UK: WHY NOT FIGURE IT OUT FOR YOURSELF? - When statistic-gathering was just one of those eccentric little customs, no one had to take it seriously. Odd man out Peter Morton reckons things have changed for the worse.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When statistic-gathering was just one of those eccentric little customs, no one had to take it seriously. Odd man out Peter Morton reckons things have changed for the worse.

There are some people who are rather keen on statistics. Then again, there are quite a few of us who aren't quite so keen on them and a sizeable chunk of folk who aren't keen on them at all.

Of course, if you are one of those people who are rather keen on statistics, this might seem a rather woolly way of looking at things. In which case you might (95% probability) prefer to arrange for a survey of a statistically representative sample of the public which could bash out some hard facts on just how society views statistics.

Then with a bit of luck - and the right set of questions - you might even (100% probability) end up with the sort of hard facts you wanted. Of those questioned 59.3% would describe themselves as 'keen or very keen' on having a decent set of statistics around the place; 26.1% would agree that statistics could 'play a positive role in raising standards'; and a bewildered 14.4% would end up saying that they 'would like more information on how statistics could improve public services' - even though what they were actually thinking was that statistics are a 100% waste of time.

In fact there is an increasingly sharp and acrimonious split developing in British public life between those who believe in statistics and those who don't - or the people who live in the real world, as the latter sometimes refer to themselves.

In more tolerant times belief or doubt in statistics was largely held to be a personal matter. Certain members of the Establishment, namely chancellors of the exchequer, were officially supposed to believe in them - although it was widely understood that, when they were among friends, they were sceptical.

At the same time many millions of individuals did believe and, indeed, collected stocks of statistics for their own private use. Goals scored by left-footed wing-halfs in FA Cup Finals were carefully noted, the average numbers of grunts per game in the Ladies Final of the Wimbledon tennis championships were quietly calculated and unlikely bets in public houses were duly made. In short, statistics were one of those eccentric little customs, like watching Coronation Street on television, which could bring together the strangest of bedfellows.

In the 1990s sadly all that has changed. Forget the age of the oldest player to represent England in a cricket test match with Australia, the hottest temperature recorded in central London and the rainfall of the wettest Wimbledon. Forget who has won the League two years in succession and the intriguing fact that no Northern Ireland footballer has ever scored more than three goals in an international match.

Today's statistics are about agreed performance levels and exact measures of success. 'Action-oriented' goals and milestones have replaced records of hat-tricks. The league tables are now for the most A level passes, the cheapest hip-joint operations, and the speediest legal trials.

As a result, the Government promises us we will soon see a better educated, healthier and more rapidly convicted populace. This innocuous little presumption has managed to enrage both the traditional British statistician and the professional classes in a way which is quite without precedent.

For the traditionalist, it is the idea that anything should actually happen as a result of gathering the statistics that has come as a shock. Nobody has ever expected England to win the Ashes through an inspection of the batting averages - in fact nobody expects England to win the Ashes at all.

Even more to the point, we have had statistics about the weather for over 200 years without anybody actually doing anything about getting more sunny days. Government itself has been collecting statistics on the competitive advantage of German industry for over 100 years without any very obvious action being taken.

In contrast, for the professional, it is the sheer pointlessness of the statistics gathering which has caused trouble. Nobody needs a national exam, they say, to tell you that Class 5D, Sinkschool Comprehensive are functionally illiterate and incapable of adding up - never mind calculating that they are in the bottom 5% on the appreciation of Shakespeare table.

And nobody needs an internal market and an army of accountants to tell you that operating on someone's ingrowing toenail is going to cost a bit more in Bart's Hospital in the centre of London than Spart's Hospital on the outskirts of town. And nobody needs a Royal Commission to find out that justice delayed is justice denied, for anything up to four years, each and every day in courts up and down the land.

Or, as the Irishman so wisely said, 'You don't fatten a pig by weighing it'. Of course, you're unlikely to fatten a pig by not weighing it either. I wonder if anyone anywhere has got statistics on which of these options is most likely to produce the fattest pigs. It could probably be quite (say 50%) significant.

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