Statistics of Brexit – 2017 Conference, Edinburgh

How have statistics been used in the arguments for Britain remaining in or leaving the EU? What do statistics of Brexit tell us about social inequalities and social change? What evidence is needed to assess the implications of Brexit proposals?

The upcoming Radical Statistics Conference 2017, on Saturday 18th February 2017 at the Quaker Meeting Housing in Central Edinburgh, will address these important questions by taking into consideration a range of perspectives (Demographic, Economic, Media, Law, Politics and Policy) and engaging in a timely and topical discussion about the “Statistics of Brexit”.

The format and structure of the event, with five keynote speakers, two workshops and a panel discussion, will provide plenty of opportunities for interaction and discussion on the role of statistics during the EU referendum campaign and beyond, indeed, only a few weeks before article 50 is triggered at the end of March, 2017. While it has been argued[1] that antipathy to statistics is one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016, it is particularly incumbent on those who use statistics to support progressive social change and to give a much needed understanding of which data and conclusions are trustworthy in the so-called post-truth culture. As one of the most important decisions the British public has faced in decades, this event will provide a forum for discussion and debate on Brexit that promises to be evidenced-based and from a truly diverse set of perspectives.

View the programme, with link to booking form, for more information and to reserve your place now!

– by Albert Sabater

Radical Statistics Issue 113

Radical Statistics Issue 113 is now online. Below is the Editorial:

cover 113Following the publication of the two general competition winners in the last issue of Radical Statistics, this issue includes the two winners of the 2014 student essay competition. The winner, Clara Musto, embarks on a critical analysis of the ‘gateway hypothesis’, i.e. cannabis as a stepping stone drug. She does so by focusing on Uruguay, where cannabis was recently decriminalised. In her essay, Geraldine Clark, who came second place in the student competition, focuses on higher education and more specifically the expectations and aspirations of non-traditional students at a post-1992 University. The essay provides new knowledge about the role of habitus and capital in explaining these students’ expectations and aspirations and adds to our understanding of these in relation to the widening participation across social classes and socioeconomic backgrounds in the UK.

The theme of widening participation in UK universities is continued by Vikki Boliver. Vikki examines the recent Russell Group publication Opening Doors and shows that the claims made here about widening access in our most elite universities do not stand up to scrutiny. Rather these institutions remain unrepresentative and this has changed little over the last decade.

In his article John Veit-Wilson unpicks the claims of UK Chancellor, George Osborne, to be introducing a ‘living wage’. John highlights the differences between this fictitious ‘living wage’ and the living wage as calculated on the basis of a decency level. The article demonstrates problems relating to measurement ownership and difficulties that emerge when the naming of a measure becomes political.

Included in this issue is also a set of reports from the 2015 Radical Statistics Conference that was themed Good Data, Good Policy. These include a conference report from the organisers, two of the concluding reflections, by Ludi Simpson and Alison Macfarlane, which address the past and future of Radical Statistics, and a workshop report by Ludi Simpson and Nissa Finney in which they imagine what a community agenda around race statistics would look like.

Rachel Lara Cohen
Trude Sundberg
Eileen Magnello
Larry Brownstein

Radical Statistics 112 Editorial

Issue 112 of Radical Statistics includes the winner and runner-up in the 2014 Radical Statistics essay competition (open entry) and features a host of articles on topics as diverse as a 19th century radical German demographer, deprivation in a former mining area in Yorkshire and official statistics in Norway. As such it nicely highlights the range of topics that can be subjected to a radical statistics perspective!

The essay by the first prize winner, Elisabeth Garratt, provides an excellent overview of the rise in foodbanks in the UK. This is an area that has received growing policy and media attention. This essay highlights that increased use of food aid is cannot be explained by its growing acceptability or people taking advantage of charity, but rather is associated with growing food insecurity. The essay also usefully outlines what different types of data can, and cannot, tell us about food insecurity. The second placed essay, by Dr Pauline McGovern, provides a highly engaging take on the use of path analysis. In her essay she makes use of creative and engaging metaphors and research on the effect of former occupation on the health of retired people. The essay is an excellent example of how we can present statistics in an immediate and creative way. Look out for the two student competition winning essays, which will be featured in the next issue of Radical Statistics.

