Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Lies, damned lies, and statistics – a saying popularised by Mark Twain who attributed it to Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; but there are others. It generally refers to the bolstering of weak arguments with statistics. And you only have the watch the news each day to see how sloppily statistics are used, often by politicians.

I was crap at mathematics at school – only just scraping a pass in my GCE ‘O Level’ examination at the age of 15, whereupon I dropped the subject completely afterwards. But I love playing with numbers – data, especially data I have generated myself through my own research. There’s just so much information to mine in data sets, looking for patterns that throw up lots of different questions, hypotheses even.

Not everyone sees it that way, however. I remember having an argument with one of my students – I can’t remember if it was an undergraduate who had completed a final year honours project with me, or one of my postgraduates. But we disagreed about how best to present data in tabular format. When this student handed me a draft, I asked some pertinent questions about the data and what she thought  they indicated. The student was not able to answer with any conviction. I suggested she should reorganize the data in several ways to see if any patterns emerged. ‘You can’t do that’, she retorted, ‘you are placing a bias on the data’. ‘Humor me’, I asked her, and she duly made the adjustments I had suggested. Lo and behold, she was able to detect a number of patterns, relationships even, that had not been apparent in her ‘random’ tabulation of data. Now, it was still necessary to undertake appropriate statistical tests to see if the relationships she observed were cause and effect, so to speak, or had occurred merely by chance.

But I think this example just highlights how much information can be ‘hidden’ in data sets.

And one man, who is passionate about statistics, is on a mission to make statistics meaningful for everyone. He’s Professor Hans Rosling, a global health expert and Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Last night I watched a highly entertaining – and illuminating – one hour program on BBC4 titled The Joy of Stats. So enthusiastic is he to uncover the hidden messages in data sets, he’s set up an organization called Gapminder Foundation that aims to visualise data in a way that teases out lots of the underlying detail.

In the video below (taken from the BBC4 program, both of which are freely available on the Gapminder web site), and using some 120,000 data points, Rosling tracks the relationship of life expectancy and income in 200 countries over 200 years.

Rosling is now a highly acclaimed speaker at conferences around the world, especially at TED meetings (Technology, Entertainment & Design). He emphasises the need to access publicly funded databases, to link them, search them, and bring the underlying data messages to the surface, often in the face of those who curate the databases and tell him it’s not possible.

In my own field of agricultural research, Rosling has, in Gapminder Agriculture, taken 700 indicators on production of crops, livestock, etc. from the Food and Agriculture Organization.

As I said, Rosling is a man on a mission – but a highly worthwhile and innovative one. Do take time to watch the videos. Your patience will be rewarded.

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