cent). Only 6 per cent would be embarrassed to admit poor numeracy skills while 15 per cent would be uncomfortable admitting to poor reading and writing skills.
The survey findings also provide a useful snapshot of how the public makes decisions. For example, 52 per cent of the population still believe that politicians draw conclusions based on principle rather than evidence. This mirrors how the British public makes their own decisions. When forming opinions on government performance numbers are not the top priority. It is anecdotal evidence and personal experience rather than statistics which seem to play a decisive role (by 46 per cent to 9 per cent).
Denise Lievesley, Head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s, said: ‘Those who are excited by the opportunities provided by Big Data believe that the numbers speak for themselves. This is not the case. Even large datasets are the product of human design and we have to understand the context and limitations of such data in order to draw valid conclusions. The science of statistics is even more important in such an environment. Statisticians have an important role to play in equipping people to make use of evidence.’
Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: ‘Our economy now requires most people to handle data and numbers. It is really important that as a nation we up our data skills before we get left behind. The starting point is schools – Government is looking again at school curricula and now is the time to really strengthen the quantitative and data handling skills of our young people.
Secondly, we need all policymakers and politicians to get basic statistical training, so they know how to assess and use evidence. And finally we need journalists to get savvy about data, so we have fewer ‘bacon cures cancer’ type headlines. The RSS is running a campaign called ‘getstats’ to promote each of these strands.’
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said:‘It has never been more important for the public to understand and critically review statistical information on how our economy and society is doing. It is therefore worrying that the public has so little confidence in the use of statistics, that their understanding of basic concepts of probability and the difference between debt and deficit is so shaky – and that relatively little value seems to be placed on statistical information or the skills needed to make sense of it.’