What do young people think about statistics?

In our latest blog, Head of External Relations, Suzanne Halls, explores what young people think about statistics, following a chance encounter on a train…

It’s common to hear two claims: that young people are disengaged with policy; and that people of all ages are disengaged with statistics and data, and have low levels of statistical literacy. In OSR, we are sceptical about both claims – especially the claim that people are disengaged with statistics. We know this from our casework, which features a wide range of people raising questions about the use of statistics. And we know it from our wider observations about the social life of statistics, not least during the pandemic.

Sometimes, though, it’s good to substantiate general opinions with on-the-ground evidence. In this context, it’s a good idea for OSR to test our broadly positive take on statistics and data in society with what people actually say and do.

And this is exactly what happened to me earlier this year. I was on a train, and I overheard a group of young people talking about the importance of statistics and data. I got talking to one of them, called Gilbert, who is a student studying his GCSE’s from Hertfordshire.

I was struck by his enthusiasm for data and statistics, and I wanted to get a fuller read out from him of what he thought. So I was delighted when he agreed to have a further chat with me about how he understands and uses numbers – and I’ve set out his responses to my questions below. They speak for themselves, I think, so I’ve set them out more or less as he said them.

Why are you interested in statistics?

I like statistics because they give a comprehensive view of problems and help you work out solutions and predictions.

How do you think statistics help us?

I think that statistics are very important in the modern world because they act as the backbone of the economy and government decisions. They are also the way most data is presented in professional settings.

What are the benefits of statistics for young people?

Good statistics have the benefit of letting us completely understand the world we are going into and help us work out ways to improve it through technology and engineering.

Do young people need more of a say on data collection and use?

Yes, I think that teenagers and children need to be taught more about what is being taken from them when they accept ‘cookies’. At the moment I feel companies can put anything in their terms of service and get away with it and I feel we need to regulate this more heavily.

What questions do you think official statistics should be asking young people?

I think that official statistics should be asking more questions about activity with technology and more in-depth questions about climate change, I feel that if surface level questions are asked there is less chance of the young person engaging.

How could statistics producers across government engage more with younger audiences?

Nowadays the younger generation interact more over social media like Snapchat or Tik Tok. This means that less young people are seeing conventional ads on TV. If statistics produces condensed the facts into short entertaining videos and put them on platforms such as Tik Tok there is a high chance more young people would engage with them.

Do you think you are taught enough about statistics in schools?

No, I feel that we need to be taught more about statistics to be able to interact and understand the world that older generations are leaving us with, such as the way politics are run at the moment and more importantly how to try and stop or preferably reverse climate change.

How do you interact with data?

I don’t really have a favourite way of interacting with data, I prefer dashboards with multiple graphs but am not overly fussed.

Where do you go for statistical information?

At the moment I use the Hustle to find business and political related statistics and sources such as the guardian for world statistics. However, the problem is there arn’t that many sites for finding out statistics and lots of people don’t try and find them.

Thanks so much for sharing your views. What is your favourite statistical fact?

I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that the human eye blinks on average 4,220,000 times a year!

As I said, I think this speaks for itself; and although it’s only one example, it does provide an inspiring example to rebut the idea that young people are disengaged with statistics and data.

And this evidence is just a taster – we recently published a think piece and research report on the concept of statistical literacy and the importance of communicating effectively, which is well worth a read!

At the Office for Statistics Regulation we are interested in hearing views from everyone on statistics and how they are used, we encourage you follow our twitter, read our newsletter, visit our website and contact us with any thoughts or questions you might have.

Will public interest in statistics last?

We recently hosted a lively public event where we engaged with a varied audience answering questions about our work during the pandemic. We are delighted that the public is taking such a keen interest in statistics, data and evidence.

We work hard to ensure that numbers needed and consumed by the public uphold the scrutiny and standards of the Code of Practice for Statistics, offering ‘trustworthiness, quality and value’ to anyone using them.

Before the pandemic, our relationship with the general public (endearingly referred to here as ‘armchair epidimiologists’) was predominantly through third-party intermediaries like the media, government statistical producers, specialist user groups, academia, think-tanks and the third-sector to name but a few.

Understanding of the importance of statistics and public interest in them has changed, with people embracing statistics and realising how others can use or potentially misuse them.

This is shown in the number of cases we have considered; In the period from April 2020 to March 2021, we considered nearly three times the number of cases than in the previous year. 76% of the cases we looked into were related to the pandemic, and 48% of cases related to quality, reliability and trustworthiness of statistics – the first time this has been the most common category. This makes what we do much simpler to explain, as we continue to challenge the use of any official statistics that raise issues or cause concern.

