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From Sweet Peas to Nobel Prizes,
that we take for granted
ain't necessarily so
Danny Dorling Royal Statistical Society
Annual Conference, Brighton 17th
September 2010 12:15pm - 1:35pm
Plenary 6 - Significance
Auditorium 2 - Hewison Hall
“This talk presents a short and
somewhat irreverent tour through
social statistics, asking how
unbiased our great statisticians
really are, examining the 19th
century pioneers of social
statistics and giving a few
examples from their work
(including on sweat peas and
Looks for statistical clues in the distributions of Nobel Peace prizes as to how greatness in science is assessed, but starting with the modern day presentation of international statistics in education as an example of how great traditions of partiality might be being continued. Most of the examples shown are taken from the recent book: “Injustice - why social inequality persists.” (Bristol: Policy Press).
Results and Conclusions
“Underlying all these stories is the question
of how best we can "collect, arrange,
digest and publish facts, illustrating the
condition and prospect of society in its
material, social, and moral relations." - as
read the original aims of the Royal
Statistical Society. How impartial are the
statistics of each age?”
• There is no such thing as a
neutral social statistic
• But don‟t be afraid of social
• Consider two numbers:
– £70,000,000,000 – structural
– £77,000,000,000 – rise in
wealth of the richest 1000
people in the UK 2009-2010.
(Sources – both the Sunday
Are they comparable?
Think about education stats
Note: in the figure that follows I have chosen
The following short labels for OECD‟s data:
• „None‟ implies possessing no knowledge
(as far as can be measured).
• „Limited‟ implies possessing very limited knowledge.
• „Barely‟ stands for barely possessing adequate
knowledge in the minds of the assessors.
• „Simple‟ means understanding only simple concepts.
• „Effective‟ is a little less damning.
• „Developed‟ is better again;
Source: OECD (2007) The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), OECD‟s latest PISA study of learning skills among 15-year-olds, Paris: OECD, derived from figures in table 1, p 20.
That Source gives the PISA study report's own descriptions of these categories I have given my own interpretations above. You should judge whether these are justifiable – see the journal Radical Statistics issue 102 (forthcoming).
Figure 1: Children by student proficiency
in science in the Netherlands, according
to the OECD, 2006 (%)
barely 11% limited 2% none
Is this how
children in the
Figure 2: Distribution of children by
proficiency in science, according to the
OECD, 2006 (%) Children
….maybe this is all b- b- b- baloney (mustn‟t use a rude
word now, not if we are well-educated). Look at the shape of
those curves ……. They are all very similar aren‟t they?
Figure 3: School-leaving age (years) and
university entry (%), Britain, 1876-2013
Note - school leaving age in years, left hand axis and line marked by X's; university
entry % by age 30, right hand axis and line marked by filled black circles –
for sources see “Statistical clues to social injustice” Radical Statistics Journal, v102.
What could be different?
• If there was not such a need to get the
qualifications quickly to get above others
in the labour market students could begin
to learn and think rather than increasingly
cram and drink.
And how does what
we still do now appear
so often to replicate mistakes
that we made in the past?
Figure 4: Geographical distribution of
paupers, England and Wales, 1891
Source: Figure redrawn from the original. Pearson, K (1895) „Contributions to
the mathematical theory of evolution – II. Skew variation in homogeneous
material‟, Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series
A, Mathematical, vol 186, pp 343-414, Figure 17, plate 13)
Too good to be true?
A couple of hypothesis
• Statisticians have been implicated in holding back progress in education since the beginnings of their subject; most of the discipline‟s founding fathers (they were almost all men) were complicit.
• Karl Pearson‟s teacher, Francis Galton, drew a graph concerning sweet peas and their hereditary properties where one of the very limited number of sample points hits the mean of both distributions exactly spot on – fixed?
Don‟t the little dots form a
pleasing pattern? - maybe a
little too pleasing. I just
point this out to suggest
Galtons‟ 1877 graph: Source: Magnello, E. and B. V. Loon (2009).
Introducing Statistics. London, Icon Books. (Page 123)
Floating a boat
If someone finds that Galton‟s
famous sweet pea graph was a
little too good to be true this does
not mean that sweet peas did not
behave in this way. It is just an
example of what was then normal
and what, in a slightly tempered
form, is still normal amongst many
statisticians: to get a little carried
away with underlying theories that
everything is normally distributed
and, if that is not found to be the
case then fit the data to such a
curve to make it „normal‟.
