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Lies, Lies and Damn Statistics and How to Remember the Dead

13/06/2014 11:57 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

Lies, lies and damn statistics

That expression of 'lies, lies and damn statistics', always makes me laugh. I spent many long years huddled in dark rooms with only the whir of computers for company as I churned out statistics for the motor trade and subsequently a cigarette manufacturer. Without statistics we would supposedly be at a loss to make decisions or the world might cease to turn. Entire governments sit down with a calculator to decide how best to allocate funds according to statistics which in turn determine what needs urgent priority and what is less important. Recently a well known newspaper declared that in a recession we become more racist. The sample of that survey was made up of non-blacks. There are entire communities all over the UK who barely speak English if at all, who intermarry within their own culture and even wear their hitherto national garb. These people are not representative of the so-called racists, are they? Yet do their views count in a poll about racism? It goes without saying that interviewing a white only sample about being racist makes little or no sense unless the aim is to find out if they're latent white supremacists. The results of a what if scenario are far more skewed than the what is.

I once compiled a survey questionnaire in order to gauge the market of health foods in a specific area. The interviewers went out armed with their comprehensive questions to ask and tackled as many people from all diverse backgrounds, shapes and sizes. The results were completely skewed. Interviewees often lied through their teeth when asked sensitive questions- it's a sort of protection mechanism to tell porkies. No one wants to admit they feed their kids fast food because they can't be bothered to cook or that the last time a vegetable entered their house was in an era so long ago they cannot tell their potatoes from their tomatoes. Put yourself in their shoes! Who wants to admit to their failings, laziness and ineptitude and to someone they don't even know! Is it any wonder that the margin of error in these surveys can be as high as 5%?

Perception is everything to human beings- we sum up situations within seconds just as we sum up each other. Showing us a long list of statistics is completely irrelevant. It doesn't matter how many times doctors warn against the use of sun beds, they still have their fans! Every day we get assaulted by some new statistic telling us we're all going to die if we keep eating bacon or cheese or even thinking about it too. Yes, statistics can guide us to certain truths such as eat salt all day long and you will die because the probability is extremely high.

Statistics are a mathematical form of human experience. However human beings have an irritating habit of being egocentric- in other words, they count themselves as three- me, myself and I. So rather than devising questions for all three of those 'individuals', statisticians prefer to see us as blond, middle class, homemakers living in an affluent area. And so the illiterate, immigrant who follows a certain religion gets pigeon-holed the same way.

Britain has become so multicultural and yet we have all morphed into one across the globe. In Paris I was horrified to see my bourgeois friends scoffing frozen pizza and then in Oslo, the same pizza reappeared at the dining table. Out with the pickled beetroot, boiled potatoes and river trout cooked in butter. These days, whatever the season and wherever we are, the food on the table is a homogenised version of something being eaten several thousand miles away.

How therefore can statistics make any sense? Nowadays if you buy car insurance you're probably going to pay a higher premium because of all the drivers who have no insurance at all. Whether you're a good driver or a bad driver and never made a claim in your life, your premium will still go up. Somewhere down the line someone will always pay for someone else. And despite all the buses all over the world, the proportion of deaths by being run over by one is relatively small. Of course, none of these statistics mean anything. After all you can't get hit by a falling coconut (the falling speed of which can reach 50 miles per our) unless you're sitting UNDER a coconut tree. Similarly don't expect to be eaten by a shark while sunbathing along the Thames.

I would find statistics altogether more interesting if the answers we sought to know were of a philosophical nature: 'why am I here?' would be met with a resounding 'dunno' or 'innit' as the vast majority collectively yawned and went back to eating their frozen pizza. Statistics, after all, are just damn lies.

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Photo copyright S. van Dalen

How to remember the dead

I attended a funeral at the Brompton Oratory in London this week. The entire mass was in Latin. No prizes for guessing that we understood very little especially as the priest was speaking with his back to us! More eloquent was the speech by the son as he remembered his father. A life, it seems, is made of small things. Something his father said, a lesson he taught him inadvertently, his father's propensity to laugh at silly jokes or a constant that bound the family together like going to church every Sunday. Life is made up of really irrelevant stuff that only when we look back, well, it made us who we are.

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Photo copyright S. van Dalen