Without learning to think statistically, we'll never know when people are bending the truth | Paul Goodwin

Some simple checks can help separate an honest statistic from a falsehood

School spending hits record levels in England, claims a minister, while some schools close on Friday afternoons because of a lack of funds. China is the biggest environmental polluter in the world, Donald Trump once tweeted. But, per capita, Saudi Arabia emitted the largest tonnage of CO2 in 2018 and China was in 13th place.

What is it about statistics that make them a godsend to people intent on reinventing reality? They arrive with a veneer of scientific exactitude and probity – and the more exact they are, the greater their apparent accuracy. Better still, they convey an air of certitude and give us something to grasp on to in a turbulent world. Few of us are inclined to look deeper. But if we do, we’ll often find a mix of crude lies and sleights of hand – slippery definitions, manipulated percentages, cherrypicked comparisons or rough estimates presented as certainties.

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