(University of California Press, £19.95)

Damned Lies and Statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians and activists by Joel Best

Dumy h1 book ho left his colleagues to die

Numbers exercise great power over the human imagination. In our society, truth needs affirming by statistics. Anyone who insists that child poverty or alien abduction is a problem will be expected to offer numbers to validate the claim. An allegation that lacks quantitative substantiation is usually rejected as that – an allegation.

In contrast, claims backed up by numbers are likely to be treated as facts. For more than two centuries, such quantitative statements have offered an authoritative way of describing social problems. Startling statistics focus the mind and can transform opinion into unforgettable fact. That is why campaigners, reformers and politicians use them. It is so difficult to ignore big numbers. When a parent reads in a quality newspaper that "today in Britain, probably 1.1 million paedophiles are at large", the reaction will be fright and anxiety.

Fortunately, people are too intelligent to believe everything they read or hear. The British public is quite sceptical when it comes to statistics – especially those published by government. Figures that claim to show waiting lists in the NHS have been shortened are likely to be greeted with some cynicism. However, whether we like them or not, we have to live with statistics, and Damned Lies and Statistics offers a useful guide for engaging with their troublesome world.

Joel Best claims that behind every statistic is a story. Statistics do not merely describe a problem; they also promote a diagnosis and solution: "numbers are created and repeated because they supply ammunition for political struggles". So statistics do not just reveal problems, but play an active role in creating them.

Best, one of America's most exciting sociologists, contends that such problems are constructed through the actions of campaigners. Statistics play a crucial role in creating or defusing their claims. Campaigners have a strong incentive to come up with big numbers, since the larger the number the greater the problem.

The inflation of statistics by claim-makers should not be understood as dishonesty. As Best explains: "knowing that big numbers indicate big problems and knowing that it will be hard to get action unless people can be convinced a big problem exists (and sincerely believing that there is a big problem), the activists produce a big estimate, and the press, having no good way to check the number, simply publicises it."

For crusaders, the construction of startling statistics is crucial. And one way of inventing them is through a promiscuous definition of a problem.

Take the case of workplace bullying. Activists often point out that there is "no agreed definition of bullying", and that the victim should decide whether they have been subject to "unacceptable behaviour". With such a vague and subjective definition, it was not difficult for a TUC-run publicity campaign to claim that a staggering 5 million people had been bullied at work. Since October 1998, the figure of 5 million has gained the status of an incontrovertible fact among professionals involved in human relations and the media. Its repeated transmission has helped consolidate the impression that Britain faces the spectre of a new industrial epidemic.

As Best argues, numbers often acquire a life of their own. Initial scepticism is overwhelmed by the sheer repetition of a statistic. It goes through a process of "number laundering", and people eventually lose any track of the estimate's original source. In three or four years, a lot of people have forgotten that what is called "bullying" today was called "office politics" back then.

Despite the temptation to be cynical, the author of this timely and excellent work cautions the reader against reacting in such a way to statistics. He offers a critical approach that avoids "the extremes of both naive acceptance and cynical rejection of numbers". What we are offered is an approach that helps us to work out the real story behind those numbers.

The reviewer's book 'Paranoid Parenting' is published by Allen Lane

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks