Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Stewart Lee has a routine about encountering an outrageously homophobic taxi driver who claims that homosexuality is immoral. Lee recounts countering this claim by pointing out that its association with the ancient Greeks, godfathers of morality, might actually make it the most moral form of love - to which the taxi driver (real or imagined - you're never quite sure with Lee) replies: "Ah, yes, but you can prove anything with facts..."

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing this news story, no doubt headlined with relish by the Indie sub-editor... Depressingly, it's not surprising to discover the ignorance of the general public, though the sheer extent of delusion and groundless prejudice is perhaps alarming. Neither is it surprising that wherever perceptions diverge significantly from reality, the divergence serves the purposes of right-wing ideologues and scaremongerers.

Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, had a point in not blaming the general public for this sorry state of affairs: "We need to see three things happen. First, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise. And finally we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools, so that people get more comfortable in understanding evidence." Amen to that. Likely to happen? Nah, not as long as distorting the truth and fuelling anxiety and prejudice is advantageous.

(Thanks to Adam for the link.)

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