Tuesday, 27 December 2011

An obsession with statistics

is not one of my many faults - and I have many.
I do not like statistics. I first came across them at school. There I questioned some of the numbers given to us in subjects like history and science. I wanted to know "how can you know that?" It did not make me popular. You were, I was told, required to accept that as "right". I never did.
Then there were statistics in teacher training. We were told things like "X%" this and "Y%" that would do such and such or be such and such. I suspect most of my fellow students ignored the information. A few of us wondered how they obtained such figures.
When I went on to university there were serious statistics. Statistics were a compulsory part of my courses. There was a "Professor of Statistics" at my institution. He was an earnest and pleasant man who spent time playing with an outsize and delicate computer or consulting the senior lecturer of statistics in the department of psychology. That they manipulated statistics to suit themselves I did not doubt. One (never to be forgotten) day I heard them discussing how to do this in the departmental canteen.
I had to do a course in statistics. I had to learn about things like probablity and ANOVAs and ANCOVAs and Chi and other things I have long since forgotten. We even did a short course in computer programming. I struggled through that and promptly forgot it all. I even managed to do all the necessary statistics for my thesis - and justify the results.
Since then I have done other statistics for other research. A paper full of statistics seems to keep other people happy - at least in some areas of academia. I remember once having to explain what a "bell curve" was to one of the law school staff. She went off and came back with another member of staff and asked me to explain it all over again. I tried to do it in legal terms - "on the balance of probabilities" and "beyond all reasonable doubt". They were bemused that anyone should take numbers as "evidence" when they related to the behaviour of human beings. I do not blame them.
But statistics are also beloved by public and civil servants. In almost any government report there will be graphs and charts and pie-charts and diagrams and other statistics. There is a whole Bureau of Statistics here in Australia - and other similar departments in every country you can think of. There is an obsession with numbers. They are, people keep telling me, used for "planning" - and other things.
Yesterday I got around to doing a very small piece of work for someone who works in a government department. It had arrived last week and I know the answer is needed for a meeting in early January. There were three questions they need to have an answer to. All of those were perfectly reasonable questions and I was willing to supply the answers. Attached to those however was a form "to be filled out by the person supplying the answers". It ran to two pages. My name, contact details and qualifications for supplying the answers are on the previous form. They do not need any further information. I have e-mailed the first form back and ignored the second.
It will be interesting to see if they can "plan" without all the extra information - or whether they will ask me to satisfy their obsession with statistics.


Miriam said...

I never liked statistics, but I did like computer programming. I'm reminded of that well-known quotation, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," often attributed to Disraeli but also to others. I wonder what the probability is that Disraeli said it. But I'm not going to calculate it!

widdershins said...

You do realise that this could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and the whole global bureaucracy will crumble into a heap at your feet!

catdownunder said...

Now that might be a good thing - the rest of us could get on with the job.