“We send the EU £350 million every week” – perhaps the most striking and infamous statistic of 2016 and possibly one of the only statistics that many people can recall about the UK referendum on membership of the EU in June. The claim, which was emblazoned upon the Vote Leave bus, was widely critiqued and subsequently refuted as false, even by members of the Vote Leave campaign. Yet it has had that an enduring quality – somewhat of an achievement in the information age within which we reside.
The proliferation of information has enabled statistics to emerge as a key instrument in the toolkit of politicians, activists and parties alike. Whilst they are perhaps the most essential part of an argument, statistics are increasingly seen as essential decoration, used to buttress and give credence to otherwise subjective opinions, claims and arguments. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied and enhanced by the development of the uncritical nature of our consumption of them. The emergence of a society of uncritical consumers has enabled dubious claims to masquerade as objective fact.
In a world progressively saturated with information, statistics, facts, assertions as well as the oft-mentioned sphere of ‘Fake News’, it is becoming progressively difficult to gauge what is fact and what is fiction or at least fictitious. A statistic, for example, is only as effective as how it is received and understood.
However, the problems in the societies of the twenty-first century is that the situation is increasingly unevenly distributed. Rigorous analysis and proper data has never before been so readily accessible to a great swathe of the global populace. However, this is now accompanied, indistinctly, by lies, pseudo-facts or distortions which exploit the apparent objective nature of data and statistics. As such, it has become increasingly difficult to ascertain what is a fact and what we can believe as genuine.
Despite its association with the US President, the concept of ‘fake news’, for example, is not just a creation of Donald Trump. In fact, the concept of fake news isn’t fake or a myth. It may be questionable how flagrantly the US President decides to litter his press conferences with accusations of fake news but it is far from a mythical concept divorced from our societies in the twenty-first century. The difficulty we can is evaluating what fake news actually is. We have an insatiable desire for certainty – unknowns are disconcerting, vacuums must be filled and arguments need decoration. How can we assuage whether a statistic is reliable or even true? When are we being duped?
A magic trick serves as a useful metaphor – the trickery is apparently invisible and yet the effect (the statistic) is what we focus and direct our attention towards most. In this sense, it is essential that we understand the mechanics and definitions of a claim before we decide that a claim or fact really has utility or even authority.
The key is thinking critically. This does not mean that one should suspect all statistics are fake nor that they are universal attempts by the propagator to further their own agenda or deceive – it simply means asking simple questions such as, for example, how was this data collected? Is this graph representative? How has this information been manipulated?
An awareness of confirmation bias is essential too in thinking critically about our societies and the statistical claims that permeate it. Motivated reasoning is a principal influence on everyone – we believe who and what we want to believe and search more rigorously for disconfirmatory evidence when a claim runs counter to our prior assumptions. These factors have become further extenuated in the two-dimensional social media echo chambers that increasingly permeate our lives – concretising biases and shielding us within circles of people of coterminous opinions.
Due to their apparently objective nature, it is easier to lie with statistics and graphs. However, people gather statistics, people present statistics and people interpret statistics, including you and I. As such, to treat all statistics as objective material without taking a minute to consider how, why, when and where the data was collected or what the implications REALLY are, we remain tethered to the balloon of our uncritical cultural heritage. Instead of demanding certainty over our future, we should begin by assuaging the validity of the present – one should not become a cynical critic but that doesn’t mean critical evaluation is banned – in fact it should be necessary.