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A Panorama of Statistics by Peter Petocz, Eric Sowey

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5 Trustworthy statistics are accurate, meaningful and relevant

Statistics, as the term appears in this chapter’s title, are numbers relating to the real world that are collected systematically for a purpose. Have you noticed how often statistics are mentioned these days in the print and digital media, as well as on websites of every kind? These statistics are usually precise, and it is usually implied that they are accurate. We remind you that precision (i.e. exactness) and accuracy (i.e. correctness) are not the same thing.

Among headlined statistics, some are counts (‘world population passes seven billion’), some are averages (‘Australia’s population density among the world’s lowest’), some are league tables (‘the annual Rich List’), and some are estimates generalised from sample data (‘84% of us dislike eating offal’). These statistics serve many different purposes – to inform, to impress, to persuade and, sometimes, just to entertain. There is even an unthinking fashion in some newspapers and magazines to embellish news items or feature articles on ‘boring’ subjects with a text box displaying supposedly related statistics (‘the numbers you need’), but arranged in no particular order, and adding negligible value to the story. They are, in fact, numbers you don’t need!

Cartoon illustration of a person smiling, wearing hat, and in eyeglasses, with a table in front with numbers 0, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,and 9.

Numbers you do need.

This rain of numbers may be journalists’ over‐enthusiastic response to discovering ...

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