Statistics

Learning objectives

At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • explain the value of statistics.
  • find Australian statistics.
  • find international statistics.

Why use statistics?

Statistics are a particularly useful form of primary evidence. They enable you to draw conclusions regarding economic, social and political conditions in the present day and in the past. Statistics provide a means of evaluating the competing claims made by other sources regarding the effects of decisions, policies or events. Statistics provide evidence that can be used to test hypotheses, although this must be done carefully.

Finding Australian statistics

The major source of statistical information in this country is the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Newer publications are available in full-text from the ABS site.

ABS figures should not be confused with the actual incidence of particular events. They represent no more than the best available estimates. Why is this? Take the example of the published figures regarding the number of suicides which occur each year in Australia. There is good reason to assume that the official suicide statistics under-report the actual number of deaths due to deliberate self-harm. Stop for a moment and consider the legal, ethical and practical factors at work. Can you see why the official figures for the annual number of suicides are necessarily incomplete?

Although the ABS is the primary source of statistical information about Australia, it is only one of dozens of official and semi-official bodies providing high-quality data. The Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) are two of the best-known. Many of the statistical publications produced by these bodies are available on the Web in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.

Many government departments and organisations provide authoritative statistical reports. Examples include the reports on Australian Energy Statistics published by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics. Many government statistical reports are available from links in the australia.gov.au portal.

The Australian Parliamentary Library publishes a series of reports on Australian statistics of different kinds.

Don't assume that everything is available on the Web. In many cases, the information you need is available in paper. If you are interested in the latest monthly figures for agricultural production in Australia, this material is available at P636.0095/L764.

Finding International statistics

Most countries have their own version of the ABS. Such organisations are a particularly useful source of up-to-date statistics.  The ABS site contains pages of useful links to the sites of national statistical organisations. The OECD site also provides a collection of statistics relating to member nations and some other countries.

The Library has a collection of monthly and annual statistics for different parts of the world in the Reference Collection from R310 onwards.

There are also runs of serials (annual publications) providing summaries of national statistics in the Library's main collection in the periodicals from P310 onwards. For more recent statistics, the Web is often a good source. For example, the Asian Development Bank site hosts a number of online databases providing recent key economic, financial, and social indicators for developing countries in Asia.

Warning: official statistics ahead

In many countries, the collection of accurate statistical information is complicated by institutional, technical or political factors. The official statistics issued by the People's Republic of China (PRC) are a case in point. Critics assert that these are subject to distortion by local government cadres. Statistics are reported at village, county, city, province and the national level. At every level, it is claimed, statistical information provided by lower level cadres is adjusted upwards or downwards by higher ranking officials. Care is taken to ensure that figures are neither "too good" nor "too bad".

Although criticism of Chinese official statistics is common, some academics argue equally strongly for their overall accuracy. The important point is that, if you decide to make use of official statistics in your research, you should first make sure that the figures are sufficiently reliable for the purpose at hand.

The mass media as a source of statistics

Be wary of isolated statistics which appear in news media, particularly those without attribution or those attributed to non-government organisations (NGOs) or pressure groups. Figures are sometimes taken out of context or misunderstood. At other times, organisations issue alarmist or exaggerated figures in order to attract attention and support. Another problem is the demand from journalists for "good copy". The UN Human Security Report (2005) quotes an unnamed UN official, who complains:

When it comes to statistics ... numbers take on a life of their own, gaining acceptance through repetition ... Journalists, bowing to the pressure of editors, demand numbers, any number. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precision and spurious authority to many reports.

This observation was made in the context of international human rights abuses, but applies equally well to domestic reporting. Figures quoted in the mass media, non-academic books or magazines are not necessarily incorrect, but they need to be verified.

Summary

This module dealt with:

  • the usefulness of statistics.
  • sources for statistics.
  • the need for care in evaluating statistics.

Secondary literature