Stats without context, war without tears

Statistics without context annoy me.  Sometimes it’s done innocently, the author not appreciating the value of comparators to give the reader an understanding of the size of the problem or the scale of the sums of money involved.  At other times, usually in the world of journalism, the lack of context adds weight and impact to the story.

I’ve been following Russell Tanner on Twitter of late, in advance of his hour atop the fourth Trafalgar Square plinth this afternoon.  His campaign is to encourage Coca-Cola to use its mighty distribution network to help distribute aid to needy children—a more than admirable and worthwhile campaign.  (As an aside, Coca-Cola looks odd written down in a non-swirly font, particularly given the fact that it has pretty much been re-branded exclusively as Coke in the 20+ or so years since I was a big Coke user.)

Russell recently tweeted that four children die in Africa every minute.  It was without context—in part, no doubt, due to the 140-character limit, and in part to make the statistic stand alone, the lack of context making the message all the more powerful.  A good result, in this case.

But I have no idea, for example, how this child mortality number compares with that of India, China, Europe, the USA.  As you can imagine, Africa’s rate is high.  It accounts for 40% of the world’s infant deaths, yet only 24% of the world’s births, according to the INED.  (I’m not sure of the definition of children in the above tweet, btw.)  And at number two, Afghanistan is the only non-African country in the bottom 25 countries in the world, as ordered by infant mortality rate, Sierra Leone bottoming the list with 16.0% of infants dying before the age of one.  (A further 11.8% die before they reach five.)

In fact, an infant in Sierra Leone is 33 times more likely to die before their first birthday than one in the UK, or 55 times more likely than one in Iceland, the country with the lowest infant mortality rate at 0.29%.  Some of these statistics are equally powerful, possibly more so, than the fact that four children die in Africa every minute.

Newspapers are also guilty of failing to give context to statistics, particularly when quoting government financials.  Most of us can’t get our heads around the huge sums of money quoted in news articles about economic cash injections (hundreds of billions of pounds/dollars, trillions even), NHS expenditure/waste, overall government IT spend, pan-Whitehall budget cuts etc.  As soon as you read about £100m being wasted in some area of government, the anger is there.  And while I don’t condone such wastage, without context it is meaningless, particularly given the emotion that the trailing zeros bring about (especially as they’re usually printed in full, allowing the reader to pore over each and every one).  £3 for every UK tax payer, or £200 for every civil servant, or 0.1% of the overall NHS budget, would give valuable context.

On the other hand, when you’re dealing on a daily basis with such large numbers because of the very nature of the job you do—whether you work at HM Treasury itself or one of the big delivery or policy departments—you can become immune to the scale of the numbers involved, possibly to the detriment of your judgment.  If IT suppliers quoted for work in numbers of NHS beds, rather than the more traditional thousands of pounds, would their prices go down?

So please add context when quoting numbers, particularly if the lack of context is likely to cause a disproportionate reaction from the reader.


3 Responses to “Stats without context, war without tears”

  1. Nick Robinson on July 24th, 2009 09:40

    Couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the few things that really pushes my buttons.

  2. Paul Clarke on September 6th, 2010 10:55

    You heartless bastard!

  3. Dan on September 6th, 2010 10:58

    Why thank you, Mr. Clarke 🙂

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