New group aims to detect misuse of statistics by government and mediaBMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b2469 (Published 18 June 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2469
A new group that aims to detect and highlight the misuse of statistics was launched on 18 June to help promote the public’s confidence in statistical information.
Straight Statistics, which is supported by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, will encourage the appropriate use of statistical data by a range of establishments, including the government and the media. It will report its findings on its website (www.straightstatistics.org) and promote its work through reports and conferences.
Together with the charity Sense about Science, which promotes good science among the public, the group is also producing a booklet, Making Sense of Statistics, which will be available in September. It is also supporting the establishment of an all party parliamentary group on statistics.
Nigel Hawkes, director of Straight Statistics, said that the group “grew out of a conviction that statistics are often misused and that public confidence in them is low.” He says that this topic has largely been neglected in the past and is determined that greater attention be paid to the misuse of statistics.
“The worst abuses appear to be in government departments,” said Mr Hawkes. “The same figures are used by one group and ignored by others.”
The misuse of statistics in this context has the potential to “have quite a bit of impact,” he added. Mr Hawkes, a freelance journalist who writes for the BMJ, Times, and Sunday Times, previously believed the worst offenders to be newspapers but has since found that there is “not a huge amount of evidence” for statistical misuse by journalists.
It is not just the misuse of statistics that the group will target. “There are areas where there are no decent statistics at all, for example house prices,” Mr Hawkes said. He hopes that Straight Statistics will be able to push for a new generation of statistics in these areas.
The group is keen, however, that Straight Statistics will “not be a completely negative influence,” said Mr Hawkes, and the group plans to applaud forums where statistics are used well.
Chaired by the Labour peer David Lipsey, Straight Statistics will be run by a board of directors comprising legislators, statisticians, and journalists, including Simon Briscoe, statistics editor at the Financial Times, and the journalist Ben Goldacre, who was awarded the Royal Statistical Society’s first award for statistical excellence in journalism.
The Nuffield Foundation, a charitable trust established in 1943, will fund the project for two years. Sharon Witherspoon, the foundation’s deputy director, is positive about the launch of Straight Statistics.
She said, “We hope this group will do for public statistics what some of the science blogs do for science: foment a lively discussion about the wider use and abuse of statistics and, in doing so, help make people think more about the issues involved.”
Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2469