The issue continues with two articles that, in different ways, examine area-level statistics. The first, by Sinead D’Silva and Paul Norman, explores the utility of administrative data in producing a simple scale of ‘social stress’ at the area level. Focusing on areas in Doncaster that have suffered coal mine closure, and consequent job loss and deprivation, they show that a relatively simple scale, constructed from publically available area-level data, provides a surprisingly good proxy for more complex Indices of Multiple Deprivation. The second article, by Mark A Green and Mark Strong, focuses on health-related quality of life (HRQoL). They note that it can be difficult to illustrate the impact of neighbourhood deprivation on HRQoL. As such they propose a novel solution: using BMI (a summary of weight that is socially meaningful) when explaining epidemiological effects to lay audiences. For instance, enabling us to see the approximate equivalence, in terms of HRQoL, of individual morbid obesity and living in a deprived neighbourhood.

The article by Asle Rolland engages with an important debate regarding the independence of official statistics. The article highlights crucial dimensions related to independence, and the desirability and potential limitations of independence, drawing on empirical examples and references to common practice, regulations as well as underlying philosophical principles. Continuing the focus on official statistics, albeit in this instance, their unavailability, Frank and Sarah Houghton, explore the health situation in Ireland, arguing that it is highly correlated with poverty, but that it is difficult to show this with any precision due to insufficient information, the tendency of the Irish government to restrict access to what information exists and diminishing regulation and data oversight. They suggest that there is no clear and transparent health funding model and the Irish health care delivery system is in a dire state, especially for the impoverished.

The final article is a biography of radical statistician Robert René Kuczynski (1876-1947). Kuczynski was a German economist, demographer and one of the founders of modern German vital statistics. As an urban statistician he investigated the housing conditions of the working population. He also was a proponent of democracy in Weimar Germany, but in 1933 he had to leave Germany and settled in England where he lectured in demography at the LSE, and later became a demographic adviser to the Colonial Office.

Issue 112 returns to contemporary issues to conclude with two brief comments by Christina Beatty and Alison Macfarlane. These highlight the British government’s increasing insistence that academic partners destroy data within an (overly) restrictive timescale.

Finally, a reminder that Radical Statistics welcomes your contributions. If you have either a full-length article or a brief comment that you would like to contribute, or if you are interested in reviewing a book that you believe is of potential interest to Radical Statistics’ readers, please get in touch with us at
Further information about how to submit is also available at:

Rachel Lara Cohen, Trude Sundberg, Eileen Magnello, Larry Brownstein

Special Issue 111 Editorial: Is Britain Pulling Apart?

This issue includes four articles based around the theme of the Radical Statistics conference in March 2014 all discussing topics related to the questions – Is Britain Pulling Apart? It concludes with two comment pieces, one a response to Gorad’s paper that appeared in Radstats 110 and one that focuses on the academic boycott of Israel.
We begin with a contribution by Daniel Silver. He discusses and criticises the use of ward-level statistics of poverty, and shows how these may be used to disguise issues related to poverty levels. His contribution draws on important evidence from a project by the Open Society Foundation, “Understanding Europe’s White Working Class Communities”, which carried out a comparative study across six European cities.

Nissa Finney then turns a critical eye to ethnic segregation. She begins by revealing that, contrary to much news commentary, there has been increased ethnic mixing, not segregation, over the last decade. Moreover, statements about ‘white flight’ from areas of ethnic diversity are not substantiated. Instead she identifies processes of demographic change (differential birth and death rates) and constraints on economic choice, including some ethnic groups’ reliance on the private rental market, as drivers of specific pockets of segregation.

Nigel de Noronha continues the focus on housing. He analyses social class polarisation in Britain with a particular emphasis on those living alone in the private rented sector. By analysing the patterns and trends in solo living in the private rented sector and how do they vary across different neighbourhoods he finds that there has been a polarisation in this area where those from higher classes often live in their own property, whilst younger people are more likely to live in private rented houses. Routine and unemployed classes on the other hand are more likely to live in social housing.

Roger Seifert’s article looks at the political and social background to calls for a ‘living wage’ as opposed to a ‘fair wage’. He highlights growing social inequality and the declining share of national wealth going to workers. Using a wealth of historic and contemporary data and analyses, he argues that contrary to previous political and economic action around ‘fair wages’, the idea of a living wage represents a serious challenge to the confines of market-based thinking. This is because ‘fairness’, erroneously presupposes that a market system based on structurally unequal power can be fair, while demands for a living wage necessitates political action and state intervention.

