Statistically speaking…

Tea - vital when dealing with statistics

One of the areas of cross-over between my job and my role in Voices for the Library is processing statistical data.  Every now and then I work on some local authority statistics to analyse whether their claims for low usage actually stack up with the reality.  Sometimes it is evident that over time there has been a growth in usage and whilst the usage is low, its growth suggests an increasing need for the service (not a decreasing one that the authority would argue).  At work I tend to process statistics for e-journal and e-book usage.  I particularly like to focus on trending data as it can build up a useful picture about whether a particularly product is seeing an increase (or decrease for that matter) in usage.  This involves a fair amount of playing around with spreadsheets and charts, but I weirdly kind of enjoy it (as I’m sure fellow VftL-ers will testify).

However, me and maths haven’t always had an easy relationship.  I always remember getting my first piece of maths homework back from secondary school and scoring a G (or something similarly poor).  Despite the fact that the maths teacher at the time was also a PE teacher (no, really), I was pretty devastated.  But I was sure this was a little hiccup (my maths teacher also taught PE for the love of whatsit) and I would turn things around.  And I did.  Things got better and instead of poor grades I scored slightly higher than average.  Things were looking up until that fateful day I will never forget…

I had always planned to go to university.  Right the way back at primary school I was determined to get to uni and get a degree.  No-one else in my family had made it that far and I resolved early on that I would be the first.  As I moved onto secondary school, I knew that I would need a GCSE in maths in order to achieve my goal.  Without a grade C, I was doomed to either scrape in or not get in at all.  The ‘C’ in maths was a vital step in achieving my ambition.  Nothing would stand in my way.  Then it happened…

Spreadsheets - heaven or hell?

As exam time approached, we were given our predicted grades for each of our subjects.  My maths teacher (not the PE one, an actual maths teacher by this stage) called me up to the front and showed me my grade.  He looked up at me to see if I had seen the grade marked on the register.  I nodded slowly and walked backed to my seat.  I was predicted an ‘E’.  I was devastated.  I went home from school that day and cried.  Not only was I predicted an ‘E’, I was also dropped into the intermediate stream where the maximum mark I could achieve was a ‘C’.  Suddenly my university dream seemed a lifetime away.  Despite the disappointment, I decided to work my butt off to make sure I proved my maths teacher wrong and get that grade ‘C’.

To cut a long story short, I got that ‘C’.  Not only did I get a ‘C’, but my grades had improved so much in the lead up to the exams that I pushed to be allowed to study A-level maths (alongside English Lit and History – strange mix).  The maths teacher was reluctant to do so, particularly as I was on the lower stream, but I convinced him I should be allowed to take the course.

I got a lot of stick in the first few months from the other A-level maths students.  They thought I was out of my depth and that it was an insult that someone from a lower stream should be able to do it at A-level.  But I persevered, worked hard and by the end of the two years some of them were asking me for help (ha!) and, to top it all off, I was awarded the Senior Mathematics prize in my final year.  That day I spent crying over my predicted grade seemed a lifetime away.  My maths teacher approached me at the end of the school year and told me he was very pleased that I had proved him wrong and I think he was genuinely pleased that I had turned things around.  I wonder what he would make of what I do now!

I do find that my relationship with maths has helped me immensely in recent years.  It has certainly helped in my work with Voices for the Library.  But it has also helped me in terms of how I read.  The use of statistics in a newspaper column has me digging deeper to find out what it actually means.  In the past I may have just accepted a statistic as a factual element to the author’s argument.  Now I question it.  A good example came up recently in an article by Tim Montgomerie in The Daily Telegraph recently.  Well, two examples in fact:

No, the real power is in the hands of the Murdochs’ arch-enemy: the BBC. When it comes to news, 73 per cent of us get most of it from television – and the BBC supplies 70 per cent of TV news.


A study of BBC employees’ Facebook profiles found that they were 11 times more likely to describe themselves as liberal than conservative.

When I first read this article I was at a loss as to what these actually mean.  Sure, it looks straightforward at first, but where does the figure relating to 70% of TV news being broadcast by the BBC actually come from?  Without knowing the methodology behind it is meaningless.  Sure, it might sound good to the uncritical, eager to bash the BBC and produce any statistic to do so, but without the context it is worthless.

Likewise, what does it mean that employees of the BBC are 11 times more likely to describe themselves as ‘liberal’?  What employees were consulted?  Given there will probably be a lot of people working for the BBC who are neither ‘talent’ or in a position of authority, does this really mean anything?  If the report focused on purely journalists and editorial staff, maybe it would have some relevance, but to include all staff at the corporation?  It is worse than meaningless.

So, there you go.  Stats can be boring and tedious but, on the other hand, it does rather help you sort the wheat from the chaff.  Hey, I wrote a whole post on stats without using numbers or drawing graphs!


2 thoughts on “Statistically speaking…

  1. Spreadsheets – definitely heaven. Sad, twisted individual that I am. I always thought the restriction that meant set two could only get a maximum of a C was profoundly unfair. Who does it benefit?

    Shoddy use of stats is rife isn’t it – everyone would do well to remember that “lies, damned lies and statistics” quotation – who by I don’t remember. You can pick and choose your statistics to suit your argument if you aren’t called upon to give a broad, balanced view in anything you write.

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