Misleading People with Lies and Statistics

Some politicians try to win popular support by misleading people with lies and statistics, hoping that they will escape detection. 

The campaign leading up to the 2016 British referendum on whether or not to leave the EU (the so-called ‘Brexit’ decision) provided some egregious examples; politicians used competing conjectures to suit their arguments, presenting them as ‘facts’.  AOL reported examples of malpractice on both sides of the Brexit debate: Truth is the first casualty of EU referendum, experts say.

In one example of misleading people with lies and statistics, the Leave campaign repeatedly claimed that “We [the UK] send the EU £350 million a week”.  That figure was hypothetical and had never been paid, because Margaret Thatcher had negotiated a reduction, so the claim is an exaggeration – amounting to a lie – as explained by the FullFact.org report on The UK’s EU membership fee, which revealed that “the UK actually pays just under £250 million a week” (less than 1% of its GDP).

Statistics can be misleading.  Interpretations of past data can be partly conjectural, because they often include some assumptions in their calculations.  And correlations are not a proof of cause and effect: people are now living longer than they did when Britain joined the EU, but that statistic doesn’t prove that EU membership prolongs people’s lives.

Statistics almost always contain assumptions and interpretations, and they can be selectively quoted.  A UCL study, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK, was quoted by two newspapers to say that EU migrants contribute £20bn to Britain – but two other newspapers used a different part of the study, in a way that its authors described as “misleading”, to report that migrants were a heavy financial burden.  The Guardian explained the discrepancies in a report entitled It’s simply incorrect to say migrants represent a huge cost to Britain.

Self-interest guides the politicians’ choice of which statistics to quote.  And unscrupulous politicians tell outright lies – as noted in an article in The Guardian entitled Post-truth politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are no joke.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6423.htm.