Dr Ralph Delivers Royal Statistical Society Lecture
Monday, 05 March 2018
An audience of adults and students from Bolton School and the local community enjoyed a fascinating evening in the company of Dr Jeff Ralph, who is this year's Royal Statistical Society’s (RSS) William Guy Lecturer. A recently retired ONS statistician, Dr Ralph focussed on using official figures to illustrate how life has changed for teenagers over the past dramatic century.
Opening his talk, Dr Ralph gave a brief resume of the RSS’s mission to promote statistics as a scientific approach to decision-making and spoke about the ONS (Office for National Statistics) being the largest compiler of statistics in the UK and its guiding principle of “Better Statistics, Better Decisions.” One of its annual “fun” activities is the compilation of most popular baby names and it was noted how in 1900 the top five girls’ names were Mary, Florence, Annie, Edith and Alice and the top five boys’ names were William, John, George, Thomas and James. In 2000, these had respectively been replaced by Chloe, Emily, Megan, Jessica and Charlotte, and Jack, Thomas, James, Joshua and Daniel. Interestingly, in the UK, 55% of babies born each year are male.
Turning to university education, he revealed how very few people graduated in the 1920s and 30s, how there was a slight increase in the late 40s and 50s as people returned from War, a sharper increase in the 60s, followed by a massive take-off in numbers during the 1990s as universities and polytechnics merged. In 1999 the Labour government set a target of 50% of young people going to university and this figure has almost been reached. Women are now more likely than men to graduate.
Each year, the audience was told, 5,000 households are surveyed across the country about their income and expenditure. The statistics are separated out into quintiles (fifths). Before adjustments are made the ratio between the top and bottom quintile was 16:1 in terms of earnings but after benefits have been given to the lower earners and taxes imposed on the higher earners the ratio becomes 4:1. Is this fair, or should it be 3:1 or 5:1 for instance wondered Dr Ralph?
Looking back over the period 1977-2013 and median disposable income, households became twice as well off, although there was a decline after the 2008 recession. The nation’s economic growth was shown to highly correlate with disposable household income. Dr Ralph mused that as there is so much more to spend one’s money on these days then perhaps that is why people do not feel any richer. Tracing the development of statistics from the Poor Law through the work of Booth and Rowntree in the 1880s and 90s, the government’s official studies from the 1890s onwards and the inception of modern statistics from the 1950s, he explained how the Index of Multiple Deprivation now allows statisticians to accurately chart the affluence of 32,844 areas across the country. He also referenced the different ways of measuring comparative wealth, including the poverty line, relative poverty and social inclusion.
The most important statistic in the world for Dr Ralph is that of the value of money. He spoke about how a “basket of goods and services” is used to represent the marketplace and its changing value over the course of the year helps determine the rate of inflation. In 1914 there were just 23 items in the “basket” but now there are 716 products. He also considered how what is in the basket changes over the years, for example the replacement of vinyl by CDs, and how this can retrospectively provide a history lesson.
The lecture also considered how life expectancy has increased over the years. In 1841 men lived to an average of 40 years, a figure which was brought down considerably by the fact that 15% of babies died during their first year whereas nowadays it is only 0.7%. Figures also showed that women live longer than men although the gap is narrowing. In Japan, one of the healthiest nation’s in the world, the average person lives 1 ½ years longer than in the UK.
Dr Ralph closed his talk by reminding everyone of the increasingly data-rich world in which we live and how he felt there will be a growing demand for graduates that understand data science and analytics and that statistics is included in more and more university subjects. He also talked about how there is a lot more education now from the ONS to news programmes on the BBC, ITV and Sky regarding the usage of statistics. When questioned, he said he believes that numerical understanding has improved among people and that there is a growing responsibility on people producing the news and those consuming it to better understand numbers!
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