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Numbers are weapons - A self defence guide

Supriya Sharma writes:

49% of British households are getting below average speed for their broadband internet connections. The government has created a massive child care fund of £300 million. The top one percent of British tax payers are paying 28% of income tax. Such statistics routinely appear in news reports but few look closely at what they mean. Tim Harford, FT columnist, does and as a journalist, he says, he is “nauseated by misleading statistics”, some of which he goes on to systematically dismantle. 

For instance, if ‘average’ stands for the ‘median’, or the middle value of a sample, the 50th percentile, then it is natural that those below the middle value, or 49% of British households, will receive below the average broadband speed. £300 million for child care for 3-4 year olds, as announced by former British prime minister Gordon Brown a few years ago, broken down over five years, comes to just a little over one pound per week per child. And as far as equity in taxation goes, the tax paid by the top 1% of income tax payers in UK is a poor indicator, since income tax is just one part of overall taxes, and the top 1% of income tax payers may or may not be the top 1% of income earners since some billionaires are not domiciled in UK. 

While journalists love to pepper their stories with numbers since they look like ‘facts’, Harford cautions that they must not be bandied around irresponsibly or debased since when used well, "numbers can powerfully illuminate the truth”. He sums up the principles of good use of statistics, which he says, are no different from the principles of good journalism: ask if the numbers are true, ask what do they really mean, and ask what’s the bigger story?  This means journalists should place them and interpret them in a wider context.