It was a gorgeous summer morning in 2010 when I walked down from the Piccadilly Circus Underground station to the first-ever meeting of the UK Conference of Science Writers It gave me a lift to walk into the revered Royal Institution, 350 years old this year, into the midst of roomfuls of people, science journalists all, several of whom I have known for years. I met John Travis, European editor of Science, for the first time, and in the afternoon had a chance to chat with Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature magazines, who was indirectly responsible for publication of my book Solar System a few years ago.
Much of the meeting centered around the question of how much science journalism will be affected by bloggers and other internet sites. After a good deal of considering the pros and cons, the consensus was that, all things considered, it would not make much difference at all.
It occurred to me that the crowd might not be so optimistic in the States.
This, and discussion of media involvement in overselling the import of “Climategate,” were worthwhile topics, but they were predictable. So it was refreshing to hear a talk by Nigel Hawkes, whom I first met when he was science editor of the Times of London. Hawkes offered a session titled “Statistics” that I feared might be boring, but I went anyway and loved it.
Hawkes gave a riveting and well-attended presentation, made especially entertaining with examples of lurid headlines that illustrate his point: “Numbers shape the world. Twisting them for political, business or personal advantage is widespread – and often undetected.”
Hawkes directs something called “Straight Statistics,” described as “a campaign established by journalists and statisticians to improve the understanding and use of statistics by government, politicians, companies, advertisers and the mass media. By exposing bad practice and rewarding good, we aim to restore public confidence in statistics.” What a great idea! It’s accessible at http://www.straightstatistics.org/ and as a partner on http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/484/.
Here’s another quote that every reader of news, from any sources, and every journalist, should remember: “Statistics help to make sense of a confusing world. But the sheer number and variety of statistics also provide great opportunities for misrepresentation or selective quotation. Getting canny about these tricks should be part of everybody’s armory.”
One of Hawkes’ favorite headlines was, “£250 Million to Kick-Start a Green Energy revolution.” While this may sound a lot, it amounts to about 8 pence (12 cents) per UK resident. Another was, “Violence to Women and Girls Cost £46.1 billion a Year.” This is more than the UK defense budget. “When you see a figure like this,” Hawkes said, “it ought to stop you.”
Hawkes noted that precise numbers have a way of looking more believable than rounded-off numbers. “Look for them,” he warned. Another example is, “308,889 Children a Year Injured Trying to Stop Arguments Between Their Parents,” a figure derived from taking data from a small survey and applying it willy-nilly to the whole population.
Finally Hawkes took me back to my journalism school days, when my professor warned our class against succumbing to the use of what he called “glittering generalities.” In Hawkes’ world of rubber statistics, these would include the glib use of phrases like “could be as high as . . .[insert number of your choice]” and “may reach . . .[ditto].”
I’m pleased to add that Hawkes’ campaign is not the only one in the world to warn against misleading statistics. George Mason University weighs in at http://stats.org and Britain’s National Health Service in its Behind the Headlines site. There are also a number of “layman-level” books on the subject.
The misuse or statistics is just one more reason why it’s important to be reasonably skeptical about hyperbolic and otherwise wild claims – and indeed to recognize those outrageous claims for what they are. There’s some strange stuff out there. Read this from climategate.com, which I imagine is a completely honest statement, but to me very strange nevertheless:
The goal of Climategate.com is to provide a daily dose of information regarding the world’s greatest scam, climategate, and other information and news to help you in your battle against the Religion of Settled Science to dispute their views on Anthropogenic Global Warming, and in addition, to battle the one-world socialist agenda, which is the movement’s leaders’ real goal.