The Reason Behind Shaky Statistics

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When answering survey questions, do you tell the truth?

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Moveed The Reason Behind Shaky Statistics

Post by Mystical Bubble on Sat Jun 06, 2009 12:21 am

The old complaint that there are lies, damned lies and statistics blames the bean counter, the supposed stubby-pencilled bureaucrat who gathers the data, or the slick vote-grabber who mangles the results for a shifty cause.

But who started it? The answer - sorry folks - is YOU. Want to know who introduces half the junk into junk stats? Look in the mirror!

Everything from immigration stats to unemployment, retail sales surveys or earnings to what the nation tunes to on the radio or how old you are and the illegal drugs that teenagers take. Everything is a LIE!

Of course, no respectable professional who appreciates the value of accurate information would put a spanner in the data. Think so? Then think of doctors in the health service asked by an e-mail survey how old they were.

Simple? Too simple, thought the docs, as they typed into the date-of-birth field the don't-waste-my-time digits 00/00/00. Wise to this possibility, the system was set up to reject it. So the docs typed 11/11/11 instead, as in "born on the 11th November 1911". Hence the discovery of huge numbers of medical staff in the NHS aged over 90. Rubbish in, rubbish out. (Thanks to Professor David Hand for that story).

Bluntly then, it's your fault too, when stats go wrong, after all's said, done, aggregated and analysed and the numbers still spout rubbish.

The blame starts here. The serious point is that it's easy to treat data as if it falls into our laps and that only then can people do underhand things with it. As the writer Joel Best points out, it's people who count, and what they mostly count is other people. If you want to know some of the most curious problems with data, start not with the technicalities but by asking: "what am I like?"

Perhaps the surprise is that none of this makes official data worthless. Those trusted with collecting facts weren't born yesterday. They know the wheezes we get up to. They typically allow margins of error, take special care when people self-report their behaviour and try to keep them honest by cross-checks, confidentiality and the like.

They work hard to understand when and how people's answers can be unreliable and often find ways of filtering out some of the rubbish. But it's a question to ask whenever you see data, official or otherwise, the result of the numerous surveys and samples on which our knowledge of our country depends: "Honestly?"

Source: BBC News

Mystical Bubble
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