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

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The Independent Culture

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