The messages that statistics are giving us are of profound importance in the fevered debate around the pandemic, says Paul Finch
The RIBA was not the only distinguished professional body to be founded in 1834. Another was the Statistical Society of London, later the Royal Statistical Society, created by luminaries including Charles Babbage and Thomas Malthus.
In his book The Art of Statistics: Learning From Data (Pelican), David Spiegelhalter notes that the society’s first and most essential rule was ‘to exclude carefully all opinions from its transaction and publications – to confine its attention rigorously to facts – and, as far as it may be found possible, to facts which can be stated numerically and arranged in tables’.
This noble ambition was more honoured in the breach than the observance. As Spiegelhalter comments: ‘From the very start they took no notice whatsoever of this stricture, and immediately started inserting their opinions about what their data on crime, health and the economy meant and what should be done in response to it.’
He then suggests that for statisticians, ‘Perhaps the best we can do now is recognise this temptation and do our best to keep our opinions to ourselves. The first rule of communication is shut up and listen, so that you can get to know the audience for your communication, whether it might be politicians, professionals or the general public …’
The audience is all of us currently, and the messages that statistics are giving us are of profound importance, especially as sensationalism and blame culture rear their unpleasant heads. The UVW Section of Architectural Workers has helpfully condemned anyone daring to employ an architect in an inane coronavirus message which can best be summarised as ‘All bosses are bastards’, which is about as useful as saying that all employees are skivers.
Sensationalism arises from the 24-hour media coverage of the coronavirus phenomenon, depending on conflict and allegations of incompetence to keep the viewers hooked. I simply ask myself about the motives, when they appear on TV, of the ‘experts’ who hold different views to the government’s own experts. Professional jealousy? Publicity-seeking for themselves or their institution? Defeated politicians like Jeremy Hunt, the former secretary of state for rhyming slang? Headbangers who see the crisis as a way of beating up Boris Johnson?
The process the government is going through can be described as a PPADC structure, the initials standing for, in the world of data science, Problem, Plan, Analysis, Data, Conclusion – which then feeds back to the problem, usually setting off a second cycle of inquiry. This is a rational approach but is, of course, susceptible to all sorts of criticisms, most notably the accusation that, if we are doing anything differently to others, it must be wrong.
Architects, at least, should recognise that when faced with a similar problem, there may be more than one way to approach it, and that it is not terribly helpful to assume that the people who have issued the brief are moronic, incompetent, or only interested in failed outcomes. The design of the anti-virus programme, like the design of a building, is a complex matter, where quickest is not necessarily best.
Can we have rational debate about this without mudslinging?
Women architects have succeeded
Last week I came across an editorial I wrote in 1993, which puts in perspective the continuing campaign for gender equality in the world of architecture. The RIBA had published a study produced by a group chaired by Eva Jiricna, looking at ways to improve the status of women in the profession, not least the banning of the word ‘love’ as an acceptable form of address. Just so. What struck me were the statistics at that time: just 9 per cent of architects were women.
However, 30 per cent of students in architecture schools were female. Some of those present at the ‘W’ Awards lunch last Friday will have had vivid memories of 1993; they can take comfort from how far we (and, more importantly, they) have since progressed.