Here‟s one I made up earlier
Some distributions are normal, but it is not normal that they should be so:
take the world distribution of income drawn using a log scale (next figure).
It partly appears normal because I drew it by adding up log normal curves. I knew the mean and medians of incomes in almost every country in the world and also information on the range and hence standard deviation.
In a few countries inequalities are so great that the actual distribution is bimodal, in other countries income distributions are less skewed.
When summed, these errors tend to cancel each other out (with, including the sum of errors, a little „natural normal‟ variation maybe for once). What Figure 6, the figure which is shown next, does not tell you, however, is that we have not always lived like this.
In the very recent past incomes tended to be much more equitable for most people in most places in the world.
Figure 6: Distribution of income showing
inequality (US$), worldwide, 2000
Source: Figures (in purchase power parity, US$) derived from estimates by Angus
Maddison, from a version produced in spreadsheets given in
ww.worldmapper.org, based in turn on UNDP income inequality estimates for
each country. See Dorling, D., 2010, Injustice:
0 c a
How we got today‟s inequalities
Figure 7: Real growth per decade in GDP (%), per person, by continent, 1955–
2001 . The log normal distribution we see today was due to 1980s divergence
Source: as Figure 6
But how well off are the rich?
Ability to get by
6% Difficult to
Figure 8: Households’
ability to get by on their
income in Britain, 1984–
Source: Derived from ONS
(2006) Social Trends (No
36), London: Palgrave
Macmillan, table 5.15,
p 78, mean of
And how unusual are our times?
1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
Figure 9: Share of all income received by the richest 1% in Britain, 1918–2005
Note: Lower line is post-tax share. Source: Atkinson, A.B. (2003) „Top incomes in the United Kingdom over the twentieth century‟, Nuffield
College Working Papers, Oxford (http://ideas.repec.org/p/nuf/esohwp/_043.html), figures 2 and 3; from
1922 to 1935 the 0.1% rate was used to estimate the 1% when the 1% rate was missing, and for 2005 the
data source was Brewer, M., Sibieta, L. and Wren-Lewis, L. (2008) Racing away? Income inequality and
the evolution of high incomes, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, p 11; the final post-tax rate of 12.9% is
derived from 8.6%+4.3%, the pre-tax rate scaled from 2001.
And is recession really over?
Figure 10: The crash: US mortgage debt, 1977–2009 (% change and US$ billion)
Source: US Federal Reserve: Debt growth, borrowing and debt outstanding tables
(www.federalreserve.gov/releases/Z1/Current/) Right-hand axis, net US$ billion
additional borrowed - Left-hand axis: percentage change in that amount.
So what happens next?
What will happen? Nobody knows. But you can update the graph every quarter using the link to the Federal Reserve given as the source. You can get access almost as quickly as any finance minister. This may not be the televising of a revolution but it is the making public of a change in times. I think that the numbers are made public because the people releasing them do not imagine that there is anyone out there who is numerate and with a different view of the world. “How could there be?”, they‟ll think. “People exist along a normal curve of ability”, they believe. At the top are us economic- statisticians who know that there is no alternative.
Peace Prizes – and a final puzzle
So are times changing? For source data: See: http://www.sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/injustice/
4% 4% 4%
10% 1 9 0 0 s
1 9 1 0 s
1 9 2 0 s
1 9 3 0 s
1 9 4 0 s
1 9 5 0 s
1 9 6 0 s
1 9 7 0 s
1 9 8 0 s
1 9 9 0 s
2 0 0 0 s
Figure 11: Female Nobel laureates
(%), by decade, worldwide, 1901–2009
Why in one decade was not a single
women awarded a prize?
Claim it was very unlikely to have
happened by chance, just as the 2009
prize distribution was extremely unlikely
So how best we can "collect, arrange, digest and
publish facts, illustrating the condition and
prospect of society in its material, social, and
These were the original aims of the Royal
Statistical Society and where the aims when I
joined. We need to keep asking how impartial
are the statistics of each age?
There is no such thing as a neutral
statistic, but some statistics may be
more neutral than others