Statistics, or lying to be credible

82 per cent of statistics are made up on the spot. Including this one. We have all heard the joke yet statistics continue to hold some kind of sway over me – and by all account more than half the adult population.

Ah, the irony of relying on "statistics" for credibility.

Ah, the irony of relying on “statistics” for credibility.

I confess that in complete desperation – if proving a point at the pub is considered desperation – I have fabricated a percentage to win an argument. But only when I know I’m right and the only way I can convince anyone else is with a stat. In other words I lie to be credible.

And I’m not the only one (yes, I’m talking to you).

Putting pure imagination to the side though statistics are so easily to manipulate and so frequently misrepresented it’s surprising we trust them at all. There’s a reason that the quote “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” has persisted since the mid-1800s despite no one knowing exactly who said it.

A great example I found is the claim that children with bigger feet are smarter. Of course they are, they are also older but at first blush the figures can be presented to show just that.

A second one, care of regular Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, concerns an increase in anti-depressant prescriptions in the UK. The figures are accurate, but it’s the conclusions people draw that are the problem. More scripts doesn’t necessarily mean more people are depressed – and it certainly doesn’t show the cause of the depression.

My all time favourites though are the “stats” used in glossy mags – both the men’s and women’s version – that support the latest diet, miracle food, bedroom, cosmetic or holiday fad.

What do you think? Are you one of the 19 per cent of readers currently shaking their heads at my logic, or part of the two-thirds majority just itching to add their support in the comments section below?

Editor’s note:

The STATS website, associated with George Mason University, is dedicated to correcting misinformation about science – or in other words the abuse of stats and research. A great read for anyone interested in the topic and those just wanting to laugh at bad reporting and smugness of colleagues ready to point it out.




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