Why Statistics Matter

I sometimes forget just how spoiled I am in Oxford. Like the time last term when I got to take part in a round table with one of my heroes, the French author Marie Darrieussecq, only a few days after I’d chaired a panel at Waterstones with the legend that is Philip Pulman. And this afternoon, wandering 100 metres across the old Radcliffe Observatory Quarter to the Mathematical Institute to hear Tim Harford give a fascinating lecture on the importance of statistics.

The lecture closed with a tribute to the greatest public statistician of our time, Hans Rosling, founder of Gapminder, who died this week. Harford isn’t (yet) quite at that level, but as our leading exponent of the joy of facts and figures he plays an essential role in UK society.

And excitingly for me, he has some fascinating things to say about the public perception of facts, social media and the nature of creativity. I wanted to use a brief post here to function as a review of the lecture and to outline a couple of his points as fascinating kicking off points for debate and more work. The full lecture will appear very shortly here (http://www.maths.ox.ac.uk/events/public-lectures-events).

The take home points of this fascinating lecture could form the basis of a manifesto for those of us who care most about making society as a whole care more, whether about facts or creativity. I’ll put them very succinctly as bullet points, and come back and embed the video when it’s up so you can dig around for the tl;dr

  • Fact checking and rebuttal are essential. They can have a small positive effect on people who already have some factual foundation. But they are not enough.
  • In fact, the backfire effect (built of 3 components: tell people “x is not the case” and what they’ll remember is “x”; simple messages are what sticks, but facts are of necessity complex; we will perceive all new knowledge through the lens of our existing feelings, even if we at surface level acknowledge that knowledge runs contrary to them).
  • Fake news is not a problem on the level we are sometimes led to believe it is. Nor is social media at present creating bubble effects beyond those we already create for ourselves. The big problem is that people don’t care about facts.
  • Sitting alongside that, the most effective form of propaganda is not spreading false facts but distracting people so they never think about facts at all.
  • Fascinatingly for me, research shows that the greatest scientists and creatives change field or topic with remarkable regularity.

messy

(Tim Harford’s new book, Messy, is essential reading for all who care about creativity)

To comment on the last of those first, that offers some intriguing avenues to explore for my notion that creativity’s goldilocks zone exists at the intersection of deep and broad learning, and offers hope to all of us flitting butterflies.

The message of the rest of his talk can be summed up very simply. We need to make facts engaging. We need to do for statistics for this generation what Carl Sagan did for science for my generation. We need to fill people with wonder at what numbers can do, at the incredible power of statistics to explain and enlighten our world. In a world that works better when we know less, we need to make facts cool the same way books became cool and countercultural in the society of Fahrenheit 451.

And that’s where the challenge lies for someone who is as much in love with figures as they are in love with being creative. Thinking of new ways to make people’s jaw hit the floor with the sheer bedazzlement of statistics, to make finding out the facts deliver the hit of cultural crack. This talk is a call to arms. And in that sense it is at once empowering – it offers us a roadmap or, rather, it tells us where we need to go and says, OK, go on, get there. But it’s also a warning to take its own subject seriously. If we care about facts, then the fact of the dangers of foregrounding rebuttal over all other forms of engagement are ones we need to take seriously in our day to day actions and interactions.

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