The rise of statistics has led to many benefits in everyday life: we use statistics in medical research to determine what the best treatment; they inform decisions from stock markets through to how many pop tarts Walmart stocks; and, perhaps most significantly, statistics shape decisions made by modern governments such as which levels of taxation are required to meet spending demands and stimulate the economy.
The kind of Brexit the UK government should seek has been thrust into the spotlight with the leaking of the statistical models produced by the civil service. These suggest that all forms of Brexit would harm the UK economy and the UK must have as close a relationship with the EU to save it from the worst of these consequences. Several individuals and groups have lined up to criticise the work as misleading and politically motivated, including one of the government’s own Brexit ministers. Recently there’s been a growing backlash against statistics, at first from the public, and now, more worryingly, from politicians. However, this is the fault of politicians themselves.
Politicians of all stripes hide behind misleading statistic after misleading statistic to justify their policy positions. This can be most evidently seen at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) every week. During PMQs on the 25th of January this year the Prime Minister trotted out the following statistic in relation to A&E services: “In England 497 people were waiting more than 12 hours, but the latest figures also show that, under the Labour Government in Wales, 3,741 people were waiting more than 12 hours.” What the Prime Minister failed to mention was that these figures aren’t even comparable. In England, the clock starts only once a patient has had an initial assessment by a doctor, while in Wales the clock starts the moment someone walks through the door in A&E. The intentional misuse of statistics such as this causes several problems.
“Misuse of statistics erodes the public’s faith, not just in politics, but in other areas of life too”
At PMQs, neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition spend any time answering questions. All that appears to happen is Corbyn throws a question wrapped up with some statistic at Teresa May, which she will entirely fail to answer, instead retorting with contradictory and apparently equally truthful information. This does nothing to get to the nub of the issue or inform the public, leading to poor governance and poor policy; flaws and criticisms are not given the careful consideration needed to ensure the best outcome as politicians swat away any issue with the use of a few facts and figures. This undermines the role of Parliament and the crucial work it must do in holding the government and the executive to account.
This behaviour erodes away the public’s faith in statistics, which has ramifications, not just in politics but other parts of life too. There has been a push back against “experts” which has been seen in the vote for Brexit, Trump, and even in medicine, where experts have been portrayed as out of touch and callous. Cases such as Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, which has itself spawned “the Alfie Army” to help fight off the nasty clinicians who are apparently out to kill Alfie, are indicative of this trend. The rise of alternative therapies, such as homeopathy and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, fits with the pattern. When the veracity of fact has been abused so abundantly it becomes increasingly easier for fringe groups to release information that is intentionally misleading or “fake news”, as the ability to decipher the truth from fiction has already been undermined by the mainstream media and politicians. This sorry state of affairs is epitomized by tools such Channel 4’s FactCheck, which nobly attempts to explain the truth behind some of the statistics politicians and others use. Its utility and existence highlight the fact that statistics are now unfortunately often half-truths, mis-truths or entirely untrue.
Perhaps statistics should be taken out of politics altogether. They very rarely appear to inform the debate, but are rather utilized as a smokescreen to deceive the public. Statistics should be used to inform government policy rather than be manipulated and misrepresented to justify poor policy after the fact. Politics devoid of statistics would see politicians make decisions based off of what they believed to be right by moral principle rather than what might garner them more support at the polls according to their spin doctors and focus groups. Ideally politicians should utilise all the information at hand to make the decisions they see fit. The honest use of statistics would lead to better outcomes for government, allowing it to react and develop policy to clearly tackle the real challenges the UK faces. The government and politicians could lead from the front, demonstrating the good work facts and figures can and should do. They could roll back the tide of “fake news” and the war against experts. Unfortunately, politicians appear unable to do this. If they left statistics alone the purity of fact would be restored for the rest of us to enjoy and prosper from.