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Explaining statistics

Andrew Garratt describes a new campaign

About 200 years ago, William Curtis MP coined the phrase ‘the three Rs’. His view that reading, writing and arithmetic are necessary skills has stood the test of time. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) now aims to add a fourth ‘R’, Statistical Reasoning, through its newly-launched ten-year statistical literacy ‘getstats’ campaign.

Statistical Reasoning is the ability to interpret, evaluate, apply and communicate statistical information.  ‘Employers cite gaps in the numeracy and problem-solving skills held by school leavers, graduates and their current staff,’ says RSS executive director, Martin Dougherty.  ‘School teachers describe a lack of confidence in their ability to teach statistical skills effectively. Journalists report a similar lack of understanding and confidence when using data.’

Bacon sandwiches

The campaign builds on well-established RSS activities, such as its workshops for journalists that both explain basic statistical principles and provide insight into how to question statistics-based claims more effectively.

The need for the workshops is shown by how health-related stories are reported. For example, on 1 November 2007, the Sun, along with many media, reported a major study that estimated a 20 per cent increased relative risk of bowel cancer from eating 50g of processed meat every day, (‘Careless pork costs lives’ was its classic sub-headline). Although such issues are not necessarily wrongly reported, the RSS aims to help journalists report in ways that are less alarming or confusing to the public by explaining the difference between relative and absolute risk. The absolute risk of getting bowel cancer is 5 per cent. Eating bacon raises this to 6 per cent.

Professional users

Through its Statistics User Forum, chaired by economist and broadcaster Andrew Dilnot, the RSS promotes engagement among the great diversity of professional users of statistics, and the bodies that produce them.

At its most recent conference the relevance and quality of the UK’s economic and social statistics, particularly with regard to the recession, were scrutinised by health and crime statistics users, asset managers, economists, and local government officials. They heard from speakers such as deputy governor of the Bank of England, Charlie Bean, who concluded that there were no ‘obvious lacunae in our conventional macroeconomic indicators, though it has certainly presented us with plenty of puzzles.’


Working with schools on ways of allowing students to learn about statistics through use of data from their own lives, is a key part of the campaign. Towards developing its ‘Planet Earth’ project, the RSS helped run workshops with 270 Key Stage 3 and 4 students from three schools.

Students interviewed their parents about, among other things, their use of transport and energy, what products they bought, and their attitudes to climate change and sustainability. Students then coded the data and submitted it for analysis in advance of a conference run by an RSS team in their school.  The data was then incorporated into an event programme, in which students took part in quizzes, interactive presentations, and practical exercises in which they interpreted their own data.

Life skill

Through activities like these, the campaign aims to achieve three long-term objectives. First, we hope to close the gap between current levels of statistical knowledge and skills, and what is needed. Second, to create a new culture by altering beliefs around the role of statistics, both as data and as a discipline; and third, to reposition statistics so it is recognised and desired as a valuable life skill.

‘We are confident our objectives are achievable. The data and tools are there for people to use and, we believe, so is the public interest,’ concludes Martin Dougherty.

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Andrew Garratt
Andrew Garratt is the Royal Statistical Society’s Press and Public Affairs Manager
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