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15 May 2019

To make sense of society, you have to stand up and get counting

Michael Sanders, Reader in Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London

MICHAEL SANDERS: Statistical numeracy is vital for understanding the world around us

Colleagues discussing statistics
Statistical numeracy is vital for understanding and unpicking the information we're fed in the media and online.

Despite being quite good at counting, I have to confess I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. This is usually deployed, tongue in cheek, when I tell people what I do for a living, or, more commonly, when some statistics have refuted or failed to support someone’s argument.

Benjamin Disraeli has a lot to answer for here. Wittingly or otherwise, he’s provided a generation of otherwise educated people with an excuse not to engage with statistics, or to really be numerate at all. Statistics are hence reduced to a kind of rhetorical flourish, to be summoned when they suit your argument, or ignored when they do not.

This is dangerous. It’s always been dangerous. The basic question of counting things that exist in the world is important. When the government claims that employment is at an all-time high, do they mean that more jobs exist than ever before (as we might expect with a growing population), or that the unemployment rate is down (which is actually much better news)? When the opposition makes the argument that the number of jobs is up because people are working multiple part-time jobs, is this actually true?

It gets even more fraught when we begin to address the issue of causality. The number of jobs in the US has risen steadily while President Trump has been in power: was this because of him? Probably not. As the economist Justin Wolfers says, this is basically just a straight line from early in the Obama administration, and neither president can really take credit. Is the recent rise in knife crime in the UK a consequence of government cuts to policing budgets? Or of young people being excluded from school? Or both? Or neither?

Closer to home, is it OK to have a drink when you’re breastfeeding, or absolutely not? Is sleep training a sensible way to maintain your sanity as a parent, or tantamount to child abuse? Everything could be fine, or a disaster. The one common element from the most statistically illiterate parenting guides is that parents (and mother in particular) should constantly feel guilty about something. Guides and fact-checking websites can help assuage any misplaced guilt, as can the kind of nuanced assessments of the evidence that you find in Emily Oster’s books Expecting Better or Crib Sheet. But they aren’t do the heavy lifting by themselves.

Just as numeracy helps us rationally navigate the real world, so too does it help us make sense of what we encounter online. As has been well documented, misinformation and disinformation bloom on the internet, and without adequate maths skills we are more likely to be at the mercy of peddlers of fake news. Research by Dave Rand at MIT and Gordon Pennycook at the University of Regina shows that we’re highly susceptible to “pseudo-profound bullshit”, and that “nudge”-type techniques are unlikely to be the solution – our intuitions, or clever behavioural science tools, don’t seem to protect us from a concerted effort to deceive. In fact, that conclusion from their research is in some ways more positive: we have to think our way out of these problems.

Numeracy, and particularly statistical numeracy, is the best way to cut through the forest of obfuscation and lies. And if we can’t rely on institutions in either the private or public sectors to help us here, we’re going to have to do this ourselves. It’s time to stand up, and get counting.

Dr Michael Sanders is a Reader in Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and the author of “Social Butterflies: Reclaiming the Positive Power of our Social Networks”, published by Michael O’Mara books.