Jeff Evans (Middlesex University)

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Date(s) – 31/01/2018
3:30 pm – 4:30 pm



Statistics in Public Policy Discussions: Is there a crisis?

As well as being widely taught in schools, colleges and universities, statistics are also an important resource in public policy discussions. I briefly review the key characteristics of the statistical approach to constructing public knowledge, and give a very brief history of key points in its development.

I discuss what I call the “overt crisis of statistics”, the apparent disenchantment of large sections of the public with “expert” statistical methods, outputs and pronouncements, and the ways in which this leads to dilemmas both for citizens and for democratic governments.

Recently “Big Data” and data analytics seem to many to offer new solutions to problems resulting from the essential lack of certainty surrounding efforts to understand society, and from the need to make quick decisions in a rapidly changing world. These approaches have potential, but also limitations.

This leads me to consider a second, “covert” crisis of statistics, resulting from a struggle between proponents of freely available public information and public argument, and those aiming to profit from the appropriation and sequestering of information for private ends. I finish by considering some things that can be done by ourselves, as citizens, at statistics teachers, and as researchers.

This paper began, several presentations ago, as a response to an article by William Davies (Goldsmiths), published in The Guardian last year, which participants in the seminar might want to look at: Currently, these ideas are feeding into a book, Data in Society: Challenging Statistics in an Age of Globalisation, edited by Jeff Evans, Sally Ruane and Humphrey Southall, to be published by Policy Press in May 2019.


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