Here is the full text and summary of data journalist Mona Chalabi’s talk titled “3 Ways to Spot a Bad Statistic”.
I’m going to be talking about statistics today. If that makes you immediately feel a little bit wary, that’s OK, that doesn’t make you some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist, it makes you skeptical.
And when it comes to numbers, especially now, you should be skeptical. But you should also be able to tell which numbers are reliable and which ones aren’t. So today I want to try to give you some tools to be able to do that. But before I do, I just want to clarify which numbers I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about claims like, “9 out of 10 women recommend this anti-aging cream.”
I think a lot of us always roll our eyes at numbers like that. What’s different now is people are questioning statistics like, “The US unemployment rate is five percent.” What makes this claim different is it doesn’t come from a private company, it comes from the government. About 4 out of 10 Americans distrust the economic data that gets reported by government. Among supporters of President Trump it’s even higher; it’s about 7 out of 10.
I don’t need to tell anyone here that there are a lot of dividing lines in our society right now, and a lot of them start to make sense, once you understand people’s relationships with these government numbers. On the one hand, there are those who say these statistics are crucial, that we need them to make sense of society as a whole in order to move beyond emotional anecdotes and measure progress in an objective way.
And then there are the others, who say that these statistics are elitist, maybe even rigged; they don’t make sense and they don’t really reflect what’s happening in people’s everyday lives. It kind of feels like that second group is winning the argument right now. We’re living in a world of alternative facts, where people don’t find statistics this kind of common ground, this starting point for debate.