From the history of the Manchester Statistical Society
Manchester Statistical Society was a pioneering organisation: It was the first organisation in Britain to study social problems systematically and to collect statistics for social purposes. In 1834 it was the first organisation to carry out a house-to-house social survey.
The Society was formed in September 1833 at a time of severe social problems. Few of the founders were statisticians in the modern, technical sense. But, they were interested in improving the state of the people and believed that establishing the facts regarding social problems was a necessary first step.
From an earlier organisation in London (via)
‘The privation and misery endured by the productive classes of society in Great Britain in 1816 and 1817, led to the formation of an Association in London, for the purpose of investigating the nature and extent of that misery; and of ascertaining, if possible, how far it resulted from avoidable or from unavoidable causes; and how far repetitions of similar ills were likely or not to occur’.
Groups of wealthy men saying they want to improve society isn’t new. Nor is it new that they don’t know enough to do much good. What was different in the early nineteenth century was that they recognised they didn’t know enough. The Statistical Societies were founded to provide information about social problems that went beyond any individual’s range of anecdotes, because the truth mattered.
The range of statistics has broadened immensely since then, especially with the help of computers. At the foundation is still the principle that one person’s reckons aren’t enough: the world is more complicated than that and the truth matters.
I’m not arguing that statistics has to be Important and Serious. If you want to know whether The Rock plays the same music at the same time each day or who is likely to win the rugby, statistics can help there. If you care enough about how other people eat their cereal, that’s a valid topic for investigation. The bottom line is that you do actually care about the answer; that the truth matters.
For a depressingly large fraction of surveys in the news today, no-one really cares whether the answer is accurate or even what the question means. Maybe it’s ok to have sections of the newspaper where facts aren’t really relevant — you need to ask a journalist, not me. But when the truth doesn’t matter, stop pretending to use statistics.