Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

How to Read Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

ARCHIVES
Image via Prosotphoto/Shutterstock.com

Notes from the Research Desk highlights the best practices, salient data and emergent perspectives uncovered by the Government Business Council’s (GBC) team. Each week, Research Manager Dana Grinshpan will share the discoveries most important to federal managers. 

The 19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was the first quoted as saying, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”. His point? Anyone can use statistics to prove just about anything. Because statistics have a bad reputation, due to their penchant for misuse, it’s important federal managers be savvy consumers of numbers.

As the GBC’s Research Manager, I am responsible for designing survey instruments that yield statistics and my analysts are responsible for discussing these statistics in our reports. Therefore, one of my most important responsibilities is ensuring the numbers we publish are factual and easily understood. With inspiration from Joel Best, author of Best Damned Lies and Statistics, here are a few tips to help you sort out fact, fiction and spin:

  • Always ask questions. When you see statistics, ask questions! Take, for example, the ConAgra Foods Foundation: Have you heard that more than 16 million, or almost one in five, American children are at risk of hunger? Quite an alarming figure. But what does it really mean? What is the definition of at risk? Does it mean skipping lunch or skipping several meals? Is it based on income or food consumption? Be mindful of the assumptions implicit in some research findings.
  • Be wary of the dark figure. The dark figure is an expression employed by criminologists to refer to the proportion of crimes that go unreported, or that don’t appear in crime statistics. The general rule, however, can be used for reading all statistics. Is the statistic you are reading undercounting someone or some groups?
  • Suspect too many round numbers. Have you ever noticed that the numbers in political ads are always in denominations of 10, such as 50 percent, 60 percent, so on and so forth? Statistics can be messy, and often people like to round up or down to make numbers look pretty or more extreme. In practice, if you are reading something and every number is in denominations of 10, look deeper into what you’re reading and who it is coming from. Find the source.
  • Spot Mutant Statistics. Not all statistics start out bad. But some are misinterpreted or misrepresented, mutating them into something they don’t mean. When you read a startling statistic taken from secondary research, check the source and make sure that the scholarly paper or report phrased the stat the same way.
  • Find context. A lone statistic without context is also a suspicious thing. For example, what if I told you that in 2010, 33.9 percent of people between the ages 19 to 25 lacked health insurance? Is that a lot or a little? Maybe you are of the opinion that even one person is too many. But add this piece of information to the fray: the proportion of people from of the ages 19 to 25 who do not have health insurance is now 27.9 percent, down from 33.9 percent in 2010. All of a sudden, this doesn’t look so bad. Context matters—reserve judgment until you’ve seen more than one number.

What tips help you avoid getting bamboozled by slick statistics?

(Image via Prosotphoto/Shutterstock.com)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dana Grinshpan is the Research Manager for the Government Business Council (GBC), the research division of Government Executive, where she specializes in primary research development and survey instrument creation. Prior to joining GBC, she worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), assisting in the research and writing of work on South Asian regional cooperation. She has a Master of Arts in international security and political economics from the University of Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University where she holds a B.A. in international studies with a minor in Arabic.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.