Statistics & Data Science

“statistics” – Blinding the Nation’s Voters

Inevitably public debate and discussion escalates through an election as politicians appeal to our social conscience. While I am not an avid politcal-junky there are some topical subjects at the fore that I do feel strongly about, in particular the state of our export economy and the impact this has on our national economy and the cost of living here in New Zealand.  It’s no surprise that Labour’s campaign is largely focused on social inequalities, but what disturbs me is the “hammer-like” use of statistics to beat at the anvil of the nation’s heart.

In secondary schools, our students are taught to write with a particular method:

S: make a statement

E: give a clear example

X: colour your story with context and convincing argument

So why is it that our politicians insist on senselessly beating us with loud and biased statistics with little context or meat to support them? Without doubt, the statistics proudly exclaimed have been cleverly crafted to make the most evocative statement possible. But statistics are only the start of the story. Real debate is in the colour and the convincing-ness of the argument, not the insistent repetition of “fact”.

The following is extracted from The Letter, 7 July 2014:

Cunliffe says households in poverty have less than 60 percent of the medium income after housing costs. If Bill Gates came to live in New Zealand, the medium income of the country would rise and, according to that logic, more children would be in poverty. The poverty measure also ignores non-cash transfers. Those non-cash transfers, like health and education, are real and substantial. Cash them up and many of those in “poverty” are on higher incomes than the medium household. Even Cunliffe’s claim that home ownership is falling is a myth. Over 200,000 homes are now held in family trusts and must be pulled from the statistics – including Mr Cunliffe’s.

There has been a lot of blow back on this subject, much of it centered on the “mis-use of made-up statistics”. However while this letter uses the term “medium income”, this is a mis-reporting of a commonly used Income poverty measure which reports on disposable income per household. These measures are described in detail in the Child Poverty Monitoring: Technical Report, with historical trends going back to 1980s as reported by the Ministry of Social Development, Household Incomes in New Zealand: trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. So it seems that while subjective, Cunliffe’s reported figures are well established international standards.

The University of Auckland maintain an outstanding blog for statisticians, StatsChat,  and there has been a lot of discussion around this letter, most of it centered on the validity of the statistics and choice of phrasing. Thankfully, there have been more balanced views on this as well. The real discussion point here is the perceived level of poverty in New Zealand’s youth. Statistics can colour this anyway we choose, but this is a debate as to whether poverty is a real social problem and whether the nation is prepared to address it.

Do we sometimes forget that the primary role of statistics is to help us convey a story?

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