Political journalists have become exceedingly wary of pollsters since they called last year’s general election wrongly. Are they right to be? The performance of major polling companies in this referendum could make or break their reputations – get it wrong again and the fury of Fleet Street will be unconstrained.
But there’s good reason to feel that hacks should have learned some lessons too – the first being, properly understand what it is that you are reporting. Here are a handful of key points to bear in mind when in the coming days we consider the pollsters’ performance in this referendum. Read more
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, gave a speech last week lamenting that the liberalising policies adopted by the Thatcher government in the 1980s never led to widespread share ownership:
The Tories promised a “shareholding democracy” would arrive through privatisation. A “trickle-down effect” would mean that, even if the rich got very rich indeed, everyone else would be a little better off.
But the promises of freedom and “popular capitalism” turned out to be illusory.
Today, share ownership by individuals is at the close to the lowest level ever recorded. Just 12 per cent of shares are owned by individuals in the UK, down from 28 per cent in 1982, and pension funds own only 3 per cent.
It would be fair to call these figures misleading and point out that people can own shares through insurance companies or they might have a stake in other kinds of funds as well as their pension. So if between them individuals and pension funds own just 15 per cent of shares who owns the rest? Read more
Due to a mix of scarce resources, methodological difficulties and poor incentives, much of the data collected on the world’s poor is either inaccurate or missing. That’s one of the findings of a study being released today by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) at the Cartagena Data Festival in Colombia.
While the trend of falling poverty is genuine, the ODI think that numbers in poverty may be being understated by up to 350 million, more than the entire population of the US. Read more
Earlier this week the charity Oxfam released a paper ahead of the world economic forum in Davos that claimed that the wealthiest 1 per cent of the world’s population were on track to own half the world’s wealth by 2016.
Others have pointed out problems with this data. To calculate an individual’s wealth the Credit Suisse data takes debts away from assets to give a figure for net wealth. Anyone with debts greater than their assets has negative wealth. Read more
OK Cupid, an online dating site, has caused a bit of a stir recently about performing experiments on their users. But even without the ethical questions there’s reason to be skeptical about what their data can actually tell us.
Big Data, the book by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, talks about two phenomena they believe will drive a big data revolution: ‘Digital exhaust’ and ‘N equals all’. The first refers to the trail of information we leave behind when using the internet that are the residue of clicks and typing. Read more
In news that will delight statisticians everywhere the distinction between the mean and the median finally has the political profile it deserves.
Yesterday Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK statistical authority, wrote a letter clarifying an ongoing debate between Labour and Conservative politicians on waiting times in accident and emergency rooms. Read more
Racial prejudice is growing in Britain, at least according to the headline on the front of the Guardian newspaper this morning. The paper describes a “Rising tide of race prejudice across Britain” based on new data from the British Social Attitudes Survey.
The BSA asked respondents whether they’d describe themselves as prejudiced against people of other races. The Guardian aggregated those who said they were very prejudiced and those who said they had a little prejudice.
It is true that this proportion has risen recently, from 27 per cent in 2012 to 32 per cent in 2013, but the long term trend is decline.
Last month, in advance of a report on 14 hospital trusts with relatively high death rates, it was widely reported that there had been 13,000 “unnecessary” deaths.
But, as a leading academic points out in today’s British Medical Journal, this demonstrates an epic lack of understanding of the concept of an average.
The 13,000 figure is the difference between the actual number of deaths in the 14 hospitals compared to the “expected” level. But what some writers failed to understand is that the “expected” level equated to the national average. As a result much of the coverage was seriously misleading, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge. Read more
At the moment, the Department for Education is considering changes to the league tables and the exam system. This seems an opportune moment to make a simple point about qualification-awarding and accountability: English school examinations are subject to measurement error in a really big way.
Here is a simple thought experiment to flesh it out. Imagine a class of 100 students. Let us specify that each one has a “true” ability that means that one pupil should get one point, one pupil should get two, one should get three and so on – up to 100 marks. Now, let’s award this class one of 10 grades: 90+ gets you an A, 80+ a B and so on.
Let us assume that the tests are perfect. If that were the case, you would get ten individuals in each grade. Easy enough. But what happens if we start introducing errors into the test? We can do that with a set of exotically named (but very simple) “Monte Carlo” estimates, which I calculated using this simple spreadsheet. Read more
Last week, I went to Wolverhampton where I spoke at a local debate, organised by the university and Pat McFadden, the local MP, about the local authority’s school. I was the warm-up act for Lord Adonis, former schools minister, setting the scene about the city’s education system before his talk on lessons on school improvement.
It was interesting event – and the city is clearly considering its future and the role of education within it. There is – judging by my inbox – serious and deep interest in improving schools in the city. One of the things I sought to do was set out Wolvo’s position in relation to the rest of the country – and what statistics about the city tell us.
Here is my presentation: Read more
If you’re going to have a bet this party conference season, take on an MP – that’s the obvious conclusion from an Ipsos Mori poll for the Royal Statistical Society, which suggests that our elected representatives are simply asking to be fleeced.
As part of its Parliamentary lobbying work, the RSS set a basic probability question for nearly 100 MPs. ‘If you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?’*
More than half of them got the answer wrong.
One of the more interesting aspects of Friday’s ONS release on the UK internet access patterns is the reasons why households don’t have internet access.
Much of the data release is as you would expect: more households have internet access, and more people are using computers daily, a trend especially noticeable among the young. Read more
Since January, schools have been subject to a new inspection regime. Ofsted, the inspectorate, has changed its criteria. Data released today mean there is one question we can consider: is the new inspection regime any tougher or easier than its predecessor?
This is not a straightforward question: weaker schools get inspected more regularly, so the sample is not randomly selected. What we can do, however, is see whether schools are more likely to be promoted or relegated than in previous years.
This, too, is not simple. The Department for Education changed schools’ ID numbers when they became academies,
so I cannot match every new report to the same school’s previous ones so it is a faff to match records, which has taken a bit of tinkering. We have matches for 1,711 schools – both primary and secondary.
Here are the results:
There has been speculation recently that the government is planning to divert millions of pounds in NHS funds from deprived urban areas in the north, to leafy, Conservative voting constituencies in the south.
This stems from health secretary Andrew Lansley’s recent comment that “age is the principal determinant of health need” and that distribution of the £100bn budget for the NHS in England should “get progressively to a greater focus on what are the actual determinants of health need.”
Somewhere along the line, those comments were interpreted by a generally cheesed-off medical profession that Mr Lansley intends to introduce an “age-only” NHS allocation formula, switching substantial NHS funds from, generally younger, Labour-voting constituencies in north to the octogenarians who thrive in the Conservative-voting villages of the south.
It’s a good story, which might even contain elements of the truth, but the reality, as ever, is a little more complicated.
At present, five separate allocation formulae are used to divvy up different bits of the £100bn NHS pot to different areas of England. The largest share – the hospital care budget – is divided up using one formula, while four others – mental health, GP prescribing, health inequalities (more on that in a later post) and maternity – are each allocated using their own separate formula. (Think for a second about the demographics driving the demand for maternity services as opposed to, say, hip replacements, and you will grasp why this makes sense.)
Health economists and statisticians frequently tweak and argue over these formula in order to move, hopefully, ever closer to the Holy Grail: a distribution of health resources which is fairly distributed on the basis of health need. Read more