mscroggs.co.uk
mscroggs.co.uk

subscribe

Blog

The importance of estimation error

 2017-02-25 
Recently, I've noticed a few great examples of misleading uses of numbers in news articles.
On 15 Feb, BBC News published a breaking news article with the headline "UK unemployment falls by 7,000 to 1.6m". This fall of 7,000 sounds big; but when compared to the total of 1.6m, it is insignificant. The change could more accurately be described as a fall from 1.6m to 1.6m.
But there is a greater problem with this figure. In the original Office of National Statistics (ONS) report, the fall of 7,000 was accompanied by a 95% confidence interval of ±80,000. When calculating figures about large populations (such as unemployment levels), it is impossible to ask every person in the UK whether they are employed or not. Instead, data is gathered from a sample and this is used to estimate the total number. The 95% confidence interval gives an idea of the accuracy of this estimation: 95% of the time, the true number will lie of the confidence interval. Therefore, we can think of the 95% confidence interval as being a range in which the figure lies (although this is not true, it is a helpful way to think about it).
Compared to the size of its confidence interval (±80,000), the fall of 7,000 is almost indistinguishable from zero. This means that it cannot be said with any confidence whether the unemployment level rose or fell. This is demonstrated in the following diagram.
A fall of 7,000 ± 80,000. The orange line shows no change.
To be fair to the BBC, the headline of the article changed to "UK wage growth outpaces inflation" once the article was upgraded from breaking news to a complete article, and a mention of the lack of confidence in the change was added.
On 23 Feb, I noticed another BBC News with misleading figures: Net migration to UK falls by 49,000. This 49,000 is the difference between 322,000 (net migration for the year ending 2015) and 273,000 (net migration for the year ending 2016). However both these figures are estimates: in the original ONS report, they were placed in 95% confidence intervals of ±37,000 and ±41,000 respectively. As can be seen in the diagram below, there is a significant portion where these intervals overlap, so it cannot be said with any confidence whether or not net immigration actually fell.
Net migration in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Perhaps the blame for this questionable figure lies with the ONS, as it appeared prominently in their report while the discussion of its accuracy was fairly well hidden. Although I can't shift all blame from the journalists: they should really be investigating the quality of these figures, however well advertised their accuracy is.
Both articles criticised here appeared on BBC News. This is not due to the BBC being especially bad with figures, but simply due to the fact that I spend more time reading news on the BBC than in other places, so noticed these figures there. I quick Google search reveals that the unemployment figure was also reported, with little to no discussion of accuracy, by The Guardian, the Financial Times, and Sky News.

Similar posts

World Cup stickers 2018, pt. 3
World Cup stickers 2018, pt. 2
A bad Puzzle for Today
A 20,000-to-1 baby?

Comments

Comments in green were written by me. Comments in blue were not written by me.
I've seen archaeologists claiming proof that event A happened before event B because the radiocarbon date of A was 50 years before B. Except the standard error on both dates was 100 years. They even showed the error bars in their own graphics, but seemed to not understand what it meant.

My favorite species of ignoring the measurement error is the metric conversion taken to way too many decimal places. The hike was 50 miles (80.467 kilometers) long.
Perry Ramsey
                 Reply
 Add a Comment 


I will only use your email address to reply to your comment (if a reply is needed).

Allowed HTML tags: <br> <a> <small> <b> <i> <s> <sup> <sub> <u> <spoiler> <ul> <ol> <li>
To prove you are not a spam bot, please type "tneitouq" backwards in the box below (case sensitive):

Archive

Show me a random blog post
 2021 

Jan 2021

Christmas (2020) is over
 2020 
▼ show ▼
 2019 
▼ show ▼
 2018 
▼ show ▼
 2017 
▼ show ▼
 2016 
▼ show ▼
 2015 
▼ show ▼
 2014 
▼ show ▼
 2013 
▼ show ▼
 2012 
▼ show ▼

Tags

propositional calculus accuracy triangles boundary element methods latex error bars reddit weather station gerry anderson plastic ratio mathsjam games puzzles big internet math-off quadrilaterals chalkdust magazine fractals palindromes sorting stickers inverse matrices data menace matrices matrix multiplication convergence talking maths in public graphs preconditioning football light chebyshev electromagnetic field advent calendar javascript braiding reuleaux polygons frobel curvature weak imposition people maths golden ratio bempp chess wool world cup hannah fry arithmetic draughts royal baby cross stitch tennis pi approximation day royal institution pizza cutting dragon curves data visualisation numerical analysis probability gaussian elimination matrix of minors news phd squares harriss spiral craft dataset wave scattering national lottery ucl ternary video games misleading statistics books mathslogicbot geometry golden spiral realhats pythagoras the aperiodical hats coins countdown machine learning cambridge rugby hexapawn tmip bodmas london flexagons dates trigonometry noughts and crosses european cup sport finite element method sobolev spaces bubble bobble pi final fantasy graph theory programming binary pac-man raspberry pi rhombicuboctahedron logic manchester exponential growth christmas card geogebra martin gardner statistics simultaneous equations polynomials radio 4 go nine men's morris game show probability speed sound platonic solids logs interpolation oeis signorini conditions asteroids a gamut of games twitter php folding paper folding tube maps london underground manchester science festival python matt parker estimation approximation map projections inline code determinants game of life captain scarlet computational complexity matrix of cofactors christmas mathsteroids

Archive

Show me a random blog post
▼ show ▼
© Matthew Scroggs 2012–2021