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Damn Lies and Statistics

Most Americans have heard these numbers - 10% of men are gay, 2.7 million American children are sexually abused, one in eight women develop breast cancer. Politicians, activists, fund raisers, scientists and, yes, magazine journalists routinely unload such staggering statistics on a trusting public. The numbers are presented as though they carry all the weight of scientific truth. But they don´t.

The fact is that much of today´s political and social agenda in America is built around flagrantly flimsy figures. Statistics on crime, poverty, homelessness, joblessness, drug abuse, toxic hazards, sexual harassment (or any other matter concerning sex) are notoriously suspect.

Sometimes, erroneous numbers are used innocently. They are the best available figures though everyone knows that they are no more than guesstimates. No one in America has any clue as to the size of illicit drug trade, though multibillion-dollar figures are commonly tossed around. Mitch Snyder, the late activist for the homeless, once admitted at a congressional hearing that his figures on people without shelter were essentially meaningless. ”We have tried to satisfy your gnawing curiosity for a number, because we are Americans with our little Western minds that have to quantify everything in sight no matter if we can or not.”

But too often exaggerated figures are used deliberately to mislead, raise money or advance an agenda. ”Many satistics are generated by people who have a vested interest,” notes journalist Cynthia Crossen, who is writing a book on how numbers are manipulated. ...

Time, April 26, 1993 (Adapted and shortened)

A note by your lecturer: There are hardly any other fields of human activity as infested with fake statistics as those relating to sales.


History of RPI from Financial Times, April 1994

Condoms replace corsets in cost index

Mutton, candles, tram and trolleybus fares, backlacing corsets have gone. Satellite dishes, video cameras and condoms have arrived. These are just some of the changes since the [British] Retail Price Index started life in 1914.

Originally, the index was an estimate of the effect of price rises on the welfare of the working classes, so food, rent, clothing and fuel made up the largest part of the basket of goods used. Today, about 400 civil servants using computers collect 150,000 prices each month in 180 different areas. The RPI is about real people and real spending habits - says the CSO - it can tell us a lot about how life in the society has changed.

The index underwent it first major facelift in 1947, becoming more a measure of what the average family was actually buying rather than what the government wished working-class people should spend their wages on - alcohol was not included.

The update in 1956 saw brown bread, pet food, televisions and washing machines join the index, while out went candles, rabbits and distemper. Since 1962, the index has been revised annually, with MOT fees, mortgage interest payments and CD players among those added.

In 1914, 60% of people´s spending was on food. Now it is just 14%, rivalled in importance by motoring and leisure.