This video shows a few clips from a presentation that I gave almost two years ago now for Leeds Skeptics (thank you to Chris Worfolk for inviting me to give the presentation and to follow in the footsteps of some fantastic speakers that the club has had over the years). The room was quite dark and so the video may not be very clear at times but hey, you get to watch it for free anyway!

The presentation came about through my annoyance with the huge amount of crappy statistics that float around everywhere (and I mean everywhere!) we go; in newspapers, on television, on the internet, advertisements, in our mail, on food packaging and of course the inevitable stream of carefully chosen (but often misleading and in many cases very suspect) statistics that flows out of any mealy-mouthed politician or pressure-group leader that gets a few minutes of airtime on the telly.

Although statistics and probability has good intentions and is a tremendously fascinating area of study (according to recent polls at least) it is wide open to abuses of all kinds. What a surprise! I’m sure most people have come to realise this over the years and may even have become quite passive about it and just accept it. Most of the time I do in all honesty! At the risk of sounding a bit negative, there is very little that can be done to stop statistical misuse; the only way that it can really change is if people choose (all by themselves) to be clear and transparent with the basis of the statistics that they produce. However, it does pay to be more familiar with the sorts of things that go on so that you can make a more informed decision as to whether the statistic that you are given is reasonable or is a big steaming pile of … (hold it right there!!) So I decided to familiarise myself with what goes on a bit more behind the scenes. Although I am quite well acquainted with various statistical methods learned in the academic bubble of university I was really quite surprised at how statistics can be manipulated so easily and so irresponsibly.

Here’s a few ways that everyday statistics might be fudged;

  • Choosing a biased sample – this may be deliberate or not in some cases.
  • Omitting certain undesirable outcomes – almost as if they never happened.
  • Moving the goalposts – changing the significance level of a statistical test after an experiment has been carried out to give the desired result.
  • Using a sample size that is too small which increases the chances of skewed reults.
  • Incompetence – You might think that it’s obvious that someone who doesn’t know how to deal with statistics isn’t going to be very good at producing reliable statistics.

The list goes on. If you are interested in reading more about uses and abuses of statistics here is a list of some good books that I read on the subject – they are aimed at the general reader and so they are not highly technical with pages crammed with jargon and the like. They’re definitely worth a read.

  • How to Lie with Statistics – Darrell Huff
  • A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper – John Allen Paulos
  • Damned Lies and Statistics – Joel Best

After the presentation I got talking to some of the audience members (I know; who would have thought that people would come to see a presentation on statistics!) and the following website was recommended to me for a voluntary organisation called Radical Statistics that analyse and put statistics through their paces to check their credibility. I’m not currently a member of the organisation but I have been on the website regularly and there is some really good information there.

By the way – my whole presentation can be seen on the Worfolk Lectures website in much better video quality than my own recording I hasten to add.