Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lies, damned lies ...

Here in cold North Staffordshire (my phone says its 17°C, but how could it know - it feels about half that) I'm still frustrated about the new iPhone. O2 can't tell me whether I have managed to order one or not. It may - note may - be possible to tell me tomorrow. Oh.

The reason it seems is that on Monday morning the O2 Web site was overwhelmed with orders - it reached 13,000 orders per second, they said. Now, given that the Web site was crashing all day - until 2.30pm at least when they pulled to plug - this seems to equate to about 46 million orders and hour and about 250 million orders before they finally ran out!

Of course that's not possible. And of course, I'm taking a figure, which may have been reached for just a few seconds, and trying to extrapolate it over six hours, just to make O2 look ridiculous. A reasonable motive I suppose, but intentionally distorting.

It just led to me think about statistics. It was Oscar Wilde, I think, who made the famous quote, 'Lies, damned lies and statistics'. And people often dismiss statistics. Politicians can twist them in their own way. We can misinterpret them. I remember a politician - I think it was Ken Clarke - once saying that it was unacceptable that almost half the children in the UK were below average in reading. And how many politicians, I wonder, are above average in maths?

Have you noticed that the word 'statistics' is used less and less? They prefer the word 'data'. It sounds solid and factual. In education we are bombarded with data, but we do not always know how to interpret it. Never mind raw data, what about 'residuals' and 'value added'. You almost need a degree in statistics - sorry, Data Analysis - to make any sense of it at all.

The emphasis on 'Data' is part of a supposed idea that we can have objective information that will speak for itself. Evidence which cannot be controverted. But it is not so. Human beings must interpret, evaluate and decide. Moral and ideological choices must be made. The data may tell me that I have before me a glass containing 50% of water - but I need to work out whether it is half full or half empty.

1 comment:

G Buckby said...

Well said Father Weatherby. Data is something you can hide behind to avoid the reality of the people the date reflects