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Issue Brief No. 13

Statistical Literacy – A Vital Ingredient for an Informed Indian Citizenry

Numbers are tricky. They can illuminate as much as they can mislead; inform as much as they can disinform; and reveal hidden problems but also mask real issues. However, one common attribute is that they emit an aura of credibility – even when they are deployed to mislead audiences, distort findings, or conceal facts. Statistics, a field earlier confined to either the ivory towers of research institutions or the obfuscating corridors of governance, is now a common form of public communication. However, a key question is lost in this avalanche of data that is fed to the people: What is the extent of statistical literacy in India?

In this Issue Brief, P.C. Mohanan, former Acting Chairman, National Statistical Commission (NSC), writes on the need to evaluate and enhance statistical literacy – a competence that is required for a knowledge society but has not attracted the attention of policy makers, enumerators, the academia, and pedagogues. Although this form of literacy is elusive to define and measure, the manner in which citizens emerge as active constituents of an informed society depends in good measure on their ability to grapple with the numerals that they encounter on a daily basis. The rising relevance of data journalism, and the widespread use of numbers as a tool to enhance public messaging, should be met by increasing the popular awareness of statistics and its nuances.

This Issue Brief highlights the increased use of data in India’s public communications and emphasises the need to ensure that data-based statements are presented in a clear, correct, and unambiguous manner. Mohanan shines the spotlight on some common errors that distort results and emphasises the importance of accuracy of language, logic, and context in conveying statistical results. He highlights the role of data journalists in identifying lapses and correctly conveying the messages revealed by the numbers, as wider dissemination of statistical literacy will result in a better understanding of key issues and facilitate the emergence of a discerning citizenry.

Keywords: Statistical Literacy, Data Journalism, National Statistical Commission

Also by the Author

Policy Watch No. 16:Credible Data for the Public Good: Constraints, Challenges, and the Way Ahead

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