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Statistics can be very helpful in providing a powerful

interpretation of reality but also can be used to distort our


understanding. Discuss some of the ways in which statistics can
be used or misused in different Areas of Knowledge to assist
and mislead us, and how we can determine whether to accept
the statistical evidence that is presented to us.

International School of The Hague


Name: Paul van Eeghen
Candidate number: 000416-094
Word count: 1,571
Date: 23 Apr. 08
‘83% of statistics are made up’ this is meant to be as a joke but if one looks

deeper into the meaning of the joke you realize that it might be a pretty good

representation regarding the reliability of statistics that you hear through out your daily

life. One could say that statistics cannot be used as pure facts or evidence for something,

but rather give a probable answer to the question asked, only until examining the raw data

and how it was gathered can the viewer tell if the statistic is reliable or not. This is where

society, some might claim, has abused such powers of showing viewers, for example,

television advertisements which claim some sort of statistic to provide a good reason to

buy that particular product. Whilst people selling the product do not show any sort of raw

data or how they might have collected the information they represent. It is safe to assume

that this type of statistics could and should be ignored. As stated already, knowing how

and what kind of results one gets can help the validity of the statistics shown, of course

considering the raw data was not made up. Statistics are often used instead of words such

as some, lots and many, for they provide a more accurate answer and does not allow

multiple. This essay shall focus on whether statistics are misleading interpretations of the

world and to which Areas of Knowledge this applies.

If one looks at statistics then it is important to note in which sector the statistic

belongs, such as: social sciences, natural sciences, history. If the statistic is based on

social science then it is more likely to be more open to interpretation than if it were based

on a natural science. The reason for this is that social sciences deal with, amongst others,

human emotions, reason and perception. Whereas natural science deals with physical

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phenomena, unchangeable by humans, which do not have a certain view point on the

research question.

Mathematics allows one to calculate the standard deviation and mean of a

statistical data. It also allows one to represent a statistical data as a fraction or percentage.

If the statistical data is represented in a fraction it is less likely that one will fully

comprehend the significance of it, but if it is represented in a percentage then it is easier

for one to understand the meaning of it. For example, ‘thirteen out of twenty-three people

in the USA dislike Mr. Bush’ one is less likely to understand the amount of people that

dislike him. Whilst if it were ‘57% of US citizens dislike Mr. Bush’ people are more

likely to understand the significance.

Paradigms play a great role in ones society and therefore can play a great role in

the validity of the statistic to the person. Paradigms have been drilled into the viewers

head since birth. If a certain statistic suits the paradigm then you are more likely to

believe it then if it does not. For example, ‘one in four women has been raped’ 1 if this

statistic fits the paradigm you has been brought up with and lived your whole life with

then it is more likely that you will believe such a claim and support it without any doubt

or question of its validity. But if the claim does not fit the paradigm and you have a

different opinion on it, then it is less likely that that person will want to believe it and

therefore will want to challenge such a claim and may require more evidence, such as the

way the statistic was gathered and/or the validity of the statistic.

There are different ways in which a statistic can be formulated, such as: response

bias, the syntax of the question and/or the diction of the question. Using one or all of the

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http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000054A4.htm 05 Feb. 2006

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different ways can lead the person that is answering, to respond in a specific way the

questioner wants him/her to reply. A response biased2 question involves getting the

person that answers to answer in a certain way which the questioner already knows the

answer for. For example, if the European public was shown short video extracts of the

war in Iraq where people are screaming in the streets for help and civilians being shot and

they were asked if the involvement there should be continued then most likely the

majority would answer that they should not continue the involvement there. But if the

same question is asked but short video extracts are shown of people’s freedom and right

to go to school then the majority would answer that it is vital for them to stay there and

protect their freedom. The syntax of the question can also lead one to answer in a certain

way the questioner wants. For example, if a flight attendant asked the business section of

the plane a simple question like ‘For your main course would you like beef or chicken?’ 3

if it is a person with no real preference or need for a specific meat, then most would

answer that they would like ‘chicken’ as that is the last word they remember from the

question. But if the syntax was changed to ‘For your main course would you like chicken

or beef?’ and there is no preference then most would answer ‘beef’ for the same reason.

