Questioning Dubious Statistics

BBC More or Less Postcard

More or Less is a radio programme1 and podcast produced by the BBC World Service. The weekly show tries to make sense of the statistics presented in popular media (including the broadcasts of their own organisation1) in a way the average educated listener can understand.

As you might expect, a common thread in the podcast is whether the numbers reported in stories about studies, polls, and surveys are accurate and used appropriately. Spoiler alert: they often are not.

In a recent “bonus” podcast, the host offers a short debunking guide that would fit on a post card2 from his holiday at the shore. “How to question dubious statistics in just a few short steps.”

The whole thing is worth ten minutes of your time. If you teach math to high school students, you may even want to play it for them.

However, if you’re very short of time, the final step is, for me, the most important idea presented.

Number 6: Be Curious.

If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first?

Forget that nagging feeling that says you might just be spoiling a good story. Facts matter… but facts are also fascinating.

Treat them as puzzles. Treat surprising or counterintuitive claims, not with suspicion nor open arms but as mysteries to be solved. It’s fun.

And they close with this reminder.

Hopefully, with this postcard as your guide, you can step into a world of statistical adventure. Because it’s not just about winning arguments, it’s about being curious. The world, after all, is a fascinating place.

Whether you consider statistics “fun” or an “adventure”, the advice is solid. Be curious, some would say skeptical, about the numbers constantly being thrown at you in the news and your social media feed. Very often the story behind them is far more interesting, and different, from what has been presented in the headline.


If you listen to podcasts, More or Less is a good one to add to your playlist. I would have embedded a player here for the episode but the BBC doesn’t allow those of us outside the UK to do that kind of thing.

1. British show, British spelling. :)

2. For you kids out there, postcards were something your parents (maybe grandparents) sent from locations where they were on vacation in the days before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It was a slower method of trying to impress their friends and relatives. Or maybe make them jealous.

Sunday Short Takes

A few interesting reads and listens from last week.

The New York Times Magazine’s education edition included a long, very interesting look at education in Michigan where they gambled on charter schools and “Its Children Lost”. It’s a story of lax regulation and oversight, coupled with a concerted effort to privatize public schools, led by the current federal Secretary of Education.

Two podcast episodes that explain in clear language why a do-nothing Congress can actually harm people. Planet Money has three examples our legislators risking the American economy by failing to pass a budget and risking the good credit of the country by playing chicken with the debt ceiling. The third segment addresses immigration and DACA, as does a short edition of DecodeDC, in which they fact check Jeff Sessions. Spoiler: he’s mostly wrong.

In-between watching continuous coverage of Hurricane Irma, read about the men and women who fly aircraft into the middle of those storms to gather crucial information for scientists and forecasters. We often take all this for granted but collecting that data is tricky, dangerous, and very necessary work.

Related to that, the BBC programme (British spelling :-) More or Less explains why the phrase “one in 500 year storm”, used so frequently during the coverage of Hurricane Harvey, has very little meaning. By the way, More or Less does a very good job of explaining those kind of statistical measures used by the media, in a short and very interesting weekly podcast.

With all the stories about data security this week, Motherboard explains why you should never post pictures of your airline tickets or even house keys on social media. Their warning should also extend to any documents that include numbers or barcodes that contain identifying information. If you teach, you may want to explain this to your students as well.

Finally, National Geographic offered a couple of interesting pieces this week, complete with great images, of course. One is a photographic essay of abandoned, decayed resorts in Pennsylvania and New York, side-by-side with post cards of the same scenes. Very creepy. The other profiles a small city in China (where a population of 1.2 million is “small”) that produces “60 percent of the worlds cheap consumable goods”.

More or Less Accurate

Did you know that 65% of the jobs that will be available to our elementary students when they graduate have not even been invented yet?

cartoon of school as an assembly lineOr maybe you’ve heard the statement that 60% of children currently in kindergarten will be employed in jobs that don’t exist today?

Or possibly you know for sure that some similar large percentage of jobs our students will be doing at some vague date in the future (2035 seems to be very popular) are yet to be created?

More or Less, a wonderful podcast from the BBC World Service, is all about investigating statistical claims like this, and in a recent segment, they tried to track down the source of this particular number. They weren’t very successful.

So, will our children leave school into a world in which 65% of the jobs are brand new inventions? I doubt it. Nobody can prove this claim for sure, and we’ve not found any explanation of where the number came from or what the logic was behind it. Sources lead from the UK out to America and Australia and then hit dead ends.

One of the primary reasons that pundits and politicians toss around statistical myths like this is to reinforce their particular efforts to reform the education system. Scaring people with visions of millions of unemployable students might just work, right?

However, this discussion about future jobs dictating what students learn in their K12 years is totally wrong.

Certainly the world is changing in very unpredictable ways. And our education system, which in many ways is stuck in the 1950’s, needs to be restructured to reflect that unpredictability.

But school should be about much more than job training. The emphasis should be on kids gaining some basic life skills, and spending most of their valuable time exploring a variety of interests and ideas. If they discover a career in the process, terrific. But making that the primary goal of school is a crappy idea.

So, what does all that look like? Good question, and one that we should be discussing, without all the bogus statistics. And the More or Less people have a great suggestion for something to include.

As for what it tells us about what children should be taught, that’s far from obvious too. But here’s a suggestion. What about trying to teach some basic statistical common sense? It’s a useful skill, and our children can’t possibly be worse at it than than the grownups.

Excellent!