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.

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  • siouxchief

    I really think that during elections and referendums there should be an independent body assessing what is said and if it is true or not. If deemed untrue the person should be offered a chance to take it back in public or face some sort of monetary fine.

    All this lying by Brexiteers, Trump etc is gone out of control.

  • Croiteir

    If this refers to the bus ad it did not say what the accepted spin suggests that the 350 mill would be spent on the NHS.

  • aquifer

    Nelson McCausland went to the same Oxford college as Rupert Murdoch.

  • The Saint

    Much with you on this point. There is no accountability and it would appear that blatant lying is infact rewarded.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Really refreshing that the Statistics Authority spoke up about the latest piece of arrogant Johnson slipperiness. More of that please!

    Statistics may not give you a neatly potted simple answer; but as someone said, properly used, their vital role is to drastically reduce the room in which outright untruths can live.

  • Sean Danaher

    I’m not sure lying is the correct term. As Hopkin and Rosamond discuss in their recent article in New Political Economy

    Post-truth Politics, Bullshit and Bad Ideas: ‘Deficit Fetishism’ in the UK

    “..such claims are better thought of as bullshit (as conceptualised by Harry
    Frankfurt 2005) rather than outright falsehoods: in other words, as
    speech acts that are indifferent to the truth and proceed without
    effective concern for the veracity of the claim in question”

  • hgreen

    McCausland is a creationist so it’s not surprising he’s got difficulty with statistics. BJ and McCausland are just further examples of the increasing coarseness of public debate.

  • Neil

    You’d wonder why they bother with the 350 million a day figure when it’s been so roundly debunked. 210 million is, I understand, a more justifiable figure, and it’s still sufficiently huge so why not go with that instead? The fact that the IFS expect there to be a net loss to UK finances is an issue obviously but at least as a starting point it would be harder to accuse Johnson of being an outright liar.

  • the rich get richer

    Re Northern Ireland . These are the statistics that PULs need to be looking at and make some attempt at being inclusive of CNRs before its too late if its not already .

  • Kevin Breslin

    Where diplomatics fail, mathematics intervenes.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And studied physics. A person who studied thermodynamics and quantum mechanics has the nerve to say Statistics doesn’t matter, a Person who studied Fermi-Dirac statistics and Bose-Einstine statistics and Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics has the nerve … I give up, Nelson is one of the universe’s biggest mysteries to me.

  • Kevin Breslin

    a) It won’t even be 350 million, because of the rebate.
    b) It is estimated there will be a 750 million loss to the economy after a hard Brexit of Boris’s desire.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque
  • Skibo

    As the £350 million fact has so roundly disputed (by none other that BJ himself), does the very use of this fact not result in people questioning anything else linked to it?

  • hollandia

    Nelson is famously on record as saying “I don’t care what sort of Brexit we have, as long as we’re out of Europe.” Whilst the wider point about fact checking, statistical understanding and the use of spin, are correct, they can only do so much in the face of idealogues. Particularly, when said idealogues have ready access (and in some cases control of) the media.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Not so much a mystery as someone who probably doesn’t mean half the drivel he utters. In addition he’s very happy to make a laughing stock of himself.
    The premillennialist hothouse where he resides might cause him to over-ride all objectivity and dismiss all opprobrium. Nevertheless I suspect he’s somewhat ‘conflicted’.

  • the rich get richer

    But who police the police that police the police………

    Politicians , Judges , Bankers , perhaps even some doctors all lying…..Eventually it comes back to haunt you….Who are you going to believe….no one

    And unfortunately that is the correct answer .

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Charlatans and opportunists in ideologue’s clothing?

  • runnymede

    But Norgrove & Co. were conspicuously silent when Chancellor Osborne engaged in blatant statistical misrepresentation in last year’s referendum campaign.

    Same old same old here. The left/liberal side moan about ‘post truth’,’fake news’ and statistical manipulation but only if it’s their opponents that supposedly have engaged in it. This is the new face of political partisanship I’m afraid, more hypocritical than ever.

  • runnymede

    In reality what happens is political partisans use statistics where they appear to favour their arguments (whether they understand them or not), and resort to making them up if they don’t. Or getting civil servants to do so.

  • runnymede

    There is no such thing as an independent body now, if there ever was. What people usually mean by this is ‘a body that will say things our opponents don’t like’.

