However big the data, number-crunching can’t be the only guide to solving our problems

Yesterday, I gave some thoughts prompted by the Guardian editorial giving their view on statistics in politics.

A glance at my Twitter feed is enough to show that the editorial has excited a few statisticians – and perhaps not in a good way.

My reading of their editorial leaves me puzzled as to why it is causing such concern.

As far as I can tell the most contentious words are these:

  1. “But in reality, while the 2015 election will certainly be the most fact-blitzed in history, fact-led pragmatism has not arrived. Instead, the coming campaign will be yah-boo with numerical knobs on.”
  2. “The abundance of data does nothing to dull the motive to abuse numbers, and may actually increase the opportunity. But there are also deeper problems with figure-fuelled discourses, even when there is no intention to deceive, as Thursday’s controversy about school league tables showed.”
  3. “The project of replacing a clash of ideas with a policy calculus was always dubious. Anyone still hankering for it should admit their number’s up.”

Well, (1) is certainly true, otherwise The ConversationChannel 4 Fact CheckFull FactAsk For Evidence and others wouldn’t be in business.

The first part of (2) is pessimistic but fair enough. The second part leads into a discussion of the complexities of generating school league tables that are meaningful and accessibly so. The problems of league tables got a good airing in “Measuring Success: League Tables in the Public Sector“.

As for (3), well what’s it saying?

Is it a view that we shouldn’t hope too hard for technocratic solutions (via data and statistics) to the world’s legislative and governmental problems?

Or is it saying that human nature is such that – even with statistical education – ‘baser’ instincts will take over in politics?

Neither of these says that we should abandon the use of numbers in debate. That would be a bit odd from a media outlet that has won awards from none other than the Royal Statistical Society for its work with data.

What I would like to think it’s really trying to say is that there is a place for something beyond crunching the numbers in political debate – for ideology, ethics, religious belief, morals, philosophy or whatever you might call it.

Or as sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in 1963, (my emboldening): “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

PS Don’t let that stop you improving your stats skills in communication! Contact me for information on workshops and consultancy.

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