OPINION8 February 2013

No laughing matter


Channel 4’s Eight out of Ten Cats makes light of statistics. But the woeful state of statistical understanding in the UK remains a serious problem, says David Walker.

Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr, host of Eight out of Ten Cats

Eight out of ten cats once preferred Whiskas to other brands of cat foods. Now, popular culture folding in on itself, that phrase has become the moniker of Jimmy Carr’s successful Channel 4 television panel show, doing good business around the ubiquity of polls and samples and (whisper it) the central place of statistics in consumer society.

“The education system hasn’t given enough people the skills and confidence with numbers to live comfortably in the world of data and statistics”

What the show demonstrates is that people can have an intuitive grasp of sampling and proportion and yet be taken in by methodological hokum. How can the same people go to the bookies and place a bet (and do sophisticated probability calculations) then get it horribly wrong when confronted with risk assessments around climate change or nuclear energy or traffic accidents?

The answer is they aren’t well enough equipped with statistical understanding. Our baseline at the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) is that the education system in England and Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland is a bit better) hasn’t given enough people the skills and confidence with numbers to live comfortably in the world of data and statistics – and they are all going to get more important during the 21st century. Upwards of 85 per cent of people do no further study in maths and stats after the age of 16, and performance at GCSE is none too hot when compared internationally.

It’s against that background that the RSS, the professional body for statisticians, reached back to its Victorian past and took upon itself the task of social improvement – trying better to endow people with the skills and understanding to live, work and prosper in our data-heavy society. With support from the Nuffield Foundation, the RSS established ‘getstats’, a campaign to lift levels of statistical literacy. That’s a big task and turning the tanker around is going to take time; we work in conjunction with many partners. Take one of our projects from last year – working with candidates who were looking to become police and crime commissioners. How much more effective they could be if they better understand how crime is defined, recorded and measured – bearing in mind that a lot of what police officers do isn’t about conventionally-defined crime.

Now at the beginning of its third year, getstats works with MPs, councillors, employers, the voluntary sector, charity trustees, journalists and media trainers to identify ways in which we can boost understanding. Take sampling. We put together a kit for trainee journalists. Sniff around, it urges them. Do the numbers in the press release refer to an entire group or a sample of them? If so, is it representative? Companies may put together samples based on their own mailing lists or people who have received a free sample or rely on the internet – and from all those frames errors of interpretation can arise.

But it’s not just journalists. Savvy consumers are good news for advertisers and are likely to sharpen market competition. Part of being a savvy consumer is understanding the numbers and basic statistics. Statistical literacy is good for business.

That’s the message we get from employers, who say they would like recruits to have a larger understanding of data analysis and statistical manipulation. That’s why we are working with the British Academy, the Economic & Social Research Council and universities to insert more stats into social science courses for undergraduates – not to turn sociologists and psychology students into maths whizzes, but to ensure they graduate with some of the skill set for which employers have traditionally turned to science and technology for.

David Walker is director of RSS-getstats. The RSS getstats campaign is online at www.getstats.org.uk