chapter  9
20 Pages

Suspect Figures: Statistics and Public Trust in Victorian England


Do we really trust statistics-or, to quote the title of one of Theodore Por­ ter’s books, do we really ‘trust in numbers’?1 It would seem that we do and do not. On the one hand, the very prevalence of statistics in today’s public sphere would suggest that we do trust them, and emphatically so. To give but one example, newspapers brim with numbers and statistically derived numerical rates: immigration figures, price indices, and trade balances. And we trust them because we believe they are (objective) facts, as opposed to (subjective) opinions, generated by experts or institutions with claims to technical neutrality. Statistics seem non-political, beyond the realm of interests and ideologies. But on the other hand, it is also apparent that we distrust statistics. Politicians accuse newspapers of selectively highlight­ ing certain statistical facts for political reasons, whilst newspapers accuse politicians of doing the same. Crime figures, among others, are traded between MPs, who often, after critical questioning, have to add caveats regarding the particular measurements used and what the figures do and do not encompass. Meanwhile, the saying ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’, popularized by Mark Twain at the start of the twentieth century, continues to enjoy currency. It even features in the titles of books dedicated to unrav­ elling the myriad ways numbers are manipulated for political gain.2