There are three types of lies, so we are told: ‘Lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ This famous quote has been attributed to many, with the most popular choices being American writer Mark Twain or British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Whatever the origins of the words themselves, they ring true in the study of history. And in this age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake-news’ it is all the more relevant in terms of distinguishing fact from fiction. In the first of a “two-part-post”, I will outline the use of statistics in the use of research, before leaving the second part to discuss the manner in which statistics are manipulated.
I utilised this quote in an A-level class this week whilst covering the coursework component of the course (the Historical Investigation). The area of focus for all students is 20th Century British history, which offers a rich cache of primary and secondary sources for students to tuck into. This initial session focused on understanding key themes of the Victorian era, which is important in order to establish a contextual understanding of the type of place that Britain was by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901.
Over the past few years I’ve used simple graphs of trends across the Victorian era, presenting them to the students in order for them to come up with their own conclusions. It is a useful activity that helps us to utilise some critical thinking; yes, we can establish a pattern, but are we able to dig deeper in order to hypothesise reasons for the trends?
For example, how about the graph below regarding the rise of population in the 19th Century:
Immediately we can detect a clear trend: the population is rising (with other statistics confirming the population as 8.9 million in 1801, rising to 32 million by 1901). However, the critical thinker then asks why this happened. Reasons discussed in the class included:
- More babies were born
- More babies survived infancy
- Healthcare improved
- People lived longer
All of this demonstrates critical reasoning, of outlining potential factors without even knowing the nitty-gritty of the detail.
A second graph outlined the crime rate in the second half of the 19th Century:
Again, another clear trend. The potential factors behind this included:
- The economy improved, thereby ending the need to commit money-based crime
- Policing improved, thereby creating a deterrent
- Education improved, thereby creating a more harmonious society
And how about a final graph from this session:
Yet another clear trend: more newspapers were delivered in the UK in the second half of the 19th Century. But what does it actually evidence:
- It evidences the rise of a literate population: they read more newspapers and books.
- It evidences a more prosperous population: they had more money to buy newspapers and books.
- It evidences the improvement in transport: trains were able to connect to other areas, thereby increasing the volume of newspapers/books delivered.
Simple, effective statistics, but yet they unlock patterns for the historian to delve further into. However, statistics alone cannot tell us the full truth of the past, only the outlines. In the next post I will develop this thought further by assessing how inconsistent and dishonest statistics can be, and how a misleading stat can become more powerful than the truth.