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Vital statistics and the Hadron Collider

kateAIf you have 10 minutes over lunch today, check out this fly on the wall account of a day in the life of the ONS (the UK’s Office for National Statistics) in The Guardian.  It sheds rare light on just how national statistics are produced and shows just how complicated this can be.

It’s apposite to be reading about this, as the ONS has been getting a lot of press recently, for example, let’s look at the last couple of days’ headlines: reports that Britons are happier than they were 12 months ago, and MP’s and the media lambasting the ONS’ statistics on migration.  This illustrates very effectively the nature of the love hate relationship we have with statistics: we are often inclined to follow in the footsteps of Mark Twain and question the validity and motive of statistics:  “Lies, damned lies and statistics” .  On the other hand, as the BBC, censored this week for breaching impartiality guidelines in the content of a 2011 John Humphrys’ documentary on the future of the welfare state,  has learned to its peril,  statistics are very necessary.   In the words of the BBC Trust,  due to  “the absence of sufficient complementary statistical information to underpin contributors’ accounts, viewers were left unable to reach an informed opinion and the accuracy guidelines had been breached”.  So there.

Back to the day in the life account, it’s endearing and makes the ONS sound rather well-meaning and cuddly.   It’s not often that the pains that field teams go to to gather data get column inches –“Information Foraging” really is the right term for it.

ColliderBut, reflecting the love hate relationship we have with statistics, the article goes on to view data analysis, or “the funnelling process” as the reporter describes it, in a rather sinister light.  “To listen in to those conversations,  and subsequently to see fragment of them pop up in an enormous fields of numbers, is a bit like witnessing people being fed into a giant Hadron Collider: lives churned and turned into statistics”.  And goes on to highlight that by using segmentation to understand societal patterns we are in danger of de-humanising people and viewing them only as types.

Oh no, they’ve seen through our evil plot !  But seriously, I’d never thought of what we do as particle acceleration (aka “atom smashing”), rather, I prefer to take Glen Watson, Director of ONS’s view:  “Data helps you make sense of a really complicated world. It helps you understand what’s really going on, and separate that from anecdote, from spin, from misinformation.” 

But that’s what I would say …… Moohaha!

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