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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Don't believe everything you read!


I read in The Times today that this week the cost of living hit its lowest level for two years.

A little later, I saw a TV advert saying that everything in a store was ‘up to half price’.

And when the Mail runs one of its almost daily health scare stories, it gets hysterical about the risks of an illness being ‘increased by 20%!!!’

Now, I only just scraped a pass at ‘O’ level maths (although, to be fair, according to Michael Gove that probably means I’d be A* at GCSE (I wouldn’t)) but I’d like to look at little more carefully at those statements.

Firstly, the level of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (the truncated index the Government uses to depress benefit and pension increases) stood at 2.2%, the lowest for two years. So far from the cost of living being at its lowest, it’s at its highest, just going up more slowly.

Secondly, when the store says ‘up to half price’ it doesn’t mean, as it’s saying, that half price is the most you’ll pay; it means, of course, just the opposite, that you’ll get up to half the price off.

My final example isn’t a lie, but is open to easy misinterpretation. A 20% in anything sounds like a lot, but if your chances of getting a particular illness are, say, 1 in 1000, this increase means your chances have gone up to 1.2 in 1000. Hardly a cause for mass panic

Now all of this isn’t just me being my usual picky, pedantic self. Having the time to watch and listen to a lot of news, I encounter almost daily statements that are misleading or inaccurate, misquotes, factual errors and so on.

Whether you think these are just genuine mistakes, made in the haste of having to meet the insatiable demand of 24 hour news reporting, or put a more sinister interpretation of deliberate misinformation, it is clear that we all need to be on our toes to scrutinise and check what we are told.

Now you, dear reader, know this and do it already. But we live in a society where people admit to their lack of numeracy almost as a badge of honour. Schools would do young people a great service by teaching them how to use the numerical skills they are gaining to question everything they hear or read to check that whether deliberately or accidentally, they are not having the wool pulled over their eyes.

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