We see statistics as an asset that frame our understanding of the world, help inform our choices and as a starting point for debate. This could be on the size of the economy, the number of people in the country, the rate of crime, the health and well-being of the population, and on more specific topics such as the levelling up agenda, or statistics on climate change.

But this isn’t just for institutional decision makers – like the Bank of England, or a Secretary of State. Statistics also support the choices made every day by a very wide range of people; individuals, businesses, community groups and so on.

We are considering how we should go beyond intermediaries and engage more directly than we do already with the general public on issues we care about. As part of our ongoing work and commitment as statistics regulator, we encourage you follow our twitter, read our newsletter, visit our website and contact us with any thoughts or questions you might have.

Talking numbers and making them count

As a communications professional, I use insights and ideas to implement and deliver impactful communications. Using statistics is a great way to use evidence and explain complicated information, but comms people are not always well-known for their statistical literacy and this can sometimes cause problems.

During a busy day in the comms team, any use of numbers in a press release, tweet or presentation should align with the Code, ensuring messages are clear, measured and appropriately tell the story. It is essential that production and use of statistics by governments command confidence in the statistics and organisations using them and help those listening understand the key messages.

At the Office for Statistics Regulation we are interested in how numbers can be used powerfully and collectively across government, to convey important messages and information. Statistical leadership by government is essential to ensure the right data and analysis exist; to ensure they are used at the right time to inform decisions; and to ensure they are communicated clearly and transparently in a way which will support confidence in the data and decisions made on the basis of it.

Statistical leadership is not just about having good leadership of the statistics profession. While this is important, we want to make sure individuals inside and outside the statistics profession show leadership. This should happen right through from the most junior analysts producing statistics to the most senior Ministers quoting statistics in parliament and media. It is relevant to all professions including policy and communications specialists.

Communications teams should work in close partnership with their department’s analysts, to ensure that any use of statistics does not distract from your key communications messages, or itself become the story. The winning situation is using statistics in a helpful way, to convey the right impact, help tell the story, gain understanding and enhance the organisation’s reputation in the process.

The Code of Practice for Statistics and its principles and practices of ‘trustworthiness, quality and value’ provides an excellent guide to ensure this is done as effectively as possible, to ensure users can confidently make decisions about the statistics that are presented to them, using them without question to access what they require and need.

Statistics can really add to public debate as we have seen during the events of COVID-19, when the nation has used numbers to understand the pandemic and its impacts on society, the economy and wider. But it is essential that anyone using numbers and speaking on behalf of government can communicate statistics effectively, in a way that commands confidence and helps those listening understand the key messages. The simplest way to achieve these outcomes and empower your message is to ask the right questions about statistics before you use them. And, if you still feel unsure then find another way to evidence your point.

However, comms people don’t need to know the Code inside out and should always work closely with Heads of Profession for Statistics for advice, support on using numbers and understanding of guiding principles.

If you are interested in finding out more about using statistics, the Code or Statistics Leadership please get in touch with me or visit our website.

Here are some tips…

  • Does it look right? Is that an implausible number? If it’s unusual, it could be wrong… what’s behind the surprise?
  • What exactly are we measuring and why? Is the source reputable and did they show their working?
  • Where do the data come from? What is the backstory and always be curious about someone else’s data. What do we discover if we go another click?
  • Only compare the comparable. Watch out for changes in definitions and different ways to measure the same thing . What’s the historical trend?
  • Presentation is key. Good use of pictures and graphics help convey meaning and should never cause confusion or misrepresentation
  • Remember to ask your Head of Profession for statistics, or a statistician who has worked to produce the data, for advice on how best to present numbers in communications.

Remember, remember this fifth of November…

We are celebrating our third birthday with a big bang!

We will be hosting our first annual conference to showcase our work (6 November) and launching an independent Twitter account (@StatsRegulation) in time for the conference.

After a soft launch three years ago, OSR has gradually been developing a stronger regulatory profile. We remain proud to be part of the UK Statistics Authority, but over the past three years have rightly gained a reputation and personality distinct from that of the Authority. We now want to make this clearer to those who follow our regulatory work, sharing more of what we do and helping a wider audience understand our work.

These developments contribute to our endeavours to have more direct engagement and collaboration with a range of organisations and individuals to understand how statistics can serve the public good, and what statistics need to do to keep up with the changing world around us. Through this, we will be able to more effectively challenge producers of statistics to ensure that statistics serve the public good, whether that be informing government policy or influencing choices made by individual citizens.

I hope you will remember to follow us and enjoy our posts from the 5th November!