Statistics Part 2: When is a statistic not a statistic?

When it isn’t perceived to be politically correct.

Okay, that’s not much of a punchline, but it appears that the majority of the coverage in the media that I’ve seen relating to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on Social Trends has focussed on the One parent families on the rise angle, as favoured by the BBC.

Take for example this from the BBC:

The average figure [of children born outside marriage in the UK at present] is 44%, compared with just 3% in Cyprus and 12% in Britain in the early 1970s.BBC News

Right. So the rate at which children are being born outside marriage has increased by a relatively steady just under 1% per year for the last 35 years or so. It’s a trend, certainly, but it doesn’t appear to be that newsworthy. The comparison with Cyprus is more notable because of the significant differences and possibly is deserving of looking into this further to provide an explanation. One explanation could be that because Cyprus is one of the most religious contries in the EU, it’s only natural that a higher regard is placed on marriage.

And does it indicate some sort of decline in moral standards, that this percentage has changed? Does it matter? As a nation, we’re less racist, less sexist and less homophobic than we were in the early 1970s, so it’s not as if the 1970s was some sort of mythical “golden age”. As a country, we’re growing up and arriving at our own conclusions, and making our own decisions as to how important we believe marriage to be. Is that not some sort of sign of cultural maturity?

But the more important question is why has the majority of the mainstream media focussed on this statistic, almost to the exclusion of other statistics which are possibly more significant? Admittedly, a lot of the statistics, such as “goods moved by domestic freight transport: by mode” will be of remarkably little interest to anybody, including those who work in freight transport. But there are some other statistics which show significant differences that appear to have been completely ignored by most of the media. Is it because they relate to ethnicity, and people are worried about being daubed racist?

By Jove, I do believe you’re right. Give that man a cigar. Or maybe that should be “give that non-smoking vegan of either sex an alfalfa sprout” these days…

If you want to take the time to read the 3 Mb PDF Social Trends Report, then you can find a whole swathe of other statistics.

For example:

About half of Other Black and Black Caribbean households with dependent children were headed by a lone parent (52 and 48 per cent respectively), as were more than one-third of Black African households (36 per cent). Lone-parent families were less common among Indian households (10 per cent), Bangladeshi households (12 per cent), Pakistani households (13 per cent), Chinese households (15 per cent) and White British households with dependent children (22 per cent).Social Trends Survey (3 Mb PDF) pages 15-16

It may be that some of these groups have more financial pressures, which contribute to the breakdown of relationships. It may be that other groups are under more cultural pressures to remain together. Or it may be that as a society we place unfair burdens on some ethnic groups and overly support others. Or it may not be. But there is such a significant difference this surely warrants a closer look…

And of course, it may be that people will pick up on these statistics and try and use them to prove that there is something ‘bad’ about black people (and/or other ethnic groups to suit). But we shouldn’t be afraid of the statistics themselves. What we should do is watch how they are used and remember that statistics of themselves do not prove the direction of causation, so we should be careful to examine any arguments based on them thoroughly. But we shouldn’t just ignore the ones we’re frightened of or that we don’t like…

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