The politicisation of Statistics


My intention with these posts about Coronavirus has always been to show how Statistics can be used as part of a battery of scientific tools to learn about, understand and even fight the epidemic. I’m conscious though that a number of recent posts – for example, here, here, here, here, and here – have focused on the interplay between politics and Statistics in the UK response to the Coronavirus epidemic. This was unintentional, rather than planned.

As I’ve mentioned before, and many of you will have known already, I live in Italy, which was affected sooner than the UK by the current epidemic. I’ve therefore followed both the science and the government response to the crisis quite closely both here (Italy) and in the UK. There are many similarities, but also quite a few differences, both in the trajectory of the epidemic and in the way the governments have handled things. Without question, Italy has made many mistakes, though it also had less evidence and less time to make decisions. But as a statistician, what strikes me about the UK response is the extent to which Statistics has been used – and misused – as a cover for government action and inaction. If you read the posts linked above, you should get a sense of what I mean, though I also abandoned many other potential posts at the draft stage because I wanted to avoid this blog simply becoming a rant.

I can’t leave this issue without mentioning the latest abuse of Statistics by the UK government however. As you’ll know – discussed here – as part of a daily press briefing, the government included a slide comparing the trajectory of the virus in different countries. In my previous post, I already discussed the fact that some cosmetic changes had been introduced to that particular slide which had the effect of making the UK’s numbers seem less extreme compared to those of other European countries. But since then, the UK numbers have pretty much remained stable, while those of other countries have started to improve, meaning that the UK looks increasingly worse than other European countries. Consequently, as of this week, the UK government has dropped this particular slide from the daily briefings.

Now, you can make a perfectly valid argument – as indeed Professor David Spiegelhalter did – about the utility of detailed cross-country comparisons. And on the basis of that argument, you might reasonably decide that showing a graph that compares country numbers is misleading and choose not to do it. But what you can’t do, unless you are deliberately manipulating Statistics to best suit your purposes, is include the graph when it shows your country in a favourable light, but then stop showing it as soon as it doesn’t. That is a terrible use of Statistics, and arguably pretty poor government as well.

End. Of. Rant.

It’s not just me though:

3 thoughts on “The politicisation of Statistics

  1. It is a poor use of statistics. Is it poor government? 10% of people notice that the graph is no longer used and know why. 45% notice, don’t know why and can’t be bothered to find out/don’t care/don’t have the time etc. 45% don’t notice. Out of the 10% that notice 10% develop a mental health problem because of the government’s poor use of statistics. If the government had continued using the graph this wouldn’t have happened, but instead 10% of the other 90% develop a mental health problem due to the increased negativity shown by the graph.

    1. Thanks Ian. I definitely agree that this type of manipulation ripples outwards and has consequences and effects on people in many different ways. Like I wrote in an earlier post, it seems to me that this crisis is showing the best and the worst uses of Statistics. Let’s hope it’s the best side that has the bigger impact in the long run. Hope you and family are all well.

  2. I should of said out of the 10% who notice AND know why 10% develop a mental health problem due to the dreadful use of statistics. All figures are picked from the sky.

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