  • hollandia

    I’m reminded of the following:

    “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

    That was a century ago, almost. Plus ca change…

  • Sean Danaher

    Indeed. We seem to be living in an era where truth is less valued than it once was. With a scientific training (PhD in Astrophysics) I believe as full a knowledge of the facts as possible should inform all decision making.

    Newt Gingrich at least is open about his duplicity

    “The full suite of facts doesn’t say what you want it to say, so you
    pick out the few facts that support your non-factual position and talk
    about them.”

    And possibly even more worryingly

    “And that what people feel about an issue is more important than what the actual facts behind the issue are”.

  • ted hagan

    What annoyed me was McCausland castigating ‘the media’ when he, after being dumped out of the Assembly, seemingly pops up everywhere making a living as a ‘media commentator’… or a de facto DUP ‘voice’ when that party couldn’t be bothered putting someone forward.

  • Mike the First

    And the winner of the Golden Shoehorn award is…

  • siouxchief

    Good point but I’d prefer to have police than no police. We could at least take a view that the police do a good job most of the time than having to put up with this constant lying by our politicians with no impact to their career and in fact in some cases their lying helps them.

  • Mary Russell

    Edward Carson 1921

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Not unlike the DUP currently KEEPING the Conservative Party in power. At least Carson knew what a political game is. Oh, how wisdom fails to precipitate to the replacing generations!

  • Ruairi Murphy

    Care to give us an example of statistical misrepresentation on the remain side of the debate?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And isn’t it peculiar? When we started hearing the term ‘Post Truth’ I assumed it had to be like ‘Post Modernism’: having surpassed a point where we are so sophisticated that we are in on the joke or at least so internet savvy that we could inform ourselves of the facts behind the issue.
    In fact we’re so embedded in our own echo chambers we’re living in solipsistic bubbles determinedly seeking confirmation bias.
    But then NI has been a long time thus, avant la lettre.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And Nelson went Straight Outta Assembly for that.

  • runnymede

    I could give you dozens. There were multiple layers of misrepresentation and deliberate skewing of data just behind Osborne’s claim that every household would be £4000 worse off.

  • Sean Danaher

    Sadly the 350m figure is believed by many. A poll in the Independent “Nearly half of Britons believe Vote Leave’s false ‘£350 million a week to the EU’ claim”

    And I agree about echo chambers. I have a Sicilian friend who long hoped that the culture of Northern Italy would become dominant, but during the Berlusconi era dispaired that the Mafia and Scicilian way had taken over the entire country. It seems that Brexit has had a similar effect on Britain with the zero-sum game whataboutery culture spreading to the British mainland from NI.

  • Ruairi Murphy

    I don’t need dozens. I’ll accept 5 please.

    Do you know the difference between a statistic and analysis of future economic conditions?

  • Croiteir


  • Angry Mob

    The “three million jobs” was a fairly big lie.

  • Korhomme

    My favourite among statistical misrepresentations is also the simplest. It’s the use of ‘average’ without saying whether it is the arithmetical mean, the mode or the median. So much scope for manipulation!

  • Kevin Breslin

    or demagogue’s since they seem very low on ideas.

  • Kevin Breslin

    He’ll need to go whistle for a profitable Brexit as JRM searches for the thinnest of gruel.

  • Neiltoo

    I don’t know much about statistics but I would assume that the integrity of the data that you start off with is kind of important. Perhaps then, it might be important to look at what Mr Johnson wrote as opposed to what the New Statesman etc reported that he wrote.

    ‘Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.’

    There is nothing incorrect about this statement! We will take back control of the roughly £350 million once we leave the EU. Yes, that is a gross figure and that is also what we will take back control over. In much the same way that the amount that you pay in income tax each week or month is a gross figure. You do get some of it back in the form of services from the govt. but if you suddenly didn’t have to pay any income tax then you would get back control of the gross amount.

    Sir David Norgrove is on pretty shaky ground. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that Boris wrote ‘take back control of’ and not ‘get back’ ….. or is it possible that he doesn’t really care?

  • Neiltoo

    What are these ‘outright untruths’?

  • Croiteir

    That may well be and may be very incisive Kevin but nothing to do with the discussion on hand

  • Kevin Breslin

    Norgrove said it was a “clear misuse of official statistics” because it included a rebate that the UK government would have no control over anyway.

    David Norgrove is not on shaky ground, the Brexit UK spending its CAP rebate money is equivalent to a United Ireland outside the UK still getting the Barnett subsidy.

