Thursday, 18 October 2012

Statistics - constructed, as well as complicated

So the other day I had to admit to rushing to judgement over a single statistic - the number of 'mature' cod in the North Sea.

It just went to show how complicated statistics can be.

But they're more than complicated: they're also highly mediated social constructs, that can obscure as much as they explain - but can also reveal much, much more than the 'topline' number you're looking at.

Take two examples. As the US Presidential race stands today, it looks like a dead heat - unless you look at the Gallup tracking poll, which shows Mitt Romney - the Republican nominee - racing away towards the finishing line. Take a look below the bonnet, though, and you note two things: in this national poll, Mr Romney is doing very, very well in the South, piling up votes where he may not need them, and that Gallup is imposing a very powerful 'likely voter screen'. This may be having the effect of screening out Democrats - who despite their 'well, Obama's not bad, but I don't like x, y and z he's done' attitude, may well end up attending the polls after all.

Conclusions? This thing's very, very tight in the Mountain West and the Mid-West. And it will all hinge on whether left-leaning or liberal Americans actually vote for the President. If they don't show up, he's toast.

The British Government is also learning about the complexity of numbers today. The Prime Minister having announced that 'electricity providers will have to put everyone on their best tariff'. He clearly hadn't thought before he opened his mouth, however, because what's the 'best' tariff anyway? What if your habits change? And what if energy providers then just change all their cost schemes - putting everyone on a mediocre one? Clearly a web-based account wouldn't be much good for my internet-allergic mother, but it might be good for you. Numbers, numbers, numbers - a critical part of statecraft that busy and anxious political commentators and Ministers often overlook.

Two of the main news stories today - neatly tied up for you. You lucky people.