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.


Paddington station, still a mainline station, ...

Paddington station, still a mainline station, was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a deep, dark secret. I try to keep it quiet, but occasionally I make an almost involuntary utterance that gives the game away. It is a secret shared with my Dad. When Nan and Grandad were alive, we often used to stay with them.

One evening, Nan gave me a pile of books to read. They used to belong to my Dad. Most of them were unremarkable; the sort of reading material you might expect an adolescent boy to read. In among the smattering of comics and adventure books was the evidence that he shared my secret.

It was about an inch thick and the cover was missing. The binding and the pages showed signs of heavy use. Inside, every page was crammed with listings. I took a sharp intake of breath once I realised what they were. They were listings of locomotives. Many of them had been underlined in blue biro. My dad was a trainspotter. Swindon was a good place to be one because it was pretty much the heart of the Western railways. Many locomotives ended up there for maintenance, so there was a good chance of seeing a wide range of rolling stock.

I’m not a card-carrying, anorak wearing trainspotter, but I do like trains. Occasionally, when we are doing the crossword, I let on that I know that the foldy thing on top of the train that connects to the power lines is a pantograph and that an electric train made up of a small number of motorised carriages is called an EMU (or Electric Multiple Unit). There is a diesel equivalent too, but DMU is not a word.

Sometimes I can’t help myself. Before I know it, I tell people that the train gauge in the UK is 4 feet 8 and a half inches because of Stephenson, but if Isambard Kingdom Brunel had won the gauge wars, our trains would be bigger, faster and more comfortable because the gauge would have been 7 feet and a quarter-inch.

At its peak, the UK’s railway network had 37,000 kilometres of track. It must have been fantastic to have the freedom to travel from almost any town in the country to almost any other and trains used to always be on time. Thanks mainly to the axe of Dr Richard Beeching, today we have about 16,000 kilometres.

For reasons that make sense to someone, we have a separate company responsible for track and train operating companies responsible for trains. Our trains are the most expensive in Europe and they seldom run on time.

I guess that’s progress, but I still like trains. Just don’t tell anyone.