Numbers in a spin

June 2, 2009

Tom Whipple
294 words
19 December 2008
The Times
(c) 2008 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Most of the time the Government manifests its disdain for the awkward rigours of statistics by cherry-picking positive data or rubbishing negative data. Sometimes, however, circumstances call for a more spectacular gesture. This month the Royal Statistical Society achieved a small victory in ensuring that statistics remain independent from politics.

As of December 1, the Government is forbidden from receiving pre-release copies of statistical publications more than 24 hours in advance — previously it had five days’ notice. It’s probably not a matter of life and death, and it doesn’t go far enough, but this is a good thing. Statistics should be like the weather: irrefutable facts about the world outside. Give a Government spin-doctor a five-day start and anything can happen. Suddenly the sky is always blue and winter storms come from a butterfly flapping its wings in an opposition constituency.

So what happened? Did the Government sneak a report out 25 hours in advance? Did it hold a succession of five-day nostalgic pre-release parties starting on November 25? No. It got its hands on, and released, statistics that were not due for publication for three months — from a report that was not even completed.

The UK Statistics Authority has rarely been so strident. Jacqui Smith’s release of figures showing an apparent fall in some hospital admissions linked to knife crime was “premature”. The data were “irregular and selective”. The Home Secretary apologised but no one explained how the report was received.

Actions such as this undermine statisticians and destroy people’s faith in numbers. And, when it comes to evaluating knife crime policy, that may just be a matter of life and death after all.


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