Opinion: Lies, d*** lies… and statistics

There is no doubt that statistics are powerful.  Add a few figures to a presentation or essay and it seems to add an air of authority.  Nevertheless, as critical thinkers we must be wary when such evidence is used to support a line of argument, asking where it comes from, whether it is relevant, sufficient and accurately represented. It is surprising how often people select, spin or even “massage” the evidence to suit themselves.  
At the recent party conferences Labour accused the government of increasing borrowing, Conservatives claimed to have cut the deficit.  Both parties gave figures in support, using statistics to persuade people one way or they other. Surely, the debt can’t be both growing and shrinking at the same time? In fact I found that the UK owes about $170,310,000,000 more than it did last year, but the projected rate of increase in spending has indeed been reduced through the austerity cuts.  
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Britain’s debts are currently £1.19 trillion, 74.6% of GDP.  In August, far from paying down our debts, we borrowed £13.2 billion more. Whilst no politician has lied, their use of statistics has undoubtedly created a false impression about the UK’s economic situation.  The sad truth must be that the children, even grand-children, of the A Level Philosophy and Ethics students reading this will still be paying for this debt-crisis – unless Fracking really does take off that is… 😉 
Is there any wonder that respect for politicians and for the democratic process is at rock-bottom?  People are being manipulated by the very data that is supposed to enable them to make informed decisions.  Nevertheless, this is not just a problem with our political system. 
The education system is supposed to stand for truth and against selectivity, spin and misrepresentation of the facts.  Yet today even the educational establishment is losing interest in the truth, when it is profitable and/or popular to do so.  At the command of politicians, schools, universities and exam-boards have to compete for students and may be under financial pressure to “sex up” or “make accessible” the learning experience.  
In our own area of Philosophy and Ethics, recent advertisements for A Level events are a case-in-point.  What better way to make a re-hashing of the old debate over Abortion sound interesting than to quote the statistic “48% of all females in Britain will have an abortion during their reproductive life...?”  It makes the topic seem relevant to the point of being personally threatening…  Basically, that statistic makes teachers more likely to book £25 tickets for their students than they otherwise might have been.  Yet the statistic is is unattributed.  
So, where does the 48% come from?  What lies behind the figures?  
The most data from the Department of Health suggest that, although the number of abortions in England and Wales has risen dramatically, more than doubling since 1970, the rate of increase in abortions slowed in recent years, actually falling back in 2012.  Further, the point at which terminations are being performed is getting steadily earlier in pregnancy; 77% now take place before 10 weeks in 2011 and 91% before 13 weeks.  
There is absolutely no suggestion from the Department of Health that “48% of all females in Britain will have an abortion during their reproductive life“, so where could the figure have come from?  
I contacted Brook, a charity very obviously concerned with UK abortion figures.  They told me that 48% is “high for the number of women who have had an abortion. The most reliable UK statistic we have is from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who state that a third of women in the UK has an abortion in their lifetime: http://www.rcog.org.uk/files/rcog-corp/Abortion%20guideline_web_1.pdfIt”  Neither Laura (from Brook) nor I could work out where 48% could have come from.  Laura suggested that there are “conception statistics which state that in 2011 in England and Wales 48.8% of women under 18 who became pregnant chose abortion” but noted that “this is not how the statistic is presented”.  
My best guess was to take the Department of Health’s 2011 figure of 17.5 per 1000 (the latest figure available when the advertisements were printed) multiply that by the number of years a woman is fertile to yield a crude figure of 525 abortions per 1000 – which could be translated as 52.5% – and then knock off a bit, maybe to account for the slightly lower abortion rates in Scotland or maybe just to make it seem a bit more credible…  Of course, that fails to account for the much lower abortion rates which applied 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.  It also fails to account for many women having repeated abortions. In 2011 36% of those having a termination (19% of 18 and 19 year olds) had had one or more terminations previously. 
In practice it seems that womens’ experience of abortion varies widely, depending on their circumstances. Only 2 in 1000 under 16s had abortions in Chelsea, compared with nearly 8 per 1000 in Southwark, only a mile away.  Further, 81% of abortions involved single women.  
It is clear that the 48% statistic is misleading.  A minority of disadvantaged women have repeated abortions (for the most part early, medical abortions) whilst around 2 in 3 never encounter the issue personally.  Of course, that does not make Abortion is any less of an important issue for our subject; the moral significance of abortion is not changed whether your chances of experiencing an abortion are 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.  Either way, the Abortion Act and its later modifications might either have led to the legal murder of more than seven million people or to continuing institutional discrimination against women, perpetuating social and economic imbalance on the basis of the pathetic fallacy.  Nevertheless, crude statistics can give a false impression and make it easier to persuade people of the need to read an article, join a pressure group, vote a particular way – or even pay £25 to attend an RS conference.  It is worth being aware when manipulation is being attempted and by whom, even if you are being pushed in a direction you might have gone already.
It seems clear that critical thinking skills are of growing importance in all aspects of life!  What is presented as fact, whether by politicians or approved examination board trainers, requires proper scrutiny. Good schools, good teachers, good students – good people generally – will be suspicious of statistics.  They question and check the facts, evaluate the evidence for themselves before forming their own informed judgments wherever possible. Not impressed by headlines, soundbites or rhetorical techniques, they will stand up for substance over style every time.
Charlotte Vardy is the author of “Life and Death Coursebook” (Pushme Press July 2013, rrp. £9.99).
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