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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

It seems like an appropriate time to roll out the quotation that there are three types of falsehood: lies, damned lies and statistics.  A quick look at Wikipedia reminds me that the attribution for this much-used remark is obscure – not Disraeli nor Mark Twain, and probably not attributable to anyone.  Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about whether anything I say or write will be immortalised, because I’m not sure I’ve ever had an original thought; but there must be someone, somewhere spinning in a grave with frustration that their genius with this comment is likely to remain forever uncredited.

Numbers are always important, much more so than most of us ever give them credit for, but it looks like they will become even more central to our lives in the future.  Hal Varian sounds like a character in a science-fiction film, but it turns out he is the Chief Economist at Google, which suggests he is a man in the know.  He is on record several times as saying, ‘The sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians – and I’m not kidding.  The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to communicate it – that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.’  Even if Hal was not right before the events of this year, he is surely right now.

The school’s owner, Aatif Hassan, sends round a newsletter to the senior leaders in Dukes Education each week, which is always a thoughtful and perceptive reflection – and I am not just saying that because he’s my boss!  Last week, he highlighted his frustrations with the way that numbers are being misused so much at the moment, which is a thought that has also occurred to me many times in recent weeks.  The Ten O’Clock News on the BBC a few days ago used numbers so badly, I was almost moved to write a letter of complaint.  I can’t remember the exact details, but I can remember feeling deeply frustrated that the editors had allowed such a poor use of data.

There was a row last week about whether Belgium or the USA had a worse record for deaths from coronavirus.  This seems a pointless row at the best of times, but even more so now, in the middle of the crisis.  It is not a competition, for goodness sake – or at least, it is not one that any country should want to be part of.  Closer analysis and more reflection (as always) reveal that each country counts the number of deaths in different ways, and hence ends up with different numbers.  It is not much more complicated than the primary school maths lesson where we teach children that we should not compare the number of apples with the number of pears.   

As Bobby Duffy writes in The Perils of Perception, we cannot all be fact-checkers in all aspects of our lives – that would be exhausting – and it will not work for everyone, but these new sorts of practical skills and habits will become increasingly important in the future.  The scale of the disinformation challenge and the threats it brings mean we will undoubtedly need action from everyone involved in online communication, but given the issue is a lot to do with how we think, we cannot rely on others to do it all for us.

Although the book was written in 2018, when very few people would have given serious consideration to any thoughts about a global pandemic, Duffy’s ideas seem particularly prescient when he writes about how we process good news and bad news differently, storing the latter more readily and accessibly.  This is a result of our evolutionary past, when negative information was often more urgent, even life-threatening, so we had to act on it.  If we were warned by our fellow cavepeople about a lurking sabre-toothed tiger, we had to listen – and those who didn’t got edited out of the gene pool.  Our instinctive response is that we need to pay more attention when a clear threat is involved.  We are wired to focus on the negative because it is often vital, urgent information, but when we worry and ruminate about something, we lose some elements of cognitive control, and the threat becomes bigger and bigger in our brains.  The fear engendered by horrifying events causes us to lose all sense of proportion, exaggerating the risks, not just in general but to ourselves individually.  Never has this been put to the test more acutely than now.

Aatif Hassan is clearly good with numbers, for all sorts of obvious reasons, so it was hard to disagree with his analysis that the failure to identify the difference between relative and absolute metrics, the use of selection bias in sampling and the manipulating of figures – either through cynicism or incompetence – leaves too many of us at the mercy of data gymnastics, media spin and inconsistent messaging.   The seemingly endless stream of depressing news alongside the overwhelming demands of operating in the remote world means there is a risk of emotional exhaustion. 

He went on to say that he sensed that the initial excitement of transitioning from the physical to the virtual is starting to die down. We are all ‘Zoomed out’ and spending too long in front of our screens.  As he points out, it is the middle of the change, which is perhaps the hardest part.  Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings, but the middle involves the hardest work.  It is known as Kanter’s Law, named after a Harvard professor who said that everything can look like a failure in the middle.  The challenge is to help people change to a mindset that accepts a difficult middle, re-energising them and alleviating their frustrations.

We need to change gear, to master change, pivot and persevere.  We need to find the reasons to be optimistic, try to identify the new normal and shape it through new initiatives and opportunities, whether through changed routines, better use of technology or a renewed appreciation of the value of face-to-face.  If we can encourage people to imagine the future, we can counter passivity and feelings of loss.  In short, it feels like the time for a big conversation about the future of education. 

This strikes me as a very good idea, and it is certainly something with which I am already engaging, both with people at Radnor and more widely with Dukes.  However, alongside the positive prospects for the future, I may also have to go back to my grapple with the numbers, though at least it looks we will all soon be able to focus solely on the so-called R number.  If I have got this right, I think is the rate of transmission of the virus among pirates, though I may be confusing it with the ARRRRR number or something like that.  Either way, it looks like the Bank Holiday has come at just the right time because I think I am in need of a social distancing, self-isolating, ‘We’ll Meet Again’-singing lie down over the weekend!

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