In a critical comment Larry Brownstein responds to Stephen Gorard’s suggested Trustworthiness scale outlined in the previous issue of Radical Statistics’ journal. He argues in favour for the use of such a scale, however, sees potential issues and errors in Gorard’s discussion, and in particular with the way in which Gorard approaches confidence intervals.

The final commentary is by Jonathan Rosenhead. He makes the case for statisticians, along with other academics, to participate in an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. Directly addressing arguments about exceptionalism and academic freedom, he highlights the institutional complicity of Israeli universities in systematic policies of ‘politicide’.
Our next issue of Radical Statistics will include prize-winners from the 2014 Radical Statistics Essay Competition. If you have an article or short comment piece that you think would be suitable for a future issue of Radical Statistics or ideas about a themed set of articles please get in touch with us.

Trude Sundberg
Rachel Lara Cohen
Larry Brownstein

Radical Statistics 40th anniversary conference – 7 March, London

Radical Statistics

2015 Conference and AGM

Saturday 7 March, 2015

Conway hall, 25 REd Lion square, london WC1R 4RL

Coffee & registration 9:00 am. 9:15 start, 5:00 close. 5:15 AGM

Conference Theme: Good data, good policy? Taking place in the run-up to the May 2015 general Election, the conference will focus on public policy and its relationship with the availability of ‘good data’. We aim to address questions such as: How good is the data we have, and is it used well for policy-making? What are the possibilities for the production and democratic use of good statistics, and the threats to such developments?

View the full programme of talks and break-out sessions.

Further information here

Register via Eventbrite

Plus, thinking of coming along for the welcome reception?

Lucas Arms, 245A Grays Inn Rd, WC1X 8QY
Friday 6th March, 6:30-10:30 pm

A social, beginning with a review by economists Larry Brownstein & Julian Wells (7:15 – 8:30 pm) of the book Capital in the 21st Century (2013) by Thomas Piketty.

Suggestions for those who wish to read something beforehand:
1. the set of critiques published in Real World Economics, including  articles by Yanis Varoufakis (quite mathematical!) and by Ann Pettifor (et al.) who spoke at RadStats 2012:

2. interview of Varoufakis by the head of the Henry George School:

Big Data, Big Claims: RSS meeting on Big Data, 19 Jan. 2015

On 19 January 2015, I attended the meeting on Big Data at the RSS. The speakers included: Kenneth Cukier (Data Editor at The Economist); Haishan Fu (Director of Development Data Group at the World Bank); Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland (Professor at MIT and Academic Director of Data-Pop Alliance); Nuria Oliver (Scientific Director at Telefonica); John Pullinger (UK National Statistician), with Denise Lievesley (Dean of Faculty, King’s College) as Chair.

It is impossible to summarise the contributions or the excellent discussion, but here are some comments (recorded approximately) that give a flavour of the discussion.

Kenneth Cukier: “Big Data allows data to be produced as frequently as is needed, not at the convenience of the producers.”

Haishan Fu: “The WB’s aim is to support national data producers and to incentivise the private sector … with a particular aim to help poorer countries ‘leap-frog’ to catch up”.

Nuria Oliver: “Access to data from phone systems allows inferences, at macro levels about responses to large-scale flooding, and at individual levels about the socio-economic status of the user or their likely responses on a range of social issues.”

Sandy Pentland: “Having access to more data will allow us to solve more problems … data [ownership? / access?] should be decentralised to the citizen.”

John Pullinger: “Big Data provides a wake-up call, and an opportunity, for our statistical institutions.”

At the end of the session, the Chair, Denise Lievesley, asked for reactions from the audience, in terms of what we would take away from the meeting. My reaction was that the discussion had made me realise, even more strongly, that statisticians (along with others) over the years have refined a number of crucial ideas, based on a sense of methodological quality (or validity). These relate to several issues.

First, causality is to be distinguished from correlation. This can of course be accomplished by RCT designs, as well as by carefully-controlled and replicated non-experimental studies.

Second, it is important to appreciate how the available indicators have been constructed and understood by the human beings (or processes) producing them. Hence John Pullinger’s timely offer of a course in questionnaire design to one of the “Big Data-enthusiasts” on the panel.

