(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
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us