Statisticians can now amass more data more quickly than ever. This could help us to make decisions based on real numbers, not prejudice
In the post-truth society there is a huge opportunity for statistics. On the face of it that may sound like a contradiction. But as individuals trying to work out what is really going on in the world around us, for businesses trying to decide on their next venture, and for governments trying to form effective policy, there is a common desire: data.
There is great potential for us to mobilise the power of data to help us make better decisions. However, the technology that has allowed us all to be so wonderfully connected has also allowed us each to live in our own world, separated from others. In our online lives, we risk connecting only with those with similar views to our own and not encountering those who think differently something many commentators are now terming the social media echo chamber.
But this is not new we have always tended to mix with people of similar backgrounds, and inevitably we have tended to read those newspapers whose outlook we prefer. However, what is different, is that for many people, especially the young, looking to the web rather than broadcast bulletins, this risk is growing. In this situation, it becomes increasingly hard to understand how anyone else can have a different view. It also becomes increasingly easy to think little of those who do.
This can make us prey to those who choose to support their own perspective with facts that show just how right they are (and how wrong everyone else). These facts can be made up. They can be biased or out of context. Often they fit the old adage about the drunk and the lamppost used more for support than illumination. This wilful blindness is dangerous.
Of course decisions are made on the basis of emotions and beliefs as well as science. Those of us who work in the world of data need some humility in what we claim. But good evidence does matter. Anyone who wants us to succeed as individuals, families, communities, businesses and as a country should stand up and make the case.
Unless we have a trustworthy understanding of where we are now, unless we can analyse what works, and unless we can focus attention on what matters, we are unlikely to make the most of the opportunities we must now seize in the months and years ahead.
My current job as a government statistical adviser was first created by Winston Churchill in 1941 when he said, with uncharacteristic understatement, that the utmost confusion is caused when people base arguments on different numbers. He called for someone to provide information that could be accepted and used without question. That remains a powerful rallying call for me and my colleagues.
And today, while the data revolution has created a moment of danger, it also provides the opportunity to gain new insights. It is now possible to get those insights much more quickly, in more fine-grained forms, and to design them to illuminate the issues that people care about. Recent reports produced by my team on domestic violence, our ageing population and UK productivity are just some examples of what is possible. With the right rules in place to respect the fact that we make use of information about individuals and individual businesses and must not betray their privacy, there is an unprecedented potential to use data to serve the public good.
So, with the supply of data increasing rapidly, perhaps our real challenge is to take our statistics off the page and find ways to listen and connect with those people who have been left perplexed and disappointed by experts. For us in official statistics, as well as the wider statistical world, that means our mission has to shift fundamentally, from being mere producers of numbers to providers of an essential public service. That way we can realise the potential that now exists to help us all make better decisions.