Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

‘Cynicism has set in about statistics. Many journalists draw no distinction between a systematic review of peer-reviewed evidence and a survey whipped up in an afternoon to sell biscuits or package holidays: it’s all described as “new research”. Politicians treat statistics not as the foundation of their argument but as decoration — “spray-on evidence” is the phrase used by jaded civil servants. But a freshly painted policy without foundations will not last long before the cracks show through.’

We are living in a golden age of data, with the potential to understand the world more fully and create more innovative and effective evidence-led policy than ever before. And yet, as the FT’s Tim Harford writes in his excellent feature ‘How politicians poisoned statistics’, we are living through a time of unprecedented data mistrust. In this world of ‘spray on evidence’ – so liberally exploited to push political agendas, exaggerate successes and diminish failures – notions of truth are not just provincial, but increasingly irrelevant. This is a world of open contradictions, in which multiple claims can be ‘narrowly true but broadly misleading’ – and the only thing that matters is what sticks, and how quickly. The crisis this creates is profound – seeding not just deep-rooted cynicism about our political and global realities, but dulling public will to engage and take action.

Misleading statistics have long been a feature of the fight against global poverty. In 1990, the World Bank introduced the first dollar-a-day metric of those below the poverty line. Since then, the figure has steadily increased: to $1.25 in 2008, and most recently $1.90 in 2015.  Using these metrics, global poverty was cut in half between 1990 and 2010 – putting the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) five years ahead of schedule. And yet such a simplistic figure obscures the reality: that millions of people living above and below this poverty line still do not have access to clean water, food and shelter; and, furthermore, that profound poverty still exists in middle income countries.

Similar contention frustrates definitive progress on UK child poverty, which has, since 2010, been defined as any child living in a household with an income below 60% of the UK’s average. This is problematic on two counts: firstly, in a recession, child poverty appears to fall in line with average income, even though standards haven’t improved. Secondly, as a singular focus, it proved ineffective: the DWP’s annual estimate found the proportion affected — almost one in six — stayed the same between 2011-12 and 2013-14.

In both cases, the problem remains: money is crude. Poverty is about more than just income. In an increasingly complex economic and social environment, we need total life indicators – and a willingness (and the ability) to address complexity where we find it.

Read more about about the new cross-party commission, led by the CSJ’s Phillipa Shroud, focused on creating the authoritative set of inclusive poverty metrics needed to guide compassionate and effective anti-poverty measures.

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