Member Article

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics – How to de-weaponise data

It was pleasing to see, after many years of austerity, that the Government increased spending on education in the Autumn Budget.

Prioritising education is I believe fundamental to addressing many of the long-term, structural issues and imbalances in society, and will over time inevitably improve some of the regional disparities we see in terms of educational achievement and opportunity.

For many decades politicians of all sides have pledged to invest in our country’s collective future - remember Tony Blair’s promise 20 years ago to fund a revolution in ‘Education, Education, Education’? Despite such good intentions the harsh truth is that too many people in our society still lack basic numeracy and literacy skills.

A good basic education is essential on so many levels and, now that the Government has decided not to fund the new Northern Powerhouse railway, it surely must be the cornerstone of the North-South levelling-up agenda.

More fundamentally though, in an age of increasingly polarised discourse and where we see data - everything from Covid infection rates to unemployment figures - being weaponised, particularly on social media, society needs the ability to understand fact from fiction.

As traditional media becomes less popular, especially among young people who rely on Twitter and influencers on YouTube for their news, fake news has unfortunately begun to spread like a contagion.

Education can provide an essential counterbalance, giving more people the ability to fully understand, and in some cases rightly question, the figures and statistics published by those in power, or worst still, misconstrued or twisted and then shared on social media.

One recent instance on Twitter shone a light on the frankly alarming numerical illiteracy in the wider population.

Although the social media musings of the 1990s pop singer Richard Fairbrass – of Right Said Fred fame – don’t usually feature highly on my news radar, it was his Twitter comment on a news story about Long Covid that illustrates so well why education standards have to be improved.

After sharing a factually accurate news article which stated: ‘Adults who are fully vaccinated are 47% less likely to have long Covid should they contract Covid-19, a new study says,’ Fairbrass commented: “So 53% more likely? That’s not impressive’!

Fortunately the more enlightened of the Twitterati –including former footballers and musicians - were quick to point out that his statement was utter nonsense.

The very fact that someone should think in such a muddled fashion, and then share it to more than 70,000 social media followers, was deeply alarming and speaks volumes for our nation’s poor educational standards.

Despite the planned increase in spending on education, we cannot rest on our collective laurels - the Learning and Work Institute predicts that the UK will fall four places in global literacy tables and three places in numeracy tables by 2030! Its study from 2019 shows that despite the proportion of adults with at least level 2 (GCSE, or functional skills) proficiency rising from 83 per cent to 85 per cent in literacy, and in numeracy from 75 per cent to 77 per cent, the UK would fall from 10th to 14th in literacy and from 11th to 14th in numeracy, out of 17 OECD countries. Since then, we’ve had the pandemic, which has impacted many younger children’s education terribly as a result of mass school closures and digital exclusion. Against such a backdrop, early years literacy and numeracy has to be a priority. Long term investment in better education and skills will have multiple economic benefits – higher wages, more innovation, better productivity – and also improve democratic accountability too. If many people are not as numerate as we’d like them to be, and their ability to comprehend statistics reported by the media is frankly hit and miss, then fake news will only continue to blight society, increasing divisions, and sometimes fuelling hate.

But if we do succeed in getting people skilled up and better able to understand whether the numbers they are told by politicians or the media smell right, then when they go to the ballot box, they will be better informed and therefore better able to select our leaders, which has to be a positive.

A recent article on the Forbes news website struck a chord with me. In it the author makes an effective case for there to be what he describes as a ‘new narrative for data storytelling’.

The crux of his argument is that amid a deluge of data, we as consumers need to be able to see the wood from the trees.

To go beyond data dashboards and lines of numbers people need to be able use their own cognitive skills – in other words their brains - to see the full picture of what the data is telling us.

However, it’s clear to me that for the general population to be able to do this instinctively, basic standards of education must be significantly improved.

As part of the data science sector, we at Impact Data Metrics know we have a responsibility too. We are driven every day to deliver compelling, user-friendly evidence-based data solutions to our clients to help them make the right decisions in property and economic development, healthcare and research & innovation.

By Geoff Wainwright, Impact Data Metrics

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Elliott Ward .

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