Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Better numbers and better language, please


This blog has pronounced again and again about governments' misuse of statistics. Politicians splurge numbers, and the promise of data, all over the place - and they're usually wrong, or at best muddle-headed.

Two more examples are obvious today - the prospect of 'baseline' tests for five year old children entering primary schools in England, so as to 'assess' and 'test' how well the Government's pupil premium for poorer children is working. That's an entirely misguided intention, and yet another example of just how addicted to top-down targeting, 'measuring', and ultimately misunderstanding, the very complex nature of economic and social change. Though at least it exhibits an understandable desire to know more - to try to count and test the changes that are wrought with taxpayer's money. It won't show anything of the sort, for reasons we've discussed here before. But at least we can all understand why it's happening.

On another front, there's been a much more disreputable use of numbers. The figure of '13,000 extra deaths' in 14 under-performing NHS hospitals has been leaked, apparently by Ministers or civil servants, in order to discredit the previous administration - and, just possibly, the whole concept of a single National Health Service itself. The actual official report which was supposed to contain that figure says nothing of the sort, and indeed its author has condemned any such concept as wholly misleading. But that hasn't stopped the lie getting its boots on and traveling around the world much faster than the truth.

So much for numbers. But there's also another need - to use our language, our words and concepts, more carefully than we do. Take the recent Ashes cricket Test between England and Australia at Trent Bridge in Nottingham (above). It was tense. It was gripping (if you like cricket). It was close. But the word 'epic' was wheeled out. Was it really 'epic'? What word would we use, then, if we wanted to ratchet up our rhetoric and describe, say, the Battle of Kursk, at which hundreds and hundreds of German and Soviet tanks faced each other in one of the most decisive moments of the Second World War? Or D-Day, which say thousands of ships carry an invasion armada across to France in 1944? Or (on a political front), the Watergate scandal, which ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon after a long and stirring confrontation with Congress and the press.

We need to mind our numbers. But we need to mind our language as well.

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