The serious business of statistics

When something you hear makes you burst out laughing, you know it’s time to write a blog.

In this case, I was listening to “the biggest show in the country” on the subject of Boris Johnson and his peddling of the myth that once Brexit is achieved there will be £350m a week available for the NHS.

Indeed, Sir David Norgrove, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority took the unprecedented step of writing to the foreign secretary to say that to use the figure in the way was a “clear misuse of official statistics”.

So far so serious. The bit that made me laugh was the defence of Mr Johnson by former DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, who casually swept aside all concerns over accuracy by saying that Sir David wasn’t infallible.

However it’s not really a laughing matter. There may be lies, damned lies and statistics, but I believe that having a robust evidence base on which to make decisions or shape policy is important. It’s also important to understand how to interpret and present your evidence.

Yes, there can be accusations of ‘spin’, but to continually, blatantly, use inaccurate information takes it to another level.

Blaming the media for putting its own spin on things further muddies the water. It’s true that different media have different biases, and, of course, the quality of journalism varies.

But there are many good journalists out there, asking the questions that we all want and need answers to. The Trump-esque media bashing of ‘fake news’ is wearing thin.

There are plenty of resources out there such as the BBC’s Reality Check, Spinwatch and Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact-checking charity should you feel inclined to clarify what you’ve heard. Or you could read some news articles written by bone fide journalists who understand the need for truthful and accurate reporting.

In the meantime I’m off to investigate the UK Statistics Authority. It sounds like heaven for a facts and figures nerd.

Sara McCracken works in communications for an educational body. She previously worked for the Green Party for #AE16 and in the health sector.