Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Unemployment Figures...

...in Michael Blastland's BBC magazine article 'How one woman can cause economic boom or bust'.

Blastland describes a hypothetical worker whose redundancy leads to a 0.1% rise in unemployment figures. The media, ignoring such boring matters as standard deviation and margins of error, jump on the figures and produce headlines that trigger financial panic and crisis.

Blastland argues that even increasing the raw data by a small fraction may lead, via rounding off, scaling up or standardisation, to a significant difference in the end result - something the more responsible climate change scientists have been trying to convey to the media for years. Like food, if data is processed, it usually needs seasoning with a pinch of salt*.

His final caveat - 'Economic data is never a set of facts; it is a set of clues, some of which are the red herrings of unavoidable measurement error' - is a salutary reminder that in the run-up to the election we will be bombarded with facts and figures, all purporting to tell a story.

One wonders how many of the electorate will know or care that the story in question may well be total fiction?

* Although Consensus Action on Salt and Health (H/T Ambush Predator) might have something to say about that.


  1. "One wonders how many of the electorate will know or care that the story in question may well be total fiction?"

    One wonders how many will ever bother to read it in the first place. Unless there's a comment from Cheryl Cole on it in the latest edition of 'Heat', that it...

  2. I wish I could dispute your view of the masses, JuliaM, but sadly I suspect you are right.

    Perhaps it's a sign of middle age that I find myself increasingly frequently uttering the words
    "...and these people have the vote!"