Professor challenges graduates to query statistics in the media

14 May 2018
Professor Thomas Lumley, Department of Statistics
Professor Thomas Lumley

Statistics’ Professor Thomas Lumley has urged new graduates to use their skills to critique the data-based claims made in news media.

Thomas, a noted communicator on the use and abuse of statistics in the media, addressed the second of two Science graduation ceremonies last Friday. He congratulated graduates on their achievements – “we're all proud to have helped” – but said he hoped students would also use their scientific skills to critique the news media they consumed.

He was concerned that research fundamental to good democratic decision-making about issues such as climate change, drug policy, road pricing and crime prediction were not being reported by media, or reported poorly.

“They tend to lose the context it was done in,” he said. “They don’t distinguish well between solid and speculative ideas, or between major and minor risks, or between breakthroughs and the usual incremental scientific advances.”

It wasn’t the case that journalists didn’t care – they no longer had the resources to cover stories in the depth required, Thomas added. As most people got their information about policy issues and the science informing them from the media, that was a problem.

But every graduate could contribute to the solution, he said.

“Knowledge is power, and with modest power comes modest responsibility. Each of you has the skills and training to understand at least some of the scientific issues in our political and social debates. And most importantly, you've got people – friends and family –  who trust you to share their values and interests.

“If you keep up the habits of learning from your time at the university, and if you look into issues carefully before making up your mind, it’s going to have an influence on the people around you.”

Thomas reminded the audience that working out the facts of an issue could cause some discomforting moments.

“Like all of us, you’re going to sometimes find out that the arguments you’d like to support are wrong, or at least a lot weaker than you’d like,” he said. However, that wasn’t a bad thing: “Finding that you were wrong about something is one of the best signs that you're still doing science right.”

He left the audience with a challenge: “At the end of every year when you think about New Year’s resolutions, also ask yourself: “What did I change my mind about this year?”

Associated information