Questionable statistics put out by advertisers and pressure groups show that Disraeli’s famous maxim is as true today as it ever was
The aphorism that there are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics – is so true, so timeless, that it ought to have been penned by Shakespeare or perhaps be in the Book of Proverbs. It is at one with “to err is human, to forgive divine” or “as a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly”. It is therefore disappointing to discover that we owe the coinage to a politician, albeit a giant compared with the dwarfs of today: Benjamin Disraeli.
If the man who both climbed to the top of the greasy poll and applied flattery to his monarch with a trowel were alive today he would doubtless be pleased to see that, of all the monstrous lies uttered by duplicitous humankind, statistics remain the most potent and the most willingly swallowed. The likely explanation is that statistics is a branch of mathematics and mathematics is assumed to be an exact science, ergo statistics are true. That words may carry more truth than figures is overlooked because amateur, everyday liars use words. But which is truer – the latest findings of the latest survey or the wise words of Benjamin Disraeli?
Last week the Institute of Alcohol Studies announced that 29% of girls in Britain are binge-drinkers, that a quarter of all 15- and 16-year-olds get drunk at least three times a month and that British adults drink to excess about once every 13 days. These figures were reproduced unquestioningly in the press alongside the inevitable calls for crackdowns and penal increases in alcohol taxation to forestall the explosion of a “timebomb” of health-related problems. Question the need for drastic action and you are countered with further statistics, or rather guesswork. Thus, the authors of the survey say that increasing the price of alcohol by just 10% within the EU’s 15 wealthiest member states would save 9,000 lives in a single year.
Where does this figure come from? Why 9,000 and not, say, 10,000 or 8,350? How would these lives by saved? Or rather, how will they be lost if an an extra 10% is not put on the price of booze? Come to that, why 10% and not 15% or 150%? And what about the binge-drinking figures? Are those who gather these “facts” aware that self-reported accounts of alcohol consumption are unreliable? That people either deliberately understate their consumption or, especially in the case of the young, exaggerate with the aim of shocking or boasting?
None of this is to diminish the social problems of excessive drinking, especially among Britons. There is anecdotal evidence aplenty to show that we as a nation cannot hold our drink. But one grows weary of friable statistics being used to advance simplistic solutions to complex problems.
It’s a game anyone can play, including advertisers. Take a press ad I spotted the other day for Piriton allergy tablets. It was a picture of a busy street, over which were placed labels indicating allergy sources and sufferer numbers. They included tomatoes (526,000 Britons), trees (1,796,000), chilli (737,000), adhesive tape (556,000), sweat (774,000), deodorant (1,957,000), windscreen wiper fluid (290,000), perfume (2,326,000), leather (103,000), hair dye (576,000), squirrel fur (181,000), house-flies (644,000) and artificial fingernails (100,000). “The fact is,” said the ad, “people can develop an allergy to just about anything, which is why you should ask your pharmacist about Piriton.” In tiny print, it added/ “Allergy figures extrapolated from a TNS survey of 16 to 64-year-olds.”
Wouldn’t you like to know more? How large was the sample? How many 16 to 64-year-olds declared themselves allergic to squirrel fur? And how did they know it was the fur and not, say, the squirrels’ nut-strewn breath? How did they find out about this allergy? Were they regularly in contact with squirrels and, if so, how? Did they climb trees to get more closely acquainted with the little rodents? Had they been binge-drinking? That would explain a lot.
As for artificial fingernails, was it the nails or the adhesive used to attach them that caused the allergic reaction? Was it the wearer who suffered, or others who had been scratched by false nails, perhaps in one of those cat-fights that occurs regularly at closing time in the streets of Nottingham?
Would a 20% tax on tomatoes stop 163,000 people from coming out in a nasty rash? Is the irritation caused by statistics anything to do with allergens? Take two Piriton and report back. â¢