i Editor's Letter: Lies, damn lies, and statistics


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The Independent Online


One of my best friends studied maths at university, while I studied English. He was the exception to my set, which was largely liberal arts-based, partly because of the campus’s geography, but also down to disposition.

As we discovered when we spent one memorable day going to each other’s lectures, the student bodies could not have been more different. I was often overwhelmed in English lectures by the aroma of perfume wafting fragrantly from my predominantly female, Sloaney (remember them?) stripey shirt-wearing fellow students. The maths lecture? A different smell hung in the male, heavy metal T-shirt-wearing air. Mixed in with it was my fear: I had no clue what they were talking about.

As my statistician friend set off on a career path to becoming the head of epidemiology at major pharmaceuticals companies, I had huge admiration for the apparent certainty of what he did. But, with all due respect to that stellar career, life teaches you that there really are “lies, damn lies and statistics”. Never was this clearer than with this week’s unemployment and GDP figures, and that 7 per cent fall in the crime rate.

So, crime figures go down if the police do not count all the victims’ reported incidents as such. Despite daily headlines about thousands being laid off, unemployment figures fall if we count the under-employed as fully employed. And, despite the views of Coalition partners and the world’s leading economists – austerity is working although GDP is down 0.3 per cent, our fourth quarter of negative growth out of five.

The Chancellor insists we’re on the right track. Who to believe? Or, if I could phrase it in a way I understand: “George Osborne, a man more sinned against than sinning?” Discuss. See you on Monday.