Safety in Numbers: Lies, damned lies and statistics?

Numbers are everywhere. They are the best way to quantify the world around us – from gauging how warm our environment is to helping us figure out whether to buy the Philips HR1867/21 Viva Collection Quick Clean Juicer or the Morphy Richards 48415 Easy Blend.

(As an aside, the Philips blender has an average score of 4.3 out of 5 on Amazon, compared to Morphy Richards’ 3.6, although at more than six times the price it is up to the buyer to decide which set of numbers mean more to them.)

Similarly, statistics are an important element of PR and when you look, you realise that they are, indeed, all around. They help us understand the world we live in (the United States’ military budget is more than the next nine highest-spending countries combined) and help put things into perspective (you’re ninety times more likely to be killed falling out of bed than by a shark).

All of the above statistics are examples of how statistics are essentially a numerical illustration of the world around us, whether they are advising us on our purchasing decisions, shaping our outlook on the world or allaying (or exacerbating) phobias.

However, as good as numbers are at quantifying a subject, it is just as important that the numbers themselves are qualified; they can sometimes be massaged (or in extreme cases shoehorned) to support a particular viewpoint – because what is more believable than hard numbers?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is hard reliable numbers.

Earlier this month, a major UK newspaper famed for its Euroscepticism proclaimed that 92% of Brits wanted to quit the EU – a remarkably conclusive result if the survey was to be believed. However, as the article went on to boast that the findings were the result of an “exclusive online poll” for the newspaper, the headline went on to receive criticism across the web owing to the self-selecting nature of its audience.

This is one of the most important – yet overlooked – factors that impact statistics. As Arsenal manager and part-time philosopher Arsène Wenger once said; “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home”. As such, the fans of a football club will inevitably predict their club’s success and readers of Eurosceptic newspapers will inevitably back a Brexit.

While good, reliable statistics can open people’s minds and present a situation in a different light, skewed or unreliable statistics can have the opposite effect – and often result in the discrediting of not only the publisher but of the publisher’s viewpoint too.

Whether you are the researcher or the reader, it is important to question where the figures you are looking at come from, what position the person or body reporting them has and what impact the figures are likely to have. Research is a powerful tool in an age where both attention spans and character counts are limited, but good research supports an agenda and not the other way round.

So if you’re looking for accurate insight it might be clever to steer clear from asking questions when you’ve already dictated the answer.

Chris is the Head of Research at Citigate Dewe Rogerson. You can follow him on Twitter

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