Third, the data analyst also needs knowledge of how the sample before us has been selected, and attenuated by various forms of non-response.

These three methodological concerns are not always fully acknowledged by enthusiasts for big data. An era when “Big Data” is being extensively hyped will produce additional challenges for statisticians re. data management and data analysis. These are already being addressed by inter-disciplinary teams many in universities and organisations. But there is no reason for statisticians to be reticent about the contributions they can make to these clearly important debates.

Jeff Evans

Radical Statistics, Issue 110

This issue begins with two articles about the effect of demographic
change. Maria Sol Torres Minoldo turns a spotlight on Argentina,
while Alan Marshall, John Read, and James Nazroo focus on the
United Kingdom. Both pieces take issue with the argument, common
in the media and amongst politicians of all stripes, that an ageing
population is increasingly likely to constitute an unsustainable drain
on national resources. Specifically Minoldo produces considerable
data to show that the ‘dependency’ ratio (of ‘working adults’ to
‘pensioners’) is seriously flawed at assessing levels of real material
dependency in society. Marshall, Read and Nazroo decompose estimates of
population ageing. They show that, contrary to public discourse, older
age longevity accounts for only a small part of expected demographic
change, with the far larger part due to the ageing of the baby boom cohort.
As such population ageing may largely be a temporary, not permanent,

We follow this article with two reflections on the research process. In
the first Alan Sloan provides us with some qualitative reflections from
his work as a survey interviewer. He highlights the social context of
non-response and the emotional and practical ways that interviewers
respond. For many of us who work regularly with survey data this
reflection from the messy and human side of data collection serves as
a salutary reminder of the social uncertainty that data retain.

Following this, Stephen Gorard addresses the contentious issue of
how to assess the trustworthiness of evidence. His article produces a
framework to be used both by users and producers of research
evidence that enables a judgement-based star-rating of research
evidence. The framework emphasises design, sample size and quality,
data quality, fidelity of intervention, and threats to validity.

We finish the issue with four comment pieces addressing a diverse
range of contemporary issues – all of which in different ways highlight
the ways in which statistics and social policy are interwoven. The first
piece by Alison Macfarlane provides an overview of what has happened
with, the proposed data linkage between GP and hospital
records. She shows that poor handling of the process and the huge
public resistance engendered has produced serious obstacles for
academic health research. Ludi Simpson then offers a cogent critique
of the ways in which segregation measures are used. He points out
that since there will always be some segregation these measures
provide ready grist for politicians seeking to ignite moral panics over
racial segregation.

Boycott Workfare provides us with an important discussion of the
impact of and use of statistics to support the workfare policies forming
part of the government’s social policies. The comment is a critique of
workfare, forming part of the government’s austerity politics, which
involves a toughening of the treatment of and sanctions put on welfare
claimants. The edition ends with a discussion of abortion and abortion
statistics in Ireland by Frank Houghton. His comment exposes the
ways in which the Irish government and public institutions shy away
from openness around the actual number of abortions taking place in
a country which has been criticised for its restrictive abortion

With this issue of Radical Statistics we welcome Trude Sundberg, a
Social Policy expert from the University of Kent to the editorial team
and say goodbye and thank you to Alistair Greig who has been part of
the team for the past two years.

If you have an article or short comment piece that you think would be
suitable for a future issue of Radical Statistics or ideas about a
themed set of articles please get in touch with us at editors @

Trude Sundberg
Rachel Lara Cohen
Larry Brownstein

Results of the Radstats 2014 Critical Essay Competition

The judges have chosen the following winners of the 2014 Critical Essay Competition which closed in July with decisions in Oct.

Two prizes each were awarded in the Student and the Open category.

The winning essays will appear in an upcoming issue of Radical Statistics in 2015.

Student category
1st: Clara Musto – On the gateway hypothesis
2nd: Geraldine Clark – Yearning to Earn or Yearning To Learn?

Open category
1st: Elisabeth Garrat – The rise in UK foodbanks: What can statistics tell us about the current landscape of food insecurity and food aid in the UK?
2nd: Pauline McGovern – Path Analysis for People who Hate Statistics

The award for first prize is £50 and the second of £30, both in book vouchers.

Congratulations to the prize winners!

Also, many thanks to the judges for making the 2014 Radstats Critical Essay Competition a success.

