Statistics shining a light

To help us celebrate World Statistics Day on Tuesday 20 October, John Pullinger, President of the International Association for Official Statistics, has written this guest blog.

The last few months have been a dark time. There has been tragedy that has touched our families and communities. We struggle to see what is really going on as we try to make sense of the unfamiliar landscape that surrounds us. As the new reality begins to dawn, we need to get a clear picture so we can take the right steps to build a better future.

High quality, trustworthy and valued statistics help everyone see things for what they are. They shed light where there is gloom. My inspiration is Florence Nightingale whose 200th birthday we have celebrated this year. Famously she was the lady with the lamp, tending the sick and wounded in a war zone. Her example has drawn many into the wonderful vocation that is nursing.

When she came home she worked to pull together the data that had been collected during the war. She produced data visualisations that are stunning in their beauty and devastating in their message. They show with outstanding clarity that the main thing that killed the soldiers was the conditions in the hospitals not the wounds inflicted by the enemy.

As a nurse she cared about people but the light from her lamp reached only those in the room. As a statistician she cared about people and found a voice that demanded attention in the corridors of power. The insight from her statistics was a beacon that reached across the world. Her example calls statisticians to cherish their vocation as it does for nurses.

Today, as we think about the world after COVID, we are rightly showing much more love to our nurses. As in Florence Nightingale’s day the significance of statistics too is in the spotlight. Good statistics save lives. They enable our governments to take decisive and proportionate action and aid the creation of jobs and prosperity for all. They help identify injustice and enable the powerless to hold the powerful to account. They give us all a special way to assess the state of the world in which we live so that we can act to create an environment we want to live in and a sustainable future for our children. They are a guiding light for better decisions and better lives.

However, numbers used in public are not mere facts. The person using them is doing so to influence their audience. We need to know that the advertiser isn’t telling us about bias in the sample that generated 8 out of 10 likes for their product. We need to know that the politician isn’t telling us that being £1000 better off if you vote for them is based on lots of conditions that cannot be guaranteed. We need to know that the headline screaming “killer food increases risk of death by 20%” relates to a condition we are highly unlikely to get, so the extra risk is negligible. There is an unprecedented amount of data, a proliferation of channels to propagate it and often weak incentives to ensure that the information we receive is what it purports to be.

Fact checking and regulation of statistics used in public life help us see into the darkest corners of falsification, manipulation and mind-games with numbers. The work of the Office for Statistics Regulation is a vital public service, working alongside Full Fact and other organisations. Statistics produced for the public good are released into a foggy and polluted atmosphere full of dodgy data within a climate that seems to get ever hotter. A climate where many people all too readily cloak their vested interests in a fake veneer of statistical claims.

Now is a time to support those in the statistical community who provide statistics for the public good and to stand up against those who misuse statistics for their own vested interest. If we are to navigate a way forward to a better future we need high quality, trustworthy and valued statistics (and respect for our nurses).