Lies, damn lies

statistics often lie

statistics often lie (Photo credit: mac steve)

According to Reuters, approximately, we produce 14 billion bullets annually. That’s enough to kill everyone on the planet twice over. Seeing as we are all still here, a statistician might tell you that bullets are a woefully inefficient way to kill someone.

According to the World Health Organisation, 1.2 million people are killed annually on the world’s roads. Seeing as there are a mere 60 million cars produced a year, choose a car if you want to off someone. Or you could just leave them be. They are 1,500x more likely to die from cancer or 3000x more likely to die from heart disease.

Every time my Grandad saw statistics on accidents caused by drunk drivers, he used to make a quip that all drivers should be drunk whilst behind the wheel. After all, if 20% of accidents are caused by drivers who are under the influence, we could eliminate the other 80% if everyone was drunk. I think even a statistician would spot the error in that analysis. Every day, newspapers are full of stories backed up by statistics but how do we know they haven’t just done the same analysis as my Grandad and got the complete wrong end of the stick?

Everyone fills in surveys. In the UK, we are required to fill one in by law every 10 years – the census. I’m always amazed at how banal the questions seem. As I think it’s important for the government to have good information about the population, I take it quite seriously. I take care over my answers to make sure they are correct. Many people don’t. Everyone should, as there are harsh penalties for those who provide incorrect information and yet the 4th most popular religion in England and Wales in the 2001 census was Jedi.

If I fill in surveys other than the census, I tend to start with good intentions but then halfway through, there will be a question that seems utterly ridiculous or invasive and from that point on I either give up, or it becomes a box ticking exercise that I don’t take much care over. And yet, it is precisely these surveys that form the bedrock of many of the statistics we are bombarded with. It’s worth remembering that when you read some exhaustive analysis on why people who play Angry Birds are more likely to drink strawberry milkshakes.

After all, 78.4% of statistics are made up on the spot.


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