9 out of 10 statistics are bunkum

Journalists like to use them on quiet news days, but they’re not doing their readers much of a service by reprinting them.

I’m talking about self-serving press releases with phoney statistics. You know the type, “50% of Europeans not saving enough for retirement” (by retirement savings company); “Debt consolidation used by 40% of people” (by debt consolidation company); “60% of Britons don’t know their history, don’t visit enough sites of historical interest” (by a hotel chain). It’s the latter that’s proved a problem for British education secretary Michael Gove.

Gove has cited various PR surveys as ‘evidence’ that British teenagers were ignorant of key figures and events from history. And he’s used the surveys to launch plans for a new history curriculum many teachers oppose.

He claimed ‘survey after survey‘ revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character (or, worse, a dog in an insurance company advert) while more than half think Sherlock Holmes was a real person (mind you, his “home” at 221b Baker Street is marketed as a genuine place).

It wasn’t till a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by a retired teacher found the key survey cited was not ‘evidence-based’ but one of the statistically dubious press releases produced by a hotel trying to get people to stay with them while they visited these sites of historic interest.

If you haven’t seen it, Channel 4 in the UK has a useful “Fact check blog” which runs some claims by politicians (and others) through the wringer to see if they stand up to scrutiny. They often don’t.

It’s great some journalists are taking the time to examine the claims and counter-claims in detail. Not so great, perhaps, for others in the writing business who rely on these space-filling press releases to pad their editorial products.