    Boris and his cheap rent a gob parish pumping claiming free cake and NHS diabetic checks for every flag waving patriot is on shaky ground.

    Consider who Norgrove is standing up to on the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party:

    The UK Trade Secretary put national security at risk, got a ministerial job back
    The UK Brexit minister sued the UK government using the European Court of Justice.
    The UK Agriculture & Environment Minister doesn’t know the difference between North Antrim and Southern Wales,
    The UK Agriculture & Environment Minister who thought it would be good to fly a plane to “Wales”.
    The UK Agriculture & Environment Minister who openly chastised his friend as being unfit to be Prime Minister, before standing for the position himself.
    And that friend is your foreign minister who only ditched his US passport last year whinges about young British people who feel European.

    Norgrove isn’t on shaky ground, this UK government is.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Mean is always the most straightforward of the three.

    I mean mean means mean.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Leave campaign claiming they can control a gross payment that includes the CAP rebate money which never leaves the UK Treasury.

    The Leave campaign out rightly claiming that Brexit will have no impact upon the UK and Irish border due to the Common Travel Agreement, and no possibility of customs posts. (that possibility does exist, even if it’s just at a GB/ROI level)

    The Leave campaign claiming that foreign workers have depressed wages in all sectors of the economy.

    The claim that the European Union needs the United Kingdom more than the United Kingdom needs the European Union. There is nothing true about that.

    It’s hard to find a Brexit promise that wasn’t based on a lie.

    “Restoration of sovereignty”, when the UK’s parliament had a say in every EU piece of legislation.

    Just because you may want something to be true, doesn’t make it true.

    Indeed often the most sweetest of lies hide the most bitterest of truths.

  • Korhomme

    You must say what you mean, but you need not mean what you say. If you see what I mean.

  • Neiltoo

    Well, that’s all very interesting and a bit of a tirade but most of it has nothing to do with my point that Boris Johnson’s statement was factually correct.
    Norgrave isn’t supposed to stand up to anyone, he’s supposed to arbitrate over statistics and he got this one wrong.

  • Neiltoo

    As I posted here:

    there is nothing factually incorrect about Johnson’s statement.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You know what’s interesting, you are still defending the Boris Bus lie when it clearly isn’t factually or even theoretically correct.

    Not a penny of the money coming from the rebate can be spent, invested, saved or even burned ANYWHERE in the UK economy, it can’t even be sent back to the EU in return for market access… Not a single penny of that rebate money is under the control of the Treasury, government or the voters!

    Norgrove did his job with this disclaimer.

    Norgrove did his job clearly stating this is a misuse of statistics, he was very fair and very impartial with Boris, reminding the public of the truth.

    Norgrove arbitrated over the statistics, he was right.
    Boris Johnson was wrong and should apologise.

    The U.K. Spending rebate money on Brexit fiscal spending is as farcical as a United Ireland spending the Barnett subsidy on customs posts with Britain.

  • William Kinmont

    civil servants use the manipulaton too.
    Daera claim their tb test 99.9 percent specific in that only 0.1 percent of positives will be false positive. Yet each and every positive animal at test is post mortemed and examined microscopically and molecular tests ran and in only about50 percent of cases is tb actually found. Yet when the figures emerge from the statistical equasions the politically expedient answer of 99.9 percent emerges.

  • Old Mortality

    Just to be pedantic, the figure in dispute was not a statistic as such but an accounting entry. Accountants or other people who compile accounts are not usually described as statisticians. Unlike statistics, these figures are accurate apart from possible arithmetic error and they don’t tend to be subject to revision.

  • Stifler’s Mom

    Apparently the 350mil a week refers to the around 19bil we pay in every year. No EU fee, means the 350 weekly mil can be spent any where, including on the NHS. The figures change each year. Why did you laugh at that claim? Its obvious that budgets, project, etc would change each year to some degree. Its also not disputed that the UK pays in more than it gets out, so leaving would give us more of our own cash to spend at home.

    Yes, I agree that the media puts a lot of spin on things, but listing the BBC as a way to check facts is more than a little naïve. Its pretty much common knowledge that the establishment media is spinning anti UK and pro EU propaganda. No establishment or big corporate owned media can be trusted in regards to the battle between globalism and nation state nationalism.

  • Stifler’s Mom

    “Post truth” means “I can’t believe the number of people that disagree with me” , as I read somewhere. 🙂