Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Averages in the Tabloids

Comparing the original report on public-vs-private pay to the tabloid coverage just makes me want to give up talking.

Nearly all of the caveats in the report are missed out of the tabloid piece. All of the interesting analysis is omitted. The result is a headline designed to get people angry. The common name for this is "ignorance". Irresponsible ignorance.

As the report points out extremely clearly, many factors affect what is basically a comparison of averages between apples and oranges:
  • The public sector has recently outsourced low-cost jobs, pushing up averages

  • The public sector similarly has more educated people, pushing up averages (at no time does the tabloid ask what value is added by staff)...

  • ... but also, people with a degree earn almost 6% less in the public sector than they would in the private

There are some other interesting points such as whether banks are classified as public or private, age and gender differences, and comparison between highest and lowest earners in each sector.

For me though, this is a reminder that averages are hard - especially for people who "just want to read a newspaper". Understanding evidence is tricky, and presenting is even trickier (something we tried to take into account on the Improving Visualisation project.) It's too easy to fool people, and the tabloids keep. doing. this. all. the. time.

How much stats do people need to know to engage "fairly" with demcoracy? Should they need to know about mean, median, mode? Should they trust the media? Should they trust statisticians?

No comments: