As China gears up to celebrate the Year of the Snake, in the rest of the world, 2013: The International Year of Statistics has already begun. More than 150 professional organisations worldwide will be celebrating the power of numbers this year, and with a series of data-driven stories hitting the news regularly throughout 2012, it couldn't come at a more appropriate time.
Society is becoming more and more data-focused, as the exponential growth of information that has accompanied technological progress shows no sign of abating. So-called ‘Big Data’; collections of scientific, behavioural or social data almost mind-boggling in scale, provide huge opportunities for developing the store of human knowledge. However, making sense of these data provides greater and greater challenges. C. Wright Mills warned in 1959 of the scale of information overwhelming society’s capacities to assimilate it. This has never been more true than of the current age.
This is where the role of statistics comes in, not just as a series of figures or measurements, but as an active process of interpretation of data in order to generate understanding of the world. Old saws about lies and damn lies are becoming outdated as the power of stats has become more widely recognised in a variety of fields, from health to politics to sport.
It is fitting that the Year of Statistics comes in the wake of an American presidential election where a statistician emerged with more credit than either of the candidates. Nate Silver’s evidence-focused approach challenged established assumptions and proved a powerful reminder of the advantages that smart use of statistical analysis can confer. It is also indicative that Silver started in baseball, as sport is undergoing a particularly prominent statistical revolution. In football, companies such as Opta and writers such as Michael Cox and Stefan Szymanski are changing how people think about the game.
What holds for electoral campaigns and football teams holds for policymakers too. Properly collected and appropriately analysed statistics can offer a competitive advantage to government, from the appropriate deployment of police officers, to prioritisation of health resources and programmes for increasing standards in education. Ben Goldacre, for example, has done much recent work promoting the use of randomised controlled trials in public policy, as the development of evidence-based policy has continued apace.
However, with great (statistical) power, comes great responsibility. Statistical analysis and figures are unfortunately often subject to misinterpretation and outright manipulation.So it is essential to always look beyond the numbers to discern their validity and meaning. One of stats’ great assets is its understanding of uncertainty, in recognising its own limitations. However these limitations are sometimes misunderstood by those not well-versed in its methods.
In recent years, figures from our own survey on Smoking, Drinking and Drugs in school were notoriously misinterpreted in the press, causing moral panic about an increase in teenage cocaine use that was largely non-existent. However, a welcome recent development is the growth of organisations holding government and the media to account over misleading numbers, such as Straight Statistics and Full Fact.
The International Year of Statistics provides a high-profile opportunity to improve public understanding of statistics. Both policymakers and the general public have much to gain from a more savvy approach to interpreting stats - it is an opportunity to be grasped.