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  • We're surrounded by statistical claims,

  • whether it's a striking graph going viral on social media,

  • a politician claiming that life has gotten 62% better

  • while they've been in office,

  • or just something everyday, like a piece of economic data,

  • the numbers are everywhere.

  • So what should we think about them?

  • Here's one approach -

  • don't trust any of them.

  • Mutter something about

  • lies, damned lies and statistics.

  • Or joke that 98% of statistics are made up on the spot.

  • That seems smart.

  • After all, nobody likes to be taken for a fool.

  • But we can't just reject all statistics equally.

  • Statistics can show us things about the world

  • that we can't perceive in any other way.

  • Instead, we have to exert a bit of brain power

  • to figure out what is true and what is not.

  • That sounds hard, but perhaps it's not as hard as you might think.

  • So here are three easy rules

  • to make statistics add up -

  • the three Cs of data wisdom.

  • First, be calm.

  • Most statistics come packaged up with emotional baggage.

  • They're supposed to make us angry or joyful or afraid.

  • Staggering deficits, shocking rates of crime,

  • inspiring sums raised for good causes.

  • These emotions are why numbers go viral on social media,

  • the reason they end up in the headlines.

  • There's nothing wrong with feeling emotions,

  • but they don't help us think clearly.

  • So before you share a claim that has you hot under the collar,

  • take a moment to notice your instinctive reaction -

  • from rage, to denial, to vindication.

  • Once you've noticed it, look at the statistic again.

  • It may seem different now.

  • Second, get context.

  • For example, when the UK Health Secretary said in 2020

  • that the NHS would save £100 million over five years

  • if everyone who was overweight lost a few pounds.

  • What should we make of that claim?

  • What does he mean by overweight, for example?

  • And what evidence does he have to support this claim?

  • But the most important piece of context

  • is simply to understand whether £100 million is a big number.

  • It sounds big.

  • But there are 67 million people in the UK,

  • so £100 million is just £1.50 each.

  • You can figure that out on your phone.

  • Now remember that £1.50 each

  • was spread across five years.

  • So that's 30 pence

  • per person, per year.

  • The Health Secretary then said

  • that if every overweight person lost some weight,

  • the NHS would save the equivalent of 30 pence per UK resident per year.

  • Not a lot.

  • Statistics can be a very complex subject,

  • but you can get a long way with simple questions about context.

  • What's being measured here?

  • Is it going up or going down?

  • Is it big or small?

  • What's the source of the claim?

  • You don't need a lot of fancy maths, just a search engine,

  • the back of an envelope, and a curious mind.

  • Which brings me to the third important principle - be curious.

  • When we use a number as a weapon in an argument,

  • or a prop for our preconceptions,

  • we learn nothing.

  • Instead we should think about statistics

  • as a tool to understand the world,

  • like a telescope for an astronomer.

  • Ask yourself what a statistical claim

  • is really telling you about the world

  • and what questions it inspires.

  • Of course we don't have time to do all this for every claim we see,

  • so a final habit is to ask yourself whether the source

  • of a statistical claim is respecting the three Cs.

  • A good journalist will help you be calm, will give you context,

  • and will feed your curiosity.

  • A viral 'gotcha' circulating on Twitter or WhatsApp

  • will often do the opposite.

  • We shouldn't just accept statistics unthinkingly,

  • but neither should we dismiss them without thinking either.

  • Three simple habits - be calm, get context, and be curious -

  • can help the world add up.

We're surrounded by statistical claims,

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When can you trust statistics? | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2021/06/17
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