The diction of a question is also very important whether a serious answer is required or

not. If the diction is very informal and colloquial then one will most probably not take the

question too seriously and therefore answer in an informal manner. But on the other hand,

if the question contains a lot of formal and complex words then the person that is

answering might forget/lose the meaning of the question and therefore answer in the

manner that ones brain remembers the question, which might be completely different to

2
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Response_bias 06 Mar. 2006
3
TOK class discussion

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his paradigms and the actual question.

The people the questioner chooses to ask can also make the statistic more reliable

or not. There are several ways in which the questioner can choose people such as:

stratified sampling, random sampling, quota sampling and cluster sampling.4 Stratified

sampling is when the questioner chooses to ask ten women and ten men but the people

that are chosen are random (rich/poor/athletic). This could be a good way of gathering

raw data as there is an equal amount of people represented but random people are chosen.

Random sampling is when the questioner asks any random person they meet. If the

equality of representatives, such as male and female, is irrelevant then this would be the

best way. Quota sampling is when an equal amount of representatives are asked and the

people asked are also chosen. This is where the validity of the statistic could be

questioned as the people could have been chosen specifically to support a certain view

point. Cluster sampling is when the people asked are chosen by geographical location.

This can be a good representation of a governmental party’s chance of getting elected as

the question is asked relative to location rather than status.

Sources can also be a powerful way of representing data. Sources can be in

different forms like: a friend telling you a statistical fact; a webpage; professor telling a

statistical fact and television advertisements. For example, if a friend tells you a certain

statistic such as ‘there are 5 *10 23 stars in the universe’ and this does not fit your

paradigm then you are unlikely to believe your friend. But if you see a professor on

television in a lab coat with three pens, black, blue and red, in his left pocket says that

there are 5 *10 21 5 stars in the universe then you are more likely to believe the stranger on

4
http://www.bized.ac.uk/learn/business/marketing/research/index.htm 05 Feb. 2006
5
http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=681430 05 Feb. 2006

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television rather than the friend. If one was told that webpage sources are unreliable and

you read that there are 5 * 10 21 stars in the universe and later on reads in a newspaper that

there are 5 *10 23 stars in the universe then he is more likely to believe the newspaper’s

claim then the webpage’s claim. Television advertisements can be very influential for

naive viewers as they will most likely believe the claims they hear on television. For

example, if a person on television asks random people on the streets what they think of

the new product then they could edit out the negative remarks made by people and

therefore make the product look like it is very good.

Therefore statistics can be very powerful tools for politicians and within the social

sciences as they influence the way the person asked interprets the question and therefore

the answer. The paradigms of ones generation also influence the validity, as they can

affect to what degree one needs to see the raw data or the question asked. It can also

influence ones interpretation on what to do about it, whether it is to vote for a certain

party or to take action against the claim. This is a reason one might be pessimistic on

whether the statistics shown are to be trusted. This is less likely the case with natural

sciences as they do not deal with the human emotions but rather deal with nature’s

reaction to a certain situation. Although both social and natural sciences deal with the

viewer’s interpretation of the statistic, I believe a statistic from a natural science more

reliable than statistics that come from the human sciences.

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Bibliography

• Iain. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on
earth@Everything2.com. 02 Aug. 2000
<http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=681430> 05 Feb. 2006

• Josie Appleton. spiked-central | Feature | Statistical abuse. 13 Feb. 2001


<http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000054A4.htm> 05 Feb. 2006

• Market Research - Marketing - Business Studies - Learning Materials. 05 Feb.


2006
<http://www.bized.ac.uk/learn/business/marketing/research/index.htm> 05 Feb.
2006

• Response bias - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 12 Feb. 2006


<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Response_bias> 06 Mar. 2006

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