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Statistics and Numbers

Like it or not, we’re surrounded by statistics. Car mileage consumption, acceleration rates and comparative top speeds fill advertisements and motor magazines. According to a Greek study, 47% of 2,500 adults were found to be less likely to develop heart disease when closely following a  Mediterranean diet. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are six times more likely to affect men than women. We are told that some toiletries can make skin softer with the results proven by 87% of a tiny sample of only a couple of hundred. Our teeth can become whiter and stronger with the validation and recommendation of dentists the world over citing their observed evidence.

Headaches back pain and stomach relief are guaranteed supported by the evidence of clinical test results (or so we are led to believe). We’re even excited when a drumming rabbit outperforms its rivals by 250% because it has a particular brand of battery stuffed in its back and are relieved in the knowledge that one particular lager refreshes the parts that others could not reach.

We particularly like statistics that confirm our beliefs and consequently they quickly become adopted as facts. We distrust and deny them when they don’t. So, if you want to bang the drum about teenage pregnancies in Britain, don’t look at the statistics that show a decline from 55 in every thousand in 1971 to 23 in a thousand in 2014 and that reflected a drop of 7% compared to the previous year. Don’t even mention Hull, the area that showed the biggest fall during the past 16 years.

It is generally a mistake to confuse statistics with facts. The rise in house prices is a perfect example. We hope that our homes have increased exponentially in value and often boast of the rampant growth rate. Statistics back this up: the average house price increased from £172065 in 2006 to £213927 last year, an increase of 24.3% and over the past twenty years it has increased by a whopping 230%. The reality of course is that some houses have increased far more in value, others have remained stable whilst others have actually fallen in value. It’s noticeable that parts of the country where some properties have shown serious decline in value during this period (like Sunderland, Grimsby and South Wales) are also the very parts that voted heavily to leave the EU in the recent referendum.

Harrogate was recently assessed as the happiest place to live in our region and third happiest in the country. This doesn’t mean that everyone is happy in Harrogate. In fact The Office for National Statistics reported in February that mid Sussex had the most people rating their happiness level as 9 or 10 out of 10. But that accounted for only 39.3% of people in that area. The others (in fact the majority) were considerably less happy! Maybe they should move to Harrogate!

The simple truth is that statistics don’t tell the full story (not even half a story) but are often banded around as hard fact. They often mask what is really going on either to confuse or mislead and are often employed to provide the support for all sorts of (sometimes opposite) opinions.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Mark Twain popularised the saying “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” He attributed these words to Prime Minister Disraeli but they were far more likely to have been uttered by Leonard Henry Courteney, a late Victorian economist and politician who gave a speech in 1985 in Saratoga Springs, not far from Twain’s home. He in turn may have been quoting Arthur Balfour who apparently spoke these words which were reported in The Manchester Guardian three years earlier. Whoever actually coined the phrase first should have more aptly said that there are “facts, damned facts and statistics.” Politicians and advertising may well have found it more difficult to be persuasive if they had.