Lee Williamson

Is the UK too complacent on drinking water safety?

On 7 November,  Water Minister Dan Rogerson argued in response to a written question from Chris Ruane, Labour MP for the Vale of Clwyd, that water filtering within households is unnecessary, as monitoring by drinking water regulators shows tap water quality in the UK is “equivalent to the best in Europe”. (I’m not aware of a data series that would underpin this claim). 

On 9 December, a statistical study by engineer Marc Edwards was published showing that cheap water filters certified to remove lead, together with advice to run taps and consider bottled water in older buildings, prevented hundreds of miscarriages in Washington DC in 2004-2006, when a change in water treatment caused a city wide spike in lead in water levels (links below).   The paper also examines a miscarriage cluster in an office undergoing renovation, where lead in water from solder on copper pipes may have been wrongly excluded as a factor, because water was tested too late. 

The study compared fetal death rates and birth rates in Washington DC against a similar sized city with the same water supply (Baltimore), and the US as a whole, before, during and after two incidents when lead “rust” from lead pipes and from solder on copper pipes was disturbed. The first lead spike was caused by a change in disinfection chemicals, the second by attempts to solve the first problem by replacing sections of lead pipe work. 

Appropriate domestic water filters can reduce chlorination by-products present in tap water from chemical disinfection, together with the herbicides, other farm chemicals and pharmaceutical residues present in some river water (but not in water from boreholes favoured for bottled supplies). Filtering tap water was recommended in 2010 by the US President’s Cancer Panel, along with washing fruit and vegetables to remove pesticide residues and avoiding charred meat. 

Concerned over the known toxicity of disinfection by-products, the Netherlands has abandoned the use of chlorine in a water safety system which prioritizes choosing the safest raw water sources for drinking water (link below). Edwards’ statistical analysis shows that the US change in disinfection practice – initiated and persisted with in an attempt to reduce miscarriages from chlorination byproducts – did not achieve its health goal. Possibly the by-products of the replacement disinfectant regime, though less studied, are equally noxious. A troubling pattern for regulatory changes. 

Edwards’ key recommendations  – supported by his laboratory test simulating lead release from solder in response to physical disturbance – are that pregnant women should always receive advice to use filters, flushing or bottled water in older premises, and that everyone should receive warnings and take precautions when plumbing is disturbed. Currently no such advice is issued in the UK, despite a predominance of older properties (lead free solder was only available from the late ‘80s),  on-going lead pipe replacement to meet a stricter lead in water standard from the end of this year, and programmes to retrofit water meters.

It would be interesting to review fetal death rate trends within the Netherlands, to see whether the package of changes they made to how river water was treated (areas with better water sources never used chlorination) measurably improved maternal health. There is no easy switch to the Dutch method – the need for residual disinfection here goes hand in hand with the c. 25% leakage rate from poorly maintained pipework (vs. 4% for the Netherlands). Bottled water and home/office filtration are the policy options currently available in the UK to safeguard fetal health. 

Lucy Borland


Lucy Borland’s paper on Drinking Water Regulation in Rad Stats:

Hansard, Written Answers 7 Nov 2013:

Marc Edwards: in miscarriages coincided with high … – Washington Post

2008-2009 – Environmental Factors in Cancer: Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk, What We Can Do Now available at

The Dutch Secret: how to provide safe water without chlorine in the Netherlands, P. W.M. H. Smeets, G. J. Medema, J. C. van Dijk:  available to download at

Time to show your love for the Census

Be sure to read the recent Radical Statistics articles about the implications of the loss of the population census by Danny Dorling and Paul Norman, then answer this consultation!

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is consulting on the census and
the future provision of population statistics in England and Wales.
Improvements in technology and in government data sources offer the
opportunity to modernise the existing census process or to develop an
alternative census method that reuses government administrative data.

Therefore the two approaches to modernising the census in the future are:

1. An online census that is completed once a decade.
2. A census that uses existing government data and compulsory annual

Both approaches would provide annual statistics about the size of the
population, nationally and for local authorities. A census using
existing data and surveys would provide more statistics about the
characteristics of the population every year. An online census would
provide more detailed statistics once a decade.

To find out more about the consultation please download the consultation
document from

To take part in the consultation please complete the online survey
available from

The survey closes on the 13th December.