The View From Here

We are, it seems, gripped by the science of small numbers. I think of it as the last legacy of Thatcher and the "me generation". Faced with a report based on a sample marginally greater than one, but which tells us something we would like to believe, we immediately seize it as a scientific truth.

The packet of cereal on my breakfast table tells me that a serving of Cheerios contains 169 calories and 281 grams of fat. As I dig into my bowlful I'm happy to know that I'm eating so sensibly - in spite of the fact that the estimate was for a 30-gram bowlful (about three tablespoonfuls with semi-skimmed milk, and I'm eating ... well, a lot more, with full- fat yoghurt and honey. And I'm outraged along with everyone else to find that the 0.4 grams of fat in a serving-size can of baked beans is probably wildly underestimated. I want my tin to contain precisely what it says - not some fluctuating figure averaged over the vat from which it came.

Most of us are poorly trained at interpreting statistics, and yet we regularly accept numbers as more convincing evidence than words. Having walked around a school on open day, talked to the teachers, quizzed the head, scrutinised the facilities, we go home, turn our backs on the evidence of our own eyes, and tot up the numbers who got grades A-C in GCSE maths instead. We tour university campuses with our daughters and sons, checking how many of the students are on e-mail, and whether the science labs have the latest in hi-tech equipment, then decide which is "better" on the basis of which university asks for 24 rather than 20 A-level points to gain entrance.

This week we were happy to be told on the basis of a scientific study that girls were more accommodating and amenable than boys. Statistically the difference was so significant, we learnt, that the scientists who had conducted the survey were postulating a gene for nice behaviour. Girls had it, boys didn't.

Anyone who had read Michelle Stanworth's Eighties study of sexual divisions in the classroom, Gender and Schooling, should have recognised the scenario: girls behave nicely, are less demanding, perform adequately without pressure and therefore get less of the teacher's time; boys are disruptive, uncooperative, and monopolise the teacher's attention. Except that in the Eighties we were told that those traits dramatically disadvantaged girls, contributing to their under-performance in class and generally in education. Female pupils were less likely to be challenged and stretched academically, with implications for their future performance.

Stanworth told us sternly that we were neglecting our girls because they were too polite. Now we are being told that the girls are fine - it is the boys who are neglected, because they lack social flexibility, so now we need to pay them special attention. Aren't we actually being told the very same thing as before, only in a different tone of voice? Because the girls are being congratulated we accept the spurious statistics of what turns out to be a thoroughly flawed, quantitative study.

If the special characteristics girls are supposed to demonstrate are ones we want to hear about - ones that make them better equipped than boys to function in today's world, more likely to achieve - then, since they are statistically presented, we accept the study's findings as the truth. And since the most immediate consequence of those findings is to suggest that boys need extra attention, extra time from the teacher, extra opportunities ... well, we haven't heard many traditionalists complaining about the figures on which the study was based either.

It is very tempting to take hold of bits of "scientific" study whenever they support our own point of view. I'm utterly committed to state education. So I'm also committed to labelling as misleading the league tables that show schools to which I didn't choose to send my children are producing better exam results than the one I did. Those schools don't enter children for an A-level unless they are sure to get an A or a B, or they insist on parents paying to enter their child privately, so that their grade will not damage the school's statistical record.

Meanwhile, colleagues who are paying to educate their children are equally determined to allow the figures to prove the opposite. And we both determinedly generalise on the basis of our sample of one or two. I insist that my son is stimulated and challenged at school so, by implication, all bright children are likewise. They maintain that their child was bored and underestimated in year seven, and so, by extension, are all able 11-year-olds.

A physicist friend pointed out to me recently that the phrase "a quantum leap" is now consistently wrongly applied in English usage. A quantum is a measure of extreme smallness, a quantum leap an extremely small increment - whereas we all use it to mean a magnificently large step forward, a major advance in whatever is being described. Which goes to show, I suspect, just how curiously we all behave when it comes to numbers. Big? Little? Who cares, as long as it's a quantum leap towards something we really want to believe to be true

Lisa Jardine is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Qualified Nursery Nurse for Bury Nu...

Maths Teacher

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Full time key stage 2 teacher job at ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor