Statistics have many uses
Statistics can inform or educate us. They can correct misunderstandings. Their greatest value, often, is that they let us see things in proportion, which means we do not have to overreact to a few untypical events whether crimes, accidents, immigration or the weather. They have helped us appreciate the seriousness of the present pandemic and the effectiveness of vaccines and of other measures. International comparisons have helped see our situation in perspective.
Statistics also have their misuses
Statistics can support one side of an argument unfairly if people use them dishonestly. I refer not only to politicians, since salesmen and advertisers have long been guilty of that crime. So have some religious and self-help groups. Does that mean we should mistrust statistical information? No. Liars will use anything they can: pictures, videos or words/ We can’t deprive them of their tools without doing the same to honest people.
Who has been misusing statistics recently?
I have previously pointed out the way Donald Trump misled a lot of people. I never said he was alone.
Don’t be misled: be aware!
How do people try to mislead us? Here are a few of the ways.
- Small or biased samples
- Not comparing like with like
- Exaggerating the scale
- Using unreliable data
I have written a short book to help ordinary people, not mathematicians or scientists, understand how statistics can be misused and how to spot the tricks people play with them. It is titled, appropriately How to avoid being misled by statistics: don’t be one of the 60% who are below average. (What is an average anyway?). It addresses the four issues mentioned above among others and gives examples of how statistics have benefitted us. I also tell how the US Navy once misled itself accidentally, because it wrongly interpreted the information it had. I hope you enjoy the book and profit by it. The rate of return on your investment will be enormous!
I have blogged about the need for the government to study risk management and about the need to learn the right lessons. Perhaps a course in the right use of statistics would be useful too. Only if the desire to be honest was present, of course.