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Monday, 31 July, 2000, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Counting on the figures

No one likes lies or damned lies - but the jury is still out on statistics. BBC News Online looks at the figures which aren't necessarily facts.

Comedian Vic Reeves once said 88.2% of statistics were made up on the spot. It seems even the remaining 11.8% should also be treated with caution.

America's CBS News recently provoked a storm of protest by suggesting the UK was a more dangerous place than the United States - according to crime figures... excluding murders, of course.
Police at a demonstration
"The streets are more dangerous now, ma'am, statistically speaking."

Now it seems the vagaries of reporting methods across England and Wales may mean the Home Office's already gloomy figures could be 20% below the actual number of crimes.

Does this mean there are more crimes? Are we merely keener to report incidents? Or has our definition of what constitutes a crime widened?

Statistics, as the saying goes, can be used to prove anything - an adage not lost on politicians, journalists and campaigners.

David Murray, director of the Washington-based Statistical Assessment Service, says we hunt out figures to "back up" our point of view because it is generally believed that numbers don't lie.

The power of numbers

"Their central power is to give the illusion of reality manifest, that the real world speaks to us through the numbers. They have implicit authority and are dispassionately beyond our control."

Mr Murray says, if collected honestly, statistics can be incredibly useful in helping us understand the world around us and formulate policies to ease the problems they identify.
Nurse takes a patient's pulse and temperature
Statistics are "society's medical chart"

"When a doctor inspects a patient, they look at their chart - the record of their temperature or blood pressure - to help them diagnose and then cure the illness."

However, as the Home Office crime figures have shown, great care has to be taken that the right indicators are being monitored.

"Do you have your thermometer in the right orifice? There's no way of guaranteeing that," says Mr Murray.

Business leaders in Japan despair that government statisticians will ever find the pulse of the Asian nation's still ailing economy.

Slippery figures

The International Monetary Fund fears few outside Japan's Economic Planning Agency understand on what basis growth figures are calculated, making it difficult for industry to plan its investments.

Figures for unemployment, spending and debt have also been criticised by economists.
Japan's stock market
"Up, down, make up your mind!"

Playing fast and loose with statistics can earn a government nothing but scorn.

The Conservative administration came under intense fire in the 1980s and 1990s for changing the way UK unemployment figures were calculated, and thus cutting the number of people officially on the dole.

Simon Briscoe, statistics editor at the Financial Times, says inaccurate data can even fox ministers.

Poor forecast

Lacking information on the extent of the economic boom of the Thatcher years, the Chancellor Nigel Lawson failed to foresee the coming recession.

"Lawson said in his autobiography that had he had accurate statistics, he would not have cut interest rates and taxes in the way he did."
Former chancellor Nigel Lawson
Memo: Must check those figures again

Mr Briscoe says much money has been spent bringing the department now called National Statistics up to scratch. The body is now ranked among the best in the world, according to an Economist survey.

However, accurate figures by themselves are not enough. Our desire to compare and contrast sets of statistics can often lead us onto dangerous ground.

School and hospital league tables have been criticised for not offering a true picture of the state of our education and health system.

Compare and contrast

Professor Peter Moore, former president of the Royal Statistical Society, says figures have to be carefully harvested if they are to be directly compared to one another.

"It's well known that making international comparisons is difficult. If you look at death rates in France and the UK they're relatively 'correct'. People die, that's definite."
Graves
Death is one of the few certainties in statistics

Unlike "death", words like "crime" have differing definitions even within a country, as the Home Office figures have shown.

So if statistics are really so treacherous and so complex, why is the public constantly bombarded with them?

Mr Murray says politicians seek out stark statistics to endorse their opinions, draw a line under an issue or embarrass an opponent.

Journalists are equally eager to concentrate on eye-popping figures, knowing they make the most striking stories.

"They want numbers which are definite, clear and certain and which suggest danger - that's what sells papers."

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See also:

31 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Crime rate 'could be 20% higher'
29 Jun 00 | UK
Tea and infamy
17 May 00 | Business
Unemployment reaches 20-year low
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